June 23, 2009

Creating an energized, productive set begins long before you ever get there. It starts with the people you've chosen to join the team. Making a decision about who to hire is never easy. No matter how carefully you consider someone you never really know if the Production Designer you've just hired is going to show up one day and reveal themselves to be a total whackjob.

Here are some guidelines that have helped me occasionally. They are not foolproof but at least they may give you a place to start. They refer mainly to low, or no budget films where there is no money to buy talent or allegiance.

Your goal is to hire the most talented, dedicated person for the job. On a low budget film your only lure is your reputation as a director or the script itself. It won't be the money. But, you still have the right to expect the best. You have the right to believe that intelligent, talented people are out there who just might take the job because they're interested in you and the project.

It is crucial to be able to discern the level of that interest. You should expect the highest. You do not want someone working for you, no matter how talented, who is not completely inspired by you and the film. This brings up a very common dilemma. Should I hire the genius who is partially inspired, or should I go with a lesser known talent who would cut off their arm to do the film?

I still find the decision a complicated one. But I've come to realize that passion and commitment ultimately outweigh talent--especially when it is accompanied by neurosis. Every time I've hired someone based on their stature or reputation it has come back to haunt me. Every time. I've found that it doesn't matter how talented someone is; if they feel like they're doing you a favor by taking the job you will ultimately get screwed.

Note to any hirees reading this: if you're not willing to commit yourself to the job 100% don't take it. Do yourself and everybody else a favor and spend the 8 weeks cleaning out your refrigerator or smoking opium or both.

On Delirious I had a number of experienced Location Managers to choose from. One of the last people I saw was a young guy who'd only worked as an assistant LM. He was a little nervous at the meeting and kept referring apologetically to his meager resume. After 20 minutes of talking to him I gave him the job. It took only a few days of pre-production to realize his commitment to the film was complete. Every time a location fell through he found me a better one. On the rare instances that he made a mistake he worked triple time to correct it. He ended up being one of the best people I've had on any of my crews.

Maybe I was just lucky. There is a huge risk factor when you hire this way. No amount of enthusiasm will make up for incompetence. This is where your ability to talk to people, to get inside them, to really make a clear judgement of their potential becomes so important. Do they understand what you're trying to do with the film? How do they work with other people? How do they communicate? Why do they really want the job? Go ahead and ask these questions. You've got nothing to lose. The more direct you are the more chance you have of avoiding disaster.

Talk to people who've worked with the person you're considering. If another director has had a good experience with them they'll be happy to pass that information on. Most directors, knowing how destructive a bad choice can be, will tell you the truth. Listen to it.

Fellini talked about the concept of "willingness" in a documentary called I'm A Born Liar. He said if everybody working on the film is willing, then no problem is unsolvable. Willingness means that everyone is unified in their commitment to the film and is open to doing whatever it takes to find a solution. There are no rules; no regulations or restrictions. Only possibilities.

I have experienced this willingness many times. It is unbelievably powerful. I've also experienced the opposite and only at those times have I ever said to myself, "I never want to make another fucking movie."

On Box Of Moonlight, I stepped away from a composer I'd been working with for three films to hire Devlin Z, a well-known musician who'd scored some big independent movies. I gave him complete freedom. Twice a week I'd go down to his apartment and listen to what he'd written. I was alarmed to hear that the music was consistently dark and sour.  Nonetheless, I kept encouraging him, keeping my comments positive and supportive. One night, sensing he was in particular need for stroking, I called Devlin and said,

"I appreciate the effort you're putting into this and the score is going to be great."

"I know it is," he said. "But it's hard for me. My music is a gift. It's my gift. It just comes out of me and it's really, really difficult to just give it to you."

I was a little confused and at this point slightly annoyed by his narcoleptic moping. "Are you saying you're returning the $80,000 I convinced my producers to pay you?"

"No!" he sniffed, furious that he even had to hear something so idiotic.

The music began sounding more and more like it was written by a suicidal junkie nodding out at the piano. Three weeks later, just after the final mix, I realized I had to jettison Devlin's entire score. The film shut down for two months while my original composer re-scored the film for almost nothing.

If someone ever uses this "gift" phrase to you I'd appreciate it if you slapped them for me. Their contribution is not a gift to you but an equal collaboration that benefits you both. If they don't understand that fire them immediately.

The more you depend on someone and the greater their creative responsibility the greater the potential for conflict. That is why the two most volatile relationships for the Director are with 1. your lead actor, and 2.  your Director of Photography. In most cases you can't make the film without either of them. In most cases they'll make sure you know that.

The next most potentially disruptive relationship is between the Director and the Production Designer--again because you need their eye. After that, it's between your Director of Photography and your Production Designer. They tend to hate each other and take great pleasure in making each other's lives miserable, especially when they are competing for your approval. I will discuss each of these Conflict Areas in future posts.

Oddly, I have never had conflicts with Costume Designers. Jennifer Von Meyerhauser was my Designer on Double Whammy. One night we were shooting late, racing to finish a scene that involved a 12 year old white kid named Ricky. We were shooting in the depths of Newark, New Jersey, in a bombed out burger joint we'd restored for a day of shooting. The place was going to be demolished in the morning. Cut-off shooting time for Ricky was 1 am and the Child Welfare rep was on set to make sure. At 12:57 there was still one crucial shot I needed. The rep emphatically denied my plea for more time. The crew began taking down the lights. I was devastated.

Suddenly Jennifer came running up holding the hand of a young African-American girl who'd been watching us shooting. Jennifer had asked her to try on Ricky's costume--jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt--which all fit her perfectly. I quickly changed the shot so it would only shoot her from the waist down. The crew threw the lights back up. Everybody was yelling, racing against the clock. I showed the young girl where she needed to walk and screamed Action!

She was so caught up in our mad frenzy she literally ran through the set like a startled rabbit. I called her back, apologized and calmly explained that she needed to go much slower. This was hard for me because I was fighting a fierce spasm of exhausted hilarity. The next take was perfect and we made it out just in time. We paid the girl and I thanked her so profusely I know she thought I was insane.

Every time I see that part of the film I think, "Look how crazy making a film is. Those are not the legs and feet of a little white boy named Ricky, but the slender limbs of a sweet, brown-skinned young stranger whose willingness saved my ass."

