Saturday, April 7, 2007

More Girls on Film

I am happy to report that the student who asked me if I had any women in my class has written a nice script and will be shooting a short film in late summer. (She subscribes to the good, fast, cheap- pick two, philosophy and doesn't have a lot of money, hence the lead time.) Making the film will be a challenge for her but in good way. Typically she works as an editor and by far this is the biggest project she has undertaken. I am sure she will do well.

As a teacher my favorite classes have always been the ones with more women students. Even if only a third of the students are women, it balances out the young man energy. I also always try to have a woman teaching assistant because one more woman in the room cannot hurt things.

In my 11 plus years teaching I have had a lot of successful female students. Many have gone on to successful careers both in the business and in private life. Though I am not playing favorites, I would like to single out one former student, Therese Schecter. Therese loves film. She has written about it for The Chicago Tribune, has had a great published journal of her time spent at Sundance over the years, she has worked for Tribecca Film (Robert DeNiro's company) and more importantly she has made two very good films. I Was A Teenage Feminist has played in festivals and been screened around the world and How I Learned to Speak Turkish is about a visit to Turkey where she discovered an obsession with Turkish men. Currently she is working on a new film called The American Virgin.

Here is a link, I will let you discover Therese for yourself. If you contact her ask her about Cake, the film she made for me.


Friday, April 6, 2007

Group Think

The enemy of good is better.

It is worse when a “creative committee” is involved. More to the point, trying to make an already good thing better often ruins the original. See New Coke, Rocky II and Cher as examples.

It gets worse when a committee works on a project. Everyone on the "team" has an opinion and feels they must contribute something. I don’t think I have been in more than two screenings when the client has said, “Good, great, we’re done.” Usually it is "That’s good, BUT…. " It is as if they aren’t getting their money’s worth if they don’t tell us to make some sort of change.

We keep threatening to include an obvious error just so the client can have something to say. Of course the bigger the committee, the more opinions and the dumber the changes. We like to work with the one decision maker, it’s easier and more efficient.

As Sartre said, “Hell is other people.”


Thursday, April 5, 2007

Good, Fast Cheap- Pick Two

“Good, fast, cheap pick two,” is our unofficial motto. (Our official motto is “It must be 5 o’clock somewhere, let’s have a drink.”) I am constantly surprised by how many people do not understand this simple concept. It is a rule we live by- and something I tell students all the time.

Your film can be good, you can make it quickly or it can be made inexpensively- but not all three. Everyone wants a good film so that leaves fast and cheap as the other options. If you want to work fast and get it made in a hurry, it ain’t going to be cheap. Conversely, if you don’t rush and perhaps shoot over a series of weekends, rather than consecutive weekdays, you can save some money and make your film less expensively. This rule applies to everything- building a house, going to a restaurant (Peking Duck takes time to make, so it will cost you) buying a car- compare prices between a Focus and a Maserati lately?

We are currently making a documentary about teen parents. We began work on the project last summer and probably won’t be finished until this summer. Our client didn’t have a lot of money, but we liked them and thought it would be a good opportunity so we cut our fees. The client bought into our “pick two” approach and allowed us to take our time to finish the film. In the interim we have been able to knock off a couple of other projects and the extra time spent thinking about teen parents has allowed us to refine our idea and make a better film.

But now it’s 5 o’clock and time for me to stop.


Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Biting the Hand That Feeds

A few years ago we were hired to shoot a TV commercial for a spin-off version of Cap’N Crunch called Cozmic Crunch. Cozmic (the “z” makes it that much tastier) Crunch is Cap’N Crunch with a twist. The cereal came with a packet of rust colored sugar that you poured on top of the Crunch. When milk was added the rust shavings turned the milk Puke Green. Lovely. And you wonder why America is full of fat kids with no attention spans.

The concept of the commercial was this: Get real kids to A) Describe Martians and B) have them turn the milk green, do a “bite and smile” and tell us how great Cozmic Crunch is. No kidding, ad agencies make a lot of money coming up with these ideas. What were the rejected concepts?

The agency handled casting and we were going to shoot 70 kids over two days. The first 20 kids didn’t know from Martians, so they couldn’t describe them. They also didn’t want to eat the cereal. When they saw the milk turn green they got scared. One little girl tried to eat it and her lower lip quivered and shook. There were tears, there was gagging, there was retching.

During our breaks I could hear the agency complain in stage whispers, “Maybe he’s not so good with kids? “ Maybe we should pull the plug. Is Ebel free? (Bob Ebel is the BIG kids director in town- “If my baloney had a first name it’s O-S-C-A-R…” that’s Ebel.” Crew members avoided making eye contact with me. You know it’s bad when a teamster tries to comfort you. “Kids. Whatta dey know ‘bout Martians?” He said. On top of all this my dad was in town and decided to visit the set. I kept looking at him and he was giving me the “I told you you should have gone to law school” look. It was Hell.

Finally after about 3 hours of this- and shooting film which we knew was never going to see the light of day- one kid comes in and does it right. He practically is a Martian, the green milk was the dietary supplement he waited 10 years for. He wanted to take home a box. Relief. People spoke to me again. My dad gave me the thumbs up with only a trace of the law school look. We were home free.

