Whacked But Fact #1.

May 8, 2009

Here is the 1st in a new series of posts under the general heading of Whacked But Fact. These are actual incidents that have happened to me. They will appear when I remember them. For legal reasons and for physical safety, name changes are obligatory.

On Johnny Suede, I spent a long time looking for a good director of photography. It was my first film and I wanted it to reflect what I believed was a vision unique to me and my brain. After many months I chose Vic Nesbitz. He was young, smart and had a reel that showed a strong, original eye. He also had some great ideas and I encouraged him to keep them coming. He was aware that I'd shot a few films as an accidental cinematographer and I didn't want him to feel pressured or restricted by my experience. He actually knew much more about light and color than I did. So, I let him know I was more than happy to put the visual responsibilities in his hands. He seemed to appreciate this.

Two weeks into filming something odd began happening. Shots came up in dailies that were out of focus and had faces half out of frame. I mentioned this to Vic. He shrugged and said he'd take care of it. The shrug worried me. The errors continued.

One afternoon we had a break during a scene by the Hudson River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Vic and I were standing at the camera waiting for a light to be set up. Something out on the water caught my eye. A rusting freighter was moving up the river. The low angle of the sun cast the ship in rich, golden light, highlighting its peeling red and white paint. Behind it, the bristling NYC skyline lay in deep shadow.

I quickly motioned to Vic. "Let's get a shot of that freighter. I could use it as a cutaway in this scene."

As I watched the ship gliding past in the shaft of light I couldn't believe how lucky I was. Then I noticed Vic hadn't moved. Thinking he hadn't heard me I said even more quickly, "Hey, Vic. Get me a shot of that freighter."

This time Vic moved. He turned the camera on and put his eye to the eyepiece. It may have been my first film but it wasn't my first time on the set. Something was definitely strange. But as I watched him pan with the ship until it disappeared I thought, "Well, that was weird but at least I'm getting the shot."

The next night the shot came up in dailies and there was an instantaneous gasp from the exhausted group of us watching. The shot of the freighter was astonishingly beautiful. For about 1 second. Then the camera jerked forward, reframed and jerked again. For the duration of the shot the camera never stabilized, rendering it completely useless.

This time I was not so polite to Vic. He said he didn't understand what I was so upset about. When he shrugged, I finally fired him.

Three months later. I'm in the editing room. I'm stuck on this same scene by the river. I need a cutaway. In a desperate fit of wishful thinking I convince my editor to pull up the shot of the rusting freighter. Hoping against hope, we watch it again.

Again, we see there isn't a single usable piece. I pick up the phone. I call Vic. I say to him, "Vic, you shot more than a third of this film. Your name will appear in the credits. People are going to ask why I had two cinematographers. I need you to tell me right now, what the hell were you doing?"

There is a momentary silence. Then I'm stunned to realize Vic is crying softly. Finally he speaks. "You're right, Tom," he whispers. "I was so jealous of you directing your first movie that I was intentionally sabotaging it."

Whacked but Fact. Every word.

File Under: Hiring Your Crew. Subcategory: What the fuck?!!

Moral: Because this business combines money, glamor, art and fame it attracts people that are 84.6 % of the time, certified nutjobs. Always, always talk to people who've worked with the person you're considering hiring. But I got something out of Vic. He was one of those DP's that loved all his equipment, almost like a fetish. He dressed in black and wore his meters around his waist like high-tech automatic weapons. I heard a few years later he was claiming to be the inspiration for the eye-patched cinematographer I named Wolf in Living In Oblivion. No. I didn't steal the eyepatch idea. That was mine. What I took was his leather vest, half-finger gloves and beret which helped add just the right touch of gay motorcycle cop I felt was crucial to Wolf's character.

