Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Filmmaker's Uniform.

Note: If I was a normal person who makes a living working on movies, you might expect to see something Oscar related here today. I'm supposed to be deeply invested in an event that honors the finest achievements in film for the preceding year. I'm supposed to be conflicted over what I feel was actually the best work as opposed to "I worked with that actor and he/she is a complete asshole and I hope they get snubbed while the TV camera is right in their face and they react badly and zillions and zillions of people see it live and tomorrow, every paper and blog known to man shows the picture and backs me up on what an asshole they are."

I am not, however, a normal person who makes a living working on movies. Evidence?:

1. I'm a huge fan of Jeopardy and I'd love to be on the show because I do really well while sitting on my couch. However, I know that if I ever got on and "The Oscars" was the Final Jeopardy category, I'd bet $2.75. I know I'll never get the answer right in that category. I watch the Oscars every year, but I forget who won by the next morning.

2. I know it's unreasonable but I resent the fact that there's no Oscar for the Locations Department. If Locations ever does get singled out by the Academy, I'll resent the fact that they'll give the award at the Technical Achievements Dinner instead of at the gala event that gets televised. "I'd like to thank the NY Dept. of Sanitation for cleaning Fifth Avenue after we shot the ticker-tape parade scene. Thank you to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, owners of that lovely brownstone in Brooklyn. I hear the studio is planning to settle your insurance claim any day now. Thanks to our director, who demanded the best and settled for what I could deliver out of my 3-year-old files. Your creativity in shooting that hospital scene in the closed-down department store was nothing short of amazing.."

3. I must admit that I haven't seen a single one of this years nominees. If I do have an opinion, it's a totally uninformed opinion, and while that's considered perfectly valid on the internet, I won't fall back on that easy out.

So, I guess I'll have to actually find something else to pull out of my ass to write about...ergo, The Filmmaker's Uniform.

Let's start by saying that once you leave the hallowed halls of the Production Executives and Agents and other movers and shakers and arrive in the trenches where movies are actually made, suits and ties and power suits are rarely seen. Most of us dress for comfort and many of us dress with an eye toward utility. And some of you aspiring youngsters just haven't gotten a chance to hang around long enough to know how to dress. Simply put, when we see some poor schmuck walk into the production office for his interview in a sport coat and tie, we immediately think of that tied-up goat in Jurassic service for the T-Rex. (And to be perfectly honest, even if you were showing up to a more corporate setting, your sport coat looks like shit and the only job you can hope to be offered is one in the basement where the clients won't be able to see you.) Please accept this post as my continuing service to inform the uninformed: in this case to clue them in on what they should wear to work if they want to be accepted at first sight as serious members of the tribe.

The Director: This is the one position where whatever you want to wear is the right thing to wear. You need to project a don't-give-a-shit, I'm-in-charge confidence. Individuality is king. Your clothes should show that you are so much in your own head that the rest of us can only hope to participate in your vision. We're all there for you, dude.

I worked with one director who wore a do-rag every single day. This is not a slam at that director and I'd love to work with him again, but the fact is, he's a middle-aged, somewhat nebishy Jewish guy who doesn't have the slightest whiff of street-cred going for him; I still don't get the do-rag. But we all got used to it. It was his thing. But one weekend when I was putting in a little extra time in the office, he showed up without his do-rag. I had no idea who he was and I proceeded to rudely ask him what the fuck he was thought he was doing wandering around our space.

The Scenic Artist: Scenic Artists (a.k.a. painters) are among the most recognizable denizens of the set. Scenic Artists wear the same pair of cargo pants to work every single day. The pants have so many splotches of dried paint that when you take them off at the end of the day, they stand up by themselves. The Scenic Artist's t-shirt is always immaculately spotless. We have no idea how they do that. They must teach that when they teach the secret handshake.

Wardrobe: The uniform for the wardrobe department changes depending on hierarchy. If you're a costumer (the person who actually dresses the cast), you must wear baggy clothes with lots of pockets. You need room for scissors, needles, thread of every color, double-stick tape, velcro strips, markers, grease pencils and other magical items you may never use (just to look a little mysterious). You should also be covered in safety pins and have a massive ring of polaroid pictures showing every actor in every permutation of their wardrobe by scene. If the entire movie takes place in one hour of real life, your polaroids must show the development of each wrinkle, tear, fray and stain during that one hour. (Note: I know you can't get Polaroid film anymore, but you old-timers all bought cases and cases of the stuff right before they stopped making it. You don't give up on your favorites easilly.)

