My first position of any responsibility on a film was the time I was hired as Parking Coordinator on “Three Men and a Little Lady”. I had worked a few gigs as a parking PA and this was my first step up the film production ladder. Parking Coordinator is a job unique to New York City. It is just what it sounds like, the guy who is responsible for providing parking spaces for the productions numerous trucks and campers. He’s not responsible for actually parking the trucks, that’s generally (though not always) something the Transportation Captain supervises. The concept sounds a little ridiculous to some people. These are not people who have ever tried to park a car in New York City.
Finding a spot to park in the city can be ridiculous. It was a recurring plot point on Seinfeld. Calvin Trillin wrote a book about it. People base their travel plans around street cleaning schedules. A smaller film, like one of the Woody Allen pictures travelled with 4-5 45 foot trucks, 3-4 Campers and a couple 15 passenger vans. When we made a big film like “The Siege” we travelled with 8-9 trucks (some of which were full tractor trailers), 10 full size campers, 6-8 Vans and as many as 30-40 picture cars which included humvees, deuce and a half troop trucks, etc. It’s hard enough finding a spot to park when you go grocery shopping; you’re never going to happen upon 10 vacant blocks of parking adjacent to your set, are you?
Three Men and a Little Lady was a mid-size film. Not an overly difficult parking job. The biggest challenge to it was simply my inexperience. I largely overcame that, with one glaring exception, which was the politics of a film set. I began my education in this area on that job, and I continue learning to this day. I started out my career blissfully innocent of this, however I had my eyes opened in short order.
The political aspect of filmmaking is entirely a function of ego. That is to say it is a constant and treacherous aspect of the job. When publishing a memo, for instance, you list the names of the people you send it to in order of importance. This generally means the Directors name is at the top, unless of course you have a very strong producer. The precise order changes with each job. It is not unheard of to be called on the carpet and questioned about someone’s name being written after someone else’s. Some of the most successful people I know in the business are those best at navigating this sort of situation.
I did several jobs for one producer who considered himself quite knowledgeable about food. Arranging lunch when you are out on a scout is the responsibility of the Location Manager. Scheduling lunches with him was a swim in treacherous waters. The proper procedure was to reserve a table at the second or third best restaurant in the area you were scouting. This allowed him the opportunity to tell everyone that you had made a good choice, but that he had a better one. Then he could call and get us a table at the place you already knew he wanted to go to. Actually ordering lunch once there was another ordeal entirely. The most powerful person always orders last, and either asks for something not on the menu or at very least asks for several very specific moderations to what is on there. With this particular guy the trick was to order the best dish on the menu that was unhealthy. That way he could order the seared tuna cooked with no oil, and then eat the truffle french fries off of your plate.
I perceived the political problem before I even started that first job. Namely, with three stars, whose camper parks closest to the set? Egos can be so fragile, particularly with three stars that are on the downside of their fame. The little things start to become really important to them. I asked the question of one of my superiors, who simply shrugged and said it wouldn’t be a problem. Well of course it was. I asked another boss, who said I should alternate the order each day. That seemed reasonable, and worked for a day or two. Within the week, however, I saw one of the personal assistants walking the lengths of the campers with a measuring tape. Uh-oh. Before I could sneak away they saw me.
“Hey, you. Tell me something. Do the other campers have espresso makers in them? Because this one doesn’t. I heard the others do.”
I told him I would check it out and get back to him. At a loss, I went to the Teamster Captain and asked for help. He was an old-timer who had been through the wars. He laughed and told me not to worry about it. I mentioned the measuring tape as well and he told me he would handle it as well.
Later that day I saw him leaning over the assistant and letting him know that if he wanted anything in the camper he could damn well get it himself, as that was what he was there to do anyway. The next morning none of the three guys were parked closest to set, the little girl was.
Say what you will about the Kangaroo Jack, I really liked the director, David McNally. He was young, smart and talented. Very good sense of humor, too. His prior directing effort was the abysmal “Coyote Ugly” and I told him I had watched it a dozen times but somehow missed the communal shower scene every time. He laughed, but made the point that it was one of the rare recent films with all female protagonists. David was proud of the fact that it didn’t contain any nudity, and as the father of a young daughter he really saw some merit in the picture.
We used to scout pretty hard then end our evenings with cocktails at the Soho Grand. Not enough film directors understand the importance of spending time like this. It’s nice to have cocktails in a trendy lounge full of models and actresses paid for by the studio, of course. More than that, though, informal time can be exceptionally helpful to the work. The more you know about the person you are helping tell the story the better informed your choices will be. Whether it’s their taste in movies, art, music, or literature; where they grew up and places they have travelled; or even things like the car they drive and the cocktail they drink, every piece of the puzzle you have makes you a better scout.
