Wrap Time is Sacred

A gaffer once said those exact words to me and they’ve stuck with me ever since. I had to break the news to the crew that we would be going over wrap time by one hour and check that everyone was alright to stay late.  It had been a long and tough day as it was and we had some tricky days ahead.  The gaffer looked at me with dark puppy dog eyes, the disappointment apparent in his face and simply said quietly ‘Wrap time is sacred.’

He is of course correct. Working on small shoots no one is getting paid over time, it’s a fixed rate for the day, the week or the whole project – if they’re getting anything beyond glorified expenses that is.  The first shoot I worked on where people were being paid anything close to a proper daily rate I was shocked to be presented with a breakdown of what it cost to go over by one hour – and for the first time I really understood why for financial reasons wrap time really is sacred.

But let’s look at the all too common scenario of paying the crew peanuts and then expecting to own them for the duration of the shoot.  There is a common viewpoint from a lot of indie producers and directors who feel that if a crew are working below the standard daily rate, then the production itself can exist outside accepted standards of practice. By which I mean, for example, pushing for less than a twelve hour gap between wrap and call times, ignoring the six hour maximum between meal breaks, trying to pass a turn-around day as a day off, and in short, treating the crew like cattle. Financial penalties don’t exist in this world, so as an AD you’re generally seen to be causing trouble needlessly if you flag up these things.  If people are working on a lower than acceptable rate, it’s even more important to maintain standards.  To recognize that the crew aren’t getting as much out of the project as they should be, and to make sure they’re getting a fair deal in terms of working conditions.  They work really hard and deserve to be treated with respect.

I have upon occasion gone over the wrap time – there’s no way around that sometimes.  However, the most common reason for going over the wrap time is a time wasting director. A director who hasn’t put together a story board, who’s not terribly clear on his shotlist and is constantly changing everything.  Watch this space for a full blog post on this one as it’s one of the single most destructive things anyone could do on a film set and it’s a pet bug bear.

If there will be no financial penalty, it will not span into an unacceptable turnaround time and everyone has been working hard and maintained a good focus; I will be comfortable in running to another hour.  Usually in this situation most people would rather get the shots right than rush them through and not short change themselves on the film’s quality.  If the crew have worked hard and the director has been pissing about, I am very reticent to push the wrap time because I feel the crew aren’t getting anything out of it and are being penalized for someone else’s lack of preparation.

The reality is however, that you often don’t get a choice as a disorganized director usually realizes they are contributing to the problem, which makes them overly emotional and if there’s going to be a tantrum at any point it’s going to be now. Which doesn’t help anyone and generally beats the entire crew into silent submission for the next forty minutes.  So next time you’re asked to stay late with little financial gain, think of that brown eyed gaffer with such sadness in his eyes, trust me he feels your pain and so do I.

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The Actress and The AD

Recently I found myself in a particularly unusual situation on set.  I came on board a project very late and while the crew were exceptionally welcoming, I experienced an unusually high level of hostility from the lead actress.  Now and then it happens that you just don’t click with someone and you just have to make the best of it, in this instance it wasn’t even that.   I actually got on fairly well with said actress on a personal level, but now and then she would come out with a very aggressive and snide dig.

On the most basic level she objected to me putting pressure on the wardrobe and make up departments to get the cast on set sooner.  The actress objected to this so strongly that she accused me of picking on the costume girl and using deliberately belittling tactics. Like every AD in the world, occasionally I’ve been accused of being abrupt, or rude or overly pushy – but I’ve never in my life being accused of singling anyone out.  Generally I’m told that I’m pretty fair on set and treat everyone equally.

Most cast at a certain level reach the same conclusion ‘They have a certain amount of my footage in the can so they can’t fire me without costly reshoots.  I can say and do what I want and no one is going to intervene.’  Cast need to maintain good working relations with the director, so it’s not wise to vent frustrations to them.  Taking it out on a runner, gaffer, sound recordist etc. is equally as problematic as the 1st AD may be forced to have a quiet chat. The best person to use as a human punch bag is the 1st AD themselves – the only person left to turn to is the producer and asking them to intervene could be extremely negative to cast performances.

It’s easy to see why cast can get frustrated, they have a really rough ride sometimes, especially on low budget indie projects.  It’s not an easy job and they’re pulled around the set like dolls at times, occasionally treated as little more than a walking prop.  Actresses often wear skimpy dresses for night shoots in sub-zero conditions, and no matter how many warm coats you wrap them in the moment you cut, it doesn’t take away from the inside-out chill that only a hot soak can ever really get out of your system.   It doesn’t help when the DP can’t find the shot and is casually sipping herbal tea in their layers of thermals and their North Face ‘I-work-in-film-don’t-ya-know’ jacket.  Cast regularly hang about because you’re running a ‘little late’ and often don’t even have adequate green room facilities.  I’ve seen costume changes in public loos, the kit truck, in a runner’s car, behind a bush, in the street, you name it.  Cast have to maintain their figure to maintain their livelihood, yet on set catering on a budget is usually pure stodge. Carbs carbs carbs.  They’re cold, uncomfortable, badly fed, rushed and they’re expected to maintain a calm focus and character for The Shot. Let’s not forget The Shot, which is after all the point of the whole endeavour. Working conditions shouldn’t be like this, but the reality is that making a film on a shoe string budget dictates these things. Without a doubt, acting is tough.

So is ADing. Put simply, the role is to deliver the project on time and in budget awkwardly straddling the line between the director and producer.  It wasn’t until the next day that I realised the actress in question only half understood the job.  In one of her little gripes she said she would never presume to pick someone up on their ‘professional  failings, or supposed failings’ and of course we would finish on time that night because ‘that’s your job’.  I suddenly understood why she felt I was picking on the costume and makeup departments.   The actress believed the role of the 1st AD was to stand with a watch saying ‘It’s five o’clock guys! Lets speed things up a bit here’.  It’s not.

The role of the 1st AD is extremely complex and broad and I could talk about it for days.  In order to deliver the project on time you have to manage the crew and run the set so the director can focus solely on the artistic aspects of the production and work with the cast. You plan every moment of the shoot day in advance and make sure everyone is moving towards the same goal. The 1st AD will order the shot list to best utilise the time, reducing the number of setups needed to achieve the shots.  Any changes throughout the day need to be immediately communicated to the cast and crew.  You have to know at every moment what every department is doing and make sure they’re prepping for the next setups. This is achieved by managing the crew, knowing what they need to be doing for the next scene, getting them started and focused on it.  It’s about keeping the energy up, the morale high, playing the peace maker, the disciplinarian, being the protector for cast and crew and being the fall guy when things go wrong.

When I put time pressure on the wardrobe department the lead actress, whose background is predominantly theatre, understood that to be telling them how to do their job.  To be overstepping my mark and in short, she understood my job to be to stand in a corner and simply chime the quarter hours on a loudspeaker.   While it’s true that cast are unlikely to be fired or even reprimanded during the course of a shoot, and the AD department are seen as fairly expendable, it won’t help an actress get cast again. Nothing is more miserable than an entire crew who feel a performer is taking the piss and they have little power to do anything about it.  Directors and producers notice it as much as anyone.