When we sent out crew calls for every job on our production back in October, almost every single candidate put down that their first choice position was producer. I couldn’t tell whether it was because they truly, deep down wanted to be a producer, or they just had no idea what the hell a producer was. Because you have to be truly crazy, in my opinion, to want to have the best and also worst job of working on a film production.
Producer is a job that is at once all encompassing and yet very vague. When I interned this past summer under a couple of producers for a television production company, they could spend hours on the phone in a therapy-like session with talent, or running submit a money order before the post office closed at the end of the day, or working on stories for days that could be dashed by executives in a second. Because of this, it’s difficult for me to define what a producer does because, in short, I believe that the producer does everything. And I mean everything.
On a small short film such as this one, the producer is the one who hires crew, scouts locations, manages the budget, prepares craft services, averts major crises on and off-set––and every little thing in-between. That is why when all of these underclassmen applied for the job of producer on our film, I couldn’t imagine why they would want the job without ever having done it before. In my experience, a lot of people who believe they want to produce quickly end up hating it––it isn’t “creative” enough, too logistical, too hectic and busy and stressful. (We ended up choosing Will as our third producer, joining Tony and me. He is someone who was completely invaluable to us as well as damn good at his job.)
I love producing. I love having a hand in every little aspect of the film, from pre-production to production to post-production. But this film was the biggest test of my abilities. For one, the cast and crew were large. For just one weekend of shooting, we would have to manage forty people per day. Another reason was that the scope of the project was huge, too. We needed six locations (one of which was a funeral home), six shoot days (and so twelve meals), a large amount of props (and our production designers didn’t have cars to go get them)… and so on, and so on. The script was ambitious, and that was what I liked but also what scared me.
Here is just a sample of what I had to do as a producer on Bernard Died. (In the real world, you’d have producers such as a line producer, unit production manager, location manager, etc. to delegate these tasks to. This is a student film, so we didn’t.)
Locations: On their own, these were difficult. Three of our six shoot days had to take place at a funeral home. Buying a casket was also way out of our budget, so we also needed to get a funeral director to loan us one. I sent out a ton of emails to funeral homes in the Baltimore-area. In all, we visited three funeral homes, and the one we liked best was called Lassahn Funeral Home. The place was perfect, an old 1700s-style home converted into a funeral home, with pretty red wallpaper and a lot of charm. Due to the unpredictable nature of the business of funeral homes, we were terrified that Lasshan might kick us out of filming as late as the day before production. The last day of filming, there was supposed to be a viewing, but thankfully Lassahn just moved us into another chapel and let us keep filming while it was going on. We owe all of our success to Lasshan, honestly.
The apartment location for Ray’s bedroom and bedroom was easy enough (I coerced my friend into letting us use his), and we borrowed an empty office in JHU’s Center for Social Concern for another location. But the fish store posed a bit of a problem. We needed to find somewhere non-corporate (they rarely let you film) but also with good lighting. We stumbled upon Tropical Fish, a store with a sketchy exterior in East Baltimore but with a beautiful interior. It was Corey’s favorite place to shoot by far. No lights were needed, and the place was cinematic on its own.
Crew: The producer is also in charge of hiring all of the crew. We needed to fill a bunch of positions: 2nd AD (assistant director), script supervisor, AC (assistant camera), production designers, grips and tons of PAs (production assistants). Thankfully, Hopkins film students are the most helpful, and we were easily able to fill all of the roles. Most of our crew was made up of sophomores and freshmen.
The major problem was a sound mixer. We understood that sound was really important, but no one at Hopkins was qualified or understood how it worked. We put out calls to Peabody’s sound departments, but no luck. We ended up deciding to hire a mixer and a boom op, which killed our budget but was probably one of the best decisions we made. Eddie and Adriana were also a ton of fun to have on-set.
Scheduling: Although this was more of Will’s job, scheduling was a pain for me when it crossed with my casting for Uncle Elliott. Our actor, Jason, couldn’t be there for our first shoot day on January 17 when he was needed all three days, on the 18th and 19th too. We needed to come up with some solution so that Jason’s schedule could work with ours. Although it wasn’t the best solution, we had to cut Elliott’s character out of one scene entirely, and even in the edit, I’m still not sure if it was the best decision.
There were also littler restrictions: Dave had to leave by 5pm every single shooting day, and Salwa had to leave early on the day of her biggest scenes. Some crew couldn’t be there on certain days, and so we would have to adjust how we ran our sets. We also had to decide what crew we would want what days––a big mistake sometimes, since we let our grips go early one day and ended up an hour behind schedule. Will would be sending out call sheets a couple hours before we shot because sometimes, there were last-minute changes in the scenes we shot or our call times.
We ended up scheduling six shoot days: January 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, and 31. The days varied in their complication and how much we had to get done, but we could only work on weekends since we couldn’t pull Zach out of school on the weekdays.
In retrospect, scheduling was probably the easiest part of all of this.
Craft Services: This is the bane of my existence as a producer. It’s hard to conceptualize how much food will feed a cast and crew of forty plus, but I’ll give you a clue: it’s a lot. Feeding your cast and crew good food and on a regular basis means you will have a happy cast and crew. Coffee is also important. Lots and lots of coffee.
The night of each shoot day was spent at Giant, buying chips and cookies and drinks and bagels and orange juice and more for the next day. We were lucky enough to get a discount on an Italian restaurant called Giovanna’s near our shooting location for lunch, and two places, Red Canoe and JHU-located Daily Grind, donated breakfast some days.
But after the first day of shooting, and the sheer amount of money we spent on food, we needed a different approach. Will, Kristen (our 2nd AD), and Taylor (PA) spent one night making cold cut sandwiches and pasta salad. Will, Kristen and I spent another night baking three trays of baked ziti. And finally, we resorted to Tony’s favorite pizzeria, Papa John’s, to pick up the slack on two of our shoot days because it was cheap and quick.
Budgeting: As you can probably imagine based on my complaints about our sound and food, our budget grew out of control. I'm not good with numbers or money, and when you’ve never run a production this large before, it’s difficult to tell how your money will be spent. Amazingly, almost all of our Studio North grant went towards feeding our cast and crew. Thankfully, with the help of Eric Beatty in the Homewood Arts Programs, we were able to get some more money to help us out. Unfortunately, the rest of the cost will have to be covered out-of-pocket by Tony and me. (Details to come once the film is finished.)
But the worst part of it all was the crisis management on-set. Stay tuned.
All the best,