AMEX and The New Millennium
Production got positively dull after my last video game with Lucas, Force Commander in 1997. The company pulled it just after casting. Too bad because if you wanted to cast aliens (No. Not those.) and save money on prosthetics, San Francisco should be your first stop. A collection of some very talented people came through every casting session in the Bay Area, but the effects of living in one of the stranger parts of the world had taken its toll.
Casting in New York City had everything from strong character actors to every flavor of leading man and woman. Casting in Los Angeles showcased the concept of The Beautiful People. Casting in San Francisco would generate a remake of Tod Browning’s Freaks.
The tapes from Force Commander’s casting sessions looked like a rehearsal day for George Lucas’ latest meeting of the Imperial Senate. Somewhere in San Francisco’s past the circus came to town and all the performers escaped one night and polluted the gene pool. If PT Barnum had been around in the late 20thcentury, he’d never have gone into the business. The competition in Northern California would have been too stiff.
But alas, Force Commander died on the boardroom floor.
My four year run of bloated corporate gigs ran into the recession of 2000 and 2001. Since I cultivated TV, film, and commercial clients, a return to those sources of income presented itself and I took advantage of the ability to cross business sectors.
First up? A return to the world of ad agencies.
American Express ran a series of ads in the early 2000s that utilized the concept of ‘the chase.’ One of them had an Olympic sprinter running through the streets of Rome to catch the thief who had stolen her AMEX card.
Another concept showcased a Mister Softee ice cream truck pursuing a criminal on a Vespa through the streets of San Francisco. That thief had stolen the AMEX card of Michael Andretti, who had stopped by to purchase an ice cream cone.
And that’s where I came in.
The production company, Anonymous Content, a major player in the commercial industry, called to check my availability to manage, not line produce, the job for American Express. I had moved on years ago from production manager, who is one of the most beleaguered individuals you will see on any film set. If you spot someone on a production who looks old for their age and isn’t some Hollywood retread with too much cosmetic surgery, that’s the P.M.
No small amount of convincing later, Anonymous Content had their P.M.
The job had too many tempting elements to turn down. International buy. Michael Andretti as the on-camera principal driving the ice cream truck. But most importantly, a proposed duplication of the famous chase scene from Bullitt.
So I sucked it up and took the job. Money did not motivate this. Line producers are paid much more than P.M.s and get compensated for more days. P.M.s also have a tendency to work sixteen hour days and are treated by every other person in every other department like the new sex offender in the neighborhood.
Other than that, it’s a great gig in the industry.
The job lost any of its remaining bloom early and went south in a hurry. It all started with the second phone call from Anonymous Content explaining their UK partner, Gorgeous Enterprises would send the line producer from London.
Said line producer would travel from their UK office along with the director, and a camera operator since there are none of those in Bay Area. We’re not talking the Director of Photography. This is someone further down the pecking order and not a shot composer. Literally, about a step up from a button pusher.
The third phone call informed me that a staff coordinator would be joining us, as would the production designer, another Brit.
By the time the fifth phone call came in, I had ten people from England piling onto a Bay Area junket right in the middle of The World Cup. They did spare me from bringing Roger Deakins from London in to shoot the commercial. I only had to drag some guy from L.A. and hire his 1stA.C. who wanted his 2ndA.C. That was an interesting conversation.
1stA.C.: “Let me give you my 2ndA.C.’s contact information.”
Me: “I’m not dating, but thanks for thinking of me.”
1stA.C.: “No, you’ll need it to talk to him about his travel arrangements.”
Me: “Now you’re messing with me. I’m supposed to travel a secondassistant cameraman; put them up at a hotel; give them per diem; and listen to their complaints about how badly production is treating the crew?”
1stA.C.: “This is not unreasonable. When you go out of town, don’t you bring your coordinator with you?”
That threw him. He hung up and the next thing I knew, Caliguletta, the line producer from London and Gorgeous Enterprises, called me.
