Tuesday, July 5, 2011

If It Was Easy, They Wouldn't Give Us Such Nifty Job Titles! (In Two Parts.)


As part of the 75th Anniversary of the Directors Guild, they've been hosting some better than usual events this year. Last week, I got to attend, Beyond the Director's Chair: A 75th Anniversary Celebration of The Director's Team.  For the uninitiated, the Director's Team  are the Assistant Directors, the Unit Production Manager and the Location Manager. If the Director and the Producers are Generals, then the Director's Team are the Colonels and Majors who draw up the battle plans and deploy the troops.

Let's put that another way:  Everybody goes out on a scout.  The director stands there and waves his arms around and says, "The little boy is gonna come running out of that door and then suddenly, BOOM! There's a big explosion! And 500 militiamen will come running around that corner but they can't find the kid, 'cause the camera is gonna fly straight up about 50 feet and find that the explosion blew the kid up into the top of that tree over there and we'll just be looking down on the kid while he's laughing and watching the militia run around trying to figure out where he went.  And then the flying humpback whales show up!"  Then, the Director's Team figures out how to make all of that happen.

The evening consisted of a little reception for the lucky few (I got to go, Yay), followed by an introductory film and then a panel discussion.  The whole thing was pretty terrific and highly entertaining.  The moderator was director Robert Benton and the panel consisted of Burtt Harris, Carol Cuddy, Celia Costas, Joe Reidy, Kathy McGill and Michael Hausman.  You're probably familiar with Robert Benton because of movies like Bonnie & Clyde and Kramer vs. Kramer.  You're to be forgiven if the rest of them aren't exactly household names for you, but let me assure you, these are some impressive figures.  Between them, they've served as Producers, UPM's, A.D.'s and Location Managers on over 250 films.  A small sampling of those films includes Amadeus, Brokeback Mountain, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, Wall Street, Charlie Wilson's War, The Departed, Men In Black III, Midnight Cowboy and Q&A.  They're all still working.

The evening started with a short film of interviews with a whole bunch of other A.D.'s and UPM's.  It consisted of snippets of conversations about what the job entails and unique situations they've run into.  The one that struck home most for me was one A.D. talking about how, for one movie, they'd built a train depot out in the middle of nowhere only to get a call the night before scheduled shooting to inform them that a tornado had completely demolished the set.  Regardless of how stressful a situation that was, he was still less freaked out than he had been the time he'd taken an actor to the make-up trailer ten minutes too early and there hadn't been a chair available.  Hey, nobody could blame a tornado on him!

Then they showed a couple of scenes each of the panel had been involved with - Dog Day Afternoon, (the "Attica" chant was something they came up with because the extras were getting bored and starting to drift away),  Hair, Sophie's Choice, etc before Robert Benton got up and introduced the panel.  I won't try to recount the evening for you; I was just enjoying the thing, not taking notes.  They talked about a variety of topics; how they got their starts, how things have changed over the years, etc.  The most fun part of the evening was the stories about the worst thing that ever happened to you on a movie.  Where else are you going to get to hear what it's like to be fired by Otto Preminger five times from the same movie.*

Of course, this got me thinking about the times I've had to ask myself "Am I having fun yet?" I've told you about one of the...ahem...more uncomfortable moments in my career, but I don't think I've ever told you how I tried to kill a Producer I was working for.  Three times.  On the same job.

O.K., this one goes back to Iron Will again. There's this one Producer - let's call him Martin** - who was overseeing the day to day production. Martin has a short fuse.  Martin doesn't suffer fools (lightly or otherwise).  Martin's displeasure is never a secret.  Martin scares the shit out of a lot of people. In spite of the fact that this was my third movie with Martin and the fact that I considered him a friend by then, I wasn't immune to his loving corrections.

Stolen visual representation of what it feels like being lovingly corrected by Martin.

