x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Dealing with the unexpected should be a piece of cake

In Hollywood, it's possible to be caught off guard by the predictable. It's normal to be surprised by the mundane. That's probably why movies these days are so awfully pedestrian.

Not too long ago, I was shooting a television show on location. That always sounds rather glamorous - "I've been filming on location" - so before your imagination gets out of hand, let me clarify: the "location" we're talking about was a drab little stucco box of a house in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.

Ordinarily, we'd have simply constructed a set on a studio soundstage and wouldn't bother with location shooting - it's an awfully complicated and expensive way to shoot something, but for some reason the art director on the project felt he couldn't fake enough depressing squalor on the studio lot, and if there's one thing that the San Fernando Valley has in abundance, it's depressing squalor.

So we loaded up the trucks and headed over the hill.

We had planned for a full day of shooting - a couple of interior shots, a couple of exterior shots - but as it happened, it was a rare day of location shooting, and we found ourselves ahead of schedule. We got the exteriors done early, moved on to the interiors, and suddenly realised that if we flipped the shooting order, we'd all get to wrap early, especially the crew.

If it's one thing that every producer wants to do, it's wrap the crew early. That means savings, and that means the daily "hot cost" sheets that get passed around the studio finance offices show a production under control. That's a good thing for your career if you're a producer. So we flipped the shooting order.

At which point, the prop guy freaked out. The scene we were going to shoot next was the birthday party scene, which meant we'd need the prop birthday cake sooner than we expected. He raced over to us, clearly on the downward slope of a panic attack.

"You can't flip the order," he shrieked.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because the cake isn't here yet. I scheduled it to arrive after lunch," he said, as if that made perfect sense. As if that's how you schedule what to shoot and when - whatever is most convenient for the cake's travel schedule.

"That makes no sense," I said. "We're shooting the cake scene next."

"The cake hasn't arrived," he shouted. "You can't film a cake scene without a cake."

"Where is the cake?" I asked, temper slowly rising.

"In Downey," he said. "That's where my cake guy is."

Downey, as it happens, is about 100 kilometres from where we were at that moment. On a good day, in moderate traffic, it would take the cake two hours to drive itself to the location.

"Go buy one at the supermarket across the street," I said.

"It won't be as good," said the guy.

"Nobody has to eat it," I said. "It's for one shot. Birthday cake, candles, guy blows it out, boom, we're out of the scene. It can be frozen. It can be cardboard. I don't care. It just has to have candles, and it has to be here in 20 minutes."

He looked at me sadly and shook his head. "I thought you had higher standards," he said. "I thought you were better than that."

"Another mistake in judgement," I said, sort of unkindly, but then, I knew that the show was probably cancelled and he didn't, which meant I didn't need to fire him. I could wait for the television network to fire all of us, all at once.

I should have fired him, of course. He was unprepared. He knew we needed a cake, and he had his cake system all worked out - had probably been producing prop cakes in exactly the same way for years - and just didn't know any other way to do it.

That's a metaphor, I think, for a lot of things - for the way we do business a lot of the time here in Hollywood, for the way things happen in the world in general. We do things the way we've always done them, even though that often doesn't make any sense.

Right now, for instance, Los Angeles is experiencing torrential rainfall. Streets are flooding, hillsides are sliding down into muddy heaps, houses are drippy and wet - the whole city looks like an enormous puddle. And yet, on our faces is the look of astonishment. It's not supposed to rain in Los Angeles, we think. Despite the fact that every other year or so it does, in heaps and buckets.

In Hollywood, it's possible to be caught off guard by the predictable. It's normal to be surprised by the mundane. That's probably why movies these days are so awfully pedestrian. The only people who find them interesting or suspenseful are the locals, and they're spooked by a little rain.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood