Part 3 — 1983-94
By now, I had a very good freelance career going in Chicago. I had also been working steadily with a local Director named Jack T. ‘Bo’ May on commercials. At that same time, I got an interview to be Key 2nd Assistant Director on a feature film. My first feature. Whoa. I wanted it.
Although my 3 other buddies who were qualified to be the Key 2nd AD were busy on other shows, the 1st AD decided he wanted to get laid by his cute, brand new PA who he would get in the Guild instead of hiring me. Early lesson that just because you’re the man for the job, doesn’t mean you’re the guy.
At this same time, Bo called me and told me he’d been unhappy with the production company he was directing commercials for and was starting his own company. Did I want to be his Producer/Partner?
You bet. I would be Executive Producer. Other than our clients, Bo and I would call all the shots. Down to the fact that we both agreed we needed a conference room with chairs that tilted and swiveled. Had to be both.
We worked out of his house for a few weeks until we found our cool loft office on Superior Street. Late on the night of our move, we were sitting at his newly installed desk in his office by ourselves having a drink. I move to get another beer and I am looking down in one of his banker’s boxes full of stuff when on top I see a smallish wooden plaque with the inscription —
Writers Guild of America
Best Teleplay 1973
Pilot ‘The Psychiatrist’
Written by Jack T. May
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Now– realize I have worked with the guy for a year and a half. We had talked about his travels before Chicago and I knew he spent time in LA. But– he had never said he was a writer, won one of the most prestigious screenwriting awards there is and that he knew Steven Fucking Spielberg.
Pour another vodka for yourself Bo, and tell me.
It was a tale worthy of the drinks it took to tell it.
Bo not only made it out to Hollywood not long after graduating from the University of Georgia, but was playing saxophone(he was damn good) with the Firesign Theater(another boomer alert) out in LA and writing screenplays. He got an agent and a job at Universal (damn good writer too) and is paired with Jerry Freedman to write and produce shows. They were installed in a bungalow on the Universal lot and were working on The Psychiatrist and Alias Smith and Jones. During that time, Stevie S. was wandering the halls of Uni with some credits (Night Gallery) and hanging out with Bo and Jerry in their office. Not only did they help push to get Steve more episodic directing slots (how fucking cool is that to find out about your new partner) but along the way they did the WGA winning pilot.
Steve went on to do pretty well in Hollywood. Jerry became an author and director. In one of the more bizarre connections in the universe, I was Jerry’s Key 2nd AD on a TV movie he directed in 1990.
Sadly for Bo, the money and fun was a bit much and not enough. Like Rod Serling across the lot, Bo and Jerry chafed at the restrictions on TV writing at a time when the movies were doing everything. It being the early 70’s, things were a bit hazy but– it just eventually ended for Bo and he wanted out.
Packed the family up. Moved back to Georgia. Not long after that recreated himself up in Indianapolis and then Chicago as a commercial Director. Where he met me.
I spent 5 years producing with Bo. We had numerous directors work under our banner for those years and I was hiring and firing 3 crews a month. Not too much firing, luckily but learning that is a big part of being the Producer. I was budgeting everything we did and became facile with putting numbers to projects.
We were among the first in the commercial biz in Chicago to go directly to tape from the commercial shoot on film. The big and most of the regional Ad Agencies were actually finishing their commercials on film and then doing an expensive final transfer to tape.
We showed our clients we could shoot on film for the look, edit with our editor in our offline bay in our offices and then finish on tape cheaper and much more efficiently. And– give them more choices in editing.
For me, because Bo was usually shooting, or prepping with the AD, I handled all post production for us. Nearly everyday I had a mix, edit, voice over, dailies transfer, final color transfer, etc. I was supervising hours of film transfer weekly, getting quite the education on that. Mixes were especially fun, as I started to learned the intricacies of well mixed sound and how to accomplish it.
At this time, new equipment and technology was showing up in the labs and big editing facilities where we would do all finishing of the picture. I was getting a free ongoing seminar in cutting edge post production.
