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Production Diary: Worst of the Worst

2/14/2012 8:04 PM Eastern

Column - Production Diary Header 

By Stefan Sargent

I guess everyone who makes commissioned films — or commissioned anything, for that matter — has rotten clients. I thought I’d write about my favorite worst clients, if you know what I mean.

Hmmmm… let me think: there’s Andy. He tells me he’s making programs for Channel 4. Runs up a bill of £22,500 (just under $50,000) in editing time and then goes belly up. At least he takes me to lunch to explain that he really didn’t have a C4 contract and then — wait for it — tries to book more editing time for his new company.

Naturally, I push him down the stairs.

FARTING FRED
Fred, who has a body problem, is head of a large construction company. My contact there is a nice, downtrodden marketing exec, Norman.

“Norman. Saw your friend Stefan’s latest film about our Switchcarts. Very mediocre, I thought. Why are you still using him? Hey, only kidding, Norman. It’s OK, but way too expensive. Stefan, you bank robber, we’re supporting your lifestyle of sex, drugs and videotape. How’s the porn going?”

A month later, Norman books me for another job. On the day, I turn up at the site ready to shoot, and guess what? Norman’s boss, Farting Fred, has booked a competitive production company. Big joke!

“Let them fight it out. Pistols, swords or elbow wrestling?”

I meet the other director. Nice guy. We agree to toss a coin for the job. I lose. Norman apologizes. The winner of the toss makes the video but never gets paid. Farting Fred’s company goes under. My lucky day.

Back to the list: Let’s skip the two Saudis who screw me, the ad agency lady who “souvenirs” all the props, the creepy client who invites us to dinner but hands me the bill, and the corrupt British MP client (who wasn’t playing Monopoly but went to jail).

TO BEEB OR NOT TO BEEB
Brief diversion: I was employed at the BBC (Beeb) as a cameraman between 1964 and ’65. Every year there’s a “board,” where four senior executives read out a list of comments from your FOM (Film Operation Manager) and do a brief interview. Good news. They like me, they really like me.

I’m sitting there beaming and a faceless one says, “What would you like to do?” I reply, “I WANT TO DIRECT.”

Oh no... without a university degree, promotion from cameraman to production is impossible.

“What about Hitchcock?” I quip.

“No degree, he was just a draftsman.” Lead balloon. I slink out.

JANUARY 1995 LONDON, UK
My good client Jason has landed a BBC series of six quarter-hour programs. The subject is back pain. Jason sub-contracts the whole job to me. It took 30 years of waiting but now’s my chance to direct for the Beeb.

I shoot chiropractors, osteopaths, aroma-therapists and so on. The killer-diller is a program on the Alexander Technique.

Production Diary - Chiropractor

Nope, not even a chiropractor can remove the pain from mean, cruel, thoughtless clients! Above, right: Little did Australian actor Frederic Alexander know the trouble he’d cause me with my BBC client.

We shoot it with three cameras. Offline it on Avid. Send a “for content only” VHS to the commissioning editor at the Beeb. It’s REJECTED for technical quality. The cameras don’t match. Huh? I can’t believe it. A VHS offline rejected for not meeting broadcast specs... They can’t be serious.

I explain to the lady producer at the Beeb, “It’s only a VHS — not a broadcast master. The cameras are fine.” But no, it has to be re-shot. My own client, Jason, is hysterical. “Jason, it’s a dirt-cheap VHS — they can’t reject the show on technical grounds!”

But they do.

We re-shoot and edit. I supply a BetaSP edit made directly from the new Beta camera original. It comes back REJECTED with a page of faults. Dropouts here there and everywhere. Blanking errors.  White clipping. Chromas too high. You name it.

I call in my colleague, Bob Parsons. He was my chief engineer at Molinare. Show it to him. He can’t see a thing wrong with the tape.

“Just re-box it with a new report sheet,” says Bob. He’s done it before.

I re-package the selfsame tape rejected by the Beeb. Write a new report sheet with lots of fake details and new signatures. Bike it over to the BBC. You get it: We didn’t do nothing.

A few hours later, I get a call from a QC technician at the BBC. “Fantastic! It’s perfect. Thanks ever so.”

The BEEB wins! THE WORST OF THE WORST!

Stefan Sargent's latest documentary, Pinot: Escape From Wall Street — filmed in high-definition in the vineyards and wineries of Sonoma capturing the adventures of Wall Street trader turned winemaker Jamie Kutch —is available via his Web site. Sargent will also be a featured speaker at Digital Video Expo, where he will discuss the making of Pinot and his DIY approach to doc shooting.

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