by Sam Hutchins
The film business has undergone major changes in the time I have been part of it. It has always been just that, a business, of course. Still, it started out as much more of a creative, maverick endeavor, at least as compared to traditional corporate environments. People working in it often liken it to running away and joining the circus, although I think perhaps an oil wildcatter is a more apt comparison. In any case, it used to be the wild west. Things have changed drastically. By the time I was working in film the studios had been absorbed into major corporations and were slowly being brought more in line with traditional business standards and practices. During my tenure, the corporations became units of multinational conglomerates. Any illusion that a film was more than a line on someone’s balance sheet has long since been dispelled. The current state of the industry may be more comforting to someone counting pennies in a glass tower somewhere but the practical implications are borne by people like myself.
I worked my first feature in 1989. At the time a film required a two-person accounting department. The lead accountant handled the budget and tracking all expenditures for the film. The assistant handled payroll and petty cash. This system worked fine for years. Slowly, however, accountant creep began. Larger films started adding an additional assistant. Increasing corporate oversight required more and more detailed record keeping. Today it is not uncommon to see as many as a dozen accountants working on a single film production. Each individual department may be assigned a dedicated accountant. The end result is that the people who are hired to actually make the film spend most of their time justifying their expenditures.
Contracts have also evolved to the point of being burdensome. They used to be one letter-size page boilerplate contracts. You had a couple of blanks to fill in, such as filming dates, rate per day, etc. How I long for those simpler times. Currently, best case is five pages of legalese to wade through, worst is as many as fourteen pages long. Where we used to be able to grab a quick shot with a handshake and a hundred dollar bill we now require a few weeks notice and the skills of a paralegal. Liability concerns have killed spontaneity. The lawyers and accountants have taken over and it’s a damned shame.
Still, I generally prefer working on features made by the major studios. One big reason is money, both what I make and what I have to spend making the film. Both are significantly better with the studios. Another is the quality of people you work with. The farther down the ladder you get budget-wise, the commensurately less skilled your co-workers are. The exception to this is when you work on a low-budget film with a talented director like Kar Wai. His artistry is such that the name alone attracts the type of talent that normally works on much more healthily-budgeted films. Another advantage of working on independents is that the atmosphere is much less corporate and regimented than that of studio films. I certainly had enjoyed the lessened oversight and resulting freedom to go out and just make the damned film this far. Unfortunately the producer who had hired me had left for another job. Her replacement had no experience with independent films and lacked the capability to understand the difference. Frankly, she was a moron.
The first manifestation of this gross incompetence came immediately. We had checked into a hotel in Santa Monica at around two in the morning, and it was three before I closed my eyes. My phone began ringing incessantly at 7:00 AM. Eventually I had no choice but to answer. It was the new producer, who opened the conversation by haranguing me for not being tougher on Kar Wai and insisting he only scout places that were easy to film. Well fuck me. I’m the one who is going to pull it all together in order to get us up and running in a location, I’m not going to put us someplace I cannot make work. Only someone lacking the most fundamental understanding of Kar Wai’s method would say something along those lines, which appeared to be the case. A few quick questions indicated that no, the new producer had no idea who Kar Wai was or how he went about making films.
The producer’s second action concerning my department wasn’t something I was aware of until later, but was even worse. She called all the scouts I had hired and instructed them to report directly to her, bypassing me. I suppose it was her way of trying to assert control, but it was flat-out stupid. None of these scouts had any relationship with her, so they had no reason to oblige the demand. Besides, it made no sense. It was near-impossible for those of us working directly with Kar Wai to figure out what he needed. Interjecting some insecure, disconnected producer back in NYC who had never even met the man couldn’t help in any way, shape or form.
The most immediate problem caused by the new producer, however, was the demand for a detailed budget from me. Immediately. Budgeting location work for films is an incredibly difficult thing. You work from a script and a schedule, breaking it all down to the smallest elements and building from the ground up. Months before filming you need to anticipate any potential problems or needs and the financial implications that result. It’s a skill refined only by years of experience, and something I pride myself on being very good at doing. It takes time.
Take police officers, for instance. One of dozens of different elements that fall within my purview on any given location. Do we need them on set? We may, depending on the nature of the scenes we are filming. The town we are filming in may require a certain amount. What is their base hourly pay, and how much do their fringe benefits run? Are there a minimum number of hours you need to hire them for? How many officers can you have before you need to hire a sergeant as well? What does the sergeant make? Are their shifts restricted to a certain number of hours before you need to bring in replacements? Do they get meal money? And so on. You get the picture. I can extrapolate all these costs by investigating them with the different towns we plan to film in and making some educated guesses, but it’s not something that happens instantly.
Working with Kar Wai complicated matters exponentially. If you ask him what he wants for lunch you may hear a story about how he went to the racetrack with his favorite uncle when he was young. I knew we planned to shoot in several different states, and multiple towns within those states. What those precise locations were, however was still an unanswered question to Kar Wai himself. We lacked even the outline of a script, and a schedule was an even greater mystery. His last film had been budgeted for a relatively long 12 week shoot. It took five years to complete. Given that, the idea of an accurate line-by-line budget was science fiction. I tried suggesting a reasonable solution, something I had done in other situations with similar unquantifiable expenses. The best way to handle it was for me to come up with an average daily operating cost. This would still require a bit of thought on my part but was at least possible. Examining all the known elements would allow me to come up with a fairly accurate number once you averaged it out over the course of the shooting period. Even this concept, however, was too difficult for the new producer to wrap her head around. No, she demanded a detailed budget before I did anything else.
I explained all of this to my companions over breakfast. Kar Wai is not the confrontational type, so he was willing to allow it. The others were okay with it as they were fully confident in their ability to do my job. Therefore they set out without any adult supervision to scout Los Angeles on their own. I stayed behind and beat my head on my desk attempting to come up with some budget projections. After hours of frustration I called New York and in slightly more polite terms told them to fuck off. While I was occupied with this the guys ran around town scouting. I attached several pictures they shot that day, some look like quite interesting places to film. Unfortunately none of which came with contact information, addresses, or even a broad hint as to where in Los Angeles they may have been taken. In other words, useless information. A waste of a day all around.
STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.
Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.