Film Schooling, Part 19:
Post Production – Momentum

(This is Part Nineteen of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at and

Congratulations on finishing principle photography of your film. It’s quite an accomplishment, but the bigger one will prove to be navigating the minefield of post production and actually completing the film and getting distribution. If you knew the likelihood of making these two things happen, you’d probably throw in the towel right now and cut your losses, but I’m assume you’re blissfully ignorant and still think your little opus is not only going be amazing, but that you’ll actually see it turn a profit. We’ll deal with your delusions and the shady business of distribution in a later article. For the moment, we’ll focus on simply getting your film complete. Easier said than done. You need to keep that momentum going that you picked up during principle photography. And that is a tough, tough chore.

Let’s face it, shit was happening all day, every day while you were shooting. You may not have gotten everything you wanted at every shoot. You may have had to cut some scenes and deal with some disappointments. You’ve certainly made more than a few compromises, but you felt progress being made every day. It was tangible. You could watch the dailies and know you had another 3% or 4% or 5% of the movie in the can. That feels good. Every day there were appreciable steps toward the finish line. And now you need to be prepared for that excitement to grind to a practical halt.

I learned something very early in life that applies to virtually every business decision you’ll ever make. You can have it fast, good and cheap…but you can only have two. Take a moment to reflect on that. I’ve come back to this time and again in my life and it seems to hold true in every case. It applies to building a house, hiring a lawyer, contracting an artist and it certainly applies to making a movie.

The thing is, if you’re reading these articles, you’re working on a limited budget. So that means you have to live without either the “fast” or the “good.” You can only have one. Since this is an empirical truth of filmmaking, make your decision now. Though most filmmakers will deny this Rule of Three applies to them, rest assured, it does. They may refuse to make the decision when first confronted but upon reflection, they will almost always concede they sacrificed time over quality – which is the right decision, by the way.

Most indy films, especially those under a million dollars, take a very long time to post. A year in post production on a small film is an accomplishment. I realize it sounds like forever. I know it did to me, but my first film lagged in post for over two years. And that’s actually not bad. Stories of 5, 7 or even 10 years finishing a small film are common. Yes, they are common. People run out of money. People lose interest. People flake out. People miss deadlines. People disappoint.

Your post production team is likely a very small group of people with good intentions. I only hope they have the talent and commitment necessary for the undertaking. They rarely do. Usually on projects like these, you have a post team that is “doing you a favor,” or at least that’s how they feel about it.

You’ve negotiated with your editor for the best possible deal. He might want $150 an hour and you’ve convinced him you’re a starving filmmaker and to take $75 an hour. Maybe you even talked him into doing the whole job for $10k. Either way, you’re not paying him his regular rate. Translation – he’s doing you a favor. Here’s the problem – when other jobs present themselves at full rate, he’s probably going to take them. I at least hope this has been discussed prior to the job starting (if not, you should certainly bring it up and make sure it’s addressed in the contract). That’s something a professional will do. “I can do that for you, but I have to work around my other gigs,” is very common. If you can avoid putting yourself and your project in this scenario, do it. But that’s tough. You want it good and cheap, so it’s not going to be fast.
So your 10 weeks to a rough cut can end up being 20 or 30 weeks, generally even if your guy is working on it “full time.” Seriously, it will take longer than you expect. Then, the reality is, you’ll almost certainly need some pick-ups. Once you see the film in a rough assembly, there will be fixes needed and they almost always require a bit more shooting. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you lose three more days to shoot. It means, you have to put all that together. It means figuring out exactly what you need from this “last” get together and planning and coordinating it all again just like the first time around. It means securing locations and it means getting equipment booked. It means working around availability of talent, which, it seems, aren’t nearly as excited about pick-ups as they were about the original shoot. Be prepared for some posturing here.

I had an actor on “Dirty Dealing 3D,” which proved to be terribly difficult on pick-ups. Although he and I talked directly to get him on the show, it seems a couple lines on a couple of TV shows since wrapping my film had inflated his head to Bieber-like levels. He couldn’t be bothered with me, so I had to deal with his agent. That meant every time I presented a day for him to work, I had to get it to her, she would eventually get in touch with him, he would get back to her and finally I’d hear from her that – he wasn’t available that day. After a couple of misses and very little help or offered alternatives, I started offering a few days. No luck. So I finally had to offer a few weeks out of which I needed a single day. I would have to work the entire schedule around this guy because wanted to take a trip home for a few weeks and didn’t want to have to reschedule it. “Prima donna” comes to mind…

When he finally conceded to a day he was willing to bless us with his presence, then the additional demands came in. He wanted more money. Yes, for his one day, he wanted more than was his daily rate. It didn’t matter to him that pick-ups were clearly laid out in his contract as well as that they were to be at the same rate as the original shoot, but his word didn’t seem to mean much and he demanded more. On top of that, petty as this sounds, I had to pay a friend of his money for “gas and time” so he could be driven to the airport. As was the case with the actress I spoke of earlier who breached her contract, he knew he was indispensable and pulled a power play. The thing that amazes me is how stupid and short-sighted people can be. Prior to all this, I had liked the guy. I was very happy with his work on the film and would have hired him again. I loved getting a call from a director about him a month or so later asking what it was like working with him. This business is small. If you’re an asshole the word will get around. Both this actor and the actress who made things unnecessarily difficult for me got it back in spades.

So our pick-ups ending up being more than five weeks from when we started planning them. Of course, there could have been other issues with other actors and/or crew who may have had overlapping schedules or other conflicts. It can take several months to get your pick-ups. And then it’s back to the editing room. And by that I mean it’s back the editing room if your editor isn’t too busy with a better job that pays him more.

An awful lot of first time filmmakers I speak to say they’ll have picture lock in 3 months. Never. Happens. Six months would be awesome. A year isn’t bad. I’d say shoot for a year.

And then it’s time to get to sound. And guess what? You get to start this whole game all over again. You’ll make a deal with a good sound mixer who will be doing you a favor by taking on your project at far less than his asking price…but you have to understand that as other jobs come in…well, you know. And when you find a composer you want to use – same deal. Of course, if you have other post elements like fancy opening credits sequences and cool CG shots, tack on a chunk more time for that, but stay on these people. Remember, they work for you.

The fix for this, generally speaking, is to allocate enough money to pay these people solid rates. Great. Awesome. Go back to your rich uncle and get some more money if you can. Most of us don’t have that option. Even if you allow generously for post in your original budget, there are almost always overages before you get to that point and money is “borrowed” from what was supposed to be set aside for post. If you can get more, great. If you can’t, the clock will slow. You’ll think you can actually count the sands dropping through the hourglass.

So how do you keep the momentum? Well, that’s the real trick. It’s hard to crack the whip when people are doing you favors. The best advice I can give is deadlines…and stick to them. Where this gets complicated is when other factors cloud the situation. You promise the composer picture by January 1 so he can have the score by March 1, yet there are delays and you don’t get it to him until February 1. He already booked a job starting March 2, so he can give you a month, but is booked for March and April. He can get back to it May…. In that case, it’s not his fault. What do you do? Have hard deadlines and penalties where you can. But when you already have a guy working at 50% his regular rate, he’s probably not going to agree to taking another pay cut if he runs a bit over. Good luck. Welcome to the world of low budget producing.

Keep the momentum going. Be on it every day. Be prepared to cut your losses. Make sure you’re not beholden to anyone. Contract that you get regular updates and see regular progress. If your editor is falling behind, make sure you have the ability to pull the plug and go elsewhere without losing all the work that’s already been done. It’s a terrible thing to have to do and you lose time and money, but if the alternative is waiting another year, there are times you have to make the tough decisions.

The goal should be that something is happening every day of post; at least every business day. It’s not going to happen, but keep the pressure on. Your ability to choose the best people and handle them most effectively will play a major part in your post success. I can’t teach you how to do either of these, so I hope you have that inherent ability because if you don’t, you might just have make sure your premiere has plenty of handicapped seating for your now-geriatric cast to join you for “that little movie we shot all those years ago!”

Film Schooling, Part 18:
Production – Politics

(This is Part Eighteen of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at and

Politics has staked a notable claim in the film business. Prepare yourself for that. Don’t plan on fighting it, but instead learn to play the game. In most cases you’d rather not and, frankly, creative people are generally not terribly good at it. And no matter how big you get, how much power or money or influence you wield, politics will always be a part of the equation to some extent (but more on that later in this article). It’s part of the overall process and if you want to be a good filmmaker, you’ll need to be good at all of the different tasks which that entails.

