Archive for July, 2011

Lost dog vs lost dog vs lost Jean Barker

July 30, 2011

I opened an old wound recently. Idiotically. Just bumped it against life and there it was, bleeding out all over again… that’s too romantic, really. It’s more like a cyst that had to be drained. Nothing even a hot vampire would want to suck on.

Now… I got love, and milk, and a roof over my head, and four walls made of genuine California mould-board imported from China. So I have no right to complain. But old hurts of the heart came back to haunt me. Tried everything that usually works. Running. Swimming. Sex. Talking. Hugs. Even, half-heartedly, drinking. But nothing made it go away for very long.

And then I came back to something someone once said to me (I may have been paying them to listen to me whine at the time): Sometimes you just have to feel what you feel until you’re done.

So I got on my bike to go print out some work, no longer caring if I was happy or not, and boom: there on a lamp post was an idea for a short film.

Awesome. Thank you, Life.

It’s called “Tale of Two Puppies”, and it’s about two kids from different neighborhoods that are just across the street from each other who meet when they compete over a lamp post with their very different LOST PUPPY posters.

Gonna be a winner. Anyone have a kid for me? I may want to make this in South Africa as an independent study over SA summer / US Winter Vac.

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First A.D. Babylon – the pitfalls and the rare pleasures of a role less rewarding

July 23, 2011

Mexican food is my comfort food. I have eaten a lot of Mexican food lately. I’ve needed a lot of comforting. I’ve been working recently as a first Assistant Director, or “First Bitch” as I like to call the role. It’s rough – one of the steepest and least rewarding learning curves I’ve ever had to negotiate.

I think I eat Mexican mostly for the Horchata, which is a rice milk drink, flavored with cinnamon, served on ice. It's soothing after you've loaded up your burrito “con todos” then dipped it in the green sauce and crunched a few radishes on the way. Many taquerias make their own Horchata – if they do, there's usually a bit of grain at the bottom. That's how you can tell it's real. T-Shirt

(Get the T-Shirt)

Your job is to support and assist the director, and coordinate the different departments, to ensure that all the shots you need get done, and the director is free to focus on the actors. You need to allow for artistic license, while making sure that no time is wasted. A mediocre shot is better than no coverage at all. But this is a hard truth. This makes the job torture for creative people, and hard to do in a creative environment.

No first A.D. expects to be liked, and luckily thanks to having realistic expectations, I don’t really expect to be liked in my general life – so I’m probably ideally suited to the work. But every first A.D. Expects to be allowed to do their job – and that expectation isn’t always fulfilled. In fact, since the organization and time-keeping on set falls to the A.D., it’s very hard to delimit the job. On a good day, it’s like herding cats. On a bad day, it’s like herding retarded cats.

Here’s my quick guide to surviving the job of First A.D. On an independent or student film set.

PRE-PRODUCTION
Do as much as you can of this. If you can get this right, you’re golden. It’s magic. You’re sorted.

Meet with the Director in advance
This is the best way to figure out if they’re a sociopath or a flake. Most directors are one or the other and it’s important that you are prepared to deal with the consequences of either tendency. In the rare case that the director is neither, congratulations: your life, briefly, doesn’t suck.

Meet with the Director of Photography (ideally with Director present) ideally at the location(s)
The best reason to do this is so that you can get The Shotlist – or at the very least, an overhead diagram showing camera / lighting setups for the shoot. That way you have a hope in hell of being able to put together a viable schedule for the shoot. Of course, it’s often impossible to meet with the D.P., and if you do, and if they have seen the location and are able to put together a shot list or better still, schedule, you’re a lucky, lucky A.D.

Figure out what the producer thinks their job entails
Many student producers I’ve run into (I know of about 5 exceptions, all of whom I respect immensely) seem to think the work of a producer involves going to the most obvious location they can think of, asking to book it, filling out a couple of forms, and then charging the director for the costs without bothering to negotiate them much. If you’re lucky, they’ll also handle food and craft services on set. The producer should be doing a lot more than that… although I’m not too sure what at this point, since I’ve never actually had a producer. It’s one of those roles that people interpret as they please. Just make sure you know what is being taken care of and what you’ll have to take care of. If the director is the producer, great. At least they give a shit. However, try to make sure they’ve taken care of everything before the shoot starts and ensure there’s a set producer to pick up any loose ends on the day of the shoot.

