O Buffalo!

On location producing an indie feature called Clover and learning many things on the journey. Many ideas flowing for new course work and teaching approaches but won’t have time to implement them until the new year when I head to The Republic of Georgia to give a 7 day workshop.

In the meantime I will wrap this out while trying to stay warm.

More on Clover to come.


Shooting at Home

Location shooting is always, by definition, shooting at home – someone’s home.

A friend recently called to say a film location scout had been in contact with her about using her house for a shoot. She was told that they “just wanted to use the exterior” and offered a nominal fee. She thought it might be fun but asked me to tell her what might be involved. I sat down and wrote a short list of things that she needed to keep in mind and that she needed ask from the production company. It was interesting to think from the point of view of a property owner in this situation as opposed to the company trying to secure a location. There’s always value in looking at things from the “other side” so here’s my list with some commentary for the production alongside it.

A short list of “things to know about productions shooting in your house”…

1. Access for pre-production, shooting and wrapping up (clean up) – these are really the really important issues – where do they need to go, for how long and when. Some questions to ask:

o   How many days and how many hours each day? It’s important to get down to the actual times of day here or you may find yourself with a crew in your living room at 3am!

o   What changes do they need to make to your property?

o   What parts of your property, specifically, do they need access to? (If there’s an actor opening your front door then they will need access to the interior of the house even if the camera is outside.)

o   Do they need to use your bathroom for cast or crew?

o   Do they need to use any space for make-up/ hair/ wardrobe?

o   Are they using your power or do they have their own generator for lights?

o   What about any re-shoots or other work beyond the original production period?

o   Access needs to be very specific and fees for additional access need to be stated in the agreement.

2. Insurance – the company must have General Liability and Third Party Property Damage and you must be named as “Additional Insured” on their policy. They need to provide a Certificate of Insurance that shows this coverage and indicates that you are named as “Additional Insured”. The significance of this is that if you are an Additional Insured the production insurance will fully protect you. Otherwise, your insurance company will be brought into any potential claim and your insurance rates may go up.

3. From a personal point of view- you need to have someone there, on premises, at all times that the company is present. Who is that person and are they prepared for the time commitment as laid out in Item #1 above?

4. You need to make sure the agreement states the following:

o   You, as property owner, should be “held harmless” from any claims arising out of their work. (You are not responsible, for example, if their truck knocks over your neighbor’s fence or if using your location leads to any other type of claim. )

o   That the property will be restored to the same condition or better that it is now. (For example, what happens if they screw up your lawn? Also, if they are coming inside they should pay for cleaning of the interior because it will get messy.)

o   It is the production’s responsibility to get all necessary permits from the Village or Town to allow for parking and traffic issues. Also, the production needs to obtain any required permissions from you neighbors in addition to notifying them about their presence on the block. No one likes to come home from a long day of work to find trucks and people blocking their driveway or street.

Once you’ve considered all of the above you should decide whether the fee offered is adequate compensation, keeping in mind that it is taxable income (Yes, the production will be asking for your social security number, by having you fill out an IRS Form W-9 and you will receive a Form 1099 at the end of the year that will show the amount of additional income you must report.)

The above is all standard procedure and normal business practice. If any part of this freaks out the production company, then you know they are not the types you would want to allow access to your home!

As a postscript I should say that writing all of this makes me quite wary of having a film crew in my house or apartment. It’s important from the production side that all of these points are thought through before getting caught up in the “wouldn’t it be exciting to have a film shot in your house!” feeling.

As a producer, you should want to be sure all of these things are handled correctly and discussed openly. If they aren’t handled in advance and covered in your location agreement they could arise while you’re shooting and be very costly. Doing things correctly will also help to avoid bad feelings from your location owner which helps to spread positive “word-of-mouth” about you and future productions.

Tell us your worst location nightmare… and how could it have been prevented.


Notes for Next Time

Over the years I’ve kept a document on my computer that I would update now and again whenever a good idea struck me while I was in some phase of production – or post-production, pre-production or even development. Keep in mind that I have always been in some phase of production for the past 34 years, so the document has become like an old friend to me. I call that document “Notes for Next Time.” Sadly, through a couple dozen computer crashes and the inexpert use of backup devices, I don’t have the original document that goes all the way back to the beginning so I can’t find every one of my notes, but it’s still fun to read back even 10 years ago.

