Saturday, June 21, 2014

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARTHA PINSON (PART 2 OF 2)


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Martha Pinson is one of the unsung talents behind some of the finest and most important films of the last three and a half decades. A filmmaker herself, as script supervisor she has worked on eight projects apiece with Martin Scorsese and the late Sidney Lumet, and she has also worked with the like of Oliver Stone, Milos Forman, Brian De Palma and Peter Yates. She started her career just as New York was attracting a bevy of great filmmakers. In the second of a two-part interview I talk to Martha about working with Oliver Stone and Peter Yates, the challenges and joys of script supervising, and making the transition to directing.  

Part 1 can be read here.


How was working with Oliver Stone on WALL STREET? (1987)
I went in with a very positive attitude because I loved PLATOON (1986) and SALVADOR (1986) and knew Oliver wrote them as well. And here was another great script. He is such a smart, uncompromising director. In my interview, he asked what my biggest flaw as a script supervisor was and I answered, ''The wise-ass remark.''  I related how on a previous job (a commercial) I’d commented on a take everyone liked, ''It looks like a fire drill.'' Everybody looked at me as if to say, ''Shut up.'' Oliver didn’t seem to mind that. I got the impression he likes people who are brash and fearless. We got along great. I think he grew to trust me because he knew I'd always tell him the truth. I would have worked with him again except it would have meant travel and I had a son in school in New York. 

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How do the filmmakers you have worked with differ in their feelings towards improvising or ad-libbing?
It depends on the writer, the director, and other things. In some instances, directors and actors know not to mess around because the script has such beautiful rhythms and language. But sometimes there's a sense that doing ad-libs or trying out some different versions of a scene might be constructive and fun. I've been involved in both situations and both are valid. Sometimes the funniest line or most memorable action in a movie is an ad-lib.


How was working with Peter Yates on THE HOUSE ON CARROLL STREET (1988)?
I was, once again, delighted to get the call to work for a director I admired so much.  BULLITT wowed the world back in 1968. And, though my son was only 2 years old, I jumped in. I was also eager to work with the director of photography, Michael Ballhaus, because I loved his cinematography on the Fassbinder film DESPAIR(1978).  It was a terrific experience in part because Peter and Michael were so kind. The three of us lived in the same neighborhood and I had a ride to work everyday. Wow, that never happens. We had a great team, worked hard, and everything went well. Staging and shooting in the ceiling of Grand Central station, where Mandy Patinkin’s character had to fall through, was amazing.  

What do you enjoy the most about script supervising? 
I don’t think too much about enjoying things. It’s a job; I have to know everything and prevent a mistake that my colleagues - smart professionals - may have glazed over on. I work under extreme pressure, locked in deep concentration, for long hours. I enjoy collaborating with brilliant, dedicated people. I enjoy finishing a scene and knowing it’s good, that it will cut.  I like the creative aspect of shooting in that we show up in the morning with words on paper, actors, and a camera. And, by the end of the day – BOOM - we have a scene; we have a movie that is going to be seen and enjoyed by a lot of people. So much of what that scene is, what it conveys, the emotion it sparks, is due to the work of the entire crew and cast – on that day. I enjoy playing on the team, joking with the guys. I enjoy that everyone knows they can come to me with any question they have. I enjoy their smile when I answer and they can get on with their work. I like math and some of the questions and concerns are basically about geometry – eye lines, camera angles, transforming a three-dimensional reality to a two-dimensional screen. I enjoy working with actors. They are constantly struggling to create and grow, to make a fiction convincing. They literally have to become someone else and I’m in awe of them. They almost have to live in another world. It’s so challenging and I try to be supportive.  

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What have been some of the most rewarding experiences?
It’s rewarding to be creative and appreciated and that comes in many forms -- an exchange with an actor thanking me for something, a comment from a producer, anyone. Also, it’s fun when I come up with an idea that is used in the movie – suggestion of music for the sound track, a way to fix a shot or a problem with a story point. I have a natural temperament to collaborate. I am the child of an engineer and spent many happy hours as a kid doing math problems with my dad after dinner. I loved building things, borrowing his drafting tools to draw floor plans. I grew up collaborating with a brilliant man so I’m a natural with that transaction. I am inspired by the magic of movies and love making them. 

What are the most challenging aspects?
The hours are long, so everyone gets tired. Night shoots are tough, as are early calls, extreme cold or heat, and noisy locations. You have to be very prepared and sensitive to the pressure that other people are under. Actors are worried about their performance. Directors have to constantly evaluate if the shoot is going well or not and also field calls from the studio. The assistant director might be freaking out because we’re falling behind. There's a lot of paperwork, which can be boring. Hostility from someone, such as an insecure actor, is horrible. Sometimes a person is really difficult and just after we wrap, they check into the Betty Ford Clinic. And then I realize, ah, it wasn’t something I said.  

Can you recall a particularly stressful experience?
I once learned from a colleague, regarding an actress’s attitude to me: ''She hates you 'cause you’re pretty. She doesn’t want you on her set.'' Apparently, she wanted to get rid of me but the director refused and I finished the film, supporting him and the team. Knowing this was spooky. Sometimes jealousy and resentment - the usual work politics - are daunting. But it’s better because we are freelance. We can get through it and then not accept another job with a person who is difficult.  

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Where do you usually sit or stand during filming?
I'm usually right next to the director. Since the late '90s we've had the big monitor setups, the video village area, where the director and I usually sit. But before that I’d always be standing next to the camera, under it on an apple-box, on a ladder, or I'd be in a spot where the dolly move was going to end. The director, boom operator, still photographer and myself were right there, moving as needed but finding a perch. Now, in video village, we have a couple of chairs next to the monitors. I need to be ready and composed because I'm right there with the director. If something needs to be discussed with another person, I walk away so I'm not disturbing the director, who needs to concentrate. Even recently, regardless of the monitors, I work right next to camera if I'm needed to cue lines or observe details. The key for me is to be agile and mobile, able to jump in.  

Do you feel a particular affinity for New York filmmakers and stories given that you've worked with the likes of Lumet, Scorsese, De Palma and Stone?
I moved to New York to make movies and be closer to my family, so naturally I  worked on all these New York movies. Later, I didn't want to travel because my son was in school here.  Lucky for me, New York blossomed as this incredibly gritty, romantic, diverse location. It was a coincidence of time and place. A lot of great, skilled crew people stuck with it and proved we could do anything that was asked here. Over the past few decades we’ve built a huge thriving industry here. Hats off to Bloomberg and the NYS Film Commission. It would have been much more difficult without the tax credits. 

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I like the New York vibe. I grew up in rural New  Jersey, and I moved to New York in my 20s, after a few years in Boston. I  probably have a more romantic view of the city than those who lived here their whole lives. My dad’s engineering firm was near Grand Central Station and coming to meet him there was so cool as a kid. Also, as a teenager I'd get on a bus and come to Greenwich Village, watch a couple of Bergman movies, and buy some hippie jewelry. I love this area, and I love going to myriad locations all over the 5 boroughs to shoot. I love the stories, the culture, and the streets of New York.  

How do you deal with it when you have issues with the content of a film you're working on?
There have been a couple times when I’ve read a script and explained to the production manager that I did not respond to the material. Of course, I knew if one of my favorite directors was doing the film it would have to be interesting. Often, I would not be able to read the script before being hired so the decision depended on who was directing or producing. If I didn’t feel comfortable, I would not take the job. It didn’t seem fair to go in with a negative attitude. That’s the last thing they need. Very often a script involves a vehicle accident, a death, something desperate or violent. Fortunately, it is always very clear that the vehicles and stunt actors have been secured and planned very carefully for safety.  Nevertheless, though I’m not religious, I’d find myself saying a prayer for the safety of all before a stunt. With fights and blood, there is an easy detachment because the blood is fake and poured on, the scars are done in makeup. It’s all rigged so we are usually more in awe of what’s been created and planned than repelled by the fictional action. Often gunfire is added in post-production. As far as difficult, repellent scenes, well, I can detach and do my job, have compassion for all involved, and know that it will be over in a few hours usually. The rest of the shooting crew would take the same attitude and we’d carry on, hold up our end. Sometimes with a scene involving nudity, I’ve found that it is somewhat of a comfort to an actress to have another woman standing there and not just men.

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When you watch a film you've worked on are you able to divorce yourself from the experience of making it and just enjoy it? 
When I see a film I've worked on for the first time it is a bit intense. I can get a migraine thinking about what different shots and takes were used, what was left out and what is different. Even watching a film I haven't worked on can be an odd experience.  Working on films takes something away from being a regular viewer. You simply know too much and it's not an awe-inspiring escape anymore. Because of this, I didn't go to many movies for a while but I'm getting back to them now. 

You've directed short films yourself and you're developing a new feature to direct.  How long have you harboured ambitions to direct?
Oddly, I didn’t actually “harbor” the ambition much in advance. I was asked to do it and liked it. In the late 90s, two writer friends asked me to direct their plays - full length, off-Broadway productions. It was wonderful and I could use the visual, artistic, and cinematic tools I’d learned on set to make something special in terms of staging, sound, visuals, and lighting.  I then directed a short about basketball, based on my friend Stephen Martin's play – 'Don’t Nobody Love the Game More than Me' (2002), which did well. I kept going, getting more work done as it came my way. I was also putting my son through college. I had been a writer, wrote eight scripts while he was at school, but I found it hard to sell them. I’m not a producer, nor do I wish to be one. So it seemed like directing would be a job whereas with writing you had to sell your work. Once my son was old enough to be on his own more, I thought, ''OK, I can try that.''  I had previously thought you had to be really rich to direct, an heiress, or have a father or husband with a lot of connections and money. I didn’t see that in my life. I thought a film was a risky investment so couldn’t see asking people for a lot of money. I never had a film school background. I’d applied to film school but was rejected. I should have probably applied to five or six more schools. I just never gave up entirely on work that was more expressive and creative for me. I took in wheelbarrows of applications for grants and funding. I encountered resistance regarding directing episodic TV:  an executive producer once asked me: ''Why do you want to be a director? I have directors lined up around the block. You are a great script supervisor.  That’s something useful.'' Getting an assignment as a TV director is very tricky, I discovered, and I became discouraged about that after some efforts did not pan out. Of course, there’s a lot of negativity, failure, rejection; it’s normal because of the competitive nature of the business. It’s like professional sports in that way and we have to accept that. And keep going. The process also lets me practice leadership. 

