Directed by Jerry London
Filmed during the Fall of 1986
The folks I know from growing up in the University Heights Section of The Bronx, and the folks with whom I became friendly attending in college at SUNY Albany, all chose career paths which provided them with steady jobs. Each and every one of them was quite disconnected from the freelance path that I had chosen (although some might say that the freelance path had chosen me).
I am also the child of two Bronx High School teachers, each of whom spent years going to work at one school. Their parents had traditional careers as well. One Grandfather was the president of a publishing company. My other Grandfather worked in the restaurant business, as did my Grandmother’s two brothers. Others in my family were doctors and dentists with steady practices.
There were no freelancers among any of this wide circle. I was on the road less taken, and it would lead this boy from The Bronx on a wide-open, wild adventure. It was scary and exhilarating all at the same time, and it required a very specific set of skills.
When the concept of a freelance first came into the English language in the early 1800s, it was used to refer to a Medieval Mercenary who would fight for whichever nation or person paid him the most.
Film production is not that cut throat (at least not most of the time thankfully), but as a freelance existence it requires chameleon like abilities and the ability to join quickly to morph into a worker comfortable with the new set of employment circumstances.
Rent-a-Cops, as featured in this new film, are freelancers just like Assistant Directors and Broadway Dancers, who are often referred to as “Gypsies,” when one could say such a term without fear of being banished to The Twilight Zone cornfield by a freelance actor playing a role in a half hour show made by a freelance Director.
My second job as a freelancer, and as a member of the DGA, was on a largely unremembered example of modern American cinema actually called Rent-a-Cop. It’s notable because my being hired on as a Second AD on this film was proof that my having been employed on The Untouchables was not a one-time freelance fluke.
I am likely not the first to explain that the work of a freelancer is really two somewhat simultaneous jobs.
First, there’s doing the job itself. Second, there is the job of getting the job, often from people who have merely heard of you due to your reputation, or exposure to you via a resume.
Certainly the opportunities can come unexpectedly, like that middle of the night phone call that led to my getting an opportunity to work as a Second AD on The Untouchables.
I wasn’t looking for another job in Chicago where I had been living in the usual temporary situation that one does on distant location. I had surmised that I would return home to New York City and pound the pavement and knock on doors as soon as The Untouchables wrapped up.
The Untouchables and Rent-A-Cop shared a common Production Accountant. The Accountant had appreciated all my hard work, especially on the production reports, which I was still doing throughout the schedule on the The Untouchables, since there was no DGA Trainee on the movie.
I always appreciated how she made the per diem envelopes with a couple of two-dollar bills. The unusual aspect spoke well to the outsider nature of gypsy life on the road in which everything feels like part of it’s own unique freelance universe. This also showed how much money was being brought in to the local economy.
When the Accountant found out that Rent-a-Cop was in the market for a Second Second AD, she approached me about the job opening one night while she was on set in Union Station, and while the crew was setting up for another night filming on the steps. When I showed interest in the opportunity, she made certain to make the introduction to the Rent-a-Cop Assistant Directors, and strongly suggested to them that I deserved consideration for the position of Second Second on the movie.
I don’t even know if the Assistant Directors on Rent-a-Cop ever even considered other candidates for the job. It was great how the two movies fit together schedule wise. I could easily transition from one to the other without any of the downtime. This is an ideal scenario for a freelancer, having the next job lined up and ready to jump in and become part of the team almost immediately – which I was. It would be my first opportunity to enjoy morphing in to a situation of “when in Rome.”
Tony Brant, the First AD on Rent-a-Cop, was actually from Rome. Tony had come over from Italy to work on the production since the back portion of the shooting schedule was actually filming in Italy.
Like the stereotypical old world European, Tony Brandt just loved life, adored people, and had the most compassionate vibe. And just like Bobby Girolami, Tony made his staff feel like family. But Tony Brandt was very much an original. It was fun to work in his style which allowed for a lot of self-starting (and showing up) on the part of his staff. It made myself, and the Key Second AD, all the more anxious to serve our Roman General well.
Tony Brandt also had he most lovable way of communicating. A substantial aspect of being a successful First AD is, of course, the possession of great communication skills. To that end, and to increased time efficiency, it is invaluable to have an easy to understand shorthand with the Director, with the crew, and with the actors.
Tony had a unique shorthand all his own, which we all embraced. It was a bit of old world magic, which I imagined that he carried with him throughout the world.
At the beginning of the shooting day the First Assistant Director will call “we’re in”, or “crew’s in”, to indicate to everyone that work time has officially begun. From that moment forward the AD is the mouthpiece and metronome of the work day. Tony Brant would of course say, “buon giorno.”
This instantly brought a smile to the faces of even the most gruff of Chicago crew members. It was a ray of Roman hope for the shooting day that would echo along the frozen Chicago River and the elevated trains.
There are certain other expressions that most Assistant Directors use, which are common from film to film, though of course regionalisms and personalities come in to play. Almost everyone knows the cliché “Lights, Camera, Action!,“ but I have never actually heard that phrase uttered once on set during the almost 10,000 days I’ve spent in production.
“Camera and action” is much more likely to be used, because in a moving shot the First AD will call out to the camera to begin the move before calling action for the actors. If you’ve seen a crane move coming down from the sky to the action, or a dolly move coming off a wall to the action, chances are that the cuing sequence of “camera and action” was used by the AD.
So many movie terms are a lot more fun – and are a lot more “inside.” Many are almost proprietary,
Bobby Girolami would call out “let’s get ready”, when doing an actual take was the next order of business. This, of course would mean more ready that one might be have gotten for just the prior rehearsal.
Other First ADs call “picture’s up” or “picture’s next” to indicate that a take is the next order of business. This is soon followed by the declaration of “roll sound”, which the First AD calls to initiate the start of a take. Variations are “roll ‘em”, “roll it” “roll please”, or just “roll”.
Tony Brandt, would say “turn over”, which is a version of “roll sound” that is used in Europe. I’ve heard some say “”turn ‘em” – or “turn over.”
“New deal”, will usually indicate the completion of a particular set up, thereby moving on to the next shot. This has also become the similar “FDR.”
Points there for history buffs for getting the perhaps fairly obscure reference.
Going for a close up, or a closer close up, is often called an “Archie Bell,” referencing the song Tighten Up.
Also points there for those like me, who are a little long in the tooth, and actually know the song.
Then there is “turning around”, which means what’s coming up next is doing the reverse shot from the current shot. This is said so the set in the opposite direction can be cleared of equipment and dressed by the art department. Some say “flip it.” Going to a new location is signified with a call of “we are on the wrong set” – or “to the trucks.”
There is also the “Abby Singer”, which is the next to last shot of the day – and not the final shot. My guess is this moniker would not translate as well to a European crew.
The real Abby Singer, a now-famous Assistant Director, had once called out that it was the last shot, but it actually turned out to be the shot before the last shot. Hence, the “Abby Singer,” or the “Abby,” is actually the shot before the last shot. I’ve heard this said in cities around the country, even ones where I have learned to ask for a “pop” instead of a “soda” and a “wedge” instead of a hero.”
Oh yes, a main prop, the focus of the scene is called the “hero.” There’s he hero car. There’s the hero boat. There’s the hero horse.
French hours are always called French,” probably even in Rome, though the Italians love food so much that I can’t imagine the crew in Rome ever agreeing to work a consecutive ten hours without taking a lunch break. But, perhaps, maybe they do want to do this so they can get to the ten course dinner waiting at home that much earlier.
And there is, of course, a perennial favorite, “the martini,” which means the company is really on the last set up of the shooting day, and that the cast and crew is close to hearing “that’s a wrap”. Calling out “the martini”, or “martini’s up” lets the crew know that it is time to start loading the trucks so they can get to “tail lights” on the trucks that much more quickly.
Some First ADs get creative about “the martini” and call out “the next shot is in the glass.” Some say, the next shot’s with shaken and stirred – with olives or a similar alcohol metaphor that matches up with the locality.
First ADs have personalized some of these to create their own brand short hand or, as my grandmother would say, their own “shtick.” My Grandmother would have been great in the movie business. She would have lots of talk of dreck, chit, shmatas, and tsouris.
The men who founded Hollywood would never say these words, but I bet their parents would say them back home in the Bronx, or in Queens, or in Brooklyn.
Tony Brandt brought so many unique phrases to the set, some of which I still use to this day. As I say them, I can often hear his gruff voice and accent in my head. One of my favorite expressions of Tony’s was the one he personally used every time he wanted to move on to picture. He would exclaim, “Shooting next time!” I always have wondered what the equivalent is in his native Italian. I hope it sounds just as cool. I’ll need to learn the translation when I do a film in Italy as a First AD.
On later films, when I moved up to being a First Assistant Director, I have always said “shooting next time!” when a calling for the cast and crew to prepare for a take.n Some people have tried to correct me by saying that it should it be “shooting this time.” In response to this push back I say, feel free to use that when you run your own set. I like “shooting next time”. To me it’s pretty damn clear. It’s going to be a take the next time.
If It were good enough for Tony Brandt, it was good enough for me.
There are also so many sports metaphors used by ADs, for instance, “flag on the play.” Television contributed “warp speed.” Criminal lingo supplied “drive-by victim.” Interesting tricks of the language were very useful to make a great nuanced example of the individual charm of an individual personality – even though, like movie plots, these are freely borrowed by the best of us.
For instance the way Tony Brandt called for the cast was always in what grammarians will refer to as “tag questions”. After calling once for an actor like Liza Minnelli over the walkie talkie, Tony would wait for only a very short time and then say over the walkie talkie, “Is Liza coming, or no?” I adopted this technique as part of my own repertoire whenever something wasn’t happening fast enough for me, or when the department hadn’t been aggressively responsive on the walkie talkie to a “request” I had made.
Since Rent-a-Cop was filming in both Chicago and Italy, other crew members aside from Tony Brandt had also come to the United States in order to work on both portions of the film. One of these was the Production Coordinator, who actually considered it part of her daily routine to do the production report, which had always been part of my domain since that very first day on Power. The Rent-a-Cop Production Coordinator called it “the daily progress report”.
She was very territorial about the document. I was very happy to have more time on the set and relinquish the responsibility.
I guess since Rent-a-Cop was a hybrid production, it made it all right.
When in Chicago…
Thanksgiving, very much an American holiday came right in the middle of the Rent-A-Cop schedule. In the late 1980s projects would sometimes only have Thanksgiving Day off. The Friday after Thanksgiving did not become a union holiday until later.
One of the close friends I made over the course of Rent-a-Cop was with stunt man Rick LeFevour, who has since become one of the premiere Stunt Coordinators in the mid-West.
Rick LeFevour invited me to spend Thanksgiving with his family in a house which was not unlike the McCallister house in Home Alone. He had enough siblings to fill two sides of a flag football game, which was the afternoon activity to allow everyone to work up a hearty appetite.
One of Rick’s brothers managed the catering at Soldiers Field. After attending the Bears football game it was always a fun opportunity to party in a skybox with tons of the best food options that were prepared for the upscale box owners. No football in Italy, as least not the football we know. But the crew definitely loved going to the Sunday games.
Liza Minnelli, who was the leading lady on Rent-a-Cop, was also pretty great with me, and I am quite sure she remains a special human no mater what the circumstances. She also stayed in town that Thanksgiving. One night, Liza and a small group, including me, sat around a table in the private dining room of The Ambassador Hotel. At one point, Liza Minnelli looked up at the wall of celebrity photos at a picture of a Mom with three kids. She says, “oh look, it’s me, with my Mama, Joey, and Lorna”. Sure enough the photo was a much younger Liza with her “Mama” Judy Garland and the rest of the famous family. It looked like it had been taken in the very same hotel.
At that moment, she was not a celebrity, or someone subject to tabloid headlines, she was admiring a photo that was making her nostalgic for own family and home.
It made me think of home as well. Now, even years later, many times when I ask if someone is coming, or no, I think about that simple and very unique moment with Liza Minnelli, for who there is really no adequate expression, expert perhaps “human”. In my opinion, no one can ever top her rendition of “New York, New York”, coincidentally a city I hadn’t seen in several months.
So when Rent-a-Cop wrapped the Chicago portion, and leg one of the film was “in the can”, and the vehicles all went “tail lights”, I headed home to Manhattan for the first time since arriving in Chicago in the heat of the summer.
Six months was an awfully long time to be away.
But such is the life of a freelancer.
Sure, “when in Rome” is a lot of challenging fun for us “Gypsies,” but as Liza’s mom Judy famously said in a curtain line that surely rivals the curtain line of just about any other movie – one which guide all of us gypsies towards the resolution of a satisfying adventure – and a return to the job search common to all freelancers – and also one in which the home base supplied some energy from which to draw when searching for the next job, wherever that job might be.
Of course – good or bad – and job would eventually come to a conclusion for each of us.
Oh, Auntie Em…
There’s no place like home.
THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Filmed during the Summer and the Fall of 1986
During the two years that I spent in the DGA Training Program, I had lived a large portion of my set-life on the other end of a walkie talkie.
I was learning to respond quickly to hearing my name coming from that small speaker (hence, GoForGlen), while seeking to supply very short responses, while always seeking to avoid stepping on the transmissions of the others. This often rendered everything said in the portions of overlapping conversations completely unintelligible. It was amazing how much production relied on these rudimentary tools like phones and walkie taklies and beepers.
While I was in the DGA Training Program, the use of the walkie talkie was becoming very much the part of the tool kit of some of the other departments as well. Wardrobe, hair, makeup, camera, and props were all started to rely them for information and communication.
Each department was typically assigned a separate channel, but channel one, known simply as “one,” was the most busy channel of the eighteen or so frequencies that were possible to use.
But it was on “channel one” that the engine of production could usually be found.
Questions and information about the shot would be found there. Once a shot, or a scene, or a project was in motion, the train had clearly left the station and it was the job of the ADs to stay on track, whether DGA Trainee or First AD or anyone in between.
What were we waiting for to be able to film? How many minutes would it be until camera rolled we rolled? Would we be going to lunch on time? What scene number would be up after this one?
There was so much information to process that I was starting to find that I would hear ghost transmissions in my head, even after the headset came off, those thoughts still very much there, as I would drift off to sleep trying to clear my own head for a precious few hours of quiet.
So it’s during one of those nights in my own nighttime version of The Twilight Zone is how the beginning of this tale unfolds.
However, it wasn’t about failing to answer a call over the walkie talkie, the beeping of a dead battery, having a panic about an actor failing to show up for his or her call time…
… but by my own failing to answer a ringing phone.
It was almost as if my career in film production took a magical turn over this one mysterious late night phone call which, at first, went unanswered.
Though this post is about my time on The Untouchables, the full story begins as I was working on what would be my final project as DGA Trainee, and my first network television series in production, The Equalizer.
