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As I have alluded on this blog before we had some major problems on The Stagg Do shoot, Lucas McNelly whom I've talked about here and who you can follow here recently wrote this blog on the A Year Without Rent project site about where on-set problems come from and how to avoid them. This got me thinking more about some of our problems and how we should have seen them coming. I've taken his blog (italics) and written a response/ explanation to each point. Before you read though it's important to know that I agree 100% with his 5 rules and that generally ie on the 20+ shorts we've made before, we've adhered to them all!
The thing is most film shoots suffer from a variety of problems and as Lucas so rightly points out, they usually stem from the same few causes. It's funny, I guess, that he is spending a year travelling around working on all of these films and yet he still gets confronted by the same issues time and time again - not least on The Stagg Do where we broke at least four of these rules. Haha - guess the philosopher in me says: I'm glad I'm not Lucas, maybe he should rename AYWR as Groundhog Shoot.
1. Hire Good People
UP COUNTRY isn't really one of our projects (well, the production part, anyway), but we had one really, really inept crew member. He shouldn't have been anywhere near the set. Luckily, he was at the bottom of the totem pole, but I've seen producers who shouldn't have been anywhere near the set. It happens all over the place. And it isn't always because they're inept. Sometimes they just can't handle the job. Sometimes their personality clashes with the people they're supposed to be working with. Whatever the situation, these are things you (and I) should be figuring out in pre-production. Check references. Ask around. You can learn a lot about someone by talking to people they've worked with.
I think a lot of our problems on The Stagg Do came from this basic mistake. Not that we hired bad people per se, but we had a hodge-podge crew - some people with no previous experience but a lot of willingness and then some people with lots of experience. What didn’t work though was the different styles and personalities. James and I fundamentally believe that you shouldn’t shout at people to make them work harder and that “buy-in” is way more important. I like a loose set not something that resembles a military operation, and I know that if you shout at me the last thing I’m going to do is work hard for you. That doesn’t mean that being a “hard-ass” is wrong and from my experience the people with “hard-ass” reputations do work harder and use their own exacting standards on themselves, I just see that the two styles are in direct contrast with each other and don’t dovetail well* (*at all).
This is totally on me as I didn’t do my homework and make the calls needed to find out what people would be like on set. I built a bad team. Lesson learned for next time.
The other thing which has become apparent in the interceding time, mainly as a result of last week’s pick up/ reshoot night, was that we had too many people on set. The crew was too big. Of course I sought advice from people while crewing up - but in hindsight we could have lost about 5 crew without any discernible difference, except the positive one of streamlining the crew.
Having the right blend of personalities I think is the most important lesson to take from this, which reminds me how not only did we break Lucas' rule - but also that in doing so we broke FNA's number one rule: "We don't want the best person for a role if they don't have the personality to fit with our team." - FNA4Life and all that.
2. Do Your Homework
You don't always have to do storyboards. Lots of filmmakers don't. You don't even necessarily need a shot list. Or a script. But, dammit, you have to know your story. You have to know what you want and how to get it. Otherwise, you're just floundering around on set. It looks weak. And when you look weak, the sharks will find you. And when the sharks find you, I write that shit down.
James (full disclosure - my partner as well as the writer/ director) always knows his project, he knew where the problems were likely to come from ie the actors (we had two non actors in the leads) and so wanted to spend as much time as possible concentrating on the performances. This meant a LOT of work fell on the AD and DoP, this had been planned and okayed by the DoP and the AD - with meetings and Skypes in advance to let them know what was needed shot-wise so James could devote most of his time on-set to rehearsing the cast. Unfortunately this didn’t really work out the way it was supposed to, maybe because they didn’t have big/ experienced enough departments to deal with it properly.
