The female producer busy with the film’s problems is about to be betrayed. Or is she? 3,655 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The first time Marie fired someone they actually deserved it. It was a prop man who, for some strange reason, repeatedly failed to show up with the right props on the day of a big set piece. There were no excuses because it wasn’t that difficult an assignment since most of the actors were playing well… filmmakers in a film within a film. Marie initially felt guilty because the man had kids but she ended up embracing him when he unexpectedly appeared and danced up a storm at the wrap party. She made him feel part of the group because Wisconsin Marie emerged from hibernation the second a film wrapped, jettisoning her signature on-set death stare which, by now, everyone on this New Mexico shoot had experienced at least once.
“Moving on!” yelled the 1st AD. Marie tracked her crew as they scrambled into vans and jumped on 4×4’s to get transported up to the next location. Marie had used the same 1st AD five times before but since he was originally attached to direct this script, she remained suspicious of some of his decisions regarding the shooting schedule. She believed that the assistant director, who always had to do what amounted to hours of homework after the Martini shot, had the hardest job on the set, besides her own. Would he undermine the production to get the director fired and himself promoted as a last second replacement to realize his directorial debut? Maybe, but his allegiance was to Marie, not to the director, and the inside info he shared with her was invaluable. She couldn’t pull that trigger.
The accountant annoyed her. The stereotype of the uptight, one-dimensional numbers man was not something Marie subscribed to after dealing with one years ago who deftly fleeced $275,000 from a budget. Marie disliked this guy although she wasn’t sure why. Still, he was universally disliked, and all crews focus their dislike on someone, so his firing would mean that the crew would waste time finding a new person to dislike, not to mention the fact that he had possession of all her petty cash receipts. He could have made Marie’s life miserable with an audit if she gave him a reason for revenge.
Shading her eyes from the mid-morning light, Marie began to wonder if she were looking to fire someone just to keep the tradition going. A thought that fifteen years ago would have depressed her, now gave her confidence. Was she over-compensating for her gender or had she just become someone who fed on the need to sacrifice an innocent to the filmmaking gods?
She scanned the faces as the crew was laying dolly track for the next camera set-up, although they were momentarily distracted by the flirtations of the leading man’s personal assistant. She was an obnoxious young thing in need of a lot of attention for someone who contributed next to nothing besides sex on demand to the male lead, which of course made her off limits. Marie was at least a little glad that this young PA kept the lead distracted enough that he wouldn’t have time to rewrite his dialogue just to stroke his own ego.
Then there was the grip from Texas with one lung or at least that’s the rumor Marie had heard from the boom operator who had complained about his lack of energy since Day 2 of the shoot. But it was this lethargical Texan’s first film and he had gotten the job by penning a six-page letter to Marie, complete with illustrations, begging her for work and declaring there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to get hired, reminding Marie of the letter she once wrote to Spielberg years earlier that was returned unopened. Nevertheless, Marie didn’t want to end his career before it even started, even though she knew he’d never be more than a dolly pusher after overhearing his lame critique of The Road Warrior in the chow line.
It was never easy to dump someone when one of Marie’s primary roles was to create a filmmaking family. Each morning she would send a listserv email to her crew which was simultaneously a critique of what they’d done and a pep rally for what they were about to tackle. And, to add a light touch, she would quote someone who said something nonsensical on the set the previous day. Today’s featured quote on the call sheet was the malaprop “Get out of me!” Marie had overheard this out of mouth of the frustrated Brazilian wardrobe assistant who yesterday couldn’t get her water bottle refilled fast enough, and when she did it contained backwash poured from someone else’s. Now everyone was walking around saying “Get out of me!” every two minutes and after 12 hours, it still hadn’t stopped being funny.
To her credit, Marie could take pseudo-intellectual film school grads who, typical of creatives, struggled to do things on time, and transition them into a set job. Marie knew they possessed talents that they themselves were unaware of, and that making them part of a team would temper their egos. Underpaid crew members were often rowdy and self-serving since most really wanted to write or direct, not pull cable. Yet, under Marie’s tutelage, the symbiosis of fifty strangers, creating something out of nothing, congealed into something almost… spiritual.
But if today’s problem was “Who to fire that doesn’t deserve it and no one will miss?” Marie wasn’t quite prepared for the devilish assignment she had invented for herself, for she knew firing the wrong person would be worse than firing no one at all. And she couldn’t wait too long or the effect would be counterproductive with only two weeks left in the schedule.
Marie stared at two side-by-side trailers that were positioned off camera. Hair & Make-up, along with Wardrobe were typically populated by the most sociable but least educated people on the set. Still, they formed tight bonds with the actors, and they were the last people the talent talked to before they came to set so they were not ideal options for firing. This far from L.A. they would be difficult to replace. Next.
Two hours after lunch, Marie stepped out of the van to approve the high plateau set. The rebuilt corral looked good, if a little quaint, but Marie knew it would photograph big and the DaVinci program could make the sky bluer in post after color correction. Other than fatigue, and clouds messing with the light, things were moving fairly well today as crew rehearsed a difficult focus pull before a take and took their last looks before cameras rolled. But Marie gagged when the covered wagon was wheeled on set with a canvas rain hood that had not been distressed. The art department was horribly understaffed, so firing some art school pothead would not be the smart move. Without consulting her boy wonder director, Marie ordered the art department to strip the virgin canvas from the wagon and stomp it to death in the dust, while she slid a scene planned for tomorrow into the schedule.
It was usually not this hard to find a reason to can someone on the eighteen features Marie had been credited, first as associate producer, then co-producer and finally the head honcho producer. In most conversations with a non-show biz person she found that she spent half her time explaining the differences in the relative producer titles that, in addition to the above, include executive producer and line producer, even though Marie was sure the interrogator would not be able to recall the distinctions. Kind of like listening to her sister’s husband, the NASA scientist, explain Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Marie could understand everything her brother-in-law said, but it would have been impossible for her to explain it to anyone else. And truth be told, even some people who make movies didn’t really know what producers did or why the producer deserved to pick up the Oscar for Best Picture. Feared more often than loved, Marie knew that the producers were the offensive line of filmmaking, most often noticed when they make mistakes. How weird was it that the most important and prestigious job was also the most misunderstood. One Thanksgiving back in Wisconsin when some family member asked a dumb question like, “Is the producer allowed to watch the filming?” Marie threw her hands in the air exclaiming, “There’s nothing I don’t see or hear about. My job is to know a little about a lot and a lot about a little.”
Yet if this post-modern Western succeeded, she knew everyone would underestimate her contribution, even though it was Marie who found the script, Marie who secured the money, and Marie who hired the crew. Hired and fired.
While a skeletal crew went down to the river to pick up some shots, Marie worried that the stream might be dangerous after last night’s downpour, but Little Marie reassured her that she had just scouted the location and it was reasonably safe. Marie trekked down to the river anyway, despite her blister. Not because she didn’t have faith in Little Marie’s judgment on such matters, but because she needed privacy. Every other day Marie would feel the urge to puke and relieve all the tensions that consumed her. And not a mild vomit but a fierce heaving that would wrench her stomach into a pretzel, four or five times in the space of three minutes. So she found a clearing with some rocks that nature had arranged like a shrunken Stonehenge, leaned over and puked three times. Marie stayed hidden for fifteen minutes, swallowed a mint, and then walked back to the high plateau set where they were setting up the next shot.
“Why is it taking so long?” she said aloud to no one. Little Marie started to answer before realizing any reply was unnecessary and unwelcomed.
Marie couldn’t shoot herself in the foot and send home Little Marie because she doubled as the production coordinator and that would give Marie more work she didn’t need. This young Irish lass from Boston was bonkers over the key grip and his handlebar mustache so Badass Marie – she would’ve immediately fired the first person who had the nerve to call her that – felt she had to let that romance play out, even though she knew Handlebar was married because she had once had a fling with him herself. Still, Marie kept hiring Handlebar the same way Queen Elizabeth kept an ex-lover in her court to remind herself she was married to England.
At first Marie took to Little Marie because she saw a lot of her younger self in this ambitious girl. But after three weeks of late night conversations, she knew Little Marie was the type who thought they had license to analyze every move, unlike most diffident young producers who remained tight-lipped to project an air of competence under pressure and, more importantly, stay in their lane.