What I’m referring to as “politics,” in it’s simplest form, is deal making outside the box. More specifically, deal making above and beyond what the standard, expected terms of a deal would or should be. The origin of the term should be obvious and totally fits when you consider the nature of traditional politics which goes back thousands of years. When a new bill is presented to Congress which should take a dozen pages and runs three hundred instead because of all the earmarks, you have an idea as to how far this can go. In the case of Washington, this kind of thing has gotten so common as to be the norm. You would think a reasonable bill proposing money to repair a bridge in Washington D.C. would pass the House and Senate easily. Unfortunately, the more power a person has, the more likely they are to misuse it. That’s why, no matter how reasonable and/or necessary a bill might be, there are those that will game the system and make demands. The fact is, the party in power can deny passing a bill unless they get something (or usually ‘something else’) out of it for themselves – “Sure, I’ll approve that bridge, but let’s add a little something in the bill for tax breaks on a dildo factory in my district…and my colleague wants scholarships for people who eat Cheez Whiz…and….” You get the idea. When people have power, they often misuse it to the fullest.

If a producer gives a writer $100k for a script and the writer agrees, that’s a straight forward deal; no politics involved. If the writer “requests” that his mom be the “Little Old Lady” in the pizzeria scene, then politics has just made its first appearance. It can be inconsequential or massive. It can be easy or difficult. It can benefit, strain or even ruin a production, so it must be handled smartly.

As I said in the introduction to this piece, politics plays a bigger role than most folks are aware. The most common thing you’ll likely experience is someone trying to get someone else a job on your film. I’ve had investors and stars request roles or crew positions for friends and family members. Usually, these are small and easy to accommodate. It’s so commonplace that actors who are on set resulting from this type of horse trading or favormongering are even referred to as “politicals.” I like to do favors and show my appreciation, but sometimes the requests aren’t so easy. I had an investor one time offer to put up a large some of money for a project on the condition that I could guarantee sexual favors in return. I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) make that promise. That project never happened.

I’ve had people want a friend’s music or poem to be used in the film. One guy asked if we could feature his car as he thought he could get more when it came time to sell it. On more than one occasion I’ve had people request that their businesses be featured in a film. Some people just want to see their name or business in the credits. Some of these things are easy. Some you wish you could accommodate but can’t for one reason or another. Some are simply terrible ideas. You have to juggle and evaluate every one. It’s all part of the game.

And these games are played at all levels of this business. Everyone plays them. Everyone. George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise to name just a few.

Clooney regularly discusses his business model for choosing projects. Although he doesn’t use the word “politics,” that’s exactly the game he’s playing and he plays it well. He calls it the “one for me, one for them” model. It allows him to make the movies he wants to make while still providing the studios with lower risk, more profitable content. “Let me make Confession of a Dangerous Mind and I’ll do Ocean’s 12.” “I’ll do Ocean’s 13, but I want to make Syriana first.” In cases like this, the studios often are in a tough spot. If they don’t accommodate their big stars, directors and writers, one of their competitors might. Plus, just because a project may not seem marketable, surprises do happen. Syriana and The Descendents probably didn’t have the studio suits excited, but they ended up doing very well. Leathernecks and Good Night And Good Luck – not so much. But the Ocean’s 11 series made enough money to fund a number of disappointing, smaller pet projects for Clooney and some of them are big enough hits so that it’s still a safe bet for whomever puts up the money.

Perhaps my favorite example of this type if politics was with Steven Spielberg. Universal Studios had the rights to the Schindler’s List novel which they had picked up ten years earlier. Spielberg had been circling it for a while and decided it was time to pull the trigger. The idea of making a Holocaust film was not terribly appealing to the studio and the idea of shooting it in black and white was perceived to be a death sentence. But when the most successful director in the world ask you for something like that, it’s hard to say “no.” So Sid Sheinberg at Universal made Spielberg a deal – they would throw away $20m on Spielberg’s little pet project if he agreed to the do the film adaptation of the best selling adventure book Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Spielberg agreed. No one was surprised that Jurassic Park was a monster hit (pun intended). Everyone was surprised by Schindler’s List. Aside from over $300 million in worldwide box office receipts, it went on to win seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. If Spielberg hadn’t had the clout to make that deal, Schindler’s List would probably never have been made on its own. Politics.
Of course, there are smaller examples that take place every day in this business, but those stories usually aren’t as exciting. We’ve all seen people in films that seem terribly miscast and wonder how that happens. That answer is usually politics. I remember seeing Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back and seeing four hot women traveling across country….the problem was, however, that one of them wasn’t hot. I was immediately asking myself – “How did SHE get cast?” It took just a few minutes to get my answer – she was Kevin Smith’s wife. Politics. This is one of these examples where it hurt the film (not that the movie didn’t have plenty of other issues besides that). How much damage, we’ll never know, but tragically bad casting, no matter what the reason, is always a detriment.

One of my favorite stories, and by favorite I mean most irritating, is Tom Cruise on the set of War of the Worlds. One of his conditions for doing the movie was insisting that a Scientology tent be set up on location while filming and manned by volunteers of his ‘religion’ to pass out literature and try to recruit new members from the cast and crew. Weird? Absolutely. Unreasonable? Yep. Unusual? Not when reduced to the simple factor that people with power, in this business, will often make demands that have nothing to do with the deal being discussed. I’m guessing a combination of the bad press this little stunt evoked as well and the likelihood that few to zero new members actually resulted from the effort is the only reason you don’t see Cruise insisting on a Scientology tent on every one of his films. Having read Dianetics, I do think they’re better served by having people telling prospective recruits about Scientology, because if you actually read their source text you might realize what an absurd ‘religion’ it actually is…
So prepare yourself for anything. All manner of requests may find their way to you as a producer and/or director. Give those requests whatever degree of consideration they’re due (which in some cases is nothing more than refraining from laughing) and make a decision. If you manage to break through to the big time (or even medium time) some day, you’ll see more of the same with the only thing changing being the scope and the influence of the players involved and level of the “favors” being asked. You won’t be able to please them all so you’d better learn to be Dale Carnegie or David Copperfield.

Film Schooling, Part 17:
Production – Be Flexible, Be Creative

(This is Part Seventeen of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at and

In this article I want to address the importance and necessity of being flexible while in production. At first, this may seem to contradict the “be decisive” theme of the previous article, but there are time when the two attributes work hand in hand. The flexibility allows you to consider a broader range of options when complications arise and the decisiveness allows you to choose one quickly. Kind of like being a producing ninja…

The reason that flexibility needs to be embraced is the compromising nature of indy filmmaking. As a producer or director, you’ll often know exactly what you want, but “wanting”and “getting” are often worlds apart. You’ll experience this every step of the way, in virtually every department and decision. Casting, locations, FX, equipment, post and crew are all areas where flexibility will be required to bridge the gap between the vision and reality.

Let’s be honest, we’d all like Tom Hanks to be in our film, but we have to flexible (okay, maybe “realistic” is a better example here), but even if you had a $50m budget, you may not be able to get him which requires? – that’s right, flexibility. I was going to place this article as part of the pre-production process, but the reality is that it will apply to many, if not most, of the decisions you have to make. The less money and resources you have, the more flexible you have to be. As a producer, one of your mantras will become – “I know you want X but you’ll have to settle with Y.”

When it comes to actual production, flexibility will work closely with your need to be decisive because decisions will have to be made quickly and with a degree of pragmatism. A simple explanation of this would be if a scene requires a Lamborghini. Bad news – the Lambo we were supposed to get isn’t coming. The immediate decision may be “Find me another Lambo!” Okay, great, but the one we had scheduled was a freebie owned by the dad of one of the producers. Are you asking me to “Find another FREE Lambo?” That’s a different task. If you don’t have the $1500 to rent one for the day, or know that that money can be better spent elsewhere, it’s time to be flexible. If you’re shooting in the desert 300 miles from a major city where an exotic car isn’t even remotely a possibility, you need to be flexible. As yourself why that Lambo was in the scene in the first place. If it was to evidence the wealth of the owner, there are other ways to do that without fancy cars.

The greatest compliment to flexibility is creativity and the ability to think outside the box. Every film, regardless of the size, will have times when decisions have to be made quickly that can’t possibly satisfy the original needs or wants of the production. A great mind will consider the obvious choices along with the unusual ones. When these situations arise, think outside the box.

If a location suddenly become unavailable, think big, think broad, think different. If a scene is set in a bar and suddenly the bar isn’t available to you, the first thought is to “find another bar,” but that’s not what you should be thinking. You should be thinking, “Find another location.” Rarely is a specific location essential to the scene or story. I remember having a great location in one of my films that we shot out the first week of production. I had to fire an actress early on and replace her, so two scenes had to be re-shot, including the one in that great location. Problem was, we couldn’t get it any again. So we changed it around for the re-shoot. Instead of three ladies dressed fancy in a swank club, we shot them in bikinis on a beach (which was just outside a location we were already using) and the scene played great…probably better in fact because it was great production value and upped the skin value with trio of hotties kicking it on the sand. I could have beaten myself up trying to find another posh club, but was thinking with a more flexible mindset.

