Film Set Gone Wrong

Nightmare of a Job

Film set gone wrong? Well I recently had the pleasure being part of a short film, where I THOUGHT that I aligned myself with people that had something to say. People who were on their way to making a feature film. Folks with dreams. People passionate about storytelling, filmmaking, and collaborating. Have these people ever been on a professional set before? I don’t think so. The morning after I woke up from being up for almost 22 hours straight – it felt like I woke up from a nightmare.

I’ve worked in the film industry for a bit more than decade now, in so many different departments, and this last project I worked was the WORST project I ever worked on. I’ve cried on set, broke down thinking that everything was my fault, made mistakes, forgotten things, had actors yell in my face. And I’ve even had arguments and screaming matches with my bosses, but NOTHING was worse then this set.

This was the first time I reached 16 hours on set, being held hostage by the threat of not being paid. The Director of Photography told me his crew was packing up and going home. As an Assistant Director I wasn’t and couldn’t stop them.

Getting Hired

When I met with the filmmaker it was during a period where I did not want to take any independent projects. I wanted to take a break from the that world. Close to walking away from the film industry altogether. After finishing a feature a couple months prior to this project it left me feeling like I was done with it all.

I kept getting calls, emails, and referrals of people who wanted me to be an AD for their film. When this particular person called me I said “Why not?” She seemed motivated, put together, like she knew what she was doing. So, I decided to meet with her.

Meeting her went great. I felt newly inspired! I wanted to help them make this movie. Not every short film you get offered to work on is good, this one was written well. I liked it. Related to it. I supported what the message was so, I was on board. Let’s do this!

We sat down and discussed the schedule. Figuring out the schedule was not a bad process. There were so many parts and pieces, but it was doable. I felt confident. It was ambitious, but I have achieved more complicated things in less time than what I was handed.

The Spidey-Sense

The first time I felt my spidey-sense tingle, that something was off, was at the key-department meeting during pre-production. There was this weird moment when we had to introduce ourselves. Now, this is already super awkward for me. I hate introducing myself. I mean, doesn’t everyone hate ice-breakers? We went around the table with instructions of saying who we were and what we did. That was it. The guy before me was this big time guy and started spewing his whole life story! I was not about to do that.

I managed to make everyone laugh, say who I was, and tell everyone I was the 1st AD, and that I was their go-to problem solver. In my head, I thought that this for sure was enough. Our lovely fearless leader then had such a look of disappointment and wanted me to talk more about myself. She wanted me to brag. She wanted me to go on and on about all the experience I had, and what I achieved. “Amber tell them about all the features you worked on, and what were the titles…” I’m pretty modest. I HATE doing this! I’m not a name dropper. I refuse to do that.  I mean if I knew I needed to show my resume I would have brought a few hard-copies for everyone. The pressure on me to brag was ridiculous, not to mention completely unnecessary. It was the first time I was thought to myself, “I have to quit this project. I have to GET OUT!”

Forging Ahead!

There were multiple location scouts I had to attend(unpaid). There were some things that they wanted my opinion on that I thought was not in my realm. Being an AD I feel there are some things that are not for me to decide. If you ask me anything creative-that’s not my realm. This was also another red-flag. Things can get really messy when the Assistant Director starts deciding on creative elements. Yes, I am creative, but it gets turned off when I’m hired as an AD.

The shooting days started to creep up, and as the days went on I noticed more and more loose ends coming up. I almost started to feel like I was becoming a producer as well. If you folks know me, looked at any of my Youtube Videos than you know there’s nothing I hate more than producing. As with every production more and more things build up that have to get done the closer you get to shooting, which is just the nature of the beast. But when we don’t have basic answers on how crew is gonna get it to set – that’s a problem. Or that fact that I was asking for a shot list since the first meeting, and didn’t get anything until the morning of shooting! And it was just a random list that I had to decipher and it was only like 3 scenes, for a short film that had 34 scenes!!! Extreme hand to the forehead moment.

Even with all of that I stayed attached to the project.

The day has come.

I went into the day with a positive attitude. Crew got there just fine. Cube truck got there, gear was loading in, we were getting set up. When breakfast was late and I discovered an army of inexperienced PAs with no proper Art department person trying to create the rooms we were shooting in was when I knew we were going to have way more problems then just breakfast being late.

One thing I didn’t mention was how much turnover there was before we started shooting. People were getting replaced left and right! And not because they went to get paid more on another project either. Just straight up fired. It felt like I was in a family drama every time I got a call from the director with the update on who was with us now. Somehow I wasn’t fired? I don’t know how that happened. I always figured I was next on the chopping block.

