Archive for January, 2012

Settiquette disasters: The worst things you can do on a film set

January 30, 2012

I fought with a very close friend after a film shoot recently. He did a whole bunch of crazily unprofessional things on set that led me to be somewhat annoyed with him on the day – things that I would consider commonsense no-nos in any professional situation. I started off explaining, hit a brick wall, and wound up pretty pissed off, and momentarily distracted from my work. The atmosphere was briefly soured by his actions and my reaction to him. As he was someone who claimed to have film-school experience, I was counting on him more than most to be a useful crew member. Instead… well I won’t go into details.

"I'm fucking working on my own!!" Set builders don't dig it either. Filmmaking is not for soloists, egotists, or assholes. Although you'll find all of these in the industry - and plenty of them - they're the well-publicized exceptions, not the rule.

Anyway, the whole stupid, depressing, miserable, heart-breaking thing got me thinking about the mistakes most people new to a film set (and this includes me) have made while learning the ropes. I wish I’d had this list when I started crewing on student things a couple of years back. I wish everybody who worked while I was A.D. or director had a list like this.

So my top # DON’Ts of an indie film set are DON’T…

Films are made at weird times of the day – when the light is diffused, or pretty, or when the story calls for it, or when the wind isn’t blowing. This may not suit your sleep cycle, but that’s why God invented alarm clocks. I had someone show up three hours after the shoot started and waste everybody’s time by being confused about what to do. Being late means missing the crew meeting (see below) and will be seen by the rest of the crew as an insult to everybody. They were there on time. What makes you special?
If you’re late… Play catch-up. Be very polite. Introduce yourself and offer to help. Fetch people water. Whatever… you owe them.

MISS THE CREW MEETING (aka safety meeting)
At the crew meeting (it kicks off the day), everybody gets to meet each other (duh) and, sometimes, roles are even clarified. It depends whether you’ve been able to meet before the first shoot day, or not. We hadn’t been able to. At the meeting, the Assistant Director will also give important legal, safety and other information. It’s where you find out what to do and where to do it, and who is in charge of what. If you’re not there for the meeting, you will piss people off all day long by fucking up continually.
If you miss it… be patient, and find things to do. Don’t expect people to know your name until after lunch. They’re busy working.

Everybody on an indie film set is indispensable. This of course doesn’t mean you’re busy all the time (more on that later) but it does mean that everybody deserves respect. Comments like “just a grip”, or “a grip is just basically a pack mule”, specially from some idiot who is trying to pretend s/he knows more than s/he does, when they probably don’t even know how to assemble a dolly properly, will not go down well.
If you slip just stop as soon as you can. Don’t explain. Just shut up for a bit.

Think of a film set like a 12-step meeting. People are doing something very hard – baring their souls (actors). To allow them to do that, there needs to be a focused, respectful atmosphere on set. Commenting on proceedings might get you a laugh, or pass those long hours spent standing around waiting to work, but it’s a sign of insecurity and a need to be the center of attention. It’s not only distracting for everybody on set, and unhelpful to the process of getting things done as quickly as they must be, it also means not one, but two people are out of the loop – gossips usually need someone to talk to, as well as about. I have been guilty of talking about other films / future projects on set (I was gripping, and thought I had nothing better to do at the time). This is one of the worst forms of gossip as it takes everybody out of the moment, and also makes them wonder what you’ll say about them once this is over. I was told off once – and not politely.
If you start, say “sorry” and stop immediately.

The A.D. will go through these in the meeting but sometimes, a few get forgotten. For instance, the A.D. may assume that nobody in their right mind would smoke while on duty, or leave the set without informing someone. But if you do find yourself being told something is against the rules, you should assume there’s a good reason for it. For instance, film sets are full of flammables, such as cloths in metal frames that you might need to pick up and hold. Or you’re shooting in a nature reserve / a non-smoker’s house and could lose your permit just like that.  This isn’t high school. Being a rebel isn’t cool. It’s just annoying.
If you mess up just do as you’re told – don’t make people act like your mother.

Of course we all want to be paid to do what we love. But the chances are the director of an indie film is paying for everything themselves – and they can’t pay you too because the food for the tiny little crew and the equipment they had to hire is costing at least $400 a day. So you’re easily replaced if you just say no in advance, because there are plenty of people who want to make films and want the free training they’ll get on set. Yes you are there as a favour to the person making the film. And of course they’re grateful. But you’re also presumably there because you want to be, and to learn something, and to make contacts, and to have fun working. If you think that doing a favour means you can show up late, do sloppy work, refuse to take orders, or expect people to remember your name on the first day, you should never have said yes to the gig in the first place. Film sets are hard work.
If you realise you hate making films… work your sentence. And say no next time.

A grip on one of my shoots saved a poly by hanging on to it as he flew 3 metres through the air… he could have died trying to save a piece of equipment that’s only worth a few hundred dollars. Of course, he had all the best intentions. But had he been seriously hurt, I would never have forgiven myself. The shoot would have been shut down. A few of us could never have worked again. And oh, he could have been dead. Not worth it. Tied to this is the logic behind everybody being focussed at all time, not chatting, or messing around. It’s not cause the A.D. is a bitch. It’s so nobody gets hurt. Without blaming anybody, there’s no way he should have been holding that poly alone in the first place.
If you’re hurt…
admit it. It’s only a movie. Nobody should die for it.

Stuff gets broken sometimes. It’s not great, it costs money, but it happens. The funders will pay the cost, not you. What’s important is that you own up, so that the crew can make a contingency plan to replace the equipment or do things a new way, and the director can replace anything that might belong to, for example, the person who lives at the location you’re using. I’ve never had this happen to me – I’ve been so lucky that way. But I know of many sets on which someone messes up and is too scared to talk.
If you see something’s broken… tell someone asap. You don’t have to tell on anyone. Just get the info out there.

Particularly when you’re new on a set and working for free, you have a right to learn. That is your payment, really. So if someone tells you to “go and fetch a half apple” and you don’t know what that is, ASK. Someone on a set once literally went and fetched an apple, cut it in half, and rushed it over to the shoot. We’re all glad they did, cause it was hilarious. But what they were really looking for is a six sided wooden box that comes in a “family” of apples, and, if a “full” apple, can be used New York, Chicago, or LA.
If you don’t know… right.  Also there’s always google.

This is the hardest thing of all. BY FAR. Film sets are stressful environments. There’s a lot at stake! Money, time, your reputations… This is what’s fun and exciting about them. It’s also what makes you feel so bonded as a crew when the film is finished. It’s also what makes the place a hotbed of emotion. If someone messes up my shoot because they can’t let their ego go, I will probably not work with them again, ever. So it’s tempting to explain why you’re right when you’re told off, or to lose your temper when someone makes an honest mistake. I know how hard this is. When I second A.C.d on a shoot once, I clashed with the first A.C. A lot. Not for any real reason. I wound up in tears. There is footage of me slating while bawling. So embarrassing. But I stayed on that set. And I’m stronger for it now. I’ve learned that losing your temper is not worth it in the end. Your ego, and dignity, are not the same thing. Even if the person who pissed you off is wrong / to big for their boots, the film is what’s important.
We all screw up – be forgiving and remember what matters.

Jump ship. You do that, you’ll never get back on set, ever. Maybe that’s what you want! But don’t think anyone will ever be okay with it. The day of the shoot (or the day before) is way too late to find new crew. Once you say you’re in, you’re there for the whole thing. And if you do jump ship, there’s no reason that justifies it. For safety reasons, you should also always tell the A.D. if you leave the set – they are responsible for marshaling people as well as making sure nobody gets lost or injured on set.
Done it already? An honest apology free of accusations might save your relationship with the key creatives.

A lot of this is commonsense. As in, don’t make people wonder why your mother didn’t teach you any manners. I’m sure I forgot a bunch of things. There are so many ways to embarrass yourself on set, without even becoming an actor. But as with most situations in life and work, you can make mistakes and nobody will hate you for it, so long as you learn from them and move on. Caring about the important stuff counts more than being perfect – at least in my book.

