A demanding female film producer is just doing her job. Or is she? 2,949 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Four weeks into a six-week shoot, the crew was starting to drag. An iffy subplot was omitted due to uncooperative weather and the lack of a cover set, yet the production was still three days behind schedule and that was before yesterday’s disaster. It was a long hike up a steep hill shooting in the rugged sticks of New Mexico, and the supposedly trained horses, which Marie secured at a discount, had been spooked by the ginormous 12K HMI lights that sparked uncontrollably during last night’s downpour. Despite weather reports to the contrary, the rain turned into a flash flood that wiped out the corral still under construction and nearly cost a young carpenter his life.
The scorching morning sun sucked surface water from the muck and made the live trees croak and the dead ones reek. Slogging around ground zero of the production where they parked the honeywagons, trucks, and trailers, Marie’s head-to-toe cowgirl getup shielded her from the elements and proved why even the Indians eventually adopted the attire of their oppressors. She hitched up her Wranglers and adjusted the red cowboy kerchief that kept the grit off her face so she could better inhale the breeze that bugled the crew to attention. She needed to shake things up and the most efficient way to do that was to fire someone, eliminating a laggard and putting the rest of the crew on notice.
Marie considered getting rid of the young carpenter who didn’t follow the weather emergency protocol. The one she had communicated on the call sheet in great detail the first day of principal photography. But because he hadn’t been informed personally to leave the corral set, and since the set medic painstakingly nursed his abrasions while complimenting the injured party on his courage and commitment to the project, the young carpenter’s firing might be an invitation to a lawsuit Marie would rather avoid.
As the breakfast burritos were handed down from the catering truck, Marie confirmed the unwritten rule that Above-The-Line personnel could prioritize themselves without explanation. She cut in the front of the line and grabbed a burrito without sausage or bacon, scanning faces for the best candidate to can if anyone dare object to her power play. A few feet away at the craft services table, several crew members halted their small talk and stepped out of her way as Marie’s assistant, known affectionately as Little Marie, robotically handed her boss a cup of java with an extra kick of espresso. Marie inhaled the coffee before she stained it with a drop of low fat milk and took her first sip. She had had phone sex with Mr. Steve to relieve the tension of the night before, but like instant coffee that has no residual aroma, the tension remained.
Two strides from the door of his airstream, Marie spied the DP bent over, brushing his waist-long hair down before flinging his head back up as he ritualistically knotted his man bun. Even though he was on the opposite side of the lens, this cinematographer was a narcissistic ass if ever there was one, and worse, he had yet to use half the equipment he had insisted on ordering in prep. He wouldn’t make eye contact with Marie because he was still pissed at her after she publicly berated him for stalling in order to delay a pivotal scene to magic hour. Their tight shooting schedule would not accommodate such extravagance.
Marie glanced over to where the camera assistants were setting up the first shot of the day with the two Red Dragons that she mandated in order to make up for lost time, despite the DP’s feeble protest that he took this film as a favor to the producer and now she was out to ruin his lighting. That said, the DP was a pro who gave the film a consistent look, and that was more than Marie could say about the screenwriter who was undermining the director because he had yet to master the art of knowing when to talk and when not to talk to the actors. Still, Marie tolerated the screenwriter’s presence because she liked the fact that the actors started to use him, and not her, for backdoor communication with a novice director who was willfully ignoring his talent while deriving strength from his demonstration of tyranny.
The director was a last minute choice. He was an AFI fellow from South Africa who made a short that won the audience award at Slamdance. Marie lost all respect for him once she realized he couldn’t map successive sentences and communicate his vision to anyone. Every third word out of his mouth was either “basically” or worse, “kind of.” “Kind of” didn’t fit filmmaking as Marie knew it. Growing suspicious, she utilized her industry network and discovered that he had gamed the system and got his friends to commit voter fraud, the real reason his short swept the awards at the funky Sundance spinoff. But by now Marie didn’t see the benefit in handling the fallout of firing a director the foreign money had approved, so she made a deal that she would keep his Slamdance scam private if he voluntarily removed the egocentric “a film by” credit his CAA agent had strong-armed Marie for in his contract. How could a film ever be a film by one person? It wasn’t even shot on film.
Money for this non-union but SAG signatory production came from a German periodontist who wanted to cast his girlfriend in an American Western. Apparently, the idea of buxom Gerta getting in and out of the saddle turned Dr. Moritz on and, of course, it didn’t hurt that he owned the only Western Wear store west of the Rhine that stood to benefit if the movie did any European business. For her part, Gerta was actually a decent actress and was tolerated, if not admired, because #1) she didn’t linger in Hair and Make-up, #2) she wasn’t yet aware of the power actors can levy to control a set, #3) she didn’t shack up with the DP despite his countless overtures. Gerta’s fresh-off-the- boat accent added enough to her character that she could be forgiven for improvising, “I can’t verk in zeece environment!” after a horse crapped a foot from her face.
Marie squeezed the burrito so her final bite was more egg than tortilla. Little Marie handed her a napkin as Marie balled-up the remains of her breakfast, tossed it atop a dormant campfire, and then headed slowly to the set. Slowly, because the Tony Lama boots she bought for this adventure had given her blisters despite the bag balm she had Little Marie massage on them. She was on her second tin of Band-Aids before switching to the moleskin she taped daily over her bleeding heels. Swallowing her discomfort, Marie instinctively lengthened her stride, afraid that the crew might sense her vulnerability and take advantage of it.
Maybe this group of energetic young professionals was different. Even though they were shooting six-day weeks, the standard while on location, there was hardly any whining. Unusual because there were times when there was no hot water and so much chicken on the menu that Marie overheard the gaffer from Liverpool say he was starting to grow wings. Marie changed caterers after the first week when they delayed an afternoon start time by trying to cook pasta at an altitude too high to boil water, and then after a minor reprimand, switched to the same food that they supplied to the local prison, chow laced with enough saltpeter that a few of the young guys couldn’t get it up. Unfortunately, firing the caterer didn’t count when it came to shaking things up; it actually had the opposite effect since it could be misinterpreted as a reward.
The crew wasn’t getting paid much – $150 a day without overtime for 12 hours that usually turned out to be 15 – but it seemed the subject of this film – the adoption of Laotian kids by poor black farmers – had guided everyone’s behavior in a positive direction. Typical of an indie low budget movie, most of Marie’s crew were trading money for credits, hoping that on future productions, while still nursing the dream of auteurs, they could get paid handsomely for the Below-The-Line work that paid the bills. Indie filmmaking resembled a religion that promises eternal bliss in exchange for compliance in the present.
The New Mexico days were hot and the nights were cold. There were even cast and crew sing-a-longs around the campfire and half of these young’uns were, by now, sleeping with each other. Apparently, the crew subscribed to the “300 mile rule” which said that if you were more than 300 miles from home you could be forgiven for being unfaithful to your loved one. When Marie started in the business twenty years ago, it was the 500 mile rule but things got lax with the proliferation of digital technology and low budget features that made it easier for less talented people to saturate the market with films that never found distribution.
Marie pretended not to notice the hook-ups but she found herself musing more about the crew couplings than was healthy. It had become a necessary diversion that had replaced her addiction to the local TV news in L.A. that she hated but watched anyway for the sense of community it gave her. And she occasionally acted the part of matchmaker by complimenting a person in front of a prospective mate. Since a compliment by Marie was a rare occurrence, it worked more often than not.
The unquestioned power on the set, Marie wouldn’t dare expose herself to any romantic entanglements. Still, she occasionally endured macho men flirting in code because Marie, who was frequently mistaken for Kristen Stewart, wasn’t that much past her prime. Only two decades before, she was runner-up for Best Looking in her high school graduating class. She found that out because a fellow cheerleader tabulated the votes, and getting that inside info foretold her meteoric rise to film producer.
Marie didn’t have to worry about being faithful because she was in-between serious relationships. The period between college and middle age blurred for people in the entertainment business, allowing for a perpetual state of youth, Hollywood best being described as high school with money. Marie had two guys in L.A. she could sleep with if she was in the mood and, of course, neither knew the other existed. These hunks were projects in development, not unlike the projects Marie had attached herself to, knowing few would ever come to fruition, and yet if one was actually greenlit, it was not necessarily the one she was most passionate about. And then there was Mr. Steve, the landscape architect, who pretended that their twice a month dating routine was prelude to more. Since sacrifices and compromises were part of the DNA of filmmaking, Marie felt she was just treading water with this greensman. Mr. Steve was definitely not a passion project, and she scheduled him accordingly, hence last night’s phone sex that was forgotten the moment she hung up. Okay, for the last six months it was a subspecies of the committed relationship, enough so that she accompanied him to his sister’s wedding. But Marie, who prided herself in seeing the Big Picture knew it wouldn’t last, at least that’s what she told herself since Mr. Steve was not in the film business and she knew how that played out.
“You’re going away for five months, and you tell me the day before you leave?”
Her bored stare answered, “How could I tell you before now if the film was just greenlit this morning?”
