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My feelings on the film incentive cap.

   /ɪnˈsɛntɪv/ [in-sen-tiv]
something that incites or tends to incite to action or greater effort, as a reward offered for increased productivity.
inciting, as to action; stimulating; provocative.

Typically, emails from one of my two agents causes me to feel a giddy expectation, but when an email came through a couple of days ago, I dreaded what it would say. Sure enough, at the time, it was confirmed that two major motion pictures were pulling their production out of the state of Michigan. Since then, others have begun to follow suit and as the shock wears off, the ripple effects are going to truly be felt.

Let me explain a bit about my stance on the film incentive cap that is being put into place:

I was a filmmaker and actress before the film incentives came to Michigan. Struggling against the odds, yes, but doing all I could to make it work here in the shadow of corrupt unions and the failed auto industry. I’ll full admit one thing and that is that I have a personal and professional bias about the film industry. However, I’m attempting to approach this as I would ANY industry that is starting to draw non-negative attention to my state and home region and attempting to treat this as active industry, not specifically film industry.

Years ago, the thought of a major movie star being in town for any reason gave us the small-town shivers. Nobody ever visits Detroit, not for the heck of it. Sure, we have great cultural attractions in the DIA, Henry Ford and Greenfield Village, casinos, great waterfront views, the list can go on and on. What we didn’t have was a thriving industry. Just as we were hopeful and excited when the casinos opened in Detroit, we were hopeful that the film industry would be our saving grace. We were still reeling from the disappointment of the casinos not really living up to the hype and still buried in broken dreams caused by the auto industry failing. It once worked to have one strong industry in place, but over time, it has become a burden. In 2008, auto companies begged for money and it was decided that billions of dollars of tax money were to be given to the auto industry to keep them afloat. Let’s focus on that for a moment.

Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on May 1, 2009. Between Chrysler and GM, there was approximately $17.4 BILLION dollars in tax money involved. The film incentive cap is $25million. That’s what, 14% of the auto bailout to Chrysler and GM, a good chunk of which doesn’t have to be repaid because of the bankruptcy?

Meanwhile, Chrysler paid $9million on their SuperBowl ad, which had raw footage filmed in Detroit, but post production was done in California. Why is that? We have a solid film industry here in Michigan and have for years, even BEFORE the film incentives. We do industrials, indie films, commercials here. The film incentives were just the push we needed to do larger projects that require more staff/crew/talent. The film incentives were just the push we needed to get people to come to us instead of us going to them, which in turn stimulated local business.

Back in May of 2010, just after my birthday in fact, I found out that I had a part in a SAG film. Until that point, I’d had some auditions, but my real money from ‘acting’ was coming from extra work. On set, you’d see people slipping extra granola bars and bagels into their bags and purses, whispering about being glad they’d have something to eat for dinner. Until that point, I’d only seen this behavior on TV shows that would use the ‘starving actor’ as a stereotype. The difference in this case? It wasn’t usually an actor who was starving, it was someone who was laid off, downsized, sometimes outright fired and they were losing their cars and homes. Having a bagel secreted away for dinner meant not having to spend a precious $5 on a meal, especially when they had to pay the insanely expensive gas prices to get to set in the first place. People were THRILLED to have a job, even if it was just for one day making minimum wage and working in sometimes brutal conditions. In summer, the heat and sun were incredibly hot and in winter the cold air bit into you, yet there people stood for hours on end, hoping maybe filming might go an extra couple of hours so they could score the overtime wages. And yes, there I stood with them, glad that I had a day job and was doing it more for the experience than for the money. Thankfully, I wasn’t entirely alone. Several of my ‘extra’ friends were there for the experience, thrilled that they had taken time and money from their pockets AND from the government to be retrained so one day soon, they too could be WORKING on these sets.

I filmed my speaking role in July and the production wrapped shortly after. A few weeks after the film’s wrap party, I was once again back on set, this time as an extra again. The PAs on set remembered me and were surprised to find that I was doing extra work still. I said ‘You have to pay the bills somehow’ and that’s exactly the case. In the weeks between filming these two movies, I lost my job. After 12 years at a company, my position was no longer required and they had recently hired someone else at a lower rate of pay that was little by little taking over my job. The frugal thing for them to do was to have that person take over my position. It was my first ‘real’ employer. Prior to then, I had a few jobs, but it was that time in your late teens and early 20s where you don’t really know what you want to do or where you want to do it. I was 23 when I started there and suddenly I was floundering. Suddenly I was among those who were more than happy to have a one-day job standing in the hot sun and cold wind and pouring rain for hours on end just so they could get minimum wage for a few hours so they don’t miss a car payment or house payment. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t glamorous, but it was WORK and it bought me food, electricity and helped me pay my car payment. I went from being glad I could get the experience to being glad I could get the paycheck.