Caliguletta: “I understand you and the A.C. are having a disagreement.”
Me: “It’s not a disagreement. There is no reason to bring a second assistant cameraman up from Los Angeles. A first, yes. Second, no.”
Caliguletta overrode me, and the contingent from Los Angeles, which now included the Key Grip and his Best Boy, had grown to equal that of the Junket Junkies from the U.K., with the addition of the 2ndA.C.
The bloat continued.
The shooting boards timed out at 97 seconds for a 30 second spot. For those of you with a firm grip on math that gave the director a more than three to one amount of creative to go into editorial and subsequently jack up thosecharges. All that says to me, because this particular director is not alone in this type of indulgence, is that the decision making gene in creative types is non-existent.
With all the junkets arranged and the prep finished, principal photography began.
On the first shoot day, the director decided to go three hours into meal penalties to get a shot of a Tai Chi group going through their exercises in a city park. Shockingly, the crew and the above-the-line Junket Junkies complained about the three hour old lunch, which many of them do because Junket Junkies don’t actually DO anything on a set. They show up. Eat. Complain. Go back to their hotels. Drink. Eat. Sleep far too few hours. Wake up late for call. And start the entire process all over again.
After the last complaint about lunch was registered with Caliguletta, she walked me around the block and divulged that the lack of a hot truck in the Bay Area would present an ongoing problem. When I countered that perhaps the six meal penalties on a cast and crew of about a hundred might present a larger issue, the response exposed Caliguletta’s financial POV of the job.
Caliguletta appeared non-plussed about the damage to the bottom line. I should have heeded her disinterest as a harbinger of things to come. Quite frankly the job housed and fed a production coordinator, a 2ndA.C., and a camera operator. I’m an idiot for not noticing the Moscow May Day Parade of red flags flying earlier.
The balance of the lunchtime meals for the job now included reservations for a party of about 25 every day for lunch at one of the tonier San Francisco establishments. At the very least, Caliguletta appeared satisfied the above-the-line Junket Junkies would be able to run up a $75 per person lunch tab.
Then the teamsters piled on with the help of Anonymous Content.
During the prep for the job, I went through the production company contracts. The usual ones were in place, DGA, SAG commercials, IATSE, 600 and 52 Cameramen and the dreaded Teamsters. There were a few subcontracts for the overstaffed Vanities Department, and I had to deal with local members of the IA as well as the L.A. crew and, of course, the U.K. members, which fortunately limited itself to the camera operator.
The accounting department of Anonymous sent me all the requisite paperwork and documents. I covered off on minimal staffing for drivers and at the very least, had 15 Teamsters on my job including the transportation coordinator and captain. In the middle of all the hiring, no one,
including Caliguletta and the staff personnel at Anonymous informed me of the need for Gang Boss for the Teamsters.
When someone finally told me about, I offered to hire a Gang Boss if their contract required it.
Me: “A Gang Boss? Okay. I’ll call the union and have one sent out.”
Hysterical Person of Unknown Department: “There are no Gang Bosses in San Francisco.”
Me: “That might be an impediment to quickly resolving this.”
Hysterical Person of Unknown Department: “You moron. You should know this.”
Me: “Actually, the 37 people I queried at Anonymous and Gorgeous should have helped me with their contract when I called and spent an hour making sure I had proper staffing. Also, the producer might have mentioned this.”
Hysterical Person of Unknown Department: “You’re incompetent. The Teamsters are going to hit us with a fine.”
Me: “Oh, go tell Caliguletta. That money stuff doesn’t seem to bother her.”
The Teamsters did hit Anonymous with a fine, and sent me a Gang Boss from Los Angeles. I now had a Gang Boss, a Transportation Captain, and a Transportation Coordinator managing eight vehicles and 12 drivers.
On top of all this hilarity, the World Cup or The Endless Insomnia Cure as I call it, started its 28 month round robin, multiple elimination, one-and-not-quite-done contest of six hour games ending in 0-0 ties.