Quaint notes like, “Be sure to obtain an archive of all documents on diskette” put a smile on my face. The truth is that many of my notes – along with tips and tricks – have become obsolete due to technology. Some of the things I wanted budgeting and scheduling software to do back in the 90s have actually come to pass and more improvements were made to software than I could have imagined. Then there’s a whole category of notes that involve “good ideas” that still haven’t been implemented or are just on the cusp of coming to fruition. Among those are the ability to drill into a an actual Budge from the Estimate to Complete in a Cost Report, as well as Electronic time cards, start forms and purchase orders. I’ve looked for these for well over a decade and some are just now starting to be introduced.

There are also cautionary notes and comments that could be easily incorporated into posts for this blog and into specific classes on this site. Things like, “Provide an excel spreadsheet to department heads for budgeting to ensure they include proper fringes in labor calculations.” Or, “Talk to the Director about what kind of rehearsals they want to have to be sure they’re covered in the prep schedule and budget.” The overall concept is to track those “genius” and “not-so-genius” ideas you have while standing on a freezing street corner at 3am doing take 18 of what looked like a simple “walk and talk” on paper. I highly recommend the Voice Notes feature on your phone when brilliance strikes in this type of situation! (Just be sure to set a phone reminder that says, “Listen to Voice Notes!”)

Sometimes great ideas are borne out of the horrible moments and often they aren’t recorded for posterity. And trust me, young guns out there, it’s pretty easy to remember the great idea when you had it last week but decades of wear and tear often erase it. Part of the challenge of remembering is that the “genius” idea may relate to a situation that you won’t face again for years. I can testify to the fact that whenever I go back to my little document, I always read through the ideas and find at least one that makes me nod and say, “Yes, gotta remember that one,” whether or not I’ve ever again encountered the problem that caused it. So I highly advise some kind of device like “Notes for Next Time.” No I still haven’t put together that “Ideal Producer’s Location Kit” (that idea from 2003) but you may be reading about it down the road in this blog!

What this is really about is that every single time you go out to shoot – and I mean whether it’s a feature film or a simple sit down interview for a documentary – you will learn something. It may not be earth shattering and it may not change the way you do your job, but you will learn something. Most of the time, unless it’s a huge lesson we won’t remember it. But, you should always be aware of how you are doing your job and look for ways to improve your skills – technical and personal. I look back and nod when I read notes like, “Don’t wear a watch,” and the sound advice, “If you need to give someone a taking to, take them aside and do it quietly.” Those are the kind of notes I value the most – the ones that will make me just a little bit better next time.

Five Things A Producer Should Never Say

1. “I can’t speak to you because I am mixing my movie.” (worst when said to the Director of your next project)

Producers do this all the time. They take advantage of whatever stage their movie is at to avoid talking to someone or dealing with something. Let’s get this straight. A producer may be “in a mix” and may even be involved in a creative discussion – I am not belittling that at all – but a producer is not sitting there riding those faders mixing the film. Now, a mix can have some very intense moments with a lot of back and forth, but by and large they are miserably boring places where I am usually engaged in other work until that moment where I am called on to listen, usually to a bird tweeting or some effect, and express my learned opinion. A producer doesn’t mix a movie, or color correct one for that matter. In general, don’t overstate the importance of what you are doing, especially to people who understand the process. Also, and this is just as important, don’t say something like that to a director on another project. You can’t leave a director hanging on any issue with the reason being you are too busy working on some other movie. To the director on the phone there is no other movie. Theirs is the only movie on the planet and you should always take their call.

