Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Of Human Bonding

My first taste of the sick and incredible bonding experience that is low-budget filmmaking was my first year of graduate film school at NYU. Each one of us had to write and direct three films, shuffling ourselves into teams of three students, with the other two crewing for the director. The nine days I spent with my third film crew include some of the most stupendous highs and lows of my life (some of the others being the death of my first gerbil, realizing someone I thought loved me didn't, most of junior high [bad], and just about all of college [very good]). Most of the highs and lows of first year film school were at least partly induced by strong doses of sleep deprivation, and since my film was the last of the three films to be shot in our most important and most complicated shoot to date, by the time we got down to it, I was feeling the hallucinatory brunt of six, previous 18-hour days of budding megalomaniacal creative insanity. For my part, I was convinced that my 10-minute version of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" would be considered a small masterpiece, a tiny gem, perhaps a calling card for me as a precocious young filmmaker, despite the fact it was being shot with no sync sound on black and white, 16 mm reversal stock, which I would end up cutting into little scratched-up pieces held together with splicing tape and possibly some of my own blood (them splicers is sharp!). Still, out of the three of us, I can't say I won the prize for pretension, since my crewmate, Karl, was making a film based on the Magritte painting "The Betrayal of Images" featuring a pipe-smoking artist painting a painting of a pipe who walked around musing about what, indeed, was the relationship of art to life, while my other crewmate, Zalisa, insisted on doing the entire voice-over for her film in a throaty, barely-audible whisper.

Looking back on it now, I think it was my line-by-line literal reading of the poem that ensured my slide into disaster, since it dictated that we shoot so many scenes in diverse locations, including an Edwardian-era tea party where women could "wander to and fro/Talking of Michelangelo," and a drowning in the ocean scene that included "sea girls/Wreathed with seaweed red and brown." Since I had no money for locations or set dressing, I somehow convinced one of my high school friends to let us shoot at her parents' house in New Jersey (it was big and had a lot of nice furniture in floral patterns), and ended up there with six actors, my two crew-mates, my boyfriend, the TA who had a crush on me, and any additional friends and schoolmates I could press into service, convincing them it was all going to be one big slumber party. It was not. On day two of my film, after shooting had already gone on way too deep into the night and, thanks to my producing skills, we'd had nothing to eat but turkey sandwiches, (except for the one macrobiotic actress who brought her own food, God bless her), I tried to add just one more wheelchair dolly shot. For the uninitiated, this actually is the lowest-rent, film school version of a dolly shot, done by pushing the DP with the camera in a wheelchair – not as complicated as a real dolly shot, but it takes some time to get it so the camera doesn't shake. My crewmates balked and I burst into tears on the set in front of everybody, thereby achieving the kind of full-on humiliation most people only dream about. And yet, while I hated the two of them in the moment (along with the rest of the world), never had I felt closer to anyone. You can't hide much from people you've spent virtually 216 straight hours with – I'd seen what was in that fridge in Zalisa's tiny studio apartment (day 4) and what Karl looked like in one of the actresses nighties (that was on day 9 when we really needed a laugh). I knew only we could truly understand what we'd been through together and appreciate the depths of beauty and madness that had been revealed in each of us in the process.

The first feature I ever worked on was a film called Sleepover, on which I somehow ended up in the job of swing, a person who works in both the grip and electric departments. Actually, I know how I ended up there: my roommate was working on it, I was looking for experience and they were desperate. I had just finished my third year of film school and wanted to get out on a real set, and I thought I knew a thing or two about c-stands and color temperature. But when you're running around for hours in the dark in the rain without waterproof shoes, trying to figure out what kind of gel the DP wants you to put in front of the light (Who can tell the half CTO from the full CTO and why does everyone have one of those cute little flashlights but me?), you realize you're not in Kansas any more. In many ways, this production was like my third student film: we were sleeping in the same place we were shooting – articles of clothing hanging from the hardware and cutlery mixing with clamps in the sink – and we were all working for free, or actually, "on deferment," which in the film world, once you catch on, equates to "free, but with a side of bullshit."