There was no Art Director or Production Designer on set, because those people were hired just for prep, but not to be on set. For whatever ungodly reason I don’t know.  No dedicated art person at all on set for this type of a budget? This was about a $20k short film. There was no reason to not have that person on set. Even with that I said “Ok.” With enough direction these PAs can set this room with no problem. But that left me with a lot of the load of AD and regular PA responsibility.

I forgot to mention we were shooting in a Prison. Using multiple areas, that were not close to each other…with no walkies!!! The amount of phone calls, texting and running around I had to do within the first 3 hours of being there was ridiculous, and just grossly inefficient. I lied, there is something more I hate than producing, it’s being inefficient!!!  I wish I had walkies, but production couldn’t afford them.

So, When Did It Get Really Bad?

The moment I tried to push us to try and make the day, and I was reprimanded for doing the job I was hired for. As a 1st Assistant Director I know there is a sacrifice in filmmaking. There are 3 things you need for filmmaking: money, time, and quality. With indie filmmaking you usually only get 2 of the 3. The first day we had to shoot 8 pages. I knew, and told the producers it’s impossible to get this amount in the allotted time for that location. I kept being told “Well, Amber your talents will get us to make the day.”  This time estimate was based on common coverage in my head because again I had no shot list to give an accurate estimate.

For producers out there, your AD can’t preform miracles. Even with a well versed crew, 8 pages in a day is tough and as an AD I’ve done it. I’ve made days that are stacked and very complex. But there was a very strong synergy with the AD, DP, and Director on those projects. On this particular set there was none, whatsoever.

When I was pushing people to make sure we were working efficiently, and making sure the next set was ready to go and the actors were ready to go I was thinking yes we can make it. But then being reprimanded for doing that, saying “People shouldn’t be rushed” was when I knew we weren’t finishing the day. I knew based on the pace we had, the indecisiveness that was happening, and the very, very present feeling of creative disjointedness between the big players of the project ,we were not getting this day by a long shot. I won’t get into attitudes, unprofessionalism, and general disrespect for work experience that was also present that slowed us down.

But what I will mention is the lack of follow-through. I would sit down with them and suggest what our next steps would be. We would agree on a plan, and then the next moment they would be off doing something completely different destroying my day minute by minute.

 I Stopped Caring

After being told “People shouldn’t be rushed” that’s when I truly realized that I wasn’t going to win the day. ADs want to win the day! If we wrap on time, and get everything we need, we won!  But there was no way we were gonna finish what was on the schedule. That’s when I stopped pushing. That’s also when I stopped stressing. Take as many hours you need on this scene. It’s only a page and a half, but please take 3 hours to finish it when we still have 6 more scenes to get and 6 hours to get them. My goal from that point forward: make sure I walk away from this getting paid.

What I do appreciate is the power of the crew. I once worked 20 hours on an indie set and I swore I would never allow that, or work that type of hours unless I was getting a union rate. On this one I wasn’t getting a union rate, that’s for sure. Crews are getting smarter. They won’t work for next to nothing for hours on end, even in the indie film world. As long as everyone holds this up productions won’t get away with treating their crews like crap.

We got to hour 16 with still 5 scenes to shoot in a completely different area of the prison, with an hour and some change wrap-out. With no end in sight the DP said to me “I’m telling my crew to pack it up.” There was nothing I could say because we discussed how to get the rest of the movie with the producers. We problem solved how to make sure to get everything, but with wrapping right at that moment. If we didn’t wrap right then it screwed the next two days of shooting, if proper turnaround was followed.

Called it Quits

Once the crew was packing up there was so much back and forth, feelings were hurt, and producers were pissed. Once the crew decides to stop working your project is basically fucked. There were threats thrown around, major confusion on what the next step was, and overall no one knew what to do. Camera, Grip and Electric were packing up, but the producers were trying to figure how to make people keep working. Offering crazy amounts of money to stay till everything was shot. There was also the investigating on which crew member agreed to packing up, and the who said what, or who started the campaign to go home. This went on about an hour. Then finally the producer said we are officially calling it. Go home.

The producers were still pissed. They were a bit stand off-ish to me, because they didn’t know where I fell on this whole thing. Could I have prevented the crew from packing up? I mean I guess I could have begged the DP to keep shooting, without my integrity intact. Whether or not it would have worked is another matter. The thing is I know when a production is being abusive. I’ve worked for too long not to know it when I see it.