One of the PAs on set one day mentioned being glad she had another gig so fast after the first one. In fact, Michigan films were scrambling to have enough trained and capable PAs. She had actually left a film to work on this one because of better working conditions. NEVER before in Michigan had that been an option! Never before had there been an industry that was growing so fast that it needed MORE people to be trained and hired. Studios were opening, films were signing on, movie stars were hanging out at karaoke bars that my friends and I went to. It became the norm to find out that new stars were spotted in town.

Weeks ago, I was flush with pride and joy. I now had SAGe after my name. I had auditions for movies and TV shows that were filming HERE. In my backyard! Sometimes literally as my role in Machine Gun Preacher was filmed by my old high school. In fact, our holding area was my nephew’s school. My brother plays gigs at the bar we filmed a scene at. My sister’s boyfriend used to live over the bar we were at another day. It was local in every sense of the word. One day while I was getting my hair and makeup touched up, a PA came around with a menu for a local sub shop. Sure, we had on-site catering, but this place was down the street and was FANTASTIC and they wanted to order from there that day. This meant that not only did the catering company get work that day, the sub shop had a HUGE order placed by about 14 people on set. Yet somehow, these things get overlooked when people talk about the film incentives. The driver of the van that would take us from basecamp to set mentioned having to get gas. But I guess the gas station’s income on that transaction isn’t important, either. The point is, there are areas that people aren’t looking at when it comes to the stimulus sparked by the incentive program. Sure, hotels and catering are briefly mentioned as they are the big ticket items, but what about the drug stores where PAs run for more sunscreen because they ran out? What about the gas station across the street that the wardrobe assistant runs to in order to buy some gum and a pop? It might be small transactions here and there, but should they be overlooked entirely?

So here I am, SAGe after my name on my resume, halfway hoping I don’t get a role that forces me to join the union and keeps me from doing non-union roles, and halfway hoping I have to join because there are films that want local Michigan actors. I hope that many of my friends who spent time and money being retrained for this industry aren’t forced to move. After all, it would be rather fiscally foolish of the State of Michigan to spend all the money retraining people for an industry that they’re shutting down, forcing them to move out of the state and never pay back into the taxes that paid for their education, right?

Perhaps we’re going about this all wrong. Maybe the film industry should file for Chapter 11 and ask for billions of dollars in order to get the government, state and federal, to rally behind them and shove money at them.

Until then, I’ll be collecting unemployment when I could be working. Granted, it might just be a one or two day job at a time, but isn’t ANY money I don’t have to collect from the state a good thing? Meanwhile, as the film industry crumbles, I continue plugging away at my primary industry where several months of pavement pounding and undercutting my previous salary still isn’t helping me get hired.

If Michigan is going to hinder any industry, film or otherwise, how are we going to stay afloat when all our money goes into government bailouts and unemployment?

I welcome any discussion or ideas on the topic.


Tales From The Set: Ruins of Du-Khang

Waking up on a Saturday to find that your director has messaged you the night before while you were out, stating that he needs you to call him immediately is never a good feeling. There’s always a sinking feeling of ‘Did he uncast me?!’ or something that lingers in the background. So when I called him and the first words out of his mouth were ‘So how much did you have your heart set on being the hooker in this movie?’ I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. I told him whatever’s best for the production and if someone else is better for it– then he informed me that the girl playing one of the leads dropped out, so he bumped Renee up to that role and wanted me to take on Renee’s role. I told him it was fine, I’m not picky. Sure, the hooker role actually had more acting involved in it, but secretly I’m just giddy to be playing a part in the Firefly universe. I’m that big of a nerd sometimes.

Then as if to salve my poor battered soul at having a short but interesting part, he informed me that THIS role is in the sequel. Which is great, even though that’s not really a make-it-or-break-it thing for me. Still, it’s good to know he’ll want me back!