We were out one day when he point-blanked me with the idea of an apartment in Dumbo as a location, something with a great view of the bridges. This was before the neighborhood had turned residential, when it was still largely a ghost town. It was populated pretty exclusively by artists, which the character in question certainly was not. However aesthetic often trumps reality in movies, the degree to which that is true being a director’s prerogative.
Requests on such short notice can be tricky but fortunately I had a friend with living down there. My pal Eric is a puppeteer and had his work/live loft right between the bridges. A quick call confirmed that he was in and off we went. No matter how randomly you are able to pull something unanticipated off it always feels good when you do make it happen.
I was the first one through the door, and immediately worried about David’s reaction. The space was smaller than I had imagined, really not big enough to shoot. It did have windows with excellent views of both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. However a somewhat small interior was made much tighter by the fact that there were puppets everywhere. Hanging from the walls, hanging from the ceiling, strewn across every inch of floor space. Assembled, in pieces, unpainted, finished, they were in all different stages of completion. Any surface not filled by puppets was occupied by props or pieces of scenery. Hopefully David would not be too upset by this waste of his time.
To the contrary, he was as wide-eyed as a fat kid in a candy store. David had an almost beatific look on his face as he started drilling Eric with questions about his work. Eric is one of those guys who is at ease with anyone, and loves talking puppetry. The two of them were instantly deep in conversation, talking about every different aspect of puppets and puppeteering. Soon a portfolio was out and they were looking at pictures from shows Eric had done. I sat and listened to them for what seemed like hours.
Eventually another appointment was pressing and I had drag David out of there. As we drove to the next potential location I noticed how incredibly sad he looked.
“Sorry for wasting your time with that one, I didn’t realize how unshootable the place was.”
“No, no, that’s not a problem. I mean we can’t film there, but that’s cool. It just got me thinking…”
I waited for him to finish. He looked truly distraught. What did I do to bum him out so thoroughly? Part of it was job concern, but beyond that I generally liked the guy. Screw the appointment. I pulled over to the side of the road.
“David, what’s wrong?”
“Your friend, Eric? That was me just a couple years ago. I never set out to be a director. I was an artist, living in Toronto, without a care in the world. Lived to paint and sculpt, that’s all I did, all day every day. Eventually I started working with film, shot a few music videos. Was hired to do a few commercials. Next thing I knew I got a call from Bruckheimer and was directing a multimillion dollar film. It all got so complicated so fast, it’s like I just woke up and found myself here.”
“So fuck them. Do this one and chuck it all in. Why can’t you go back to where you were?”
He looked me straight in the eye.
“Lots and lots of money.”
I lost touch with him soon as they went off to Australia to shoot for months on end, spending tens of millions of dollars. They never made it back to New York to film, wound up cheating it in Australia. After all that they wound up with “Kangaroo Jack”. Wherever David is now, I hope he’s happy and doing something that he loves.
Every scout I know has at least one really silly film on their resume. My pal Gary, for instance, scouted for “Booty Call, part 2”. Not me however, not for the longest time. I started with prestige directors, doing several Woody Allen films before moving on to work with Mike Nichols. I was always perversely jealous of him for having the credit. My wish was granted, however, when I was hired to scout “Kangaroo Jack” for several weeks. Hard to top in the cheese department.
Believe it or not, Kangaroo Jack was originally intended as an adult comedy. Goofy as that sounds, it could have worked with great casting. You would need Bob Hope/Bing Crosby level talent to pull it off, though. I’m not sure who the modern equivalent to those fellows would be, but it sure as heck isn’t Jerry O’Connell and Anthony Anderson. When the film tested horribly they slapped in a scene with an animated rapping Kangaroo and marketed it as a childrens movie. Went from likely pulling in around 20 million or so, tops, to a domestic gross of 67 million. Such is the genius of Jerry Bruckheimer.
Some of the people you meet and things you see when you are scouting are just plain crazy. Movies hold such an allure for people that they sometimes open up their lives to you to a frightening degree. When you are cold scouting you are showing up completely unanticipated or prepared for. Once you convince them of your legitimacy you walk in the door and get a snapshot of their lives at exactly that moment. You see some interesting things doing this.
I was scouting houses in Staten Island to play as Matt’s family’s home. The key element of scouts like that are landmarks. If you’re not showing something that clearly identifies a specific location, why bother shooting there? For Staten Island you pretty much have two options for this: a view of the harbor with Manhattan in the background or the Verrazano Bridge. Manhattan is far enough away that you have a limited number of angles that will readily identify it, so the bridge is the better identifier.
Thus I find myself wandering around the northeast end of the island, looking for a good house with a view of the bridge. As my good friend the producer Dick Vane says: “If you want a view of the bridge go to the water and start walking backwards. When your ass hits a house knock on the door”. See, my job really isn’t that hard, is it?