But the people were great. As swing on a small crew I had three masters - the DP, the gaffer and the key grip – who very quickly caught on to the fact that I really knew nothing and not only were tolerant (because they had nobody else), but actually seemed to like me in spite of it. Plus, the thing about jobs out of town is that you've got nowhere to go at the end of the day except your room, which, if it's a low-budget job, you are probably sharing, and therefore has all the privacy of an all-freshman dormitory on a Friday night and sometimes a similar feeling. So you spend every night getting to know each other – talking, eating, drinking (lots and lots of lots of drinking), playing pool and hooking up. On this job there didn't seem to be too much hooking up, or maybe since I was only there a week or so and was new to the film business, I just didn't know how much typically goes on in that situation (a LOT, but that's fodder for a future blog). Personally, I was hoping for a little romance, having recently left a 3-year relationship and, now, developed a wicked crush on the key grip. But he seemed mainly to be infatuated with his job - I once caught him, in a private moment, lovingly lining up the c-stands in perfect formation – and had no eyes for me, perhaps knowing that I would never make a good grip, or good gripette. But the rain and rejection and the hard work for zero pay only seemed to make the camaraderie seem that much more like it was the real reason we were there.

My first booming job for money was a film called Ben and Rachel. I was still trying to edit and pay off the bills from my thesis film and my part-time job at a financial management firm was threatening to become full-time - they had offered me $35,000 a year and a full business wardrobe, since they were appalled by the Friday casual wear I wore every day of the week but liked the idea of having an Ivy League-educated file clerk who could also do a little light bookkeeping, paperwork, etc. So when I got the call from Bill, a mixer I'd worked with on a student film, to work on Ben and Rachel, I leapt. Even though I'd only be making $250/week, I was sick of paper cuts dying to get back on to a film set. I had a feeling it would be a fun job because while Bill always cared about the sound, he was probably equally if not more concerned with entertaining the crew. For kicks, he would do things like speaking through the video monitor speakers in strange voices, or do his own impromptu foleying, if they didn't roll sound on a shot of a person walking, by pointing the mike at his own feet and try to match their sound to the movement of the person on screen. Then there was the ringmaster of the production, Kevin the first AD, a tall, foul-mouthed, son of a New York city cop who, with a cigarette glued to his lower lip, could get anything done – which he often had to, because it was a tight schedule - either through threats or sweet talk or just simple alpha-male charisma (the PAs worshipped him). But to be honest, it was an entire crew of fun people looking for a place to party, as if they all were hired on that basis (and that might have in fact been the case, since Kevin got hired early and recommended a lot of the others). People repaired most nights of the week to the Blue and Gold on East 7th Street, the then-film crew hangout and there were plenty of hook-ups above, below and across the line. As for me, I still didn't hook up (you may see a trend developing here), but I still loved being on that film. I was settling into the sound department, I was actually getting paid, there were actors in it who, if they weren't famous names were at least familiar faces. And the fact that it felt like a family, albeit an incestuous one verging on alcoholic, made me feel there was no place I'd rather be.

At least, for 2-6 weeks. Because what I had finally begun to learn at this point was that every shoot has to end, and once it does and they're suddenly released from their bonds, everyone goes their own way. They're all off to other jobs with other people and have no free time to see the people they met on the last job – assuming they want to. Shooting crews are like atoms, with those protons, neutrons and electrons somehow held together but vibrating, just waiting to split apart. Maybe it's that when you get into relationships that intense that fast, they're impossible to sustain, like when you jump into bed with someone on the first date and then, the next morning, realize you didn't really like them all that much. Or maybe it's the other way around: just like one-night stands, the knowledge that the whole thing's going to end lets you get close to people you normally wouldn't in ways you probably shouldn't. Wrap parties that take place at the end of film shoots are often both fraught with conflicting feelings and anticlimactic, eagerly anticipated by some (to get closure or take that crush to the next level), avoided by others like a disease, and ending with somebody crying in the bathroom. Then sets in what we call the post-partum depression – not to speak lightly of the real thing or Brooke Shields, but there is that same difficulty of dealing with the abrupt end of what was your everyday existence accompanied by, again, acute sleep deprivation to heighten the emotional crash. And if you're a crew person, the baby is not yours, so if you don't have another job to go on to, you have to try to go back to your old life, a place where you once had friends and family and significant others who you may realize you actually missed, and an apartment that probably needs a major cleaning.