2. “How’s the food?” (when referring to meals served on set)

 The food on the set is always just okay, unless it’s horrible. Part of the reason for this has nothing to do with the skill of the chef.  It’s important to understand that you are dealing with a caterer and they are doing your whole show which means they are making breakfast and lunch for 100 people every day for weeks on end. Even when the chefs are spectacular, they can’t vary the food enough to please all of those mouths. It’s the reason we don’t eat at the same restaurant every time we go out, even if we have restaurants that we love. It’s the same reason that, in my house, we split the cooking between myself, my wife and my daughter-in-law and son. And that’s only when cooking for 5 people. When you have a hundred or more there will always be someone who isn’t satisfied. When you walk around with a sign on your back that reads “complaint bureau” (at least it feels that way sometimes) then you might do well to just keep your opinions and your questions to yourself. In short, listen for grumblings and try to head them off but don’t “look for trouble” (as my mother used to say) by asking questions.

3. “We’ve gotta be done with this scene in 5 minutes!”  (worst done while charging onto set in the midst of a very difficult scene)

If you’re thinking this and feel absolutely compelled to say it, STOP. Take a deep breath. Go for a short walk while you  consider a couple of things: what kind of a jam are you really in? In other words, how serious is this situation? Now, ask yourself, “What’s the best possible outcome, both for the moment and for the long term?” It is probably not as bad as you think it is. We tend to get so wrapped up in the drama – not only in front of the camera but often behind it as well, that we can’t make rational decisions. And by the way, in 33 years of doing this, I’ve never seen a producer say that line and have it work. No one ever says, “Okay!” and moves on to the next scene. But if you try and understand why it never works I think you might find a better way to move that set along.

First, know that there isn’t a Director, Actor, DP or Assistant Director that willingly gets stuck in a quagmire of a scene. No one is starting the day saying, “Let’s spend 7 or 8 hours on that little 2/8th page scene.” Struggling with your work, especially in front of an entire crew, is no fun. It’s not unlike forgetting your lines take after take or screwing up a lighting cue over and over. It sucks. Everyone knows how much it costs or at least they know it costs a lot more than they can afford. Plus it’s demonized as unprofessional. Add to that the fact that crews are generally tired and they want to move through the work as fast as possible. Knowing all this should help you to understand that no one is trying to ruin your life or your career or even your precious budget. Alright, so we’ve established that this situation isn’t about you personally and that panicking never works. Now what?

Solving any problem requires that you have some knowledge and information at your disposal. Don’t wait until you need to “finish in five minutes.” When things start to slow down you should find your way to the camera and observe. That way, if things continue to slog along, you can make an informed judgment and offer the best advice. By the way, this is why I don’ spend all day sitting by the monitor and involve myself in every discussion about the shooting – that makes you part of the problem. Spending time away from camera not only lets you do other facets of your job but allows you to provide those “fresh eyes” at key moments.

So you’ve observed what’s going on – now what? You probably don’t need to point out the fact that the shoot is falling behind – everyone can feel that. You don’t even have to look at your watch. And this type of situation is the exact reason that I haven’t worn a watch in 20 years – too much anxiety for me and anyone who sees me staring at it. Once you have a feel for the source of the trouble, explore your options – either in your head or with someone else, usually the AD, but you can talk to anyone you trust. Then bring everyone together to discuss those options. Whatever you do, don’t panic. It’s not going to solve anything. Sadly, I know that from experience. If panic solved problems on a set I would have been singlehandedly responsible for saving a whole lot of shooting days and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

4 & 5. “Yes” and “No” ( As a knee-jerk reaction when a brilliant idea or unexpected problem occurs)

These last two may seem “cute” but they are really about keeping your options open until you really have to make that decision.  In short, it’s irresponsible to make a hasty judgment about any significant expenditure on a film until you are certain that it’s necessary. A producer’s job is to find that balance among three central questions: Does the Director feel that this is really important for the story? What do I need to know to make this decision unequivocally? And when does this decision need to be made?  Those three questions need to be answered every time a “surprise” presents itself.  One word answers aren’t enough.  A “Yes” may commit you to something you really can’t afford or don’t need. A “No” can stir resentment if the creatives feel you’re just trying to make your job easier and you only care about money.

You’ll have some time in prep and post to research things and make good decisions but the timeline is still short. When things come up during shooting, there is obviously more immediacy. Decisions here have a much shorter timeline.  And don’t forget, every decision has consequences across multiple departments. My suggestion? Ask a lot of questions. Always be positive but never making promises you can’t keep. Gather as much information as possible, especially from your key crew people. Finally, make the decision when you are comfortable that you’ve gathered all the facts and don’t second guess yourself or anyone else if it turns out not to be the right decision.

That’s my short list of “what not to say”. Do you have anything you’ve ever said as a producer or on a set that you wish you hadn’t?  Let me know!

We Are Film Jerks

Over the years, as I’ve grown to know and love so many of the people who work in our industry, I’ve been struck by the almost blind call to duty of so many of them. This calling is what I affectionately refer to as being a Film Jerk. What does it mean and how does a producer channel this extreme devotion and enormous resource?

Film Jerk, to me, means there’s no such thing as the word “no” and no such phrase as, “It can’t be done.” It means God created mountains for the express purpose of having that Film Jerk move them in order to get a better shot. It’s “get it done at all costs” – up to the the human cost that maintains everyone’s physical safety and the financial cost the line producer has approved . Why the “jerk” label? That’s how they are perceived in the outside world. Film jerks come up with the most insane and unreasonable requests and work the most insane hours under extreme conditions, all in the service of making a movie. That’s what sets them apart.

People with straight jobs are often told and encouraged to think “outside the box.” They have to be told to do that because that’s where they live, inside a box. What attracts them to their job is the security of knowing exactly what’s going to happen every day and exactly what’s expected of them. Production people don’t really “live” anywhere. It’s a traveling circus on the best days and a hot mess on the worst. For starters, the hours are horrible by most standards. When we budget a standard shooting day, we budget a 12 hour day. That’s 12 hours of work time. In between there’s roughly an hour break for lunch. What that means is that a crew member expects to be at the set for a minimum of 13 hours each day. That’s an awful lot of hours for a five day work week and if you’re shooting on location that could be a six day work week (we’ll try to discourage six day weeks in future posts).

Now let’s take that 65 hour week and add to it the fact that you’re usually on your feet for the better part of it. And you’re in a constant state of “readiness”. Movie sets are where the phrase “hurry up and wait” was coined. You wait, wait, wait… then have to leap in and do your job in 60 seconds. Depending on what department you’re in there are varying levels of physical and/or emotional stress. If you’re a grip or electrician you will be handling a lot of very heavy and usually very hot equipment. If you’re a make-up artist you have the almost impossible task of making that actor look as good in the 13th hour as they did in the 1st hour. And please hurry it up because you’ve got 100 exhausted crew members waiting to get this day over with!

Keep in mind that your day may be even longer because of your wrap time. Cleaning up, clearing out equipment and loading trucks might add another hour to your day or more. Once the shooting ends for the day just about every crew member has some additional work to do before they can leave. Finally, heaven forbid that you are a driver of one of those trucks that was being loaded up. Those people probably have another 30 minutes to one hour to drive that truck to a secure parking lot – and don’t forget they had the same amount of extra time added to their day that morning when they picked the truck up.

Most of these folks are operating on adrenalin and the reason for the adrenalin rush is the human body’s reaction to a massive dose of stress at almost every turn. The end result of say, finding the only guy with the key to the elevator at 2am or convincing the city film commissioner to give your movie star a police escort to get them to a helipad faster so they can make a public appearance in another city, brings great satisfaction. But it’s the agonizing couple of hours spent trying to solve the problem in the first place that exerts tremendous mental pressure. And there’s really no getting around it. You are in a business that spends tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars per day to create and capture once in a lifetime moments on camera. Even if you have the money to come back and do it tomorrow – it won’t look or feel the same. And your business, by definition requires a lot of people to collaborate and do their best work at all sorts of crazy hours under all sorts of crazy conditions – all in the service of telling a story.

So what’s the producer’s role in all this?