The ex-rodeo cowboy Marie had hired to teach the actors how to lasso suddenly had difficulty lassoing anything himself when the cameras were rolling. Marie could axe him but then she would lose the horses, animals that were already established in earlier scenes. Once you get animals and kids on a set that’s subject to the vagaries of weather and other Acts of God, you have to get lucky, and Marie was feeling anything but. Filmmaking at any budget is a struggle because bigger budgets create as many problems as they solve, but this $750,000 period location film was particularly challenging. Three weeks ago when a distraught assistant walked into her trailer in tears because she felt her petty cash was stolen from her make-up box, Marie just repeated the concerns back to her, knowing the money would show up eventually because what thief was stupid enough to steal on Day One? And that was just Marie’s Day One.
Another motherfucking cloud, another ruined take. Marie thought about telling the DP to shoot in shadows and add fill light, but she uncharacteristically kept quiet.
Marie hovered behind the director in the video village that connected the braintrust to the A and B camera POVs. Long ago Marie had mastered the art of looking over someone’s shoulder without intruding on their space. During a take she normally limited herself to giving the director a single piece of advice, and always left the choice up to him/her if that advice was taken, as long as it didn’t mandate additional set-ups. But with this Slamdance Boy Wonder “I didn’t sign off on that” became her mantra. Marie momentarily forgot about firing someone as she nixed one of the director’s ideas for a super slo-mo close up of a trigger pull and relegated it to the list of shots the Stunt Man would pick up with Second Unit. If they found the time.
It would do no good to fire the assistant editor with bad teeth who was making a rare appearance on the set to request an insert that could allow the editor, who bragged repeatedly that he had done three films with Quentin, to make a bold cut in the editing room. The editor was the hardest A-T-L crew position for a producer to evaluate, since it was hard to know who was really making the tough creative choices in the editing room during the six months of post-production. Few crew members were even aware of the editors since they rarely emerged from their trailer during the light of day. Marie once explained filmmaking by comparing the production crew to marines overrunning an island in a month, and the post-production editors to librarians working indoors for half a year.
Spare the assistant editor, but a lowly PA with an attitude would be perfect for a public lynching, even though it wouldn’t have the same effect as sending a department head packing. Fuck it. Marie was becoming impatient. She decided to fire the next crew member who moved during a take.
But Marie got so fatigued solving storage issues for the DIT guy who data-dumped the day’s shoot, as well as a million unanticipated things that petitioned her attention, that she didn’t find the time to follow through on her promise to herself. She didn’t fire anyone and the rest of the day went exactly as planned, the crew in a groove knocking out pages.
The next day went even better as Marie omitted two scenes that were shoe leather – a screenwriter term for scenes that merely transfer the action from one place to another. While Little Marie complained about the amount of sun block that was being wasted, Marie found a cockroach in the fried banana lunch tray and hid it from view, questioning her earlier decision not to fire the replacement caterer with just two weeks to go.
Then it happened. The set PA misplaced the hood for the monitor that took the glare off the screen and allowed Marie and the director to see camera POV without light leaks with the sun full bore. Marie moved in for the kill. Twenty feet away the set P.A. was swimming on his stomach searching under the grip truck, his jeans having slid down so much Marie could see the crack in his ass. But before she pounced, Marie detoured to the transportation trailer because she wanted to first arrange the kid’s ride back to Albuquerque, eclipsing any opportunity for him to badmouth her to rest of the crew.
“Marie?” A familiar voice interrupted her thoughts, freezing her in place.
It was Mr. Steve, down on one knee. WTF! Mr. Steve had driven a quarter of the way across the country so he could make a dramatic marriage proposal that he reckoned Marie wouldn’t be able to turn down. But turn it down she did. Out of earshot of the crew, she crossed her arms and lectured Mr. Steve. “I don’t appreciate you showing up uninvited while I’m making decisions that affect millions of dollars and the lives of one hundred people.” Okay, she exaggerated the size of the budget and the crew, de rigueur of Hollywood low budget hits so as not to alienate a paying audience. And then she even revealed to Mr. Steve that she had had an affair with Handlebar mustache, conveniently omitting that that affair was decades earlier. Because Mr. Steve didn’t offer a rebuttal, Marie knew that she had made the right choice by saying “no.” Nevertheless, she now lost the will to fire the PA, especially after he found the misplaced hood and celebrated his good fortune with a primal scream, even though it ruined a take.
