Part III: Writer Held Hostage

Posted by Doug Richardson
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Don't forget to check out my intro to Doug's series, Part I and Part II of "Writer Held Hostage". --RB

Doug Richardson


It was late January, bitter cold, and the damned scene wasn't working. We were at the end of the first of five grueling weeks of night shoots. And that three week-favor had just turned the corner into a what felt like one long, endless, black hole. I was ignoring both my family and my other assignments. I was still working without a deal. Essentially, my labor was free. Like I said before. I could've walked. I had every right. But director Florent Siri had begged me to not abandon him.

Suppose it's about time I replaced the theme song to Gilligan's Island with an old Motown Diana Ross and the Supremes tune. Better ambiance.

But that's not why I stuck around. I was invested. The picture was now as much mine as anybody's. At my marrow, I'm still that kid who's desperate to make movies. That passion defies practical issues like common sense, not to mention paying for both a mortgage and private school for two young kids. I wasn't getting paid a cent. It could be argued that I was behaving financially recklessly.

Oh. And there was this little nugget. If I exited the picture the director and star might have to actually speak to one another. That's not to say they didn't talk. By all appearances they adored each other. Hugs and gifts and dirty jokes were exchanged. Yet truth be told, neither really trusted the other. I'd become the grease for their grinding gears. Dispute over a scene? Let Doug decide. Casting tug of war? Let Doug massage both egos. Bruce wants to fight? Send Doug in with his sleeves rolled up.

Early on, it wasn't so obvious. But something was evolving in those first three tenuous week of filming. While Hawk busied himself making the set as uncomfortable for me as possible with stunts like telling the grips not to provide me with a chair, making sure the production office left my name off the call sheet, and verbally jabbing me with lines like, "Betcha got stuff to write at home," I was trying like hell to get the star and director to converse on a substantive level. Florent liked to build his scenes in little filmic pieces. Bruce found that directing style disorienting, preferring to start with a rehearsal and a master shot to find his space before moving on to the close shots. From conflicts like this they made me their arbiter. As photography progressed, I kept myself near Florent and, between set-ups, made frequent visits to Bruce in his trailer. Between director, star, and writer, the system was working. But to some outside observers, I appeared to be nothing more than a meddlesome, wannabe moviemaker, inserting myself into whatever crack I could find.

This dysfunctional story reached its nadir on a pair of frozen nights at the end of January. Our exterior set piece was a house on top of Tuna Canyon overlooking Malibu. That aforementioned scene wasn't sticking with our star. And now he had other ideas on how the scene should go. This is how I found myself locked in a heated passenger van with Bruce and Florent, discussing a scene rewrite I was about to attack on my laptop. I was ninety-eight percent certain that Bruce's rethink would fall flat. But it wasn't my ass up there on screen. And sometimes this is the sausage-grinding process moviemakers go through to ferret out the good from bad.

So while a hundred or so of the crew puttered around in the wind and cold outside, getting paid to do next to nothing, Hawk Koch opened the van's door and began to climb in. Bruce barked, "Get the fuck out, Hawk! This powwow's for the creative people."

"But I'm the producer, Bruce. Crew wants to know what's happening."

"Shut the Goddamn door!"

Bruce's acrimony toward Hawk stemmed from the not-forgotten summit over last minute script changes the day before we started production. He'd wanted Hawk fired that very night and I'd spent an hour over the phone talking him out of that tree. Nonetheless, Bruce booting Hawk out of the van wasn't helpful or politic. That and I'll never forget the anguished look on Hawk's face. As if he'd just been sucker-slapped with a wet rag. Agree with him or not, Hawk's a total pro, deserving of considerable respect and not to be treated like a towel boy.

With the revised scene published, we rolled off a few takes then sat Bruce in front of the playback monitor. He got a chance to see what Florent and I already knew. The new scene played like day-old crap. We'd tried, failed, scrapped the new for the old, and were back to work. The only victims of the snafu were Hawk and the two lost hours of production time. At least that's what I thought.

Night shoots are grueling enough. But weeks on end of night shoots get under your skull cap like a bad melody you can't shake. It's a backwards world. I would drive home as the sun was coming up, kiss my wife and kids good morning, then stumble out to my office which I'd turned into a blacked out den with yards of duvatyne borrowed from the grip truck. Five was a lucky number. But closer to four hours of sleep was the norm. That's because while the cast and crew slept, the rest of the production was awake and wondering why the hell we'd blown two hours of precious shooting time the night before.

Ah. Ye old Hollywood axiom. When in doubt, blame the writer.

My production cellphone was ringing and ringing. Mark Gordon, renowned producer-and partner in the finance company-insisted that he must talk to me.

"What the hell's goin' on up there?" he asked.

I wearily explained the movie star snafu and hoped that would be the end of it.