Working with kids and dogs on a film set

January 25, 2012

My film school doesn’t allow students to work on school projects with kids or animals until thesis year. Which I consider ridiculous. Even as extras, they’re part of the fabric of society and as a director, if you don’t know the pitfalls from personal experience, you’re useless for most mainstream projects and many indie things. And why would you want to be learning this thing while making your final project – your industry calling card? Anyhow. I don’t need film school to make films, luckily. And I’ve been curious about childhood lately – not in a morbid way, but because there was some crazy innocence in me deciding to spend my retirement savings and everything else becoming a filmmaker. And actually, kids take direction really well, at least, Storm and Layla did.

After the final shot. Everybody was still hanging round because my mom, who was the most amazing host, was giving us all cake and getting everybody to sign her table cloth. Long story about the tablecloth that involves embroidery.

What surprised me, after the whole experience, was how great it was to work with kids – at least, the kids I got to work with. I had done it before – helping a summer school USC student as AD, and thought I just got lucky with that child. And I assumed I’d struggle. But Layla and Storm were twice as professional as the average over-40 prima-donna LA veteran. Storm (who knows his way around a set) even insisted on slating for us because he has this boundless energy. Layla (who has never done film before) was a natural storyteller, so I asked her to improv a lot of scenes. It’s just play. It has to be honest. That’s not different to directing adults. The biggest thing I struggled with was not swearing, cause I swear a lot.

Dogs? Well that’s a lot more difficult.

My amazing crew – most of whom were also new to film – seemed to get that this was our film, not mine. For that, I’m eternally grateful.

I’m glad I tried making a film in South Africa. It’s different in so many ways to the USA – from what equipment is called to what is expected of roles. To the fact that here, I have a community, and there, I’m nobody to most people. I am sure it’s the best thing I’d done. And when I say I, I mean we. My producer, Ashlin Simpson, was so determined and fought against all odds to get this done. When budget issues hit us, we needed to cut the parents and she suggested using Cow and Chicken POV, so crew members could step into the roles. A creative solution to a financial problem.

My Director of Photography shotlisted with me days in advance, walked the location, talked story, gave days of his time… and brought his experience and expertise to the set.

My Assistant Director Michael Klein noticed performance issues and pointed them out when I was distracted by random problems. He ran the show without shouting.

Yay, filmmaking. In South Africa. Yay, getting up at 4.30am. Yay making something that didn’t exist before.

Sea Point Promenade’s latest greatest things for me, and a touch of ennui.

January 8, 2012

In between my existential crisis, aka “when will America’s consulate allow me to get on with my life” and my attempt to make a short film while I’m still here – if that’s not forever – and my various visits to my past and my many reunions with loved ones, I squeezed in a walk on the Sea Point Promenade today. Isn’t it beautiful? One of my favourite places on earth.

Messages on the sea wall for Mandela's birthday in 2010.

The most beautiful park I've ever seen.

An outdoor gallery - this series of sculptures has lasted a year, despite some vandalism and weather damage.

It’s Cape Town’s Central Park, although most people in Cape Town don’t get the chance to live anywhere near it and have to drive or bus in. (I’m all for low cost housing in the area where I own property to solve that problem. Bring it on.)

The latest trends are public art and open air gyms.

It's a rocking horse...

... it's a rocking horse that talks out of its arse. And its mouth. Kids love this and have looooong conversations with each other through the mouth to ass telephones.

Here's how it works.

The outdoor public gym: Designed for adults, but mostly used as a jungle gym by kids in between swims in the sea.

The rules. No this, no that. I'm pretty sure someone's breaking them as I type this, and getting away with it. Ya South Africa.

Still standing here, in what used to my home, I felt sad. I don’t really have a purpose here right now. I can’t get a sim card without my father showing up with his ID cause my apartment is rented out so I don’t have an address. I am all about work – it makes me who I am  and I have nothing much to DO, really. Limbo feels more limbo-like now that everybody I know has gone back to work and winter term has started without me, and I am still here, staring at the perfect sea view.

I know I sound ungrateful. But I can’t help it. Though it’s amazing here, there’s only so much great steak you can eat. Only so many times you can swim in a perfect blue ocean. Only so many times you can hug your friends before you wonder… when can I go back to the torture and pure hell of making movies?

This holiday needs to end. ASAP, hunnybunnies.

Oh but first, a quick #PSA.

Dear America. THIS is a hamburger. As the lolcat said "IF I KAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER CAN I HAZ ZIS ONE PLEEZ"?

A moment in the South African sun

January 6, 2012

6.30 am. I woke up and hit the snooze button. Then again at 6.40, 6.50 and 7am. Them I got up and made coffee and walked a few kilometres in the cool morning air to meet an old friend and take the train from Cape Town to Newlands to watch South Africa play test cricket against Sri Lanka.

Near the station ATMs in the underground mall walkway, theatre posters.

Recession comedy and puppets. Do I even want to know?

The Cape Town Station used to be a classic 70s place, with reminders of apartheid in the separate entrances and even separate ticket windows. I have this image of doves sitting in the high windows near the roofs. And usually there were a few skollies hanging around. Now it’s clean, shiny, policed and has digital boards. It’s still got 70s style but it’s more like a small modern airport airport than a station.

The trains are running on time.

Step out of the main terminus, and all is just as it always was from then on, except that first class and third class (there’s no second class) are indistinguishable except by price.

You can buy sweats, suckers, chips, and cool drinks from informal vendors here or on the train. The trains are covered in colourful graffiti - which is actually really pretty. My friend Chris says only tourists say stuff like that.

Step on the train, and it’s even more like stepping into 1995. The windows are frosted on many trains so you can’t see out. There’s no visible sign of security (I’m told they employ very large women, who sit in pairs in first class, avoiding the customers, and BBM).  And someone’s written welcome messages all over the train.

I know what that is!

CUNT. Oh, well I'm glad you finally learned how to write your name.

Ah, those yellow doors.

Something to do with satan. And tik, I assume.

More about the doors. This guy looks really uncertain as to what to do.


Since he put it up upside down, on the roof of the train, I'll read you the doctor's note... DR MORRIS can take care of... "Sexual problems for men and women. Including: Quick sperming, feelings of highness, bad smell in private parts, dryness, any financial problem, any desire you might have, any desire you might want not to have... ". Awesome.

I love the train. It’s sign blog heaven. Anyhow, moving on, we hopped off at Newlands and join the small queue before 9am. It’s not moving. At all. Turns out the ticketing booth is closed because the computers are down and by 10am there’s a line around the block. South Africans seem very patient. Everybody just waited. I was outraged, more by the complete lack of communication than by anything else.

This guy saw a crowd and started busking with his guitar. Made about R50 before the booth opened. We were also visited by an opportunistic motivational speaker. But for some reason the cool drink sellers didn't think to come by - they could have made a fortune.

There’s nothing more frustrating than being stuck outside the stadium when you can hear the sounds of the game, an the crowd cheering, and smell the pig lip sausages cooking (that’s “hot dogs” to you, Americans). The fact that tickets were half price when the booth did finally open at 11.30am made up for it though.

Success. Minutes later I was eating a double hot dog with chili sauce and drinking a coke made with real cane sugar. Yay!

That's people holding up signs when Kallis hit another four. The sixes on the back are kinda funny.

Nearly naked people sit behind a woman in a full scarf and black dress. Here in South Africa, "clash" doesn't necessarily follow "culture".

At lunch time all the mini cricket players get to play on the big field. Very cute.

The way back. The trains are still running on time.

An amazing day, an amazing game.

