Saturday, February 13, 2010

Film School Follies: Part 14 – The Worst of Times II

By ScottDS

In an early Three Stooges short titled Movie Maniacs, the Stooges are living in a boxcar coupled to a train headed for Hollywood. With stars in his eyes, Curly asks Moe, "How we gonna get in pictures? We know nothing about movies." Moe replies, "There’s a couple of thousand people in pictures now [who] know nothing about it. Three more won’t make any difference." Indeed.

Trouble Begins

I don’t recall the specific sequence of events but things actually went pretty well for a few days. Ryan, Jerrod, and I spent an entire day discussing the characters’ backstories (a completely fruitless endeavor). Kit had a little shindig at his place and we all had a good time. It would be one of the last good times we had for a while.

June 4th, 2004. We had our first pre-pro meeting today. [No one bothered to take notes for our NBC crew meetings.] All things considered, I think it went well. Obviously every group has a few people that don’t say anything, a few people that say a lot, and everyone else in between. I think we’re an okay mix. I have to be careful about ripping into Die Todes Groupe since a few of their key crewmembers are working on our film. Jerrod said something to the effect of, "We’re not sure [about the style of the film]..." and apparently, Ryan cut him off. Afterwards, Jerrod told Ryan not to make him look like a "f---ing idiot" ever again. I tried to keep out of it. Gema stayed after a few minutes just to see what we were up to which only reaffirms my belief that she is the best person one could work with.

I think because this group is composed of more than half of the Sanguinity crew, some people in the other groups will be looking for weaknesses. In my opinion, we were the best group in 16mm. Ryan is an okay guy. A little aloof sometimes but aren’t we all? Jerrod seems like an okay guy. In fact, I told him the three of us should go out drinking one night just to clear the air and get to know each other. He said it was a good idea. We just have to be united in vision and spirit so we don’t look like [asses] out there on the set. I don’t even know how we’re going to divvy up the directing duties. I’d prefer doing everything together instead of rotating. I fear one of us might get thrown out of the loop. Ryan wrote the damn thing. Ryan and I have known each other since CMI. He and Jerrod worked together in DC but he and I worked together in 16mm. I hope Jerrod doesn’t find himself out of the loop since I know what that’s like and it sucks.
I had written up a shot list for my portfolio and I assume Ryan and Jerrod did the same for theirs, but from reading through my journal (for the first time in years), it’s clear that our crew felt the need to be part of the process. Truth be told, no one ever explained where the directors’ responsibilities ended and the camera crew’s began (to say nothing of the unit production manager). In filmmaking, there is a hierarchy involved but in our case, it was clear there was already a power vacuum.
June 5th, 2004. A few of us met at my place to supposedly plan our shots. We were told no more than 80 and I think we can manage with that. Matt was the first to arrive, happy as ever. He told me the script wasn’t very funny. He’s right, to an extent. Ryan, Jeremy, and Gema showed up, followed by Jerrod, and finally Dave. So we all sat down in the living room to go over shots but we spent at least the first hour working on the script. It was quite miserable, knowing that we should have done all that work a day or two earlier. It was almost embarrassing. I had already sent a mass e-mail out to everybody including Katie and Spoon stating that we had finally finished the end-all be-all version of the script. I sent copies to everyone. Guess what. It’s not the f---ing final version anymore! I’m dreading walking into that second pre-pro meeting like an ass, having to explain that we have a new one. However, I e-mailed Katie telling her the error of our ways and it’s my sincere hope that she’s able to make photocopies of the final final version (when we e-mail it to her) to give to everybody.
Part of it is still a mystery but, from what I understand, sometime after Spoon announced Canadians but before Rob announced the final crew rosters, Ryan revised the NBC script. He didn’t add any jokes – mostly just exposition. The script grew longer but not funnier and people started asking, "What happened?" And I was never certain of Ryan’s ability to switch his writer cap for his director cap. After the initial read-through in class, no one came up to us with suggestions: lines, jokes... anything. We were accused of being close-minded but no one ever told us anything. Once in a blue moon, someone would come up with a good gag but they would tell only me. Then I’d have to tell Ryan. My success rate was about 50%. Also, with three directors, just one of us would be useless. Majority ruled but it was quite difficult to get all three of us in the same spot at the same time.
June 5th, 2004. The time at my place was near agony. As much as I love working with Dave and Gema and the rest, it was just disheartening. I didn’t want tons of people at my place, hence the expression, "Too many cooks in the kitchen." However, there were some good ideas hatched and we managed to edit out one page of the script. Bill had e-mailed me earlier and said that he hasn’t read the latest version but, if he did and found it unfunny, then we would all have a nice little meeting. I sent him an e-mail explaining our intentions and how it’s not a funny ha-ha script. I still don’t think he read it.