Small things make people happy. If someone's having a birthday on set, get whoever fetches lunch to get them cake. If someone's nice to you, smile. It matters. I couldn't have survived my most recent job without the friendliness of some crew members - particularly the D.P.

Put the essential info about the shoot not only in the call sheet, but also in the body of your email to cast and crew members.
This will make them less likely to read the call sheet. That’s the down side. The upside is that they probably wouldn’t have read it anyhow (exception here: actors, cause they want to see what order they’re billed in and whether their name is correctly spelled). The even bigger upside is that when they get lost/confused etc they’ll be able to use their smartphone to look up the basic info: location address, and your phone number so they can call to ask you for directions instead of googling them before leaving home.

ON SET

Introduce everybody, learn their names, and use their names
I made the mistake of referring to the production designer on a set as P.D. As in “Can we get P.D. In here?” While valid and natural, it’s also rude and made me sound like a dick. So it’s “Can [P.A. Name] get [P.D. Person Name] in here.” In the safety meeting at the beginning of the day, make everyone give their names, what they’re doing there, and something about themselves. It’s just nice to know who you’re dealing with, and a great way to put faces to the names in the call sheet. Also make sure the director gets a chance to say hi to everyone. You rely on them taking charge, so help them do so. The worst thing you can do (and I’ve made this mistake) is forget that this is their set, not yours. This applies even if they’re useless.

Figure out how to make people shut up without shouting at them.
This is the thing I need to work on. If it were legal, I’d just Tazer noisy people. (There’s a reason I don’t have kids. One kid can ruin an entire beach for 400 people by crying all day. Why are there no kid-free beaches?) There’s nothing more exhausting, and counterproductive in a creative environment, than shouting at people to shut the hell up. At the same time, there’s nothing more time-consuming and distracting for those that are actually WORKING than idle set chatter. The odd joke is nice. Lots of jokes during wrap are almost essential – you’re so tired that everything is funny. But noise is stressful, annoying and just creates more noise.

Ask, don’t tell.
This is a good rule for life in general. The other rule is to do it offline. Whenever expressing a strong opinion or getting someone to do something differently, try to get them alone. If you suggest a change in role or strategy to someone in front of the whole crew, they may find it undignified. If they know about it because you took them aside and said “Hey, I see you’re not too busy and we’re short of hands. Would you mind very much if I asked you to sprinkle water on this / assist the production designer until you’re needed as grip again” then it’ll almost certainly be fine. Human beings (that includes me and you) are confused by sudden change. Give them warning and they are capable of evolution and multitasking.

Deal with the set Know It All the first time they start with their crap
It’s easy to spot the set “know it all” on an indy set. They’re usually the aging male lead, slightly past their prime, very experienced but ultimately a ZZZ-lister. And it’s not hard to see why: They’re annoying. They will reveal themselves early by doing one of the following: a. Bringing script revisions to set rather than suggesting them beforehand. b. directing other actors on behalf of the director and c. badmouthing the A.D. or director to the crew – usually by implying that any attempt to keep the clock is a sign that they don’t care about the quality of the film. No matter how hard you are working, they’ll find something to point out that you could be doing better, because they’ve seen how wrong things can go, and they’re just waiting for it to happen to them again. Because they’re very experienced. Best way to deal with them? Odd answer! Listen to them. If you don’t have time, find someone who will. They usually just want a sounding board for endless stories about “the time they worked with so-and-so” and how, as an extra, they helped re-write American Beauty, or something. If they’re not total assholes, the director might be able to work it out – this behavior is sometimes an indication of nerves about the role (a director I trust told me this). If the actor is in fact your most annoying uncle come back to haunt your set, try giving them to the 2ndA.D. (if you’re lucky enough to have one) or the make-up and hair person (for perpetual “last looks”). Anything that keeps them away from the D.P. And makes them feel important is good.

Don’t freak out
This is very hard sometimes. Things you should expect to deal with are a. missing permits, location agreements, crew and so on – most of this should be the producer’s problem, but by the time you’re on set, it’s yours too. b. D.P.s and lighting guys taking twice as long on setups as planned (I usually remind them that the trade-off may mean cutting a favorite tricky shot later, which is mean, but also the truth). c. Locations that are unsanitary (flake-type directors) – I’ve twice had to clean someone’s apartment, and once got shouted at for breaking a glass while washing their dishes d. Locations that are dangerous (psycho directors) or illegal shots (flake or psycho). e. Lack of shotlist, schedule, overheads, lined script. Most of these will be missing on most student sets, or so badly done that you would rather they were missing. I am pretty good in the Don’t Freak Out category. But at a certain point, everybody will crack, so if you’re a director of producer or D.P. reading this, take pity on your A.D. – being the asshole is hard enough without you competing.

