I’ve told this story before. But not in this forum. And I remind myself of it from time to time when I start getting precious about rules and unions and ceremony that get me absolutely nowhere. Still, the tale never ceases to cause a bit of acrimony and disagreement. So buckle up.

On one of my movies, there was a scene that wasn’t quite landing for the Big Kahuna star. The picture was still in prep, just two weeks before jumping off the fated cliff that was our start date. Film was going to roll and time would instantly turn from precious to priceless.

The scene was a two-hander. The star was set to perform it with a semi-experienced character actor budgeted and cast for two days’ work. I suggested that maybe the star and the character actor get together for a couple hours of relaxed discussion and rehearsal. Nothing like a little off-camera scene work to unplug whatever might be stuck in the dramatic pipes.

“Great idea,” said the Big Kahuna. “Make it happen, will ya?”

I called the production’s Unit Production Manager for the actor’s telephone number.

“Whoa,” said the UPM. “SAG says we gotta pay for rehearsal days. And there ain’t no money for this.”

I went on to explain the situation. The scene. The star. The nature of needing to release some creative play on my two troubled pages of script. It was a problem that required a creative resolution.

“Listen,” said the UPM. “If you, the star, and this day player wanna get together on your own time work on the scene, then good on you all. But it didn’t happen outta this office. I don’t need SAG up my ass.”

Understood. So I got the day player’s digits from the casting director and promptly dialed. I recall he practically picked up on the first ring. I introduced myself as the current writer of the film. After a brief explanation of my need to freely rehearse the scene in order to ferret out whatever speed bumps were still vexing the star, the actor seemed quite amenable. Still, he wanted to consult his manager first.

“I understand,” I said. “But your manager is going to call the production office and he’s going to find out that the picture can’t and won’t pay for this little journey. We’re a little out of bounds here.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I gotcha. Still gotta call my man, you know?”

“You got my number,” I said. “So call me back.”

Twenty minutes later my phone rang. Yes, it was my new day player friend.

“Talked to my manager and no can do, man,” said the actor. “I’m a professional. And I gotta be paid for my time.”

“Just a coupla hours,” I said. “That’s it.  And we’ll make it work for you. You, me, and the movie star up at the Mulholland house. Beers and laughs. C’mon.”

“My manager says no.”

“Of course he says no. How’s he gonna slice his fifteen percent outta nothing? But this isn’t going to happen unless you and me and the Big Kahuna do it on our own. No money for rehearsal. They’re seriously looking for more stuff to cut every day.”

More discussion followed. I tried not to play salesman as much as fairly state my case that the scene needed his help. Eventually, the ice began to melt.

“Okay,” said the day player. “I get you.  And I’m with you.”

“Great,” I said. “And thanks.”

“But lemme call my manager back. ‘Splain it to him. Then I’m good.”

“Okay,” I said, sucking air between my teeth. But since the day player was again going to call his manager, I wasn’t holding my breath for a quick call back. And sometimes I hate being right.

Fast-forward to two hours later. My phone finally rang.

“Look man,” said the actor, “Acting is my living. It’s my job. You understand that, right?”

“I do,”

“And as much as I wanna help, I gotta get paid.”

“How many days you booked for?” I asked.

“Two,” said the actor.

“That’s two days you’re going to get paid for.”

“Manager says I gotta get paid to rehearse.”

“Understood. But here’s a question. I explained to you that the Big Kahuna is having issues with the scene, right?”

“Yeah, you did.”

“Well, here’s the danger. If he continues having issues with the scene—and considering the cuts they’ve been making to the budget—your two days could get cut to one.”

“Ah, man,” said the day player. “Don’t do that to me.”

“Not doing anything to you, pal. That’s the world we live in. I have a scene that for some reason my movie star doesn’t feel comfortable with. I want the scene in the movie. I need the scene in the movie. It’s a scene that, if it works, will be good for the movie and will also be good for you. It’s just you and the big-assed movie star. Two pages.”

“Big Kahuna gettin’ paid?”

