MEDITATIONS ON AN EMERGENCY
A Producer’s Baptism by Fire
by IAFT’s Pete Wassell
When I first went to film school, I wanted to do what everyone wants to do—write and direct. I was going to be the next Tarantino or Spielberg. I was going to make big movies about small stories. Then, as I navigated the maze of my own interest and ability, I realized I wasn’t a director. The jury is still out on writer, but NOT director. I hated being on set and having everyone ask me what was next. I knew what I wanted, but didn’t know how to communicate it, and when I got what I wanted, I realized what I wanted was no good. I set my sights on producing.
Ah yes, producing…that hazy chasm between suit and artist. No one really knows what a Producer does. There’s 20 producers on every movie. Executive Producers, Line Producers, Associate Producers, Producers. I had no idea what any of these people did. I had seen them before, sequestered away on the fringes of set, sitting in little packs, laptops open, doing…nothing. At least that is what I thought when I was lugging 20-lb. sand bags up and down stairs all day, or stapling fake grass onto a wooden ramp at 3 in the morning. I hated those Producers. That’s the job I wanted: cushy, modern, young…cool.
So when my best friend and business partner came to me with a great script and asked me if I wanted to produce it, I said, “Absolutely.” Then I woke up the next day…and my world and my firmly held truths were shattered into a million pieces of porcelain terror.
Our film was going to cost money, and we didn’t have any. That was my first job. We were going to need a DP, Gaffer, Grips, AC, AD, 2nd AD, Script Supervisor, a Line Producer (I still didn’t what that person actually did) and a cast. The Director had written the script, he had storyboarded his movie, he was ready to inspire a crew and imprint his vision on a digital canvas. Oh yeah! We needed a camera, lenses, lights, locations, extras! That was my job. I realized, all at once, exactly why those Producers chilled on the sidelines with their laptops and bottles of water. Because they didn’t have to do anything else. They had hired me to carry those sandbags, and staple that fake grass, while fretting over the budget the whole time no doubt.
Producing is the hardest job on a film set, don’t let anyone tell you different. Many directors fancy themselves generals, preparing their troops for war. Well, if that’s the case, Producers are the treasury, and the lieutenants, and the colonels. Producers are the people that have to tell the general no, and have to deal with all the consequences. They are the ones who guard the money. The MONEY. Though I may sound like a cold-hearted capitalist, the truth is when you’re making an independent film, investors are shelling out money to YOU. It isn’t your money, it’s theirs, and you are the one who must guard over it and make sure it shows up on screen. If the movie fails, and these people lose their money, it’s not on the Director, it’s on YOU. Never forget that. Don’t let it scare you, instead let it fill you with a deep sense of respect and duty. You have a duty to these people and to yourself to make sure their money is spent in the best way possible.
So I raised the money from friends and family, which puts even more pressure on you. Though your family and friends would never wish that, the truth is that you care about their money way more than you would a rich stranger. These are your loved ones, and they probably don’t have much money—mine didn’t—but they believed in me and my Director, and so now not only was I the guardian of their pocket books, my own heart was invested.
This is a good thing. If you’re going to Produce a movie, you need to put it all on the line. Only then will you do what is necessary to see it through to the end.
The money was in the bank, so now I started setting up meetings. I used Mandy, Craigslist and some plain old name-dropping word of mouth to find our DP and our Gaffer who brought along his own grip. I found us the makeup woman, our Script Supervisor, a Line Producer (Now I know! He’s the watchdog of the budget and the paperwork), our PA crew, and I organized our auditions until we had our cast. We were ready to shoot.
Wait, where? I had to find locations. Two bars, a liquor store, an apartment. We needed to shoot driving sequences, a hotel room, and an outside restaurant. Normally you would get permits for all this shooting, but not us, we couldn’t afford it, and our guerilla style filmmaking made us feel young and cool and a bit dangerous. I got our locations, now we were ready to shoot.
We set our date. We had one last meeting, the Gaffer told me what he needed, as did the DP, the AC, and the Makeup/Wardrobe woman. I called the rental houses for expendables, gear, extra lighting needs, etc…and then we set up Day One.
The first day was great. Our first set-up was in an office, and it went off without a hitch. The crew worked well together, the actors were happy and things were moving quickly…SOUND! I totally forgot, I also had to find a sound guy. One more thing!…back to the shoot. Everything was going great. Then Day Two, we were shooting in my apartment, so that should be easy. No way. Efficiency went the way of the dinosaurs. We slowed waayyyyy down. It was no one’s fault, we just had a lot to shoot and not much time to shoot it. This was the beginning of the first emergency. We had to speed up, which meant we had to move things around. I spent a lot of sleepless nights going over the next day’s schedule with the 1st and 2nd ADs, both good friends of mine, and let me tell you, it put our friendship to the test on a few occasions.
Locations fell through. I woke up on the 9th day of shooting, and we were set for our first shot at a hardware store in South Bay. At the last minute I got a call from the owner saying the site wouldn’t be available. This couldn’t happen. We were already behind schedule, we couldn’t waste a whole day because our location wasn’t available, so starting at 6 a.m. I re-arranged the entire day’s schedule. Instead of the hardware store Interior/Exteriors, we were going to shoot an outdoor car wreck scene that was scheduled for 2 days from then.
I woke up in Hermosa Beach, hopped in the car and drove out past OC and set myself to finding a deserted road in the middle of nowhere. We needed a place where no cops went and where I knew we wouldn’t be bothered by anyone while we were crashing a car on the side of the road. While I was searching, I had my AD and Line Producer organize a parking lot scene that we could shoot instead of the hardware exteriors. Then I found the road. I can’t even remember the name of it, but it was in the middle of the desert, and it was going to work perfectly. I drove the 45 minutes back to base camp in South Bay and alerted the crew that we were headed to the desert. They were all at first skeptical…until we got there. The generator rumbled to life, the lights kicked on, we crashed MY car into the ditch and shot our scenes all night. I didn’t get to sleep until 6 the next morning.
That was the first time I felt like a Producer. I knew I had pulled that out, I had made something out of nothing, and that is what YOU will have to do when you embark on your own adventure as a first time Producer. It’s all about problem solving. It’s emergency after emergency, and you have to make immediate judgments as to their severity, and prioritize on the spot, then dictate to others what those priorities are and make sure they get it done, and you always save the biggest problem for yourself, because you can’t trust anyone else for that kind of stuff.
Producing that film was simultaneously the most fun, stressful, terrifying time of my life. I had no idea what I was doing, but that is honestly the best way.
Jump into deep water, let it overtake you, take in a couple gulps of salty terror, then fight your way to the top, poke your head above and take a deep satisfying breath, then make for shore. I promise you it will be the swim that you remember…and remember fondly.