What surprised me most was that when we started floundering people didn’t tell me (and I was there or thereabouts most of the time). This meant that often people made mistakes (it’s okay, we all do) which meant people started to not trust each other - which is where the problems become huge! TRUST is a massive part of teamwork. We had three “factions” (I use the term loosely - cause it wasn’t “that bad”) and none of them really trusted each other - mainly because they had all seen the mistakes the others made, which created this lack of faith. The thing is everyone makes mistakes - and believe me on our shoot EVERYONE did make mistakes, the key for me though is to acknowledge your own failings and admit to them rather than covering them up and pointing the finger! At the end of the day it was/ is mine and James’ film and mine and James’ money on the line - if we aren’t stressing and blowing a gasket at every given opportunity why should anyone else? Life and by extension filmmaking is basically a series of problems - how you deal with those problems says more about you than you could ever imagine! CLUE: Moaning and blaming other people doesn’t make the problem go away.
Then there are the unexpected problems (that come from using non-professional actors) we were using one of the actor’s cars as the action vehicle. We had been told we could use it on the Saturday and Sunday (Day 1 and Day 2) but not during the week as his wife needed it. We built a lot of the schedule around the availability of the car. The actor turned up to his costume fitting the day before we started and said we couldn’t use the car on the Sat and Sun but we could use it during the week! This of course fucked the schedule before we started and that was the root cause of a ton of the hassle. In fairness to the actor (as a non pro) he had no idea that this simple switcheroo with his wife could have such a massive impact on everything else!
Preparation is key in all of this, of course, and really condensing prep into a few short weeks maybe was a dumbass thing to do - but as they say sometimes you have to seize the day, and I seriously believe if we hadn't shot The Stagg Do when we did then FNA would still be waiting to shoot their first feature. We took a lot of risks on this project, some worked and a few backfired - but you know what they say: "Fortune favours the brave."
3. Feed People
Seriously. Fucking feed people. There should be a craft services table with healthy snacks on it. And meals. Real meals. On-time. If you're shooting on location and the crew lives on location, then you are responsible for all 3 meals. A hungry crew is a grumpy crew. It takes very little to turn a grumpy crew into an angry crew. You don't want an angry crew.
As for beer: wrap beers are a good idea. On-set beers are a bad idea.
Catering was always going to be a nightmare on this, not so much from a budget point of view but from a logistical one, as we were in the middle of nowhere, on night shoots. The three days I had left myself to plan catering got swallowed by replacing the sound department (the recordist broke his hand just before the shoot). I think for two days the food was sandwiches - which is shit and for that I hold my hands up and apologise, it wasn’t good enough. We did have a barbecue on one day though and fresh fish and chips on another - so it wasn’t all bad! Beer? On-set beer was a feature, not one I was particularly happy about - but I can see both sides. And because of how the schedule worked out we kind of had two wrap parties, which for me personally made up for a lot of the shit that we’d gone through.
Yeah I should've leaned even heavier on my mate Dawn - she could've and would've catered the whole thing under budget, but as most of the crew were staying in her house I felt asking another favour would have been taking the piss. But lesson learned: "Shy bairns get ne sweets." aka "The crew of shy producers get crap food."
4. Call Sheet
The crew should have a call sheet before they wrap for the night. At bare minimum, a call time that's clear to everyone. Don't assume word will get around. People like to know if they have to be up at 6am or 10am before they decide if they want to start drinking.
But, seriously, a call sheet should have more information than you think it needs. The schedule. The scenes to be shot. The weather. Directions to crew parking. The crew is going to carry it around all day, so give them all the information they need.
Our schedule snafus caused by the car situation meant that we were rescheduling on the fly for the first three or four days, this of course meant call sheets often didn’t arrive until midnight - and at least once I totally missed someone off the distribution list! Of course it didn’t help that in the midst of all this shit shovelling (which let’s face it, when things go spectacularly wrong - is what it is) that the cool heads didn’t always prevail and help head off other situations before they blew up; this turned a little snowball into a full blown avalanche! The last day, I did the callsheet - it was poo. Seriously poo.
Once the schedule goes tits up on the eve of principle photography you're always facing an uphill battle. Make sure your trenches are filled with people who are up for the fight.