Don't ask. JUST DON'T OKAY.


Find a safe place to go.

This relates to not freaking out. Whatever works for you is good. The safe place should not involve other people – the danger that they will tell you something that makes it worse or that you will say something you later regret is too great. I once ran away after a director burst into tears and stormed off set when I pointed out that her location agreement didn’t cover the street outside her location as well. In the rather filthy green room, I found crew member, who was avoiding the actor. He told me that the lead actor was whining about me to everyone. His intention was to say that he disagreed, but it spun me out worse. I wish I’d never known what the actor thought. L.A. Insincerity is vapid, but functional. To my face, he said I was a great A.D. and he was deeply grateful. He was annoying and not particularly talented, so the danger I’d ever work with him again or as a director was not high. Anyway. Whatever it takes to keep your cool, do it… A call to a friend off set. A shrink. Horchatas. A song on your ipod. The serenity prayer. ‘ludes. Find that thing.

Half the lights went out. This is where you don't want to be for lunch as an A.D. Why? Because the producer (myself, in this case, as I was director/producer) didn't check if it had a toilet.

WHEN YOU GO HOME TO CRY

And finally… Don’t expect to be perfect.
The actor who was whining about me was right. The people who told me I was great and meant it were right too. The inner adult in me that was saying I sucked was right, too. The truth is somewhere in between… your ability to be a good A.D. isn’t all up to you. It depends how many problems you have to deal with. Being the timekeeper on a set is like being the accountant at a newspaper. Everybody hates you when times are tough and you have to do bad things, but they wouldn’t get it done without you. Everybody loves you when things are easy. But they need you. On one set I worked, nobody would have gotten paid if it weren’t for me, either. When you’ve had a rough day, resist the urge to accidentally invite criticism by trying to deal with personal or other problems when you get home. People like to kick you when you’re down. Go home. Stay off facebook and chat. Read a book while the caffeine wears off. Cry into your pillow. Get some sleep. You’ll need all your energy to save the next day.

A random place. Side of the road. Just one of millions.

I have made every mistake in the book. Learn from mine, not your own. Good luck. And oh… here’s a recipe for horchata

“Blades”

July 9, 2011

This is where I’ve been… yep, off making movies again. This time shot on location at the awesome Viviane’s Salon, Blades is a dark comedy about a hairdresser who discovers that her best friend is having an affair with her husband, and decides to give her a haircut she’ll dun dun dun NEVER FORGET. Okay, it’s a little more subtle than that really.

Anyhow, I wrote and directed this film as part of Chapman’s summer project run by the awesome prof David Kost, and it was a blast. Busy working on a rough assembly of it as we speak.

Ezra, amazing AC, and an even better AD, a director at the school, earned himself the nickname Ezra "ACD" Lunel over the course of our two-day shoot. And lookeee... my name's on the board. For take six of a very tricky shot involving mirrors, and a handheld 360 turn with a shoulder rig while both the DP and the actress were moving. But ya... we nailed it on this one.

I had amazing actresses Elyse Russel as Viviane, and Camilla Froude as Milly. Had two ADs – Donte Murry (Monday 4th) and Ezra Lunel (Tuesday 5th). Alex Griffin was my awesome DP, with John Nodorft and James Jeffrey gaffing (Mon, Tues). Jessica Goldberg took care of script supervision and continuity, with her boyfriend Steve took care of crafty and gripped and played UPM. Travis Brown (a  hire in via Mandy.com) did an amazing job on Sound. Dan McDonald showed up to help pack up on Tuesday. And Viviane Buchanan (the owner) gets most of the credit for production design, hair, and advising the Elyse on how to look authentic when holding the scissors and cutting hair. I’d also like to thank Paul’s Products for a discount on the wig and Valentino’s for the extra stuff they sent us for Monday lunch. It will not be forgotten when I’m famous, or even on the way up.

A movie is never, ever just yours. And by the time Aaron Sanchez (who also helped polish my 789) has helped me edit it? It’ll be a lot of people’s film. And I love that about this business.

A few negative notes…

I learned this the hard way. Never hire someone without an interview, ideally face to face. Those involved in the production know the details of why I say that. I have removed them to spare Chapman University harassment from a certain individual. I will also be deleting (disabling, actually, as I need them for legal reasons) his abusive and defamatory comments from this blog post’s comments. This is now a matter for the police.

