Future Man: Actors as Directors–Sometimes it works

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On occasion, I am privy to things in the course of my day job working as an on-set medic. I am the fly on the wall on film and television sets, there in case something bad happens, but, more often than not, just handing out Advil and Band Aids. This situation affords me the opportunity to observe multiple aspects of production life that most people don’t get to witness. I’ll not be getting into any deep, dark secrets or juicy gossip here (we all sign hefty non-disclosure agreements before every shoot), but having recently worked on a show with a well-known actor directing, I did want to give credit where credit is due.

Most people know Seth Rogen as a jolly, bearded stoner guy from myriad comedies. His laugh and voice are unmistakable, and his delivery is unique. Less-known (the joy of being behind-the-scenes) is his writing/producing/directing partner, Evan Goldberg, a childhood friend with whom he has worked for years. Superbad? He wrote it. Sausage Party? Likewise. The guy has pretty substantial comedy chops, is my point. When these two work together, it’s a rare situation where the separate elements of a team truly do function as a complementary unit.danny-mcbride-evan-goldberg-seth-rogen

The other day I was called to cover a few shifts on the upcoming Hulu show Future Man, a comedy starring Josh Hutcherson as a janitor and world-class gamer who is chosen by mysterious beings to travel through time to prevent mankind’s extinction. I’d never heard of it (there is always something new in the works in LA) but from what I saw in my short stint on the show, it looks to be damn funny, with awesome action to boot. And that’s what I wanted to discuss.

A lot of actors and writers with a track record in those areas are given directing gigs as appeals to their vanity, but with no real skill or experience in that role backing the decision. thumbnail-cdeab255fd2375819b7c0ffd286c57b4When that happens, more often than not, the director of photography steps in and does the heavy lifting while the neophyte director sits back and takes the credit.

This was not the case with Seth and Evan.

I cannot tell you (okay, I can, since I am writing this after all) how refreshing it was to witness such a smoothly-functioning team. This was an instance where both individuals worked in symbiosis, effortlessly communicating tweaks and adjustments to actors and department heads as needed, and all while getting a metric shit-ton of work done. For those in the industry, I’ll say this: 48 setups in a day. With action. With stunts. With effects. With kids. With a technocrane. For those not in the industry, here’s a translation: Holy shit that’s a lot of work crammed into a day.Screen Shot 2017-06-29 at 6.32.40 AM

When a director knows what they want, can clearly explain what they need, and has the confidence to move on after a single take if they got their shot… well, it’s a beautiful thing. Seth and Evan accomplished that with style, and it was amazing to see. I’ve been in the industry a long time, and let me tell you, it’s rare to see this efficiency. What made it stand out was the utter confidence in their vision, as well as faith in their team. DP Cort Fey and his camera team (awesome folks with whom I worked previously on The Last Ship) are rock stars, and the communication and trust on display was a master class in how you’d like to see directors, actors, and camera all fit together like a well-tuned engine.

Complex action shots were nailed in one take. Not only because the talent and crew achieving them were skilled (they most certainly are), but also because Seth and Evan knew when they got what they needed. None of the dreaded time and morale killing phrases like, “Great, one more!” Or, “Perfect! One more for safety!” No. When they got it, they moved on to the next shot. A sign of a confident director, and quite a contrast from those who waste buckets of money shooting twenty takes of every size and every angle just because they don’t know what they want/need. It’s enough to drive any editor mad.eiseinstein_1928_editing_octoberAnd let me tell ya, I’ve seen the worst of that first-hand on other gigs. Like the unnamed showrunner who can write and produce, but certainly not direct (though his staff would never tell him even as he went $250k over budget in a single day.) Or the music video director given a feature… only to work the crew to death with his indecisiveness as he literally played other directors’ films on his laptop behind the camera to try to copy shots as he went.

To Seth and Evan I must give massive kudos. kudos-barThey seem like really quality dudes who also happen to be rock-solid in their behind-the-lens skills. As a crewmember who has seen a lot, working with such positive energy people who were also really good at what they do… well, despite the long hours, it was an absolute joy. That goofy stoner dude is a really good director. Who knew?

Now go see Future Man when it comes out later this year. It looks like it’ll be a blast, and I say that as a guy with zero fucks to give when it comes to critique. I have no horse in this race, it just looks like a cool show. I hope they prove me right.

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7 Simple Ways to Cut Film Production Costs

Lasso horse money

If you’ve worked on a show, you’ve likely seen financial waste of varying degrees, from minor wobbles to downright trainwrecks. While sometimes sh*t happens and production just has to deal with it and carry on, more often than not a lot of terrible budget-suck can be avoided. Here are a few tips that apply to many situations (keeping in mind there is no one-size-fits-all method). Paying attention to a few key details can help on your quest to make a good product while staying within budget.

  1. Reign in your director.

Framed

Now the director makes the piece what it is, be it a feature film or a 30 second TV spot. Without them you don’t get your project completed, but that doesn’t mean giving them free reign. Everyone who’s worked more than a day in the industry has likely heard the term “Adult Supervision” muttered around an uncontrolled set, and let me tell you, it’s incredibly important if you want to keep runaway production costs from spiraling out of control.

Producers are there to say no. Someone must wear the black hat. Not always mind you, but their job is to look out for the good of the project and play bad cop when need be. At hour 17 when a director is on his 35th take of an insert shot that could be picked up by 2nd unit, that’s an easy example of when a producer must pull the plug. Unfortunately people want to be liked and often are reluctant to be that guy, but if you put on the producer hat, you have to accept that some days you won’t be terribly liked. Suck it up and keep your project (and budget) on track.

  1. Reign in rampaging actors (when possible).

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Ok, actors are a unique bunch. Folks make fun of them, but when you really consider what they must do to put on a good performance, a bit of flexibility is warranted. I mean let’s not forget Lawrence Fishburn and Hugo Weaving’s epic fight in The Matrix. Even after 16+ hours, bangs & bruises, and horrible allergies from all the dust, they acted like pros and made the fight look amazing.

Here’s the but. BUT, everything is on a schedule and every extra minute spent on something that should be otherwise completed is costing the production money. Be it demanding frivolous alternate takes, or refusing to come out of the trailer while the whole crew is standing around waiting, once again it is the producer’s job to play bad cop, albeit with kid gloves more often than not. I should also mention that I wholeheartedly support shooting extra takes when an actor has interpretations of scenes they want to try, so long as it really may add to the scene and won’t cost the production tens of thousands in overages in the process..

One notable exception to this is when the actor is also the financier. I once worked on a ridiculous film where come shooting call we were looking for the lead. “Ready to shoot” the AD said. “Oh, he went to Texas to do a concert.” Yep, the talent/financier left and didn’t tell anyone. “Ok, we’ll shoot the other parts of the scenes.” “Um, those were all his posse… they went with him.” A quandry, but not insurmountable. “Ok, we’ll shoot the actor who isn’t in his crew.” “Yeah, about that, he heard they were going to Texas, so he flew to Ohio.”

It was the only time I got paid to sit and play Scrabble on set for 8 hours as production tried to figure out literally anything they could shoot. In the end it was one POV shot of someone’s boots… worn by the producer.

  1. Plan ahead. For real, DO THIS.

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Showing up and winging it may work on a student film, but if every minute costs hundreds or thousands of dollars, you’d better damn well know what you’re doing next. This is where pre-production is vital, as is location scouting with the director and their keys. A little forethought can save you literally hours of paying a crew to stand twiddling their thumbs on the clock while ideas are bounced around.

The time for brainstorming is before you have the crew on the clock. I’ve worked with directors who will change their shots for that day’s work, but there are two types. There’s the type who torpedoes the schedule and budget in doing so, and there’s the type who knows that they want to make changes and shows up early, walking the sets and planning their changes before the crew is even ready. The latter is a sign of professionalism, and trust me the crew notices these things.

Remember the 6 P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”

  1. Find ways to reduce needless complexity.

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A lengthy scene with 6 people can eat up your whole day, but can some of those characters not be in the scene? Can their dialogue be spoken by another character, thus reducing the number of shots and coverage needed? Can they be out of the room, perhaps even answering from off screen? What can you do to keep the integrity of the scene while reducing its complexity and schedule demands?

Coverage can be death in crowded scenes. If you start doing multiple coverage angles at multiple sizes for multiple characters, pretty soon you’ll not only burn through most of the day shooting the same scene over and over, but you’ll also eventually start to burn your actors out as well. Now sometimes it must be done, and everyone appreciates and understands that, but when it is frivolous, all it does is burn time, money, and patience.

  1. Do not shoot multiple masters.

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Want to piss off your actors and crew, waste time, and look like an amateur? Shoot hours of multiple masters from multiple angles before moving in to coverage. The master should be just that, a master, from which you then get into the meat of the scene with coverage. Shooting multiple masters screams out “I didn’t plan this and am winging it!” Don’t be that person. If you’re truly making it up as you go, the crew and actors will know, and they will lose respect for you eventually. Even if the end result is amazing, you can’t do it often. It is morale killing to spend a 15 hour day on set that could have been 10 just because someone was indecisive and unprepared.

  1. Keep dolly and crane shots within reason.

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Giving a director toys to play with can produce some amazing shots, but it can also cost the production tens of thousands in overages. This comes back to the idea of planning out your day. If you have a dolly shot planned for the morning and a crane shot for the afternoon, great, but if you have those tools and just start making things up it is going to derail your schedule faster than an Amtrak (sorry Amtrak).

This is where dialogue between the “Adults” (remember the term “Adult Supervision”?) and the director. Sometimes for a great bit of inspiration you have to suck it up and get the shot if it is truly worth it. A lot of amazing material has been filmed because of inspiration on the day. The key is knowing when to let them run with it and when to reign it in. Toys are fun to play with, but every dolly, crane, or drone shot requires a lot of time to set up. It’s tough, but this is where the producer must make judgment calls and hope their decision was the right one.