I had been assigned to The Equalizer after wrapping up the feature film Street Smart. At that point The Equalizer might have been the only one-hour prime time dramatic series filming in New York City. It was the days when just a few major features were shooting in the city, on top of a few low budget films – and one network television series.
What a far cry from the production “Renaissance” in which New York City now finds itself. The episodic television business has become completely infused into the fabric of the New York City culture and economy.
There are now dozens of nighttime network series shooting around every corner in each of the five boroughs. Numerous Hollywood- type sound stages are popping up everywhere… even in The Bronx. One of these stages is even the home of a reboot of The Equalizer, in which Queen Latifah, more has taken over the role of Robert (now Robin) McCall, first played decades ago by venerable actor Edward Woodward.
My time on the “original” version of The Equalizer was easily going to get me through the remainder of the two years – and give me the rest of the three hundred and fifty days to qualify for membership in the Directors Guild of America. There was already an order for thirteen episodes for the series. With eight days of filming needed to complete each of the shows, that would still take over a hundred days, from July right through to almost Christmas. Plus, if the series were renewed for the “back nine,” industry speak for a full season’s order of twenty-one episodes, my time on the production could go right through to April of the following year.
The thought of that sort of regularity was somehow comforting, and would certainly help financially.
More than comforting was the existence of the most minute possibility that I would not necessarily remain the DGA Trainee for the entire run of episodes. There was always the possibility of becoming a Second Second Assistant Director on the series, what was referred to as a “bump up” – but a position in the department would have to open up, and the two First ADs would need to think I was personally ready to fill the gap.
After my less than positive experience on Street Smart, I was also anxious for a more positive work experience, which The Equalizer provided – at least on every other episode.
On one hour, prime time, dramatic television production teams production teams rotate episodes. While one set of Assistant Directors is occupied with the show that is filming, the other set of Assistant Directors is preparing the next episode with the next Director. This allows the following episode to go immediately in to production once the current episode completes filming without ever taking a day off. The Directors come and go. The rest of the crew remains a constant, and stays in set-mode from episode to episode.
This includes the Second Second AD and the DGA Trainee.
The contrast between the two sets of ADs on The Equalizer could not have been more stark. It was a little bit like “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde” and proof of just how much the Assistant Director’s personal style can influence the overall “feel” of the production, especially concerning his or her style of running the set and the AD department.
Richie Patrick, who was the Second Second AD on The Equalizer, was on also on set for every episode. Richie was a good teacher and liked to pass his set knowledge across. Rather that my than just being relegated to doing first team, the paperwork, and keeping in touch with the production office. Richie had been helpful in incorporating me in to the actual set work performed by Second ADs.
What was unfortunate for me, but great for him, was that Richie Patrick soon left The Equalizer after just a few episodes to be a Second AD on major feature film about to film in Chicago.
Richie’s departure would be much too early for me to be offered a “bump up”. First, I did not yet even have the requisite amount of days required to graduate from the Training Program. Second, in the eyes of the Producers and ADs, I would surely be lacking in the set experience needed to fill the role of the Second Second AD on a television series.
The hours in episodic seemed much more tiring than the length if the days on feature films, maybe because the pace of television was much faster. The page count was double or triple per day of what feature films tended to achieve. There were also fewer Production Assistants than would have been staffed on a film, and this made the workload seem even greater.
So, by the weekend, the daily pattern of set, office, a few hours of sleep, then set, office, and a few more hours of sleep, definitely took a toll of personal fatigue, creating that feel of The Twilight Zone.
This was even further exacerbated during on every other episode, since that one particular set of ADs seemed particularly insensitive to the hours I was working just to complete my after wrap responsibilities.
Looking back on the DGA Training Program experience, it has more than a fleeting relation of the life of a first year law student in the movie The Paper Chase. During one classic scene in The Paper Chase, the Law Professor, played by the great John Housman, announces to his lecture center full of wide eyed students, “take a look to your left, take a look to your right, and at the end of this semester, one out of the three of you is not going to be here.”
This test of endurance was much more intense than any of those standardized tests that had begun the entire DGA Trainee journey more two years prior. Take for example the time when the company was filming part of an episode at Monmouth Raceway, which more than an hour away from the crew departure point in Manhattan, from which the production was running buses and vans.
Once in Monmouth Raceway, most of the cast and crew, including all of the ADs, were staying in a local hotel, near the raceway.
But not me…
I was going to be commuting up and down between Manhattan and – the paperwork had to get back to the office at night so the accountants could have it in their hands first thing in the morning.
I once even stopped in the hotel lobby after wrap, when everyone already had a drink in his or her hand.
Me, I had no beverage in my hand, I had a think stack of paperwork. I still had three hours of work and travel to go before I would see the comfort of my bed.
By the time Friday came around, you can easily imagine how the lack of sleep had caught up with me.
Yes, The DGA Training Program definitely had more than a tinge of The Paper Chase. In the words of John Houseman’s character, “look left, look right, at least one of them won’t be here next semester.” Face it, I had made it all the way through to the end of the DGA Training Program. No way I would admit defeat so easily. I toughed it out, even though I did try to make the ADs aware that exhaustion was beginning to settle in. so they were aware that it was a particularly tough week – and a much different experience for me than anyone else.
Did the ADs care? – at least did the reigning team? Maybe the other set of ADs would have. The set of ADs on the current episode – well, I will leave to your imagination.
Exacerbating the exhaustion situation on the set was the fact that no one had yet replaced Richie Patrick as the Second Second AD.
I asked about the Production Managers about the plan for the vacancy. I was told, maybe it could be me the next time a vacancy opened – but on the back nine. That, at least, was a better answer than I was expecting, especially in regard to the one set of ADs that seemed to enjoy running me ragged.
After the inevitable late wrap on one Friday night much like any other, I went back to the production office to finish the paper work and leave it for the Production Coordinator when she came in on Monday. It was quiet and dark in the office – no one was ever there that late at night, except for me. Whoever was answering the phones in the Production Office would have left as soon as the wrap was called in – which had been, of course, by me – like two hours prior.
As soon as I waked in and flipped on the lights, large chairs and soft couch, that occupied a large part of the waiting area, always looked very inviting.
A little cat nap couldn’t hurt, could it?
When I woke up, I’d finish up strong on my own “paper chase” and then would head home.
So I sat down…
I closed my eyes… and…
A couple of hours later, I was fast asleep in the chair. I was woken to the production office phone ringing loudly several times. I wanted to get up and answer it, but it was now something like two o’clock in the morning, and I was as out of it as anyone could be who has worked five fifteen-hour days in a row.
After a several rings it stopped – and the entire office got quiet again.
A few minutes later, the silence was again broken as the phone rang again several more times.
This time I got up to answer it, but the phone stopped ringing just before I grabbed the receiver. All that I heard on the other end of the line was a dial tone.
I was now fully awake. I finished up the paperwork, laid it all out neatly on the desk of the Production Coordinator, making her job as easy as possible when she walked in all rested on Monday morning.
I headed back to my apartment, which was just few minutes away from the Jay Gee warehouse on 59th Street, which is where The Equalizer had its stage sets and offices.
Upon arriving at my apartment I could see that there were multiple messages on my answering machine. I pressed play and discovered that all of the messages were either from Richie Patrick, or from another member of the production staff on his film in Chicago. They were a week in to filming, and from the sounds in the background, they were in the midst of a night shoot.
Suspecting I might be in The Equalizer production office after wrap, Richie and company had also been trying to reach me there as well.
Well, they were right – and I didn’t even have the energy to get to the phone in time to answer it.
The news I heard on the taped message was concise. There was a Second AD position open on Richie’s film. The local Second AD who had been on staff had not worked out. The production wanted to offer me the position. I was grateful that they were persistent, but hopefully they were not persistent enough to be calling – and waking up – other people who might have been available to answer the phone, were available for the project, and could accept the job before I could even connect with the production.
So, at about 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, I called back, actually reached an answering machine, and left a message at the Chicago production office. I was guessing that the ADs were all still on set and in the production office no one was manning their phones.
A few hours later, Jimmy Skotchdopole, who had been the Second Second AD on Brighton Beach Memoirs, and who was the Key Second AD on the Chicago movie, called me back.
The job was still available. He gave me all the details.
The movie was going to film for several months. It took place in the 1930s, just as Brighton Beach Memoirs. They had already arranged for a place for me to stay in Chicago.
They also needed me to start on Tuesday morning.
That was in three days.
Plenty of time.
All the normal weekend tiredness evaporated – and the adrenaline kicked in. Like a good soon to be Second AD I put together a list of everything I had to do over the next couple of days.
The first order of business was going to be actually getting permission from the DGA Training Program Administrator, the Directors Guild of America to be able to take this opportunity. I had not yet even officially reached the threshold amount of DGA Trainee days required for membership in the Guild. I was just a few days short – but rules were rules, and I wasn’t certain if there was any wiggle room on the number of experience days needed for joining.
But, since becoming a member of the DGA, and gaining freelance employment as a Second AD, was the whole point of the DGA Training Program, I was pretty confident I would get the go ahead from the Administrator and from the Guild brass by way of a waiver for the few days I lacked.
Indeed, I got the thumbs up from the higher ups to join that very afternoon. It gave the DGA a great opportunity to be able to trumpet a (record breaking?) success story of the DGA Training Program.
On Sunday I packed. On Monday, I brought my bags to the set of The Equalizer. That same day I also I trained my replacement, who was a member the DGA Trainee class that was admitted in the year following mine. She seemed to pick it up quickly.
The one set of ADs would have someone fresh to terrorize.
After Monday’s wrap, I said my farewells, got in a cab, and headed across an East River Bridge, with Manhattan receding in the background. My days as a DGA Trainee were behind me. I had almost completed a satisfying two-year journey that had changed my life.
But it was about to change a lot more.
I arrived late that night in Chicago, settled in, and in the morning I began my new life as Second AD.
On The Untouchables!
Almost everything about being a Second AD – even the third one down in the department’s hierarchy – felt a bit different from being a DGA Trainee (Jimmy Skotchdopole and Richie Patrick, of course, had Second AD seniority). The Second AD job, though very much entry level in the Studio Executive’s eyes, was set management in the eyes of literally everyone else. Almost no one except for Jimmy and Richie, and a couple of the PAs who had been imported from New York City, knew me as anything other than a Second AD.
This was a great benefit to working with a new crew in a new city. To the crew and to the background actors I was just another “walkie talkie” from New York City there to boss them around.
The day I started as a Second AD on The Untouchables, the production was filming the scene in Elliott Ness’ Office. Ironically, in the scene, Eliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner, was on his first day on the job. He met all his men, all of whom seem less than enthusiastic about working with him. But I was hoping the similarity ended there.
Eliot Ness’ office was a reoccurring set with glass windows on all the agent’s offices, and venetian blinds to give a bit of privacy when necessary.
During the many days in which the scenes were set in Elliot Ness’ office, I would enjoy setting little background vignettes in each of the glass offices that lined the walls. Sometimes these offices were featured. But a lot of times the blinds were drawn, the rest of the set only visible when the door would open or close with a character’s entrance or exit.
It was my first real time setting background as a Second AD, and I took the background setting very seriously, even if it would be but a flash of information at best. Making the office feel real was quite important to me. Also, the background actors seemed to get into the little vignettes I would prepare for them.
Many years later, I still refer to elaborate background setting that’s barely going to be seen, or is seen out of focus, either “Venetian Blinds” or “Elliot Ness’ Office.”
Most everyone who knows me, knows exactly what I am talking about. For those who watch the film, there are indeed tiny little glimpses of background acting their little hearts out beyond those Venetian Blinds.
Early in the shooting schedule, the production also filmed the scene on the downtown Chicago River bridge, during which Elliot Ness first meets beat cop Jimmy Malone, played by Sean Connery. Elliot Ness was considering giving up after being foiled by Capone, and Jimmy Malone was coming in to the story to mentor him in the ways of practical law enforcement.
It’s amazing how much of Chicago of today still looks like the Chicago of the 1930s. Director Brian De Palma and Director of Photography Steven Burum took full advantage of this factor in many scenes. For instance, the meeting on the Michigan Avenue Bridge began with a very wide shot. This would accentuate the loneliness of the situation and punch the importance of beat cop Jimmy Malone showing up in Elliot Ness’ life at exactly the right moment.
I would frequently wind up being that member of production responsible for giving the “action” cue the principal actor(s) when the camera was far enough away to be out of the Director’s voice range.
Because I was relatively small and thin, had a dark complexion, with dark hair, I was an even more of an obvious choice to find a hiding place within earshot of the cast, while finding a place within the wide frame for me and my walkie talkie to lurk in the shadows.
So, with the camera looking at the width of the iconic bridge, it was just little old me and my walkie talkie on the walkway with Elliot Ness and Jimmy Malone, Ness coming from the stone stairway on one side of the expanse, Malone walking the beat, all the way from the entrance on the other side. It was a matter of timing, speed, and cues to make the wide shot work.
I always find it intriguing when the technical aspects of making a shot work are reduced to the simplest of use of basic analog. To make the timing work on the shot of Ness stopping by the rail, and Malone walking toward him, it was a simpler matter of counting the steps so Malone would arrive on time. Numbers were actually called out loud, so that the actors would meet at the right spot on the bridge, at the proper moment.
There was less success after a quite long and tiring night shoot at the exterior of Elliot Ness’ set house. The production was filming the shot of the getaway car rushing in from a distance in order to pick up the waiting Mrs. Ness and the Ness’ children to get them to safety. Everything was set and ready to go.
The street was locked up… sound and Camera rolled… the sticks were hit…
But when the First AD shouted in to the walkie talkie to cue the car to go… we waited… and waited…
And nothing happened. The car never came. And none of the actors in the car responded to the cue over the walkie talkie.
The First AD asked the car over the walkie talkie “what happened?” The actor who was driving had not heard the radio cue. It was still dark enough to try another take.
Quickly, sound and camera rolled again. Again the sticks were hit. Again the First AD cued the car.
And again, nothing happened.
He had not heard the cue over the walkie talkie, yet again. Even after testing the mechanics successfully
It was staring to get light out, and it was beginning to feel like this shot might not happen before night turned in to day. The Director of Photography looked t the sky and called it.
It was a wrap.
All of this would have to recreated on another night.
The irony of this situation was the walkie talkies were being rented to the production by the First AD. He owned the entire package of radios, batteries, and chargers. Had this not been the case, I am certain that there would have been a lot of yelling to finish out that morning as this First AD had a propensity for lashing out over much less.
It would surely have been worth it to place someone like me as a back up cue, there at the start mark of the car to make sure the actors were ready to go and that they heard the transmission over the walkie talkie.
To this day, I am not sure why we didn’t do that.
The situation would soon be rectified once the production moved to Great Falls, Montana to film at the liquor raid sequence at the Old Hardy Bridge, near the town of Cascade. The hundred year-old Hardy Bridge was a great stand in in for a border crossing between the United States and Canada.