Marie always found the emotionally transparent guys that wanted to measure where they were at in a relationship. She was the dominant one, but after a break-up Marie was also the one who typically got hurt and stayed hurt. She took a long time to get over her break-ups because she felt more after they were over, than when they were in mid-stream. She couldn’t be vulnerable during the relationship but she obsessed on her memories, moments she could selectively revisit but not control.
“Anybody who falls in love with you will be lonely,” said the one ex-boyfriend who just happened to be from Wisconsin.
Marie eventually realized she was actually experiencing life in playback, and it mattered less that her memories were painful because maybe that was the point. A bit like when she went to one of her premieres and the final film couldn’t compete with Marie’s remembrance of the residual drama associated with the process of creating it.
Eventually, Marie labeled herself “damaged goods” because she had taught herself to put her own feelings in second position to whatever she was being paid to accomplish.
“I’m so smart because I’m so dumb,” she blurted, before abruptly walking out of her final meeting with her feminist therapist who felt that Marie, who had just turned 38, was pining for a reliable relationship, if not a family, even though that contradicted many of the more progressive ideas the therapist sketched during their first seven sessions.
“Cut!” yelled the director when a cloud blanketed the sun, spoiling a take where the horse and the kid for once performed perfectly. The set quieted as the crew reset, waiting for the smartphone app clapboard to signal the next take.
“How did I get here?” thought Marie, as she shifted weight to the boot that held the foot with fewer blisters. She had moved to L.A. sight unseen and slept on her aunt’s couch for six months. Marie suddenly was just another pretty face, almost as if a 9 in Wisconsin automatically became just a 7 in Hollywood. Still, before she became a full-fledged producer, she had had an affair on most every one of her location films back when she didn’t know a best boy from a key grip. Soon enough she memorized film vernacular – ADR, MOS, apple box, the Abby Singer shot, gaffer, Foley – learning that a seasoned crew will toss around arcane terms in order to manipulate untested producers. It was kind of like a plumber ordering unidentifiable replacement parts in front of a befuddled homeowner who gladly pays for anything that will stop the toilet from running.
Like many young filmmakers, Marie came west to direct but when she took her first job as a PA she found out how good she was at organizing others. And unlike a lot of novices on the set, she was smart enough not to put them on pedestals, but rather service their needs professionally even if it meant occasionally pointing out they had food stuck between their teeth.
Marie’s midwestern straightforwardness was quickly in demand. She became an expert on how to guesstimate how much time something would take and became famous for adding two days to the shoot after scanning the production board. No matter how well things were planned a producer would eventually have to shoot from the hip and solve problems on the fly, even if it meant firing someone.
While some producers were best at interfacing with agents, managers, publicists, studios and the like, Marie, an adrenaline junkie, liked the action on the set. Marie had already integrated last night’s incomplete scene into the new production schedule by changing it from night to day. Marie knew how to make it happen. There is no academic training for this skill set yet Marie did it better than almost anyone, probably because she came from a big family where mistakes were made, territory overrun, and slights quickly forgiven.
While she roamed the set looking for a petty offender to guillotine, Marie channeled her father who was a middle school Vice Principal. She knew how to pretend to be tougher than she was, though she was a mediocre actress the few times she had to appear on camera in some of the ultra low budget films as a last minute replacement for an actress no-show or a director’s sudden creative outburst. Marie was always typecast as the female heavy.
Marie understood that kicking ass from the top down produced results. It’s what got her her first producer credit after only two years in the business. In fact, the very first time she produced a film she printed the word “PRODUCER” on the binder of her script as a reminder of the role she was playing. “I don’t pretend to be myself. I’m a version of myself,” she once told her mother. “I become an actor when I produce.”
Marie’s real turning point came when, as a lowly associate producer, she caught the Second 2nd A.D. covering his ass with a lie about something he posted on social media. It was gossip about one of the actresses and it had upset a high-strung, aging star to the point that she refused to leave her trailer. When the Second 2nd ignored Marie’s order to remove the post, she surprised herself by going nose-to-nose.
“Get the fuck out of my face, little lady!” he shouted, flexing his muscles to his fellow crew.
Marie not only held her ground, she clenched her right fist, then quietly but firmly said, “You have two choices: First, I’m going to pop you right here, right now, if you don’t remove it immediately. If the rest of the crew sees me whip your ass, you’re finished. Second, in the event you fight back, you still lose because you’re twice my size and I’m a skinny chick. Your move, asshole.” That was the birth of Badass Marie.
Part Two tomorrow