I was over by the Fort Totten military base and was having trouble finding houses that sat directly on the water. I drove past what looked like an unpaved dirt lane off of Bay Street a few times before deciding to see where it led. It was strange, only one car length wide, and felt like someplace I shouldn’t really be. Perfect. After a few hundred yards it widened up a little and pavement started. Sure enough, there was a short run of houses overlooking the harbor, the bridge looming large in the foreground. They were all fairly modest houses on tiny lots with one glaring exception. Smack dab in the middle of the block was a giant Tudor and fieldstone house that was three times the size of anything else on the street. How odd. Naturally I parked and approached it.
I rang the buzzer and a woman answered the intercom. Damn. It’s so much easier to get in the door when you speak face-to-face. Explaining who you are and what you want is so much harder speaking to a disembodied voice through a speaker. Smiling and looking harmless is your best tool. After repeating my spiel a few times a buzzer sounded and I pushed the door open. Good job, I told myself, you convinced them.
Walking in I was absolutely blown away by the view. Floor to ceiling windows opened to the water with an amazing view of the bridge and harbor right in front of me. Truly a million dollar view. A middle aged Italian woman quickly braced me with questions.
“What the hell did you say you want? You doing a movie or something?” Her posture was tough. This was clearly not a woman to mess with, and apparently I had not quite sold her yet. I put on my best Midwestern manners and started explaining myself again.
She really put me through the paces. Closely examined my business card, asked about other films I worked on, absolutely gave me the third degree. As she questioned me I took in the interior of the house. Once you got past the view it had a pretty perfect layout for filming. Three large connected rooms, all open to one another, with one wall made up of those windows. Great flow, as they say, making it easy to shoot room-to-room. Excellent light. The only drawback was the décor.
It’s rare that you see a place as badly decorated as this. Baroque would be a polite way of putting it. Every surface was mirror or glass, every border was gold gilt, every cushion chintz and overstuffed. Just way, way too much of all the wrong things. Ugh. On a big film, however, you have plenty of money to redecorate locations, and the layout and view made it worth pursuing. After checking me out to her satisfaction she warmed up entirely.
I was introduced to her sister, and the two of them gave me the full tour. Like most people who let me in they were quite house proud. I oohed and aahed over every tchotchke and awful oil painting as I shot my pictures. Once that was done she told me I really needed to see the basement. As a scout you need to see everything possible so I gladly agreed. Before taking me downstairs she picked up a phone and spoke rapidly in Italian. The conversation was rather lengthy, but eventually she took me to a door. A buzzer sounded, unlocking the door and she opened it and gestured for me to go downstairs.
That struck me as odd. Who has an electric lock on the basement door? As I climbed down the stairs she closed the door behind me, leaving me on my own. Odd, indeed. As I entered the basement I had one of the scarier moments in my entire career. A quick glance caused me to wonder if I was leaving that room alive.
The scene was pure Goodfellas. Oh my. I was in an immense room, all fieldstone walls. A short, chubby man in a track suit grabbed my hand, shook it warmly, and started talking excitedly about movies. Clearly he was an avid filmgoer. He started walking me around the room as we chatted. What was scary about this? The other men in the room. An old fellow in a very dapper suit sat at a card table in the corner, a phone and some papers in front of him. He was flanked by two enormous goons, both of whom were giving me the serious stink eye. At no point did my gregarious little friend introduce me or even acknowledge the others were in the room. It was scary as hell.
The chubby guy walked me over to the only small window in the otherwise solid stone walls. He moved a telescope aside and showed me the view outside. Great. It was so small it wasn’t remotely useable and the rest of the room was essentially a vault. Trying to act naturally I asked if I could shoot some pictures. He turned to the old man and spoke to him in Italian. The response was brief, barely audible, and also in Italian.
“Yeah, shoot your pictures.” I turned to start panning the room and found a surprisingly strong hand on my wrist.
“No, you shoot out the window. No pictures of the room.” Got it. I made a big show of shooting out the window, making sure my lens was pressed hard against the glass so there was no confusion about where was aiming it. After a bit of that I nodded towards a small door set in the wall next to the window.
“Where does that go?”
“Nowhere” he said, never breaking his smile. He walked me back to the door I had come in and kept me there for perhaps 10 minutes, bullshitting movies. It felt like closer to two weeks. I kept wondering how many people had come into that room and never left. Mind you, I’m doubtful by nature and never let my imagination get the best of me, but I couldn’t see how the situation was anything but what it seemed to be.
The walk up the stairs was terrifying. Turning my back to them just felt like a mistake to me. I looked back once to see the chubby guy staring at me, that grin frozen on his face. Made my excuses to the ladies upstairs as quickly as possible, and got out the door. As soon as I was in the car I exposed the film so it was unusable, turned the key, and put plenty of distance between me and that place.
I’m not sure it’s possible to be typecast as a location manager but at one point I did my best. I worked on a lengthy string of romantic comedies set in New York City. Did nothing else for a few years. Although it’s not typically the genre I am drawn to as a moviegoer there actually is great satisfaction to be found in making them. At their best they present the city as a character, and challenge you to imbue it with a measure of magic. You need to create a fairytale setting that represents the best possible vision of that world. People have attempted to create that world countless times over the years, making it all the more difficult to show a new face of the city that is at the same time as glamorous as it needs to be.