"I'm gonna be blunt," said Mark. "Some of the crew think you're trying to direct the film."

"Not close to true," I corrected him. "Florent is the director. I'm just the writer. But I can't help it if Bruce and Florent drag me into every disagreement."

I was fudging a bit. I was no longer playing arbiter against my will. Talking through me was the only way movie star and director would efficiently function. I described what happened the night before. I suggested that whatever crew concerns existed about me trying to usurp our beloved French director could be traced directly to Hawk, who had clearly been stung by Bruce's midnight insult.

"Just do us both a favor and don't hang so close to the playback monitors," was Mark's suggestion.

"Sure," I said.

I trusted Mark. He'd produced more pictures in the past twelve months than I'd made in my dubious career.

So the following night, a Friday, and our last of the rough week, I took Mark's sanguine advice and busied myself far away from that collection of chairs and monitors known on many productions as video village. But not before updating my French friend on the politics and American customs of having a writer on the set. Florent protested. Still, I insisted on keeping my distance and made the excuse that I needed to attend to the script I owed Paramount. I promised that I'd be within radio range. Then came the first set-up of the night. During playback of maybe the first take, Florent looked to his left, wondered where the hell I'd crawled off to, then sent a call over the walkie-talkies to find me. A production assistant dug me and my laptop out of the camera truck and informed me that "Frog One" insisted that I watch playback with him. So much for my plan of following Mark's advice. The rest of the night trucked along as usual with me, loyal Tonto, seated next to the director.

Then the proverbial shit hit the fan.

We were ninety minutes from the sun rising and spoiling our inky black backdrop. Florent was instructing the camera crew when Bruce took sudden exception to the set-up. We were prepping to shoot a follow-up to a scene we'd filmed the week before. I'd subsequently done a bit of rewriting of the scene to serve the sudden and unceremonial exit of one of our actors. Florent and/or Dominique Carrara, whose job was to storyboard every shot, had forgotten to make the adjustment to the shot sequence. The movie star was arguing that the camera set-up the director was prepping no longer fit the flow of the narrative. Most of the crew was conspicuously standing in a wide circle that encompassed the bickering pair, waiting for instructions while Florent and Bruce fought and burned through precious, pre-daylight minutes.

For the first time in weeks, I stuffed a sock in my instinct to interject and play peacemaker. I stood two paces to the rear of our first assistant director Mark Catone, who turned to me and gestured, "Isn't this the part where you step in and fix things?"

"Hey. I'm just the writer," I defended. "They can do this without me."

Then I heard Bruce shout, "Where the fuck is Doug?"

"Too late," said Catone.

When I entered the circle, I could feel Hawk burning stare-holes through me. Bruce, in the meantime, couldn't wait for me to weigh in on the issue of who was right. Director or movie star? As Florent flipped through the old story boards, I already knew my answer.

"Sorry, pal," I said. "Bruce is right. With the adjustment we made last week, the storyboards no longer work."

"Ya see?" chimed Bruce.

"Fine!" Florent said loud enough to be heard on Catalina. "You do it!"

"Do what?" I asked.

"You direct the scene."

I chased Florent as he charged back to his video village retreat. "Florent, please. Don't do this to me. Not tonight. Not after what we talked about."

Florent stopped and apologized. He explained that he was short of sleep and had somehow lost his place in the story. And now the fucking sun was threatening to screw him out of keeping to an increasingly thin schedule.

"Please," he asked. "You direct the actors. I'll stand with Gianni (Gianni Coltellacci, cinematographer) and find someplace to put the camera."

And so it went. With the eyes of an exhausted crew staring at me as if I'd just gutted Caesar, I walked Bruce and the actors through their moves. We eventually finished the scene, barely making our night. Then after, as I sped east into an eye-gouging sun, I knew sleep was far off. My eight-year-old had Little League tryouts. That and I had hours upon hours of tangled phone calls to look forward to as I tried undo the damage for which I'd surely be blamed.

By Sunday afternoon I'd convinced Arnold and Bruce to release David Wally from having to produce his end of the movie from behind his Santa Monica office desk. And on Monday morning, Hawk gifted me with a permanent chair with my name on it. Later that week, there was even a sunrise ceremony and a huge cake with everybody, including Bruce, singing happy birthday to me. That pretty much sealed it. I was going to be on the movie until the last frame of film rolled.

Now if I could only get paid for it.


Remember, Doug will be available throughout the series to answer any inquiries or humbly accept accolades. Now is the chance to ask an industry insider those questions about the craft, the business, or his wife's baking, burning inside of you.

You can pick up Doug's book The Safety Expert for only $14.99 in paperback and $7.99 for the Kindle edition. I highly recommend it.

Don't forget to check out Doug's Stage 32 profile and website. You can also follow @bydougrich on Twitter.



Part IV: Writer Held Hostage
Part II: Writer Held Hostage
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