Things will go wrong. The schedule will change. When it does, tell people. The people working on this film with you aren't your employees, they're your creative partners. Treat them as such. The crew probably knows before you do that you aren't going to make your day. What they don't know is how you're going to adjust. So keep them in the loop. If you know that you're going 3 hours over the scheduled wrap time, it's a good idea to get everyone else's buy-in. If they say "no", then they're the bad guys. If you don't ask, you're the bad guy.
Fortunately this wasn’t a major issue for us as our schedule was dictated by the light. We shot when it was dark and stopped at sun up. Having said that I do think on set communication was a problem throughout, with people making decisions they shouldn’t and then not even feeding back to the director or producer! I guess if James or I had been hard-asses then that at least wouldn't have happened! LOL.
This one always makes me laugh more than any other - we are in the business of communication, yet too often as practitioners we forget this and bottle stuff up or think the jungle drums will pass the message on. Not true - be proactive and make sure the message is loud and clear.
You'll notice that none of these things have anything to do with your budget. Well, the food does, but if you don't have the budget to feed people, you should be making a smaller movie. This is almost entirely a list of things that involve organization or being a good boss. Management 101 stuff. And it's in your control, whether your budget is $1,000 or $1,000,000. And, really, if you can't do these things, you shouldn't be surprised when things fall apart. Because they probably will. And you definitely shouldn't be surprised when I write about your production being a disorganized clusterfuck, even if it doesn't seem like that to you.
But if you can handle that (and really, it's a pretty basic list), you shouldn't be all that worried. If you really do the work, I'm going to write about that. So man up (or woman up) and get on the schedule already.
Was our film disorganised? Definitely. Could it have been better organised? Probably. Was it a clusterfuck? It wouldn’t have been if everyone had been pulling in the same direction - ie if we had a team - rather than a dozen individuals all trying to protect their corner so they don’t lose face in front of Lucas.
Should you have Lucas on your set? Yes. Because if nothing else (and there is more - he works really hard and he knows his shit) having that fuck off big spotlight that he brings shows you ALL of the cracks in your organisation and helps you root out the crap - and that can only be a good thing in the long run. In the short term it’s the kind of catharsis that feels like a root canal however!
Of course having seen Lost In La Mancha and Hearts Of Darkness you can't always tell from the shoot how the film will turn out (or not!) - and at the end of the day if the film turns out okay or great nobody gives a fuck about the process! It's just a shame we didn't have someone recording our "behind the scenes" - it would've been a doozy!!!
So what is the overall lesson I've learned from all of this? Making films is bloody hard work, and people act/ react differently under pressure - but overall it's more like a lesson I've relearned: It's not rocket science and we are not saving lives. ENJOY.
Every now and then in my life I read about something and go - what an absolutely great idea... damn I wish I had it first!
When I first heard of A Year Without Rent, in January 2011, I immediately thought: This could be a superb project, what a great idea, stupid head why didn't you come up with this idea? In truth the current me would never have thought of this and even if I had, I could never have done it (two kids and a mortgage are kind of binding).
I know I was one of the early contributors - was trying for 13th and ended up being 12th! From that moment on, I thought well I might not be doing the whole "AYWR" thing - but it would be great to get Lucas here - let's hope we get Pissheads off the ground in time.
Fast forward to late April and Pob and James telling me they'd come up with an idea that we could film this Summer... They were pissed, as they often are after these meetings, and I immediately thought - yeah right, I'll humour them... "No, no - you don't get it - we've come up with the whole idea and we can film it for just about nothing." "Okay then" I said - "what's the 25 words or less pitch?" Pob raised his eyebrow as only he can and said "Pissheads go camping." That was it, three words that would change everything. Plans for the summer needed to be made - I KNEW we could do this.
You see, I had first come across Lucas on Twitter - he's one of the first people I followed and definitely the first "stranger filmmaker" with whom I connected. That was more about his love of the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots than anything to do with filmmaking. Generally I find filmmakers to be very solipsistic and self obsessed - here was a filmmaker, who like me, had interests beyond film! Anyway, I digress, Lucas was making a film called Up Country, set in rural Maine about a fishing trip that goes wrong, it was one of the first projects I backed on Kickstarter - so I knew someone had done it - ie made a film in a remote location that involves camping and fishing in under 10 days.