In the famous sequence, the four Untouchables and a group of Canadian Mounties planned to raid a shipment of Canadian booze heading for a waiting group of Al Capone’s men on the American side of the bridge.
The Untouchables and the Canadian Mounties ambush the Gangsters, capture the booze, arrest the bad guys, and take possession of the ledger.
This sequence in the film was divided up into three sections. The first was the portion prior to the cornering of the Capone’s men on the bridge in which the plan was explained. The second was all the action on the bridge itself in which the four Untouchables and the Canadian Mounties captured the barrels of moonshine and the Mob’s ledger. Lastly, there was the aftermath in a deserted cabin, as Elliot Ness and Jimmy Malone interrogated the man with the ledger.
The three sections of the sequence were filmed in order. From the outset I wound up overseeing the Horse Wranglers and Cowboys who played the Canadian Mounties. I would stay with them until needed, passing along instructions. The large group of Canadian Mounties and I were staged on the far side of the bridge, near the stables where the dozens of horses stayed each night.
Overseeing the Canadian Mounties was a lot of fun. In the morning I would go to the stables to gather up the riders and horses, make certain they got into their wardrobe, and stay with them as they got in to position on the other side of the bridge. Sometimes I would even ride on horseback to staging or to the set.
Until the time that the large group of Canadian Mounties converged with the main action, I was often quite a distance away from camera.
I really didn’t think was a negative, since I was long to used-to being the key “cue.”
Then, someone on the actual key crew, noticed that I was majorly absent from the nexus of the set. I had already earned some supporters because of all my hard work and attention to detail.
This crew member gave me a great piece of advice and this advice has stayed with me from that moment forward to this very day.
From what this crew member had discerned about my situation, I had found myself locked in a position from which it would be difficult to demonstrate an increase in my set-value, and would be encountering far less possibilities to be involved in a more meaningful way in the rest of what was going on around camera beyond those I have been doing already as a DGA Trainee.
The crew member laid it out for me in a clean metaphor that couldn’t have made any greater sense given the geography of the sequence. The crew member said that it t should always continue to be my focus and goal to be on the side of the bridge wherever the camera is.
It helped that once all the action converged among the Mounties, Mobsters, and The Untouchables, I was organically at the center of seeing for myself whatever was needed to get the next shot done.
I made it my point to make myself involved in everything, not just overseeing the large group of Canadian Mounties.
In other words, by more fully showing up.
To this day, this advice has served me well.
The last portion of the three-part sequence was in and around the deserted cabin. The building was a complete set build, inside and out. Even the road leading to the cabin had been created for the production. I sometimes wonder if someone moved in afterward and put in an outhouse to make it functional. Perhaps it became a local tourist attraction. I know movies leave sets behind all the time. I’ve heard that there is an Egyptian set somewhere in the California desert from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. I recently saw a story that the still standing set from the John Wayne movie The Alamo is a tourist attraction. I also believe the derailed train from The Fugitive, is sitting right where the filmmakers left it along the Great Smokey Railroad in Sylva, North Carolina. Someday I will have to go back to the Hardy Bridge and take a look to see what remains of the road and Deserted Cabin.
After the completion of the last portion, the production returned to Chicago for two weeks of Al Capone scenes, which were grouped together as consecutively as possible to compress Robert De Niro’s schedule. I was responsible for all of Robert De Niro’s logistics, which actually was pretty special, since during this next portion of production the shooting schedule had pretty much become all about him.
This also allowed me too stay very close to the camera pretty much all of the time.
Every morning, I would go to set. Robert De Niro would get ready and in to character as Al Capone in his hotel room. He had his own hair, make up, and wardrobe personnel.
The plan was to have someone alert me when he was on his way to set and about to show up.
The AD staff did not refer to the well-known actor as Robert De Niro, nor as Al Capone. The First AD decided we would refer to him as “Number Five,” since Al Capone was designated “character number five” on the call sheet every day.
Each character is assigned a number, basically ranked essentially to the prominence \ of the role within the story. Character number one was Treasury Agent Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner. Character number two was Beat Copy Jimmy Malone, played by Sean Conner. Character number three was George Stone, played by Andy Garcia. Character number four was Treasure Agent Oscar Wallace, played by Charles Martin Smith.
Hence, Robert De Niro became not an only a number on set, but also in the way he became addressed. The other actors were referred to in a more traditional way.
I guess the First AD thought this “code” would add a layer of secrecy over the walkie talkie, which could easily have been achieved by calling him “Al,” in the way that Kevin/Ness would be called Ness and Sean/Malone would be called Malone.
If you ask me, the idea of calling anyone by a number just seems silly, unless it’s Jonathan Frakes on Star Trek The Next Generation, or Rebecca Romijn, on Star Trek Strange New Worlds, both being called “Number One,” which was the character name.
This was the First AD’s idea, and I’m sure he thought it was genius.
But before any personal cockiness envelopes further this story time, remember how this whole adventure began – sparked by answering a late night ringing phone. But it hit speed bump when Kevin Costner asked me to take care of taking care his local phone bill.
The personal check was written. The envelope was addressed. Kevin Costner handed it to me. I personally dropped it in the mail.
But when the payment did not arrive in time. And the bill was weeks overdue and the phone was disconnected.
Kevin was so mad at me – and I felt terrible. I think that all these years later he still might hold a grudge against me. The phone, of course, was eventually turned back on. How else would Kevin have ever gotten his call times?
The first scene up on stage was in the barber shot set for the opening of the film. Camera placement and lighting, and placing the Reporters were done by the use of a stand-in. “Number Five” was due on set around the time the set was to be fully lit, and the reporters were all ready to go.
That morning, I waited for the call… and I waited…
And then I waited some more.
At some point we were alerted that he was not happy with the wardrobe. So on the first day of filming with Robert De Niro – er Al Capone – er, “Number Five” – there were no scenes and no pages for the production report – as there was never a first shot.
We’d gone as far as we could go for the day without the bad guy in the barber chair, so the company wrapped, leaving everything as is. Hopeful filming would resume the next day.
It was an easy call sheet for the Second ADs to do in order to lay out the next day’s work or cast and crew. Basically it was a matter of changing the date and the number of the day of shooting.
The following morning I reported to set. Soon I got the call that “Number Five” was getting ready in his hotel room. The large group of Reporters got ready at the stage. The crew reinstated the lighting. Everyone got ready to go on the master.
A car to bring “Number Five” to the stage was standing by at his hotel. I waited for the call that he was on his way. Waiting for a phone to ring is like waiting for water to boil.
There was a definite streak of irony in all this…
The call came a little late, but it still came. “Number Five” and his make up, hair, and wardrobe team were on the way.
When Robert De Niro arrived at the stage, they company went right to work. He came ready and in character, so he sat right in and reclined in the barber chair. The blood was prepared for the effect of the shaving mishap. A clean up for take two was ready to go.
And the first of his scenes went off smoothly – twenty-four hours later than planned.
Also filmed that very same day was a scene in a prison barber shop, with a similar master angle. This was meant to come at the end of the movie, but it wound up on the cutting room floor. The actual film ended with the crane shot on Chicago’s famous LaSalle Street, as Eliot Ness walked back into everyday Chicago life.
One of the most memorable days shooting with “Number Five” would up being the sequence of him attending the opera at Preston Bradley Hall. While sitting in a box seat, for a performance of the opera Pagliaccia, Al Capone learned from Frank Nitti that Beat Cop Jimmy Malone was dead.
It was the end of the week and the production got through the scenes in the theater and on the stairway very quickly. Once all the shots were done with elements that involved the performance and theatrical stage, the Clown was sent home. We were fairly close to wrapping for the day (actually, the night), but Brian de Palma decided he wanted to improvise a scene that was not in the script, or on the call sheet.
Word went out for looking for someone who knew how to do a Champaign tower pour. As a bonus, Brian DePalma wanted the Clown to be picked back up, so he could share a toast with Al Capone.
As I arranged this pick up with the Transportation Captain, he said something quite funny, which I believe everyone heard over channel one on the walkie talkie.
“The Clown is dead!”
I think everyone would have been quite happy if the Clown had not answered the phone – but he did. He was picked back up and came back to set.
The Untouchables was another movie during which production worked six-day work weeks (often Monday was a day call and Saturday was an all night call, which gave everyone less than 24 hours off for that week). It really felt like seven-day work-week, since the seventh day was recovering from the intensity of other six.
Mostly that one off-day was a chance to catch up on sleep, do some errands, and go to the production office to deal with the prior night’s paperwork.
It was always empty and quiet in the production office on Sundays, much like the night in the production office of The Equalizer that had started this whole adventure.
During that Sunday afternoon in the production office, the phone rang, which was very unusual. But, unlike that time in the production office of The Equalizer, I answered it.
It could be another job offer.
“Hello, Production,” I said.
“Who’s this?” said the voice at the other end.
“This is Glen.”
“Oh Glen, hi. Bob De Niro”. He said it like he and I were old friends from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx who hadn’t spoken in a couple of years.
Robert De Niro had left town that weekend to attend the premiere of The Falcon and the Snowman. He was about to get on a plane to head back to Chicago, so he wanted to know the details for tomorrow’s scenes and call time. So I went over the information on the Monday call sheet with him. But I would still drop all the information off at his hotel, just to be safe that who know what to prepare, and what time he was expected to show up.
As filming drew to a close, there was one lengthy climactic sequence yet to film. In the script it was set on an actual period train in which Eliot Ness captured the bookkeeper that was needed to bear witness against Al Capone. I understood this plan was ultimately rejected because of the expense and logistics of working aboard a depression era train. It probably would have meant moving to a location where such a museum quality train existed.
During that same period of time Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was working with a similar train, so I know that it’s possible to do this – but, ultimately, the decision was to go back to the drawing board and conceive an alternative story sequence.
Next, the whole sequence was to become a chase through the tunnels under the city of Chicago. I have no idea if there are such tunnels, or how this would have actually been achieved, but it never got very far as a practical option or to a point where script pages were issued or anything was scouted. My guess is that most of the sequence would have been a huge set build in a warehouse or a soundstage – very expensive with such a let change.
The sequence ultimately became the famous shootout on the steps of the Union Train Station steps.
The road map of the entire sequence was set down on a single sheet of paper that was given limited distribution. All it indicated the basic movement of the principles and the stunt men, and who got shot when and where. This gave way to an approximate hour-by-hour and day-to-day timeline, so the various departments could prepare and stay ahead in order to be ready for blood effects, squibs, and multiples on the wardrobe because of all the blood.
The real Union Station was booked for multiple nights of shooting between ten p.m. and six a.m. We were already to go with gear, principles, stunts, and background, each night as soon as the building was closed to the pubic.
Night after night I was up and down those now well-knows steps hundred of times as technicians blew off the backs of people’s heads, stuntmen picked off innocent bystanders, and even caused a baby carriage to go rogue. Every morning, no matter what we had filmed, the station was returned to the commuting public and the vampires we had become went to retire for the day. At the end of the night I made certain to hand everyone a call sheet and also make certain all crew got a ride back to the hotel as crew vans did “roundies.”
I was, as always, the last one out, and the last one done at night, but for some reason it felt good.
So yes, it’s the people who are willing to sleep in the production office, or come in on Sundays, or answer that phone late at night, who pass that Paper Chase-like test – and more.
Sleep might have suffered, but the waking hours future was wide open. It I had to do was make certain to show up and pay attention.
And, answer the phone!
You never know where any mysterious phone call could lead.
STREET SMART (1987)
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
Filmed during the Summer of 1986
Manhattan, New York City
A question that so often comes up in relation to my decades long film career is, “what is the dumbest thing you’ve ever experienced on a movie?” Street Smart, for which my last feature assignment as a DGA Trainee, supplies a rather solid answer. Even with my limited experience at the time, I could tell that this feature film was a traffic accident in slow motion.
The “regular” pattern of the long day of DGA Trainee simply had fallen in to chaos.
But, before I get to this whopper of a tale about Street Smart, there a couple of other very recent contenders for what is the “dumbest thing” I’ve ever seen on a film which simply cannot be ignored.
One of these prized “dunce cap” moments had actually occurred within this past year.
During the Fall of 2021, I was approached to help several inexperienced people put together in the New York area. It was based on a script that almost entirely took place at a single house that sat on a quiet lake. In the story, the lone occupant of the house, a wealthy corporate executive, had recently lost his wife. He was attempting to replace the deep hole in his life through fishing, cooking, and his love of music.
The house location that the Director had found did not sit on a lake, so the film would need to create the right geography by fusing two locations seamlessly in to one. The folks who had brought me in to the project had also found a lake they liked creatively and they wanted to fuse two locations into a single setting in the film.
Except that though the house and lake were three hundred miles apart.
The Director, barely out of film school, felt this lake – and this lake alone – was consistent with his vision, and that it had to be the body of water used in the film. His “Mommy”, who was the partial financier, and seeming the Director’s most trusted “advisor,” backed this choice, and fought just as hard as he did for using it, telling me frequently that her son had already looked unsuccessfully for an alternative lake option that was a shorter drive from the house.
I argued, unsuccessfully, that the State of New York is filled with lakes, many of these much closer to the magical house. Water is water. Trees are trees. Boats are boats. Docks are docks.
Of course, a well-known aspect of producing independent films is the budgetary challenges of how to allocate limited time and resources. This film was no different. Every shooting day would need to be aggressively scheduled in order to hit the dollar figure of money raised. Even then it was going to be difficult to bring the film in on budget. Traveling between locations was not in the cards.
The more I argued against the vast distance, the more Madonna and Child pushed back. Maybe this lake was so special because this lake, and this lake alone, allowed the young Director to be able to walk on water. It came to a point I began to question either their sanity or my own. As I did the research on what this would mean to the film, the effects of the terrible choice started to ripple like water through the entire production.
Think about it. A full day would be lost to the travel. All the equipment, transportation, crew, would need to be brought to a remote location near a very small town with little infrastructure in place. I was scared to count the local hotel rooms to see if there were enough for cast and crew. What time would the local restaurants open in the morning? What time would the local restaurants close at night?
I understood the situation to a point. These people were inexperienced, but they were also incredibly stubborn, and no matter how hard I tried, there was no budging on the matter.
Eventually the film fell apart. Weeks of planning the film evaporated in a series of acts of self-sabotage.
You can lead a horse to a lake… or to water…
This type of “friendly fire” happens much more that I would have thought when I was first starting out in the film business.
A couple of years prior to the case of the magic lake, I was consulting on a film in Central New York State, assisting the Producers with the creation a line by line budget, a shooting schedule, a prep schedule, and overseeing the location and crew search.
Working in Central New York was very much in my wheelhouse. I had recently helped produce a half a dozen films in the area with a similar scope and budget level.
Two inexperienced brothers were producing this new film. Their desire to shoot in the Central New York area arose from the fact that, many years prior, their father had been the hockey coach at a local university and had helped the varsity hockey team achieve a championship season.
