Monday marked the conclusion of principal photography for another installment of “They Live Among Us.”
I’ve chronicled my adventures in filmmaking on the project blog, as well as on various radio shows and in print publications. What I continue to return to – and scratch my head over – is what a film unfriendly town Los Angeles is to shoot in – unfriendly for the independent filmmaker, without a studio’s coffers to line their pockets.
Poverty can be a good thing, in that it forces creative thinking. You have to write your way out of the corners that you have placed yourself in. You have to focus on character and story, rather than VFX.
It can also be a bad thing in that you must place your trust in unscrupulous people (who will ever forget the infamous Landlord Steve), who prey upon indies like a Komodo dragon on homeless beachcombers. They are everywhere, lurking in the shadows, just waiting for you to wander their way.
And then…. there are the Others. Those who struggled and fought their way through the studio system…. only to forget their humble beginnings. I met one of these creatures early Monday morning.
We had a pre-dawn shoot – our call time was 2 am – at an undisclosed location in the Hollywood Hills. It is a remote area; an uninhabited oasis nestled in between a couple of small neighborhoods.
The usual SNAFUs had occurred; our production trailer had broken down on the 101, so we had to move to the backup plan. Fortunately, the company that was providing our trailer had a backup generator, so they brought it out for our use, and we began to prepare for the night. We established base camp on a bluff that afforded a panoramic view of Hollywood. A flattened boulder became our craft service table. Carnitas were heating, coffee was percolating. Had it not been 40 degrees, it would have been almost romantic.
We had 4 scenes to shoot; all with the characters of Peg and Ted. One was a continuation of where Episode 3 left off, the others a different night in Episode 5. All quiet scenes, punctuated by the deeply internal work of Kendra and David, the actors who play Peg and Ted.
It was a clean, smooth shoot. Dawn quickly approached, and we were on our final shot. As we set up for it, an SUV rolled down the road – we were shooting underneath a street light – and stopped in the middle of our setup. I glanced over as Gary, my line producer, began to speak to the driver, then turned my attention back to the set-up. After a moment, I realized that the SUV was still parked there, and went over to find out what was going on.
Inside the SUV was a woman, probably in her early 50s. She was dressed in business attire, with a mop of curly brown hair. And man, was she pissed.
I asked her if I could help her. She wanted to know “exactly what” we were doing. I told her we were finishing up a scene. She told me that “this” is not how films are made. “It’s not?” I asked her. No, she informed me emphatically. There is a process. A procedure. This is a NEIGHBORHOOD, she said. I glanced around at the hills, devoid of housing, at the dog park. Yes, there was a neighborhood around the bend and over the hill, but we were in a miniature no man’s land. She followed my glance… and grew more enraged. She informed me that she had been on the phone with Film L.A., and she was pretty certain that we did not have permits. “You were on the phone with Film L.A.?” I asked, glancing at my watch. It was 5:40. That action took her anger up a notch. She asked me if I knew where I was. I looked at her quizzically. “This. Is. Los. Angeles,” she said, punctuating each word. “This is the film capital of the WORLD.”
I hesitated, and decided to not correct her. Bollywood, not Hollywood, is the film capital of the world, but she seemed headed towards a stroke, so…
“I have been in the entertainment business for over 20 years,” she said. “And this… this,” she said gesturing to our meagre setup, “This is not how things get done.”
I asked her if we had disturbed her. She replied that she was very disturbed. By what? I asked. We have CARS, she replied. Well, yes, we did. We parked them on the side of the street, as every other person who comes to this location to jog does daily. Our equipment disturbed her. What equipment I asked. LIGHTS, she spat out.
I glanced around. We had one china ball. One.
“You know what you are behaving like?” she hissed. “You are acting like…. a guerilla filmmaker.” She spat the words out as if they were an unmentionable disease, the kind that you don’t talk to your mother about. Then she slammed her gas pedal to the floorboard, peeled down the hill, whipped her SUV around, and drove back to the sanctity of her abode, pausing to give us a good head shake as she passed by.
We returned to work, got the shot, packed up, and within 30 minutes were enjoying the warmth and pancakes of Bob’s Big Boy as we prepped for a company move to our final location.
The above story has certainly provided us with a laugh, and has given rise to Tweeting “inside jokes” about monkeys and/or guerilla filmmaking… but it’s also given me pause. This shrew claimed to have worked in the entertainment business for over 20 years. No one starts out in this business on top. It’s work, hard work. You have to fight, tooth and nail, for every rung of the ladder that you climb, while being careful to not step on the fingers/toes/heads of others. You start from humble beginnings when working to establish yourself, and that usually means that you start indie.
When my more established friends ask how the shoot has gone, and I regale them with my newest installment of Adventures in Filmmaking, the response is almost always universal. Their eyes glisten with nostalgia; their voices grow tender and husky, and the phrase I hear most is “God, I miss indie film.” For one brief moment, they all transform into Roy Hobbs, lying in his hospital bed, proclaiming his great love for baseball.
There’s something that happens in indie film; the challenges that you face brings your team closer together. There’s a sense of community, of family. Everyone becomes one. The trials, the tribulations, the angst… all are forgotten as people bond. We’re left richer by the experience; first, because we survived it, second, because of the new stories we have to tell.
There are two brands of people who cross the bridge from indie to studio filmmaking. The first group maintains a deep love for their indie brethren – and compassion for the challenges that we face. They are the first to offer up help, for once, they were there, too.
And then you have the other group. Those that have forgotten from whence they came. Those that cocoon themselves in the false sense of entitlement, and cling fiercely to their perceived status in life.
Which brings me back to that bitter, angry woman who drove through our set, determined to let us know that we were ignorant hacks. As I type this, I’m feeling somewhat sorry for her. Sorry that she has found herself so far removed from her roots. Sorry that she feels the need to toss her baggage onto the shoulders of others. Sorry that she crossed the bridge of entitlement, and now, can only gaze jealously at others, across the great divide.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe