What does a producer do? Part 1

Posted: August 8, 2013 in Movies
Tags: , , , , ,

A lot of people ask me what a producer does.  To borrow from Captain Picard… Producer’s just “Make it So”.

Side note, one of my favorite professors on the face of the planet- JG- once  made a VERY valid point while helping me on a project that was a bit out of my league. I was complaining to him that I was bored. JG said “As a producer you want to be bored”.

If that’s not the truth. Producing- whether its movies, events, ad campaigns (anything creative really) is part babysitting, therapist, logistics, HR manager, accountant, scheduler, wrangler, caterer, recruiter, contract manager and paperwork nazi.

I will admit, I haven’t had the chance to work on a major production like Avengers but my imagination is running rampant just multiplying to the nth degree based off the short films etc that I have worked on.

You know you have a great production if all you have to worry about is making some coffee- like on the project that JG made his point.

My good friend Ellie Sully (go read her blog here ) Can vouch a lot of the following as she has been my go-to production designer/actress/storyboard artist and makeup person for years now.

Productions are effing nuts.

Producers so don’t get enough credit. They really don’t. Not only do you have to report to whoever is financing your project (unless, you have the money to do it yourself) but you got to make sure of the following in no order):

1. You have a story.

  • Can’t emphasize this enough. There are alot of so called producers out there (I am looking at a majority of youtube) that don’t even have a story. There is no beginning/middle/end let alone something complex like… oh wow.. character development.
  • What’s sad, is that Ellie Sully’s kid- True Story- at the age of like 4 was given a piece of paper and crayons and told by me to go “write a movie” so I could get him out of the way of us setting up some lights to do a pick up shot. He came back with something that looked more like a treasure map. He sat down and showed me a story about how their dog became a zombie, was trying to get away from the scribble he did (the “ball of death”) and that me and his mom had to go to Lake Michigan to get water to wash away the “zombieness” so the dog could play outside. Beginning/middle/end AND character development- AT THE AGE OF 4.

2. Hire Production Heads and make sure they hire good subordinates- not their friends.

  • Here’s where my day job as a recruiter for the last 3/4 years has come in very handy.  It’s better to hire someone that is REALLY good at one or two things but decent at another few.
  • It’s even better if you can hire someone that is REALLY awesome at one thing but certified in something that is the opposite extreme.
  • Why? You never know what’s going to happen and who can step in and fill a role at the last second.
  • Great Example: Ellie Sully- I mean, she is just a creative soul to begin with. However she has such an eclectic background to this day she amazes me. I have seen her (true story) on a project, with a busted ankle, stapling fabric all over the place to create a “black box” room for us to film in. You know what she did when she was done? Sat down, took still photos for us to use for whatever and attempted to help me script supervise (that’s a long story).
  • Another great example- my good friend Danny Boy (not real name) Engineer by day, photographer by night. One of the projects he was shooting photos for, we were building an elaborate rig to fake out a car accident. Guess who pointed out the weak spots in the rig and prevented people from getting hurt?
  • Yes I  said, don’t hire friends. Ellie Sully and I actually worked together as recruiters before film stuff and Danny Boy was a mutual friend/ mall co-worker before he came on to any of my sets. Hire friends? As a producer? You are asking for problems (favoritism, favors from those friends etc)

3. Feed and Water your people.

  • You are required to by labor law and union regs.
  • Here’s where you can win a lot of hearts- HAVE GOOD STUFF. I don’t care if its you and your buds shooting a music video. Pizza Hut and Subway are no-gos. If you can’t pay people in cash, spend the money you do have on good food.
  • Avoid Alcohol of any kind on your set. What people do after they leave your set is up to them, but avoid this at all costs. If you have a scene that requires your actors to drink- use apple juice etc to fake it out. Do not even think of bringing liquor on the set- it will backfire on you.

4. Safety Safety Safety

  • If you are thinking of doing any sort of stunt involving fire, firecrackers, stunt people, animals (trained or not),  YOU MUST have emergency response professionals on standby. This could be the matter of life or death.
  • Make sure that everyone knows where the closet hospital. police department, and fire station are. If you can include it with the daily schedule (esp. if you move locations) with map/phone numbers even better.
  • For smaller productions: If you can afford it or have someone you know that is CERTIFIED for 1st response and CPR, ask a favor for them to hang out on your set- make sure they get the awesome food!
  • Example: I won’t say the name of the school. But a very large film school (not in the midwest) had a “producer” (ugh.. I am cringing typing that) trying to do a project here in Chicago. They came to CCC to get assistance from local students. My go to casting director, Valley Girl (that’s my nickname for her, but its not what you are thinking, she’s a SMART cookie) got looped into helping cast this disaster waiting to happen.  She referred me as the VFX Supervisor. I got a hold of the script and got half way through the first page before I called Valley Girl. There were problems with the story versus casting (see next bit). Not only that, but the “producer” who I will refer to as Suzie (not real name) told me her requirements for sets and other things- an abandoned warehouse, minors playing with firecrackers and also…a duck. Not kidding she needed a bunch of ducks and didn’t want them digital.
  • Valley Girl and I tirelessly and in every shape and form tried telling Suize that she would a) Have to get 1st response standby b) would have to cast non minors (again see next point) c) do digital ducks and d) whatever “abandoned house” she found would have to get cleared by engineer to use so there wouldn’t be a fire/etc. She wouldn’t listen, so as a last resort, since there could have been liability issues with OUR school, we told people “upstairs” what was going on. As far as I know, the film never got made (at least not in Chicago) 
  • Post Note to that story (and there’s a reason why that story was told) A year or so after I graduated, I got an email update from a member of my department trying to remind everyone “safety first”. I read the story attached to the email and found out that Suzie was on another project, out in the middle of nowhereville in like some southern state acting as a line producer. Long story short, someone didn’t do their homework, and a student DIED on the set.

5. Casting

  • The Academy of Arts and Sciences- you know the guys that do the Oscars?- just announced a few days ago that they will be having an extension of casting added. So there will eventually be a Casting Oscar. About Damn time. I was a casting director for one film… ONE… and never again. This position is the most under appreciated position in the industry.
  • As producer you need to follow all labor laws and union regs- and it gets tricky when it comes to casting. So if you have a producer or casting director tell you “no” 99.999% of the time there is a valid reason .
  • Example: one of the problems with Suzie above that we were having was that the story involved a girl that was under the age of 18. Some of the actions (including revealing certain body parts and an innuendo to possible incest) definitely required someone above the age of 18 to play. This is doable- there are alot of actors that are a good decade older than what they look. Why was was Suize upset by Valley Girl refusing to cast a minor? Suize couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that there are some states (Georgia comes to mind) that even though this project was purely artistic, it could get classified as obscene or pornographic material- almost automatically if a minor is involved. Since every state is different with their obscenity statues and defines minors differently, you could see why Valley Girl was adamant about casting.

Stay tuned for part 2!

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