The brothers were anxious to come to the college town as “returning” local heroes, and the sons of a long ago actual local hero, even if the film had nothing to do with them, or the father. It was just the shared love of hockey of the father and sons and the fans of the local college team – the sport of college hockey being the backdrop of the film.
Here is where it gets interesting. The story of the film took place in Europe. The university town in which they wanted to film looked nothing like any Europe I knew. However, not many miles away from the University, but probably still close enough for them to declare their heroism, was the town of Skaneateles. Some streets in the quaint town might be able to double for a European setting without having to do too much production design.
The brothers refused to even consider the town of Skaneateles as a viable option. All right, they were willing to fake taking a look, so one day we did a creative scout, but the two brothers sat in a coffee shop and had a nice breakfast while the Director, the Production Designer, and myself, took a look through the town. The brothers made no secret about the fact that they were clearly disinterested in looking at locations there – or anywhere else – just in the chosen town.
Largely because of the location choices upon which the two of them insisted, the film was a failure.
During the scouting phase, great Location Scouts and a talented Production Designer are preemptively thinking of all the upsides, and balancing the downsides, before a single frame is shot on a single street. Negotiating for, and moving in an out of a location takes choreography and planning.
It’s a tap dance between the production and the locality – most often quite successful.
Those who live in New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and other towns and cities that have become Meccas for production, have probably experienced the immense footprint of a movie taking over several city blocks. The grip department has a truck. The electric department has a truck. The camera department has a truck. The prop department has a truck. The special effects department has a truck. The set-dressing department has a truck. The major cast members each require a motor home. So does the make up hair department and the wardrobe department. There is also a honey wagon for all the day player actors. Oh, yes, and the Director has a single motor home as well. And while we’re at it, toss one in for the Producers. There’s also a catering truck, a craft service truck, and locations truck filled with those pesky red traffic cones to hold parking spots for all those other trucks and campers.
Clearing the neighborhood for the arrival of this circus of vehicles is the job of a Parking Coordinator, who knows the parking regulations on every street and, usually, has an army of Parking PAs o assistant him.
Even before these trucks and motor homes show up, often official looking no parking notices can be spotted taped to parking regulation signs, warning the neighborhood that the circus is coming to town. The Parking PAs stand ready to pounce on every spot as each car pulls out.
As the parked cars clear, those red traffic cones are placed in the empty spots to hold the parking, which soon causes the neighborhood to have that apocalyptic look.
Not long after, “the movie people” descend on the neighborhood as the trucks and campers replace the red cones.
I have woken up to the sound of a wardrobe truck idling noisily beneath my window before sunrise – and it’s no fun. One time I think it was Will Smith’s camper that seemed like it was a full two stories tall and blocked my view. And I’m certain there was a separate camper for all the gym equipment. Perhaps there was a camper for the Personal Chef as well.
While the trucks and campers settle, the whiff of bacon egg and cheese sandwiches from the catering truck floats from down the block where people have been cooking for at least an hour. As the crew arrives, most of them head to catering. It is usually the Director’s arrival on set which starts to get the day going.
It’s easy to tell the location of the small space where the shot is actually happening. A-half-a-dozen easy-up tents have been assembled in the curb lane to place over the equipment. Plus, a large crowd of crew begins to form.
With some small adjustments, this is how the day goes. The street – or a building on the street – becomes a back lot for a short period of time. In my experience, most of the time there is great respect for the neighborhood. This is a covenant with the city so future movies and television show can continue to film comfortably in the municipality.
When the filming is done, the tents fold up. The trucks and campers are loaded and pull out. The crew heads home – and the neighborhood is returned to the neighbors. All that’s usually left are the tattered, taped up no parking signs and garbage cans filled with coffee cups and water bottles.
Almost always this routine happens all over the city, the county, indeed the world, without serious incident. Perhaps a business owner will demand payment because he is convinced that he is losing a million dollars of business per hour because the Wardrobe Truck is parked in front of his window and all potential shoppers are being crossed over to the other side of the street from his store. It is times like these I do not envy the locations department at all. This is why deals are made to anticipate such issues, and locations are often chosen because there are simply less businesses on the street to inconvenience.
The inappropriately named Street Smart – an oxymoron to say the least – had, as said, a different feel than my other assignments as a DGA Trainee. The production was overloaded with serious problems. It was my least favorite of all the films on which I honed my craft during the two-years of mentorships. Yes, I had learned a library’s worth of information during that time, but now I also still knew how much I had a lot to learn.
But, like the stories above, there’s an aspect of learning to do production the right way, and many clear lessons of doing it the wrong way.
I considered myself very fortunate to have otherwise mostly worked with extremely talented First ADs and Second ADs on the feature films to which I had been assigned, at least up until Street Smart.
On Power, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Critical Condition, the ADs had largely worked mostly through kindness, humor, and consensus building, but also with obvious authority and a focus on getting the day’s work.
But I fully understood from other DGA Trainees in my class, or those you came up slightly before me, that there were ADs and Unit Production Managers who ruled by terror and communicated by yelling. Because Street Smart, was a Harlem-based film about society’s underbelly, this iron fisted approach was probably more tailored to the situation.
Film crews and the production footprint hardly blend in to their surroundings but on this film blending in was particularly problematic. The composition of the production crew was lily white – and the “host” neighborhood was exclusively minority.
Perhaps because of these optics, the production quickly became a target of a community group, who purported to represent of the local neighborhood association. They were aggressive and had a singular agenda: making crew adjustments related to race.
The neighborhood spokesperson asked to talk to whoever was in charge of the production. The threat was extreme: the production would be shut down until there was someone Black behind the camera. My assumption was that this was referring to the Camera Operator who was easy to spot, sitting on the dolly.
The locals were not educated on the basic workings of a movie set. The Director and the Producers are the ones who have influence over the creative, the workings of the set, and the hiring. The Camera Operator is a mere hired hand. He has relatively minor influence, if any, over the film, which consists in framing a shot, looking to see whether a mistakenly placed coffee cup or water bottle are inadvertently left in the frame when the camera is about to roll, or whether a cast member looks to shiny and needs a pat down.
Over thirty years ago the film business had a noticeable lack of both female and minority representation.
Even my DGA Trainee class, selected for a program that was designed to be an open door to outsiders, was completely white (though today, as then, equally balanced between male and female).
If it were just so the ethnicity of the Camera Operator was tokenism – it was still going to be a tricky staffing move to pull off at short notice. Camera Operator is a union job that requires technical knowledge and years of experience. Not anyone can just simply jump on the dolly and spin the wheels. With high intensity moments that often have to be captured on take one, the production owes it to film to pick the best available person for any job especially the one who often needs to catch lightning in a bottle.
Production was brought to a stand still while community relations were sorted out. This was a First AD’s worst nightmare. Unlike the approach of bad weather, no one seemed to see this hurricane coming.
There are so many neighborhoods in New York City which looked exactly like this one, and which would have been much more user-friendly. To this day I am not sure if and why those alternatives were not explored. Everyone knows that time is money – and the money was swiftly blowing away on to the streets of Harlem.
As to the community group, it would probably not have taken a Harvard graduate to figure out beforehand who to speak to. Some blocks and neighborhoods even have their own “mayor,” someone who stands ready with his or her hand out to purport to be able to troubleshoot problems with the residents and building owners. Nothing like this seemed to have been attempted. And if it had been attempted, it was a total and utter failure.
On the three other films I had seen community relations work quite well. On Brighton Beach Memoirs rows of homeowners were inconvenienced while the exteriors of their houses were transformed to depression-era homes. Parking spaces were rendered unavailable to them for many days and filled with cars from the 1930s. Residents were often prevented for walking in to their own neighborhood for minutes at a time, so production could get a long take.
Through all that, I never remember so much as a peep from a single local resident in Brooklyn, except for one homeless guy who disrespected the lock up with an attitude of violence. I imagine this was because the locations department on Brighton Beach Memoirs had so well prepared the neighborhood for exactly what to expect when the circus came to town, and had been paid for the inconvenience.
Ironically, even though the crew on Street Smart was lily white, the cast was diverse. This was the film that put Morgan Freeman on the map. He actually was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting actor for that very role in Street Smart. A few years down the road, he probably could have done some community relations. He just was not nearly well known enough at the time.
On Street Smart there actually was a famous cast member playing the main character.
Christopher Reeve, the actor who had rocketed to stardom playing Clark Kent and Superman in several feature films in the 1970s and 1980s. But the fact that the actor who had played Superman was the main character in Street Smart, and present on location, filming in their neighborhood, but the super-hero seemed to mean nothing to the adult locals.
I am likewise fairly certain that Christopher Reeve was aware of the problems we were having with the community, as production had come to a grinding halt, but he seemed quite disconnected from the situation. He certainly could have been immensely helpful in smoothing out the clash with the locals, even if it were just to have some interaction with neighborhood children. Some of them even seemed excited having Superman visiting their block.
As much as this would have been a much more fun conclusion to this story to tell, Superman never came to the film’s rescue.
What was sad for me, was that the film was such a jumbled experience that I did not really get to enjoy working with him as I had say with Gene Hackman, who had been in The Poseidon Adventure, Kate Capshaw who had been in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or Beatrice Straight, who had been in Poltergeist, all films that had been such fun to see growing up.
So much of the first Superman film had been shot on location in New York City, which was standing in for Metropolis. It painted a spectacular fantasy around some iconic locations for the film, the Daily News Building (aka “The Daily Planet”), Grand Central Station, and the Statue of Liberty. From all the stories I have heard, all of these had gone off like clockwork. The production had even managed to keep the lights of The Empire State Building on well in to the night.
Chalk that up to smart planning.
As the days passed, an incident that occurred after the bulk of a long night of filming had passed seems unbelievable in retrospect. Several actors had been wrapped prematurely and they were still needed for the final scene. By the time the error was discovered the actors had left the location. Of course this film was produced before cell phones so someone was going to have to try to catch up to them. So I was dispatched to go retrieve the actors before they reached home – and do my whatever I could to bring them back to set.
The sun came up before I ever even got the chance.
Simple math would have saved me the trip. And they say that you never need these elementary school skills in show business.
This brings up an overarching rule that is just basic math. The chance of getting a shot without a totally necessary cast member is zero. Before letting any actor leave location, it is important to be certain that he or she is really done for the day. Even when the Director says the actor is no longer needed, take a beat and be sure and even double check with the Script Supervisor. This isn’t just “street smarts,” it is more “production smarts,” and, ultimately, “life smarts.”
Sometimes it’s even worth simply holding on to an actor or two until wrap – or at least until the scene is complete. The majority of – if not all of – Unit Production Managers are probably not enthusiastic about this advice being placed in to print. In my opinion, the smart argument is over, which is worse? Wouldn’t the Director be a lot less enthusiastic about owing a shot instead of having to return to the location to pick it up at a later date?
The difference in cost is hardly measurable.
Over the years I’ve had to consider the smartest balance in my monetary decisions. Often the consideration comes down to this: if we don’t make this expense, is there a chance we might have to add significant time, or perhaps even go over a day, and incur a much more significant expense? That argument always helps Unit Production Managers with perspective when they come up to me and ask me why an actor has not been wrapped. Alternatively, I could be sending someone to chase down a moving train at four o’clock in the morning, if we still wind up needing a prematurely wrapped actor, and have to make a failed attempt at retrieving them.
And the sun would still rise – with no night exterior shots having been done at all.
The largest takeaway in balancing the personal legacy of this film against the prior three movies is that, our covenant with the freelance life is that we take the very successful and fulfilling projects along with the less successful and fulfilling ones. Thankfully, in my case, the balance seems to always favor the former. That’s just a smart way to exist in a freelance world. Tough out the tough gigs. Unless, of course, the people in charge are evil – or just too dumb to get out of their own way, and then it might not be at all smart to stay while Nero fiddles.
Oh, and what’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever experienced? It was actually my own self-sabotage, agreeing to shoot with Jennifer Lopez on the Grand Concourse, in the Bronx, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a school day.
That’s right, Jenny from the Block.
One hundred percent my own undoing.
Talk about picking the wrong block. The famous Bronx street – The Grand Concourse went, in a matter of minutes, a hundred movie fans to more than thousand movie-fans.
Much more about that one in later post.
I’m sure people are telling stories about me about that one – but, if so, it’s a story for years down the road.
I guess that sometimes we can be a little dumb.
CRITICAL CONDITION (1987)
Directed by Michael Apted
Filmed during the Spring of 1986
Governors Island, New York;
High Point, North Carolina;
Greenville, South Carolina
My two prior blogs have focused on the films on which I began my decades-long journey of film production – as the DGA Trainee. Both posts recounted stories of how I “broke in to the business’ as a filmmaker, beginning to carve out a niche for myself, while learning some of the key responsibilities of the Assistant Director from both films.
My next project, the feature film Critical Condition, was produced almost entirely on distant location, and in, essentially, in one single location. This was certain to offer a very different experience from the prior two films, Power, which moved quickly from city to city, and Brighton Beach Memoirs, on which the major daily focus was its depression-era setting.
Critical Condition was neither period, nor replete with company movies. It was set in present day with minimal location moves, mostly using an empty hospital.
On Critical Condition, the First and Second Assistant Director were the same AD team as on the prior film Brighton Beach Memoirs. This offered the unique opportunity for me to be able to see how the same individuals dealt with many of the same job responsibilities on two very different feature films. Aside from just the ADs, on Critical Condition, I had much more time to observe and learn about so many of the other crafts as well.
It was now abundantly clear to me that, though Assistant Directors are central to the functioning of the feature film set, they are just a small part of the vast production machine.
I point to the fact of how long a feature film’s end credits last – sometimes much longer than the length of the average short film – and it becomes immediately clear how many different departments involved in the pre production, production and post production process.
Those credits have long been populated with strange and interesting job titles, much more mysterious than the job designation “First Assistant Director”.
Part of the fun – in the moments when I had the time to have fun – was continuing to learn so much detail about the contributions of others to the production process. Even as a life-long fan of films and filmmaking, there had not been many such possibilities to do this while growing up.
Some of my favorite questions from the people who watch the end credits on feature films (including the adolescent me) tend to stem from their personal curiosity about some of the more mysterious job titles.
The same folks who might ask me “… and what is it you actually do?,” would often also ask questions like, “What does the Gaffer do?” “What exactly is a Key Grip?” “Who or what is the Lead Man leading?” “What are the responsibilities of the Swing Gang?” “What does the Best Boy do?” “Can there ever be a Best Girl?”
Before I write specifically about the responsibility of say, a “Best Boy” (something tells me that, in time, the job title of “Best Boy” will soon be changed to something akin to “Best Person”), which will remove some of the charming archaic nature of the decades old title.