Sometimes, even actors aren’t essential to scene. I had a scene I was shooting where the lead character was in an important meeting and had a friend with her for moral support and to help argue the case she was making. The friend in the scene wasn’t available. The initial thought was – “We have to postpone this scene and shoot it later,” but that wasn’t practical as it was our last day at this location (which was essential) and we had very limited time with another actor in the scene. So, the two options were to make the lead handle the meeting on her own (which probably would have been okay) or find another work around. In this case, I scrambled and got another actress to the set. The replacement wasn’t the “best” friend of the lead in the film, but was a friend we’d met earlier and ended up working just fine in the scene. I doubt it would have been any better with the original actress. Problem solved with the least amount of fuss. “Easy, peasy, Japanesy.”
One of the best examples of all time is the movie Jaws. By now, most cinephiles have heard the story about what a nightmare that film was for Steven Spielberg. Only his second studio film after Sugarland Express (Duel doesn’t count since it was made for TV), Jaws was a big step up for him, but was riddled with problems. Perhaps the biggest was the difficulty they had for MONTHS with the mechanical sharks that they couldn’t get to function properly. Yet Spielberg powered on and did the best he could with what he had, being flexible and “shooting around” the shark. Looking back, he credits much of the success of the film on withholding images of the predator until later in the film. As he originally had planned it, the audience would have seen much more of the shark in the first two acts of the film, lessening the impact later in the film and removing much, if not most, of the anticipation. His flexibility and ultimate compromise paid off.
Now, I realize a lot of the decisions that we credit as the result of flexibility are done out of necessity, but new filmmakers have a habit of lumping flexibility in with compromise which most seem to look at as a bad thing. The irony is that there is probably no greater example of compromise than making a film on a small budget. Filmmakers will try to stay true to the vision in their head and often consider any kind of compromise as a failure or simply selling out. Every day on a film set, you’ll be making compromises. The more flexible and creative you are, the more likely those compromises won’t prove detrimental to the picture. We’re probably splitting hairs with the semantics here, but let’s be honest, “You have to be flexible,” is easier to swallow than, “You have to compromise.” The main difference is that compromise implies settling for less. Being flexible and creative, on the other hand, can effect change which isn’t necessarily of a lesser degree.

Keep this in mind and when you look back on your film, you might just find that some of these moments dictated by necessity will pleasantly surprise you and, in some cases, even be high points in the film.

Film Schooling, Part 16:
Production – Be Decisive

(This is Part Sixteen of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at and

A film set is an amalgam of unpredictability. It’s an organized chaos. There’s a randomness that’s part serendipity and part Murphy’s Law, yet despite copious amounts of the unexpected rearing its head, everything can still work out. Problems big and small make their way into every production. Most will require a decision to be made. An immediate decision. How quickly and how well it’s chosen will dictate how successfully the dilemma is addressed. I obviously can’t tell you how to successfully deal with every quandary that arises, but I can tell you how quickly to deal with it – immediately. Decisiveness can be one of your greatest qualities on a film set. If you don’t have it, get it…fast. If your director doesn’t have it, invest in a pair…and then invest in “a pair”.

When I was directing my second film, “The Casino Job,” the Executive Producer came up to me during a break toward the end of the production and paid me a compliment I wasn’t even sure was intended. He said to me, “I just can’t believe how many decisions you have to make every single day and clearly most never crossed your mind before that moment and you make them on the spot. And they always seem to be right. It’s amazing.”

Well, it’s certainly great that the guy funding the film felt I was the moviemaking equivalent of The Amazing Kreskin, and I certainly never dissuaded him from that belief (until now when he reads this article), but the fact was that I didn’t always make the right decisions. My trick, the one that I learned serves me quite well, is to be decisive.

Be decisive and live with the consequences good or bad. Trust in yourself that you’re going to get it right most of the time and that, when it really matters most, that you’ll get it right almost all the time. We spoke earlier on the value of time and how every minute has a dollar value. That’s rule one. So for every minute you waste, the film suffers. Don’t think too much. You have months of planning before the cameras first role to think, rethink, plan, re-plan, plot and speculate how you might handle this or how that could play out. Once you’re on set, there’s scarce time to dwell.

This little caveat probably even applies more to the director than the producers, but as I usually do both, I can assure you it becomes doubly relevant when wearing both hats. No matter how much you plan and prepare, there will be literally hundreds (possibly thousands) of questions that you’ll have to decide on the spot. Many, most in fact, won’t be monumental. But answering questions is one of the main things you’ll do. And many of those questions come in the form of problems that need to be solved. Solve them quickly because there’s another one waiting right behind.

A producer and director should have a natural, inane ability to ingest these questions and immediately ascertain the importance they carry. In most cases, the responses won’t be major and offer little to no room for disaster or regret even if the call isn’t ideal.

When an actor is ten minutes late, what do you do? That’s actually a trick question without a little more information. You need to know if someone has been in touch with that actor. If you know that actor is another ten minutes out, you’ll be thinking along different lines than if no one has any idea where he or she is. In the case of the former, your options are limited and you’ll likely have to wait or shoot around him/her. In the case of the latter, you need to be thinking worse case. Every permutation should come to you quickly so you can make the best decision possible. In a situation like this, you don’t know if the actor is going to walk in five minutes from now, three hours late or simply not show up that day (for any number of reasons). Be decisive. You’re decisions can be “We’ll wait,” for a few minutes, but if you’re sitting around an hour later with that same mentality and still no idea where the actor is, you decided wrong.
MatrixBluePillRedPill People will almost certainly be late on your film. In some cases no one will have been in touch with them and this becomes a troubling problem. To wait for a person with no idea when they’ll show is conceding to a variable that can fuck you and the production. What you should be thinking in a situation like this, though only you can decide if that’s at the 5, 15, or 30 minute mark, is what do we do in the interim and what do we do if he/she doesn’t show at all? Can the scene be reworked without the actor? Can that actor be replaced with someone else readily available? Can something else be shot while waiting for said actor to appear?

Naturally, you don’t want to make major changes because an actor is a few minutes late, but it doesn’t take long for “let’s wait,” to prove itself a bad decision. It’s indecisive which is the one thing you don’t want to be. Film sets are notorious for people sitting around waiting. Most cast and crew will spend most of their time on your set waiting around. The better prepared you are and the better your team, most importantly your First A.D., the less waiting that will be taking place. You’ll never find that all departments and talent are ready at exactly the same time, but if you can consistently get it close, you’ve got yourself a good team and an effective production. But generally speaking, people will be waiting much of the time. If you ever have a time when everyone on set it waiting, you’ve probably done something wrong.

The late actor story is just one possible example of moments that can manifest themselves which require an immediate decision. And some producers and directors delay that decision for any number of reasons. One of the mantras of life that I live by is “A wrong decision is better than indecision every time.” Make a call. Place the order. Stick your face in the fan and live to reap the consequences if you’re wrong, but if you’re any good, most of the time you won’t be.

I do want to stress that there is one area where it is imperative that you take the extra time when needed and not rush a decision. Safety on set should be uncompromising. You’re responsible for every soul on your project and it’s your job to keep them safe. There may be times when a decision is necessary where safety is a primary or tertiary factor. Understand the gravity of these decisions in their entirety before making the call. In writing this, the recent death of a crewmember of the indy film Midnight Rider comes to mind. Although I don’t know all the facts, the story being presented is that the production was shooting on a stretch of train track when a train came along killing a camera operator on the film. Now, it’s my understanding that the production had planned this in advance and was under the impression that no trains would be coming by during the time they were there. There were multiple bad decisions made in this example and the results were catastrophic. I use this as an example because I’ve been on a set where safety seemed to take a backseat to the pressures of meeting the schedule. I can easily imagine a film producer wanting to “steal a shot” on a nearby train track while waiting for an actor or because the shot list for the day has been met and some extra time is available. There are literally hundreds of scenarios like this where a decision is made quickly that could result in disaster. Don’t be responsible for another cautionary tale.

Fortunately there are very few times when situations like this present themselves and, fortunately, fewer still when one person makes a bad call there isn’t someone else there to step up and correct them. So, in short, your decisiveness needs to be peppered with common sense and concern from your team.

Despite all this wisdom, the sad fact is that as much I can instill the value of being decisive on a film set, there’s nothing I can do to teach you common sense or humanity. So, please, if you don’t have both of those, join a Fundamentalist church or go in to politics (respectively).

