Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Blood and Television

On a balmy summer night several months ago, I found myself parked down on lower Broadway at a very late hour bedside a very handsome man in the front seat of a plain brown sedan.

"Oops, I think I put it up there wrong."
"It was facing in the wrong direction."
"Uh oh."

We shared a quiet chuckle.

The handsome man and I were talking about a microphone I had painstakingly taped to the roof of the car. Still, it might have been a romantic moment, had he not been lying in a pool of his own blood.

We were filming the season opener of the television drama "Without A Trace," during which Detective Martin Fitzgerald, played by Eric Close, is shot by international gangsters. Or at least they seemed like international gangsters, based on their machine guns, their accents, their rather fashionable Eurotrashy black outfits and what I could glean from the handful of cutely miniaturized script pages that I received at the start of the shoot day. These pages, or "sides," are given to crew members so that we know what scenes are being shot that day and in what order and can plan accordingly. But I like to use them for my personal game of Let's try and reconstruct the plot! Who are these people? Why are they getting shot? Why is Comely Female Detective (Who Insists On Miking Herself) so upset? Love interest or just concerned comrade? In theory, one could go home and watch the show to find out this sort of stuff, but heck, it's a night shoot and I've got loads of time to kill. Although since we only shoot maybe six to ten pages a day and I'm only on this for three days, it's sort of a fruitless exercise:

"Hmm, he gets shot by the three guys on page 2. Then the guy who's injured is being asked by the detective guy who's crushing his leg about someone named Tibor. And then there's this whole thing about Valhalla, which they start to explain on page 37, but then it gets cut off and it goes to scene 40…"

The other thing that keeps me awake between 2 and 6 am (aside from the mini Snickers bars at craft service) is that watching a car crash is like, well, watching a car crash: no matter how many times you've done it, you still can't look away. I mean, people are actually smashing cars into other cars! This is exciting to us in New York City where we don't have monster truck rallies. And even if the people doing the smashing are obviously stunt men wearing bad rugs driving at half-speed, there's still suspense because you can only fuck it up so many times – you have only so many identical picture cars you can knock around before they get dented up and then there are only so many ways to film a car that's bashed in so that you don't see that it's bashed in, so basically, if you don't get the thing on the first, second or third take, you're screwed. Plus – bonus! – this combo was a shoot-out/car crash. Shoot-outs alone are not nearly as exciting. You often spend a lot of time doing them because you can repeat them as many times as you have wardrobe changes, blanks and squibs (the tiny explosives that are wired into clothing to burst open tiny bladders of fake blood when they receive a wireless signal. Yes, death by gunshot is a well-refined process in the movies and hmm, why would that be?). They take a long time to set up because the actor needs to change and clean up and get squibbed again each time. And then if you're sound, it's all ultimately futile because you know they're not going to use the sound of the blanks because they don't sound like real gunshots - or at the least the way gunshots in movies sound once they're laid in by a sound editor working in a little room on a computer with a file of sound effects, which is the way most of us think gunshots sound. Still, people firing guns and spurting blood in front of you holds your attention – at least, for the first 12 takes. Fight scenes, however, are just completely ridiculous. They begin with a fight coordinator who is usually from Jersey dragging in a big, blue gymnastics mat and going through the moves, inch by inch, with the parties involved. Then, when the whole thing finally takes place, nobody makes physical contact with anyone else or often even the floor, and it's hard to see how the carefully-timed leaping out of the way of fists is actually going to convince anyone – as it will, of course, thanks to camera angles, cutting and, again, post-production sound effects – BAM! KAPOW! – which will be added later. That's why fight scenes which have no dialogue are also boring for sound, whereas those that do are just full of anxiety, because you can't wire somebody who's doing a fight scene for fear of your equipment getting trashed or at the very least the extremely audible scratching and rustling sounds of people jumping around in their clothes, pretending to get hit and falling on the lavaliere.

This is why we'd put the mike in the car, so that Detective Fitzgerald could get shot, and Detective Taylor, in the passenger seat, could say, "Martin?!" and Martin could wheeze out what might possibly be his last breath (although of course it wouldn't be unless the actor had a problem with his contract, but then he'd probably disappear at the end of a season, not the beginning) – and we could get it all on a DVD-RAM disc that would then go to the post house in L.A. And we did all that, several times, along with the car crashes and the gunshots and the aftermath which included the arrival of Comely Female Detective and their boss, played by Anthony LaPaglia. But this was before that.