It all has served me so well as a filmmaker over the years.
After 5 years doing the commercials and industrials, I yearned to go back to AD’ing theatrical film and TV. Chicago had been going through a rebirth of filming since I had arrived there and I knew I’d get work.
But, during my time at Bo May Film/Video, I had learned much about directing from my partner Bo. He had a good eye and knew how to make good pictures. Bo let me handle the other directors in the shop who came and went, so I forged my own relationships with them. I took some knowledge from them all. Even if sometimes the lesson is how not to do it. But the good ones were fun to produce for. I also learned to sow trust with my directors and then they would count on me. Production partners.
With those guys, I sat side by side in our directors chairs. The Producer and his Directors.
With Bo, many times I had come from the office to set and he had been on his feet shooting. In between setups, I would have him sit in a tall directors chair so I could lean into him and talk about our endless details about projects that had to be worked on and over.
My Director. At his elbow.
Soon after I left Bo’s shop, I began an incredible run of AD projects. From ’88-’94 I worked on no less than 8 feature films, including Groundhog Day and Backdraft, numerous 2nd units on TV movies and features, 8 TV movies including Marshall Dillon’s last ride, a pilot with James Earl Jones, and too many commercials to count.
I’m tired just writing it. Sometimes I was so booked up, I would literally finish a job on a Thursday and report to the new one on Friday. As a good local Key 2nd, I could command overscale and better staff. I had a much easier time than on old Chicago Story. And all of my experience was making me a better AD.
In 1991, I got my first gig as 1st AD on a TV movie. But it was a movie. I had firsted on many units and covered for my firsts on set and I had been the only AD– but this was a movie. My movie. I would have my own Key 2nd. The Director was an old TV hand and a former DP. I learned much from him. He was so creative when the time got short. Brad had a saying—‘If you don’t have time to do it right, do it weird’. I first heard it when we were under the gun to wrap at midnight before Thanksgiving and union penalties hit big. We had 3 hours, a big scene in an office and a night scene outside. The street was lit, but we had to get there.
Brad says—10mil on the floor and bring the actors. It was one of the coolest scenes I’ve ever scene and he did it in 2 quick, superb storytelling setups. We made the street and the night.
Starring Martin Landau, Joe Morton(the actor, of course), Patricia Clarkson and – Eli Wallach, Legacy of Lies is still one of the best pieces of film I have ever worked on. And it was a USA Network movie!
When I was offered Groundhog Day I turned it down twice because I had been firsting for a year and did not want to go back to Key 2nd. The good script and the Ramis/Murray combo changed my mind, luckily.
I have too many great stories about Groundhog Day to mention them all here. But it’s something special to have worked with the great Harold Ramis on his greatest film. The zen aspect of the script led to many discussions of our approach to various scenes. Harold was always interested in people’s ideas and listened to his cast and crew.
One small tidbit—We were shooting one of the scenes on Gobbler’s Knob with Phil doing his standup, only now he has really changed (late in the film), and he is quoting Chekov about the ‘long lustrous winter’. As scripted, only Rita (Andie MacDowell) notices that Phil is mesmerizing as she stands next to their cameraman recording it.
But the screen directions were indicating something else to Harold’s AD’s—Mike Haley the first, me, and Sam Hoffman and Cyd Adams, our 2nd 2nd’ AD‘s. – We said, Harold—isn’t this as if Walter Cronkite, when he was the news, came to Punxatawney to do a report? Wouldn’t the local and regional reporters respond by turning their cameras on him during his standup? Walter Cronkite??? Harold thought about it. You’re right, he said. Funnier too. We adjusted the background to focus on Phil and that’s what’s in the movie.
That was best thing during all those years of being an AD. Standing on the set, beside the director and actually making the movie. Shot by shot.
At the Director’s elbow.
Next up– How to be a TV Producer and Not be an Ass….
The Care & Feeding of Writers, Directors and Exec Producers