Of course, none of the above actually happened with Mr. Steve. Mr. Steve did not take a week off work and drive two days and 842 miles to surprise Marie. No, Mr. Steve did not show up on set. Rather, it was the German periodontist who was summoning Marie.
“Marie, ve need to talk.”
“Dr. Moritz, why didn’t you tell me you were coming,” Marie said softly, still in the throes of the Mr. Steve mirage and, like a good lawyer, knowing the answer to her question before she asked it.
“Marie, ve are three days behind. I am sure it’s not your fault, but I have to sacrifice you to make a point to the rest.” The periodontist had a way of talking to people as if he were hovering over them in a dentist chair and didn’t expect the patient to answer.
“You’re going to fire me?” Marie repeated without emotion, noticing he was looking at her teeth more than her eyes.
“I already did,” he said.
Marie felt bad and good at the same time. Bad because this was humiliating. Good because she never felt things while they were happening in real time and the mountaintops never looked better as the sun dipped over the periodontist’s shoulder.
Despite the blisters and the rugged trail, she hiked back to her trailer where Little Marie was already packing her stuff in plastic tubs. Apparently, Little Marie was the Interim Producer until the replacement arrived from L.A.
“I’m sorry,” said Little Marie.
“No, you’re not and you don’t have to be,” Marie answered.
“You were a good mentor, even if you got in a little over your head on this one,” Little Marie volunteered. “And now think of all the money you can save on mints.” Wow. Little Marie knew her boss was puking up her guts and was waiting for the right moment to expose Badass Marie’s defenselessness. Suddenly Marie was playing Bette Davis in All About Eve as she visualized the perfect kick into her ex-assistant’s rib cage, one she learned from the Stunt Man. But instead she walked calmly out of the trailer where the set P.A., whom she contemplated firing only minutes ago, waited next to the open door of a Land Rover.
Marie turned for one final look back at the set where the crew had assembled – a saloon facade they had constructed out of abandoned barns – when she realized something was wrong. Even though she was no longer employed she said out loud to no one in particular, “Why is this taking so long?” There were no clouds in front of the sun but everyone was just standing around. The crew had just rehearsed a big set piece with Gerta putting her injured horse down, but the Texan, who may or may not have one lung, was standing there, his back turned. So was the craft services P.A., the wardrobe and make-up people, and the rest of the crew now all coming together in solidarity. It was clear they were protesting something but it took Marie another moment to realize they were on strike. Even the DP who normally didn’t give a shit about anything had walked away from his camera and plopped down on an overturned tree stump to protest Marie’s firing.
At first the periodontist clapped his hands as if all these young filmmakers needed was a little Bavarian hand music to resume shooting. But that backfired as the crew picked up his clap in rhythm shouting “Marie!” after every four claps. A minute later Dr. Moritz, after conferring with Gerta, was standing next to Marie, offering her job back.
“I can’t go back to work,” Marie countered.
“Because I was already fired. So I need to be rehired. At a higher salary. Your move, Doc.” This was no time for the usual diplomacy. Badass Marie crossed her arms and waited. The blisters never felt so good. The periodontist knew he was at checkmate and just smiled the smile of a rich fucker who could afford to lose a battle and still keep the girl.
Marie fired Little Marie at breakfast the next morning in front of the whole crew. When Little Marie wiped away her tears and asked, “Why?” Marie just glared at her dispassionately, popped a mint in her mouth and said, “You were in over your head.” The set P.A. drove Little Marie away in the Land Rover. Handlebar wasn’t even there to wave goodbye. By the end of the shoot the crew made up two of the days they were behind in the schedule.
Nine months later Marie went to the L.A. premiere at the AFI Film Festival with Mr. Steve. She had thought about breaking up with him when she got back to L.A. but when she found out she was pregnant she decided to keep him and the baby. It wasn’t perfect but it would do for now.
Six years later and now a single mother, Marie was the star teacher at Biola Elementary. Her kids’ test scores were the subject of Sunday morning TV until she got fired for screaming “I can’t verk in zeece environment!” into the ear of a third grader.