Conveniently, The Endless Insomnia Cure had chosen the other side of world, Korea and Japan, as the countries in which to conduct its business. As such, the conscientious Junket Junkies decided that attending the midnight start between Myanmar and Bhutan at the local Faux Public House seven hours before call time of the first shoot day might be a brilliant idea.
Sleep-deprived and upset that Bhutan had prevailed by a score of 0-0, the director, camera operator and Caliguletta showed up the morning of shoot day one and immediately hated the craft service, an honor normally reserved for the ad agency.
Not enough fair trade coffee. No chocolate biscuits. Produce which appeared to have been picked by underage children. What hot food did make it to the first table did not have a vegan option.
In their defense, I’d hired the great husband and wife team that had been providing craft services for Bay Area shoots for a decade and had an excellent reputation. Of course, the wife chose this day to come down with the flu and in typical crew person fashion didn’t bother to tell me.
Nor did her husband, but all is forgiven since he was on his own trying to feed about 80 people who had breakfast at home amnesia. I assigned a P.A. to help him and turned my attention to important things. Like getting the director a chocolate biscuit, the instructions to which came over the walkie-talkie.
Caliguletta: “Director wants a latte and a chocolate biscuit.”
Me: “Okay, I’ll send the P.A. out that’s helping Craft Services. There’s a Starbucks near a Starbucks near here.”
Caliguletta: “You don’t have her anymore. Locations sucked all the P.A.s up for traffic and crowd control.”
Me: “That’s too bad. I was actually going to have them get me a chocolate biscuit too, since I don’t know what the Hell it is.”
Caliguletta lost her temper, which I ignored.
Me: “I’ll get another P.A., but you have to give me a few minutes, or give me one of the 15 I’ve already hired to send out. I’m by myself in this Motorhome. My coordinators are back at the office dealing with tomorrow’s shoot. Speaking of coordinators, why don’t you send the one we brought over from England out. He’d at least know what a chocolate biscuit looks like.”
Caliguletta: “He’s at camera with me.”
Me: “Doing what?”
Another loss of temper.
To Caliguletta’s credit she treated me with a low level of contempt during the balance of the shoot, and I’d soon find out why. But first, let me mention another unnecessary $5000 expenditure to throw on the bonfire. And I won’t even bother to cover the $2500 directional sign in original Mandarin that increased the running length of the spot to one hundred seconds.
Here’s how we ended up with another $5K charge on the San Francisco city permit bill.
The director and Caliguletta tasked the locations department with the removal of a streetlamp so the director could squeeze the Mister Softee Ice Cream truck down the one alley in Chinatown that couldn’t quite fit its width. I completely understand his insistence since Chinatown in San Francisco only has about a thousand slightly wider alleyways that look exactly like the one he picked. Quite frankly, Chinatown in San Francisco is a neighborhood of a thousand alleyways that look exactly alike. $2500 for removal and replacement.
Caliguletta waved her hand and made it so.
But the highlight of highlights had to be the $10,000 hazard pay fee we had to pay the stunt driver of the Mister Softee Ice Cream truck.
During the car chase scene in Bullitt, the Bad Guy GTO and Steve McQueen’s Mustang both jump a ridiculously steep hill in a neighborhood in San Francisco. It’s in Nob or Russian Hill. As long as I lived in the Bay Area I never knew where one of those neighborhoods started the other ended. The director decided to duplicate that jump using the Vespa and Mister Softee.
Did I mention that Michael Andretti drove Mister Softee?
Yes, he did. However for the stunt, we hired a SAG certified stunt driver. He received $10,000 per jump given the hazardous nature of the request. The operator of the Vespa, a Bay Area local, had the Bullitt chase scene on his bucket list. No one looked forward to that day more than these two stuntmen, and money did not enter into the equation. Maybe.
