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Notes from Overboard: Gift Horse

Notes from Overboard: Gift Horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was a little confused and at this point a little tired of his narcoleptic moping. “Are you saying you’re returning the $80,000 I convinced my producers to pay you?”

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

The music began sounding more and more like it was written by a suicidal junkie nodding out at the piano. Three weeks later, just after the final mix, I realized I had to jettison Devlin’s entire score. The film shut down for two months while my original composer re-scored the film for almost nothing. If someone ever uses this “gift” phrase to you, I’d appreciate it if you slapped them for me. Their contribution is not a gift to you but an equal collaboration that benefits you both. If they don’t understand that fire them immediately.

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

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

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

Suddenly Jennifer came running up holding the hand of a young African-American girl who’d been watching us shooting. Jennifer had asked her to try on Ricky’s costume–jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt–which all fit her perfectly. I quickly changed the shot so it would only shoot her from the waist down. The crew threw the lights back up. Everybody was yelling, racing against the clock. I showed the young girl where she needed to walk and screamed ‘Action!’
She was so caught up in our mad frenzy she literally ran through the set like a startled rabbit. I called her back, apologized and calmly explained that she needed to go much slower. This was hard for me because I was fighting a fierce spasm of exhausted hilarity. The next take was perfect and we made it out just in time. We paid the girl and I thanked her so profusely I know she thought I was insane.

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

Tom DiCillo made his debut as a writer-director with 1991’s Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy and Delirious followed. When You’re Strange, his documentary on The Doors, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. For more information on DiCillo and his work, visit www.tomdicillo.com.

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