A bunch of our equipment was stolen while we closed the door for sound to do a take. Dear whoever you are: Since it’s not the kind of equipment you’d use for anything except film, and is barcoded and digitally identifiable as belonging to Dodge, that was really dumb of you. If it’s in your possession, drop if off anywhere. The police will return it to us. If you are offered Flags, C-Stands, and a Kino box with bulbs but no Kino, think twice before buying it on Ebay. It’s stolen. Oh, and these two call came through from someone (on a hidden number) faking a really bad accent and pretending to be the thief. Voice recognition will show who you really are. Until then…

Calm down!

July 7, 2011

This sounds like a bit of a gamble, doesn’t it?

What? Wait... which is it? I don't wanna hang with this dude! Thanks to a great actress, Vanessa Wolf, for letting me blog this picture. (The title "calm down" is hers.)

I am pretty sure there are religions where the rules are more clear than those Christianity offers us are. And yet the punishment for breaking them is so severe… Reminds me of those multiple choice questions where you need to pick the “most right” answer. Except that if you get it wrong you burn in torment for all eternity.

Vanessa Wolf just graduated from Chapman. She’s an immensely talented actress, and she appeared in one of my movies – an old one called “Steal My Heart“.

Here’s her IMDB profile and reel.

Funny, True or False: Soundbites from a WGF screenwriting masterclass

July 2, 2011

What makes a great writer? Who knows. But I’m working on finding out, or finding that in me.

When I applied to film schools in the USA I decided where to apply based on the following three criteria, in this order of important. 1. were they still accepting applications for fall 2010 2. were they considered to be one of the top 10 film schools offering a film-making MFA? 3. Were they anywhere near LA? 1. ruled out NYU, Columbia, USC, UCLA and a number of other top 10 schools. And that’s how I wound up at Chapman: the new kid on the film school block.

Writers are the nerdiest in an industry of nerds. Okay, some of the stars are "cool" kids. A few directors scrub up okay. But the rest of us are kinda nerdy. It was a massive relief when the well-lubricated post-event mixer was held in the library, because it's the one place where you can legitimately stare at the bookshelves at a party instead of "networking". Although I am proud to say I was networked by two guys, one of whom might actually be a real writer.

I spend less time in LA than I imagined I would. My school is really good, and with professors like Anna Waterhouse, Toni Spiridakis, James Dutcher, Jeff Phillips and Paul Wolansky, I’m learning a lot, fast. But I did make it out there Saturday 25th for a Writer’s Guild Foundation day-workshop comprising masterclasses and panels and featuring a bunch of great working screenwriters/directors/producers, in order of appearance:  Nicholas Meyer (Elegy, Star Trek VI),  John August (Big Fish, The Nines, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Charlie’s Angels), Ted Elliott (Pirates of the Carribean and a crapload of other stuff), Derek Haas (3:10 to Yuma, Wanted and others), John Lee Hancock (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the Blind Side), Leslie Dixon (Overboard, Mrs. Doubtfire, Pay it Forward, Limitless and many more) and Elizabeth Hunter (Charmed, The L-Word, E.R.). Talent managers and producers JP Evans, Lawrence Mark, and Marc Platt joined the final panel.

Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of any of them except John August. That’s normal. “Famous Screenwriter” is a contradiction in terms. And since so much was said and I am short of time, I’m just going to collect my favorite and funniest quotes of the day. If you want to learn more, read the book. What book? Whatever book.

On Drama and Audiences: “It’s a question and answer between you and the audience.” In the book, the ending can be sad and subtle. “In the movie, you have to blow up the bridge”. “Audiences may be stupid, but they’re never wrong.” – Meyer. “If you give the audience a sense of trust in the structure, they’ll work with you to tease out the story – they will look for the cause and effect, they’ll stay interested [as a result of their expectations].” – Ted Elliott.

On Mel Gibson: His movies are all ‘Hamlet without the doubts’ When watching Braveheart: “Nobody making this movie is taking this story seriously.” They’re just “remaking Sparticus with all the elements put through a blender, meaning reduced to bumper stickers.” – Meyer.

On the power of movies: “A movie can make you care passionately about something you never knew existed before.” Like sheep drovers in Australia (The Sundowners).- Meyer.