Elaine, thank you for one of the best laughs of my day. 🙂 Good luck to you too!…and Tom, good luck on your script and thanks for taking the time to help all of us.
Salli –
Excellent point and I second your suggestion about the tape recorder. I live in a huge metro city with long commutes (and lousy public transit) so keeping a recorder in my car is a great way to get those ideas saved when I can’t afford to grasp a paper and pen. Some recorders come with USB cables so it can take what you’ve spoken and convert it to type.
One humorous note about the recorder, though…there are times when the excitement is flowing, I’m brainstorming an idea over several minutes, I’m almost squeaking with glee–then I realize (after 2-3 minutes of recorded time) that part of the scene won’t work because of point of view constrictions. So while there are the gems I save and write down later, I also have that 3-4 minute scene description, followed by a loud “Damn! I can’t do that because we’re not in her point of view!” But hey…the recorder helped me get to that point!
Even have a bumper sticker on my car: “Writers drive and plot. And you thought cell phones were dangerous!”
Great suggestion, Salli. Good luck on the writing!
Tom, thank you. The note about being bored about writing is something I hadn’t thought of, so double thank you for that note. I’m posting it on my monitor. I’m just starting to see my characters coming to life and you’ve helped me more than you know.
Elaine those are great questions.
I hope Tom won’t mind if I butt in for a sec and offer one of my aids to the creative process. I used to be a critic/reporter (dance and music) and I’ve always scribbled notes on anything I could grab, because inspiration is often in nano seconds.
(It doesn’t help when those notes are on the shopping list I’ve just mindlessly trashed.) One day a friend, tired of my latest dumpster dive rant, sent me a tiny tape recorder and said, “use it!”
I used to use them for interviews, but it NEVER EVER dawned on me, to use a recorder for my notes.(EYE ROLL) 🙂 Thanks to her, I now use it and it’s a great help.
Hey Nick,
First, congratulations on getting your first feature going. Second, Vic Nesbitz just emailed me to tell you he’s available.
Your question is astute.
“How do you screen cast and crew for early warning signs of flakiness, laziness, weirdness, etc? I am shooting my first feature this summer, but I can’t afford to pay anyone. The volunteer aspect of hiring people is extremely scary to me!”
I’m planning an entire post on Hiring Your Crew but here’s a little offering for the moment. I’ve discovered hiring people is always scary, whether I’m paying them or not. Some of my worst experiences have come after paying “top” people huge amounts of money. On the other hand, everyone on Living In Oblivion worked for free. Except for the actors–some of them paid me to be in the film. I’m serious. That’s how I financed it.
Here’s the thing. You have to try and determine how motivated the person is to do what you’re hiring them for. How much do they want the job? Why do they want the job? Some of these questions you can actually ask them. Some you’ll have to glean by talking directly to them. Interestingly, I’ve found that someone with a great desire to work for you, in the long run, is better than someone who may have more experience or talent and feels like they’re doing you a favor.
Just because you can’t afford to pay someone doesn’t mean you need to hire whackjobs. The experience of working on a feature film is valuable and can be used to help someone get future work. Still, it does limit your choices. Just know that enthusiasm and a willingness to participate as a member of the team will serve you well.
I’ve even started telling people straight out; “You know if you’ve got issues with your own ego and can’t willingly commit to this group effort then I don’t want you on my set.” Tell them the kind of set you want to have. You can’t make it any clearer than that. Talk to them about what you need. Tell them what the hours are. Talk to people who know them. Talk to their parole officers.
You want to hire the most talented people you can, with the greatest GENUINE excitement to do their job. Maybe there is some way you can offer incentive by giving them a small profit participation in the film. If they feel like they are part of it they will go the extra mile for you.
I hope this helps. Good luck.
Hey Elaine,
Well, you’ve just given me enough potential subject matter for 5 years. These too are excellent questions and as you can see from my response to Salli, will require some thought and at least another drink.
I will address them in future posts, most likely one at a time. I’m about to post my first blog on filmmaking and my plan is to wade through the whole process from beginning to end.
Well Salli,
Those are great questions. Let’s see what my brain comes up with this afternoon.
“How you find your characters or do they find you?”