They called it quits for the day and the next two days of shooting were also in question. Were we gonna shoot tomorrow? Did we have to find a whole other crew? Since they left today was the crew going to come back for another day? What would the call time be? It was now midnight. Calltime was 7am. Producers were trying to figure out how to salvage this movie. They then asked the crew if they wanted to work the next day. They said “No.” I can’t imagine it being anywhere near a decent next 2 days after what happened on the first day of shooting. Of course they said no! There was too much bad blood.

So, that was that. The shoot is done. We weren’t shooting the next two days either. They weren’t gonna find a whole new crew in time to be back on set in 10 hours. Especially since that search was gonna start at 1am.

All Said and Done

The director was especially hurt, and I sat down and I asked, “Okay, how many more hours were you gonna ask the crew to work?” Mind you, the DP called it quits at hour 16. The answer the director had: “Just 4 or 5 more hours. That’s it!”  I’m sure you’re pretty good at math. That makes a 20 or 21 hour shooting day. Add the wrap-out time, that’s 22.5 hours. You wanted the cast and crew to work 22.5 hours?! That’s not even including the hour it took to get there and the hour it’ll take for people to get home! So, just for fun let’s add that too! 24.5 hours. That’s insane. Humans shouldn’t even be up, let alone working past 17 hours. I’m sorry, but no movie is that important.

Getting People Home

Finally everything is out of the location. Truck is packed. The first van back to the city should be on the way back to pick up crew. Crew is standing there being asked why they chose to stop working. It was very direct, and a very uncomfortable thing to witness. There is a reason why there is a Shop Steward on union shows, so people speak through that person to express their concerns to production/management.

Finally the producers say the van isn’t coming back to get the rest of the crew. The van was how they all got to set. Now, they have to get from bum-fuck Staten Island at 1am back to the city on their own. The DP ended up Uber-ing all his folk back. I thanked God that I drove that day. Got home at 230am that night. I left that morning at 545am. I’m pretty sure everyone had about the same day as the location was an hour away from basically everyone, except that one PA that was from Staten Island.

The Aftermath

We were all worried about not being paid. I certainly left thinking “Well… I learned a lot, and all for nothing.” I wasn’t expecting to get paid after all of that, and kinda bummed I was out about $1k. But to be honest the dread I felt even thinking about shooting two more days made it worth the loss of money. That day as soon as we got the first shot up I wanted out. I thought to myself “I could just get in my car and go!” I just wanted my check.

The next day to my surprise I was paid $200. $200 for a 16+ hour work day. Oh wow, gee thanks! That amount was not agreed upon. I was 1 of a handful of people actually paid. The DP, and his crew were not paid!!! There is a lot of drama, and legal stuff happening now. I mean you could take either side and have valid points. I don’t care what happens. If you agree to pay folks regardless of the outcome – PAY THEM.

If you find yourself in this situation where you have not received your payment. Don’t let up! Email them everyday if you have to. Blow up their phone. If they don’t want to pay you, when you had a contract you have a right to your money. Some people go to offices and wait there until they get their payment.

If you are having issues as a NYC freelancer and getting paid visit this site.

The Takeaway

I realized a lot from this project. Put kill fees in my contracts for one! I lost two days pay because they shut down. Listen to my instincts, I saw so many red flags I just chose to ignore. Never again. I walked away from so many projects this season and I stayed with this one? C’mon Amber. Now, at this point I will only work with the producers I trust, and know well. If producers won’t heed my warnings in prep, it can’t be good on set.

Film is about collaboration. Your ego has to step aside to get things done, on time, and on budget. Especially if it’s indie! Was this a film set gone wrong, or did I just fuck it up real bad? I walked away thinking “There is definitely something I’m not seeing.” either about myself or about the projects I take. Couldn’t help but say to myself “Yeah, maybe I’m just a horrible fucking AD and shit at my job.”

I will say that I wasn’t at my best. As I said above I wasn’t taking AD gigs. I didn’t want to do them. I’m never about the money and for this one I just wanted my check. That is truly a bad sign. I shouldn’t have taken this project, wasn’t in the right mindset, regardless of the red flags or not. I’ve worked some crazy sets, but got through them successfully. I was going through some shit. It definitely wasn’t worked out by the time we started shooting. I was hoping this project was going to reignite something for me, but it just made it worse.

I knew walking away from this project I could have done better.

Some Closure

To give some closure to the whole story they reshot what we got that day, and did in fact get the rest of the movie. Good for them, if they found some type of flow.  They did ask me to AD for them as well for the second try. I did decline, of course. I can’t say that I want to work on Indie projects with people I don’t know ever again, or just indie projects altogether.


Have you found yourself on a film set gone wrong? Please comment below. Want to contact me? Do it here!

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