My absolute favorite of these films is How to Lose a Guy in 10 days. Hard for a guy to admit, but I genuinely liked the film. The ticket buying public gave it 105 million dollars worth of love, which means that Paramount liked it as well. Most of all, though, I loved the process of making that movie. It was a fun ride from start to finish. I also had one of my greatest moments as a location manager making the film.
The climax of the movie involved Matt’s character chasing down Kate’s taxi on the way to the airport, pulling it over and convincing her to stay with him. Where to do it? It’s the final scene in the film, and there were a couple pages of dialogue. It needed to make some sense geographically, with great visuals, and be available to us for several days of filming. It needed to be someplace very special. I had a brutal time coming up with ideas no matter how hard I looked. I put the question out to my whole staff and several colleagues and no one came up with anything good.
Initially Kate was going to leave the city by bus, but this posed several problems. One significant one was that it limited the places we could shoot the scene. There are limited options for a bus leaving New York, and even though you aren’t always completely accurate in your geography it’s best to keep it somewhat truthful. Fortunately, Donald Petrie was directing the film as well as rewriting the script. He worked so hard to solve the problem and is flexible and open minded. It was his idea that she could perhaps leave by plane instead, which vastly increased the possibilities. Opened it up as much as possible for me. Still I was at a loss.
This went on for weeks. Not coming up with a solution was driving me crazy. Donald, too. He couldn’t write the final scene of the movie until we figured it out. Finally we wound up in a car driving around, taking the different routes one might take to the airports. We were on the Manhattan Bridge when Donald said “Here”. What? We’re in the middle of the damn bridge. But he meant it, and he was right, it was the ideal location for the scene. It featured beautiful visuals with the structure of the bridge itself in the foreground and the skyline of lower Manhattan in the background. Perfectly logical geography. Only problem being the impossibility of shooting there.
It was not unprecedented to shut down a bridge. I’d been on a few movies that had done it before. The problem this time being that we were one of the first films to shoot post 9-11. I suspected that there was no way the City would give me permission for the bridge at that point in time. Even with my excellent relationship with the Mayor’s Office for Film I was right. They almost laughed me out of the office when I tried to sell them on it. I understood, of course. A request like that has to be signed off on by a Deputy Mayor first, and ultimately the Mayor himself. As supportive of the film business as he was, there is no way Rudy Giuliani was approving that one.
It was one of those rare times I was at a loss. Just could not get my head around a solution. I drove down to the bridge one morning with Jeffrey, my old assistant location manager, to try to figure it out. We wandered around the entrance to the bridge trying to work it out. If we were able to get permission perhaps we could stage the scene there. There was a wide plaza that would at least get us the bridge in the background if nothing else. It was a definite compromise but the best I could do, if I could even get that approved.
As we were leaving, feeling kind of down, a voice called out to us. It was a guy sitting in a D.O.T. van on the side of the road. We had noticed him but consciously ignored him. In my profession you often wander into places you shouldn’t be, like the traffic lanes at the entrance to a bridge for instance. In these situations it’s always best to mind your own business and act as though you belong there, hoping no one notices you. But we were noticed. Busted. We walked over to the van preparing to explain our way out of a hassle.
“Hi there, Sam Hutchins, location manager. Just doing some scouting for a film here.”
“Yeah, I know who you are. Don’t you remember me?”
Huh? Who the hell was this guy? He introduced himself and thanked me for doing him a huge favor in the past. I had a good long look at him and it all came back to me.
Years earlier I was on a film that wanted to shoot in a vacant lot under the bridge, on the Brooklyn side. No one wanted to admit they owned the lot. After some serious detective work I learned that Con Ed owned the property. Even after contacting them I had to convince them they were the owners, they had no idea. Made a deal with them, problem solved, we filmed there.
While we were prepping the set I got to know the guys in the adjacent building. They were engineers working on the bridge overhead. They had been trying to find out who owned the lot for years with no luck. Parking was impossible down there and they desperately wanted use of the lot. Nice guys, I enjoyed chatting with them most mornings. When we wrapped the set I stopped by their offices and tossed the head engineer a key to the Con Ed lot.
“They didn’t even know they owned it. Use it as a private lot if you want, they’ll never know. Just forget where you got the key.”
Here was the very same guy, years later, thanking me for doing him a solid. He smiled at me.
“My guys used that lot to park in for years. Just what do you guys want to do on the bridge?”
“We tried to close it for a week to film on. The city laughed at us.”
“Really? Do you need the whole bridge?”
“Just the lower deck.”
