In the 1980s, before cellular telephones became commonplace, at the end of the shoot day, I would take tomorrow’s call sheet and half a dozen rolls of quarters, and park myself for several hours in a chair in front of a pay phone in the hotel lobby. I would proceed to call each crew member and inform them of their call time for the next day. And often, when I finished my fifty phone calls, the first assistant director would walk down to the lobby and hand me a revised call sheet with different call times. And I’d make the fifty calls again.
My father was a first-generation American and career labor lawyer. He had a remarkable memory which served him well as an attorney. I inherited his gift for memorization and recollection. In that time before the internet and computers, my ability to quickly memorize and recall, proved to be my superpower on the film crew.
I could remember everyone’s rates (I still do) and the cost of all rented equipment. I knew every one of the one thousand lines of the AICP budget by heart. At the end of a job, I could look at every one of several hundred receipts in my petty-cash envelope and recollect each purchase in detail.
In the production office (and in my home) I kept about ten linear feet of white and yellow pages – a library of telephone directories from all the surrounding northern California counties – the internet of 1988. Not that I used them very often, as I was able to catalog thousands of telephone numbers in my brain. The production assistants who worked with me wouldn’t bother to take the time to look up telephone numbers. Using me as a search engine, they would simply ask me to recite any ten-digit phone number on demand.
“Adam – what’s Rob Lieberman’s girlfriend’s phone number – not her apartment, but her beach house?” And I never had any difficulty remembering.
In that time before the GPS and the cel phone – when the fax machine was the revolutionary technology of the day – the production department had to produce a map with directions, mileage, and distances to every location in the shooting schedule. The only way to accomplish this in a foolproof manner was to actually drive the entire route, with the Thomas Brothers map book in hand, noting the driving time, landmarks, turns, directions, and tenths of a mile. Then you’d head back to the production office with all of your notes, type them out on an IBM Selectric typewriter, cut up an Automobile Club of America roadmap, and carefully paste together a printable, faxable 8 1/2 x 11″ map – one for each and every location, portal to portal. It took hours and sometimes days.
I tell people today– only half-jokingly – that, as a motion picture production manager, I was replaced by Google, GPS, and Siri. A smartphone can do everything I did except sweep the stage.
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I had the pleasure of working in the industry back when we served the crew an excellent hot lunch on china plates with cloth napkins. We paid the crew members their rates and fourteen percent pension and welfare benefits without hesitation. We usually flew first class and always stayed in great hotels. We ate in the best restaurants and it was always paid for by the production company. In hindsight, it was a pretty cushy existence.
Certain aspects of production were unimaginably easier in that time before September 11, 2001.
We could show up at an airport with more than one hundred anvil cases of camera and sound gear. Today, the extra baggage charges would be cost-prohibitive. But in those bygone days, I would just slip the Skycap a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill and he’d discreetly hand me a fistful of destination ID tags to attach to each case. While the Skycap looked the other way, the production assistants and I would load our mountain of equipment cases out of the camera van and onto the moving conveyor belt, watching them disappear through the metal doors and down the chute.
It was just that easy.
In those days, we made every effort to demonstrate to the members of the crew that their comfort and safety were our highest priority. It is true on every film shoot: you only have one opportunity to lose the morale of the crew. And once you’ve lost it, it’s a crapshoot whether you’ll ever actually get it back again.
For the freelance film community has a long memory.
Once, I worked on a CBS movie-of-the-week, The Terry Sutton Story (1990), filmed in and around the San Francisco Bay Area during the week of the great October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The quake itself was a very stressful experience. The Bay Bridge was closed. The crew had to take BART to get to location.
One sunny autumn day, Jack Provost, our New York producer, worked the crew past the six-hour mandatory meal break. The crew was hungry, and they had been working hard. It’s important to feed the crew before they get hungry and to give them a break before they are exhausted.
As diplomatically as possible, I reminded Mr. Provost that we were in a meal penalty, as required by the union contract. But he made the executive decision to keep filming into the afternoon.
The poor caterer, whose meal had been perfectly timed to be served at the now long-past appointed hour, stood stoically by for more than ninety minutes, cooling her heels, as her beautiful lunch wilted. More than an hour and half into the meal penalty, when the crew had not had anything to eat since breakfast, a certain stalwart member of the grip department, Steve Cardellini – the inventor of the now-indispensable Cardellini Clamp –walked quietly over to the generator and turned it off.
It was a genuine Yertle the Turtle moment, as all the lights and equipment on the set fell silent, and work stopped.
Without a word the members of the crew got in line for lunch. The caterer was pissed-off for having had to wait such a long time to serve, but she remained ever professional and polite. The wide-eyed New York producer also didn’t say a word, realizing how close he had come to a mutiny by consensus. To the best of my knowledge, that was Jack Provost’s last shoot in San Francisco.