  1. Storyboard if you can afford it.

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Ok, I may be a bit biased, my cousin, Tony Liberatore, (not his board shown above) is an amazing storyboard artist who comes up with brilliant shots and transitions on the fly for some of the biggest films out there (Fast and Furious, Captain America, and many more). The thing is, a good storyboard artist will help a director approach the day with a concrete plan. A course of action. A visual map of what they MUST get that day. If they can get more, fantastic, but the storyboard really helps keep the production on track.

Paul Hunter is a music video director whose shoots I’ve worked on in the past, and let me tell you that man is meticulous in his storyboarding. Now we all know music video shoots are almost always ridiculously long days, but Paul is a rarity in that he not only gets every single shot on his boards, but once he has them he then gets additional shots he’s come up with if reasonable given the schedule. His work ethic is impressive, and it shows in the smoothness of his shoots. It’s also a big reason so many of us loved working with him, it’s always a pleasure working with a pro.

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Even if you forget everything you’ve just read, try to keep this one thought in your head: Whether you work on tiny productions or massive projects, every minute wasted is money wasted, and boy does it add up. Strive to make every minute count and you’ll not only save money, but will also most likely find your project will go smoother in nearly all respects.

Be sure to check out my Pulse articles on LinkedIn

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Screenwriters Must Always Follow The Rules! (Except When They Don’t)

Never give camera direction.

Don’t say “We see.”

Cut out those graphic descriptions.

Oh, and don’t forget to always use well-crafted sluglines.

These are just a few of the oft repeated rules spouted by bloggers, gurus, and countless “experts” the world over, but if you read some of the top scripts floating around out there, you’ll see these rules (and many others) ignored all the time. In fact a great deal of the “rule breakers” spurned so often online wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow amongst actual execs.

Take for example the recent film “The Imitation Game” by Graham Moore. In the first several pages he throws bolded sluglines out the window, opting instead for a very dynamic (if not conventional) style. Rather than traditional sluglines, here is what he wrote:

A CONSTABLE PHONES IN the robbery to headquarters —

— At headquarters, a RADIO GIRL transmits the information to the detectives on duty —

— And in London, a RADIO OPERATOR in a dark room far below Victoria Street TAKES DOWN AN URGENT MESSAGE —

— ON THE MESSAGE: Random letters. Gibberish. It’s ENCRYPTED.

The ENCRYPTED MESSAGE is handed to a CRYPTANALYST, who DECODES it —

— Before the MESSAGE is HANDED OFF and WHISKED through the dim hallways —

— Until it’s finally deposited on the desk of STEWART MENZIES, the Director of MI-6. British Secret Intelligence Services.

Menzies picks up the message: “Alan Turing has been robbed.”

EXT. ALAN TURNING’S HOUSE – MORNING

Another example comes from the Nightcrawler script. Once again, sluglines are eschewed for an unconventional (according to internet gurus at least) style. These breaks shift focus intentionally to what the writer wants the shot to be, but without giving explicit camera direction (though the writer was also the director). Even so, you very clearly see where the writing forces you to visualize the focal point of the images as you read. Take a gander:

PEOPLE

riding bikes and jogging and roller-blading in Venice where we find

LOU

sitting on wall … watching

A MAN

in a spandex bicycle outfit as he locks his racing bike, enters a juice store and

LOU

crosses … picks the bike lock and CUT TO

A PAWN SHOP

You get the idea. Now as I said, the screenwriter was also the director, so liberties are expected.

As far as the use of “We see” or other camera direction, everyone I’ve ever spoken with who actually works in the industry (as opposed to myriad online gurus and experts who are more often than not not making their living as writers) have said that if a script is well written and engaging, they really don’t care if there is camera direction. The point is to tell a good story, and if you’re doing your job as a writer the story should be so enthralling that they don’t even stop to notice visual cues and direction.

This is one of the interesting elements (in my opinion) of the online world of experts and coaches. I wonder how many people have changed their dynamic and engaging reads on the advice of people whose credentials are minimal at best. There are literally thousands of writers who have completed scores of screenplays, but the act of writing a body of work alone should not be enough to give anyone the title of expert. Of course there are those who are like great coaches, perhaps not able to do it themselves, but possessing a keen eye towards improving other people’s creations. An old friend of mine is this way. She’s a lawyer by trade, a stage actress by hobby, and is utterly amazing at picking apart a story and finding strengths and weaknesses. She is also the first to say that she can’t write worth a damn, but she can edit with the best of them.

The takeaway from this all is these rules aren’t rules at all, but rather suggestions or guidelines. Do what you need to do to make your story flow. Just remember that if you do venture outside of conventional style, make sure you do it elegantly and effectively. You can get away with just about anything if you do it really well.