“It’s yours, you got it. I’m the lead engineer on the bridge reconstruction. I have authority to close the bridge any weekend I want. I’m sure I could find something for my guys to do the days you need to be here. We’ll work down at the far end of the bridge, out of your way.”
And there you have it, bridge closed for a few weekends. Problem solved. Pays to be nice to people.
My only disappointment is that Donald told me he’d have my first child when I told him the good news, and I’m still waiting for him to pay that one off.
Live in New York long enough and you’ll start seeing places disappear. Even the institutions that seem permanent can vanish overnight. Trying to recreate a distant time in this city becomes daunting in the face of such knowledge. Finding Joe Gould’s New York was a challenge that was particularly appealing to me as it was a time and place I would have loved to live in. When Joe was here it was, indeed, still a village. A community of likeminded people living together by choice. It had become a place for the creative types, the artists, the outcasts, at a time when such places were quite rare. Not to idealize it too much, of course. Even in its earliest days it bore its share of tourists and other undesirables. Most of all, though, it was a place you could come when you had nowhere else to go. We had to create the illusion of this place out of the fragments that were left and be smart about filling in the gaps.
It all starts and ends with Washington Square Park. There were mentions of Joe sleeping in the park, and hanging out by the arch trolling for tourists he could hustle. Much of the park was intact, at least as much as we required. In Joe’s time Fifth Avenue continued through and beyond the park; we were able to drive a vintage bus on the pathways to create this illusion. Our Production Designer, Andy Jackness, had a brilliant solution for the modern lamp posts. He found fiberglass shells that wrapped around the new aluminum posts. Great solution as long as you didn’t tilt the camera up. The real significance of the park foe me is that as a 12 year old I sat on a bench there with my father and decided New York was the place I needed to live.
Research taught me that there were a few obvious differences in the streets of the village between then and now. A big one is that many of the townhouses have had their stoops stripped off to make the sidewalks more navigable. The Village is so expensive now that the buildings are generally kept up much nicer than the world we wanted. Even ignoring these, simply filming exteriors of any size there was largely cost-prohibitive. We found a solution in Harlem. There were a few blocks off of Fifth Avenue just below 125th Street that had exactly the right look. Not a long run to film, but enough that by getting creative with camera angles we got a lot out of them. Like most things in this film.
Speaking of Harlem, one scene required a vacant lot full of rubble and that was the neighborhood to find it in. That is one of those things you can only find by pounding the pavement, travelling the streets til you see it. I spent some time driving block by block looking but soon grew frustrated by the time I spent sitting in traffic. I had a very full plate and little time to waste, so I put that scout off until the weekend. Going out around five in the morning on Saturday I was able to fly up and down the streets. I located several options and was wrapping up after many hours when I started seeing something lovely. It had become Sunday morning and all over Harlem families were making their way to church. Perhaps it was my tired mind but the sight of the little girls dressed in their best dresses holding their Mom’s hands as they crossed the street nearly made me weep.
I have great affection for the apartment we shot the party scene in. I found it by scouting windows. That is, I wandered about looking at the windows on buildings. Chances are behind any older oversized window there is a good interior. It’s hit and miss but you can get lucky. I did. When I got into the space behind this particular window I met the most amazing woman. She was in her 70’s and had lived through the bohemian years in the village. She even had a few passing encounters with the real Joe Gould, although she did not remember him fondly. Fascinating woman, full of life. When I brought the director in to take a look she kept us waiting outside for several minutes, saying she had just waked up. Mind you, it was noon. I didn’t pay any mind to the older fellow we passed in the hall until we got inside. Her bed linens were rumpled and an empty bottle of wine sat on the nightstand next to the stubs of burnt-down candles. Bless her heart, she had a gentleman caller! We cast her as a guest in the party scene and actors half her age had trouble keeping pace with her on the dance floor.
We needed several bars to film as that was where Joe spent much of his time. The Minetta was a natural but past that all of the really great dingy old village bars were gone. We wound up in a great old spot in Greenpoint called Irene’s that was virtually untouched since that era. Like many bars of the time it featured a semi-private back room with its own entrance. This was so women could drink in the back discreetly. Irene’s also featured two bars in the front room facing each other. In a brilliant low-budget compromise Stanley shot the bar on the right as one location, turned the camera around and shot the bar on the left as a completely different place, and dressed the back room as the Village Vanguard. Three bars in one. Genius. Sadly, as of this writing the Minetta is gone too. So many places are.
Joe Gould’s Secret will be airing on WNET Channel 13 Saturday, January 31st at 12:20AM. Set your DVR.
Scouting Joe Gould’s Secret was as pleasant an experience as I could ever have wished for. It started with Stanley and me meeting for a beer. I love the guy, and have enormous respect for him as an actor and director. Everyone knows him at least by sight, but not enough people appreciate just how talented he is in filling a role. He was looked at exclusively as a “character” actor for most of his career, due to his non-traditional look for a leading man. Yet every time I saw him playing the hit man, the cuckolded husband, the harried executive or whatever pigeonhole he was in he brought life to the part. Having such admiration for him and having done the two earlier films he directed made it a highly pleasurable working relationship.
