Which is worse on a TV shoot: wrangling insane directors or stupid executives? 1,850 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
You know it’s a bad day when the Network appoints an incompetent head case to be its new programming chief and the guy you chose to direct your latest movie turns out to be a fraud.
Let’s just call it a massive Xanax day.
My name is Ray Medly and after years of toiling in the fields and learning my craft, I now produce motion pictures, including theatrical features, movies for television and streaming video.
I’d begun shooting Wagons West on the same day Mascot Cable trumpeted the hiring of Truman Rombolt, the third member of a three person team of programmers at RBP Productions and the subject of much industry speculation as to what it was they were thinking when they hired him.
When it was announced he was to become Mascot’s new head of programming, a collective groan could be heard all over Hollywood.
"Clueless," was how one producer described him.
"A deeply disturbed human being," commented another.
Yet there he was, newly ensconced in the network’s seat of power, just when my partner Bo Strong and I were suffering a crisis of confidence in the director of Wagons West.
Bo Strong is a Hollywood idol, larger than life, currently starring in a series of westerns that the two of us are producing together, all built around an iconic anti-hero called Dustin Montana. Wagons West is the eighth film in the series.
Initially the Montana movies were envisioned as big screen projects, but Mascot, the progenitor of the new-think in world-wide film and TV distribution protocols, muscled its way into the bidding war and won the franchise rights for a record sum.
Bo Strong was among the first of the Hollywood elites to grasp the significance of the digital revolution and its long term prospects for newly developing revenue streams and myriad residual opportunities. A savvy businessman, he sanctioned the Mascot deal.
He’s also a creative hound dog who rides roughshod over every aspect of his every movie, each of which has been a crowd pleaser and a money maker.
To Mascot CEO Michael Kurtz, a pioneer in the streaming video industry, Bo Strong was a superhero who tirelessly promoted his films, all of them burgeoning gold mines, all exceeding even Kurtz’s rosy economic expectations.
Somehow that message failed to reach Truman Rombolt.
The moment he assumed the programming reins, he began meddling with Wagons West. Fancying himself a superior creative force with impeccable taste and judgement, he bulldozed his way into everything.
He challenged the casting of country music star, Bobby Lee Gister, as being ‘too commercial.’ He sought to change the title Wagons West because he thought it “too wordy.”
Although shooting was underway, he ceaselessly submitted script notes. Were we not so distracted by the antics of the director, Harry McHarry, we’d probably have reacted sooner and more forcefully to Rombolt’s lunacy.
McHarry had been selected to direct Wagons West because our first choice for the job, Chaz Mirman, had fractured his ankle in a motorcycle accident and was unable to work.
While McHarry had never before directed a western, he’d had some success with a pair of police procedurals, both of which displayed a masterful narrative energy, were beautifully photographed and contained first rate performances.
He presented himself as the harbinger of a new generation of filmmaker. He exhibited considerable self-confidence and talked a good game. He convinced us that he was our perfect choice.
The rehearsal week went smoothly and the buzz was positive, but on day one of the shoot, McHarry began complaining about the cattle.
"The dumb fucks are behaving badly," he insisted.
"What in the hell is he talking about," Bo Strong had said with no small measure of concern.
It was a rainy morning in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and it had taken longer than expected to set up for the day’s work which was centered around an action sequence wherein a herd of panicked steers bursts through a corral fence, escapes its confines and then runs amuck.
McHarry had spent a fair amount of time explaining to the cinematographer, Angelo DiMaggio, exactly how he wanted the scene to look. He had ordered up a total of six cameras for the day and had been specific as to their placement.
Although DiMaggio had questions about the efficacy of McHarry’s vision, he ultimately bent to the director’s wishes and set up the shot according to his specifications.
The only participants in the scene with whom McHarry didn’t directly confer were the steers, who, as it turned out, had their own ideas as to where and how they wanted to stampede. Which had zero to do with McHarry’s shot selections.
They were already on take four by the time Bo Strong and I arrived on set, having been summoned by the First Assistant Director, Jim Sparto.
"You’re not going to believe this," Sparto informed us. "He’s directing the cattle."
"What do you mean ‘directing the cattle,’” Bo Strong inquired, his temperature on the rise.
"He’s already called cut on three successive takes and is grousing to anyone who will listen about how the ‘stupid cows are refusing to hit their marks.'"
Bo turned to me, his mouth agape. "He’s off his rocker. You have to talk to him, Ray. Insist he get the shot immediately. I’d do it, but I don’t trust myself not to perform mayhem on him."
I found him in front of the corral where the steers were confined, snorting and bellowing, mindlessly awaiting their cue.
McHarry was engaged in a heated discussion with the head wrangler, Joe San Filippo. "I’m holding you responsible for this."
