Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Send Lawyers, Guns and Money..."

I mentioned a few days ago that I had almost been arrested and I also promised to tell you about it later. Some of you, understandably seem to have conflated my almost-arrest with my almost-ticketed-for-speeding, but they were two separate events. The almost-ticketed-for-speeding part took place on my way to work last Tuesday...uh...sedately motoring up the Palisades Interstate Parkway on my way to work...where the almost-arrested part was scheduled to take place. Incidentally, it would have been a little ironic if I had gotten that speeding ticket since I had scheduled to have Palisades Interstate Parkway Police working with us during the week for some of our filming (to the tune of three different officers splitting about 20 hours of overtime). I've mentioned before that cops like overtime and they're generally friendly toward the people paying it to them. The very same cops can be singularly humorless when you're just some putz breaking the speed limit and they have no idea you're about to be the guy who approves the bill for about $1000 worth of overtime pay.

Anyway, here's how the almost-arrested part happened.

Last week, we were scheduled to shoot for four days at the Douglas House. The Douglas House is a very cool place that was set up specifically for filming. It's an old farmhouse with grounds and a few outbuildings sitting on a fairly large piece of property. The house itself has a variety of rooms decorated in a variety of styles. There are 400amps of electricity available in a few different places with electrical connections that match up to the type of connectors we use on our feeder cables. There are hidden "chaseways" where you can run cable from one room to another without having to run it through a door or window where it might be seen in a shot. There are walls that slide out of your way so you can back the camera further away from the action. There's a practical "working" kitchen where you can prepare food and a huge "set" kitchen for filming where the cabinets and counters can be easily rearranged to suit the needs of the scene you're doing. It's a really cool place.

Side note: You've all seen the Douglas House many, many times. They started doing business in the 1980's and, as of 2001, they'd had over 2000 days of filming on site. In fact, most of the fake commercials you've ever seen on Saturday Night Live were shot there. SNL never knows from week to week what they'll be putting on the show, so they just have an ongoing "hold" on the place for every Friday in case they think up a commercial to shoot there.

One of the coolest things about the place from a Production standpoint is that there are no permits says so right on their website. And that's completely true for 99.9% of the productions shooting there. We were -- possibly -- going to fall into the other 0.1% category.

First of all, most commercials are not terribly massive affairs. They have 20-40 people involved. They've got 2 or three trucks and maybe a motor home. The show I'm on, which isn't really very big when compared to most other movies or TV shows has a cast and crew of 70-100 people on any given day. By the time we get settled in for the day, there are four 5 and 10-ton straight trucks. There are two smaller 14' cube trucks. There are three tractor-trailer rigs for makeup/hair and wardrobe, the honeywagon and cast dressing rooms. There are 5 15-passenger vans to get people up there from the city. There are another 30+ cars for the people who can't or won't take a van to work. We just don't fit on the property.

So we rented part of a parking lot down the hill for the tractor-trailer rigs and we rented part of another lot a 1/4 mile away for crew parking. We were not going to be inconspicuous. Furthermore, during our four days on the property, we intended to move our equipment trucks and crew to two other locations in the area, once to shoot at a cemetery about 1 mile away, and once to shoot some scenes with a car on a process-trailer.

May I digress for a moment? A "process trailer" is a big-assed thing towed by a "camera car" or "insert car" (which is kind of a big-assed truck itself). You can shoot from a multitude of platforms. You can light the car. You can put a dolly on tracks next to the car on the trailer.

You can take the trailer off the insert car and use it to shoot a car traveling on its own -- car to car shooting. You can do tons of shit you couldn't do if you didn't have this kind of flexible set up. (Among other things, putting the car on a process trailer allows actors to act instead of having to think about driving.)

The trailer itself expands in width to accommodate all of the equipment and crew you may want to bring along. This one can be expended to 14' wide.

And it's not like you just show up on the side of the road, set up your rig and go blithely filming wherever you want. Here's an empty lot waiting for the crew and equipment to arrive.

Here's the same lot with the small percentage of our equipment and crew needed for these shots. (The empty part of the lot will all be seen in some of our shots -- AKA "in picture".)

And here's a little four-shot progression showing some car to car shooting.

Later, we put the car on the trailer and went out and did some shooting on the highway, but that was night work, so I don't have any great shots of that. I could do a few posts just about camera car work, and I probably will sometime, but I wanted to give you a taste of what's involved for the sake of this post. Go look at the website for the company that this rig comes from. Look at the second picture on this page and you'll get the idea pretty clearly that you can't just drive around on your own without needing some cops and traffic control involved.

So back to our topic of me almost-getting-arrested. You can't park half of your trucks down the road and thirty or so crew cars a little further down the road and run shuttle vans for four days without being noticed. You can't move four equipment trucks and 60 crew members a mile down the road (to the middle of town) and shoot a couple of scenes without being noticed. You can't set up for camera car work and then go driving around with a 14' wide trailer loaded down with crew and lights without being noticed.