As warmly as I felt towards the guy, it’s not like we hang out and talk normally, so I knew the meeting had a purpose. After sitting down and exchanging pleasantries he pushed Joseph Mitchell’s book across the bar to me. He was pleased to know I had already read it. Of course I had. I have enduring love affairs with New York City, history, the lush life and good writing. Over a few glasses of dark ale we kicked the idea of turning it into a movie back and forth. He had an unlikeable protagonist who fails every expectation, no money, and the barest thread of an actual story to hang it on. It was madness. But it was madness that took place in the lost dingy bowery bars and flophouses, amongst the pariahs of society, at the side of a brilliant storyteller. With the late winter sunlight setting through the windows of Mcsorely’s saloon I signed on.
If you have no money to make a movie your best ally is time. Stanley knew that and was smart enough to take advantage of it. We spent several weeks before the film was even greenlit walking all over the city finding out just how much of the old village was still intact. Typically I would spend the early part of the week researching, rooting around on my own, reaching out to whomever I could to piece together a world that no longer existed. Stanley spent those days beating the book into a storyline. On Fridays we would meet and wander for hours. We knocked on doors, snuck into places, even hopped a few fences. Without a script we kept a running list of potential settings and shaped that list, and the script, largely upon what we were able to discover. We always ended our day with a few hours drinking beer in a musty old bar talking over our travels.
My first great revelatory moment was walking into the Minetta Tavern. The book mentioned that Joe had frequently bummed food and drinks there. I knew the place still existed but had never darkened its door. I was prejudiced by the fact that it stood amidst a row of falafel stands, head shops, and bridge-and-tunnel crowd bars. Yet walking in the door was to immediately step back into the village of the 1940’s. Aside from a television nothing had changed. Sitting down and introducing myself I quickly got to know the owner. He laughed when I told him my mission and walked me to a corner where a painting of the one and only Joe Gould hung on the wall. It had been painted by a contemporary of his who had traded it for a plate of pasta and a tumbler of wine. The owner at the time hung it above Joe’s favorite table. Apparently Joe used to “accidentally” stumble across it when in the company of coeds he was trying to hustle for a few bucks or a tumble in the sack.
It was a moment of pure kismet, one of those times the universe just reaches down and tickles you in the belly. Not only had I found an authentic location for our film, I had a new headquarters to scout from and a lifelong friend in the owner, Taka.
Joe Gould’s Secret will be airing on WNET Channel 13 Saturday, January 31st at 12:20AM. Set your DVR.
Joe Gould’s Secret is a criminally underrated movie. It’s a story that intersects with so many of my personal interests it almost felt like fate when it came my way. Gould was one of the original American Bohemians, a habitué of Greenwich Village. He loved drink, women, and good times. At the same time he thirsted for knowledge of a broad array of subjects, including the truly esoteric like the mating habits of American Indians and the language of seagulls. He’s the poster child for unfulfilled potential. He was a consummate bullshit artist yet he had the best of intentions. He never told a lie that he didn’t want to make true, the capability was often just beyond him.
The other unappreciated genius in this story is Stanley Tucci, who directed the film. He’s well known as an actor, and if you have a television you now know him as the voice of AT & T but most people are unaware of his work directing films. Joe Gould was his third and final film as a director and being realistic, no surprise that it was. Not many film executives look at a script about an unlikeable homeless guy with a sad ending that also happens to be a period piece and tell you to go ahead and start shooting. Yet that’s the film Stanley chose to make. If it were still the age of the true independent film in America, or if he lived in Europe, I believe Stanley would still work as a director. As it is the magnificent bastard cashed his chips to make this film.
Although it had no prospect of making big money, as an independent it laid out a flawless blueprint. The source material was a story by the highly regarded New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. It takes place in a fascinating period of New York City’s history. The film is centered around an absolutely brilliant performance by Ian Holm. The supporting cast includes Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, Susan Sarandon, Celia Weston, Patricia Clarkson, Steve Martin, Allan Corduner and Aida Turturro. The photography and art direction were beautiful, and the locations were amazing. Looking back I still cannot believe we made it for just over 4 million dollars.
Joe Gould’s Secret will be airing on WNET Channel 13 Saturday, January 31st at 12:20AM. Set your DVR.
I had the time of my life skating around that pond waiting for the shooting crew to arrive but I got a really special treat when they finally did show up. That treat was a little thing called per diem. For those of you who don’t know, per diem is the money you are paid when on location to cover incidental expenses. This is on top of your petty cash, which covers your lunch and costs associated with you work day. Per diem covers everything you spend after hours. Most of it isn’t taxable, either. The English translation of “per diem” is “stripper money”.
