Film Flakes

Let me preface this with a story. A fairly dull and uninteresting story. In other words, a true story.

When I shot my first 16mm film it was a ten minute project shot day for night with sync sound. If you don't know what that means, don't worry. For "day for night" read "terrible, director-eating two headed monster" and for "sync sound" read "infinite agony." For a first-time director, this is a bit like going into the Fire Swamp with inflammable underwear. Of course I was warned! Of course they said "wouldn't Sir prefer a nice little MOS film shot in daylight?" But I was a first-time director - what's the worst that can happen?

Everyone I asked said I should use this guy (let's call him Griselda) as a Cinematographer. "He's the best!" they would opine. "Griselda's your man," they all said.

16mm, black and white, reversal, shot day for night.  Hmmm...

He readily agreed to shoot the film.  We lined up actors, a location, a sound crew, equipment, and all the usual circus equipment.  The night before our first day of shooting, he called me to let me know he couldn't make it. Someone poor unfortunate woman had been persuaded to up the ante.

She was now going to spend her entire production budget for her short film, renting a 35mm camera, head, tripod, and what have you. She was going BIG, and he was going to shoot it. The next day.

On short notice, I found an unwilling friend, who agreed to help out.  Between us, we figured out how to shoot 16mm black and white reversal, day for night, with sync sound.  Gone With The Wind it ain't, but it's a film.

The poor woman who was persuaded to shoot 35mm was rained out on her only production day. Her budget didn't stretch to renting the gear for another day and she never made the film.

Griselda is just one example of many. I like to call them Film Flakes. Film seems to have an inordinate amount of these people. They'll promise everything and deliver nothing. They're invariably enthusiastic, they talk the talk, walk the walk and so on. It's just, tomorrow is another day and their interests may have moved on.

So, why do I bring this up on a cold, wintry evening when we should be sipping Gluhwein and thinking of nice, sunny film locations?

It has to do with getting a job. If you send a letter to a production company such as Claddagh Films, then please don't start the letter with "I've always loved film..." We all love film. The difference is, most of the people I work with, love it and hate it in equal measure. They endure it. They'll spend long, cold days trying to get clumsy, century-old technology to record images using chemicals. They'll fret over the curious alignment of ferric particles which record audio. They'll preoccupy themselves with the unique arrangement of strips of coloured plastic which can amuse and entertain, and forego a real job for their 15 minutes. That pristine moment when the lights dim, the audience settles themselves, and the words appear, white on a black background; "A film by ..."

In trying to get to that halcyon moment, we will have had to cajole, encourage, entice and by any means persuade the elusive magic to sit nicely on the screen. Nothing will hold us back more than the enthusiastic boom operator who is an hour late, the actor who really wanted the part but now doesn't know his lines, the production assistant who is bored, and not forgetting the cinematographer who drops out at the very last minute. So, at the slightest hint that you might be a Film Flake, the curtains close, the guard goes up. Not on this set, my friend!

By contrast, we've all worked with those people for whom we fear will be stolen by film pixies. The assistant director who never slows down. Who remembers everyone's name, and keeps us all going at 5AM when it's starting to rain again.

Mostly for me, though, it's the Director of Photography or Cinematographer. Of all the film crew, this person is the most important. He or she is your unflappable First Mate. Imagine, if you will, you are steering the ship through the worst storm in living memory, where hurricanes meet and unionise. On the horizon, what looks like the safety of land turns out to be a gaggle of icebergs, drifting each side, like a gauntlet. Is that smoke you smell? Just when you think all is lost, when you try to clear your throat so that "abandon ship" sounds confident instead of panic-stricken, when you wonder should you keep with tradition and go down with the ship, or rugby-tackle some young children out of the life-boats, just at that moment, your Cinematographer comes on deck. He pushes back his cap with a toughened claw, removes his cigarette stump, and says; "I've seen worse..."

Ah yes, troubled reader, they don't make them like they used to.

We have to suffer our Griselda's and our film flakes, before we find gold. I could tell you the names of the people I rely on, but that would be making life easy for you. IMDB is never wrong, and if they worked on two or more films for me, they were worth keeping.

Griselda need not apply.

In truth, I am amazed by the numbers of job letters I receive which seem to focus almost entirely on what I can do for them. "I've always loved film..."  It's not that I'm selfish, and I don't want you to gain anything from working on one of our films. It's just that, before we even go down that road, it would be nice to know what you could do for me. John F. Kennedy had it right.

Bear with me, gentle reader, the Gluhwein awaits...

When you write to a production company looking for work, make sure you concentrate on explaining why it is that hiring you would be a positive step. And, by the way?  We don't care that you picked tulips in Holland last summer, unless we happen to be making a documentary about tulip pickers.

I once received a cover letter and CV from a very nice woman from LA. She used sentences like "I'm all too aware of the problems you face in negotiating with labs." The more she wrote, the more I winced. I remembered all those tricky situations which film seems to attract. The lab that loses your negative, the facilities house that doesn't have your booking (or spare equipment), and so on. I found myself thinking "here's someone who knows how IT IS. Here's someone who can fight fires, crush icebergs, and dodge storms." Did she love film? What do you think?