Friday, June 29, 2007

Mistakes- part 3

I was going to title this post- Mistakes- Finale, but I know myself and there will be more mistakes in my future so stay tuned.

What follows is a series of random errors, mistakes and goofs I have made over 20+ years of being a filmmaker. No one was seriously hurt in the process and we all lived to shoot film another day.

1) Someway, somehow I convinced Chicago's big camera rental house to give 20-year old me a crane -for free- for the weekend. This is a huge and expensive piece of gear, and potentially dangerous to operate. Day 1, we got it stuck in the mud. Day 2, when empty it crashed to the ground. Day 3, we had to move the truck it was delivered on outdoors. (We were shooting on a stage and had brought it inside.) We left the windows open, an ice storm ensued and at 6am we are chiseling ice off the front seat, steering wheel and dashboard of the vehicle. At 9:00 it was back at the camera shop no worse for wear.

2) I left a 12 foot by 12 foot silk and metal frame on the ground in a park for two days. How we didn't remember to pick it up is beyond me. When Stephan and I returned gear two days later the man said, "Where's the 12 by?" Without missing a beat Stephan said, "Oh, we returned it to the other place by mistake." We ran out of there and hauled ass back to the suburbs, and there, where we left it two days earlier was our silk.

3) In a big scene in Victimless Crimes- when the bad guy cop comes and interviews our leading lady- there is a big roll of gaffer's tape right in plain sight. It only took me 30 or 40 viewings in the editing room to notice it, yet other people see it right away. I try to pass it off as set decoration, but who has 2-inch roll of gaffers tape sitting in their living room.

4) After a long night shooting a music video I had to get on a plane for L.A. This was pre-internet, pre-cell phone. I walked from the set with about $900 of petty cash in my pocket. The producer, who was from out of town and didn't know me, thought I stole it and for 3 days wanted me arrested.

5) For my student film, The Law of Inertia, I borrowed a Vespa. I convinced a frat boy to loan it to me and not 15 seconds after I took possession, I wiped out and scraped the side. (Scraped me pretty good too, but that's another story.) I copped to the offense and he let me off the hook.

I am sure there are more, these are the goofs that popped into my mind recently.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007


I just wanted to add some details to some recent posts. Yesterday, I talked about the student film I produced which had a great title sequence and not much else. There is a happy ending. The director, David Zucker, is a successful writer, producer and executive in Los Angeles. He worked for Warner Brothers and and CBS, was instrumental in getting E.R. on the air, and has written for television. He is currently and executive with Jerry Bruckheimer's company.

The lead actress in that film and Miss Illinois 1985 is Karen Moncrief. Today, Karen is better known as a writer and director. Her 2002 film, Blue Car,premiered at Sundance. She recently directed a film with Toni Colette and Piper Laurie called Dead Girl.

The director of Stage Door/Stonehenge, Ricky Posner is a film producer. He produced among other things, Tie Me Up Tie Me Down, the Pedro Almodovar film and many others.

Last week I wrote a post called Quid Pro Quo- about the favor bank. Thank you for your comments. The former student I featured at the end of the post called me the other day (evidently he doesn't read this page) asking for a favor. I helped him out on a billing issue he had with a client.

We do all learn from our mistakes.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mistakes- part 2

A few months after my "Stage Door/Stonehenge" experience I produced another student film. The plot was simple, a man and a woman worked together, had a little spat, she gets a phone call, gets upset and leaves the office. The man, thinking it was something he did, follows her. As the producer I was charged with two big tasks. Find a field where the man and woman could have their big scene, and figure out how to light it- faking moonlight.

We spent the summer searching for the right location. We finally found one where we could do an electrical tie-in to the nearest house - the home owner was an alumni of our school, and we offered him a cameo in the film, in exchange for pulling power from his house all night long. (This is a good example of two things I have mentioned in recent posts Quid Pro Quo- we put him in the film for the use of his electricity and the flattery gets you everywhere principle. We buttered him up knowing what a nightmare it would be for him to have us esssentially in his backyard all night long. His ego did the rest for us.)

After we secured the location we had to figure out how to fake moonlight. We didn't have the budget for a crane and a 20,000 watt HMI light, so we decided to erect scaffolding and hang every light we could from it, then put a giant silk in front of the structure to lose the overlapping shadows. It worked.

