Monday, September 21, 2009

The Crew; And how they work

Part of the time spent at this point of the project besides making calls to investors and waiting for calls from investors (or anybody) is to begin to look at the film crew, the 30-40 people who will be working for us (and sometimes against us) for at least 5 weeks, and some like the editing department will be with us for 4 months.

This "crew shot", taken on one of the last days of Season 2 was for a TV series I worked on years ago, if you click on the pic, you can see me top right just above my name (left of glasses guy)and Chris Haddock on the left top.  It was allegedly a family show, but Chris, who created and produced the show, and I would write heavier film noir themes and plots, where there wasn't necessarily a happy ending.  Chris and I worked well together, even through some great heated discussions that usually ended in going to lunch together.

We got away with it on Season 2, but ultimately the network wised to us and it was canceled.  You'll also notice Stuart Margolin just below the middle, with the series star on his lap. Stuart is a legendary character actor and his resume reads like the history of movies.  He also taught me a lot about working with actors.

One of the things you notice is that we're scattered pretty much all over the room, except for the customary principal actors around Stuart, a boy and girl, an African-Canadian woman and the blonde lead on his lap.  In fact Chris and I were the ones who wrote all the episodes and guided the show through the season, and we're way at the back.  I guess it's sort of Canadian to not hog the camera. It's a pretty eclectic crew, all ages and sizes. 

These are the people who made the shows, one director is visible here, Anne, and the electricians, the grips, the gaffers, the production designers, the carpenters, the secretaries, the production manager, location manager, camera department, sound department, props, editors, teamsters and lots more. 

But now I'd like to go a little deeper into this seemingly happy little family. I once worked with an exploitation producer named Maurice who, when I was fussing about the people I wanted to hire on the crew, smiled at me and said, simply, "don't worry about crew, crew is shit." 

Okay... that's his opinion, plain and simple,  I thought. 

But it wasn't the first time I dealt with crew, and I knew perfectly well that the crew would often give their all to the director and producer, they would stand outside at night in the rain for one of my episodes and not complain, and they would work 16 hours, go home and sleep and then be up again at 5am.  But they could also shut you down at 6pm when you needed that one last shot that would make the day perfect.  Or they would ask for triple time. So crew is a conundrum. They can help you and they can kill you. 

There are at least two kinds of crew; union and non-union.  Union is obviously the most expensive, gaffers (electricians) can make upwards of $3000 wk, camerapeople can make $7-10,000 a week with O/T and other bonuses.  Non-union gaffers make usually $500-1000 wk and camera people maybe $1500 wk. Some make even less if the budget is low. Most crews are union, here and in Canada, but there are non-union crews as well. 

Crews are made up of departments, the art department handles building any sets, the camera department can have 10 people in it, but mostly 3 or 4.  Sound department is one soundman and a boomman, make-up department can be several people, hair is another, as is props, grips and gaffers and so it goes.  There is a peculiar work ethic that pervades each department. They usually stick together, have lunch together and go to parties together. 

Roddy McDowell, who starred in Planet of the Apes, once said that during the filming, the great apes ate separately from the gorillas (all humans in costume), so maybe this is a bonding thing. 

One of the worst places for the "above the line" creatives is what is known as the production meeting, and this is where politics begins to run rampant. It's all about being recognized for your special services. I think it comes from the actors (sometimes denegrated to being called "meat" as in "bring the meat in"), who come in and do their job and leave till they're needed again. That's what departments do.  But they all want you to know how important they are to making this movie.

I always referred to it as "crapping on the script". Since departments are mostly technical, they have little regard (and respect) for those "creative types" who always manage to be a constant thorn in their sides. They will object and protest to having to make a change in a set due to a sudden script rewrite that needs Ikea furniture rather than Craftsman, or that they don't have enough time to set up lights, and on and on, but somehow, at the end of the meeting, to show you how brilliant they really are -- they figure out how to do that impossible job. Always.

I usually get along with crew, and spend time talking to them, but one pet peeve I have, however, is their use of cell phones for calls, texts and twits and ask that they take personal calls during lunch or after work. 

At least I try. 

One group I always respect, are the teamsters, who are the rough and tough guys on the crew. They get up before everyone and go to bed later than everyone. They drive the vehicles, trucks, cars, whatever is required.  And they can mysteriously show up with a 1977 Camaro fender when you put the word out.  

Within one week.

Of course one teamster offered me my choice of illegal assault rifles he kept in the trunk of his car.  I cautiously declined.

But the crew, like all employees, is as good as the chief, and that's the producer.  The producer is the one who sets the pace and the mood,  he or she hires everybody, even the director most of the time.  And the crew is a reflection of the boss like every other job in the world.  If the producer is nice, the crew will be nice. 

(Next: The key creative jobs; breaking them down)


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  3. I have been enjoying the blog, Jim... but your remarks about crews have almost lost me. A bit two-dimensional for a writer of your calibre, if you don't mind my saying. Perhaps that has been your experience on the shows you have done but it certainly is not mine. It will also not bode well for you in trying to secure an experienced crew that can do a superior job and save you money on a low budget movie. That's when you need and will appreciate a real "CREW".

  4. Sorry you feel that way, I have worked with good crews and certainly do not agree with the producer's comments. But unfortunately no great crew is without it's bad seeds, as no employer can honestly say every employee is superior.

    I have worked with dozens of crews over my 30 years in the business and I assure you they have always felt I was on the side, most of the time anyways. When's the last time you worked in Vancouver, for example, where crews completely ignore the talent, talk on their cells to their business agent or girl friend while the camera is rolling.

    And this rolls around L.A. too, even the non-union crews.

    Sure, it's not all of them, but there certainly are a lot who just care about the money and the hell with those "creative types".

    I have worked with crews in Canada, the U.S., Luxembourg (you should see how arrogant the French crews are!) and Mexico. The best crews I've worked with were in Winnipeg Canada, mostly because they're young and they still are excited about making a movie.

    Unlike the Vancouver crews, jaded and couldn't care less. And of course, I don't mean all of them, but certainly enough to notice.

    As far as the meetings where they rip apart scripts, that happens a lot, most crew toss their scripts away the first day of shooting.

    While there are some crewmembers who do actually read the script, and I mean less than a handful, most crew are there for the money, unlike me, who will be deferring my producer salary so we can afford more crew, among other things.

    And you must know the jokes the crew have about us creative types, calling actors "meat" and how they can treat writers. Don't even get me started on that.

    Will I secure a good crew. Of course I will, there's no problem there, will some of them disappoint me, you bet they will.

  5. Dear Anonymous,
    it would be interesting should you care to share your name - unless of course, you think that would not bode well should you at some point need to work again? Yours was almost an objective comment, except for your "two-dimensional" writing dig. "Ad hoc ergo propter hoc" - ie; personal stabs and/or threats ('good luck securing a crew') are not arguments at all, but fall within the realm of personal attacks. Jim's comment on the other hand, remained professional and courteous. Think about it...

  6. Woah, Nicole... slow down missy! If you are looking for a Villain, you won't find one here. I am on Jim's side. I can only speak from my experience and Jim from his. I too have 30 years of experience with international crews... but at the end of the day you have to invest some faith.

  7. Since this is continuing, and you know everything about me. I don't mind it, part of the job.

    Just curious, what job do you do? You can email privately if you like?

  8. Also, I do have faith in my crew but not blind faith. It's a double-edged sword, no producer is perfect, no crew is perfect. And as you must know a film set is not a democracy otherwise films would never get finished.