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How supportive has Martin Scorsese been in your ambition to direct?
He’s been amazing, so generous. Even in the past, he read several of my scripts, watched my short; he is supportive of other filmmakers. He very graciously agreed to come on board as an executive producer on a film I was asked to direct in the UK, TOMORROW. That’s about the coolest thing anyone could ask for.  

Can you talk about some of the short films you made?
My shorts have been great fun, interesting. I love choosing the material, scouting locations, planning the look and tone, rehearsing with the actors, creating a shot list and hitting it full on with a great DP and small crew. Being on set and creating the film moment-to-moment is thrilling. It’s fun and inspiring to constantly try to outsmart the forces that interfere with what I want to accomplish on the day. 'Don’t Nobody Love the Game More than Me' won many prizes and aired on PBS/Independent Lens. I’ve collaborated with actors and others who have asked me to direct a short, a pilot for a series, a multi-camera shoot of a live performance, and a mini-doc for an album release for them and I have been happy to take on these projects. I directed the short 'It’s Not Saturday' (2011) for a VisionFest (a great NYC film festival) filmmaker challenge project – five days, five pages, five minutes – go!  It was a wonderful experience and I was able to cast a brilliant jazz saxophonist, Alex Han, in the lead. Currently, I have several feature film and television projects in development, some from scripts and treatments I’ve written or co-written, others from scripts by my friends and colleagues. I find it’s necessary to have lots of them because the timeline of any one is so uncertain.  

What skills that you learned as a script supervisor helped you in your directing?
Everything. Staging, blocking, coverage, shot lists, pace, camera moves, all the tools, talking to actors, the mechanics of production, knowing what everyone does, and the dynamics of leadership. Knowing what shots I need, what I’d like but can combine or compromise if time is running out. Knowing the intricacies of the best eye-line for a shot given the likely cutting pattern. Knowing lenses, cutting, and time and money issues. I also developed a strong stance that the people who are working for the shot, who might not have a glamorous job, are extremely important to the success of my work and my day. I always consider the time, hours, and conditions I expect them to work under. I always emphasize safety and I always pay the crewSomething the average person doesn't see is the sheer amount of work that goes into every film - the creativity, devotion, contribution and hard work of the crew. Every person is thinking, building, working, creating, designing, executing, making decisions, showing up early, and getting home late. They are not just bored employees soaking up the benefits. I am reminded of a chat I had years ago ...  Some guys were sitting on a bench having lunch in a park where we’d been setting up and shooting since 7:00am near the city courthouses. They said they’d been watching us out the window of their office and had never seen people work so hard. The guy added: ''We work for the city. We don’t do very much.''  Ah, must be nice. 

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As script supervisor I didn’t do much scouting. I love scouting locations as a director and know it cold that the location has to not only be interesting visually and express the reality of the story - it has to be good for sound and access for equipment and crew. The new areas for me as a film director, which I did practice as a theater director and writer, were the initial stance on the work - script analysis, interpretive choices, and character with the actors.  Selecting the colors, the artistic references, talking to the DP, the designers, the casting director, that was new to me when I started directing.  

Has directing made you appreciate what goes into filmmaking even more?
Definitely, so much time and effort goes into choosing the material, casting, script revisions and finance. I am very grateful to take on these new challenges and see my taste, vision and judgment put into play.   

I spoke to Martha by telephone on 20th July 2013 and also by email correspondence during May and June 2014. I would like to thank her for her time.

PHOTO CREDITS
(1) Martha directing (c) Paulo Caserta
(2) With two year old baby Jack Carroll (c) David Dunlap
(3) With James Cagney on the set of RAGTIME (1981) (c) Bob Penn
(4) With Sidney Lumet at the Mexico location for POWER (1986) (c) Kerry Hayes
(5) In a scene from POWER (1986) with Richard Gere (c) Kerry Hayes
(6) On the set of DEATHTRAP (1982) with Michael Caine (c) Louis Goldman
(7) Martha on the set of I'M NOT RAPPAPORT (1996) (c) Martha Pinson
(8) With Sidney Lumet on the set of NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN (1996) (c) Adger Cowans

MARTHA'S CREDITS WITH SIDNEY LUMET: Prince of the City (1981), Deathtrap (1982), Daniel (1983), Garbo Talks (1984), Power (1986), A Stranger Among Us (1992), Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), Gloria (1999).

MARTHA'S CREDITS WITH MARTIN SCORSESE: 'Bad' (1987), New York Stories (1989, 'Life Lessons' segment), Bringing Out the Dead (1999), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010), 'Boardwalk Empire' (2010, pilot), Hugo (2011).

Special thanks to Ricky Barnett of IIWYK.