Let's get my first two attempts at his life out of the way quickly, shall we?  Near the end of a long day of driving around scouting and finding nothing, I suppose he finally managed to get me flustered.  So I drove us into a ditch. In my defense, the snow had been plowed so the ditch was disguised as level ground and I was only making a u-turn because he seemed so determined to head back to the office.

Stolen visual representation of what this may have looked like. But I had the car more sideways than that!
The great part was that during the whole time I was trying to find someone to drag us out, he just sat there quietly in the passenger seat.  Fuming. And eating trail mix.

After we finally got the car back on the road I pointed us south.  I'll admit that I may have been driving a tad fast - it was snowing and it was a pretty crappy two-lane highway and it was starting to get dark -- but I really wanted to get the hell out of that car.  Bambi fucked up that plan about ten minutes later.

Stolen visual representation of what this may have looked like.
O.K., fine...it was nothing like this.  Nothing got dented or broken, but I was doing about 65mph and the moment of impact was really LOUD and it was the first (and only) time I've ever hit a deer, so it scared the hell out of me.  The deer-lip and nose prints on the passenger window shut Martin up for the rest of the trip too! (The deer gave us a dirty look and strolled off into the woods.)
This all took place during prep and we managed to get through most of the shoot without any more near-death experiences.

I've mentioned how it failed to snow in Minnesota once we started shooting.  And it got warm, so we knew we were going to have to move the production somewhere else to find the frozen rivers and waterfalls needed to finish the movie.  We hired one guy to look for likely locations west of us in Wyoming and Montana and British Columbia and I went east.  I spent a couple of weeks looking around in Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and even Newfoundland. (Scouting pond-fjords from a helicopter is awesome!)  I was finding lots of locations that looked great but they were all really inaccessible.

And the clock was ticking.  While I was off scouting, the production continued shooting in Minnesota, but they were running out of scenes that could be shot there. With only two days to spare, I found some great locations in Northern Maine on some property owned by a timber company.  Here's the thing.  I knew they were great locations but it was too late to Fed Ex pictures back to anybody for approval.  On nothing but my say-so, they were chartering a plane to bring 130-odd folks halfway across the country.  Fifteen or so trucks would be making the drive.  We got a motel to cancel other peoples' reservations so they'd have enough rooms for us. We were paying people to improve some gravel roads so we'd be able to get everything and everybody to these locations that, aside from me, nobody had ever seen. These are all very expensive propositions. 

I may have been experiencing some mild anxiety.

So, the charter plane gets to Maine around Ten in the morning and everybody schleps to the motel and the producer moves into the office we've set up.  I told him I wanted to take him on a scout as soon as he got settled in, but he had some calls to make first.  I wanted to show him the spot I had in mind for the 2nd Unit to shoot the stunts that would sell the whole thing.

I was really anxious to get Martin to take a look at this place while we still had some daylight.  I finally got him off the phone and out of the office around 2:30pm. I'm perfectly capable of driving pretty fast, but I can't do that Superman thing where you go so fast you reverse the rotation of the Earth and gain a few hours.  So we got to the location just as the sun was going behind the mountains.

Once again, this was a location that I knew was terrific. And 2nd Units usually have smaller crews and stunt doubles instead of the real actors, so you can get into some locations you wouldn't consider trying to get the main unit into.  But this location was really a bitch to get into.  Strike One was the road into the property.  It was a 6 mile-long logging road cut into the side of a mountain and instead of it being wide enough for two trucks to pass, there were wide spots every half-mile or so -- like railroad sidings for one train to get out of the way of another.

Stolen visual representation of what the road may have looked like.  Only the mountain was a bit steeper above and below the road.  And windier. And wintery-er.
Driving in wasn't too bad.  The sun had been on the road for a few hours so it was slushy instead of icy. That doesn't mean Martin was particularly thrilled. For most of the drive, he had been grumbling encouraging things like, "How far is this fucking place?", and "I don't suppose you've got cargo helicopters in your budget".  Finally I got him to the locations.

Strike Two was when I pulled a pair of snow shoes out of the trunk and told him to strap them on.  Then, we snow-shoed our way about 200 yards away from the road.  That got us to the access point leading down the mountain onto the frozen river.  Just as daylight completely failed. STRIKE THREE!

Stolen visual representation of what Martin thought he was looking at once we reached the access point.
I swear to God, it was nowhere near this hairy getting into this location.  Yes, I had had some local guys beat a path down to the river.  And yes, they had rigged a ropeline with hand holds to get to the bottom.  But it wasn't a cliff-face and it didn't require any actual mountaineering skills to navigate the trail, but it looked that way to Martin -- who had gotten out of bed at 4:00 a.m. and wrangled 130-odd people flying halfway across the country and had just driven an hour from our hotel on snowy roads that got worse and worse the closer we got and had just put on a pair of snowshoes for the first time in his life.

That's as far as we got.

He turned around and started struggling his way back to the car with me following.  I don't recall hearing the words "You're so fucking fired", but there was a lot of "Are you out of your fucking mind?" and "I can't believe you had us come half-way across the country for this", and other stuff in a similar vein.

We got back in the car and started heading back down the mountain.  I was driving and silently listening to the harangue that was still going on with no signs of abating.  I was alternating between feeling like a complete failure and being supremely pissed off, because I knew he hadn't given the location a fair shake and I was really wishing he'd stop yelling at me already.  The one thing I wasn't concentrating on was the shitty gravel road that had become a sheet of ice as soon as the sun set.  The narrow, shitty, icy road that had a fairly sheer drop-off from one side.

So I managed to put the car into a pretty spectacular 540º spin.  Luckily, the trees grew really close to the drop off, so we just bounced back onto the road from that side and banged into the uphill side of the mountain pretty good before coming to a stop facing back up the mountain.  Martin got kinda tossed into the foot-well in the passenger side of the car.  Since we were facing up the mountain, I had to backtrack a little before I got to one of those wide spots where I could turn around.  Martin - nervously - wanted to know why we were going the wrong direction and I growled something about offering to try driving us off the side again if that was his preference.  There was complete silence for the rest of the drive.  Except for a couple of rattling noises the car hadn't made before our little adventure.

P.S. I don't remember how I got him to take a second look at the place, but he decided it was "fucking fantastic", and "totally worth the trouble" it would take to get into it. And he threatened me with dire consequences if I told the Director about the place because he wanted to shoot the scenes there.

*The fifth time was, primarily, about the fact that Otto Preminger didn't approve of anyone telling him what to do, and, sometimes, it's an A.D's job to do just that.  In this case, they were getting ready to blow up a dam and release a few million gallons of water while 4 cameras (including one in a helicopter) shot the action. The A.D. told Preminger he should be with the camera that was mounted on the roof of one of the trucks.  He also told Preminger that after he called "action", that he, the A.D. would be the only one who should cue any of the action since, A.) they only had one chance at getting the shot unless they wanted to spend 5 days rebuilding the dam, refilling the reservoir and resetting the dynamite, and B.) the whole thing was dangerous as hell.  Also, without informing Preminger, he told the truck driver that he should start driving slowly away from the dam as soon as he heard "Action" called.

**Not his real name. It wouldn't be the least bit difficult to figure out who I'm talking about here, but I've said before that I don't name names, so I won't be changing that here.  On the other hand, I won't be saying anything here that I'd be embarrassed to have him read, either. To be honest, a lot of the reason I'm not utterly clueless is because of the lessons I learned working for him. He could produce most movies with both brains tied behind his back -- or something like that.


Tom said...

This is extremely cool!

But to hell with the job titles, I want one of the chairs. Not "Beyond the..." but actually "In the..." Director's Chair. Not that I have delusions of directorship, just want the chair.

Nathan said...


There are two problems with that. 1.) Director's chairs really aren't that comfortable.

2.) By the third day, either the seats or the backs always go missing...which will take you back to #1.