"I'm so tired," said Detective Fitzgerald. His lids were so heavy that for a moment I thought, Oh my God, he's really lost a lot of blood.
"Yeah. Night shoots are the worst," I said.

But I realized, as I applied more tape to the sun visor, that just then, I didn't mean it. I know I knock the film business a lot but there are still moments when it hits me that there's something incredible in the way it all comes together to make a different kind of reality – even when it's a violent reality that I don't particularly like. It actually doesn't ruin it, knowing how the "movie magic" happens. In fact, knowing the crazy things we do and how they actually work in the end somehow makes it more...magical.

So I had one of those moments as we sat in the quiet bubble of that car while 100 people swarmed around us, talking about the next shot, resetting the camera and lights and stands and making sure the dents and the broken glass were where they were supposed to be, trying to beat the dawn.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The shopper at Home Depot's brush with fame
(and I quote)
"Can I be in your commercial? I'm a good actor. And I'm cheap. Just $100 an hour, that's all it'll cost you, heh heh, come on, that's worth it, right? She's ignoring me. Oh, they're rolling now? What are you doing, you in it? Oh, you just work here? I was in a commercial once. I was walking somewhere and they said, 'Sure, go on, walk through.' Didn't say nothin', didn't do nothin', but I was in it. I was an 'extra' I guess. No, I don't know what movie it was. But I was in it."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Abby Singer

Every line of work has its own language. If you’ve ever been trapped at a party by a group of physicists, computer programmers, or industrial engineers, you know what I’m talking about: there is a whole world of proprietary lingo that people in a profession develop by and for themselves. This frequently happens out of necessity. Those physicists could have continued to say, “I found a new one of those thingies that revolves around one of those other thingies,” or programmers could still be writing, “This e-mail contains something-underlined-that-you-
have-sucked-even-more-time-from-your-day,” but one can see where there was a need to be filled here. On the other hand, did anyone really need to come up with the “memo”? Wasn’t “group note” good enough? Was it only with the advent of the modern hospital that people needed things not just fast but “stat”? I think not. I think that there is another reason that people develop lingo and that is to show that they have their own little thing going on. It’s their way of saying, if you can follow our conversation then you are one of us, and if not, then there’s something we know and you don’t, ha.

Nowhere is this more true than in the film business, which has a language of words that don’t even make sense to those of us who use them. Part of this is explained by the fact that, in the early years of this century, the process of filmmaking evolved sort of ad-hoc, absorbing equipment or people from other jobs. With certain terms, like “dolly,” which is the large, wheeled piece of equipment on which the camera is pushed around in the grip of the “dolly grip,” the derivation is obvious. Not so much with the nautical terms. The reason there are so many of those in the movie terminology glossary is that many of the early stagehand “crews” were hired from sailing or whaling crews. Thus, we have the “boom,” which refers to the pole with the microphone on the end that is swung over people’s heads during the shot (the pole itself is called the "fishpole"), and the “gaffer,” the name for the chief lighting technician, which somehow comes from the name of another type of ship's boom called a “gaffe,” something akin to which was used on movie sets to open and close tent flaps that let in natural light, back when that was how movies were lit. Then there the gun-related terms, such as “shooting” or “shot,” or the camera’s loaded “magazine” or “mag” of film, but since most Americans are familiar with guns, these don’t keep people in the dark for very long. But when it comes to such terms such “best boy,” which is the name for the second in the lighting department, or “Dutch tilt,” which describes a frame cocked at an angle that looks like it was set by a drunken DP (that's Director of Photography to you laypeople), one has to wonder why they haven’t been replaced with terms that wouldn’t offend the Dutch and that might be self-explanatory. But no, we have to maintain our mystique. We have to keep using these terms so that people have to turn to us in the dark at the end of every movie and say, "What the heck does a 2nd 2nd Assistant Director do?" We have to hold on to them so that people will make conversation with us at Academy Awards parties and ask us if we’ve ever worked with the people who are nominated and are they really that tall. It’s so people on the street can overhear us having conversations like,

“Is that the best boy? Did you talk to him about the tie-in?”
“No, that’s the gaffer. The best boy is over there, by the 10-K.”

And they will think we’re cool.

Then there is “The Abby Singer shot.” “The Abby Singer” is the name for the second-to-last shot of the day, named for Abby Singer, a well-known production manager and AD who worked in episodic television for three decades on such shows as Columbo, St. Elsewhere and Remington Steele. This term developed because, according to legend, when asked how many shots were left to the day, Abby would reply, “We have this and then one more.” The final shot of the day is called “The martini” - leading to such conversations as,

“Is this the martini?”
“No, the AD just told me it’s the Abby.”
"Oh, I'd better go tell the key grip that we're going into OT."