Cape Town’s faded New Year’s day glory

January 1, 2012

I woke up this January 1st in Cape Town, South Africa, feeling pretty much human – I left the party in a taxi driven by a guy who smelled like solvents and didn’t know my name, how to follow directions, or how find his own way, but he did get me home by 2am, after a few arguments and near-death moments on the road. Or “by 2am, thank God” I thought when I woke up in the morning with my limbs still attached.

I have no idea what this is all about. There was a series of them on the pavement (that's what we call the "sidewalk" in South Africa).

I had lunch plans in the CBD with an old friend so I decided to walk the few miles down the hill to the city, and back. On the way I took photos of all the weird signs I saw.

PAIN in large rough letters on the street wall of the reservoir on Upper Orange street. Twice. I wonder who wrote it and if they're alright now.

I love new year’s day in the city. It’s a slightly sad scene. There’s the faded glory of New Year’s party posters, the darkened shop windows, the people, some still in party clothes, wandering home on a walk of no shame at all, or eating breakfast where they could find it. It’s like the whole city’s either saying “Jeez… is that it?” or “Shitsticks… what the fuck have I done?”

Lost Dog - found by New Year's or still wandering around without anyone to pick up his turds? I definitely saw a lot of turds on the sidewalk so I suspect he's still on the prowl.

There’s also evidence of altered states of mind of other kinds.

No clue what this graffitti is all about. I'd love to know. It's written on the downstairs boarded up garage of an apartment block I always wanted to live in... that has recently burned down.

An attempt to balance beauty and the need for security. Those ivy leaves on the pillar are made out of razor wire. I think they're borderline illegal, since it's not legal to harm intruders. All preventative measures are meant to be non-deadly.

Ahhh... The Lennox. Once the only hotel in town where "non-whites" could stay at the height of apartheid, and where I stayed with my family at some point when we first came to Cape Town, now a run down "bed and breakfast", where people live in what looks, at least from the outside, looks like squalor for all the wrong reasons. The curtains are filthy.

There were three garbage bags next to this sign, stuck on a wall outside the NG Kerk, and some man's clothes in the closest bin. Also, a coat hanger hanging from the tree inside the church security wall.

This button thingy for the pedestrian crossing is so old that it's still only in English and Afrikaans - not also Xhosa.

I walked down through the Company Gardens. They've been the same since forever, although they're less like a monument to colonialism now and more like a museum visited by all South Africans. People sleep on the grass in their lunchbreak, read books on the benches. In 1996, I once walked through at 4am and passed a guy, completely naked and red from the cold, furiously masturbating in public. True fact!

A dodgy dude. But we don't break down the statues here in South Africa like they did in Russia, and neither do we pretend they aren't dodgy like they do in the USA. We just build more. Behind, the gallery, which I must go check out while I'm in town.

Speaking of dodgy... The Great War. Wasn't so great for the dead guys whose names appear on the list up there.

Why is this written in cardboard? In ballpoint? At least have a magic marker, ffs. The sign refers to the outdoor cafe place in the gardens. Seems like the staff just decided to close early today. I don't blame them. I just think the way it's announced is pretty hilarious. And then someone decided it wasn't clear, came back with another ballpoint, and added (We mean the Cafe).

Oh, Telkom.

Nothing less partyish than the poster for last night's party in the window of a store that's closed. In South Africa, most people don't work on public holidays because they're, well, you know, public holidays and shit.

I sometimes wonder if anyone has ever masturbated over a shopfront mannequin. Is it wrong to? And what if you take a photo and then look at it at home, in private?

I have no idea what this is about, but I think it's beautiful. Someone tell me. Kinda looks like someone got all street-arty early in the morning on New Year's Day.

This is who I had lunch with. This is his tattoo. Yes, it's real. And yes, he means it. He very nearly had to be hospitalized due to starvation when the pizzas as Bardelli's on Kloof took over 90 minutes to arrive. I'm getting used to Cape Town time, because the food is so good when it finally arrives. I'm sure by the time I've adapted again it will be time to leave.

And that was my day. Here’s to 2012. May we all not die like in the movies. Specially those of us with shit written on our arms.