So you get used to the rhythm of moving on and letting go. These days, I'm hardly in touch with anyone from film school any more. The crew of Sleepover got together a couple of times for drinks but then I pretty much forgot I'd ever done the film until one day I actually got a check in the mail (just to prove that some people in the business do mean what they say). I do still hear from Bill, who's segued into acting and comedy where he belongs, in e-mails that always include attachments with headings like "Irish Viagra" or "How to make your own Death Star ray." But the truth is, there are only a handful of folks from the film world I'd consider more than set friends, despite our fun or excruciating or bizarre experiences together. Or perhaps because of them - because you've all spent those kind of hours together, hauling heavy cases, burning yourself on hot lights, running backwards behind a four-person camera crew and trying not to trip them all while holding a boom over their heads pointed into the actor's mouth (not that I've ever done this), all of you basically working like dogs until everything clicks and everything comes together for a few perfect takes, and then talking during your extensive down time about the strangest and sometimes most personal things. After you've done this and repeated it over and over and over again, packing the ups and downs of a normal relationship into a couple of weeks – well, where is there to go?

But whenever I run into former crew-mates, it is an unexpected treat. One morning at 7 am you arrive on a commercial for Levitra and who's there but someone you stayed up all night with three weeks straight once, a long time ago. And then it's "Oh my God, that job! Do you remember that 17 hours we spent under the Brooklyn Bridge?…" Or sometimes you don't even have to say it because there’s a grin and a glint in the eye and you know, just between the two of you, it was hell and it was wonderful.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Worked with Donald Trump for the first time recently. He was pretty much what you'd expect: gentle, soft-spoken, with a fondness for butterflies…ha ha, no, seriously, he's the same guy you see on television. His tactic, I quickly observed (already familiar to those of you who watch The Apprentice), is to assert his opinion as often and as forcefully as possible.

"That was good, that was a really good take, I liked that one, let's see that one back…Oh, that was the one, that's the one you should use. You're not going to get a better take than that one. The second one was pretty good too, maybe you could use the first half of the second one – Jenny (his personal stylist), you like that one?"
"Yes, Mr. Trump, but the second one was –"
"No, I like this one better. It doesn’t get any better than that."

Note that he was mainly having a conversation with himself. The rest of us? Merely spectators. Because he already knows what he wants and that he’s right, at least in the Land of Trump. There’s a lot to be learned from this for those, like myself, who live in the Land of the Overly-Introspective Neurotic Peons, who are never 100% sure of anything except that we are eventually going to do something that gets us yelled at.

Unfortunately, The Donald arrived on set to do his thing in the last two hours of a workday that had begun, for the sound department, at 1 am (grip and electric had arrived at 10 pm, so they had less than no sympathy for us). By 7:30 in the morning when “the talent” got there, we were both fairly comatose.

We discussed our plan of action.

"I dunno, you want to mike him?"
"Mmm, not really. Do you want me to mike him?"
"No, no, I'll do it…"
"Do you want me to go with you?”
"Okay, that'd be great."

We stood outside Trump’s dressing room, listening to the friendly chit-chat coming from inside which still somehow, in that voice, sounded both authoritative and punitive. I noticed the sound guy was looking nervous.

"I'll mike him if you want..."
"Yeah, um, I’m a little intimidated. Here."

He pushed the wadded-up microphone into my hand and hurried away.

