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Hard lessons in Location Production

When first getting a script, it is the Production Designer’s unique role to look at nothing and see everything – all the possibilities. Designers are entrusted with the important responsibility to make something from nothing. So for me, making motion pictures on location is a version of farm-to-table filmmaking, too often while having to walk through the fires of production.

Hollywood’s addiction to pursuing subsidies has turned its filmmakers into migrant art workers more akin to modern day paleo-hunter-gathers. I have worked in many regions, as well as foreign countries, so I have no fear of remote locations or "the new". I believe that filmmakers should always be open to the possibility of working in cinematically diverse locations and proactively solving the challenges that may be encountered, provided that they have the full support of their producing studios and that these studios require their line producers and unit production managers to provide the leadership and essential support required for addressing the challenges that the chosen region and its locations may present.

As the walrus said : The time has come for the ADG, USA, and Producers to pool their resources and collective experiences in order to generate the data that will confirm the cost savings that the studios would derive from green-lighting a small start-up art department for a few weeks prior to entering into full pre-production. Certainly there are many past examples of how a poorly prepared production has been financially and mortally wounded due to bad planning and poorly informed decisions that were made at the very beginning of pre-production. During this early start-up phase, the designer would break down the script and identify the design and construction start-up priorities while working in tandem with the show’s creators, producers, and location department in order to generate the essential preliminary research, sketches, and data that will better inform their budgets, planning, and logistics. Equally critical, this window of time will allow the Production Designer to carefully consider, interview and secure the most capable key departmental hires, who are most critical for achieving an overall financial savings and ultimately, a professional and sane realization of their production’s aspirations.

Danger, Will Robinson! : To illustrate the greater challenges and how we might identify the warning signs and remedies or interventions before these challenges become irreconcilable or destructive please consider the following points based on my most recent experiences working on "The Act". This is a cautionary tale of what to proactively address or avoid when working on location in particular.

1. Owning the Narrative

Though always challenging and potentially rewarding, location filmmaking can also be disastrous. What was most lacking in the making of "The Act" was any proactive attempt on the part of the line producer or unit production manager, we will call them the “managers,” to address and report back to the studio the details concerning the deficiencies that were identified and encountered by my team during our earliest days working in Savannah, Georgia. As with all studio productions we had a designated studio representative, the “rep,” whose responsibility was to monitor and report back to the studio both the positive and the negative aspects of our start-up and production process. Too often these reps are over extended and supervising many shows at the same time, so they come and go a lot and their tendency is not to interact much if at all with the department heads. Their tendency instead is to place an over reliance on the show’s managers for all progress reports and updates, which denies the studios a real-time in-depth snapshot of the production’s overall progress, challenges, or internal conflicts. It is incumbent upon the designers and their keys to maintain a direct, open, and personal line of communication with these studio reps, and if necessary their studio supervisors, so that a singular filtered narrative created by the managers does not become the only record and reporting of the evolving production’s journey.

2. The key is the KEYS

Obviously for location productions the hiring of experienced key staff is critical. Though we would always prefer to hire coworkers with whom we have long, strong, and productive work history, the demands of distant locations and the economics related to rebate financing often prohibit us from doing so. On "The Act" the managers encouraged me to hire a construction coordinator with limited experience as a coordinator and as I would learn the hard way, almost no working history in Georgia. This hire was my singular biggest mistake for which too many suffered and I own it. I caution all when securing your keys for location work to ensure that they are both accomplished at their positions and that they have a work team that they can call upon. Most critical is that they conduct themselves professionally and courteously at all times. It is essential that they build constructive and respectful working relationships with their local hires, vendors, and subcontractors. Chauvinism and hubris on the part of any of our department supervisors, especially when working in regional locations can do great harm and it will undermine the cooperation that is essential in these smaller communities where we are their guests.

It was clear from the very beginning that there were not enough experienced local craft-workers available in the city of Savannah or the state of Georgia to meet our production’s labor requirements. At first the mangers resisted all proactive requests to bring in additional long distant hires to augment our limited local crews. Despite this fundamental and on-going labor challenge our local Savannah design and construction crews, though too few in numbers proved themselves to be professional, resourceful, well mannered, and extremely hardworking. Eventually denial could no longer conceal reality and when it was clear that we would not meet our shooting dates, the managers reluctantly and finally agreed to travel in additional propmakers and painters.