Sometimes both. In Box of Moonlight Al Fountain (John Turturro) and the Kid (Sam Rockwell) are based pretty evenly on parts of my own psyche. I tossed a little of my father into Al and let the juvenile deliquent part of me run wild with the Kid.
Les Galantine (Steve Buscemi) in Delirious is also a part of me. So is Toby (Michael Pitt). What I try to do is find something personal in each character that I can identify with, and that excites me as a writer. My experience as an actor helped enormously in terms of striving to give each character a spark of real human complexity–something that brings them to life and that makes them completely unique.
Once I have a glimpse of that spark, that element that excites me then it is just a matter of letting the imagination go. One basic rule I’ve discovered; if I’m bored writing most likely people will be bored reading.
“Once you have the character on the page and before you start casting, is the evolution of that character a collaboration between you and the character or not?”
Writing for film is a very elusive thing. Ultimately, as you suggest, a human being will step forward to bring your character to life. Much of what they bring is based on their skill, but to a greater degree their essence as people. And that, more than skill, is why you cast them. Sometimes this transition is exhilarating, like dropping a potent chemical into a mixture and watching it ignite.
Other times it is absolute agony. Sometimes you make a mistake in the casting. Sometimes you’re forced to cast an actor to satisfy financiers. That’s why during the writing I try to make the character as specific as possible in terms of what they want; what motivates them and what they do to attain it. That way I have some flexibility in casting in seeing HOW different actors illuminate these needs and motivations.
But, there is definitely a point where the written character and I engage in a quite complex dialogue. They do actually come to life in your brain and begin addressing you. I find it is always best to let them do the talking.
“Do your characters ever surprise you during the writing process?”
Absolutely. I wrote a scene today where a woman learning to handle a gun almost shoots her instructor by accident. Never saw it coming. But when the ideas appear welcome them like curious, hungry wild animals. They can spring back into the woods at any moment.
But when they do come, let them all come. Soon a point arises where you begin to understand the character; you get a sense of their size, their shape, their likes and dislikes, what makes them laugh–what makes them weep. And then you can try every idea on them like a shirt or a gown. And you know what? It’s not a matter of if it fits. It’s how it looks on them. And how they feel wearing it.
That’s good, Tom. You just went from wild animals to haute couture. Sorry Salli.
Nick Detisch
Hey Tom,
That freighter sequence is such a hard pill to swallow. The tough thing about being a director seems to be that, even when you are playing at the top of your game, there is no inherent incentive for the cast and crew to be there too. And, as you said, the attraction of nutjobs to film projects only further complicates things.
How do you screen cast and crew for early warning signs of flakiness, laziness, weirdness, etc? I am shooting my first feature this summer, but I can’t afford to pay anyone. The volunteer aspect of hiring people is extremely scary to me!
Great question, Sally! Tom, I dug through and found some old Q&A I had for you too. Maybe some of these would fit in future posts?
*How did you first get interested in music and adding it to your films?
* How did you first meet Steve Buscemi? I know an interview mentions you used to go to his shows, but how did you actually meet him and begin to cast him?
* You wrote Delirious’s “Les Galantine” for him – how did that affect your writing process when you write for a specific actor?
* Biggest reward being a director? Biggest drawback?
* Same questions, only as a writer.
* Any specific routines/superstitions that you do on every film set?
* What types of things work for you in the creative process? (example: writing things down in a notebook, jotting down ideas, etc.)
That’s all for now!
Congratulations Tom! I’m looking forward to great discussions. Since your covering everything on your blog, I’d like to ask how you find your characters or do they find you? Once you have the character on the page and before you start casting, is the evolution of that character a collaboration between you and the character or not? Do your characters ever surprise you during the writing process?
Hey Tom,
Great description of the Snoopy dance! I kept trying to think of one but you hit the nail on the head. Deliriously happy even when looking mighty foolish? Yep, that’s me on occasion, though my barometer on foolish is skewed. Back in my youth, (and pre 9/11) my buddies and I would dress up in random outfits, drive to the airport and greet any friends we knew at their airport gate when returning from a trip.