Contrary to what you might think when you sort through your positive memories of feeling people up, putting a radio mike on a person is no cheap thrill. First of all, a film production does not like to wait on sound. They’ll wait a millennium for camera and lighting to do their jobs if that’s what it takes, but nobody seems to remember that it needs to sound good as well as look good, nooo. Plus, we only get our turn after the talent has finished hair, make-up, and wardrobe, which is often precisely the moment when they’re getting called to set, and then suddenly you and your three minutes of miking time are holding up the whole enchilada – at which point the AD just has to call out over the walkie, “Waiting on sound!” just to make sure everybody knows it.

Second, actors hate to be miked. And why shouldn’t they? It’s one more person they have to allow to poke and prod their way into their personal space, and then it’s even more of an invasion of privacy once they are miked, because every word they say has the potential to be overheard. Nobody would willingly allow themselves to be bugged (the Patriot Act notwithstanding), especially when they could be talking about private, contractual whatevers with their agents, saying nasty things about the director, or making salacious overtures to a hot PA. Not that I’ve overheard any of those things because the sound people I work for always remember to turn down the volume on an actor’s radio mike when they’re off camera. I’m just saying these things happen, and actors know they do, which just makes it all the more tense when you go in there with a smile and a microphone, knowing that you’re not going to be greeted with a big, happy “Howdy!” Most actors are gracious and professional about having to wear a wire but all sound people have stories about the ones who try to turn “off” a mike that doesn’t have an off switch (thereby turning it to “broken”), or, finding that too complicated, just cut the mike cable up into tiny little pieces. And even when actors are nice, they don’t always think about the fact that they are wearing a $3000 piece of equipment that belongs to the sound person, as when Marlon Wayans wanted to play basketball during a break on a job I did with him and considerately took the microphone off - and left it on the ground, where it promptly disappeared. He tried to help us find it and looked rather shame-faced the next day when came over to say, “Yo, I’m sorry I lost your shit” – and it did eventually turn up. But this ends up being yet another reason to be extra considerate of actors when you’re miking them: they’re going to be wearing your expensive shit. You want them to take good care of it.

Third, sound mixers hate radio mikes to begin with. They are tiny little microphones attached to wireless transmitters known to receive interference from radio stations and taxi dispatchers. They need to be hidden in clothing which can sound bad in so many different ways – squeaky rayon, scratchy wool, too much starch in the shirt – and don’t even get me started on the whole tie thing, oy vey. Ties are generally made out of silk or polyester, two of the most sound unfriendly materials, and every sound person has his or her own idea of how a tie should be miked. But even if you do everything right, there’s a still chance some item of lacey underwear or fold of flesh will move and so will your mike, or maybe it will stay exactly where you put it and still end up sounding like crap. That’s why sound people only use radio mikes when we are forced to, which, given that directors like to shoot wide shots on the noisy streets of New York, is often – which makes us hate using them even more.

So if you’re the third or the boom who’s doing the miking, you’re getting pressure from the sound person to do it right, from the ADs to do it fast, and from the actors to leave them the hell alone. You may be standing closer than anyone has a right to be to your handsome, celebrity demigod of choice, but chances are, you’re thinking, Where the hell am I going to stick this so we don’t hear the chest hair?

Donald Trump, of course, was wearing a tie.

"Hi, um, I'm going to just need to put a mike on you before you go out."
"How are you going to do it?"
"I was going to put it in your tie and run the cable under your collar and down your back under the jacket, if that's okay."
"You sure you don't want to run it up the front of the shirt?"

Be confident, I thought. It’s like you’re in The Boardroom. Do not show fear.

"No, no, I think it's more secure going down the back."

I started working. As I ran the cable under his collar, he looked down at me across that large chin, accentuating the fact that he's a tall man and that I am rather short.

"Er, sorry, am I choking you?"
"No, no…You sure you don't want to run it up the front?"
"No…unless you have a preference –"
"No, no. If you think that's the best way.”

