The moment you step on set, you do what you can on set to be polite, friendly, and professional. You keep your mouth shut and limp on by. You treat people with respect and you hope the rest of the crew will do the same.
But as I’ve come to learn, that doesn’t always mean they will.
When I was starting out in the industry, on one of the first films I was ever 1st assistant camera (AC), I had to defend myself against a producer who had placed a target on my head. You may remember him as George, the guy who tried to clean a Zeiss Superspeed with his t-shirt.
There are a whole slew of reasons why I remember George — including how we met.
Meeting George for the First Time
As I stretched my legs from a 5 hour flight, stepping off the plane into the terminal, I knew there was no turning back.
Flying across the country to work on location is a big deal. It means someone thought you were worth the money for your plane ticket. A director of photography (DP) I had worked for before pulled a few strings to get me the gig, so I was determined to show him he made the right choice.
I would have one month to impress him as first assistant camera on an ultra-low budget feature film.
When I landed, he was already at the crew house we were staying with the camera package ready to be prepped. Though we weren’t officially shooting for another two days, I wanted to prep the camera immediately should replacement parts need to be rented or found.
I traveled directly from the airport and was greeted warmly by fellow crew when I walked through the door. We shook hands, exchanged brief words, and then I set to work prepping the RED One camera we were shooting on.
A few hours later, the prep was going smoothly when I saw there was one notable piece of equipment missing from the kit: the noble follow focus. With its white shimmering disc blank like a canvas for the astute AC grabbing focus marks, the follow focus is an important piece of gear.
I asked the DP about it and he said, “George, the executive producer, he has it. Here give him a call to see if he can bring it on over.”
He pulled out his iPhone and dialed the number, quickly handing it to me once it started ringing. The phone conversation went something like this:
Me: Hey George? This is Evan Luzi, the first AC on the shoot coming up. I was told you have the follow focus and was wondering if you could swing by and drop it off.
George: Yeah I have it. You need it now?
Me: Well I’m prepping the camera right now so I’d like to take a look at it and make sure everything is working.
George: It’s working. Why don’t I bring it tomorrow.
Me: Is there any way you can bring it tonight? I just want to be able to get my hands on it while I’m checking the rest of the gear.
George: Alright, I’ll see what I can do.
Before the conversation could continue on, he hung up the phone. It’s hard to get across online and through text, but he spoke as if my request to bring the follow focus was like the Council of Elrond asking Frodo to bring the one ring to Mordoor.
I shrugged it off and attributed it to the fact that he was probably busy and didn’t want to be interrupted.
About an hour later, George strolled into the house. I turned to him from the camera and extended my hand, “Hey! I’m Evan, how’s it going?”
He looked beyond me at the camera setup, “You know you’re missing some focus gears on this? I found them in my truck. It’s your job to keep track of them, so don’t go losing them or we have to buy more.”
I closed my mouth, bit down on my jaw, and let him place the follow focus in my hands.
And that’s how we met.
Blaming the Camera Guy for the Sound of Silence
I’d like to be able to tell you George was having a bad day and we got off on the wrong foot. I’d like to be able to tell you a few days later we were having a few drinks and talking shop. I’d like to be able to tell you he realized blaming me for losing equipment I hadn’t ever touched was a silly idea. I’d like to tell you all of that and then continue with this story going in a happier direction, but, I’m not a liar.
It wasn’t more than four days into the shoot we butted heads again when I was met in the morning to a crowd of angry faces from production.
The day before, we had shot a cameo from a well-known politician in the town. It was a great experience and we all enjoyed meeting him and filming in his office. Overall, the day went fairly smoothly with a hiccup or two thrown in for good measure.
So I was a little surprised when I was flanked by another producer (with whom I got along) and the director (with whom I was neutral), while George grilled me about the day before:
“None of the audio from the senator is on the clips. Do you know what happened?”
“No audio at all?” I asked.
“Nothing. All the tracks are silent,” chimed in the director.
“I have no idea, ask Ben [the sound guy], I can tell you the cables were plugged into the camera.”
“Do you know if the levels were going up?”
“I don’t know, I don’t pay attention to any of that while we’re shooting because I’m focused on doing my own job.”
“Well it is your job to watch the audio levels. We don’t have any audio from yesterday now.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened. Ben plugged into the camera, I checked the levels with him when he sent tone out of his mixer, and after that it was out of my hands.”
The conversation continued for a little while before George left in a hurry. He came back, stern and determined, gripping a pair of headphones.
“Does this have a headphone jack?” he pointed to the camera we were standing next to. I nodded and plugged him in.
After a few moments confirming the audio feed was active, he set the headphones on the tripod.
“There. Wear these during the takes to make sure the audio is recording.”
I chuckled to myself when he walked away.
Leaving a Message and the Headphones
I know for a fact the audio was recording when it was plugged into the camera that day. But I have my own department, equipment and problems to be aware of. The sound guy is in charge of sound — that’s how I was trained — so if he failed to check the audio recordings himself, well, get on his ass not mine.
To humor George and the rest of production, I wore the headphones during the rehearsal. It instantly irked me. It was impossible to pull focus while listening to actors deliver their lines combined with the sound of rustling clothing blasting in my ears.
Once the rehearsal was over, I took them off and rested them on the panhandle.
“Why do you have those?” the DP asked me.
I explained to him the situation and he rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“Don’t worry about the sound. That’s not your job. You work for me, not them.”
It was nice to know he had my back. We both came from a film style workflow and neither of us were too keen on recording sound directly into the camera, let alone wearing headphones like some videography bullshit.
At the end of the setup, I unplugged the headphones and left them on the ground secretly hoping a dolly would roll over them.
Throughout the day, paranoid George would wait for the moments I stepped away from the camera and plug them back in and check the audio himself.
And everytime I came back to find them resting on the panhandle, I dropped those suckers on the ground and didn’t look back. Nothing would’ve pleased me more than to see those headphones mangled and crushed.
I was tired of George misunderstanding my job and blaming me for mistakes that weren’t mine. With the DP covering my back, I was ready to play his game.
It’s one thing to be an asshole, it’s another to be an asshole who’s wrong.
The battle with George isn’t over here. This story is split into two parts — the second part will go live tomorrow — so subscribe by RSS, Twitter or Facebook and come back tomorrow to make sure you don’t miss the end of the story where I finally stand up for myself to George.