Film Schooling, Part 15: Production – Peace, War and Snacks

(This is Part Fifteen of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at and

There is something about a film set that’s akin to going into combat. Now, before those same lame politically correct, saber rattling morons attack me like they did Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m not suggesting it’s as dangerous or important or potentially tragic as actual combat…okay, maybe it can be as tragic if you’ve ever seen M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Village (not the worst film ever made…just the worst one that decade). What I’m trying to relay is there are elements to a production that incorporate and include brotherhood, loyalty, friendship, hardship, stress, pressure, expectation, competition and conflict.

Although as a producer you’d rather not have to deal with any of these things transpiring around you, you’ll experience these elements by simple virtue of making a film. The level to which these qualities will manifest themselves comes from a combination of the personalities you’ve throwing together (which you probably won’t know or be able to anticipate in advance) and the nature of the production you’ve assembled (which is entirely under your control). The first you can only anticipate and the second you’re wholly responsible for.

You may very well sink or swim based on the kind of dynamic that emerges around this culmination of components which will comprise your shoot. You’ll be managing personalities, putting out fires and investing time in issues that should in no way be issues at all, let along something that you’re wasting your time with, but keeping the frail harmony on set has to be done. Some fail and some succeed. Some even become legends…

Now, there are cases of smoothly running productions. It does happen. There’s no such thing as a film set where everything goes as planned, but there are those where, for the most part, everyone seems to get along and share a common purpose. I’ve never worked on one of those, but I do hear they exist. There will be days when members of the cast and crew hate you and vice versa. The interesting thing about a film set is the tacit awareness that the job comes first. In most cases even people who don’t get along and/or like each other, seem to put that aside for the collective good.

I’m not a fighter. I don’t really raise my voice and create conflict for the sake of conflict or calling attention to myself. I keep my cool for the most part. That’s why it’s strange for me to work with people who operate in such a vastly different manner. It’s odd for me to have an actor call me a “cocksucker” in front of the cast and crew and twenty minutes later sit down next to me and as he excitedly tell me about his idea for a scene we’re shooting the next day – as though the altercation of a few minutes earlier never happened. That’s weird to me. It’s common on a film set. It seems more common with bigger name actors, probably because they’re more confident in their job security. Actors seem to be inherently moody and insecure, so learn to deal with that.

Of course, the issues you face as a producer or director will be different from the conflicts among the cast and crew toward each other where they are on “more equal” footing. As the “big cheese” few people will openly defy you, though it will happen, because you’re the boss and have the ability to fire them. The more a person thinks they’re indispensable, the more likely you’ll get push back on any number of issues. As I mentioned in a previous article, this can absolutely start to happen later in the production even with inexperienced major actors of no notable name recognition. For some people, just knowing the production is too far along and that they can’t really be replaced seems to empower them with a sense of douchy entitlement. Prepare to eat crow for the sake of the project.

So how best to keep the peace? The fact is that there are people who are never happy; people who bitch regardless of the situation they find themselves in. There is a certain type of person that even if you feed them filet mignon, they’ll complain that there’s no bearnaise sauce. Some people just like to bitch and complain. Some people look for an excuse to feel slighted or disrespected so they can take to their soapbox and voice their grievances, real or imagined. In this age of social media, the situation seems to have gotten worse. In this era of misguided self-importance, people love to be slighted so they have an excuse to jump on Twitter or Facebook and share with the world how they’ve just been wronged – “Look at me! I’m important and my feelings have just been hurt! But more importantly…look at me!”

Unfortunately, you can’t always spot these types of people right off the bat, but they exist is every walk of life and filmmaking is no exception. As I said before, once you flag this kind of cancerous personality, cut your losses and cut them lose. These types of people don’t suddenly “change” and make a worthwhile contribution to your team once they’ve establishing their true nature. Shitty people will always be shitty. They don’t flip a coin in the morning – “Heads, I’ll be nice, Tails, here comes the shitheel!”

If you find yourself in one of these situations and can’t get rid of the problem (as if often the case with talent), you’d better pull out the kid gloves and have some diplomacy skills. Take off the “big shot” hat so many producers feel they are entitled to and be prepared to hold some hands, kiss some ass, make some concessions and take the blame for things that aren’t your fault. Yes, it sucks, but there will be times when it’s necessary, I assure you.

Being preemptive is the best advice I can give. Do everything you can to prevent these problems from cropping up in the first place, but if you have those personalities festering in your ranks, they’ll find a way to squirm to the top and create dissention, be it major or minor. But a number of people ‘ride the fence’ of malcontent. Don’t give them a good reason to go to the Dark Side. Treat people well. Treat them as equals. Treat them with respect.

I wrote previously about the ‘Big Shot’ mentality in a previous article and your cast and crew will pick up on that. It breeds resentment with no upside. “Because I’m the producer, that’s why,” is not an acceptable mantra. Don’t be “too good” for anything. If equipment is being put away at wrap, grab a light or stand on your way back to the trucks. If you see craft service unloading supplies and you’re heading in that direction, grab a cooler or a case of water. You’ll have plenty of downtime in between your myriad important tasks, and there will be opportunity to make everyone’s job a tiny bit easier. Take advantage of those as long as it’s not compromising your necessary tasks. In the final assessment it is a team project and greasing the wheels is good for all.

The final piece of advice I can give, and you’ll hear this from everyone who’s ever worked on a film set is to keep people happy through their stomach. Feed your people well. Yes, it’s an appreciable cost and money you wish you didn’t have to spend, but this is one area you shouldn’t skimp. Well-fed people are, generally speaking, happy people. Give them the best food you can afford. Have a good craft service offering. I remember working on Sweet Valley High and (sadly, I admit) hit a high point of my day when stopping at the crafty table and finding a special snack laid out like warm Bagel Bites or hot pretzels or chicken fingers. Those items weren’t always there, but it almost felt like a minor victory once a day when I scored a particularly desirable snack. (Kind of like finding Chester Copperpot’s corpse and treasured skull-shaped key!)
If you can swing it, send someone out for gourmet coffees in the morning one day. Take orders for smoothies another day. Surprise people with donuts and danishes if you’re not offering breakfast. Take the team out for drinks on the final day of shooting for the week. Even if it’s not your “thing” to go drinking with the gang, most of those working for you enjoy it and appreciate you ingratiating yourself with them in this manner. Call it politics. You want everyone on your side. If people like you, if they respect you, they’ll want to do well for you. As Ben Franklin once said, “You can catch more flies with a spoonful of sugar than a gallon of vinegar.”

This is a team sport. If you don’t know how to be a good leader, find someone else to produce.

Film Schooling, Part 14 Production – Managing Time

(This is Part Fourteen of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at and

After thirteen articles imbuing priceless advice on how to prepare for the shooting of your film, I admit it’s a bit tough to decide how best to first tackle guiding you through the production process. The biggest revelation I can share is that how you’ve prepared up to this point will totally dictate how deliciously smooth or castratingly awful the shoot itself will be. Every previous article is a roadmap of sorts, that will save you time, money and sanity before you get here to the first day of principle photography.

Of course there are still going to be plenty of mistakes to be had and you’ll certainly make some of them, so just hope you can keep that to a manageable number and that the areas where you do drop the ball are correctible. The most important piece of advice I can offer while in production are: Manage Your Time Wisely.

Hear this now – there will be many disagreements, conflicts and heartaches during production, but your main adversary is time. Time is the God you have to worship endlessly for the moment you stop thinking about it, He’ll smite you…and no one likes to be smitten! (actually, being smitten is a good thing, so let’s go with “smote”)

Every minute during production has a cash value attached to it. Every hour is costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. There is a finite amount of time to make your movie because there’s a finite amount of money with which to purchase an allocation of the time you’ll use. Most every day you’ll be wishing you had more time because for nearly every decision you make, time will have a voice. Basically, once shooting starts, you’re Time’s bitch.

As we ingest the copious knowledge I’m attempting to forcibly infuse into you, we’ll be touching on a few points that have come up in previous articles. Countless turkeys you hatched in your weeks of pre-production will now come home to roost. Time is a heavy boot targeting your junk. As the producer, know that it’s your job to make sure it’s managed as effectively as possible. In truth, this will likely fall on the shoulders of the 1st A.D., the production manager and/or production coordinator, but as you’re the big cheese, all roads lead to you. (and if you’re a gnome as well, all roads lead to…you get the idea…)

The reason time is so difficult to manage on a film set is that there are so very many variables. It’s quite easy to say that at 2:00 we’re moving from Location A to Location B and it’s good to have hard deadlines and the wherewithal to stick to them, but sometimes unexpected or uncontrollable factors will mess with any and all types of planning. Early on you’ll begin to see factors that are going to mess with deadlines on your project. The ones you can predict and best manage are the ones related to people.