"Responsible for what,” San Filippo yelled back.
"I want different cows."
"They’re steers, not cows."
"Who cares? I still want different ones."
"What’s wrong with the ones we have?"
"They have no discipline."
"They don’t do what they’re supposed to do."
San Filippo looked at me pleadingly. "Talk sense to this deficiente, will you please, Ray?"
"I’ll take it from here, Joe."
San Filippo stared first at McHarry, then at me. He shrugged and moseyed off.
"You have one take in which to get the shot," I told McHarry.
"What one take? I’m planning to shoot it in sections."
"Sections? It’s a master shot of a herd of steers stampeding. What sections?"
"I want to see their faces."
"Are you crazy? Steer faces?"
"They have no expressions."
"I want to see them just the same."
I stared at him in stunned silence. Then I said, "Five minutes."
"Five minutes for what?"
"To start shooting the scene."
"You’re kidding," McHarry growled.
"I’ve never been more serious in my life, Harry. Five minutes. And I’m advising you not to underestimate the importance of achieving this goal."
Half an hour later, when McHarry still hadn’t taken the shot, I spotted Bo Strong steaming toward me.
"He’s unhinged," Bo pronounced. "He won’t even make the day, never mind the entire schedule. He’s toast. I’ll take over directing until we find a suitable replacement. Inform the network."
First AD Jim Sparto pointed me toward Harry McHarry who was standing in front of the sound cart, arguing with the recordist who was holding up three different types of head sets, all of which McHarry was clearly rejecting.
I pulled him aside. "You’re through, Harry."
"What are you talking about? I haven’t gotten the shot yet."
"And you won’t be getting it. Bo’s taking over. Consider yourself relieved of your directorial duties."
"Bo’s taking over?"
"Bo Strong is no director. He’s not even a DGA member."
"He will be."
"But he’s not one now. He can’t take over if he’s not a DGA member."
"You seem to be having a problem understanding what I’m saying to you, Harry. Read my lips. You’re fired."
"You can’t fire me. I have a contract."
"You’re still fired."
After staring blank-eyed for several moments, he suddenly leapt at me and began pummeling me with his fists.
Two members of the nearby sound crew came to my rescue and
managed to pull the frantic McHarry off of me.
Enraged, he tore himself from their grasp and ran at me again. This time he jumped on me, kicking and yowling.
Having seen enough, the sound recordist grabbed him by the shirt collar and threw a roundhouse punch at the frazzled ex-director that decked him.
It was shortly after security personnel had frogmarched McHarry from the set that I phoned Truman Rombolt to inform him as to what had taken place and that Bo Strong was now directing the movie.
"I never approved that," Rombolt shouted. "Bo Strong is not directing Wagons West. Not now. Not ever."
"What are you, nuts?" I shouted back.
"He’s not directing the movie."
"What do you want to do, shut it down?"
"I want to keep Harry McHarry."
"That’s not going to happen."
"Then I’ll shut it down."
"Have you any idea of what that would cost?"
"I don’t care. I just started here and I won’t have it said about me that I fired a director in my first week on the job."
"I won’t have my reputation sullied by this incident."
"You know what, Truman? You’re even dumber than I thought. This isn’t about you or your fucking reputation. You need to take a few deep breaths here and realize that Bo Strong is now and will continue to be directing Wagons West until such time as we find the right person to replace him. Period."
Rombolt didn’t respond.
"Are we clear on this?"
He mumbled a response that I couldn’t quite make out.
"I’ll take that as a yes," I said and terminated the call.
I arrived back on set in time to see the cameras roll on the steer stampede. The head wrangler fired two shots into the air which startled the animals who then pulverized the corral fence and raced hell bent for leather across the field, all of the action captured by six cameras.
When Bo Strong yelled, "Cut," each of the camera operators in turn gave him a thumbs up.
It was two days later, after having watched the dailies, that Truman Rombolt texted him. "These dailies prove you should never have fired Harry McHarry."
Bo showed me the message. "He has no idea what he saw. He’s distancing himself, is what he’s doing."
"The decision to dump McHarry. He’s trying to establish non-culpability."
Bo shook his head. "It’s amazing how the stupid son of a bitch has managed to miss the point entirely."
"The point being?"
"Don’t fuck with Bo Strong."
Shortly thereafter, Bo placed a call to Michael Kurtz, the CEO.
The next day the trades carried the story of the sudden resignation of Mascot’s recently appointed programming chief, Truman Rombolt, for personal reasons.
"You’re damned right for personal reasons," Bo Strong averred. "The most compelling of which was that he’d already been shitcanned."
That same day Bo posted the following message on Rombolt’s Facebook page: STEERS ONE. ROMBOLT NOTHING.
Rombolt never replied.