Of course, I began to wonder, Is it the best way? He gets miked all the time, maybe he knows something about his suit that I don’t know. Still, I stuck with my original plan until I realized, just as I was finishing up, that I was missing the one quintessential, make-or-break element of any miking technique: tape. Some people have all of their equipment essentially held together with huge swathes of tape. I only needed one, tiny inch of double-sided, but not having it now could prove to be my ruin if the cable I had tucked under his collar popped out, killing the shot, wasting very important time from his very important day. But I didn't have time to go get it, I was out of time. I let him go to set, hearing the inevitable voice in my head: "YOU'RE FIRED!"

It didn’t happen. The mike sounded good, we finished the day fast, I only got yelled at once (when my boom cable was in the shot), and I was in bed by noon. Which just goes to show you the true genius of Donald Trump: sometimes if you act like you know you’re right, you’ll find out that you probably are. Even if you forget the tape.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Lords of Advertising (and Puppets Who Speak Japanese)

First of all, let me disclaim: certain names, dates, places and other details may be changed to protect the innocent, the not so innocent, the extremely guilty, and me. The film community is a small place and news travels like brushfire in a global-warming-induced drought.

Anyway. A few weeks ago I worked on a Japanese car insurance commercial involving a baseball player, a puppet, and a jingle that I couldn't understand but nevertheless found a comfortable home in my brain after I heard it played back easily 1000 times. Still, overall, it was a good job, as I predicted from the moment I stepped on set and three people who knew who I was instantly descended on me:

“Hi, I’m Akiya, I’m the producer. Nice to meet you.”
“Hi, I’m Kioko, I’m the first AD. We’re going to need playback first, in about an hour.”
“Hi, I’m Yuki, can I help you move that?’
This never happens. Let me back up and explain why.

The commercial is the most hierarchical – the feudal society, if you will – of production jobs. The ad agency personnel – writer, art director and agency producer for the spot – and their clients – the up to 20 marketing folks from the company that makes the frozen pizza, flea collars, or stretch mark removal cream that we are hawking that particular day – are the monarchs. Sound like too many kings? Ah, therein lieth the problem, the one that maketh the shooting of a 30-second spot an all-day affair. The director, usually considered king of the film set is, in this case, but a prince, trying to prove himself worthy by satisfying this royal committee, each of whom will either have a distinct idea of what is or is not funny/glamorous/supercool, or just feels they need to speak up in order to justify the fact that they’ve been released for a few days from their fluorescent light-dominated habitat to gossip, flirt and chow down at the snack table we call craft service.

Next: the level of dukes and duchesses, beginning with the producer, who, as the highest-ranked person from the production company, spends the day trying to make sure things stay on schedule and running back from “video village,” where the kings and queens sit ensconced before a flat-screen video monitor, to deliver opinions to the director, resulting in conversations along the lines of

Producer: They want him to say it more ironically.
Director: We did twenty ironic takes an hour ago!
Producer: They said they couldn’t see the logo -
Director: Jesus!

You can see how much fun this job is. Nevertheless, the producer is the highest-ranked person on set from the production company (except when the executive producer, who owns the company, makes an appearance. You can tell the difference between the two because the producer will be pale and display either black humor or total resignation while the executive producer is always tan, fit, sports a nice leather jacket, and zips in and out to do a brief round of hand-shaking before disappearing off into the mist in his BMW. I’m not sure where he fits into the hierarchy, maybe he’s the Archbishop of Canterbury). On the crew side, the director of photography (DP) and the assistant director (AD) are the dukes and duchesses (generally dukes), then the rest of the “keys” or department heads – first assistant camera (AC), gaffer, key grip, sound, hair and make-up – are your top level of vassals, the people they hire to work for them – like me – are the lower vassals, and the PAs – the lowest level on any set, hired by the production company to do whatever work nobody else wants to do - are the serfs.