On the power of movies: "A movie can make you care passionately about something you never knew existed before." Like sheep drovers in Australia (The Sundowners).- Meyer. Of course, you probably couldn't get this made now. "Sales departments have taken over deciding what movies to make. Stories have become slashed up into demographic pie wedges."

On using Narrators: As Billy Wilder pointed out, Narrators allow you to avoid ‘overstructuring’ and also they make room for satire. – Meyer

Structure is when stuff happens.” – August

On Adaptating books for screen: Nicholas Meyer memorises / rewrites the book by typing up a long summary and thus making the story his own.

Two things people write that nobody should be allowed to write: “He has a smile that doesn’t quite meet his eyes.” “She’s pretty, but doesn’t know it.”  – A sort of chaotic agreement between the Elliott, Haas, Hancock panelists.

On Screen directions: “They take me out of a script. I’m enjoying it and then suddenly I’m thinking ‘It’s 98 degrees and where’s craft services.'” – Hancock.

Writing is… “developing ideas you’re not going to use. Writers block is not ‘not enough ideas’, it’s ‘too many ideas that you can’t decide between’.”

Biggest Mistakes: “Avoiding conflict by failing to speak up when I saw things going wrong on set.” – Meyer

On “Predictability: It’s good for boyfriends. It’s bad for action heroes.” – August

When it comes to writing action and description “Specify the minimum” – Meyer.

What a producer wants is “Something that’s the best version of what it ‘wants’ to be. – Dixon

On the fast pace of today’s films: “In the old days it happened like this. Character says: ‘I’m gonna go to Paris.’ They buy a ticket. They get on the plane. They fly. They arrive. They go to their hotel. They have a shower. Then they go to Paris. Now they say ‘I’m gonna go to Pa–‘ and the next thing they’re in Paris being chased by somebody.” – August.

Getting it made depends on passing the Saturday Night Test. Do you want to go watch “A dying Animal” or “Elegy”? Elegy, right. Same story, different emphasis. “Maybe you can convince them to take a flier, but there are only x number of Friday nights, only a certain number of movies that are going to get made.” – Meyer

“Whenever I’ve violated the ‘would I buy a ticket’ rule, it’s been a disaster.” – Leslie Dixon

On  getting your Passion Project made: “Wait for someone to become a star. Hang onto it. There will be new names, next year.” – Leslie Dixon

What about film school‘s screenwriting rules? “They’ll tell you ‘don’t write the stuff a director can’t film’. I say screw that. I might write a whole paragraph about what the character’s feeling.” – Haas

The game is played like so:A story is a con-game and a writer is a con-man. And not because I have enormous confidence, but because I can instill it in you, and make you listen to what I say. You’re the only expert on your own story.” – Elliot 

Creative methods vary: “There are two basic creative methods.” Mozart, who just played billiards and wrote in his head and ‘copied it out’ and Beethoven, who edited a lot. – Meyer

On overcoming ‘writer’s block’. “You start off with nothing but every possibility.” Fey space in math’s. “Each time you make a decision you eliminate every other possible decision. Make the decision you consciously think will NEVER get you to the next point in the story. How do I get from B to C? I’m doing 7.pi.” – Elliott

On rejecting the Hollywood Formula: “It’s like trying to fake a hard-on. It just doesn’t work.” – Meyer.

On writing, pure and simple: “You have to believe in what you do. I’m not writing to satisfy the expectations of 60 million people i’ve never met.” – Meyer.

On why ‘pure and simple’ is a pipe dream. “The idea of writing for yourself is a statement of fear. I don’t know about the rest of you but I love the Monty Python scetch that is about a joke that is so funny that everybody who reads it, dies. I want people to understand what I write in exactly the way I intend. I am writing for everybody. The danger in Hollywood is when someone says ‘write something you don’t believe will be good’.” – Elliott

On Actors: “50% of your dialogue won’t make it. An actor will say: “You know that big speech I have about the labor unions in America? I can do that with a look.” – Meyer “Every Actor has one question they want to know the answer to about your film. ‘The director… is s/he crazy. Are we going to have to pull the boat over the mountain?'” – Meyer.

And ya, so…

A South African filmmaker wrote an article (for some reason, filmcontact failed to award him a byline, so I have no idea who he is!) assessing the state of the South African film industry, and saying we need better writers and directors in South Africa. I guess this is good news for me. Presuming  I’m “better”, that is. I suspect I’m learning to be. *update: Story by Ronnie Apteker, a South African producer. Thanks Nadia for that info.