Shooting comes and it all works out well. It was a hellish schedule, shoot all Friday night, wrap about 5am, start at 11am the next morning in the architects' office, then return to the field to shoot the rest of the shots. (We had students camp out in the field to secure the lights and scaffolding.) Anything we don't get we pick up Sunday or Sunday night. Your basic low-budget film shoot- we worked 65 of 72 hours over the weekend and then went to class on Monday.

So, what's the problem? Here's the problem... the film stinks. It looks great and I didn't even tell you about the title sequence we created with architectural renderings- best opening titles of any student film I have ever seen. The film goes down hill from there. Here, again, are the lowlights of the film:

1) Casting. We cast two 20 years old to be architects. It doesn't work, never will.
2) Story. What seemed like a mystery, this phone call, the catalyst for the whole film, was just confusing.
3) The ending. A common response to the film was "What happened?" It's not a good thing when you need to take 10 minutes to explain your five minute film.
4) The time line of the film. It starts in the day at the office and when they leave and go to the field, it's night. As Fred Willard says in A Mighty Wind, "Wha Happened?"
5) Why do they walk through a field anyway? Suddenly the film becomes about her taking a short cut?

When it was all said and down we had a nicely produced, good looking, well executed shiny turd of a film on our hands. Live and Learn. Remember it's about the story, not the color-coded organization system or lighting a field. I wish I had focused on the script and asked a simple question- why this?


Monday, June 25, 2007

Mistakes- part 1

As a young filmmaker I learned the most from those projects that didn’t turn out so well and I think that’s probably the case for most people. For the next couple of posts I am going to share some of those mistakes and the lessons learned from them.

In the dead of winter my junior year of college I was the production manager on a student film. The film was called Stage Door and it was about an old actor who returns to the theater of his youth. There, he is haunted by ghosts and the vision of a woman who represents something-I never did figure out what.

I took the job because a) the director liked me and wanted me to work on it (flattery gets you everywhere) and b) the idea of taking a week off of my 9am Russian Lit. class in mid-January was very appealing. c) I was impressed by the director because he had a real production strip board, something I had never seen before. He had some sort of color-coded organization system, which I never quite figured out. If it was red it meant something, black something else, blue yet another thing. It was all too much for me as I was used to working with crumpled pieces of notepaper shoved into my pockets.

I was also impressed because he had a budget of $15,000, which was a lot of money in 1985 for a student film. My thinking was with that sort of dough AND a color-coded strip board how could it be a bad film.

What follows is a series of the lowlights of the week.

1) On one of the coldest January’s on record we shoot outside for four hours. The camera batteries froze, the lens fogged from running inside and out, and after about two hours someone stopped keeping track of how much film we shot, so we ran out. We spent two hours outdoors in the cold go through the motions of shooting but getting absolutely.
2) My roommate, Craig, was drafted to be one of the “Ghosts.” He was given an 8am call time and put in this heavy white make up- something out of Kabuki Theater. At 1pm he still hadn’t shot, so he went to class to take an exam in full costume and make up. He was really pissed (and reminds me to this day). At 2am we finally shot his scene, which consisted of him kicking the prone body of the lead actor as we tilted down from his Kabuki face to his Jack Boots. He was in make up for 18 hours for this.
3) After two days we move inside the theater where the director wants a shot from the back of the theater with the stage lit by a single bare light bulb. When he is informed we cannot do this because of a lack of exposure, the director insists we try it. An hour later we show him the set up and he agrees it is no good. He forces us to use every light available to us to make his “vision” work. Three hours and many blown fuses later we shoot the scene. It lasts all of 4 seconds in the final cut of the film.
4) The director was determined to use red letters for the title sequence. They bled all over the place so the title of the film looked like “stonehenge.”
5) The director submitted the film to the student academy awards in the narrative category. The academy shifted it to the experimental category.

Lessons learned:

1) Money and color-coded strip boards mean nothing, story is everything.
2) Never use red for your title sequence.
3) Communicate your vision to everyone well in advance.
4) The director decided to become a production designer instead of a filmmaker.
5) I met Stephan Fopeano, one of my best friends and future collaborator. (He brought coffee.)
6) Don’t blow off a week of Russian Lit. I ended up getting a D.