On set of the Firefly movie, The Ruins of Du-KhangSo I arrived to set with my hair and makeup mostly done. I went into the dressing room looking pretty normal and I came out wearing a yoga top, a pair of black knee-length stretch pants, a sheer dance skirt and a veil over my hair. I had on waist-wraps with the coins that dangle off and jingle with every movement, stuff on my hands and all sorts of other little accessories that made me look very bellydancer-ish. Plus I had done the rest of my makeup. I had a rainbow over my eyes. Very Bollywood inspired! I was indeed quite obviously a bellydancer at this point!

Jamie's Angels?Filming went great. It ran a little longer than we’d planned, but that’s pretty par for the course in filmmaking.

People who have never been involved in the behind-the-scenes of film really don’t have a concept of how long it takes to do even the briefest shot. You have to set up the lighting and camera, block the actions, rehearse the lines, run the whole thing a couple of times with minor tweaks to everything, THEN finally you’re ready to shoot the ten seconds of film and it’s only taken you two and a half hours to set it all up. Plus you have to count the location scouting, the driving to the location, the hair/makeup, the wardrobe, etc. For what is a very brief moment of me dancing on stage, then coaxing a friend to go dance, it took us all day.

Oh, and the choreography for the dances took a bit of time. Renee and I practiced our shimmying and our shaking and then it was time to film our big dances! It was fun, if tiring. Once we were done with all that, we all had to get up on the stage and dance around to Ministry. It was so much fun. It amazes me how much that couple minutes of blowing off steam and just letting loose really re-energizes you after a long shoot. Once that was over, most of the cast was wrapped except for a few of us. Renee and I had one last shot of going to pick a song from the greenscreen display and there were some walk-by things to be shot and then BAM! DONE! And I was on my way home to make dinner.

It was a fun day, though long and full of shaking my groove thang. I can’t wait to see how it looks on film!

Happy Holidays from Ruins of Du-Khang!

Happy Holidays from Ruins of Du-Khang!


Tales From The Set: Red Dawn

One question I am frequently asked is “What’s it like to be on a big budget movie set?” Well, the truth is that each set is different in most ways, but there is always a certain level of the hurry-up-and-wait involved.

As a filmmaker, the process of what is taking place on every level interests me. During the downtimes when most extras are sitting there talking about their warring emotions of excitement and boredom, I’ll often observe the cast and crew as they prepare for the next scene. I watch the lights being moved and how they set them up and tweak them, I’ll keep an eye on the director to see how (s)he ensures each aspect of the shot is being prepared. I’ll watch the cast rehearsing their lines and having their hair and makeup checked.

However, the best part of the entire experience is being part of the pageantry and the finished product. Sure, 99 times out of 100 you’re simply a blur in the crowd that is half hidden by the main actors, but I won’t deny the little thrill of seeing a glimpse of myself in that crowd. I suppose it is the chance of seeing yourself on the screen that causes many inexperienced extras to think that fighting for positioning may help you get on camera, but I’ve learned over time that even if you are directly in front of the camera, it doesn’t mean it will capture you at all. The potential to be seen is always there, but very unlikely. My theory is that if I want to ensure I’ll be seen in a film, I’ll have a speaking role and not be an extra.

I think that after the many films of not being seen, this one may be different! In one of the scenes, a lead actor comes up to me and talks to me and pushes me to get me moving out of the way for an explosion. If they keep the scene as is, you’ll at least see me out of focus next to him as he’s speaking, so that’ll be quite an experience, being able to point at the screen and tell my family ‘Look! There I am!’

If you look at the above image, I’m standing next to the red hydrant!

So what was it like?

It was almost like a scene from the late 1960s: Detroit full of gunfire, tanks, soldiers and explosions. People running, screaming and scared. When someone would fall, someone would grab them and help them to their feet while dragging them along out of the way of danger. It was quite an experience and though it’s entirely fake, those few moments of ‘action’ were very overwhelming and realistic. Several of us had discussions later of how we caught the briefest glimpse of what it would actually be like to be caught in such a situation. We were cold, tired, dirty, hungry and uncomfortable all around. We were wrapped in winter clothes and wool and huddled for warmth. Many of us would start the day wearing at least two pair of socks, some with the hand warming packets used by hunters or the muscle relaxing heat patches stuck to ourselves to keep from shivering. It was miserable and it was glorious and I will forever be able to watch these moments captured in brief flashes of blurry crowds running when I watch the DVD.