“For the movie. Rehearsal or not.”

“You gettin’ paid?”

“Actually, no. But that’s another story I don’t feel like discussing.”

“Man. You’re makin’ it hard.”

“Hear me,” I said in utter and complete candor. “I just want the movie to be the best it can be. That means I need every scene to be the best it can be. And I will do anything within my meager power to make it so. Because in success, we all do better, yeah?”

“Yeah, man. You’re so right. I wanna do it. Lemme call my man back.”

“Seriously?” I said. “We both know what he’s going to say.”

“Naw,” he said. “He’ll be cool. I’ll ‘splain it all to him. Make the best movie and all that shit. I’m good with it, now. Scene looks good we all look good.”

“Dude,” I said. “You don’t have to call your manager. You and I are adults. We can do this without adding more opinions to the soup.”

“I know, I know. Call you back in five.”

As you might expect, the day player didn’t call me back for the rest of the day. Then came the call from the Big Kahuna himself.

“So we gonna get together and turn your scene inside-out?” he asked.

“Still workin’ on the actor,” I said. “He wants to get paid.”

“He should get paid.”

“Then you call the production office, okay? Because I got a resounding ‘talk to the hand.’

The movie star called me back after dinner.

“Can’t get it done,” said the Big Kahuna.

“Why not?” I asked, putting a muzzle on my incredulousness.

“I guess we don’t have the money.”

“Think that’s what I said—“

“Call the guy again. Tell him I said we really need to put a spark to the scene.”

“Already had numerous conversations with the guy. Your turn.”

“Can’t.”

“Why not.”

“Cuz I’m a producer on the movie. And we don’t need SAG starting a shit storm.”

“Seriously, man. I don’t think I can make it happen.”

“…I’m starting to really hate this mother-fucking scene, man. Maybe we should think of something else instead.”

It was precisely what I warned the day-player about. That damned scene was in danger of becoming waste water. Soon to be flushed and replaced with Lord knows what.

And with no scene, my newest actor pal would have no job at all.

The next morning, I tried the day player one last time.

“The scene’s in danger,” I told him.

“Man, my manager said you’d say that exactly somethin’ like that to get me to rehearse,” he said.

“I’m trying to save the scene,” I said. “No lie. I’m not the producer. I’m not the star. I’m not the director. I’m the writer and this is about my scene. Help me out, will ya?”

“Y’all playin’ chicken with me.”

“Nobody is playing games here,” I said.

“My manager says I should report this shit to SAG.

“Be my guest,” I said. “And give SAG my number. I’ll tell ‘em the same damn thing I told you.”

There was a sudden and odd silence at the other end of the line. The pause of a man I hoped was wrestling with the idea of growing a pair and painting outside the lines.

“Can’t do it man. Just can’t do it,” he eventually said.

I told the day player I understood and appreciated his situation. And I wished him luck.

“Think I’m gonna need it?” he asked.

“We’re making a movie,” I said. “We all need it.”

As you might guess, the scene was never rehearsed. And for awhile, it dangled by a frayed thread of gaffers tape, in danger of never seeing a frame of film. In the end, the scene stayed on the schedule, was filmed near dawn at the end of a very long and exhausting week, and once it made it into the picture’s initial cut, became a bone of contention between the Big Kahuna and yours truly. It must’ve been in and out of the movie three times before I negotiated with the star to re-voice his part in ADR.

The day player, you ask? He filmed his two days and cashed the check. Then disappeared from the production, nearly as forgotten as yesterday’s catering. To this very day I still don’t blame him for sticking with his manager’s advice. Nor do I have much issue with the unions or the strictures erected to protect artists from Hollywood abuse. It’s only when those sticky rules put the quality of the final product in danger that I get a bit creased.

Would the scene have been any better had the day player seen things my way, taken two hours out of his life, thrown back a few brews and helped us turn those two pages into maybe something better? We’ll never know. But I’m certain that had he taken that little leap, there was a chance he’d have bettered his moment on screen, not to mention opportunities to better his career.

