Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rather Have Nothin' Than Settle for Less

I took a "pitch" class in film school and one of my classmates asked a working producer the following question:  "How do you get hired to write the crappy movies?  Y'know the ones I mean." 

Everyone in the class knew the ones she meant, but we were too stunned to laugh, and the producer looked as if she'd booted him square in the groin.  Because nobody sets out to make a crappy movie.  Okay, maybe there are a couple huckster-hipsters too meta and cool for sincerity, but setting them aside, even seemingly silly trivial offerings require hard-earned dough and staunch human effort to create.  

Even the stinkers you love to hate taxed their budgets, talent and crew to their limits. 

Give you an example -- I got to work one day (or night, as it was a night shoot) on a short "action" movie.  This was a paid gig.  Let me say that again, because when you work in film and television, you often (read "almost always") work for free (read "get paid in day-old bagels") for a while (read "seemingly forever.").  This was a P.A.I.D. gig!  I got $25 for fourteen hours' work.  And I was thrilled.

The film-makers (writer, director, and producers) were real martial artists -- the kind who can kill you six different ways with a cotton swab or their thumb -- and they were fed up with "crappy" martial arts movies.  They pooled their money into a significant budget to "do it right."  They chose the First Street Bridge in Los Angeles for the setting, which has an interesting look and a lot of history and character, etc.  The "actors" were real martial artists doing real martial arts.  They got themselves a real film crew (most working for free or for cheap, or for deferred payment--which means you never get paid), and high-end industry standard equipment by the truck-load, not to mention the permits and police they got to control and redirect traffic...

They had everything they needed -- except the right frame of mind.  Like many eager critics on the audience side of the LCD, they thought the difference between "crappy" movies they hated and their film was a lack of sincerity.  Like my classmate, they assumed "crappy" productions are lazy half-efforts.  They didn't realize even "crappy" shows require significant coordination and precision to shoot or how much sheer work it takes to get one of these suckers from concept through final mix to delivery.

Their "fight" choreography was very real, but it didn't look real or even dynamic because of how they were shooting it.  Just as Howard Hughes learned he needed clouds in the sky to make his airplanes look like they were flying fast, these martial artists learned that what the performer does and what the camera sees are not the same things.  Then they learned about logistics as time was lost shuttling people two miles to the nearest bathrooms, and crew efficiency dropped off because coffee and food were a half-mile walk under the bridge.  Priorities were off, too, as they obsessed for nine hours over the first two shots and then had to rush the next thirty or so as dawn began changing the light with every passing second, which meant the entire scene would be virtually impossible to edit together.  
Sure, this was a "semi-professional" set, but even big budget monsters suffer similar ills.  Remember Ishtar?  Oh, no, you probably don't -- most people wouldn't, and almost no-one watched it.  But at least it cost a lot of money.  (Actually, it's one of my favorites -- 'cause I'd "rather have nothin' than settle for less!")

Almost everyone who worked arrived on set after working some other full-time job.  Exhausted, cold and hungry, ankles often crossed to keep from peeing, we didn't come close to what we hoped to accomplish.  And the crazy part is, we all eagerly did it again for the next shoot, and the next, and the next...

Next time you set snacks aside and hit pause on some "crappy show" for a potty break, take a moment to remember the poor sods who helped create it, and be kind.


  1. Interesting look from the other side. I have been studying martial arts for more than 20 years and always puzzled over the poor quality of video. It seems we just don't know any better. :)

  2. I think the real question is, "how does a film like that get distribution at all?"