I mentioned in an earlier posting that everyone on a film set thinks their job is most important. Because of that, there is a slight feeling of entitlement and that the rules don’t necessarily apply to them. Naturally, this is most commonly found among talent. Actors and actresses will take liberties with your time, and therefore your (i.e. investors) money, for any number of reasons. Selfish people with big egos have little regard for those around them. The obtuseness of this is surprising, since what’s bad for the film is inherently bad for the actor as well, but they don’t seem to dwell on this basking comfortably in their shortsightedness. Actors are often the worst because they believe they are “irreplaceable” and, to some extent, they’re right. Much like the actress I worked with on Dirty Dealing, which I mentioned previously, the further you are into a film, the more impossible it becomes to replace someone. Aside from unreasonable demands that may crop up is the mentality that the rules no longer apply to them since there’s really nothing that can be done to them anyway. (or so they think)

Actors will often be late. The lack of class, respect, discipline and professionalism is staggering, but somewhat common and you will be faced with this from time to time. If an actor shows up to set late, she gets to make-up and hair late, gets in wardrobe late and gets on set late. That can’t be allowed. The production should never be waiting on talent. How do you deal with it?

The first step it to let the actor know the problem she’s causing for the production. Sadly, this will rarely have an effect. People who are inconsiderate and/or unprofessional won’t simply change their ways because you say “please.” Now, of course, accidents happen. Alarm clocks don’t go off or weren’t set the night before. Cars break down. Traffic can be unexpectedly bad. I give everyone one free pass within reason. If it happens again, more serious measures need to be taken.

The second step is to adjust the call time of a person. If someone is regularly 15 minutes late, start having them report to set 30 minutes early. As call times are often staggered, this is usually pretty easy to pull off. Now there will be times when this type of action can raise suspicions, like when an actor is the only one brought to set 30 minute early as everyone else shows up together a short while later. Be creative. I’ve gone to a hair or make-up artist and had her “request” a little extra time on a certain actress. As you can imagine, there’s a vastly different response to “We need you here 30 minutes early because hair wants some extra time with you” and “We need you here 30 minutes early because you’re a selfish bitch that doesn’t believe in punctuality.”

Another option is “wake up calls” to the consistently tardy purveyor of douchbaggery. If you know it’s going to take an actor 45 minutes to get to set, assign someone the task of calling him 60 minutes before that to be sure they’re on the way. They may get irritated when they find out they’re the only one getting this treatment, but you can always explain to them how they earned it. But let’s be honest – they know.

And, of course, you can always assign a driver to an actor. The downside is that this feels almost like a reward for their inconsiderate nature, but you must find the best possible way to manage your time. Bigger stars will often have a driver and/or personal assistant. Whether that person is provided by you or a friend/employee of the actor directly, generally that person knows his or her job is to help keep that actor on schedule. And a few extra bucks in their pocket can add additional incentive.

When it comes to crew who can’t seem to be punctual, the solution is much simpler – fire his ass. Again, a warning is fair as mistakes do happen, but like I stressed in an earlier articles, once things start to go wrong on set, they can go way wrong way quickly. Nip that shit in the bud.

If your cast and crew are (relatively) in line, you can focus on being productive with the time you have. I wish there were easy rules and guidelines for this, but in large part it comes from experience and having the right people around to manage that time. A great 1st A.D. will keep things moving and keep you on schedule as much as possible. A responsible crew will be able to stick to the deadlines they’re given. A good director will understand what he can realistically get with the time he has available. Simon and Garfunkel are masters of not just thyme, but parsley and sage as well. (too obscure?)

Another piece of advice I can give on this note is that when someone wants more of this very finite commodity, make sure they have some to give back somewhere else in exchange. If the director wants another hour to finish a scene, make sure he knows he’s losing an hour on a later one. Drive that home in that moment and you’ll see just how important that extra hour is then.

In the final assessment, you’re the producer and the time and money are all on you. You can paint your responsibilities with as broad of a brush as you’d like, but those are the two things that dictate it all. Make the right decisions and manage them both well and you might actually make a decent filmmaker.

Film Schooling, Part 13: Pre-Production – Tools of the Trade

(This is Part Thirteen of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at and

First, let me thank you for bearing with me this long. I know that you, my little muskrats, are eager to get to production, but laying the proper groundwork before shooting is paramount (Get it? Paramount? I’m brilliant!). We’ll get into actual production tips next week, but I do want to advise on one more key area prone to problems: getting the equipment and supplies you’ll need to be truly ready on Day One.

Now, if you had the list of equipment needs laid out in front of you at the start of your project, you’d likely be daunted. In truth, if you knew all the headaches and heartbreaks you were in for when it comes to filmmaking, you’d likely never engage in the prospect to begin with. But no matter how much we curse and complain and cry and yell and insist we’ll never go through it again and that there’s no way it could ever be worth it, somehow it always is. The screw turns and we can’t wait to do it again. (I think the word is “masochism”)

There are hundreds of “things” you’ll need to make your film. Some of these are obvious enough, but you’ll find there are many, many items essential to the task that you simply don’t think about or know of until you’re there in the trenches. Experience will prove a saving grace in this respect, much like in every other area of the project. And this is another aspect where department heads will step up and make sure the package is complete before Christmas morning when the cameras are set to roll for the first time. Trust the people under you. Delegate. Great men surround themselves with people who know more than they do. Every department head should be more knowledgeable about his field than you and your job is going to be easier because of it. You’re not just hiring these people to be there on set for three or four or five weeks; you’re hiring them to make sure everything they could need to do their part of the job is also there with them.

Let us assume you’re “just” a producer on the film. The camera and related package will be selected by the director and cinematographer (possibly just the latter if your director is a newbie). They’ll tell you what they need for the show. In most cases, they’ll tell you where to get it. It’s not just about getting a camera, it’s about getting the best camera possible to best fit the vision of the director. The only place you really step in here is if they tell you they want to shoot in VistaVision and the budget can barely afford Colecovision.
This is true of every department – let them tell you what they need. That’s one of their mandates. But keep in mind, every department thinks they’re the most important to the film and will often ask for things which aren’t essential. It’s up to you to differentiate between the “needs” and the “wants”. It seems everyone wants more than is absolutely necessary. The camera department wants more lenses, more days with the steadicam and a bigger crane. The lighting department wants a bigger truck with more options and more gels and filters. The art department wants more money for set decoration and bigger and better props. Craft service wants more money for snacks (who doesn’t?). Diplomacy will play a big part here, as well as some common sense in determining what you can and cannot do without. Unfortunately, as an indy producer, what you’ll be saying most often to people is “no.” Try coming up with new and interesting ways to do it. I have. (One of my favorites is – “Yes, but exactly the opposite.”)

Now, I said that your department heads will usually be able to point you in the right direction on where to find their respective tools. One thing to be aware of is that it’s not uncommon in the business for a department head to get a kick back from a rental or sales facility they direct business to. Just make sure you’re getting a reasonable deal on your camera and not going that route because they’re the company giving the biggest stack of cash to the cinematographer or gaffer or prop master.

In some cases, you’re told what is needed and it’s your job to make it happen. In others, a budget is allotted and you may simply hand over a check or petty cash (get receipts for everything). You won’t be giving a check to your gaffer to get the lighting equipment because that’s a complicated process with insurance and contracts. You will be giving your craft service person some money every day to go buy soda and water and Goldfish crackers (unless you’re a terrible producer who has no business being in this industry because you don’t understand the importance of these delectable snacks for the smooth running operation of a film set. Can you say “essential,” bitch!). You’ll often give your art director money to assemble the things he needs for that department. It’s simply a case of practicality. You’re not going to go to the thrift shop with your prop master to write a $30 check for some set pieces. It might take him 5 or 10 or 50 stops to get all the things he needs. There’s no need to micromanage. You can’t. There’s simply no time for it. Of course, $10k or $20k for a truck and lightning package should demand some oversight.
Renting equipment and supplies for a production, once you know what you want, can prove more time consuming than you’d expect. You’ll have to deal with rental contracts, deposits and insurance. There will be so many things that crop up in the weeks and days prior to the commencement of filming, it’s imperative you are as prepared as possible. If you wait too long to tackle some of these elements, they simply won’t get done in time. In almost every case I know of with first time filmmakers, the original start date is pushed for this very reason. Sometimes this isn’t a big deal. Sometimes it is. The bigger the project, the more likely this could create problems.

If it’s not already obvious enough, this is why you want your department heads locked down as early as possible. If they’re coming to you directly from another show, they can eek out some time to assemble a list of what you can be working on for them prior to their being cut free from the previous gig. Be a well oil-machine. Of course, in lieu of that, sometimes it’s okay to settle for just being well-oiled, but I digress….