As for the movie star, he went on making movies. Me? Well, I continue writing movies. And last time I checked, the day player was still a day player.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • I really don’t understand this guy, Doug. I’m a Union man my dad was a union man and his dad was a union man too.

    But if the overall quality is at risk I thought bending a rule or two would be, if not acceptable then common sense? Especially if the finished product will be all the better for it.

    This makes me think about low budget independent directors who made it to Hollywood like Robert Rodriguez or Kevin Smith. If they had played by the rules when they started out and never took risks I doubt they would have had the careers they have had since.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Unions and everything they do but I am also willing to take the odd risk especially when the pay off could be like winning the lottery.

    Funnily enough I made a film here in the UK last year and we had very similar union problems. Hopefuly they haven’t affected the overall quality of the product we made.

    Actually Doug I know you’re an NFL fan so can I steer you towards it’s IMDB page?

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2361150/

    It’s called Gridiron UK and its a British American football film that may appeal to you. We’ve just had it picked up by Universal.

    Anyway good to have you back Doug and I hope you and your family had a lovely holiday season.

    • At the end of the day we’re individuals and grown ups and we have to make our own decisions. Thanks Phil. Will check it out.

  • Brilliant article Doug… I never fail to be amazed at how some actors manage to damage their prospects with stars… producers and more paid work, for sake of risking the wrath (or is it egos…) of their agents/managers 15%.

    It is possible for such strict applications of rules and ‘management’ to hinder and damage workers instead of their supposed protective application.

  • John Michael Thomas

    This is definitely true in all kinds of business and all kinds of unions. Unions (and business “rules” in general) are good when they ensure quality or protect from abuse (and yes, there always will be people trying to abuse and take advantage). But when they interfere with delivering the goods, they get in the way. People who aren’t flexible about the rules (just about any kinds of rules) usually end up shooting themselves in the foot in the long run.

    This seems like it contains a lesson for screenwriters too.

    Just like the SAG contract says actors are supposed to get paid for rehearsals, the writing contract usually says writers are supposed to get paid for rewrites. So if it take an additional rewrite (or 2 or 5 or 10) to make everybody happy and get the movie made, are we going to do the rewrites or stick to the contract?

    I guess the answer depends on what we want – to get paid for our work today, or to build a career where we get asked to do more work in the future? If you’re already an A-list writer you can probably afford to stick to the contract. But for me, I’ll do the rewrites. Because ultimately I want the movie to get made.

    Yeah, after rewrite 15 or 20 I might start questioning people more about why, or about whether the movie will actually get made no matter how much work I do. But if the contract says 5 rewrites and they ask for a 6th? It seems like a no-brainer to me – get the movie made.

    After all, if they’re going to have to pay me for another rewrite (or 5), what’s to stop them from just paying the same money to another writer to do them?

    Of course, never having had a movie made, I’m speaking from inexperience. Doug, how do you feel about extra rewrites vs. the contract?

    • Totally up to the writer. I will rewrite for myself untold times. Then after my peeps read and weigh in there are more rewrites. After that, it entirely depemds on my relationship with the producer or studio. My goal is always get the movie going, get paid eventually.

  • Pretty happy that I will never allow this to happen to me. I love the work too much (more than the paycheck, and way more than the rules).

  • Cat

    reading this actually made my teeth clench, and not from this lovely LA winter snap.

    yes, i understand the getting paid thing.
    but sometimes, many times…no, most times there isn’t money to match the extra prep time that really will make a difference to the project.

    So many times, I go the extra mile and have had this conversation, or different incarnations of it, countless times.
    it’s ALWAYS worth the extra (& often unpaid) time.

    i am so glad you wrote this.
    thank you– i always leave your site thinking new thoughts.

    • Not wanting to make your teeth clench. But glad you related. I’m definitely an extra mile guy. And would rather be a little poorer but with a better product. That’s cat

  • Clive

    This should be a test paper on a philosophy degree.Making a principled stand is okay on occasion, say the wife is within earshot that kind of thing, or when you are retelling the thing later how the slimey writer groveled and the star couldn’t act his way of a paper bag, but mostly obsequiousness is the tried and proven route for most of us.