The day arrived. The street, clear of cars, save for two which necessitated a tow. Ridiculous because part of the art direction called for automobiles to be parked on both sides of the stretch of the jump, but, of course they had to be camera friendly cars, whatever that means. A week later, two irate citizens of San Francisco would be knocking on the production office door a few days later to demand reimbursement of the $227 fine and the $75 ticket. Reasonable requests given that production had only given them TEN DAYS NOTICE.
You can guess how much money the two received as reimbursement.
As I mentioned, the expensive vagaries of production dictated that the cars on both sides of the street be under the jurisdiction of the company, so spots were driven and filled by the location P.A.s (The ones hired by me, but no longer available to get lattes and chocolate biscuits, whatever they Hell they were.) and after parking the film-friendly cars, they hustled up and down the sidewalks warning occupants not to venture out until an ‘All Clear’ could be heard over the megaphone.
For some stupid reason, I left the confines of the motorhome to watch the jump. I’d not seen one take in four days. Sadly, I also had a walkie-talkie so the A.D. department enlisted me to help signal the Vespa and the Mister Softee Ice Cream truck from the top of the hill, clear it, and descend towards the multiple camera positions. I asked where the six other 2ndAssistant Directors were and got rebuffed immediately with some sort of gobbledygook from the 1stA.D., a harried Englishman with a shaved head who hailed from L.A. The incomprehensible excuses mounted and I finally broke the stream.
Me: “So they’re out getting lattes and chocolate biscuits?”
Sid Vapid, the A.D.: “If that lazy git of a production manager did his job, they wouldn’t have to.”
Me: “Really? If that lazy git of an A.D. and location manager could lock down a neighborhood with fewer resources than Eisenhower had at D-Day, I’d have a spare P.A. or two. So why don’t you just kiss my—”
Sid Vapid, the A.D.: “Sorry mate, got a set to run. Cheers!”
Whenever anyone from England says “Cheers” to you, they have an image in their mind of shoving an icepick into one of your eyeballs.
I stationed myself on the side of the hill opposite the down side towards the camera positions. The San Francisco based stunt man sat on the Vespa and continued to figure out how many laws of physics he could break before he ended up room temperature with an ID tag on his toe, or crushed to the size of Jeremy Piven. The driver of the Mister Softee Ice Cream truck looked so calm, I thought I’d have to shove a mirror under his nose to see if it would fog.
That’s when I noticed the walkie-talkie lying just to the ice cream truck driver’s right. Sid, the A.D. ran through the instructions over the walkie once more.
Sid: “The call will be Roll A Camera, Roll B Camera, Roll C Camera, and then Background! All that before I call Action!”
During Sid’s clear cut description of the call, I noticed the ice cream truck driver’s walkie cutting out at, oh, every word. The only word(s) that the ice cream truck driver heard was “Action!”
I figured this out when I heard the gunning of the ice cream truck’s engine and the release of the emergency brake. I got on the walkie.
Me: “Sid (Not his real name)! The truck is making the jump! Get everyone off the street!”
Sid: “Who’s the sodding b%$t@rd that sent the truck!?”
Me: “You. I’ll explain later. He’s approaching the crest of the hill.”
Have no idea what transpired on the down jump side of the street, but I sprinted to the top and saw an absolutely spectacular stunt. The driver got several feet of air under the vehicle and just before it would have taken out the entire front end of the truck, it landed on the front tires and flew down the hill.
You will have to take my word for it, as none of the three cameras rolled a millimeter of film on the event. The stunt driver hit the brakes somewhere around Lake Tahoe and turned around. After stopping for moment to speak with the A.D., he continued back up the hill for another take, which would net him another $10,000.
He sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as he passed by me. He even smiled and waved.
The shoot ended a day later with the last of the shots needed to put together the film festival entrant, “Bullitt Redux.” While the crew from L.A., after diving into the hotel swimming pool at 3am, left for southern California, Yours truly and the production staff returned to the office to wrap the job and get the London contingent back across the pond.
The job wrapped smoothly, especially for such a large one. Credit goes to Joyce Quan, who dealt with the accounting and Petra Janopaul, who dealt with more production details than I think actually existed on the job.
I’ll even credit myself for putting up with the bunch from England who did seem more interested in the results of The World Cup than the seven figure job on which they worked. I worked on it. Petra and Joyce worked on it. I know I saw parts of the art department working on it. Even caught a glimpse of the 2ndA.C. changing a lens one of the days.
I still don’t know what a Gang Boss does.
We packed up the office, a temporary set-up in San Francisco’s Presidio, and I started my next gig, an episodic television show for John Wells of West Wingfame.
But not before a few things happened.
About a week after the shoot, I received a long email with a request to explain about 20 purchase orders and their attached invoices.
A few examples:
P.O. #XYZ212 – Hotel Unknown –
Room Service for Tuesday 6/12 $453.27
Room Service for Wednesday 6/13 $377.02
Room Service for Thursday 6/14 $298.98
Room Service for Friday 6/15 $477.55
Room Service for Tuesday 6/19 $822.88
Room Service for Wednesday 6/20 $375.30
Room Service for Thursday 6/21 $654.01
Room Service for Friday 6/22 $468.24
GRAND TOTAL A LOT
NOTE FROM PRODUCTION: Given that the entire out of town crew was on Per Diem and received most of their meals during scouting and shooting, to what do we attribute these charges?
P.O. #XYZ277 – Bob’s Electric –
Installation of 220V Service $750.00
Removal of 220V Service $750.00
GRAND TOTAL $1500.00
NOTE FROM PRODUCTION: Since your country is on 110V service, is there any reason to install and then remove, just a day later, a 220V service?
P.O. #XYZ243 – City of SF –
Removal of streetlamp $1200.00
Replacement of streetlamp $1200.00
Nuisance Fee $ 100.00
GRAND TOTAL $2500.00
There were at least 15, if not 20, more P.O.s called into question. Having closed the office and completed the wrap, did not stop me from feeling obligated to look through the purchase orders and the invoices one more time as courtesy. I had reviewed them the first time during the official wrap, and every single one had been signed off by Caliguletta, the line producer.
A couple conversations took place between me and the head of the accounting department. I’ve consolidated them.
Me: “I’ve reviewed the P.O.s and the invoices and found nothing the second time through that I didn’t find the first time. Caliguletta signed off on the lot of them. I didn’t see any missing signatures.”
Angry Accountant: “The job is $100,000 over budget. How do you explain that?”
Me: “We spent more money than what was in the budget.”
Angry Accountant: “This is no joke. You’ll need to re-actualize the job.”
Me: “Okay. Let me see if I can rent a couple of the offices we used for the shoot, and I’ll check and see if Joyce and Petra are available. As soon as I tie that up, I’ll request—”
Angry Accountant: “We’re not spending any more money on this job.”
Me: “You don’t know how great it is to hear that. I don’t think that sentence left Caliguletta’s lips the entire time she was here.”
Angry Accountant: “Oh, so it’s the line producer’s fault, is it?”
Me: “Yes. That’s their job. The P.M. can tell you how the money got spent, but only the line producer can tell you why. I think you need to check with Caliguletta.”
Angry Accountant: “She quit a couple days after the shoot.”
Me: “That should tell you all you need to know.”
Angry Accountant: “So you won’t reactualize the job?”
Me: “Not for free.”
A few days later the executive producer from Anonymous Content and Gorgeous Enterprises had me on the phone. As calmly as possible I delineated the excess on the job that Caliguletta seemed perfectly fine with approving. As far as my own transgressions, I admitted to a lack of haute cuisine and that the amount of the Teamster’s fine for the lack of a Gang Boss could be withdrawn from my salary. They demurred, but did insist that my next job for either company had better have Wolfgang Puck manning the hot truck.