Today a library full of books and websites exist which identify the key players on a film crew and give short descriptions of duties of each particular position. For instance, a “Best Boy” oversees and maintains the equipment for his technical department, so it is inventoried – and in the best shape.
Despite the modern opportunities for finding a feature film credits “Cliff Notes,” or a paperback book called “Film Production for Idiots,” nothing like this existed in 1985. It wasn’t until I found myself standing in the middle of the set, dealing with all those people, day after day, observing and interacting with them individually, that I became clear on what many of them brought to the production process, whether being called “Boy” or “Person” or “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.”
For instance, if I needed to get electrical power supply for the lights, or hair dryers, or hair curlers at the hair and make-up stations, I needed to specifically ask a “Lamp Operator” to take care of it. If needed to get someone to black out the windows of the make-up room to assure privacy, it was necessary to ask a “Company Grip.” The go-to person for the supply of directors chairs was the “Assistant Property Master.”
And so many tasks supplied by people with interesting job titles.
And in the way I was learning the AD craft, most film production professionals learned the ins and outs of their departments by apprenticing with more experienced craftsmen. Just like DGA Trainees eventually become First ADs, Directors, and Producers… Lamp Operators became Best Boys… Best Boys became Gaffers. Directors of Photography became Directors. ADs wound up running studios.
Something to aspire to…
Gender aside, “why is the position called the “Best Boy?” It’s a larger part of the story of various old school designations which include “key,” “lead,” and “foreman,” and harken back to studio and union roots. Most of these pinpoint who is the person in charge, who is the second in command, and so forth.
This made the shorthand of filling a vacancy a simple process. The key person in the department would call down to a sort of dispatcher and say “send me the “Best Boy” that they had available – someone who could plug right in to the workings of the electrical department and be able to start distributing power.
In this way, carry-overs from a prior project’s departmental team, or even from the previous day, could remain, and gaps in the staffing were either assigned by the union, or the studio, or simply carry overs from the previous day.
Then, as now, a crew got put together from the top down. The Writer, Director, and the Producers were most often the first ones on the project.
At the top of the pyramid, these leaders were involved in basically every creative and key hiring decision. Beyond casting and location scouting, the focus would be on hiring the rest of the people whose names appear in the main titles, or those immediately at the end of the film, ie… the Line Producer, the Casting Director, the Director of Photography, the Production Designer, the Costume Designer, the Editor, the Composer, and the Visual Effects Supervisor – and the First Assistant Director.
Then those key creative people would often assist in the hiring of the next tier of department heads, including the Location Manager, the Art Director, the Property Master, The Special Effects Foreman, the Stunt Coordinator, the Gaffer, the Key Grip, the Sound Mixer, the Production Manager, the Production Coordinator, and the Production Accountant.
In a similar manner, these department heads would then individually fill out the staffing in the rest of their departments in accordance with the scope and needs of the project (and the help of the Studio and labor union).
I was a proud product of this process, the generation-old system with still exists today in regard to DGA Trainees, a title and job which goes back probably seventy years.
First ADs are then responsible for the hiring of the Second AD. Wolfgang Glattes, the First AD on Power, had chosen Second AD Tony Gittleson. Bobby Girolami had chosen the Second AD Louis D’Esposito on Brighton Beach Memoirs. Then, both the First AD and Second AD on those movies would hire the rest of the Second ADs, the Production Assistants, and, often, the needed consultants and instructors.
For instance, a tutor for the minors might be needed, or a legal adviser for courtroom scenes, or a poker expert for table games, or a story-board artist… a tennis pro… a golf pro… a fight coordinator.
Suddenly the length of the end credits makes sense.
All DGA Trainees, except for those hired under a special rule – which applied to Critical Condition – came aboard a film in a different manner than most everyone other person on the crew – and still do. Normally DGA Trainees are assigned to the production by the Administrator of the DGA Training Program, in accordance with the terms of the Directors Guild of America Basic Agreement, under a rotating placement system.
Of course, any film to which I was assigned could “interview” me before the official sign off, but the expectation was that the movie would put me on staff and place me under the mentorship of the Assistant Directors.
This lone exception was and is, that if the majority of a film was to be shot outside of the New York Metropolitan Area, a film production could have their choice of any DGA Trainee currently enrolled in the Training Program.
Bobby Girolami, the First AD on Brighton Beach Memoirs, my prior assignment, and the subject of the previous blog, called me directly to ask me if I wanted to be the DGA Trainee on the new film on which he was starting to work.
Of course I did.
The next brief stop was Governors Island, a tiny portion of land in the middle of New York Bay that was off limits to the general public. Maintained as a military base, but barely used, the location was accessible by the rickety boats that departed not far from a Manhattan terminal just north of the Staten Island Ferry.
Interesting piece of trivia is that the production did s good deal of the early prep in the old Paramount/Gulf + Western Building – which is now the Trump Hotel.
Active prep took place at the fascinating first location on the that tiny island of which most New Yorkers weren’t even at all aware, even though it was a rowboat ride away from The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Battery park.
Every day cast and crew either drove on – or walked on – the Governors Island Ferry. Enough of the scenes were shot to make it look like the tiny island was the setting for the entire story and could be completely cut off from civilization. Just this happened in the story. In which New York City was hit my a massive storm, much like Super Storm Sandy, which years later, knocked out the power for real.
The lone bridge that connected the island to the mainland, existed only via visual effects, was washed out. In the real world, the Governor’s Island hospital had long since been dormant, with no sign of coming back on line.
And the interior of this particular space was not really practical for production as the mive would be looking for a somewhat furnished location.
The island, despite proximity, was also impractical. Every piece of equipment was brought over by that same commuter ferry which cast anc rew took back and forth every day – or by barge. This long list of heavy machinery, including Ritter fans to make the wind for the massive storm, large cannons needed to shoot fake debris, and rain machines to – well – make it rain.
Creating this “movie” storm was the first major special effects sequence to which I had a front row seat on any of the three films, and coordinating all of that was in the domain of First AD Bobby Girolami.
As I recall, he had developed a pretty good system of signals to communicate without being since he was not able to be heard over the deafening sound of the fans and the debris cannons.
Since the island was more or less empty of residents and staff, the production could pretty much litter the streets with debris and create as much wind as was safe. The only other signs of life on the island, besides the crew, were hundreds of people in uniform. At the time of the production of the film, Governors Island held the remainder of a Coast Guard base – and a huge Coast Guard vessel was docked fairly close to the hospital exterior.
Even before the fake wind would blow, and the fake rain would fall, dozens of members of the Coast Guard would gather to watch the crew set up.
I soon learned that this docked vessel had been the one that recovered the wreckage from the Space Shuttle explosion that had occurred a couple of years’ prior. When working toward a life of telling fantasy stories for a living, it is always very sobering to encounter people who interact with a much harsher reality.
What a rag tag bunch of journeymen we must have looked like in comparison to the spit and polished members of the military service.
We were all somewhat unique and the product of our departments. They were all somewhat the same.
But we all had our “uniforms” as well. On these days of filming it was mostly waterproof boots and rain jackets.
It was relatively easy to recognize who was filling which crew position by way of obvious visual clues. Even from a bit of a distance it was easy to discern who was holding the boom, or a broom, or pushing the dolly, or holding the light meter to determine the stop, or focusing a light, or pulling the tape for focus marks, or changing the take number on the slate. If a Coast Guard members rank was designated by the uniform insignias, our departments, and most other positions were identifiable by the tools the particular worker had on display.
My tools were as a holder and passer of information, which was, then, largely printed. I carried a stack of scripts… an actors sign in an and sign out sheet… that day’s production report…
And the messages sent by the production office.
While I wasn’t at the peak of the important information decisions of my department, like “let’s shoot this scene next,” as part of my responsibilities as the DGA Trainee, I was at the epicenter of the set information exchange.
In the days before the existence of cellphones, the communication between the crew and the outside world was through the film’s production office – and myself. The phone number of the production office was the phone number that every crew member would leave with family members, vendors, and virtually the entire outside world.
During many of my frequent in person check ins with the production office – conveniently located on the island, not far from the hospital exterior – the Production Coordinator would hand me all of the messages that had come in since the time of my most recent check in.
Often these tiny slips of paper brought me a little too much into the realm of privacy of individual crew members… I’d hold slips which would have ballpoint pen blurbs like “Your mother is in the hospital, here is the number of the nurse’s station…” “Your sister had the baby…” “Are you available for a feature film starting up on April first?...” “Your check is in the office…”
It was hard not to read them, but they were so fascinating.
This was normally a simple process, with a tinge of the violation of privacy…
Cue the rain…
On the nights of the fake storm, a couple of times the stack of messages that were torn from those old carbon message books would stick together while I was walking to set. That’s how wet the air was. Thank goodness for the carbon copy and the duplicate on the message pads. I would have to recreate many of them. The Production Coordinator kind of found the procedure funny. I’m not sure why, but she was right, it kind of was.
I wasn’t sad to get out of the rain, or being able to go back to working during the day, which is what happened as the production moved to High Point, North Carolina. There were several weeks of filming in an empty hospital to finish the film. The situation would be like being on stage for an extended period of time but with long hallways and big spaces that would have been significant and costly stage builds, necessitating an army of Carpenters, Scenic Artists, and Set Dressers.
The abandoned hospital had enough space to allow all the sets and support space to be under a single roof. The production office was located in the old hospital administration office. The actors’ dressing rooms were converted from former hospital rooms, with rented furniture, and were lined up along a single hospital corridor. Cast and crew meals were taken in the former hospital cafeteria prepared by the Crew Caterer. Lock ups were minimal.
There was more than enough adequate gear storage for camera, grip, electric, and prop. Had there had been an actual storm outside the hospital, the cast and crew never even would have been aware during the shooting hours.
I got to spend a lot more quality time with members of the crew, all of whom were in the hospital all day long. Many of them would take the time to explain to me a little bit about their background and responsibilities.
The Director of Photography on Critical Condition was Ralph Bode, who had shot Saturday Night Fever, which was one of my favorite films. Ralph Bode had a great respect for the AD department, and I had great respect for him. Since there really was not much local crew in High Point, North Carolina, his team came from New York and Los Angeles. His main support was the Gaffer, or Chief Lighting Technician, who oversees placing all the lighting units large and small. The Key Grip works with the DP and Gaffer to diffuse the light. Why he is not called the Key Lighting Technician is a mystery to me.
The designation “key” is most often a reference to the top person in the department. But in the AD Department the second person is called the “Key” Second and the head of the department is the First AD.
Perhaps even more confusing is that the third person in the camera department is called the First AC. He or she is the person who pulls focus. The Second AD hits the sticks, sometimes called the slate, the board, or the clapper. No matter what, even today, this person records the take and the scene on film so the sound can be sunk later with the printed footage.
On a standard sized feature film, the grip and electric department normally have between four and six people each.
Aside from the Gaffer and the Best Boy, the remaining members of the electric department answer to the Gaffer and Key Grip and Best Boy, and are called Lamp Operators. These folks are usually busily laying heavy cable. For wide shots at night, it’s not unusual to see a Lamp Operator perched with a very bright lamp in the bucket of a condor.
The remaining grips are called Company Grips. These are the crew members who place an endless array of flags and scrims, put gels on the windows, set up any green screens, and hang those large backings that go out the windows of a stage set to make it look like The Empire State Building is right across the street from a set built in an old warehouse by Carpenters, and painted by Scenic Artists.
With an actor like Richard Pryor, who played the main character on Critical Condition, the lighting and the diffusion are key, as time and abuse had certainly taken its toll on him. But it was the make-up that ultimately allowed him to appear on camera in any sort of recognizable, acceptable form.
Richard Pryor’s main companion was his dedicated Make-Up Artist, Tony Lloyd, who was part of his deal, and who did a great job hiding the actor’s disfigured face and hands. That must have been one painful night for Richard Pryor when he lit himself on fire.
As I was in and out of the trailer during this process, I could always see the horrible uncovered burn marks around his neck-line, and around his sleeves, in places the make-up artist did not bother cover, because the costume would take care of hiding those areas.
Richard Pryor was the sort of actor who knew a lot more about the filmmaking process than just learning his lines and hitting his marks. A movie that Richard Pryor wrote and directed, a loose autobiography called Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling was released during the shooting schedule of Critical Condition. Richard Pryor arranged to have the movie screened for the cast and crew.
Despite being depressing as hell – and all too real – the experience was actually a fairly entertaining. Richard Pryor could be very funny, even with fear and tears in your eyes while watching him re-enact events that in real life must have been unfathomable.
There was also a great opportunity to see another lesser known feature made by the film’s Director, Michael Apted, who screened a rather unique project for a small group of University of North Carolina students – a documentary called 28 Up.
Beginning in 1964, with the feature film 7 Up, Michael Apted became involved in a project that spanned decades, checking in every seven years on the lives of ten males and four females, who had been selected from a range of social and economic backgrounds.
Seven years later. Michael Apted directed the follow-up14 Up. He continued with the series up to 63 Up, the ninth film in the fifty six year-long franchise.
I’m going to guess that what started on television as 7 Up is the longest running franchise in film history. If not, the continuing story is surely very close in staying power to the long-running series of James Bond, Star Trek, and Star Wars.
Individual installments, and the “Up” series as a whole, have received wide acclaim. 28 Up was named one of the ten greatest films of all time by Film Critic Roger Ebert. I can understand why. The film is inspiring and enlightening – and incredibly unique.
The fact that this endeavor was from the same Director who made the Oscar winning Coal Miner’s Daughter, an installment of James Bond franchise called The World is Not Enough, led the Directors Guild of America as it’s President, as well as sat on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
This brings up a very important lesson: A person can find success in multiple niches, or at the very least have the opportunity to experience and excel along a variety of avenues in the world of film production.
From gaining some real familiarity around such an iconic member of the industry, I could see how it was quite possible to start in a television station as a researcher, move between television series and feature films, do a smattering of commercials and music videos on the side, serve on motion picture industry boards, and even write a documentary.
Because of this, I’ve always looked at career opportunities as “in addition to,” rather than “instead of.” Life is just too short not to explore all desired opportunities, even just to see how it feels on the other side of the camera, or in an ancillary part of the business. Richard Pryor had also demonstrated this with the autobiographical film he screened for the crew in which he served as a “multi-hyphenate.”
On paper Critical Condition was quite a funny idea and was a great vehicle for Richard Pryor. The Writer Eric Lerner was always on set to improve the jokes. He was never far from camera.
Over the course of the North Carolina portion of the schedule, I became pretty friendly with him. I was the one who would assemble all of the script revisions. I was the one who distributed the rewrites. I embraced the opportunity to keep up with all the changes.
I was also probably not the only one who harbored a secret desire to be a screenwriter as well as a production person. Plenty of people in the feature film world wrote and produced, so this was a possible future scenario.
But I also harbored a less secret interest to try acting. And this movie might give me the opportunity to make this additional desire a reality.