3. Friend or Foe?

The selection of one’s art director, construction coordinator, lead painter, and set decorator must be that of the Production Designer’s – we must own this decision! Of course a genuine consultation with the studio and producers is required and must be conducted as well. But in the end these keys must be our hire. The key’s competency, loyalty, and candor should never be in question. That said we all work for the production so transparency and candor between our keys and the managers at all times is essential in order to maintain trust and mutual respect between all parties. One aside, there is a growing tendency by construction coordinators to dominate our painters. For me painters are extremely valued creative artists and partners who must be treated and respected as an equal to the construction coordinator not as their subordinate staff.

4. Who’s on First?

There was a time when the Production Designer was the first hire and was sent out by the studio and producers to pre-scout the locations with the aid of a location manager and regional scouts. This was a very cost effective method that allowed for the identification of the most creative and logistically practical options for the director and producer to consider in advance to the commencement of formal preproduction. This course maximizes the designer’s talents and unique ability to consider all of the possibilities in terms of the story and its characters. Location mangers are not narrative artists and sending them out ahead of the designer is too often a waste of time and money. On "The Act" I started too late but we all did. Luckily we identified our hero locations very quickly only to see our good fortune and prep time squandered by a poorly managed and overly drawn-out negotiation process.

As the designer you should always listen first, last, and always to your own instincts especially if what your are being told runs counter to your past experiences and basic common sense. On "The Act" we had to build a Habitat for Humanity housing development and our location manager assured us that we would not have to involve the local building department when nothing could have been further from the truth. Even on a distant location there is no place to hide, so the responsibility to seek the truth and become the champion for the production’s interests, both creative and logistical, falls to us.

5. In Production there is no Court of Appeals

The studios place a great emphasis these days on their efforts towards pursuing zero tolerance for discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace while still looking the other way where excessive work and travel hours on distant locations continues to be tolerated. A lot of what I’ve shared requires designers to be proactive in ensuring for the professional performance and welfare for our departments and coworkers, but this sometimes can come at a high personal price. With the rapid escalation of streaming productions we are experiencing a significant decline of competency, professionalism, and experience within the ranks of our mangers. If our working relationships with our managers degenerate we are encouraged to believe and trust that the studio’s Human Resource departments are there to provide fair and professional arbitration. Do not be mislead, the HR departments exist primarily to protect the studio from expensive lawsuits and to ensure for the welfare and supremacy of their managers in the workplace. HR’s advocacy does not extend to the protection of whistleblowers when they try to bring to the studio’s attention poor judgment or acts of malicious malfeasance on the part of their managers. The HR department is there to protect these managers. So more often than not no good deed goes unpunished often victimizing the whistleblowers for their earnest efforts.

The HR department’s process for review is really a kangaroo tribunal where the defendant is regarded as the guilty party and required to prove their innocence without the benefit of legal council. The best that we can do as department managers is refuse to participate in such actions and require the HR department to contact our union’s attorney or the IA’s legal council directly so to enlist their direct intervention. As the great Russian-born designer Boris Aronson would say, “On every production there is a wictum and It’s your job not to be the wictum!"

There is Hope : Where working on location is concerned we must insist at the very beginning that the studios and their managers be the first to ask and answer the most fundamental questions of whether the chosen region has sufficient human and material resources to ensure for the successful realization of their productions. We cannot encourage and enable them to apply Donald Rumsfeld’s doctrine of “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” As the designer your professional reputation is at stake and the welfare of your coworkers has been entrusted to your stewardship. If the answer to the most fundamental questions regarding available and essential resources is negative, then it is the studio’s professional and moral responsibility to provide their production’s with the essential preproduction time, experienced and professional management leadership and resources from wherever they may have to be brought in from in order to ensure for the production’s successful realization. Of equal importance where leadership is concerned is the studio’s calibrating of the moral compass that only they can be the advocates for. First and last, they must be the ones to monitor and safeguard, and when necessary insist that their managers maintain a constructive covenant and professional partnership between their senior stakeholders, both the producing managers and the department heads, especially when working on distant locations where clear lines of communication and mutual trust are essential to the overall success of their productions.

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