Monday, January 26, 2009

Jeez! Look At Those Plums Charging Over The Hill.

Q: What's the difference between an elephant and a plum?
A: Their color.
Q: What did Tarzan say to Jane when he saw the elephants coming?
A: Here come the elephants.
Q: What did Jane say to Tarzan when she saw the elephants coming?
A: Here come the plums; she was color blind.
In the recent past, I've seen some other FilmCrew Blogger-types writing about their own subjective perceptions of different film sets...particularly with relation to the locations. Everyone, mostly dependent on their jobs and how they interact with a location, seems to have their own perception of what makes a good or bad location. Well, I'm no different, as I was reminded last night.

Allow me to take a step back because, for me, like I suspect for others, these perceptions change over time. When I was in Film School, they were teaching me all of the arcane theories and techniques behind Film. I found myself going to movies and walking out without the first clue what the movie had been about. I was too busy analyzing structure and composition and hidden meanings in the editing to actually pay any attention to the story and whether or not it was told well. Watching movies that way truly sucked and I trained myself out of the habit fairly quickly.

I still find myself wondering where certain scenes were shot, especially if it's somewhere I'm familiar with and want to know how the location manager pulled off such a coup in scoring the place. (Some places are notoriously difficult to get permission for filming and/or, just cost ridiculous amounts of money.) For the most part, though, I've gotten to a point where I can just escape into a movie like everyone else.

There are two notable exceptions:

1. On occasion, I'll see a scene that's so magnificently (or horribly), shot, that I can't help but take notice. I'll leave it to another post, but there's a case to be made that either of these examples might mean the filmmaker has made a mistake, i.e. they were either so incompetent, or so proud of what they could pull off that they compromised the movie as a whole for the sake of a scene.

2. Movies I've worked on.

The second is what I'm going to talk about today.

If you're a Grip, here are the some of the things you care about when seeing a location for the first time:
-Is it easy to get all the gear inside; stairs or elevator, any narrow doorways or weird corners to navigate, etc.

Electricians care about how to get cable into the place without running it through the shots. They care about windows and how easy it will be to control the light during the day. (In fairness, grips care about this one as well. One of the simplest explanations I've ever heard of the difference between Grips and Electricians is that Electricians make light and Grips make shadows. So, while the electricians may want to know if they can easily get a really big light right outside of a window, the grips may be looking at how easy it is to black-out the same window.)

The Camera Department mostly cares about there being some huge spare room just for them, so they can empty their truck into the location and have every lens known to man, twenty steps away.

Teamsters want to know where they'll park and how long it takes to get there.

P.A.'s care about how close is the nearest Double-Mocha Grande Latte Frappaccino, because, God-forbid it be cold by the time it's placed in the D.P.'s hand.

The Sound Department doesn't want to work anywhere near airport landing patterns, factories, playgrounds, subways, grocery stores with refrigerator-units on the roof, nightclubs, beaches, wind, trucks, or anyplace with upstairs or downstairs neighbors. (I've known one Academy Award winning sound mixer for years and when I work with him, he's graduated to saying, "Can you chase down that car alarm, or shall I just go fuck myself?")

Everybody cares about crew parking almost to the exception of anything related to the work they'll be doing.

At any rate, I found myself watching Loving Leah last night and realizing that when I watch a movie I've worked on, I find myself completely distracted remembering how easy or difficult a particular location was to deal with. The following is not specific to Loving Leah, but here are some examples of how I might be taken out of the moment:

I recall shooting in a specific small southern town. The owner of the General Store set himself up as the ipso-facto contact for every other merchant on Main Street and proceded to do two things: 1.) he made sure every deal benefited him financially, and 2.) he neglected to tell most other merchants exactly what we were really up to, so they were invariably surprised (unhapilly), when we showed up to make their store look like something completely different. Whenever I see scenes from that movie, I cringe thinking about how much extra work and money this guy cost us. (This was not helped by the fact that when this particular town was victim of a natural disaster, my favorite General Store owner in the world, showed up in an interview on Nightline.)

I've had (at least), one location I managed without ever setting foot on the property. The scouting for this site had gone on to the last possible minute and I was too buried with other things to go scout it with the creative types. They came back to the office professing their love for the location and we proceded to make the deal. At first, I stayed out of the negotiation because other people working for me knew the particulars of the location and what we wanted to do there better than I did. Then, I stayed out because it was valuable for those actually negotiating to have some unseen superior approving or disapproving the costs involved. Then, I stayed out of it because the property owner became somewhat crazed with regard to rewriting the contract from scratch and it was just easier siccing them on the Studio Attorney. I have a distinct memory of seeing those scenes and thinking, "Oh, that's where we ended up shooting that. At least it was a pretty location."

I've had street scenes where everybody on the block got together to try to make sure everyone on the block got paid the same. At first blush, this might seem to make some sense. When you think about it, however, you'll find that, at one end of the spectrum, there may be a scene outside of a nightclub where the scene is centered. I need to have them closed down for the night. I need to completely control who is going in or out of the place. I need someone to stay there all night to give us access to the place. I probably needed access to the place since early in the day for lighting and set dressing. At the far end of the spectrum (and the far end of the block), maybe there's a children's shoe store. 1.) They close by 8:00pm every night, an hour before sunset and the start of filming, 2.) we'll never see the store on camera, 3.) we're not asking them to do a single solitary thing for us. I can't tell you how often I've met that shoe store owner who thought we should pay for their kids' college education for the honor of working on their block.

I won't go into details, but I have a distinct memory of one location where every neighbor seemed to be on furlough from a psychiatric facility. This was no fun at all.

Anyway, the gist of all this is that whether you're in the business or not, you probably have something in particular you notice when you're watching a movie. Maybe you notice how beautifully a scene was lit. Maybe you notice a particular bit of camera movement and try to figure out exactly how they pulled that one off. Maybe you notice a particularly wonderful turn of a phrase or how some actor performed so well that you were completely sucked in emotionally.

Me? I notice those things too. But first I remember whether or not I liked the homeowner.


mattw said...

And if you didn't like the home owner, does that screw up the movie for you?

Nathan said...

I wouldn't go so far as to say it screws up the movie for me, but it can certainly take me out of the moment.

Oooh, that's the take we had to redo six times because the homeowner invited over her loud neighbor to watch.