About two-thirds through production schedule there was a small part in the movie that was still yet to be cast. It was the role of a Lab Technician with the one line, who appeared in just one scene. I wanted the opportunity to do this part, both for the experience of being a day player – and for the extra money.
There were a couple of good reasons that they actually might cast me in the role, which would take less than half a day to film and still allow me to keep up with my normal responsibilities.
The story took place on New York City’s Governors Island, but, or course, the production was based in High Point, North Carolina, so the film had little access to any local acting talent. Southern accents were the rule for miles in every direction. It was either going to be a matter of importing an actor from a place like New York City to say the one line in a believable manner, and pay for the flight and the hotel, and possibly travel days, chance having a local actor give the part a try, like a college student from the University of North Carolina, or consider someone on the crew who fit the role.
I was a perfect nerdy lab technician, with an undeniable New York accent.
Little did I know that Writer Eric Lerner had the same idea about playing the part. Once I found this fact out, I had no doubt that the part would wind up being his. Eric and I were friends, so I did not begrudge him the part in the least.
It wasn’t even mine to begrudge anyone – and I wasn’t even an actor.
But my resume was as blank as any page Eric had in his typewriter before hitting a single letter.
But Eric Lerner, finding out that I had the same thoughts about the role, was anxious to find a solution. He rewrote the scene, adding a second uncast character, who also had a single line. He actually named the new character in the script “Glen From Krynon” – Krynon being the name of the fictional evil corporation in the story that was secretly harvesting organs in the hospital. This was after all a Richard Pryor movie. What else would an evil corporation be doing in the hospital than harvesting organs?
I guess if Richard Pryor could be a mental patient, who could put on a lab coat and fake being a doctor – which was the entire plot of this film – then I could put on a similar lab coat and fake being a medical technician.
Paraphrasing what Dustin Hoffman exclaims as Michael Dorsey in the film Tootsie: “I once played an entire evening of organ harvesters…”
This role should hopefully be mine, right?
Michael Apted was not against putting his stamp of approval on my acting debut. This brought me one step closer to putting on that Krynon badge and spending hours learning my one line. Who on the crew could possibly stand in the way of a lifelong dream to be discovered?
When the Unit Production Manager, an individual with very little to do on this essentially one location film, and a person with little regard for crew morale, got wind of the chicanery being concocted with the addition of the Technician role, he did everything to try to have me uncast.
It was kind of a horrible thing to want to do to perhaps the lowest man on the production, making possible one tenth of what he was making on a weekly basis. Production Managers thrive on the use of their red pens. His red cartridge bill for ball-point pens was probably more than scale for a day player.
There was little recourse, unless a higher authority intervened.
That’s exactly what happened. Just before all was lost, Michael Apted learned that the Studio had not authorized the production to cover his personal room service charges. So, just as the United Production Manager to excise the new character and the one line – Michael confronted the Unit Production Manager about the unpaid hotel room charges. The Director said, in his most soft-spoken English way, but with an obvious tinge of anger, that “if the studio doesn’t pay my hotel incidentals, everyone on the crew will also wind up in the movie”.
The UPM was completely shut down. The red pen was be retired for the day.
I had my costume fitting, my Glen from Krynon badge was printed, and a few days later I was ready for my feature film debut.
When the scene was filmed, I found it extremely bizarre to be fussed about by so many members of the crew.
A Sound Man placed a microphone and transmitter on me. The on-set Wardrobe Assistant adjusted my lab coat. The Property Master placed my name tag on my lab coat pocket. The Gaffer held a light meter in front of my face to get a light reading. The First Assistant Camera pulled the long tape measure to get a focus mark based on the distance from the lens of the camera to my prominent nose. The Second Assistant Camera placed a fluorescent tape mark on the floor – a mark – so I would know where to stand.
Make-up and Hair didn’t have to do much to pretty me up. Perhaps the two of them just simply admitted defeat preemptively.
I was waiting for Michael Apted to give me at least an hour’s worth of direction on my motivation for the role, but he left it to me to discover my own complicated backstory.
Other crew members were hard at work to make the shot come together. The On-Set Dresser adjusted the fake organ vats in the background. The special effects department prepared to make the body parts come alive and bounce on cue. The Boom Operator rehearsed his mike placement along with the Camera Operator, in order to check for boom shadows on the wall.
And conducting this symphony was First AD Bobby Girolami, standing right by camera, ready to move all these simultaneous events along quickly.
Me, well, I just prayed I hit my mark, knew my line, did not look at the camera, and was as convincing as possible in my performance. This bright idea of mine was about to be immortalized on film forever.
Would I forever be known as the Day Player who froze?
Once all the elements were ready, we rolled a couple of times and did the scene. Almost immediately Michael Apted printed a take (it was still film in those days). Like the situation on Power for Dan Sweeney and his one line for a political commercial, the whole event was over almost as soon as it began.
I went back to my regular DGA Trainee duties and noted my own hours on the cast sign in/sign out sheet and on the daily production report.
Total shooting time: Maybe two hours.
My performance: Oscar worthy.
Value at the time: 500 dollars for the SAG day player contract, which of course made me eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild had I ever entertained switching careers.
That 500 dollars, plus union fringes (which go to heath and pension plans), was probably substantially more than Director Michael Apted’s entire room service bill had been.
So thanks Paramount Pictures for failing to authorize his room service charges and putting all that extra money in my pocket, and allowing me to experience for a short time how the other half lives.
Special thanks of course to Writer Eric Lerner for the rewritten scene and namesake character. Another tip of the hat to Director of Photography Ralph Bode for such great lighting.
Backhanded thanks to the Unit Production Manager for allowing me to walk in to an epic failure that was even obvious to me after having only two-plus films of experience under my belt.
And extra special thanks to Michael Apted for allowing me to have this comical (I hope) film debut.
I was quite sad when Michael Apted died. I admired him greatly. His talent was boundless. His kindness was limitless. His service to the Directors Guild of America was selfless.
Next time I might need an Acting Coach to be flown in to stand by on set in order to give me several different line readings of the one word.
But, even without the coaching, I didn’t have to look far this time for motivation.
I just imagined Michael Apted once again asking the Unit Production Manager if the studio would now be willing to cover those pesky hotel room expenses.
I could hear the Unit Production Manager’s quick and precise response echo in my head… and it supplied all the motivation I required.
Glen from Krynon summed up what he must have been thinking in the character’s single word of dialogue:
BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS (1986)
Directed by Gene Saks
Filmed during the Summer and Fall of 1985
Brooklyn and Queens, New York City
I began my second assignment as a Directors Guild of America Trainee on the feature film Brighton Beach Memoirs with a much greater understanding of the role of the DGA Trainee and the Assistant Director than I had when I had when started on the subject my prior blog-slash-assignment, the feature film Power.
I had also gained a much greater sense of the many long-term, varied career opportunities available to those who successfully complete the DGA Training Program.
Just as in the movie Brighton Beach Memoirs, the future was wide open and, much like this blog, free to be written on a screenwriter’s set of blank typewriter pages.
Brighton Beach Memoirs was based a semi-autobiographical script by the immensely talented Neil Simon, who had found a solid niche as America’s foremost, and most well-known, comedy playwright. The film was a thinly veiled account of the misadventures of Simon’s fictional younger self, the teenage Eugene Morris Jerome, who grew up in depression-era Brooklyn.
Neil Simon made his memory of being an aspiring young writer completely relatable to the audience. The movie also nicely laid the groundwork of how the creative mind turned his relationship with his dysfunctional family into a career of making generations of movie and theater-goers appreciate that laughter can be elicited by great writing.
Unlike screenwriters, like Neil Simon, Assistant Directors – or ADs – as they are commonly called in the shorthand of the movie business, remain largely unknown to the general public. Sure. an occasional movie about filmmaking has an AD as a character, but this has not brought the awareness of the craft, or those individuals who excel in the role, into the cultural mainstream.
Screenwriters see life as a story and an ark.
ADs see like as a puzzle.
Everyone thinks they can describe what Writers do. Almost no one can describe what ADs do.
There are probably multiple reasons for this.
ADs are not recognized by the Academy Awards – or any awards for which they are eligible, except for those of the Directors Guild of America. ADs are relegated to the film’s end credits, just ahead of those strange crew names like Gaffer… Key Grip… Best Boy… Leadman…
The average person knows little about any of these. At best, may be some audience members, who watch end credits religiously, joke about those funny job titles, and eventuall get in to production,
I believe it’s also because of the difficulty in adequately describing the totality of the role of the AD to “outsiders.”
The Movie sets would certainly find it almost impossible to function without ADs.
Indeed, one of the main duties of the AD is making certain that rest of the crew, including the Gaffer, the Key Grip, and the Leadman, all work in sync.
But there are so many other facets of the AD position.
Over the years during which I was a DGA Trainee, a Second AD, and a First AD, in giving answer to the question, “and what is it that you actually do?,” I began with the statement that as an Assistant Director, not to be confused with a Director’s Assistant, that I am primarily responsible for helping to schedule all the different scenes in the film in a “user friendly” and logistically feasible order, Then, in sync with the Director, and other key creative personnel, I, and the others in AD department, work tirelessly to bring together all the elements to make that schedule happen.
This can be extremely rewarding. As a DGA Trainee, often when a single shot was completed, no matter what my tiny part in achieving it, I could point to that few seconds or minutes of screen time and say, “yeah, I had a tiny little hand in making that happen.”
Sometimes my part consisted of getting the actors ready. Sometimes I would do a simple task, like delivering rewritten script pages that needed to be learned quickly. At other times my task was simply being a body block, placed somewhere off set to inform crew members that they couldn’t go through a door because that door was actually in the shot.
It also wasn’t that unusual for a task to be uniquely specific to a single shot. For instance, there was the time Jonathan Silverman, who was playing the main character Eugene Morris Jerome, asked me to get him a pickle. Jonathan was about to do a scene in which he would have just eaten the pickle and wanted to actually eat a pickle for his “method” approach to acting. This type of task was simpler and fun to explain to family and friends then the idea of walking around set collecting time cards every Friday and inscribing individual crew members clock-out times on the daily production report.
My recounting those tasks of the daily routine as a DGA Trainee would make even my best of my friends’ eyes glaze over in boredom.
However, I was never bored when learning the ropes from my superiors, and that’s really how I picked up all the nuances of the job. This began by soaking up the goings on in my department and learning who to ask in order to get an answer to something I did not know. As such, it was necessary understand the “food chain.”
In other words, the knowledge of who answers to whom in each department and who in the hierarchy was responsible for what specific tasks, and held the most up to date information.
It was always the First AD who was the very top of the pyramid. Yes, the First AD answered to the Director, the Producer, and the Studio. But, on set he was the team captain, the “play caller,” the COO.
The First Assistant Director on Brighton Beach Memoirs was named Bobby Girolami. Prior to my working with hin, Bobby already had a long list of major feature films to his credit, which included A Chorus Line, Nighthawks, and The Cotton Club.
Wolfgang Glattes, the First AD on Power, who also had a stellar resume, which include All That Jazz and Cabaret, had more of a military slant to his approach on set. Bobby Girolami was tough, but was a like a big brother who expressed his expertise with a fairly congenial manner. Bobby Girolami also demanded that every member of the production acted like a professional, as each was an ambassador of the AD department, his team in which he took such great pride.
Perhaps Bobby’s most memorable pet peeve was that all the men in the AD department had to shave every day. Unfortunately for me this is the first task that gets jettisoned out of my morning routine. But Bobby had an eagle eye for five o’clock shadow. Once he even sent me home to rendezvous with a straight razor.
How embarrassing that was. But it definitely raised my understanding of the importance of how one puts themselves out there to others.
But I do have to apologize Bobby Girolami, as it’s been extremely hard for me to adhere to this rule. I would much rather have the extra sleep in the morning. But I promise Bobby, if you are reading this blog, that I am professional who, though he skips the morning shave, also require that every person in the department conduct themselves as professionals, whether they are on set, in the holding area, or watching the equipment.
Even if they still have the five o’clock shadow from five days prior.
On a more serious subject, I will always remember the incident when a crazy person burst through my lock up and, though I did everything possible to stop the intruder from ruining the shot, he refused to stop. Sure, Bobby could have gotten mad at me, but all he said was to let the crazy guy go, it’s not worth getting hurt over a single take. Bobby may have wanted all of us to shave, but he also didn’t want us to court danger. It was more important to let the crazy guy just go about his business, and reach his destination, and for all of us to go back to work. Such is why Bobby was such a great top of the food chain – he did not want a single one of us to get eaten.
All of the remaining Assistant Directors on the production, beyond the First AD, are called Second ADs. At times when there is more than one Second AD on a film – as there were on Brighton Beach Memoirs – the different job responsibilities become more specialized. The greater the amount of “Seconds”, the more refined that each one the positions becomes.
But they are still all called “Seconds,” though in other parts of the world the next in the hierarchy after the Second ADs, is sometimes called a “Third.”
The Second AD who is the day-to-day planner is known as the Key Second AD. The major responsibility of the Key Second AD on any film is the planning, creation, and the communication of the call sheet, which is the action plan for the next shooting day. Constantly being revised, it is up to the Key Second to make certain that the information is correctly and swiftly communicated to cast and crew.
Louis D’Esposito was the Key Second AD on Brighton Beach Memoirs. I think by the time I worked with him he had been a Second AD long enough to have done hundreds, maybe thousands, of call sheets. Louis would eventually become the Co-President of Marvel Entertainment, the Studio that produced Captain America, a film on which I would be a part of three decades after Louis and I first met.
The Second Second AD who despite the name is the third person in the AD Department hierarchy in the American system, tends to stay on the set. The Second Second functions as the actual second in command to the First AD on set, focused on executing the shot that is in progress. The Second Second spends most of his time dealing with the setting background actors, coordinating crowd control, and managing the cast members who are on set.
Jimmy Skotchdopole was the Second Second AD on Brighton Beach Memoirs. I believe Jimmy may have been among the youngest members of the Directors Guild when he joined, if not actually the youngest. He might have been twenty-two years old at the time the film was in production. Louis D’Esposito called Jimmy Scotchdopole, “Golden Boy,” which was because Jimmy already seemed to be living a charmed life. Maybe, more than seemed, years later he would win a Best Picture Academy Award for producing the feature film The Revenant.
There was also other Second ADs on the Brighton Beach Memoirs but most of them were busy with location responsibilities, or embedded with the substantial set build in the studio.
Set Production Assistants – or “Set PAs” – rounded out the AD’s support system and were hired and supervised largely by the Key Second and Second Second. There were several more PAs on Brighton Beach Memoirs then there had been on Power. The number of staff PAs can vary from film to film, but four to six tend to be full time – “staff” – on an average Studio film.
One staff PA was responsible for overseeing the crowd control. Another staff PA was in the background holding area helping get the background actors ready. Another staff PA was assigned to help with the first team, another to do to the paperwork, unless this was being done by a DGA Trainee.