If you're the costume designer, your goal is to look fashion forward and creative without out-shining the people you're dressing. They have delicate egos. And you should be prepared to take off anything you're wearing and give it to the actress who decides she'd look great in it. True story: A hugely famous actress showed up one day for a wardrobe camera-test. Moments into her fitting, she pointed out that her contract called for her to be able to keep any wardrobe she liked and for every stitch of wardrobe to be provided by the production...including underwear. The Costume Designer had to hand over her own bra...which the actress liked and took home with her.

Script Supervisor: Your uniform is less about the actual clothes and more about your accessories. You wear a floppy hat with a sizable brim to protect your delicate skin from the sun. You wear cat's-eye glasses on a chain around your neck regardless of your perfect eyesight to project the gravity of your responsibilities. You carry an impossibly thick notebook that seems to be filled with indecipherable notes even before we expose the first frame of film. You have some variation of a portable desk. You go nowhere without a comfortable folding camp chair except at the end of the day. You regularly go home without your chair and then ask Locations if they found it in the alley where you were shooting at wrap.

Grips & Electricians: These folks (both male and female) wear steel-toed boots, knee socks and cut-off shorts to work most days...especially when the temperature drops into the teens. They are tough. They do all the dirty, heavy lifting and their uniform says "I'm busy and you should fuck with me at the risk of having me reach down your throat and show you your left lung". Note: Another reason for this uniform is so that when you get to be the Gaffer or the Key Grip, you get to wear sandals, khakis and a pastel Polo shirt. The message here is "I don't get dirty any more. I point. You lift."

The Locations Department: Once again, hierarchy makes a difference. If you're low man on the totem pole, dress to mess. If you're not willing to get garbage on it, don't wear it to work. The manager, on the other hand, needs to be prepared to interact with people in every level of the socio-econimic strata. One minute you'll be walking into a Fortune 500 office asking if they've got a conference room you can use, and the next minute, you'll be climbing down a manhole to ask the Con-Ed crew if they can't work somewhere else today. Most Location Managers I know opt for somewhat casual dress, but nothing they couldn't wear to an exclusive country club.

Me? Not so much. I'm all about the comfort. I like people to think that my cargo shorts, sandals and t-shirt are part of a carefully calculated that says, "Clothes don't make the man...the man makes the man". I like people to think that, but the truth is, I'd just rather be comfortable. Who knows? Maybe tomorrow will be a day at the beach.

This is an incomplete list. If I left out your chosen department, I'm sorry. This post is long enough already and leaving you out leaves me with a ready-made post for some day in the future when I don't have any bright ideas for a post. Your contribution to solving future lack of inspiration is appreciated. You may pick up your Oscar at the Loading Docks.


Michael Taylor said...

Maybe it's an East Coast/West Coast thing, but you don't see many knee socks or steel-toed boots on grips and juicers out here. Shorts and T shirts, yes, but those steel toes can wreak havoc on one's real toes if a very heavy weight -- like a tailgate -- comes down at the wrong time. Getting one's toes crushed is bad enough, but having them trapped inside an equally crushed steel toed boot could result in eventual amputation. Or so I've been warned, anyway. This could be bullshit for all I know.

I did wear steel toed boots to finish a feature once, after my big toe was broken and the toenail ripped off by a wayward camera dolly. I took a week off, then bought those steel-toed boots and went back to work. Once fully healed, I resumed wearing lighter shoes without any further problems -- but I've kept my distance from camera dollies ever since...

Great post. I'll never understand all the foo-fo-rah surrounding the Oscars.

MWT said...

Hmmm. The more I read these snippets from your working life, the more I think it'd be kind of cool to work in it too. ;) And not as one of the glamorous people - I'd enjoy being one of the grunts.

Maybe it's just the whole "wear whatever you want" thing, though. I'm all for jobs where I can do that. ;)

vince said...

I like "wear whatever you want" jobs as well. That's why I work for me :-).