Contrary to popular belief, there is no connection between the martini and the Abby. Abby Singer did not call out, “That’s a wrap!” and drink a martini. I’ve heard no clear explanation of the derivation of the term “the martini,” but I’d imagine it has more to do with the strong penchant for drinking that naturally exists in an industry filled with 18-hour days, broken marriages and dashed hopes.

Which brings me to why the Abby sums up the contradictions of life in the film business. Because to me, what the Abby Singer is really about is the sort of endless work-day that places people like myself at the mercy of people like Abby Singer. It’s the AD’s job to get the day’s work finished and to that end, he or she frequently will tell you that you are on the Abby, almost almost done, and be lying out of his or her ass or just plain wrong. Because do you know the joke about how many directors it takes to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: Just one more, just one more! The director will always want one more shot, and he/she (usually he) doesn’t care how tired/pissed off at his incompetence/
egomaniacal self-indulgence the crew may be - which is why virtually no one, Sydney Lumet and Woody Allen being notable exceptions, finishes a shoot day in less than 12 hours. And then the director is at the mercy, on one level, of “the talent” - the actor, or the child, ferret, puppet, or professional wrestler in the case of some of the commercials I’ve worked on - out of whom they have to coax a performance, and on another, of The Powers that Be. These can include the producer and the studio if it’s a feature, the executive producer and the writers if it’s television, or a whole horde of advertising executives and clients (as previously described) if it’s a commercial, all of whom may demand additional shots or lines or takes if they decide their original idea isn't being fulfilled, the performance isn't sexy enough, the shake doesn't look frothy enough, or the supermodel doesn't look super enough and she has to go back into hair and make-up for another hour. So in other words, the Abby is a cute name for what’s keeping you from your spouse, your kids, your dog, or at least your dustbunnies, 5-6 days a week for maybe 2-6 months if it’s a feature, up to ten months if it’s a series, or a year and a half if it’s The Lord of The Rings.

And being bossed around by all those people reminds you that the interminable wait for that martini is also about another sort of interminable wait: the wait to be the one doing the bossing around. Because most of us who work in the business are doing it to get somewhere else. If you’re a second AD, you want to be a first AD, if you’re a camera assistant or a gaffer, you want to be a DP, and everyone else wants to direct. And you have a screenplay you’re trying to finish, which of course you can’t finish because you’re holding a boom or lugging sandbags for 15 hours a day, and then the small amounts of time you do get at home are spent sleeping, paying your bills, and trying to keep your boyfriend from leaving you and your plants from dying because you’re never around. Yet, we all really are waiting for that big break, the one that we know has happened to other people and just has to happen to us. Some day. One friend of mine told me that when he turned 27 he thought he was a failure because Stephen Soderbergh had made “Sex, Lies and Videotape” at 27. Every extra, grueling day we wait for that martini places each of us one day farther from being a wunderkind.

I realize now that what began as a mildly interesting exploration of film etymology has devolved into the kind of whiny, depressing lament that your friends get sick of listening to and should never be forced on total strangers. I’m sure you’re wondering, at this point, so why do it?

Because we're all somehow attached to this world with its cool talk and false glamour, either because we love film or we love fame or we love money, and we truly think that we're on the Abby Singer; we tell ourselves that we're just going to do this one and then one more and then we'll either move up or get out. Lots of people do move up the ladder or into another aspect of the business that gets them out of the production grind, some of them even hit it big (David Platt, who now directs for television, was once a sound man, and when I worked with Ben Younger, the director of Boiler Room and Prime, he was just a grip with a cocky attitude). And I've known plenty of people who have left the business and gone on to become teachers or journalists or even librarians, something where they're contributing something more to the world than sex, violence, or a convincing argument for buying frozen pizza. But then there are the people who always talk about quitting but just keep on going and going, and will probably keep talking and not quitting until they retire. Because they're not ready to face the fact that maybe this way of life's not taking them where they want to go and they need to find another way to get there, or ready to let go of the hopes and dreams they've had their entire lives, maybe, and make the decision to do something else.

On my better days, I like to think I'm not living in Camp Denial, that I'm not one of them. But then there I am, just as I have been for much of the last 11 years, holding a boom over somebody's head and saying, "Do you think you could help me out with that shadow by putting a topper on the tweenie?" Truth is, it's hard to make the decision to call it a day. It's easier to wait for someone else to tell us when it's time to go home.