Finally, there was a PA who charged and distributed the walkie talkies and kept track of the inventory. Like the title of this blog, this PA is often heard exclaiming “walkie check” or “go for me” when testing whether or not a radio is powered up, receiving, and transmitting.
On more complicated days, additional “day player” PAs were hired to help with crowd control, or “lock ups.” Because Brighton Beach Memoirs was a period film, any person dressed in modern day clothing would ruin the illusion so the wide shots required a lot of PA assistance. This required a bit of an army to hold the rest of the world back and out of the shot.
Lastly, but hopefully not least, was the DGA Trainee – an entry level avenue to becoming a Second AD. As a DGA Trainee the paperwork was very much a part of my life for years. Since I was tasked with doing and delivering the day to day reports, I almost always had to go back to the office at the end of the day to drop off the day’s camera logs, actor time sheets, and background actor vouchers. I’d also have to finish the daily production report, which was a single document that included the scenes shot that day, the number of camera set ups, how much film was exposed, the time of the first shot, the time lunch was called, the time of the first shot after lunch, the time wrap was called, who was on the shooting crew that day, and what actors were called in – or “on hold” – meaning they were contractually on the payroll but not needed that day.
In the morning, copies of that production report would be circulated to the accounting department, the Production Manager, and the executives at the Studio.
At some point, one of those executives at the Studio – which was Universal Pictures – had taken a careful look at my production reports, and questioned the length of time it was taking to get the first shot of the day. Yes, there is actually a niche for a person back at corporate who monitors all the information that the DGA Trainee sets down on the production report.
This very serious Studio person determined that it was taking too long every day to get rolling – so the word came from three thousand miles away that production needed to “tighten it up.”
Now, Bobby Girolami was not a First AD who had been born yesterday. After he received the message to “tighten it up,” the crew started the next day setting up to film a very tight close up of a broom pushing dirt into a dustpan. This was a shot that had been held over from the previous day that was held in order to be done while waiting for something to be ready for a more complicated shot.
That day the total time from crew call to the first shot was thirty minutes.
I noted the time to the first shot in its proper place on the production report and, as usual, the next day, it went to the Studio. Later, that following day, it was clear that all the overseer of production reports saw was a better time than on previous days. It did not matter that the shot was of dust, a dustpan, and a broom. The Studio was satisfied with the improved time, and the problem went away.
As far as I know there was never any further message to “tighten it up,” but I bet Bobby Girolami always had an insert shot in his pocket in case he ever felt the need to get the day going quickly, at least on paper.
This incident amply demonstrates the difference between working on set and actually figuring out how to get the day’s work, versus working in an office and looking at a paper and pencil recap of the day’s statistics.
There is no way the production report – as much as I was proud that creating it was a responsibility which was almost exclusively mine – can give and accurate picture of everything that needed to come together when getting the first shot, especially on a big period film with the logistics of Brighton Beach Memoirs.
An AD has to roll with many more factors on a shot by shot basis than the intervention of a Studio Executive. Almost anything can stand in the way of production… sickness… sadness… seriously complicated blocking… even the savages of nature.
For instance, there was a day on Brighton Beach Memoirs when the advent of nature made certain that there was no first shot at all. The Fall of 1985 was the Fall of Hurricane Gloria, which made a direct hit on Long Island as a category two storm. Many of the movie’s sets in Brooklyn were damaged and the movie suspended production for the day. I’m quite certain that on the other sitde of the country there were Studio people scrambling to figure out how to minimize the damage.
In no time, the movie got itself back on track, and a new schedule fell in to place.
Of course, DGA Trainees get little practice with this large part of the job, moving chess pieces and poker chips around. Even Second ADS tend to spend most of the day making sure that the set is organized, information is disseminated, and the background action is set.
In retrospect it was pretty unique that the ADs gave me such early exposure to the craft of background setting, which is such a large part of the job of entry level Second ADs.
But, I got the rare opportunity.
And I failed miserably.
Anticipating that I had no experience in this aspect of the craft, the ADs picked probably the lowest risk scene that they could have for me to be put in to the line of fire and set the background all on my own. It was a night scene. The two actors were in a moving car. There was a single intersection along the route. The camera was looking towards the rear window. The background action would hardly be featured, though it would be visible, especially when watching sixty feet high in a movie theater.
I placed a couple of background actors on all four corners of the one intersection through which the car would drive during the scene. Since the perspective of the camera was looking directly out the back window, I told the extras to all take their cue from the position of the moving car. None of them were placed in couples, though that would have been nice to do in relation to the nature of the scene itself.
As the car drove through, every background actor that I had placed moved at exactly the same time and at the same pace.
It looked terrible – also quite silly. In retrospect, it was probably the worst background action setting ever done by a sentient human being. It was more the look of living in Ira Levin’s Stepford, Connecticut than the look of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
I saw the problem right way (as did everyone else who was watching). For take two I switched the background action up. I backed some of the crosses away from the corners of the intersection, which kept the background active for longer, and which made the activity on the streets look much more “real.” I also paired some people up, instead of just having lonely pedestrians walking by themselves. I also had them vary their pace to make the look of the neighborhood less robotic, and less like fugitives from “The Stepford Wives.”
In time I would have many more opportunities to try my hand at setting background, but for the moment I was going to be back to paperwork and taking care of the principal cast.
Which is more or less what remained. For the last several weeks of filming the production moved to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. The sets for Brighton Beach Memoirs took up two of the biggest stages, including the same stage that had been used for Power. On one stage sat the downstairs of the Jerome family house. On the other stage sat the upstairs of the house, which was raised above the stage floor to allow for the stairway to be practical and give the illusion of the set actually being on the second floor.
On Power there was not a lot of time spent on stage. On Brighton Beach Memoirs there were weeks and weeks.
The day the production moved in to the stage, Joe “Carach,” the Production Manager, told Second Second AD Jimmy Skotchdopole and a couple of the other production staff they should “feel free to finish out the week.” There just wasn’t enough work for production for the stage portion to require the size of the staff that had been necessary to accomplish all of the exterior scenes in Brooklyn.
Every day had a maximum of the seven main cast members and the seven stand-ins. No day had any background actors. It wasn’t just the reduction in the amount of production staff, the crew was reduced to a much more lean size. At this point, we would basically be “locking up” ourselves and keeping ourselves quiet.
The bells and lights took care of most of that. There were minimal ways in and out of the stage. Three bells were sounded for “hold it quiet” and one bell was sounded for “cut.” At the same time a flashing red light whirled outside the stage entrance, the movie equivalent of Radio and TV’s “On The Air.”
A single PA could run the entire system remotely.
There was never a question that I would remain on for the remainder of the film – I had some key responsibilities that would carry on – including the paperwork and being the conduit between set and the production office. After all, there were those pesky Studio executives who still needed to examine the production reports every day. The crew had a shorter day as well – there was no need to load the gear to the trucks at wrap. The gear stayed on stage. Even the camera remained built.
I was sorry that that the tight knit group the department had become would somewhat disband. On the final day before some of the staff went the way of all freelancers, First AD Bobby Girolami took everyone to lunch at a pretty fancy restaurant on Steinway Street. As the hour we had for the meal drew to a close – and with lunch still in progress – it was going to be necessary for someone from the AD department to leave lunch a little early to go back to set to put things back in motion as all the rest of the cast and crew returned from lunch break.
Since I was the lowest seniority person in the department, I was the obvious choice to head back to set. I arrived before the crew was called back in from the official lunch break – and I went right to the cast dressing rooms to make certain to get the cast touched up in make-up and hair.
Soon the rest of the AD department returned. Second AD Louis D’Esposito said to me, “What happened? We sent you to be the AD representative on set.”
I said, “yes, and I got all the make-up and hair touch ups going.”
Louis said, “being the AD representative on set means being the AD representative on the set. It does not mean being at hair and make up.”
The Cameraman, who was John Bailey, and truly a great guy, had looked around and saw that nobody from the AD Department was present on stage. He had to call for his own stand-ins in order to start lighting.
Of course, my going to set first this made total sense in retrospect. Someone needed to step into the role of the First AD and fill that responsibility to keep the set moving forward.
The crew depends on this. All of those people in the end credits need a temporary leader. Even if it is someone like me who sets terrible background. It was a niche that needed filling, and for a few minutes there was a void on set that day. In my head I knew better, maybe I was just too full from the big lunch.
Did it effect the day’s work? Probably not. Did it seem like a bonehead mistake? Most definitely yes. Would anyone remember except me? Probably not.
But that day I missed my chance to full a much needed tempoary niche. Just like the elements of a shot of a broom and a dustpan, in time I believe that we all learn how the pieces come together.
I had a ways to go.
But even a young Neil Simon had to find his voice.
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Filmed during the Spring of 1985
New York City and Long Island, New York;
Santa Fe, New Mexico;
Whenever I am asked, “What’s the best piece of advice for someone who wants to succeed in the film business?,” the answer I often give is “Embrace questions.”
Film production is a marathon session of questions and answers. You need to learn quickly when and how to ask them. You learn to try to anticipate the questions that will be asked of you. Success or failure can be impacted by offering responses quickly and succinctly, honestly and confidently.
This give and take question and answer journey likely begins the very first day of getting invited into the mysterious world of feature filmmaking. Some folks hold their information rather closely. Other individuals part with it fairly generously. I’ve always operated within the latter category.
Hence this blog.
I got into the film business when I was chosen for the East Coast Directors Guild of America Producers Training Program, going through a process of just such a marathon of information and inquiries. Along with hundreds of other hopeful applicants, I filled out a form, submitted a resume, and gathered the necessary letters of recommendation. Next came an SAT-like test, which was administered in a cavernous room in the East Village of Manhattan. The test consisted an array of questions, focusing on math and verbal skills, spatial relations, problem solving, and personality.
The most notable portion was the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a series of hundreds of true false statements, which I understand is used to assess an applicant’s mental health. The MMPI asked various iterations of similar questions, like what kind of work I thought I would like, among these, florist, librarian, forest ranger, and building contractor. But my favorite item might have been when I had to agree or disagree if it made me nervous when people ask me personal questions.
Oh, the irony.
The results of the test eliminated a substantial number of applicants from moving on to the next phase of “the primary.” I guess some of them might have found the items on the MMPI a little too personal.
The next step in the process was a series of role-playing exercises done in small group settings. The most memorable of these was: You need to get on a life-boat in order to survive, but there’s only room for some of you, what do each one of you do? Very much to the point of this particularly exercise, the group was culled down substantially.
My guess is that all of the potential murderers in the test groups were eliminated in that round.
About a dozen applicants then entered the final phase of the selection process. Each remaining potential DGA Trainee was individually interviewed for about twenty minutes by the Training Program’s full Board of Trustees. By this time, I was so close to being voted in that I could feel the thrill of victory. The odds were decent. There was one of me, there were twelve Board members with voting power, and about ten other applicants vying for what I believed were a half dozen spots in the upcoming class of DGA Trainees.
Since the position of DGA Trainee was about as basic entry level as a job in the film business as any could be, I was asked if I would have a problem being asked to get someone a cup of coffee. I guess some people around the table thought this was beneath a candidate like me, because I had a degree of higher education.
I responded simply, “How do you take it?” My answer got a laugh and I could feel the satisfaction with my quick and sincere response. That single answer might have changed my life.
A few days later a thin letter came in the mail with the return address of the DGA Training Program. I was in… I would be one of the six finalists selected for the next class. I was ready and excited for the challenge, and for the fantastic opportunity being presented to me.
The two years mostly consisted of apprenticeships on feature film and television series, but there were other requirements to successfully graduate. Each Trainee had to serve a two-week internship in the actual office of the DGA Training Program itself. Days were filled with simple tasks, answering phones, filing, going through applications… This was to give each of us some knowledge of how the Training Program, and the Directors Guild itself, worked.
That same Administrator who oversaw the DGA Training Program also oversaw something called the Qualifications List. The “QL,” is the data base which tracks the threshold of the minimum number of days needed for entrance into the DGA, the trade union that represents Directors and Assistant Directors.
There are essentially only two legitimate ways to qualify for membership in the Directors Guild of America as an Assistant Director. A perspective member must either work 350 days as a DGA Trainee or must accrue 600 days in another on-set production capacity. This second way required presentation to the Qualification List Administration of supporting materials… including call sheets, pay stubs, and production reports, so I always tell people to save these from day one.
Since the position of DGA Trainee was about as basic entry level as a job in the film business as any could be, I was asked if I would have a problem being asked to get someone a cup of coffee. I guess some people around the table thought this was beneath a candidate like me, because I had a degree of higher education.
During the 1980s, the office of the DGA Training Program and Qualifications List was on the second floor of 110 West 57th Street in Manhattan. There was only one other office on the floor, a door labeled, rather innocuously, with three letters: L a H.
The “L” stood for the name Lumet, the “a” for the word and, and the “H” for the name Harris. Sidney Lumet had directed Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico. Burtt Harris was Sidney Lumet’s producing partner, and an icon in the world of production. I found this all out because one day Sidney Lumet and his Production Manager, Kenny Utt who later won an Oscar for producing Silence of the Lambs, came into the Training Program office along with a young crew person named Joe Caracciolo, Jr., who years later would produce the film Dune. Sidney Lumet and Kenny Utt were in the process of staffing a new film production and were seeking to help get Joe Caracciolo, Jr. placed on the Qualification List in time for him to join the DGA and become one of the new movie’s Second Assistant Directors.
As it turns out Kenny Utt was also about to fill the DGA Trainee position on the film, so we all met at an extremely opportune moment. Kenny Utt learned from the Training Program Administrator that I was already in the Training Program, but that I had yet to be placed on a feature film. Whatever questions were asked in that meeting in regards to Joe’s pending application, and just how I dealt with them, must have helped me make a decent impression on Kenny Utt, because he asked the Training Program Administrator if I could be the DGA Trainee assigned to their film.
Just like that.
I started on the film a couple of weeks after completing the internship in the Training Program office. I had about a month of preparation time, which for a DGA Trainee is a fairly unheard of amount of prep time. It was very helpful to have all those days in on the project pre-filming, given how inexperienced I was. Most everything on Sidney Lumet films was worked out in this pre-production period. This gave me the opportunity to ask a tremendous number of questions.
Thankfully, no one seemed to get annoyed by this.
Before I personally had started on the film, location scouting had already happened. Places all over North America had been locked in. The movie basically followed four distinct political elections and campaigns being managed and influenced by the main characters.
There was the State of New Mexico Governor’s race, the State of Washington Governor’s race, the contest for the United States Senator from the State of Ohio, and a dramatic election rally conducted by a populist candidate in Central America. That final sequence was the opening of the movie.