One other area we’ve touched on at various points in these other articles is the items you’ll need for you own production department. Most notable is the paperwork of which there is plenty. Cast contracts, nudity releases, crew deal memos, writer contract, insurance policy, production schedule, day out of days, budget, call sheets, SAG paperwork, contact lists, etc. As with other areas, I’m very much hoping that if this is your first film that you’ll have someone experienced in your own department as well, be it the Unit Production Manager and/or Production Coordinator. There is no substitute for experience. I learned more about filmmaking my first three weeks on a Roger Corman film set than I did in four years of college.

A wiser man than me once said…actually, never mind…I don’t know any smarter men than me…(Yeah, I know, it’s “I”. Shut up!) So on that note, I’m off to polish my wisdom so I can whip it out again next week for you!

Film Schooling, Part 12: Pre-Production – The Production Schedule

(This is Part Twelve of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at and

Long before the cameras roll on Day One, you’ll have prepared a mountain of paperwork. There will be deal memos for cast and crew, a pile of docs for SAG if it’s a union show, rental contracts, insurance forms, screenplay/story rights agreement, call sheets, contact information directory, copyright registration, day out of days list, budgets, and hundreds if not thousands of emails. But the piece of paper that is going to most help focus the direction of the shoot is the production schedule.

Prior to the start of photography (hopefully far enough in advance to mitigate undue stress), the plan needs to be laid out as to what order in which to shoot the scenes of the film. This is dictated by a number of factors that all have to be juggled to create the most practical production schedule. A surprising number of factors will affect how this is put together, but the main ones will be talent availability, location availability, nudity/sex scenes and prop/talent demands.

In a perfect world, talent availability is a minor issue when it comes to scheduling in that the actors make themselves are available for the production in whatever capacity is necessary. In the real world, especially in the world of low-budget filmmaking, this tends to get more complicated. Some of your cast may very well have other jobs that you have to work around. Generally, I recommend avoiding this situation but it does sometimes present itself and must be dealt with. What you really want is an actor who will take the time off or get the time off they need to make the production the priority, but when you’re not paying your people terribly well and/or the reality is that they have to go back to making a “real” living after the week or two or three that you employ, the impracticality of this sometimes becomes evident.

Many regular jobs are very accommodating and this is a talk that needs to be had prior to locking down your casting decisions. Invariably, problems will arise that cause the production schedule to change and your talent needs to be able to work around that. Although you’re sure you know which six days you need an actor a month or a week before production starts, there is any number of occurrences that can change that. The last think you want to hear in moments like that is, “Yeah, I can’t get that day off, but I can do it the day after.”

Also be prepared for your bigger actors to potentially cause you problems. Again, this is not terribly uncommon. It happened recently to me on Dirty Dealing 3D with our star Michael Madsen. He was in Russia shooting a film just before ours. He was supposed to wrap there on a Monday and be to us, ready to work, by Wednesday. Everything was good to go based on that. The problem was the other production fell behind and they had to keep him a few more days. We weren’t going to have him Wednesday. We weren’t going to have him Thursdays. We “might” have him Saturday. At that point, all the planning we had done for his time on set went to shit, so we had to scramble to make concessions and find other things to shoot on those “lost” days. It’s never a simple fix. Locations that were locked weeks in advance may not be able to accommodate the changes. Other talent that was prepared to work on Day X may have difficulty switching to Day Y. Special props, equipment, vehicles or other needs have to be rescheduled which can create additional complications as well. This can be a tremendous headache that does more than create stress and cost time, it can result in very serious financial implications as well.

Securing locations was discussed earlier, but how they are stacking into your production schedule can require a degree of skill and creativity as well. In some cases, locations are a no-brainer. If you’re shooting for 4 weeks at a cabin in the woods owned by your uncle, all is warm and fuzzy (until a disfigured maniac with an ax shows up to piss on the party!). On a more location-heavy production, you’ll be dealing with places that may have any number of requirements or restrictions.

You’ll often be shooting in businesses that you can’t afford to “buy out”. Just about any place will close down and give you full run of the joint for a certain amount of money. This is what big productions do, but you likely won’t have the resources for that…and you certainly can’t ask a business to lose hundreds or thousands of dollars to do you a favor. So the concession that is often made is that they’ll let you shoot around their operational business. The could be mean shooting off hours (often overnight) or actually grabbing what you need during the regular operation of the business. I shouldn’t have to explain the potential complications that can arise from this, but there are times when it’s unavoidable.

I’ve now shot two films in casinos. Great production value. Very difficult locations to operate in. As casinos are open 24 hours and can’t be “bought out” by small productions like ours, we work around the fact that the business will still be buzzing around us. This brings with it additional noise which in some cases you simply have to deal with. In some cases you can politely ask someone to try to keep it quiet when you’re rolling, but when you’re paying a casino a few thousand a day to shoot, they don’t want you asking the obnoxious drunk betting $5000 a hand a blackjack to “keep it down” no matter how nicely you intend to ask. Or is it’s Ben Affleck, you can just wait until they “86” him from the place!

In addition, when you don’t control a location, you have to worry about the integrity of your shots. People will wander into the frame, either accidently or on purpose. People will stare at the camera. They’ll point. They might walk up to a star, oblivious to the fact that the cameras are rolling, and ask for a handshake or autograph. Generally you’ll have people “locking down” the set as much as possible to prevent things like this, but the larger the location, the harder it is to fill all those holes.

If you have a good locations coordinator, he’ll have built good relationships with your locations and be able to help rework the shooting schedule as needed when these problems do arise. But you should know well in advance what the contingency plans are if there’s any chance a location could bow out on you. Many business and home owners don’t realize how much of a disruption and hassle a film crew can bet. It has been known to happen after a long day of shooting in the first of several days at a location, the production is met with a “Yeah, I don’t think coming back tomorrow is a good idea.” If and when that happens, you’ll have a back-up plan, right? (Crying profusely doesn’t count…though crying and begging might…which I’ve done…but I’ll save that story for another day)

Another on my short list of key factors when setting the production schedule is if there is any nudity and/or sex scenes in the film. Although nudity and sex can absolutely bolster the marketability of your film, it can be a lot of headaches. Unfortunately, there are some very disingenuous people out there. I regularly hear about actresses who agree to do nudity in a film and later “change their mind”. Conveniently, this usually happens toward the end of production when the actress has proven herself irreplaceable. Now, if you’ve done your job correctly, you’ll already have a deal memo in place that clearly lays out the nudity and simulated sex requirements of the role in unimpeachable detail and clarity. Sadly, it usually makes no difference when you’re in the third or fourth week of your shoot and an actress decides to screw you over on this. Yes, you have it in writing. Yes, you can technically fire her and go back and reshoot all the scenes you’ve already gotten with her and you have a breach of contract suit against the actress that you can absolutely win. And yet you already know it’s probably never, ever going to be worth it. So you’re stuck. (another good time to cry, in fact.)

The fix is to never put yourself in this position to begin with. If at all possible, shoot out the nudity and sex at the beginning of a picture. I do it as close to Day One as possible. Do it when it’s still easy to replace someone and they’ll be far less inclined to try to stunt.

A fascinating side note on this is how short-sighted actors can be. This is a small business. Everyone seems to know and acknowledge that, yet people consistently make foolish decisions that lessen their already tiny chance of success in it. On Dirty Dealing, I had the very same issue with a sex scene I’ve been warning you about. In this case, the scheduling was unavoidable because the scene involved one of our “name” male actors who wasn’t going to be on set until the last week. Sure enough, the actress shows up and informs us that she is suddenly concerned about the nudity. Interestingly, she did a fully nude scene on Day One for a calendar shoot which would be a prop in the film (see below), yet now expressed concerns about her sex scene. Although her contract clearly stated “fully nudity” in the sex scene, I know I didn’t need anything to that degree, so she was given a “patch” to put over her vajayjay (and by “vajayjay” I mean “pussy”). Seems that wasn’t enough. She insisted on wearing pasties over her nipples as well. She was aware of the contract and the fact that she was in breach and simply didn’t care. We were stuck. We shot the scene the only way she would do it and I think the film suffers a bit for it.

Several months later, I was telling a domestic buyer about the film and he mentioned that the actress looked familiar. Turns out, someone he knew had done a small film with her a year earlier. I mentioned I had some problems with her and his response was, “Let me guess? She screwed you over on the nudity thing!” Wow. This girl had done one film before mine and already had a reputation in the business for being dishonest and difficult to work with.

What’s so odd is that for all her posturing and dishonestly, she’s still featured fully nude earlier in the film anyway, so she accomplished nothing more than reinforcing a bad reputation she had even prior to our project. And don’t think I haven’t loved when other producers/directors have called and asked, “What was it like working with her?” Small world. Smaller brain.

