Risky Production Decision

And that's only a part of how the communal endeavor went awry. Example number two begins almost four years ago. I had a student named Jon in my production class at SVA. I liked him because he was creative and outspoken. He had Attention Deficit Disorder and was a real pain in the ass, but still, I liked him, and I tried to be supportive of his talent and tolerant of his shenanigans. After his second year, he dropped out of school, and one summer day he called and asked if I had something he could do. He was going stir crazy, and anything would be great. Roc and I were in the middle of a screenwriting assignment for TNT, a screenplay based on the true story of a sociopathic Olympic swimmer who won the gold in Barcelona in '92. We'd done thirty hours of interviews, and had backed up most of them. I offered Jon the job of transcribing the final one we conducted, an hour-long phone interview with one of the swimmer's teammates. He jumped at the offer, came over and picked up the tape, and promptly disappeared off the face of the earth. I called his parents, his girlfriend, I called everyone he'd known at school. And finally, since this was the last interview we'd conducted and therefore one of the few tapes I hadn't backed up, and the script was due in two months, Roc and I were forced to improvise the voice of the interviewee.

Six months later, I get a call from Jon. "I bet you're mad at me," he offered. "Well," I said, dredging up an idea I'd found in the preface to a collection of Algernon Blackwood short stories, "they say every seven years we replace every molecule in our bodies. So . . . why don't you call me again in seven years."

"Really?" he had the audacity to ask.

"Really!" I replied. And that was that. For two weeks.

The phone rang and there was Jon on the other end. "Jon? What brings you back so soon?"

"I figured out how I can make it up to you."

"My mother is getting divorced, and I can fix you up with her." I was speechless.

"She loves movies, she's a lot of fun. She's cute . . ."

"Ya know what," I finally responded, "I'm gonna go for it."

And I did. And she was cute, and endearingly eccentric, loved nothing more than to sit around and watch DVDs, loved food both cheap and fancy, loved to travel, didn't love hiking and camping out; good Lord, it was a match made in heaven. At the end of the evening, I told her to tell her son he could scratch off six years.

Now, where's this going, you ask? Well, six months into our lovely relationship, along came The Sweet Life, and Janet offered to do the catering and craft services. Have you all heard about never working with family or lovers on a film production? It's something worth seriously considering, and my motto in life has always been, "When you are warned, you must listen." So how come I didn't? Partially because the budget was painfully low; I was trying to come in under SAG's arbitrary

$200,000 ceiling requirement (which I'll discuss more thoroughly later). Partially because I thought she could do it, and it would be a useful way for me to find out about what was going on from the inside, since people didn't know we were dating. And partially because I found her personality so upbeat and quirky that I believed it would translate well onto set. The first people the actors encounter each morning as they arrive, tired and wary, are the makeup person and the craft-services person. And depending on how these two people interact with the actors, the day can start off on a positive note, or on a negative note, and what follows may have nothing to do with the director's skill, or the merits of the script, or all the talent involved—rather it would fall under the umbrella of that phenomenon known as "the magic between the frames." You'll never know whom to blame it on, but something just went wrong . . . You can see, therefore, that serious consideration should be given to the hiring of both those individuals.

So, I took a chance.

Don't you!

And then again, there are countless examples that fly in the face of such a pronouncement. How about Philip and Belinda Haas (Angels and Insects, The Blood Oranges, Up at the Villa)? Or Baz Luhrmann and his wife, art director/costume designer Catherine Martin (Moulin Rouge)? Or Arliss Howard and Debra Winger (Big Bad Love)? Burton and Taylor did a few successful ones together before they split. Then there were Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Hmmm. Or Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Hmmm . . . Well, you know what I'm driving at. Sometimes it works, but I wouldn't advise it. And I wasn't lucky with Janet. She became overwhelmed with the job, and started complaining a little too loudly. Some got a kick out of it. Others protested . . . to me. And while I can play the cipher with every actor and crew member—the cooler head prevails—I can't be quite so objective when it's my girlfriend. Personal emotions quickly came into play. And it led to some rough moments.

Example number three: The gruesome episode with The Name and No-Name resulted in new actors being drafted at the last minute, which had reverberations that were felt for weeks. I'd originally picked actors with Roc in preproduction during the casting sessions and then, when they came in to sign their contracts, I still rejected one or two because something in their natures just didn't seem right. I'd tried and tried to set things up comfortably for Roc. But the "fates" were against us, I suppose. The situation created by dropping these new actors suddenly into the mix called for his undivided attention, and made him seem isolated from the crew. It must have looked as if he'd formed a clique with the actors to the exclusion of everyone else, whereas the truth of the situation was that the rip in the chemistry, which had nicely evolved in pre-production rehearsals, needed to be repaired, and he was the only one who could do it.

An old friend of mine, Bruce Kirschenbaum, was about to produce his son Ari's first feature a few months after we wrapped. So I invited Ari and his friend Robbie onto our set as the "documentary filmmakers," so that they could not only get us some good, behind-the-scenes footage, but also so that they could see how a low-budget film was made, which would empower them to make their own decisions later. I covered this in the cast/crew agreements; by signing, they agreed to have their image in the "making of" documentary shot on set. (Joan Jett's agreement was amended to allow her to have approval over any footage of her that appeared in the documentary, but that was understandable.)

Ari and his father observed the cast and crew closely, and, toward the end of production, they approached several crew members and invited them to join their production. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, none of our camera crew was approached. Later I visited their production up in Greenwich, Connecticut, and damned if things weren't going far smoother than they had for us. Of course, we had shot in New York City, where 60 percent of our sound was problematic due to street noise, whereas Greenwich at night is so quiet you can hear a dollar bill drop! But beyond that, Bruce and Ari had the advantage of seeing which of our people were not only the most professional, but the most user-friendly. (Ari's film, shot in Super 16mm, is called Fabled. Keep an eye out for it.)

Oh, and I guess you're wondering how things eventually worked out for me and Janet. Well, after filming was over we patched things up, took a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, flew back to the States and made a stopover in Las Vegas to visit Victoria Alexander (an old friend who appeared in The Sweet Life as one of the "bad dates"), spotted a little structure on Las Vegas Boulevard that looked like a Burger King but said "Drive Through and Say I Do" on its facade, did just that and got hitched by Reverend Chip Bendel while Victoria sat in the back seat snapping pictures, and then, not five minutes later, as I was driving my new wife to the Mandalay Casino to sample what I'd heard was an incredible food concession called "The Wall of Gelato," our car was rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver and I ended up lying on the pavement with whiplash and a cracked tooth. (Fortunately, four Swedish tourists in a neighboring SUV got the other car's license-plate number.) I looked up at the jovial Las Vegas cop who explained, "This happens fifty times a day; the driver of the other vehicle was drunk, and by the time we get him, he'll claim that his car was stolen that night and returned the next day, and you'll end up settling with his insurance company."

"That's fine," I said, "but what I really wanna know is, I just got married: Is this an omen or what . . . !?"

And despite the fact that she got mixed reviews during production, at the wrap party, when Rocco introduced and thanked the various members of the crew and cast, Janet received the biggest round of applause. Go figure.

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