  • paul

    Doug, my first reaction to this dilemma was, like, really?? I haven’t experienced the writing/filmmaking world (though one day hope to)…but I’ve contracted and subcontracted my whole career in other ways. And the markets I always target are the ones where I can save people money from the market norm and get something done that not many others can do…so it goes with the territory that a lot of stuff happens for free. The cost of not making out big on any one project is somewhat evened out by always having work available. I don’t know that there’s any one ‘right’ way about it all…but the day player made me roll my eyes a bit. Not surprised he’s still a day player. And I say that in a loving way.

    • Glad it was a loving way. The day player is in fact a good guy. Nice. And very capable actor. Though maybe stuck and unable to see the forest through the trees.

  • Great post. Union guidelines are incredibly important because productions can’t be trusted to act in good faith and treat people fairly… but man is it annoying when you’re acting in good faith and those guidelines stand between you and what’s best for the movie. I will say, one advantage of working in the little indie world is that people who aren’t willing to finesse things a little usually never come your way in the first place.

    • True, Amos. Indies are more flexible – unless you’re up against it on the bond end. My experience is that even on the big pics, flexibility is still the difference between being above or below average. Most of us are in this because we love movies and want to see the best product from ourselves.

  • Short of kidnapping the two of them I think you did all you could.

    There are so many interesting ways to waste time. I don’t suppose anyone paid you for this frustrating little enterprise?

    • That’s a longer story, Phyllis. I blogged about it over at Stage 32. Join up and read it. Or wait for me to reblog it here.

  • Tim O’Connell

    Its been said by other folks already but this day player was clearly not thinking long term( or just not thinking). You sneak past your manager and spend a few hours with the writer and the star, build a rapport, make the scene work great, and better the movie. Maybe nothing major comes of it, but at least you show the writer, the star and all the top people involved in the movie that you’re a team player. Maybe they remember and bring you back on something else that prompts your big break. Who knows? Certainly worth a few hours time.

    I mean – what else did he do with those two hours?
    ———

    I’d call it a no-brainer, but it was too much for Mr. “here two days, gone tomorrow”

    Some people’s kids.

    • You call it a no-brainer. One say the same of the day player. Thanks Tim.

  • Just another thought.

    Big Kahuna wants to rehearse, day player says yeah okay.

    Big Kahuna and Day player spend an unpaid hour or two rehearsing together.

    Big Kahuna and Day player find they hit it off and have a ‘chemistry’ scene turns out great.

    Big Kahuna’s next movie comes up, a role needs casting.

    Big Kahuna says “You know there was this guy I worked with on my last film….”

    It’s all about choices and contacts.

    • Not just that, Phil. Big Kahuna is an actor known for bringing along cast he enjoyed from previous films. The opportunity was obvious.

  • Anna R.

    Poor guy. He probably spent 2 hours on the phone (discussing this with you and consulting with his manager) plus untold hours agonizing over the situation.

  • James Hornsby

    It seems really sad that day player couldn’t read the opportunity that was out before him. It seems kinda tragic that performers can’t make a move without consulting their managers/agents. I can see if it was a one time thing, but oh well.

    • See the trees? Look beyond. There’s a forest. Really, it’s there. Just look.

  • There’s a reason that day player is still a day player; he and his manager are too worried about the money. Sometimes the connection/experience is worth more. When I first moved to LA to get into the industry I took every job I could. Most paid, a few didn’t. One week I ended up working for free as a PA on a small indie short. I hit it off with one of the producers. After that while I was still in LA we were best friends, and always made sure the other’s name was brought up on set when there was the need for an extra body. Who knows, maybe the day player and The Big Kahuna would have hit it off as well. Maybe the day player could have become the Allen Covert to The Big Kahuna’s Adam Sandler. Or maybe the scene just would have worked out better. Bad call any way you look at it.