Trust me–once you walk through an international airport dressed up as a furry pink rabbit, no other life embarrassment even begins to compare!! Quite freeing in many ways, actually 🙂 Of course now I’ve just confessed that story and someday when I’m published it will surface and haunt me, but oh well…
Glad to hear you and Will are working on another music track. Like the stuff y’all have done so far.
While you mentioned the freighter story on the commentary, I never knew the ending–that he was jealous and sabotaging you on purpose. Wow. As if you didn’t have enough to deal with in the midst of your first film. The more I learn about the behind the scenes of making films, the more I am completely awed by artists like yourself who dive headfirst into it, all to capture and share something rare and soulful on screen. My hat’s off to you.
Elaine aka Snoopy
Hey Elaine,
Yeah, I did mention that story in the Johnny Suede commentary. It still kind of haunts me. The point of fact is that no matter how much research and screening you do, you never really know if someone you’ve hired for a crucial job is going to flip out on you.
On a low-budget movie replacing the cinematographer is a massive disturbance. Most films do whatever they can to avoid it, keeping the lunatic hired so they stay on schedule. It was a huge decision to let Vic go.
I’m glad you like the new sub-genre Whacked But Fact. It’s certainly forcing me back into some crazy recollections.
Hey Ash,
A Snoopy Dance is what the beagle does in the comic strip Peanuts when he’s feeling deliriously happy and completely unconcerned about what anyone thinks about him, even when he looks mighty foolish.
It’s rather a sublime state, actually. Buddha attempted it lying down.
Thanks so much for your kind words. I greatly enjoyed all your cross-referencing the details from some of my films. Now watch this: in Delirious I did the opposite of the Stones song: I took a black door and painted it red. I wanted it to stand out. But we did paint it black again when we were done.
Will and I are actually working on another track. He’s busy though and so am I. Gottalotta writing obligations now with the MovieMaker thang. Plus a new script. Plus boxing. But Will is excited about the track and we both want to get it done.
As far as Vic, well he helped me learn a valuable lesson. The nutjobs are out there, cain’t never forgit it.
Hey Mario,
I like your 11 year old Erik immediately.
Hi T!!!!!
No ‘Snoopy Dance'(just kidding Elaine-have no idea what that would entail), but I’m stoked for you,T. just the same!
You and your injustices in the “reality” of film-making really make me want to a)order a Texas-size carton of dynamite for peeps like Vic: Wonder what would happen if HE called Catherine Keener’s character in THE REAL BLONDE “Sweet Meat”?haha and b)remind you how amazing ALL of your work has turned out-regardless of green-tinted little swine running around in your midst.
With Cannes rolling around, I am feeling quite a bit of my “T-Related Underappreciation”…remembering how last year,STRANGER THAN PARADISE was shown and,as always,heavily lauded as a “classic”,always for-more than anything-it’s genius cinematography…shall I continue? No, but that little anecdote about Vic did summon what’s probably been the case of many all along. “They’s all jealous of T!”haha
I was thinking of DELIRIOUS’s “shot heard ’round the world” yesterday-you know my odd thought process-all over the place at once,and,SO IRONICALLY,the Stones “Paint It Black” came on-with the loudest part ringing in my ears “I SEE A RED DOOR….” You and your genius-who but you would think to put such a “shot” IN FRONT of the Red Door of Safety?? No one could have done it with such finesse.
Gee,T.-next up for Ash: what color should your altar be,Red?? hahaha
Did you see the “Corporate Crewdson” birfday shots? We need the Orkestre!He looked ready to do your taxes!(I’M KIDDING,WILL!)
So much to do… And people accuse ME of sitting around eating Bon Bons all day…TITO wouldn’t be having it. BUT,I can’t wait until tomorrow,Mother’s Day,where stories of my youth will most likely be bandied about; and most,regarding anyone but me “will have no memory of that whatsoever.” Just wanted to say a hugely-long-winded HELLO from Malibu-pretty sure I just did that. Congrats T.,you know this,but “YOU’RE AT THE TOP OF MY LIST!!”
As my eleven your old Erik says, BRING IT!
Hey Tom,
I remember your commentary talking about that freighter scene. Hard to believe the mix of folks that are, well, in the mix.
As far as the new Whacked but Fact series – delightful!!!! More posts? About filmmaking and all its sub-topics?
THIS blogaholic is happy; doing the Snoopy Dance 🙂
Congrats on the moviemaker magazine blog coverage – way cool!

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Independent Filmmaker & Musician