Hey Salli,
Yes, I have used a “safety” shot many times. The one film I didn’t shoot them was Johnny Suede. I chose to shoot everything in master shots. This locked me into the built-in rhythm of the filmed action. I had no way to sharpen it, or to cut to a better take of a different section. I ended up having to cut whole scenes in order to keep the film moving.
There are some scenes that I shot in a very specific style that I know when I’m done filming that I don’t need nuthin’. I’ve learned over the years though that 2-3 page scenes require what is termed “coverage” (master shots, medium shots and close-ups) in order to help you in the editing room.
John Sayles once said (and I agree with him) that the film is written 3 times. Once, when you write the script. Second, when you shoot. And third, in the editing room.
You never really know what the film you ended up with is until you’re all done shooting and you see what you’ve got. Most of the time what you’ve got is quite different from what you intended and the most important thing a director can do at this point is really, really see just what it is that he or she does have.
It is only then that the editing work begins and the film begins to take its true form.
have you used a safety shot and if so how do you personally feel it removed the unique quality of the scene?
Hey Salli,
Yes, I do story board. Not in the official sense. Mainly just stick figures and egg-shaped heads with noses pointing either left or right to help me with screen direction.
Mainly I’ll do this to make sure I have a scene covered in the most effective way, that I have all the crucial building blocks to put the scene together in the editing room. Especially if it is a complicated scene.
Sometimes you have a strong visual idea and you go with it, even though you know that it will make it hard to shape or adjust it afterwards. Some people always shoot safety shots, to help reshape the scene in the event it doesn’t work or needs to be shortened in the final film.
This does provide safety, but it also removes anything unique about the way the scene is presented. Tough call sometimes.
yore pal,
Hey John Arden,
Well, man that was a very moving and eloquent note. I appreciate it and take your words to heart.
First and foremost though let me just assure you, that however much Box of Moonlight may have affected you any change in yourself came directly from you–not me. I urge you to acknowledge that and value it.
I think it’s great you transitioned from cop to screenwriting. I’m sure you must have witnessed a lot of the highs and lows of human interaction. See if you can transfer them to the page. The more personal the better. That’s the problem I have with much of what we see these days; it is all relentlessly generic.
I will keep persevering. You do the same.
Ouch on the 80K loss, Tom. Do you ever story board your scripts?
john warwick arden
Dear Tom,
I have been catching up with all your blog entries tonight, and I must say I find all your supplemental work fascinating; including the ‘Oblivion’ diaries, ‘Moonlight’ diaries, etc- all first rate stuff. Informative, entertaining, strangely inspiring (given that your candour should make the rest of us struggling in this medium give up, walk away and find a real job! what are we? fucking nuts? we need a mountain to fall on us?)
Why do we keep going?
I used to be a cop; I left to become a screenwriter, and I have been slaving away at the word now for just under a decade. And I have been watching you and your work, from the beginning, for inspiration and entertainment.
And to the best of my knowledge, you have not made ANYTHING that does not rate as extraordinary in my view. They are all terrific films- each and every one- although ‘Moonlight’ is my fave.
I had a shithouse home life as a lad, and I have spent the remainder of my years trying to compensate for this by ‘looking for a home’, as I think to some extent we all do. And in a funny way, sometimes ‘Moonlight’ feels like my home. I reckon one could do a lot worse than hang out with ‘the kid’ for a while.
Thanks for sticking with Sam Rockwell, BTW; he IS the kid!
I know you went through buggery to make ‘Moonlight’ as you seem to have done in all your work. But I would like to say, from my POV, it was well worth it. I realise it might be cold comfort to you, but to me…I hesitate to say something as overly emotive as ‘your films saved my life’, but- particularly in ‘Moonlight’s case- that is not too far from the truth.
I do not know you personally, so I am not sure how you judge your success. But you have told me enough through your generous supplemental material and your blogs to suggest to me that you are unlikely to be motivated by vast bags of cash or rampant adulation by the masses. It seems to me, unless I have misjudged you, that you want to tell your wonderful stories, and make a modest living.
Not too much to ask in a civilized society. Ahem.
Tom, I wish I had the dough to finance your films; I don’t need to see your scripts- I know that the ‘worst’ Tom DiCillo film was ‘right on the money’.
Your name is a safe bet in terms of content.
What can I say about the commercial realities? Like the human propensity toward cruelty and violence, we also seem to be driven by a strange lust for cash, and we love to fuck one another in the arse over the last few dollars. Twas ever thus; and as long as we humans hold onto this primal inclination toward selfishness and savagery, and refuse to contemplate, let alone engage in personal (and collective) transcendence, then I fear we will continue inexorably toward our own destruction.
What gives me hope? You, and people like you (damned few). You have helped me, my friend. Can you grasp this? Does it help? Can you take it to heart, and accept it not only as grateful thanks to you as an artist and a humanitarian man, but also, with respect, as an affirmation of the value of your chosen vocation?
I hope if it reaches you, this communique affords you some small comfort to steel you against further trials and tribulations in your future endeavours; unless 2012 and the coming ‘rapture’ does not wipe us from the face of the earth, but indeed supplies all of us- we, the faithful- with some long awaited miracles??
Go well, my friend and gifted artisan.
Travel safely, find happiness when and where you can, and know you have touched very deeply at least one man who probably should not be here but for your wonderful work…
John Warwick Arden
Well Erik,
It sounds like you’ve been there. You know what I mean when I speak about these encounters that ultimately leave you dispirited and exhausted.
You’ve got to trust there are people out there who will do an amazing job for you without any of the crap. They may not look like what you imagine but they are there. And their unadulterated professionalism and generosity of spirit is the only thing that matters.
Hey Salli,
Mr. Z kept every cent of the 80k. The producers were furious with me for insisting on hiring him in the first place. I paid for the re-scoring out of my own pocket, assisted by some great generosity from the composer, Jim Farmer.
I never spoke to Z again. I ran into him once at a party. The look on my face for some reason sent him scurrying out of the room.
Hey Elaine,
The shot in question is in the very beginning of the film, after the lunatic drives his truck through the burgerjoint window. It’s a medium close-up of little Ricky’s “feet” stepping cautiously over bodies and debris.
Shutting down Box Of Moonlight for 2 months was terrifying. Ultimately though, the composer Jim Farmer, brought the film back to life.
Shee-it man, I hired a “talent” to shoot my first film. His shots came out good, but only the ones that he framed right, and his passive-aggressive vibe of “I might quit and fuck your show” ultimately ground the spring out of the film’s step.
Or rather, I let it grind it out.
But crazily enough, every time the issue comes up again, part of me says “hey, I know that guy. I bet I could get it to work out!” — totally forgetting what a nightmare it was.
How did you handle the $80,000 payout for Mr. Z? Did he return it? (offstage laughter). Did you write it off?
Hey Tom,
Well, you know what I need to do now, right? Go watch Double Whammy again and pick out that scene 🙂
Another interesting post with great info. I remember reading about rescoring Box of Moonlight when the film was basically stalled for 2 mos. That must have driven you insane, though the music and sounds for that film are absolutely fantastic so glad you got rid of the sour music! A dirge would not have worked well for Box of Moonlight.
Interesting observation about production designer and director of photography competing for director approval. Would like to hear more on this topic for future posts, and how it affects things on set.
Glad to read the comments about how well the Doors screening went in LA.

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