I mentioned “prop & talent prep demands” as another element that can dictate your production schedule, though this may well not have any bearing on your film. In many movies, there will be items needed in the film that will require advance preparation. The most common of these is photographs of people in the film which will be used as props. This is usually done before production begins since it’s not part of the actual movie, unless there is also video of when the photos were taken. However, if the time doesn’t allow prior preparation, this is something that has to be done in a timely fashion so those props can be ready for when they are needed on set.
With the cast of Dirty Dealing, the girls in the film do a nude calendar which they sell as part of a fundraiser. Not only did we need the calendars as props in the film, we needed footage of the girls actually at the calendar shoot. Obviously this had to be done first on the production. Aside from addressing the nudity concerns mentioned above, we had just a few days to have the graphic artists put the calendar together and get it to the printer so they would have a week to print those props. You’ll also find other cases where there will be things like surveillance footage or news footage that you’ll be needing in the film that may dictate how, when and where you can shoot elements as needed.

Another factor that falls into this category is pretty obvious, but when actors are expected to go through significant physical changes, the entire production needs to be understandably structured around that. This usually results in breaking up the shoot to give the performer ample time to make the changes which in some cases can be extreme, such as Robert Deniro in Raging Bull or Tom Hanks in Castaway. Of course, if you absolutely, positively can’t work around it, you can always get an actor or actress to drop 15-20 pounds overnight…simply remove a limb.

Be prepared for anything as there will be other factors unique to your show which will have a bearing on scheduling. This part can prove to be utterly frustrating in many ways as you can have literally dozens of different elements that need to be juggled and pieced in various ways until you have a schedule that seems to accommodate all those needs…and then at some point all that work might go to hell when something unexpected jumps up and bites you in the ass. But this is why I keep a whipping boy on set to relieve the stress. I would just have a whipping dog, but PETA wouldn’t allow it. And besides, what use are children besides making shoes in sweat shops and objects on which to vent your anger?

Film Schooling, Part 11: Pre-Production – Crewing

(This is Part Eleven of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at and

As we close in on the start of your production, we’ll need to finish hiring your crew, or “crewing” as we call it in the business (creative, huh?). Earlier, we discussed the key roles of cinematographer/director of photography (D.P.) and 1st assistant director (1st A.D.), so we’ll hope you have those positions taken care of and move on to the rest of the gang.

The general rule of thumb is to let the department heads have a big hand in the people whom will be working directly with and under them. In most cases, you’re not hiring a single person, but someone who can fill that entire department for you. Aside from the time and effort this saves you, perhaps of even greater importance is that you’re getting a small group of people who, generally speaking, know and like one another and work well together.

Your cinematographer probably has a 1st assistant camera operator (1st A.C.) and 2nd A.C. he can recommend. This is such an important position and so tightly linked to the lighting and grip departments, he may have recommendations for these roles as well.

The art department is led by the production designer. He will likely have set decorators, set dressers and prop masters that he likes working with and can vouch for. Your sound mixer will have boom operators to recommend. The point is, hiring 20 or 30 or 40 crew need not be as much work as it first seems.
film crew
The 1st A.D. can likely help fill some or all of the production department positions under him, including the 2nd A.D., the 2nd 2nd A.D. and possibly some production assistants (P.A.s). For the new kids, a production assistant is generally an entry level job for someone with no experience in the business. It’s the lowest paid (if it’s paid at all) position on set and is often referred to as a “gofer”. The tasks of the P.A. can involve just about anything. No job is too big, too small, or too degrading for a P.A. If making a film is a living, breathing thing – P.A.s are the pimples. I started out as a P.A. It sucks, but you learn a lot. In fact, you learn a bit about all the areas of production as you’re often passed around like Kim Kardashian at a Hip Hop concert. One thing I learned was that P.A.s get all the shit jobs, like cleaning the bathrooms. Another thing I learned is that women are far bigger pigs than men when it comes to using the facilities. As a man, if you ever want to lose respect for the fairer sex, check out a ladies restroom when they don’t think men will ever know what they do in there. But I digress…

One thing I can’t emphasis enough is the importance of references for new members to your crew. Let me explain in a bit more detail what I’m getting at here. In some cases, prospective crew will provide ‘references’ on their resumes. As anyone who has ever hired anyone in ANY field knows, these are almost always worthless. I don’t waste my time with them and neither should you. Now, keep in mind, if your department has made the pick for you, that may well be the only ‘reference’ you need, but there will be times when you’re hiring someone cold and you need more than the piece of paper they put in front of you.

What I recommend is using the resources available to get an unbiased evaluation of the person you’re considering bringing on to the team. Once again the internet has made our jobs notably easier and the very nature of this business complements it even more. The Internet Movie Database ( is the premiere resource for film. If you aren’t familiar with it, stop reading my article right now. Seriously, you’re not worthy of making a film. You’re not worthy of thinking of making a film. In fact, I forbid you to watch any more films at all. You can watch TV, but only reruns and nothing after 2004 when some of the shit actually started to get good. And you can watch Vampire Diaries.

Those of you still reading know that IMDB credits are like currency. In a matter of seconds you can confirm if someone is legit or full of shit. I don’t need to see a resume, I just need an internet connection. The only trick here is weed through the B.S. that some people slip onto their IMDB pages. Of course, you see this more often with actors and the big give away is when after their role you see the ubiquitous “uncredited”, which means they don’t get mentioned in the actual credits of the film, but still put their info on the IMDB site. The translation for “uncredited” really means “extra”. What you don’t see on IMDB is “Robert Towne – Screenplay (uncredited)” or “Steve Spielberg – Director (uncredited).” So when it comes to crew, you can pretty much rely on what you see there. Someone might slip in a credit or two in an area they didn’t “officially” work, but this is fairly uncommon and a small amount of vetting should quickly uncover it.

So the final step is to invest a little time to see what previous employers have to say about them. Again, quite easy with the internet to track down producers of past projects. Talk to at least a few and see what they have to say. Don’t be lazy. This is important. Invest an hour two for each of your key positions. A lot of times producers and directors will “tough it out” with someone who isn’t at the top of their game for a number of reasons, but would never work with that person again. You don’t want these people on your production. There’s no greater reassurance than cold calling three producers and having all of them sing the praises of your prospective hire and stress how they would absolutely engage that person again.

When it comes time to lock down your crew, make sure you have a professional agreement for all parties to sign. The parlance in this business is “deal memo.” So make sure the deal memo addresses all the salient points. As mentioned before when discussing contracts, this is the professional and courteous way to handle things. People deserve to know exactly what they’re signing up for. Try to get this out of the way as far in advance as possible. Again – courtesy.

And be advised, for key positions, distributors will likely ask for copies of the agreements which meet with industry standards. If you screw this up now, you’ll likely have to go back down the road and fix it. It’s far easier to do it right the first time.

Now, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the one downside to bringing on a team that knows each other well as stated above. That is – if things ever start to break down, it’s not hard to guess which side these crew members will take. Now, this should never happen, but there’s a unique dynamic that takes place on a film set affected in no small part by what is usually a grueling pace, a lot of stress, long hours and a group that spends most of their waking hours together for weeks on end.

I was actually warned about a cinematographer I ended up hiring anyway (bad move) and cursed that decision for the last three weeks of the show. He and the camera and lighting team were all buddies. None of them took their jobs terribly seriously. I actually wrote about Lon in an earlier article, but when things started to go south, it quickly became an “us vs them” scenario. If I knew then what I know now, I would have fired the lot and lost a couple of days. I figured we could muscle through it and it was a horrible experience.

These problems were coupled with the fact that it was my first film, I was young and despite the fact that I had plenty of production experience, it was my first time as director and producer. Although I was very humble and nice to everyone (which is actually somewhat usual in that giving someone this kind of “power” for the first time, especially a young person, often goes to his head), I wasn’t taken very seriously. This clique of guys quickly started to test the boundaries and learned in short order that I was a pussy (I’ve since toughed up…if that’s okay with you…). Every time someone crossed the line and I moved to fire them, the D.P. stepped in to “make peace” and assure me how “indispensable” that person was… as though there was no one else in the state that knew how to load film or set up a light. He wasn’t looking out for me or the production, he was interested in keeping his little coterie of worshippers around. One day in particular, our gaffer showed up four hours late. Seriously. Four hours! Why? Because he was an asshole and knew he could get away with it. Lon convinced me I couldn’t fire him since there was “no one else” good enough to take his place. Naïve vagina that I was, I believed him and trusted him when he said he’d “talk to him” and straighten it out. The final week was equally miserable as half the crew was on the brink of mutiny to the very end.

So, the lesson here is that when things start to go bad with an actor or crew member, know this – it NEVER gets better. Bad attitudes are never turned around. Weak and unprofessional people don’t suddenly get hit by an epiphany and up their game. If the mistake isn’t major, give them one warning. After that, cut your losses because I assure you that waiting will cost you far more in every way. I’m not alone on this. Every producer I talk to about it confirms how important this rule is.