The producer gets to manage not only their own stress level, but the stress level of the entire crew and cast. Assuming that you’ve hired smart talented people, that stress and anxiety level is the main obstacle to getting the best work out of everyone. Maintaining the right “internal temperature” of the set is vital. There needs to be enough focus and concentration to get the work done but it must exist within a relaxed and open environment where people are free to be creative.  The “Film Jerk” mentality is a powerful resource but it has to be applied with reason. It’s almost like protecting people from their own instincts. That actor who is willing to do their own stunt, for example, needs to be protected. The same goes for that crew member pushing themselves to get the work done in that 14th hour of the day. A producer should know when to ask for that kind of effort and when to step back and say, “I appreciate the offer, but let’s get a good night’s sleep and come back to this tomorrow.”

That’s an easy thing to say as I sit here at my desk on a leisurely Sunday morning creating a new blog post but it’s not so easy to actually do when you’re in the heat of the moment.  What do you do when you have to finish a day’s work or take a huge budget hit? Do you push the crew and cast to a ridiculously long day or take the hit or… is there some other smart solution? This is the thing every producer struggles with and something I’ve faced for my entire career. Sometimes I make the right choice and sometimes I make the wrong choice. And sometimes, I just don’t know.

That’s the key role of a producer – dealing with those choices and making those decisions in conjunction with the director and the financiers. It’s really what underlies every course and every post on this site. It’s about passing on knowledge, tricks, tips and simple common sense advice. For example, I preach a lot about working very hard in prep because one of the best stress avoidance tools I can think of for a crew and cast is a well prepared Director and Producer. That’s huge and it’s one area we’ll spend so much time on. As another example, the Set Safety Course I introduced in my last post provides lots of very specific tips to help avoid some of the physical human costs of working under this kind of stress.

My most recent Film Jerk moment involved my daughter who was a Second AD on  a short film shooting out in Pennsylvania. On a Saturday morning at call time she found herself down a couple of PAs and made a desperate phone call to a friend in Manhattan who had been working freelance as a PA. She told her friend that she really needed help as soon as possible. Her friend, being a true Film Jerk didn’t even bother to go back to Williamsburg where she lived to pack a bag. She headed straight to a bus station, sorted out the best bus to take and was on set two and a half hours later. She worked the rest of the day and then another 12 hour day on Sunday, after which she drove the equipment truck back to Manhattan. I heard that story and I thought, “That girl is going to make it in this business.” She did what was needed without thinking twice and all in the service of someone else’s desire to tell a story. That kind of dedication is something we’ll touch on a lot in future posts. It’s what gets an Intern a paying job and gets a Production Assistant noticed and moved up. Over time, that person becomes a phenomenal problem solver because if “no” is not an option, then you have to dig until you find a solution.

So let’s celebrate that desire to “make the impossible happen”…Film Jerks everywhere – I salute you and I thank each and every one of you for a helluva job!

Do you have a favorite Film Jerk moment to share?

Set Safety Course

Today, the third of the three initial course offerings: Set Safety. If you’ve visited before, you know the classes are free and that to take the class you can go to Course page from here where you can read all about it and register in no time at all. So why “Safety” as the third course?

Accidents happen all the time in all work environments. Film sets can be dangerous places with lots of trucks and equipment including extremely hot lights requiring a lot of electrical power. This course is intended to supplement specific safety courses and instruction from technical experts. Check out the resource links to find more information about safety on set.

For a long time the training for film students involved how to work with and protect the expensive equipment. Rudimentary safety practices from other industries were not really taught to film students as the passion of filmmaking was being stoked. All of that changed because of accidents and serious injuries over the years. Safety is now a hot button issue at many film schools. What’s interesting to note is that it’s not always the stunt car shattering a plate glass window and landing in a parking lot four stories below that requires safety training. Those huge stunts are extremely well planned and well executed (and not part of student film productions). Most set injuries that cost money, time and a good bit of human pain are from routine activities and they can be avoided. This course is designed for anyone who doesn’t realize that the movie making process is really a manufacturing process and that there are inherent dangers that should be addressed.

Through a series of short videos you will get a look at some of the routine safety issues that you can guard against. You’ll also get some solid tips for keeping your crew and cast safe when working in difficult conditions. Remember, the care and safety of a crew are ultimately in the hands of the producer so take that responsibility seriously. I hope you enjoy the course and look forward to your comments. And most importantly, I hope you take set safety very seriously.