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Brandon Tonner-Connolly: The Horror, The Horror

Brandon Tonner-Connolly is a New York City based production designer with a deep love of film sparked by a childhood spent in dark movie theaters and living rooms. His feature credits include "The Big Sick", "Brigsby Bear" and "The Bad Batch". He most recently designed Ana Lily Amirpour’s "Mona Lisa and The Blood Moon", set for a 2021 premiere.

Please describe a challenging political situation you found yourself in on the job, and why it was challenging.

This happened just a few months ago so it’s still quite raw to me.

A film I was designing completely imploded two days before we were scheduled to shoot. The producers scattered immediately, leaving the impression they had no capability or intention of paying the crew for over a month of prep. Because production had no petty cash for a ridiculously long time, certain crew members were deep out of pocket to the tune of 4 or 5 figures. Even worse, I found out that the producers hadn’t yet signed the union contracts (even though they had been in touch with the local union offices for weeks and had been on the verge of making required deposits) so we were still technically a non-union show. Everyone in my department had signed on thinking the movie would flip and this would be their golden ticket into the union.

When I got the call about the shutdown, I had just finished the two-hour drive from LA to the remote first location. The Set Dec crew had spent the day dressing an entire ranch compound with several cabin interiors. They were unwinding outside of their motel rooms, telling stories and laughing with each other. I now had to inform them of four deeply unpleasant facts:

-the movie was shutting down

-the work they had done today somehow had to be restored or otherwise dealt with tomorrow

-there was a good chance they wouldn’t be paid for their weeks of work or reimbursed for their out-of-pocket expenses

-they would not be getting any of their union days

What did you do?

I immediately went to the closest liquor store. It was 9pm and I just made it to a Mom and Pop place in town before they closed. I bought a few cases of beer, a few bottles of wine, and some champagne.

I went back to the motel and walked from motel room to motel room, breaking it to people and being completely honest about the situation. After I told them each individually, I brought everyone together in a group outside. I apologized for allowing the producers to lie to us for weeks. I made sure they knew how heavy the burden of my responsibility to them as my crew weighed on me. I told them we were all in it together and we could discuss how to handle the sets that were dressed at the ranch in the morning. I told them how much I appreciated their work and how we would have made a beautiful film together. And then I suggested we all spend the rest of the night mourning the loss of our shared endeavor and celebrating all we had accomplished as a team. And that’s exactly what we did until the motel owners kicked everyone out of the pool at 2AM.

How did you end up in this situation?

About six weeks earlier, I was in New Mexico wrapping up an extremely stressful movie when a close collaborator and friend called. She was directing an indie film in LA and asked if I would design it. I love nothing more than building worlds with her so despite the project being uncharacteristically small for both of us, I said yes. The producers and I agreed it would start non-union and flip to a union film before we started shooting.

In hindsight, my conversation with the Line Producer about flipping should have been a huge red flag. She asked if it would be easier for me if it was union and when I answered, “god yes” she said “Well, I guess let’s go union then.” I asked if she had fringes in the budget and she said she would figure it out. I later learned she didn’t know what fringes were.

The whole prep was one vibrant, billowing red flag after another. The main producer told me they would “fudge” my travel dates to get around quarantining when I arrived in LA. I declined his offer. No one in the production department had any feature credits, including the UPM who used a tech scout lunch as an opportunity to ask me what a UPM typically does on a film. I knew the LP was not experienced in the union filmmaking world when I asked her to put me in touch with the Transpo captain to talk about picture cars and, with a completely straight face, she introduced him to me as the “captain of transportation”.

We pushed three times. The first time they didn’t have their permits in order. The second time they didn’t have insurance to pick up the camera package. The third time someone tested positive for Covid and, due to production’s complete disorganization, the lead actor and director were almost exposed. The lead actor justifiably did not feel comfortable shooting until the producers improved the Covid protocols.

I later found out at one point the DGA sent letters to the director and 1st AD telling them not to work on the project because it wasn’t properly set up.

The LLC changed three times, each time with a completely different name and address.

Why did you keep going despite the warning signs?

I didn’t recognize how dishonest the producers were. I knew they were incompetent, but I didn’t know they were liars. I thought we would drag them over the finish line.

I repeatedly asked if they had the resources to pay the crew and vendors. I told them if they were in doubt, we could not continue working. They assured me time after time that they had the money, and they would never put the crew’s wages in jeopardy. It was just taking a little while to set up payroll etc.

Also, I was entranced by the director’s vision and obsessed with achieving it. Many directors have the gift of genuinely believing their film is the most important thing happening in the world at that moment. The best ones have the ability to make others believe it as well. And when you have aesthetic confidence in such a person, you start to follow them down the rabbit hole. It can be a euphoric feeling. I probably have more aesthetic confidence in this particular director than in any other human being. Which made me uniquely vulnerable. It’s a lesson I thought I learned years ago, but you can’t allow yourself to get so wrapped up in realizing the vision that your standards of conduct for production slide and you allow yourself to participate in a process you aren’t proud of.

I found out the reason the movie fell apart in the end is the financier discovered the LP/Producers didn’t have an actual budget document. They had no cost reports and no idea how much they were spending. When they put a budget together and went line by line through it, the financier discovered they were projecting about a million dollars over budget and pulled the plug immediately. You just can’t anticipate that kind of madness and deceit.

What happened the next day on location with the crew? Did conditions improve?

Morale was still high in the morning, but, understandably, people weren’t working another second until they got paid. The producers weren’t answering their phones or responding to emails. I took an hour to figure out exactly how much each person was owed, and I sent it to the producers with the note that we needed to sort out the situation asap or I couldn’t guarantee the sets would be restored. It felt a little bit like setting up an Art Department Autonomous Zone at the motel. The producers chose not to respond.

We found out the ranch owner had not been paid and had made it very clear he was not allowing anyone from the film back onto his property until he received the location fee. He was nice enough to allow the dressers to get their tools, but other than that there was nothing for us to do about it.

What would you recommend to a designer in a similar situation?

The most important thing you can do is stand with your team and let them know you’re all in it together. Then attempt to unite the larger crew in collective action. I contacted all of the other department heads right away and set up a Zoom call for us to share our experiences and create a coordinated plan.

It’s obviously a terrible situation but it helps to have everyone on the same page, supporting each other. As production designers, we’re uniquely skilled at motivating and organizing individuals in the service of a collective goal, which is both a contributing factor to how this situation developed and hopefully a contributing factor to how it will be corrected.

We’re moving swiftly toward legal action as a group and, prompted by repeated calls to the locals, the union has opened up an investigation that we hope will yield results. Over thirty crew members have filed claims with the California Labor Commission, so they’re involved in the situation as well.

If nothing else, I’d like to help ensure these producers don’t have an opportunity to do this to another crew so I’ll continue to share this story with the hope that others will benefit from this trying experience.

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