Over the next day and a half we got plenty of good footage. We edited the commercial and it really was funny. Lots of quick cuts of kids describing Martians. Very nice. Two weeks later we were informed the cereal company was going to go in a different direction. They canned the commercial and the national release of Cozmic Crunch. Our loss. Proving again nobody knows nothing.


Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Pool Party

The only real job I ever had was at The Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. Between 1987 and 1989 I was one of about a dozen people who helped get the museum off the ground and up and running. In March of 1988 my friend Mike Mertz decided we should have a NCAA basketball pool as a way to bring us together. Our pool was open to anyone we knew and for a few weeks each March we all banded together. It was one of the highlights of my time at the Museum.

Monday night after Florida beat Ohio State to repeat as the NCAA Men’s basketball champion our 20th Mertz Minion Mayhem Pool came to a close. Dan Lerner, who was the museum’s high school intern in 1988 won for the second time. (Full disclosure, two years ago I won the pool, last year I finished dead last and was mocked by the rest of the Minions. I was a close 3rd this year.) Dan has bragging rights until next March and if he is lucky he will get his $150 winnings by Christmas. It’s not about the money or winning it’s about the community.

Today, none of us work at the museum and we are more likely to gather together at a funeral or a wedding than to watch basketball. Since the pool began, two people have died, a dozen have been born, and Minions have married and divorced. In short we are like any other 20 year-old community,

This year I only watched two games of the tournament. Dan and I met in a bar on a Thursday evening. By 8:30 the first two games were over, and instead of staying for the late games we went our respective ways. Dan had to go wash his dog Moses and if I am not in bed by 9pm I am all cranky the next day.

This is the state of the Mertz Minion Mayhem Community Pool in 2007


Monday, April 2, 2007

A Career Goes Right Into the Crapper

As filmmakers we have had the opportunity to shoot a lot of fascinating projects, meet a lot of interesting people and go places where the general public just doesn't have access. Michael Jordan drove Jim around Chicago for a Chevy Blazer commercial, we climbed across the dome of the Nebraska state capitol 300 some feet in the air. In 2001 Peter Gabriel gave us access to film his first live show in North America in eight years and to talk to him about it. (By his own admission he wasn't very good "That's what you get with just two days of rehearsal," he said seconds after walking off stage.)

Those are the fun jobs, the ones you get to brag about, the ones you use to get more work, the ones you talk about at the bar. At the other end of the spectrum are those jobs that pay the bills, which brings me to... cleaning toilets.

For some reason (The ad agency liked us? We were the low bid?) we have done a series of commercials for Vanish, the toilet bowl cleaner. The first time was a test shoot at the SC Johnson lab in Racine, WI. They have a room of 35 toilets- not a bathroom, just a toilet room- where it's some engineer's job to create and monitor toilet bowl stains. (Insert your own joke here.) Our task was to shoot two, 21 day-old stains and compare Vanish to the "other leading brand." As film work goes, it was pretty easy, but what we didn't factor into the bid was being in a room of 35 toilets, randomly flushing. 1) It's loud. 2) It makes you have to use the bathroom- ALL THE TIME. We spent half the day running down the hall to the nearest functioning toilet.

#2- SC Johnson has two glass, see through toilets so you can see the amazing cleaning power of Vanish. These commodes each cost about $50,ooo and have to be shipped to the sound stage. You build a raised set, where some poor p.a. crawls under the toilets and makes sure they "evacuate" properly. These 50K toilets are so rare they come with more guard protection than the crown jewels. Nothing is allowed to happen to the see through toilet. Meanwhile, a classically trained actress plays the role of frustrated bathroom cleaner. Her Yale School of Drama education literally going down the drain.

#3. Another sound stage, another toilet, this time for some "New and Improved" Vanish. We take two days and build a bathroom set. Near the end of the shoot, the agency art director gets the bright idea that as a gag for his boss he should sit on our prop toilet and we take a picture. (Hysterical!) We advised against it because if something goes wrong the one thing everyone would remember would be the art director on the can. "No," he insisted, "I'm going to be made a v.p. and everyone at the agency will love it- it'll make a great Christmas card."

Cut to: Three Days later. The agency calls for a re-shoot, there is a problem- theirs not ours- with some packaging. The art director had the wrong mock-up Vanish bottle. Re-shoot, re-transfer the film. No v.p. stripes, no X-mas card, no job. He was let go.


Sunday, April 1, 2007

Girls on Film

This is a Ida Lupino. She was an actress, but more importantly she was one of the first women to write, direct and produce Hollywood films. She also directed lots of episodic television (Daniel Boone, Route 66, and others). She is on my mind because there aren't enough women directors just like there are not enough African-American, Native American, Hispanic American, etc ... filmmakers. The film business has been and continues to be dominated by white men, and that is a shame.

Last week I gave a workshop for students who are applying to get in to my advanced production class. This is sort of a capstone filmmaking class. The films produced in this class go to film festivals and are screened publicly. These students make good films despite (maybe because of?) of their teacher. At the end of the session a student came up to me and asked if there are any women in the class. I was embarrassed. Sure there are women in the class- five of the 20 students- but this student was the only woman who attended the workshop. I am afraid this is a bad sign.

What if only one out of every five doctors, lawyers, teachers, vets, newspaper reporters, TV weathercasters was a woman? Wouldn't we think it strange? We need, we want to see films from other perspectives. This is not a good trend. We need more women filmmakers.

We need more Ida Lupinos.