Film Production: You Can’t Do That! (3)


A sizeable percentage of my film production career was spent producing and/or serving as first assistant director on TV commercials, over 1,000 of them. My specialty – and the work I most enjoyed – was location shooting, much of that took place on the greatest “back lot” in the world, New York City.

With location film production, no matter the well laid the plan once the shooting starts that plan goes out the window and the improvising begins. The jobs of producer and AD quickly become crisis management. This made my job challenging and therefore fun.

One factor in this state of affairs is often intervention by the “authorities”. On the occasion excerpted (and trimmed) here from my film production book Circumstances Beyond My Control, this is one such intervention. Busted by the top movie cop.

Renault Commercial: pier to tug boat – Intervention

The most tricky sequence in the spot was driving the Renault down the specially constructed and very expensive ramp from the pier to the tugboat.

It was planned from the get go and was to be a crucial, spectacular moment in the commercial. Even before I was on the job as 1st AD [production manager] Betsy Reid had meetings with the Mayor’s Film Office about this one shot. Engineers and safety experts as well as the NYPD water unit were involved. Tidal tables were consulted and studied so the shot could be done at high tide when the angle of the ramp would be at its most gentle slope. After I was on the job we had another meeting with the Film Office folks and the entire coterie of experts and authorities. At this meeting we were finally granted permission to do the “stunt” provided two NYPD divers were on hand in wet suits and wearing SCUBA.

So there we were, an hour before high tide this frigid January morning, on the pier with our picture car, our tugboat, our ramp, our stunt driver and our NYPD divers. This was a pricey shot but, in the minds of the Renault folks, well worth the cost. We were ready. Everything – including official, written permission from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting – was in place. The director and the clients were excited. This was gonna be a great shot. We had three cameras. One on the boat and two on the pier.

We were rehearsing the action, right up to the point where the car started down the ramp when my walkie-talkie squawked. One of the PAs told me that Sergeant Keene [not his real name] , top cop in the movie unit, had arrived. Even though Keene was a well known hard-case stickler for the rules and a general pain in the ass for film crews, this was not particularly worrisome to me because we had documented permission to do the stunt. Our (collective and my particular) ass was covered by paperwork.

I strolled toward the approaching sergeant and greeted him cordially. We shook hands and he inquired as to just exactly what it was that we were doing. As the crew continued rehearsing Betsy joined us and I explained the shot. Betsy whipped out the permit and Keene keenly scrutinized it. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.)

He then made his magisterial way to the end of the pier and spoke to the two NYPD divers. After that brief conclave he came back to me and said, “I can’t let you do this.”

Struggling mightily to restrain my rising ire, I mentioned that we had had several meetings with the proper authorities, we had met all their requirements and – as he had seen – we were in possession of a valid permit detailing and okaying our plan.

By now the director had become aware of the body language of his AD and production manager and thus grew curious. So he came over to see what was the matter. Betsy was verging on a high dudgeon and I was more than somewhat upset. We had done everything right and now this imperious asshole was shutting us down. This could not be happening.

Betsy ran to a phone and called the Film Office, I tried to calm the director down by assuring him that we had all the proper permissions and that this would get settled. He insisted that I distract the Sergeant so he could do the shot while the tide was high. I explained to him that if I did that I may never have another AD job in New York and might even join him in a jail cell.

Betsy returned from her conversation with the disastrous news that Sergeant Keene did, in fact, have the authority to shut down a stunt even though permission had previously been granted if, at the site of the event, he found it unsafe.

Well, let me tell you, we had some very unhappy Frenchmen on our hands. After a lot of rethinking we had the car transported to the tugboat’s Brooklyn pier where a crane lifted it onto the tug. The helicopter had already been scheduled to provide the platform for shooting the car on the boat beginning mid-afternoon.

Renault on Statue of Liberty Pedestal

PS: Closing shot was the Renault (France’s second gift to the USA) on a ⅝ size replica of the Statue of Liberty pedestal.

For more exciting tales of film production click here and read Circumstances Beyond My Control.

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