And that really was the most important consideration in deciding whether or not we should make The Stagg Do - could we shoot it in less than two weeks. You see trying to get people to give up their time for nothing is always difficult, and it's getting more and more difficult as everyone's cost of living is rocketing at the minute. People have mortgages or rent to pay, they have kids and pets to feed and all that real life stuff that has a great way of interrupting the important things - like making a film LOL. So once I'd had a brief Twitter chat with Lucas I felt confident that we could shoot the bulk of the film in that sort of window. Then I had to speak to Staggy to find out his availability so that I could block in the time and start fitting the pieces together. Once these bits of information had been looked at, we chose the prospective shooting dates which were 30.07.2011 - 7.08.2011 - this meant people with other jobs would only have to give up 5 weekdays of work. That's the problem with Pissheads - we need at least 18 days to shoot that film, which means people need to be paid for their time... I mean who can work for three weeks for no money in this day and age?
So the dates had been set and loose plans were beginning to formulate in my head - could I persuade my friends Chris and Deanna to let us film on their farm in Northumberland? That would give us two advantages over filming in the middle of nowhere: electricity and a toilet! Would I be able to get a decent crew together? There is so much filming happening in the North East at the moment that this proved easier said than done. This is where Jennifer our Assistant Director came into her own. I had met Jennifer the previous year at a seminar in London. I felt we got on really well and that she'd be a really good AD for The Stagg Do. AD has been a position we have struggled with since the start of FNA way back in 2002, so it was great to have someone onboard in whom I had complete confidence. On top of this Jennifer was going to bring with her a grip, a sound recordist and boom operator and a production designer. In many ways Jennifer's enthusiasm was instrumental in giving me the confidence to move the film forward. Which brings us back to Lucas and A Year Without Rent.
As soon as we decided that we could and would film The Stagg Do, I set about trying to work out how I could bring Lucas and AYWR to the UK to work on the film. His experience would be invaluable, the press would be useful and most importantly I wanted to meet the guy!
To give him his due, Lucas was up for it immediately, I didn't want to commit too soon as so much of the film was still up in the air, I knew once we had bought his ticket then that would be the point of no return!
I spent a lot of time discussing with James and Jennifer the best way to deploy Lucas's talents to help the production and after much deliberation we went with Jennifer's idea of having him gaffer. This proved a masterstroke - even though we had an American who was completely unfamiliar with British electricity in charge of the lighting department!
I'm sure Lucas brings a lot to any production he is involved in - he certainly proved a very valuable, knowledgeable and capable crew member for us. Some people may be reticent to have Lucas on their film because, as well as his talents, he also brings a fucking big spotlight to a film - as he covers A Year Without Rent and the productions he is involved with for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Threat and Film Courage as well as a number of other high profile filmy publications. Now after the shit he witnessed on our film (and believe me we had more than our fair share of crises) I could try and cover my ass and ask him to censor what he writes, I could pray to some deity that I don't believe in that he isn't too critical - but you know what, I won't. In the words of the inimitable Bill Belichick (whom I know we both admire) -- "It is what it is".
I would love our production to have been problem free, mainly because it would have cost less money and I wouldn't have quite so many grey hairs, but it wasn't and in many ways c'est la vie or it is what it is. You know, life is all about how we deal with problems. We can cry and get upset or moan about problems or we can confront them head on and try to solve them. I very much fall into the second camp. At the end of the day the important thing is ending up with a film that meets your expectations and at the minute - The Stagg Do does just that.
Onwards and upwards - oh and BOOK LUCAS on your film - you won't regret it - believe me and whether you book him or not, support A YEAR WITHOUT RENT, it's a great project that shows there is a decent side to the indie filmmaking community.
Will try our best to keep this busy during the shoot and post-production.