Thursday, July 10, 2014

I Was A Teenage Production Assistant: The Inkwell!

Production Assistant Day Work:
The Inkwell

Matty Rich wrote and directed Straight Out of Brooklyn at the tender age of  17 - at least when the long in production movie started. After its success, he was riding high, and jumped on a period African American drama called The Inkwell, which set up production offices here in Wilmington sometime in 1993.

Here's the movie's plot summary from the IMDB: "In 1976, Drew Tate is a young teenager who has trouble dealing with life after he accidentally sets his house on fire. His parents Kenny and Brenda decide to go to Martha's Vineyard to spend Fourth of July weekend with Brenda's sister Francis, Francis' black Republican husband Spencer and their son Junior. While there Drew falls for a self centered girl named Lauren and befriends a married lady named Heather. While on their vacation, Drew deals with his parents attempts to save their marriage as well as with his own troubles. Eventually all of this leads to a life changing event for Drew as well as his parents."

Thank you Brian Washington for that.

Now in his early 20's, Rich was working on a working class family drama set 20 years previously. This meant period cars and clothing, the works. It was an ambitious undertaking considering the money involved.

Most of the movie takes place during a family vacation to the sea shore - and they decided to max out their extras on one shooting day - shoot giant wide shots for all of the beach scenes - then work their way in to tighter and tighter shots while releasing some of the extras as they were no longer needed.

With the budget they decided to ask for volunteer extras rather than pay all of them. They hired a casting lady - my old buddy Francine - and had her work on lining up as many African American people willing to come out for a day's shooting on the beach for no pay other than a free lunch and the chance to MAYBE be seen in the movie. Francine worked hard - she got local radio stations to talk about the movie; she cold called people from her talent files. and asked everyone to spread the word.

She also did something smart - she got people to agree to come out - and took down their names. It wasn't a "show up if you can" kind of thing - because that can easily lead to you getting about 18 people. This way people have committed themselves, and if they didn't show up as promised - well, then Francine just might not call you to come in for the next several shows she does extras casting for. After all, you proved unreliable on this one and made her look bad, right?

I'm not sure how many Francine called in - but I know they knew to build in some shrink (in other words - you want 100 people you call for 125 knowing at least some will not show up). In the end they got about 300 people - pretty good numbers considering no pay. I know how many they got because for this big shooting day they added five production assistants to the crew - and I was one of them.

Basically, we five added to the three or four production assistants they already had - so they had a big group to marshal this large group of extras through "the works" (makeup, hair, and wardrobe) and move them onto and off of the beach shooting location as needed. Because they wanted to get going the second there was light, our call time was something ungodly like 4:30am. We had a lot of work to do getting the extras ready, because this was a period show set in the 70's. Consequently they had picked out some "featured" extras who already had a look that could fit the 70's - especially a big afro. Some who had a good look but shorter hair got afro wigs, and they were the next visual layer. The last layer were the deep background people - who still provided form and movement, but just didn't suggest the 70's upon closer examination.

Once they got going the day just became a blur - moving people on and off the beach - bringing in the full group for the big wide shots - which again they cleverly shot first, because they knew that without a payday requiring staying to the end so paperwork could be turned in - they were going to be losing people over the course of the day. Some people thrive on the hustle and bustle around a movie production, others get bored easily. These people tend to wander away after a few hours. So they got the big shots first. Once the widest shots were done, they would have smaller groups for the tighter shots.

But Matty Rich proved to be a filmmaker with maturity to match his tender years as he flittered about across the day's work - keeping things hopping - and not in a good way - with constant demands and no clear plan to get the day's work done. So it was a day of frustration for a lot of the people there.

The only other standout moment was the lunch - which turned out to be donated Kentucky Fried Chicken box lunches - in return for several period KFC buckets being used as props for "picnics" out on the beach - and on camera. So 400 fried chicken boxes for some screentime. Well, we PA's were thrilled to dig in to our boxes - and we scarfed our two pieces, one side, and biscuit as quickly as we could.

Among the extras - there was a mixed reaction. Some people were happy to be working on a movie and enjoyed getting some free food, even if it wasn't piping hot by the time it got to them. Others found the KFC box inadequate. Still others had a more divisive reaction - they were upset that a production company would serve fried chicken to a large group of African Americans. More points to Francine here - she was called to set (she'd been in the office lining up extras for future shooting days) and with her calm influence she soon had this rising anger nipped in the bud. There was no insult intended - it was simply a way to feed the extras in an economical fashion so as not to break the budget.

We shot that day until it was almost too dark to see. Wrap took a while as well, as they were taking all of the equipment with them - so this turned into an 18 hour day. But it was a paid work day for we additional PAs, and another credit on our resume.

To wrap up - I went to see the movie when it hit local theaters - and I didn't care much for it. It had a great cast, and some good moments - but too many subplots - like the main character carrying around a doll he talked to - didn't work at all. Still, you have to give the movie some points for being a simple and quiet family drama that happened to star African Americans - in a time when most African American movies were urban crime dramas.

Next up for this department - two days on a CBS miniseries that worked out to the lowest paying job I ever held in the film industry....

Until next post, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. Wonderful story Craig. I really enjoy this "behind the scenes" stuff. Thanks !

    1. Thank YOU, Alvin - for coming by and reading it!

  2. Interesting story, I was wondering if an issue was gonna be raised about the fried chicken... it's great to read something so brutally honest about shoots!

    1. This far out - I'm pretty damned open to telling it like it happened in this recurring series - I really need to get everything on this blog tagged in case someone wants to check out this department's entries.

    2. You really should - a button on the side with these posts tagged would be fantastic!

  3. There really aren't enough simple and quiet family dramas Craig. Great inside look.