Being unaware of the whole ‘per diem” concept to that point I had been spending quite conservatively. I just figured being on the road was reward enough in itself. Imagine my shock when the accountant called me into his temporary office and educated me on the subject. He did so by pulling out a stack of envelopes filled with $75 apiece and handing me one for each day I had been there. Including weekends. He stopped counting when he got to three weeks. What a revelatory moment that was for me.
Turns out there was only one strip club in the Portland vicinity, however it was a pretty good one. It was a big old building standing alone on the side of a lonely road in the woods. You had to search a little to find the place but hey, that’s what I do. Once inside the door you might as well have been in any big city in America. The full runway stage, awful smoked mirror walls and a steady diet of Hair Metal songs. The place had one brilliant idea going for it though.
When closing time came at 2AM the lights went up and everyone had to leave. You stood outside in the parking lot for about five minutes, then the door reopened and you were allowed back in. Everything was the same except they didn’t serve booze and officially operated as a topless donut shop. Five bucks got you two glazed donuts and a hot mug of joe. I think I was the only idiot to actually try the donuts. From the taste it was left over from its original date of purchase, sometime greater than six months prior.
Once I spit out the hideous chunk of dried sugary dough I took a good look around. One or two of the guys sipped coffee but the plates of glazed donuts sat untouched. No matter, I loved the concept. That first time on location I not only discovered per diem I also found out how to squander it immediately.
Some days you wake up, go to work, and start laughing at just how wonderful life can be. That happened evry day I was in Maine waiting for the shooting crew to arrive.
We only planned to shoot one scene on location there, with Denzel and Whitney going ice skating. It was an important scene as it was the first time you saw the characters really flirting and possibly falling for one another. On my end it was a total layup. The location was already signed to a contract. There was no city permit to acquire as Portland had no such mechanism in place. Hiring the police was a snap. The rink had a large changing/concession shed attached to it, so I had my holding area. The only real legwork was signing up the houses adjacent to the park to set decorating deals. We needed to pay them a couple hundred apiece to place christmas decorations on them. Perfect busywork to foist off on my local help.
To be fair, it had been an incredibly arduous shoot to this point. Mostly night filming, outside, in the dead of a frigid winter. We had fimled a a dozen different towns, the logistics of gaffing each one falling squarely in my lap. Penny also shoots legendarily long hours as a director. All of which added up to two things: I was greatful for the break and the main crew was too preoccupied to know that I was essentially on a paid vacation. My only responsibility was making sure the ice surface was smooth.
Of course that’s nothing I could handle myself. I brought in a father son team we found through a contact in the NHL. They were both former pro players who now had a consulting business for ice surface maintenance. Amazing how you can find someone who specializes in virtually anything with a little money. They were super nice guys who required no help from me at all. I’d meet them each morning, make sure they didn’t need anything, and watch them go to work. They spread a fresh sheet of water mixed with some sort of chemical over the surface of the ice each morning, let it freeze, then run over the surface with big squeegees. Mission accomplished.
After lunch the three of us would put on our skates, grab sticks and a bucket of pucks, and play pond hockey. I recruited a couple local high school kids and we played hours and hours of three on three matches. All in the open air, in the center of town, with the pond restricted to our use only. After all, we had paid a hefty fee for exclusive use of the pond. Every few days I would take a break from our games to call in and report on the surface of the ice. Fortunately those guys were really good, so my reports were always good. Two straight weeks of doing this and getting paid for it, I felt like a bank robber. How glorious.
It was one of the coldest winters in recent years. After the frigid temperatures during the prep time we were in great shape for the shoot. Everything went to plan until the day the charter arrived with the crew. That night there was a freak warm front rolling in. The day we were set to shoot the ice and the snow melted. We got a half day or so in of actual skating time while everything defrosted. The poor special effects boys had to struggle to cover the growing green patches peeking through the snow. The cast wound up mimicing skating in water up to their ankles. Watch the scene sometime, you’ll notice how few wide shots there are. Most of it was shot in medium closeup or tighter to avoid showing the swimming pool we wound up working in.
The first time I ever went out of town on a shoot was on the remake of “The Preacher’s Wife”. There was a key scene that took place on an ice skating rink. We needed an outdoor rink in an urban area that would be likely to stay frozen. Tricky thing, betting on the weather. I scouted the NYC metropolitan area, looking high and low. This was 1996, which was the year of the blizzard that completely shut down NYC for a few days, so it seemed safe to shoot locally. It just wasn’t here, though. Nothing I shot had the requisite charm.
Finally we found it through the Maine film office. Portland, Maine has a park in the center of town that features an ice rink. No boards or fence surrounding it, just an open field that they wet down and freeze over. Even better, it was faced on two sides by nice low brick buildings with some character. The weather forecasts gave us virtually no chance of it melting. Perfect. I was put on a plane and sent up there.
I had never left town on a job before, yet there I was. Portland is a wonderful town. Nice architecture, good people, great restaurants. I mean great. Also lots of microbreweries, and this was long enough ago that it was rare to find one, let alone a few good ones. I loved my time there.