See, we’re all beholden. Everyone on the crew needs to get rehired on the next job by their key, the keys need to get rehired by the production company, the production company needs to get rehired by the agency, the ad agency needs to get rehired by the client – so everyone’s constantly watching backs and kissing asses, and if yours is not an ass that requires kissing, you probably won’t be deemed worthy of notice (unless you screw up, which isn’t the kind of notice you want). Movies and television shows are longer jobs and so and there is the chance for everyone to get to know each other as people. But on a commercial, even though you develop friendships with the people you work with frequently, the production itself retains that cold, cubicular corporate feeling that it’s all about the bottom line, and unless you’re pulling in the big bucks, you’ll be treated like the cog you are. I was just on a job where the director and the script supervisor introduced themselves and chatted at the beginning of the day, but once we began shooting, her name devolved to “Script! Script!” - generally punctuated with a snapping of the fingers.

As with feudal society, this dictates all sorts of social rules as well. For instance, people from the crew don’t socialize with people from the agency/client. It’s just not done. I’ll talk to them when it’s part of my job, and there are rare occasions where they will ask me questions (“How do you hold that pole up there for so long?”) and they are always perfectly nice, but it’s in kind of the distant way in which people are nice to other people’s pets. So you stick with your department - the “vanities” (hair, make-up and wardrobe) hang together, camera with camera, grips and electrics with grips and electrics - but this can be a bit claustrophobic. Some people – sound mixer, key hair and make-up, wardrobe stylist - only have one other person in their department; some – script supervisor, video playback (VTR) – have just themselves. So when lunchtime comes around, most of us in smaller departments try to be social with those of similar rank, with varying results; you can end up sitting with some group who’ll be talking about something you just don’t get (“Did you read about the bleach bypass processing they used on that film?”) or sitting with the uncool kids (“I've done background on all of DeNiro's movies, on the last one, I think he recognized me.”) or sitting alone – which is more like high school than feudal city-state but it’s my analogy, I can do what I want with it.

So to step on to a set and already have three people from the production crossing ranks and making me feel important was odd, oddly...professional. I suppose one can just attribute this to the formality of Japanese culture in a professional setting. Strangely enough, however, in other ways, film culture seemed to trump Japanese culture completely. The Japanese AD jumped around, barking commands (some in Japanese) and was willing to lie on the floor, supporting the elbow of a puppeteer swathed in green nylon to match the green-screen that would eventually be replaced with something resembling a video game (the sound mixer and I really had no idea what was going on in this commercial) if that was what it took to keep us on schedule. The Japanese art department had infrequently-washed hipster hair, wore used, camp t-shirts, and acted bored. The hair and make-up guy sported oversized sunglasses and the Kim Jong Il ‘do while the clothing stylist was turned out in a tight skirt with a large hat pulled down over one eye. And the director, of course, with his expensive-casual guy clothes and gelled hair, ignored everyone, working on his tiny laptop, until it was time to shoot, when he became obsessive about the puppet’s performance, often going so far as to move the puppet’s hands himself through five rehearsals.

So in every other way, this ended up being like all the other commercials I’ve done with puppets singing about insurance in a foreign language, which would be none, but that’s not the point. The point is that in some ways, it’s nice to have your place on the ladder formally recognized, even if it’s not the most important place, or a place you’d like to occupy forever, rather than having the people above you feeling they need to constantly reinforce their non-formal rank through things like getting frappucinos upon request while others must content themselves with set coffee that tastes like water from the Gowanus; by getting driven to set from their $1000/night hotel room at 9 am while you peeled your eyes open to be on the subway platform at 6; or by acting like they never even have to acknowledge that you exist – even though the work they do would be impossible without you. I don’t expect to get any of those things they get. But it’s nice when people learn your name.

By the way, the people who are at the very top – God in my hierarchy, I guess, since I haven’t left room for anyone else - are the famous people who sometimes star in commercials. Always treated to the heights of extravagance, they also are often the ones, like our Japanese baseball player, Hideki Matsui, who care the least about it. Even though he’d come from a game and was clearly exhausted, Matsui was cordial to everyone and did everything he could to act opposite a moving piece of felt in front of a background he couldn’t see, although his resigned expression showed he was probably thinking, “Am I really getting paid enough to do this?” But he did do it, without complaint and without airs, because after all, what did he have to prove? It was only a commercial.