There were some silent moments and awkward pauses during the meeting. Seeing Gema just sitting there staring out into space pains me. We started on shots. We spent 45 minutes on just the first scene. MS? LS? MLS? It was painful, especially with three directors to answer to. I just didn’t care anymore but it’s hard to do that when you’re on a team and when you have to set an example for everyone else. Dave had the idea of splitting the script into thirds. We’d each take a third. We picked what scenes we wanted to plan shots for and went from there. Matt left. Jerrod left. Kit was having a barbecue at his place around 5-ish.
Eventually, we came up with a shot list and started storyboarding the film. I made up a custom template on Word, with the shot numbers and descriptions on the right and empty boxes for artwork on the left. Luckily, Jerrod was a very talented artist. We were on a tight schedule so he started drawing in earnest at my dining room table. Ryan had to step in and help once it became clear that just one of Jerrod’s storyboards would take thirty minutes to complete. Ryan wasn’t as good an artist (I should talk) but his boards got the point across. In retrospect, we completely overestimated the number of shots we’d need and almost immediately had to start cutting (with a limit of 80, we had around 78 separate shots!). I remember thinking we should shoot the entire film handheld (like The Office) but no one was a fan of that idea. Once again, each shot would be numbered and lettered (1D = the fourth shot of scene 1) but we mislabeled some of them so we had to go back and make corrections at the last minute. By the time we started shooting, I was forced to cut shots on day 4 after Ryan and Jerrod shot too many takes over the first three days.

One quick note about the tight schedule: the shame of shooting first was that we had to go from zero to sixty without having a lot of time to plan, to have fun, to experiment. (Of course, even if we had three extra weeks and shot last, we’d still have problems to deal with.) Sure, the three of us got together to brainstorm but I just remember thinking, "It’s a shame we don’t have more time since I’d love to try X, Y, or Z." It also meant we had to have the script locked before any of us felt really comfortable with it. Every time we’d think we were done, someone (usually Bill) would call and complain. It was a vicious cycle. And Bill rarely complained because he thought the script needed work – it was always on behalf of someone else... someone who should’ve told us.
June 8th, 2004. I want out. Okay, that was just a f---ing little bluff but, seriously, I’m tired of this bulls---. Bill [...] told me this morning at what was supposed to be a productive art meeting with Claudia and Jor’El that "some people" – and of course, he didn’t name names – have expressed to him their feelings about the script. In short, nobody thinks it’s funny. Well, guess what. There will never be a second wherein everyone in the group thinks it’s funny. Humor is so subjective. What Ryan thinks is funny might not be funny to me and vice versa [...]. [Bill] told me the script used to be funnier. The script used to be SHORTER! It’s no less funny than when we started and if anyone had bothered to say anything, we could have made any and all necessary changes before we made thirty copies of the f---ing thing. The original version (the one Ryan showed to some of us in screenwriting) wasn’t that good, both in form and content. But he did have an idea.

Ryan and Jerrod are over working on storyboards. We just sat around for about an hour bouncing ideas off each other wondering how we can make this [thing] funnier. Ryan [...] said he never envisioned this film as a comedy. He just wanted to tell a good story. I think Bill might have made the story out to be the funniest thing since sliced bread. I don’t know. So we sat around just thinking of cool ideas and I think we got a few good ones. Jerrod gave a script to Dan to read over since, according to Jerrod, Dan is "the most anal guy ever." Jerrod called him back and, apparently, Dan was over at Bill’s with a few others "working on" the script. F--- that. I called him. He said they were having a good time working on it, adding in a few things, taking a few things out. He said they would bring their version of the script to the meeting tomorrow and take a vote.
This is where it all started – the downward spiral. Dan (from the camera crew) lived in the same complex I did so Jerrod simply walked over to his place and gave him the script for a second opinion. An hour later, we found out he and a few others (we never got names) were working on the script behind our backs. This was completely improper and unprofessional, not to mention a betrayal of trust. Technically no one ever told us whose responsibility it was to revise the script but it certainly wasn’t the camera crew and it certainly wasn’t under these circumstances.
June 8th, 2004. Bill was insistent about taking votes for every single thing in 16mm and I can understand that. Hell, I could even respect that. But not in 35mm. I told him NO VOTING! He said he’d e-mail me a version of the script in a few hours to see what we thought. Then Ryan called him and accused him of stabbing us in the back. Ryan’s case is that, if Bill and the gang came in with a script versus our script, it would amount to mutiny and make us look like schmucks. I don’t know what transpired in that phone call but I don’t think Ryan is happy. I can appreciate Bill’s wish to get everyone involved. The logic, of course, is that everyone in the group will feel better if they knew we listened to their ideas and opinions, no matter how idiotic. I can understand that. But there has to be a line. And the worst part about this is the script isn’t even that great! I almost feel stupid defending it. Jerrod blames himself a little bit for letting Dan read the script. If he knew the script would be taken straight to Bill’s, I doubt Jerrod would ever have given him one. I told Ryan as a joke that, if the s--- really hits the fan, we should quit. The three of us. I’ll do VTR/playback on In the Nude.

This is so ugly. Bill e-mailed me the new script and it wasn’t the total [mess] I expected it to be. There were about a dozen changes, both big and small. Guess what? We liked about half of them. We’re open-minded and we liked some of the jokes, especially the Tampa Bay hockey reference. However, the stuff that we didn’t like was s---. They had Stanley and the guys driving fancy sports cars. They had Michael as a hockey stick-wielding maniac, ready to strike at the nearest person or object. I guess that’s kinda sorta our fault since we never gave Bill the character breakdowns that we came up with and we always imagined Michael as the new guy, a Gareth (from The Office) clone. There were a few other things in there, lines that we liked and disliked. There were also several pages that weren’t touched, which I find odd for a so-called "unfunny script." Bill called Ryan and they chatted for about ten minutes. It didn’t sound good. Bill seems to be insistent on making thirty copies of that script for everyone. WE WILL ALL LOOK LIKE F---ING IDIOTS if that happens. It won’t look good for the class, for the group, for us, for anything. In a way, I feel this is poetic justice. "The crew of Sanguinity collapses under pressure – film at 11." Bill said he was the middleman and I don’t believe that for a second. They worked on the script at his house!!
Not Quite the Bottom

Then I went ahead and made the biggest mistake of my Full Sail career. I stepped over so many toes and was nearly fired for this. I needed to speak to Katie, our ineffectual producer. She was always the last to show for meetings but I needed to intercept her before anyone else could.
June 9th, 2004. I think I’m starting to develop some as-yet-unnamed psychiatric disorders. I run to the film department but Bill’s nowhere in sight. I run upstairs and who answers the door? Why, Dave [a different one – the head of the entire film department!], of course! He probably wondered why this strange boy was creeping around the office, seeing if the copy machine was being used. I was about to leave when I realized I might not have the opportunity to speak with him again so I asked him if he had a spare minute or two. I stated our case. Although I was secretly hoping he’d let us fire Bill and the other conspirators (yeah, I know, that was probably a little harsh), he said he understood our plight and was interested in the outcome of the meeting.

I went back downstairs to find Ryan. Usually, he’s the happy-go-lucky guy in the group. Not this time. He looks so depressed. He is very attached to the script, which is perfectly understandable. Jerrod came by a short time later. We all sat on the couch for a good thirty minutes. I stared into space, maybe blinked once or twice. Dave came by. I asked him if he made copies. He said I could talk to Bill who was only two steps behind him. Two steps later, Bill came in. His bag seemed heavier than usual. I asked and, of course, he said it was full of copies. We must have talked for about twenty minutes. I feel like the directors’ spokesman. I don’t want to be nor was it my intention to be put in that position. Ryan was tired and probably not in the mood to talk. Not me. I presented my case to him, begging him one more time not go ahead with this child’s play. He laughed it up. He said he has no doubts about our directing abilities but I told him that wasn’t the point. The point was that they went behind our backs.

Eventually, the rest of the peanut gallery joined us in the lobby. Ah, Gema. She knows about the script problems so that takes care of one thing. I had wanted to keep this a secret but I guess everyone knows already. Strike one. She said she had heard about the debacle from a few people but was sworn to secrecy. Strike two. What secrecy? There shouldn’t be secrets kept from anybody, especially us. Claudia’s [...] on our side here. She said that, in the real world, most film techs don’t get to decide what they work on, let alone tailor every script to their particular tastes. She’d read the revised version and thought it was stupid. I hugged her. We talked for a little while before Katie appeared. I wanted to give her a heads up about this bulls--- but was ignored. We all took our seats. Bill placed a pile of scripts on the desk. I placed ours. Katie asked what was up. Bill mentioned voting; I said it was a stupid idea. I had threatened to quit the project. It wasn’t a formal declaration or anything but I told Bill that if some of the jokes that they thought were "funny" ended up in our movie, I’d leave. He said he didn’t give a s---.

We read our script; we read their script. Neither script got a lot of laughs. Anyway, Bill wanted a vote and, thank the maker, we didn’t. Katie, who I have a newfound respect for, said it was up to us. We kinda blubbered our way through it. I doubt we’ll change a thing but I’m gonna bring the laptop into class so we can work during the break and, hopefully, send an e-mail out tonight.
In this draft of the script, Ryan had Stanley (the boss) trimming a bonsai tree at his desk in the opening scene. During the meeting, Bill insisted it would cost too much money to get our hands on one so we scrapped it along with one of my lines of dialogue. At the end when Stanley is arrested for framing his subordinate, Officer St. Pierre was to tell him, "You can tend to your botanical hobbies... behind bars." Not the funniest line but we were grasping at straws at this point. Around this time, Ryan, Jerrod, and I came up with a list of gags – background jokes, funny signs, anything to wring the humor out of this script without violating the reality (and I use that term loosely) that Ryan had created. The keyword was "subtle." Many of the jokes that the other guys inserted were anything but subtle. We also did it so when people would ask, "Is the script funny yet?" we could answer back, "We’re working on it!" without lying. (It didn’t matter because none of our gags made it into the movie.)

A week or two later, Bill called me up one morning before class. Disco wanted the four of us (Bill, Ryan, Jerrod, and myself) at school... for a meeting... and he wanted it "now!" I didn’t write about it in the journal but we all got a nice chewing out. I might be overdramatizing it but Disco’s thesis was basically "Shape up or ship out!" He especially reamed me out for whining to the head of the film department when I easily could’ve spoken to him (Disco), Rob, or even Spoon. (By this time, I realized Spoon was more or less a paperweight with a heartbeat.) But no, I had to go step on at least three sets of toes, and then brag about it after the fact. No one told us that we were almost fired until just before principal photography began... and again after we wrapped. Now whether they (whoever "they" were) wanted the three of us fired or just me, I don’t know. Now I realize there are people out there in the world doing much more important things: soldiers, police officers, doctors… But for this motley crew, the film was everything… and it was ripping us apart at the seams. From the script to the subterfuge, it wasn’t a happy time at all.

One day a few weeks later, I had lunch with Mike at Sonny’s. He and his crew were busy working on In the Nude and even though it wasn’t completely smooth sailing, they could only look at our film and wonder, "How?" "Scott," he said as he took a bite out of his rib sampler (or something). "Look at it like this. In the Nude is like a burgeoning colony. Shooting for the Moon is like Soviet Russia. You guys are Iraq." Thanks, Mike.

Our trouble with the script was nearing an end but we weren’t in the clear yet. A complicated shot that was nixed without telling anyone, a location that was nixed at the last minute, and a death in the Full Sail family awaited us.

To Be Continued...


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Sounds like chaos! It sounds like exactly what you get when you form a committee and then don't define who is running the committee or what everyone's roles will be.

Anonymous said...

Every student film had its problems but I'll let you in on a little secret. I really don't know if this is true or not but several months later, one of my classmates told me that the three 35mm films were specifically assigned as follows: Shooting for the Moon got the best workers with a minimum of ego, Canadians got the biggest egos, and In the Nude was somewhere in between.

It wasn't pretty. Our UPM relished his role in 16mm but in 35mm, the UPM wasn't as integral to the process. And he didn't do anything to stop this. And I'm sure the three of us could've done a little bit more at the first meeting, like "Any suggestions... we're available. Day or night, just call or e-mail." Maybe a simply announcement would've solved everything. I doubt it.

AndrewPrice said...

Egos are certainly a problem, but even a team of Mother Theresas would run into trouble if there is no clear line marking who has what roles and what authority. Human nature just don't work in that situation.

Have you ever thought about how it would have gone if they had said, "here's who does what." And enforced that?

Anonymous said...

The thing is, of course, is that we thought everyone knew their responsibilities. It's a shame a few people stepped out of line. Most people didn't but it became an issue of morale.

If everything was fine from the start, there still would've been problems. Maybe I wouldn't have stressed out as much as I did and, since we would've had a finished script sooner, we would've been able to focus our attention on other things instead of having to prolong everything to get the script fixed. Maybe the set would've looked better because we would've devoted more time and attention to it.

Sadly, as you'll find out in two weeks, we still would've had a tragedy on our hands.

AndrewPrice said...

Nice tease Scott! You should work for the local news!

Writer X said...

Getting people to agree on an artistic idea is nothing less than brutal. I feel your pain, Scott!

And, who died??

Anonymous said...

Andrew - God no! :-)

Writer X - You'll find out in two weeks. But it was someone on the crew.

And I feel your pain as well! But it was simply a matter of: "Okay. This is the script. If anyone has any ideas or anything, talk to the directors. Don't take it upon yourselves to rewrite it behind their backs and then waltz into class like you did nothing wrong!"

I was talking to my friend Mike with whom I wrote In the Nude (the four blogs on that film will appear next month) and you know what? They didn't have these problems. Their camera crew behaved themselves!

Needless to say, there's one person on the Canadians crew that I can't mention without adding "F---" to his name. If aliens were watching they'd think his name was actually the F word!

Anonymous said...

And Andrew...

Since it's pretty quiet here tonight, I have to ask... any questions so far? I'm talking more in terms of the school and education as opposed to filmmaking. I know I haven't gotten very technical with things like lighting and audio recording but as I've said before... hellbent on directing blinded me to other, more practical disciplines. (Damn, that's a good line!)

Steering slightly towards politics, I can tell you when people complain about the lack of right-leaning filmmakers, I'm sure most would agree, "Then encourage your artistic kids and send them to film school!" Our class was a good mix, to the extent that politics came up at all (rarely). I can't vouch for the bigger film schools in LA or NY.

One girl on our crew, a couple years younger than me, was a huge Reagan fan. I couldn't explain it - I assume her parents were fans and she absorbed it or something. :-) Between our classmate's death and Reagan's death that summer, she wasn't too happy.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, No, no questions really.

I agree entirely that conservatives need to stop treating cultural pursuits as somehow unworthy. How can we get our views back into films, music, books, etc. if we don't even participate?

Unfortunately, many of the conservative parents that I know Freak out when their kids want to become artists, filmmakers or musicians. These truly are noble pursuits -- it's what defines who we are, much more so that whether or not you can get a balance sheet to balance.

MegaTroll said...

I'm surprised you got the film done! Ha! I agree with Andrew about conservatives need to stop treating the culture like the enemy.

Anonymous said...

Mega -

Thanks! (uh, I think!) There were people at the time who didn't think we'd get a frame of film shot. Of course, there was no way our UPM and faculty producer would let that happen. Worst-case scenario: we end up with an awful, nonsensical movie.

But today, we're left with a subpar movie with a couple moments that make me smile. Of the three 35mm films produced, it ranks #2. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Mega -- I agree, obviously.

Scott, How much control did the faculty have over this process? Did they let it get this far out of control, or did they not know?

Anonymous said...

Andrew - As you no doubt have read, we did have a faculty producer but she was a bit oblivious and did nothing to nip these problems in the bud.

On the other hand, Mike speaks very highly about Debbie, their producer on In the Nude. She was on the ball but gave Mike and Co. a lot of leeway.

As for the teachers, I don't know. Rob I was almost embarrassed to go to, just because he was so cool and I didn't want him to see us like that! Rob later moderated our Meeting to End All Meetings which I talk about later. Disco was a bit of a hard-ass but he probably could've helped. And Spoon was a walking doorstop!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Let me refine my question. It almost sounds like this was self-study with a faculty person floating around merely to advise. Or am I reading this wrong and they actually were hands on?

Did you all know enough to work that independently?

Anonymous said...

We had lab specialists who assisted with sound, camera, editing, and set design. They would tell us how to do certain things, help set up the dolly track, show people what buttons to push, etc.

We each had a faculty producer and some were better than others. These people did NOT have any creative input in terms of shot design (as long as the shots were doable), script revisions, storyboards, casting, etc.

In retrospect, a lot of it was done by us. We scouted locations, we designed and built the sets (under the watchful eye of the lab assistants), we called the shots in editing, etc.

I hope that answered your question. In short, we had faculty members who were hands on and others who merely advised, but NOT in creative matters.

Anonymous said...

I like this series. It's too bad its ending soon. Sorry to hear about the death. Can we see any of the films they made?

StanH said...

Scott it sounds like a mess, fun…but a mess. I’ve managed people for close to thirty years, and once the coarse is set, get rid of the committee, and figuratively, begin to produce your “widgets.” It doesn’t mean to become obtuse, sometimes you have to adapt on the fly, but absorb the new information, and make a decision.

I’ve never made a movie, but “Tropic Thunder” in a silly way seems to depict the pecking order on a movie set. Tom Cruise is the ultimate boss, (like the head of the film department) and if he hears about disorder, he’ll have the “Key Grip” come smack the director in the nose! The rest of the movie seems pertinent as well.

Anonymous said...

Anon -

It's not ending yet! There are three more blogs for Canadians, plus four for another film, and then one final blog to wrap it all up... so eight more to go.

There is currently no place to see these films. In the 5+ years since graduation, no one has thought to rip them from the DVD and put them on YouTube. We'll see...

Anonymous said...

Stan -

"Fun... but a mess" sums it up nicely! I'd say Tropic Thunder was slightly exaggerated, but only slightly.

I wouldn't say the problem was not getting rid of the committee - some people just didn't know their place. I know that sounds bad but it's true. And the three of us (directors) had to maintain a unified front.

The closest thing we had to Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder was Disco, the associate course director. But it was always the three of us who seemed to get into trouble - not the people who actually started this mess by going behind our backs!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's a good question -- is there any way to transfer these movies to a digital file so that we could see them?

Anonymous said...

Uh... I'm not sure I want to do it without getting the permission of at least a few people. I'll talk to Mike about uploading In the Nude to YouTube or somewhere else. As for Canadians, I don't know. I'll see what I can do and will keep you posted. :-)

You know, these movies aren't very good! But I realize I've been talking about this stuff without you guys being able to watch them. Again, I'll see what I can do.

AndrewPrice said...

Neat. Keep us posted, I'd love to see what you guys achieved!

Anonymous said...

I've got a question about the school. It seems kind of random how people got their jobs. Did everybody who wanted to do a particular job get a chance or was it possible you went to the school to be a director and you never got to direct?

Anonymous said...

Anon -

I have to imagine if you REALLY wanted to direct, they would've given you a shot. For 35mm, you had to prepare a portfolio for the following jobs: director, production manager, director of photography, production designer, casting director, script supervisor, electric, and sound mixer.

I have to assume that many people applied for these jobs and didn't get them since each film, while having multiple directors, only had one production manager, one DP, etc. And we only made three films in 35mm.

We also had people who didn't care what they did and were simply happy to be working on films (I envy them). So we had people who worked as grips and production assistants but they didn't apply for those jobs - it's simply how the dominoes fell.

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