The people in Maine, though exceedingly nice, were a little on the odd side. I was in the park waiting to meet the local location person who was hired to help me. Just standing there minding my own business when a strange little woman approached me.
"There’s a dead possum in the road" she mumbled. I actually had to ask her to repeat it a few times before I understood what she was saying. When I finally did I gave her a typical new york reply.
"So the fuck what?"
"We need to call somebody about it."
"Actually, no, we don’t. I think it’s better to leave it there."
"No, no, we need to call someone. It’s in the road."
I wish I could say that I turned my back on her and never saw her again but of course it was the woman who was hired to help me.
The other fun folks I met there were the couple who represented the local film office. Met them in the park that same day I met possum lady. They seemed really twitchy and uncomfortable. Took them about five minutes to tell me that the guy was in recovery and having a really hard time with it. Great. They insisted I have dinner and catch a movie with them. Being on location the first time I felt the need to be polite and accept the offer. Had to represent the company, right?
Of course I unthinkingly ordered a beer when we sat down. As soon as I did I saw the pure panic flash in the womans eyes. It was too late, though. I thought it would be too weird to cancel the order so I just ignored the minor freakout happening across the table from me. His eyes started darting around wildly, mine stayed glued to the menu. It was all i could do to look up at him but I knew what i would see would not be pretty.
The tension built as I waited for the drink to arrive. Every attempt at small talk died quickly. The guy was starting to shake a little. I was getting increasingly nervous that he would lose his shit at any second. When the beer finally arrived I decided the best bet was to dispatch it immediately and pretend it never happened. I grabbed the mug and gulped it down in one fast chug. The man stared at me the entire time. I scould see his adam’s apple bobbing as he licked his lips. Finishing the beer that quickly I inadvertently slammed the mug on the table as I set it down. He jumped in his seat like he was shot. At least that was over.
But it wasn’t over, of course. Not by a long shot. The twitchy bastard locked eyes on the glass. He kept staring at it. Licking his lips. I could even see him start wrinkling his nose and sniffing the air. This was getting ugly. I pushed the mug over to the edge of the table, as far away from him as possible. Unfortunately the waitress took that as a signal and quickly replaced it with a full mug. Crap.
A quick dinner felt like it took three weeks. I honestly have never felt a meal drag on that long. Finally it was over. I could not wait to get away from them and put away a couple glasses of whiskey to get my head right. Except I had forgot about the movie.
"Why don’t you just drive with us, we’ll bring you back to pick up your car after."
Oh yeah. Into the car I went.
"What are we going to see?"
"this new Nick Cage movie. Him and Elizabeth Shue. Not sure what it’s about, something about him in Las Vegas."
My first time showing a location I had scouted was for Woody Allen. Talk about nervous. Growing up in the midwest he represented so much to me. I had read his books, seen his films, and now here I was waiting for him to show. Pacing nervously around an office on lower Fifth Avenue, constantly checking my pager and jumping every time the office phone rang.
Rewinding a bit here, I was 22 at the time. Had been in New York for a few years. NYU film school, then started knocking around film sets picking up whatever gigs I could find. Did overnight security on “Working Girl”, “Enemies, a Love Story” and others before working as a parking pa. A few films standing out in the street overnight holding parking spaces for the trucks before I got my break and was allowed to scout. What a giant step it felt like, going from being a human traffic cone to actually finding a location that actually might be in a Woody Allen film.
They needed an office, and I had found a good one. Another location had fallen through and all the scouts were pulled off of their other assignments and sent scrambling. Of all the photos they had seen, they liked mine the best and were bringing Woody to see it. Santo Loquasto was his production designer and he liked the look of the place. I was so proud and excited.
Finally they arrived. The elevator door opened and Dana Robin (Location Manager), Tom Reilly (First AD), Santo, Dick Mingalone (Camera Operator) and Woody came in. The whole office went silent watching. None of the people working there knew that I was as new to this as they were. Woody walked around slowly, looking the place over. He might as well have been the sphinx, giving absolutely no clue what he thought. Just slowly moving about and considering. I felt like I would explode. Finally he turned to the group.
"Dick?" He turned to his cameraman.
Dick took a long, slow look before replying.
"I liked the last place better."
I wanted to kill him. How could he do that to me. The bastard. What did he know anyway. before I could recover Tom had them headed for the elevator. Dick took me by the arm and leaned in close.
"Kid, listen to this." He rocked back and forth. The floorboards creaked audibly. "The place looks great but the sound boys would die a slow death in here. When you scout a place think about every department on a film. We’re all in it together."
"C’mon Dickie" Tom called from the elevator.
"But it does have a great look, you’ll get it next time" he said, and they were gone.
Thanks, Dick, you didn’t need to do that for me. It was a small favor but one I’ll never forget.