It was impractical to rehearse in all these far-flung places before the traveling in with the full cast and crew to actually film the sequences. However, there were already detailed ground plans of all the locations. Using these as a guide, the floor of a huge rehearsal studio located at 890 Broadway in Manhattan was taped out with the actual dimensions of the walls and doorways of every key set. Representative props and dressing were also brought in to further assist the rehearsal process. Once that process was complete, it was time to bring the cast in to join in the blocking.
The main players in the film were Richard Gere, Gene Hackman, Kate Capshaw, Julie Christie, Denzel Washington, and Beatrice Straight. As the DGA Trainee, I was placed in charge of the actors, colloquially known as doing the “first team.”
During the three weeks of rehearsal, like clockwork, each day at noon, small groups of these cast members would arrive in black town cars to tackle different sections of the film. The writer, David Himmelstein, was always there, as was Sidney Lumet who arrived with his script under his arm. Sometimes, though rarely, the First Assistant Director, Wolfgang Glattes, would attend. Sometimes, equally rarely, the Second Assistant Director, Tony Gittelson, would attend. I was always in attendance. For much of the time, I was the sole person from production present. It was pretty remarkable, considering that I was merely months into my career. But it also meant that I had to learn fast.
I spent most of the time at 890 Broadway Studios in the outer office, taking care of the needs of the Director and the cast members. I ordered the town cars that brought them to and from the venue. I took lunch orders from each, and made sure lunch was delivered on time. I answered the phones (remember there were no cell phones in the mid-1980s). I took messages and handed them out on breaks. I cleaned up at the end of the day so it would be ready for the next morning.
On occasion I was needed to help out inside the studio, so I got a window into the actual rehearsal process. At one point I was in the room during the blocking of a critical scene. Richard Gere’s and Gene Hackman’s characters were clashing over the way Hackman’s character was handling a client. I watched as rehearsal hit a major snag, and enter a moment of conflict and intense debate, sort of life mirroring art.
In the backstory, the two characters had been business partners in a political consulting firm. Richard Gere’s character had left their joint operation to go out on his own. Since that time, the two characters had a rocky relationship. Given this foundation, Gene Hackman was questioning the scene as written. Gene Hackman did not find the writing contentious enough.
There was a good deal of discussion about how to make the scene work. At one point, Gene Hackman improvised a line to the effect of “Are you saying that I can’t handle my client?” And, with that one line, and the proper touch of anger, the whole dynamic of the scene began to take better shape. Someone even actually said, “that was the purpose of rehearsal.” Later David Himmelstein rewrote the pages accordingly and I distributed them to the cast at rehearsal. There was no email. That technology was still years away. It was still a world of just typewriters and carbon paper – and bulky old voting machines.
But the film itself was quite a bit ahead of its time since a substantial plot thread concerned a couple of Middle Eastern oil millionaires buying into the United States election process by hiring Richard Gere’s character to do their dirty work.
The film also needed a title and there were many candidates. The script I had been give upon being hired on the project had Special Election on the title page. I believe that earlier drafts had merely read Untitled, where the title normally appears. The artwork for the directors chairs played on this title search. Since the film was about voting and the election process, the chair back was a mock-up of a ballot with the various choices of title, including Special Election, Untitled, and “None of the Above.”
Ultimately, the film was called Power, which was what all the official paperwork read once production started.
As the production moved from rehearsal to actual filming, I remained in charge of “first team”. The role was essentially the same as the role which I had been filling during rehearsal, but with the added tasks of getting each of the actors through hair, makeup, and wardrobe, informing each of them of which scene or shot was up next, and accompanying them to and from their dressing room to set, or to their transportation.
There was one “shake down” day before the official start of photography, which consisted of small pieces of political commercials that were going to be used in the film as sort of a film within the film. One of the pieces shot that day was with the actor Dan Sweeney, later known as D.B. Sweeney, who starred in The Cutting Edge. Power may have actually been Dan’s first feature film role. He had one line, and he was given one take to do it. “A cowboy Governor, is this some sort of affirmative action thing?” This was in reaction to the question, “What do you think of the state having a cowboy Governor?”
The shot was over in a flash, and it was clear that Dan Sweeney had no sense of how he had done creatively. I’m sure if he had performed badly, or if there had been a technical problem, Sidney Lumet would have done another take. But there was only one to be had. To signify that Dan was done, and the piece of the scene was complete, Sidney crossed out the scene in his bound script with a grease pencil. This was the way the Director operated.
It seemed impatient, but he was simply being incredibly decisive. It meant everyone had to be ready to move on at all times. Likewise, I always tried to be as prepared as my experience level would allow.
Tony Gittelson, the Second AD, was tremendously patient in training me, explaining to me some great tips on dealing with actors and doing first team, especially in regard to anticipating the needs of production. Looking back, it was certainly risky from the perspective of the production to put me in charge of this group of top tier actors.
I’m not sure that I personally would have taken the risk on me, but I am very glad that they did.
The first day of actual full-time production was at LaGuardia Airport. A single scene was on the call sheet for the day, a couple of pages of dialog that took place in the baggage claim area at which the two main characters, played by Richard Gere and Julie Christie, waited for their luggage. The blocking was simple. The two of them were seated on the edge of the carousel, until the conveyor belt started up (on cue), at which point they stood and waited for their bags and continued their dialogue.
Richard Gere and Julie Christie went through hair and makeup and wardrobe in a support space that was located elsewhere in the terminal building. It was just an elevator ride to the set. Julie Christie had already been brought to set. I was waiting for the call to bring Richard Gere to camera.
Over the walkie talkie came my name. “Glen?” It was Wolfgang Glattes, the First AD, on the transmitting end.
“Go for Glen,” I responded.
“Bring down Richard.” Wolfgang was very matter of fact… very firm. One might say, very German.
I informed Richard Gere that they were ready for him on set and I escorted him to the elevator. Several people who were unrelated to the production also entered the elevator along with the two of us.
The door closed. The small group of people pressed together. Again the voice of Wolfgang Glattes came over the walkie talkie.
“Glen, are you on the way with Richard?
“Yes,” I responded, as quietly as possible for an elevator full of people who were listening without trying to appear to be listening.
Wolfgang asked again, almost the same question, this time with a tinge more annoyance in his tone, “Glen, are you on the way with Richard?”
“Stand by,” I said in to my microphone, still trying to speak as softly as possible.
I lowered the volume of the walkie talkie speaker till it was barely audible. I didn’t think that was going to make a difference, the damage was done.
“Are you coming down with Richard?” Elevators aren’t always the best place from which to receive and transmit. Wolfgang obviously was not hearing me at all.
I glanced at all the “civilians” in the elevator, on a ride that now seemed endless. I pressed the button on the walkie talkie to transmit and answered more loudly.“Yes. I. Am.”
Now of course every single person in the elevator is staring at me, then up at Richard, and realizes they are also in an elevator with Richard Gere, who seems to be getting angry about the whole situation.
There was silence on the radio and I thought the back and forth might be over and that Wolfgang successfully understood my response and was satisfied that Richard and I were on the way to set.
I watched as the floor numbers slowly ticked down to the baggage claim level. Then, unexpectedly, the walkie talkie sprang to life once again. “Are you on the way?”
“Yes,” I declared. “I am on the way.”
Finally, the elevator door opened.
When we got out of the elevator, and the crowd had moved away from us, Richard Gere said to me, very matter-of-factly, “Get yourself one of those earpieces,” meaning so that the whole world cannot hear the other side of the walkie talkie conversation.
First day. First scene. First disaster.
I walked Richard on to the quiet set. Wolfgang saw us coming in immediately.
I could see that camera was in position with the crew standing at the ready. The background was ready to go, distributed around the baggage carousel just as they would be in real life.
Touch ups for the actors were called for. Make up and hair did them quickly. Wolfgang called “Roll!” In mere moments the first take was in the can. It was time to do the coverage, meaning the tighter shots.
Sidney Lumet did so much homework, that after he was happy with each individual set up, he would walk immediately to the site of the next camera position and say something like, “Right here with a 40 millimeter,” meaning that was the position of the camera and that was the lens he wanted to see on it for the next set up. After a couple of close ups, the scene was done for the day.
Another few lines of grease pencil went through a scene in the script.
Richard never again mentioned the elevator incident. From that point on, I would vow to always request that cast members always be called by character name, rather than use the actor’s real names.
In other words, calling him “Pete” or “Pete St. John” instead of calling him “Richard” or “Richard Gere.”
To this day I constantly correct people who know my rule about using character names. It’s a simple and easy way to avoid announcing that you are on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street with Jennifer Lopez.
Many weeks into the schedule, Richard Gere would actually tell me that he knew early on that I “did not know anything” when the film started production. I always realized he could have had the production given me the hook right from the beginning, by telling my superiors to put someone more experienced in this position. I was more than grateful that he did not do this, and that he rolled with the punches, cognizant of how much I was trying to learn, and that I was determined to work hard. I just rolled with the punches.
As the days went on, my experience level increased dramatically. As I already had done to a small degree at rehearsal, I became somewhat of a central conduit of information and distribution. A runner from the office would hand me all the distribution, and another runner would check in with me before going to the office to see if I had anything going back. The set work was still mostly a great unknown. I was more a part of the backfield, working in the wings.
One day I arrived at the location of a political rally before Wolfgang and Tony. Cast, crew and background had all arrived. Not really knowing how to move the day forward on my own, I still asked Sidney as soon as he arrived what I could do for him.
He ignored me. Except to ask me, “Where was Wolfgang?”
But I had plenty of other responsibilities. As the production moved around from city to city, I helped figure out the travel and rooming situation, maintaining a list of who needed a ride to the airport, etc. This might have helped to assure that I would always be going to the distant location cities, since I had the most contact with cast and crew about how they were getting to and from.
There were plenty of slower days that gave me the opportunity to catch up and get ahead on planning and paperwork. There were several sets in Kaufman Astoria Studios, built inside a stage in Queens, where production settled for a long stint. Even though the hours on the film had never been long, the production adopted to something called “French Hours,” which caps the work-day at ten hours without breaking for lunch. This is done a lot in Europe, but it is rare on American productions, even though my sense is that crews very much prefer it.
Wolfgang also decided that for this portion of the schedule all walkie takies would be taken away. The idea was that it would make everyone pay attention more, and keep the set even more quiet. I did get to stay on set more, mostly waiting for the shot to be lit so I could run upstairs to the dressing rooms in order to get the actors. It was a little more boring than location work, so it was important not to get lulled in to a false sense of complacency.
There was one “shake down” day before the official start of photography, which consisted of small pieces of political commercials that were going to be used in the film as sort of a film within the film. One of the pieces shot that day was with the actor Dan Sweeney, later known as D.B. Sweeney, who starred in The Cutting Edge. Power might have actually been Dan’s first feature film role. He had one line, and he was given one take to do it. “A cowboy Governor, is this some sort of affirmative action thing?”
This was in reaction to the question, “What do you think of the state having a cowboy Governor?”
Joe Caraciollo, Jr. was always waiting for the company when cast and crew would arrive at the new location – his membership in the Directors Guild had been approved. He would always leap frog to the next location in order to get that one ready.
Wolfgang also decided that for this portion of the schedule all walkie talkies would be taken away. The idea was that it would make everyone pay more attention, and keep the set even more quiet. I did get to stay on set more, mostly waiting for the shot to be lit so I could run upstairs to the dressing rooms in order to get the actors. It was a little more boring than location work, so it was important not to get lulled in to a false sense of complacency in order to get that one ready.
The final leg of shooting on the film was in a small village near Durango, Mexico. The production based in a nice upscale hotel. No one had to prep ahead for the next location, since this was the final stop of the production schedule. Since films shoot scenes out of order, all of the other candidates stories had all been completed. Richard Gere’s character had already questioned the nature of his consulting practice.
All that was left to film was the rally for the election in South America. It was by far the most involved sequence in the movie. There were over three thousand background actors hired to attend the “rally.” Few of the extras, and just as few of the local crew spoke English. Wolfgang had a translator, an old school Mexican First AD named Choo Choo Marin, who helped balance the two worlds.
The small Mexican village location was extremely impoverished. I believe that all the residents were living without electricity and running water. The walkie talkies that we used to communicate were so out of place in this tiny corner of the world in which time had stood still. Even the school-like buses used to bring all the background actors must have been an unusual sight, parked in a place where the residents lived an almost horse and buggy life.
The money the crowd received for doing background work that day might have been the most they had ever made for a day’s work, and probably ever would.
The locals all got paid at the end of the day with cash – in pesos. A team of armed security with machine guns guarded the payroll as the accountants handed out the tens of thousands of pesos. The life and death aspect of the accountants with the large cash payroll was sort of a movie in itself.
The town was not only made up of shanties; there was an imposing large house in the center of town. It was from the porch of this very imposing dwelling that the actor playing the politician was addressing his thousands of supporters. It stood out like a sore thumb. Though Power was a film that was an expose about the state of free and fair elections – or lack thereof – and was there to film a scene in which democracy was, hopefully, taking root in a South American country, the town looked like a throw back to the Medieval serf system. Here money could buy almost anything.
The wealthy owner of the house, a middle-aged man, spoke English with a thick German accent. After an intense morning of filming, the owner invited Wolfgang to have lunch with him in his imposing estate.
Later on, Wolfgang told me that he had politely refused the invitation. Wolfgang thought that because of his German name, and his accent, the rich homeowner had possibly gotten the “wrong idea” about his political leanings.
Looking back, this could have been my one and only encounter with an escaped Nazi war criminal. To afford that lifestyle, even in a shantytown, he must have made off with quite a bit of money when he fled, during – or right after – the war.
Perhaps there could have been the beginnings of a potential Sidney Lumet thriller deep inside that house. Possibly, at the very least, there was the making of an interesting Agatha Christie spy tale or an Alan Pakula-like political thriller – and a deep dive into the election process.
The plot would no doubt start with a character, much like me, young and full of questions, hearing a walkie talkie transmission bleeding through from another frequency, not unlike the plot of two of my favorite films growing up, North by Northwest and The Man who Knew Too Much. This would be followed by a lot of investigation, some action, and a resolution at an iconic location, perhaps at the top of The Space Needle, or the roof of The United Nations Plaza Hotel, or the dome of the United States Capitol Building.
Or, maybe, in the ancient elevator of 890 Broadway, where rehearsal had began months before. It looked the one in which James Bond fought in Diamonds Are Forever.
But the movie ended without any such excitement. The crew packed up and I returned to New York with my first movie under my belt and a lot of questions answered to prepare me for future films. Many questions were also unanswered, but there would be time for those. Unlike the situation in that Mexican village, I was anticipating my future in filmmaking to be a free flow of information. With minor exceptions, it always has been.
Of course, while asking questions at the appropriate time is always good advice for any production person, every rule has exceptions. There are clearly some answers that are probably better not to know, like the one to “Are you an escaped Nazi war criminal in hiding?”
You can use your own judgment on those.
Otherwise, ask away.