Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Legend of Al, John, Jack and Nathan

I got my first job working in the film business in 1980. I was a sophomore at Emerson College and I used to walk by this place on the way to my apartment in the South End. It was an equipment rental company and I'd stop in about 3 times a month and ask if they might need anybody. Usually, they'd just say, 'no', they were fully staffed. Once, one of the guys who worked there asked if I had any 'P.A. experience'. (P.A. I later discovered stands for Production Assistant.) I piped up, quite honestly that I didn't have any experience with public address systems.

They were suitably impressed.

How did I eventually get hired? I had stopped in again and gotten the standard response and was half way down the block when the owner hollered, "Hey kid. C'mere." It turned out that one of his employees had called in sick. He needed someone to drive a truck-mounted camera crane to New Hampshire for a commercial and wanted to know if I knew how to drive a stick shift. Well, I knew the principle behind the idea but had never actually driven a stick. I lied and said yes.

So, I managed to get the thing off the block without stalling and then proceeded to drive 80 miles in second gear. I worked there for 6 years.

This long intro is my way of acknowledging that I've got 28 years in the film business under my belt. With 28 years, I should have a bunch of stories about my experiences. Well, I do have a bunch of stories. I'm just not going to tell you most of them because, I'd like to continue working for a few more years if its all the same to you.

That said, here's a little story I can tell you. In 2002, I worked on a movie called La Leggenda, di Al, John, e Jack (The Legend of Al, John & Jack). Its an Italian movie, shot mostly in Italy, starring people who are really famous in Italy, speaking Italian. The movie is set in New York City in 1959, so they came to shoot the last three weeks in New York.

I'm letting myself talk about this one because 1.) I don't expect to see the Italian Director or Producer ever again, 2.) if I miss out on the 2nd time they show up in the States in 20 years, I can live with that, and 3.) I despised all of the Italians who showed up and refer you back to reason #2.

I've worked with people who's primary language is not English before. I've worked on commercials being shot by Mexican companies, Japanese companies, French companies and German companies. They've always gone out of their way to make sure that one or two of their people spoke English and kept the American crew informed of what was going on. The Italians didn't give a shit if we were up to speed or not. They'd babble away at each other in Italian for 20 minutes and then announce, "We now shoot John falling off the Brooklyn Bridge." They weren't the least bit moved by the fact that this wasn't in the script, had never been mentioned before and even if it had, there was no way I was going to be able to get a permit for the shot with anything less than a month's notice.

So we'd argue about the shot for another 1/2 hour until finally, I'd get one of the cops to tell them they'd be arrested if they went anywhere near the bridge without a permit.

Another fun thing was that they had, of course already shot most of their interior scenes in Italy. We were shooting exterior scenes to match what they had already shot. Now, its not at all uncommon to shoot an interior in one place, either a studio or a real location, and then "cheat" the exterior somewhere else. We do that all the time. When you're doing this, you need to 'match' some architectural features. When you shoot a lobby interior and see two large arched windows on the front wall of the set, you need those two large arched windows on the exterior front of the building. If the door opens 'in' to the room, it needs to do the same thing when you see it from outside. The way we usually do this is to choose the "real" locations first and then build the studio sets to match the features that need to match.

These guys didn't like doing things the usual way. For three weeks I had been sending them photos of building exteriors to stand in for the "Exterior Hotel" where the climactic scene would take place. They rejected everything I sent them without providing any reasons or guidance. Finally, when they arrived in New York, they showed me a photograph of the set they had shot in Italy. They pointed to the wood and glass revolving door in the picture. "Hotel must have this revolving door," they said. Ooookay!

Short resolution to the story? I found an appropriate looking building with a very close match to their 1959 period revolving door 5 days before we needed to shoot the scene. I got the permits to shut down a very busy block on the Upper West Side on a Friday night. I got the permits to make rain on the block and to have 30 1959 period cars driving back and forth in the shots. I got the permits for all of the gunshots that would be going on until 3:00 a.m. in a very residential area. I got the permits to use all of the BFL's (big fucking lights) that would be shining into everyone's windows when they all would rather be sleeping.

On the night of the shoot, while setting up the master shot on the busy NYC street that I'd transformed into a Hollywood backlot for them, the producer informed me that the director wasn't happy with the fact that there was a scaffolding in front of a building half-way down the block. He'd make it work because he was a professional, but he thought I should know how disappointed he was.

Yeah, you're welcome.


Janiece said...

Were you at least well-paid for your trouble?

So are you consiered self-employed, an independent contractor, a term employee? I "assume" you're covered by a Union, since it seems the entire entertainment industry is, but can you confirm?

As I mentioned before, I know zilch about your business, so please forgive my dumbass questions.


Nathan said...

IIRC, that particular job wasn't one of the better paying gigs. Rates are usually negotiable, but I turn down jobs that are below a certain rate.

As far as self-employed, etc.

A lot of people incorporate and work through their "loan-out" company. That can have its advantages especially if you're someone like a sound mixer and own a lot of expensive equipment. Those people would count as self-employed.

There's almost always a "payroll company" who ends up serving as the "employer of record". Freelance would best describe my situation.

Union. Ah, interesting question.

The short answer is that when I was first starting in NY, the Directors Guild of America had a sideletter with the producers saying that Location Manager was a DGA position in NY. Not only was the sideletter horribly written, it expired 5 or 6 years ago. I was a DGA member from 1994 until 2-3 years ago. I was on the Eastern Region Board trying to get Location Managers formally recognized as a DGA category and beat my head bloody over the issue. Finally I resigned in protest.

And since DGA didn't claim jurisdiction I was free to work on both Union and Non-union pictures.

Guess what? A bunch of my colleagues continued the fight and finally won this year. In the new contract that takes effect in June, DGA will have jurisdiction over location managers in NY and Chicago. I guess I'll have to rejoin.

Tom said...

Nathan, loved the story. But the whle thing boils down to 2 points for me.

Point 1. BFLs (hehe). I have BFL experience both on a personal and professional level. I had an "image orthicon tube" video camera before the CCD ones came out. It needed crap-loads of light to shoot indoors. I got 2 BFLs (amateur version, about 1,000 watts each), complete with stands. I probably ended up shooting maybe 4 hours of video with them over 15 years. They, and the camera, are long gone.

I was also the standin for the star in a movie shot on location in Las Cruces, NM. As Nathan knows, you don't want the star in makeup standing under BFLs except for the actual money shots. The rest of the time you have someone else, who's about the same size and shape as the star, standing under the BFLs while lighting, camera angles, and blocking are planned. That was me.

Point 2. It's interesting to note that my professional (read, actually got paid) movie experience predates yours. Spring, 1970. American International Productions.

Of course, mine was only a one-time shot. Ahh, the life I could have had.

Nathan said...


1000w (1k) lites don't count as BFL's. That's the little stuff.

When I talk BFL, I mean things like the Musco Light. (Scroll down the linked page for a look at that monster. 15 6000watt HMI's killing the night.

Or there's other HMI's that go up to as big as 18k. There's a 24,000watt tungsten light called the Big Mo.

Slap up a bunch of that stuff on a few cranes and watch the night run in fear. :-)

And on the whole 1970 thing? I was ten and Dad let me wait a couple more years before telling me I had to get a job.

The Swivet said...

Hey, how do you make the recent comments show up in the sidebar?

Nathan said...


La Gringa, I have to search for that bit of code again. Originally, I think, Eric (Midget shoulders) told Jim (The Bowel Cutter) how to do this and then Jim told the rest of us.

I lost the info and then asked everyone again. I swear, I'll find it without bugging anyone again and forward it to you.