Genius that I am, it occurred to me that some of this work might require permits. So we did what we always do. We contacted the Town Clerk's office who told us there was a $250/day permit fee and that we should contact the Highway and Police Depts. to see if they'd have any other requirements. Fair enough...all normal at this point. The Highway Dept. listened to our plan and said, "Thanks for informing us. That's all in the local Police's jurisdiction so we won't be involved". Then we contact the local Police Dept. and...things started to go down the toilet; the wheels came off; our plans went south; monkey wrenches were thrown; the shit hit the fan.

They reminded us of the $250/day permit fee -- no problem there. That's a perfectly reasonable fee. They told us that local cops were $100/hour with a cruiser. On the expensive side, but still not a huge problem. We could deal with the expense.

Then, they told us that the town allows filming between 8:00 a.m. and sunset...which occurs at about 4:30 p.m. this time of year. They said that we'd have to tell them, in advance, how many hours we'd be filming outside of the permitted hours and that we'd be allowed to proceed if we paid a $500 per hour fine for the excess hours. We were told that if we exceeded the hours we'd already paid a fine for, we'd be fined an additional $2500. I never did figure out exactly what they were talking about since none of this was being called a was all fines. We'd be allowed to pay the fines and then be penalized with additional fines in a geometric progression if we exceeded our proposed illegal activity? Huh?

We intended to shoot until as late as midnight on some the four days. We sent them a letter outlining what we expected to do and they kindly sent us a letter telling us that the fines would come to $10,000 if we stuck strictly to the illegal hours we were already planning for, but that there'd be additional fines if we worked any more illegal-er(?) hours. WTF!

This information was coming in just a week before we were scheduled to film there. (Yes, we'd made the first calls to the town almost a month earlier, but with one thing and another, they hadn't gotten back to us and we hadn't chased them down because the shoot was comfortably off in the future and yada, yada, yada. We were finding this stuff out at the last minute.) Had we known this stuff much earlier, we'd have either decided to just build the fines into our budget or we'd have decided to find another location. With four days of shooting breathing down our necks and no alternate location in our back pockets...we were a little panicked.

The owner of the house was getting nowhere with getting the police to back off. I contacted another film (of roughly our size) that shot there a year or so earlier and found out that they had just "bitten the bullet" and paid the fines. (They were shooting during summer, so the sunset fines didn't kick in until almost 9:00 p.m., so it was less of an issue.) I contact the NY State Film Office and asked them to intercede on our behalf.

They contact the Town Clerk. Now, it turns out that when we called, we spoke to some flunky in the Town Clerk's Office (no normal reason to distrust what they tell us). The State Film Office spoke to the Town Clerk Her-Own-Self. She was livid. It turns out that the town does not have a permit fee OR regulated hours if you're entirely on private property...which described us perfectly. Add to this the fact that Douglas House doesn't even really have neighbors, and we should be in the clear. She gave the State guys her cell phone and asked them to have me call her.

When I did, she basically said that the cops were putting their noses where they don't have any business and that we should ignore them. She said we should not respond to any calls or emails from them and just go about our business. She said I should call her cell phone if the cops gave us any trouble.

On the one hand, it was nice to know that she'd back us up and deal with things if we had any trouble. On the other hand, I'd have felt a lot more comfortable if she were planning to deal with things preemptively. But, hey...local politics is local politics and sometimes we just have to do things the way they want us to do them.

So, Tuesday morning rolls around and our crew has an 8:00 a.m. call on location. This means we'll be rolling in the trucks around 6:00 a.m. to get everything set in place before the crew shows up ... two hours before the 8:00 a.m. start the cops have told us would get us into trouble. And we've been ignoring phone messages and emails. And I fully expected to have the cops show up and either start writing summonses and/or to haul my ass off to the hoosegow. (Tractor-trailers backing into an otherwise silent parking lot while someone waves a flashlight and hollers, "mom-back, mom-back" aren't exactly subtle.)

Nobody bothered us.

Around 10:00 a.m. we got a voicemail from a Sergeant asking us to call and explain ourselves. I called the Town Clerk who said she'd pay him a visit. That evening, an officer was directed to "drive by" our set after 8:00 p.m. to see what we were up to. He arrived. We explained that the Town Clerk had already spoken to a Sergeant and that we were informed that no permits were required. He went away without any hassles. (It didn't hurt that when he drove up, our cameras were rolling and we actually had to shush him so he wouldn't spoil the take. We were not making any noise.)

We didn't see any other cops for the next two days.

I didn't get arrested. I know it would have made for a better story, but kindly modulate your disappointment.


ntsc said...

welcome to Rockland County.

Chris said...

That house is just about the coolest place ever.

Tom said...

So that's your famous "almost got arrested" story? Hummmph!

Remind me to tell you MY "almost got arrested" story sometime. Well, I actually did get arrested, but they let me go soon afterwards, so I think that counts.

"Almost got arrested..." hah! What a maroon!

Steve Buchheit said...

Sounds like someone needed to pad their budget out to the end of the year. Not that we would have experienced that ourselves in our little town (not us padding the budget, but others trying to do it at our expense).