I’m so proud of you, Spartanettes! I know you’re anxious to get to the actual shooting of the film, but there’s still a little more preparation on the pre-production side. We’re almost there, just bear with me and bask in the greatness I’m helping you realize. And all I ask in return is your complete and total subjugation and worship. Sure, I deserve more, but I’m selfless like that…

Film Schooling, Part 10:
Pre-Production – Casting, chapter three

(This is Part Ten of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers
on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series
can be found at and

At the risk of dwelling on this topic a bit too long, I’m devoting one more article to the casting process. In the two previous outings we touched on the importance of getting appropriate “name” talent in proportion to your budget and the decision of whether or not to shoot non-union or union and the complexities of the latter. As a final note on this subject, I’d like to offer up some suggestions for the nuts and bolts of the auditioning process.

Several articles ago I discussed the dangers of shooting in your hometown and having the “local big shot” mentality. I’ll assume you’re making a “real” film and have at least modest resources at your disposal. So even if you are shooting your movie in some small rural Arkansas town, you’re going to look for your principle players in a major market, right? L.A. is the best. New York is second. Find the money to get to one of these cities for a few days and hold auditions. Earmark some funds to bring back a couple/few strong actors to anchor your film. It is money well spent. I assure you. Bad acting is the most blatant give away of having no money invested in your film and giving a distributor or buyer an excuse to offer you as little as possible.

Regardless of where you hold your auditions, you have to get the word out. The internet has proven an incredible resource in this respect. Almost everything is done digitally now and there are vast repositories of talent online. The most used of these is Breakdown Services and its sister site Actor’s Access. Like many similar sites, producers can post their jobs along with all relevant details and talent will submit. If you’re shooting in a major market and/or offering good compensation and travel expenses, you’ll get a big response. You’ll get to view photos and resumes. In some cases you can see links to personal sites and demo reels. You can easily cast an entire film through this one pair of sites. The difference between the two is that Breakdown has talent submitted by agents and managers whereas Actor’s Access is talent who submit themselves. I recommend listing with both.

If it’s a union (SAG) show, you’ll even get some familiar faces submitted through Breakdown. Generally not the kind of viable “name” talent that helps elevate the salability of your film, but familiar faces aren’t a bad thing and some of these people are very solid actors whose work you’ve grown up watching – they’re simply past their peak, but in many cases, still very good actors just wanting to work. Just be careful not to get star-struck and overpay them (see previous article).

For the bigger “names” which I will continue to champion as the single most valuable asset in the film, you’ll need to reach out to agents and managers. I touched on this two articles back, so I won’t rehash it again here, but one thing you should be aware of is that you won’t be able to request these people come out for an audition. Actually, you can request it, but you’ll be refused in almost every case and it will evidence just how green you are for even asking. David Fincher can ask Danny Trejo to audition. You and I can’t.
When it comes to everyone else, auditions are essential. Find a respectable place to hold them. Don’t ever, ever try to do this in a hotel room. I know, it sounds like common sense, but this goes on every day and the producers just can’t figure out why people aren’t taking them seriously and there are so many no-shows. Aside from the sleazy, casting couch vibe is projects, if a producer can’t afford a few hundred bucks for a real audition space, the perception is that they probably don’t really have the money for the film anyway…which is usually the case.

A preferred venue is a theaters. Often, even if a play is running, there will be down time or off hours when the management is interested in making a few extra bucks. I’ve rented space in L.A. for as little as $20 an hour and when you’re asking actors to show up at a theatre, you seem legitimate. They feel comfortable. Of course, if you have an office with suitable facilities for something like this, that’s fine as well. Under no circumstances should you ever audition in a home regardless of availability. I don’t care if your uncle has a $5 million mansion on the beach, it’s simply not done. And real actors know it’s not done.

Another decision is whether or not to give the prospective talent sides (their lines) in advance or do a cold read, which means they get the material when they arrive and just have a few minute to prepare. I always recommend giving the actors their pages in advance. There’s no reason not to. In the real world, they’ll have days or even weeks to prepare so allowing them to prep is a more realistic environment. Of course, there may be times when an actor comes in prepared to read for one role and you decide they might fit better elsewhere. Feel free to provide the other lines and give them a few minutes to practice those.

One thing that always impresses me is an actor who memorizes the lines for an audition. It tells me they’re serious and professional. They’re willing to put in the time. And, of no small account, it tells me they can actually memorize lines. Some people just can’t. I don’t need to tell you how costly this can end up being on set. I’ve struggled through actors who were actually talented, but sucked at memorization. I’ve fired actors who showed up unprepared, though in many cases you’ve already invested in that character, have burned film on them, and can’t afford that luxury so you have to tough it out. It’s beyond frustrating when you have to go for a single line at a time by having someone feed it to an actor and have them regurgitate it back for the camera. Cue cards are another tragic elements that are more common place than they should be on a film set. For this reason, I always ask a prospective actor to memorize some of the script, though that is usually requested on a call back (a second audition when the talent is being narrowed down).

If you’ve never gone through the process before, auditioning can be a very tedious thing. It can take many, many days depending on the project and your casting needs. It sounds exciting on the surface and it is…for about the first hour. The first few times you hear those written words come to life are invigorating and starts to create an even better picture in your mind of what the finished product might look and feel like. After you’ve done it a little bit, it gets monotonous. After a long bit, it can border on torturous. The worst thing is reading bad actors later in the day when you’ve already seen dozens or even hundreds of people read the same lines and most have already done it better. Kill me now, please…

I also suggest that you not worry about being too nice. Be polite. Be appreciative. Respect the fact that these people are pursuing a dream, but your time is value and should be treated as such. People will show up that weren’t invited. People will want to take up more of your time than you want to give. They’ll want you to watch videos on their tablets and check out their websites. They may want to do lines from something other than what you provided. They’ll ask to read for other roles that in most cases they are completely inappropriate for. Some will ask you to read their scripts or invite you to a play they’re preforming in. Many people are too nice and don’t know how to say no and a lot of time can be wasted on these other endeavors.

The more I do this, the tougher I get. I still make a point to treat everyone well and thank them for their time, but there is work to be done. The thing that frustrates me more than any other is an actor who misrepresents him or herself to get in the door. You’ll see this, I promise. People will submit headshots that bear almost no resemblance to their current appearance. I’ve had people walk through the door that look 10 or even 20 years old than the photo I selected. Actors will use an older photo when they were 20, 30 or even 50 pounds lighter. You’ll see headshots that were Photoshopped to the point of being nearly criminal. When one of these people walks in the door, when you know immediately that you’ve been duped, don’t be afraid to call them out on it. You don’t need to be an ass, but there’s nothing wrong with holding up the picture they provided and saying, “This is the person I was expecting to see. This is who I thought might be a good fit for the role. This is just not representative of you. Thank you for your time, but you’re just not right for this part.”

As you narrow down your favorites, it’s not uncommon to have call backs, and sometimes more than one. Occasionally, exactly what you’re looking for walks through the door and it is kind of a “magic moment.” But most of the time it’s a lot of work and a revolving door of various types of talent to find the best fit for a role which may be close to what you had in mind, but different enough to have to acclimate yourself to the changes.

Of paramount importance is honesty. Actors have a right to know exactly what they’re getting into as early in the process as humanly possible. This may be before the first audition but at the very latest, when the offer is extended. Nothing creates a toxic environment more than people feeling they’ve been lied to or fooled. The actor needs to know exactly what the role entails. How long will the shoot be? Is there a chance of running over? Is there a chance pick-ups will be needed down the road. What is the pay? Which of their expenses, if any, will be covered? Is there nudity? A sex scene? Will I be expected to do anything unusual? (swimming with piranhas) Is there anything special I need to prepare for? (ninja training for the fight scenes) Not only should all this be laid out clearly and as early as possible, it should be identified in the contract which, ideally, will be signed as far in advance as practical.
I won’t go into the finer points of how to deal with, direct and handle talent and those areas alone could fill volumes. Either you’ll have a knack for it, figure it out as you go, or want to kill every actor you come into contact with. Alfred Hitchcock was once called out for saying “actors are cattle.” He was quick to make a correction and said, “I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.” There will be times when you feel that way. There will be times you love them and times you hate them. There will be times they amaze you and others when they shockingly disappoint you. There will be times when you love and admire their talent and yet despite them as human beings. It’s just part of the journey. And, hopefully, that journey will all be worth it in the end.

More to come soon, my friends and creative geniuses. Dream big.

Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as “Counterpunch” starring Danny Trejo and “Dirty Dealing 3D” with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell. He is also owner of Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at He’s also dead sexy. (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)