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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Guest Blog: The Property Master

The Wave-inatrix is proud to present another in a series of guest blogs by friends and colleagues who have experiences and perspectives to share with Rouge Wavers. Today I proudly present Details, Details, Details by a dear friend who just happens to be the Property Master on one of the top three network televisions hits that many of you may love. She's also worked on a pretty jaw-dropping list of feature films. Just what is a Property Master? Read on to find out:

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Hey out there, Wavers! The good news today is that if I’m reading your script, you’re stoked. Not because I can give you the sacred green light, but if your story has trickled all the way down to me on the moviemaking food chain, somebody already has. I’m a Propmaster for film and television and my inclusion in the process means that the hallowed greenlighter has committed to make your movie, budgeted it, scheduled it, cast it (hopefully), and staffed it, with below-the-line people such as myself.

I’ve been propping in various capacities for over a decade now. I got my start working with one of the most talented comediennes in the business, with whom I am still friendly to this day and I worked with a formerly A-list comedy star who tried to have me fired, right around the time he melted down at the corner of Balboa and something one hot Tuesday afternoon. I’ve faced off with Val Kilmer and James Woods (on respective projects), shot at the Playboy Mansion, skid row and the Dorothy Chandler House in Hancock Park. I’ve worked on television shows that have won Emmys and movies that have won Academy Awards. I’ve worked on straight-to-video and cable movies with budgets so low that we used confetti for snow. I’ve stood on a ladder high above an Academy Award winning actor and gently sprinkled rose petals down onto his face. Off-camera, of course. I’ve strapped drop-holsters onto the crotches of super hot A-list actor dudes that you see on the cover of current issues of People or US. I’ve handled guns, bombs, purses, leeches and cow brains.

But it’s not all the glamorous life. In my day to day, I work in concert with a Production Designer, Set Decorator, Costume Designer, Cinematographer and of course, the Writer and Director to help take your words off the page and make them three dimensional. Though hopefully you’ve figured this out already, the rough definition of a prop is anything an actor touches which uh, covers a pretty broad spectrum. So, props, you say. Isn’t that just the little stuff? How can those details be so important that someone needs to be assigned to organizing them? Let’s back up a sec and review a couple of movie titles, say, Gaslight or American Beauty. Ok, yeah, two really good movies. But contained in those titles, which are um, PROPS, by the way, are the entire thematic threads of those stories.

Ok, so maybe you’re not totally with me yet. When I read your script, I’m looking for character detail, tone and themes. These ideas in your story are the templates for the choices I make. In American Beauty, Annette Bening’s character is a gardener of prize-winning roses. She’s uptight and a desperate social climber. So when you describe her in the garden with her tools, your economy of description, ie, she is a type A personality, mean I find for her an immaculate Smith and Hawken gardening kit, stool and pristine gloves (which we did). Used effectively, props are an extension of character and thusly, the deeper themes of a film. Be advised when you write, that the bullet points of character: such as economic status, appearance, and bearing, are the touchstones for which people like myself use to make illustrative decisions around providing or creating the three dimensional objects that the actor uses over the course of a film.

But let’s bring it all back to you. As a fan of the The Rouge Wave, I can tell you, when she encourages you to write with colorful details, the Wave-inatrix is right on the money. But when describing props and sets, keep it simple, because an army of people will be hired to create the look of a film and sustain it. They will be part of a larger visual, aesthetic that happens long after your fundamental work is done. In The Salton Sea, the brilliant writer Tony Gayton, wrote something to the effect of ‘the gang of meth heads recreate the Kennedy assassination with pigeons, in the compound.” Ok, the basic components are, a radio-controlled car, pigeons and 22 caliber rifles. As Prop people, we think backwards. What would a bunch of tweakers do with this idea? They’d get high and meticulously recreate the factual details on a smaller scale. Lynda Reiss, the amazing Propmaster I worked with on this film, had the awesome idea of building a chassis for this car with all the materials available to a bunch of dudes manufacturing methamphetamines. She used solvent cans for the chassis, beer can pull tabs for the handles of the suicide doors, bobby pins for windshield wipers and a household spatula for the grill. And the piece de la resistance? A spray painted water bottle cap for Jackie O’s pillbox hat. Watch the movie, it’s a great set piece. Point being, not your job to write the heck out of these details. We’ll take care of them for you.

That said, what we need-to-know types do expect from you writers is, KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS AND STORY. In my opinion, writers are clearly the principal architects of a film and have spent the most time with the characters and themes. Though they have been given short shrift historically, squelched by auteurist theory, more and more I find, directors will to defer to you. And myself as well. So pony up. We NEED your knowledge of the underpinnings to solve creative problems. If you have the great fortune to find yourself in a Wardrobe, Props or Sets and Locations meeting, be prepared to give decisive, specific answers. We are trying to bring your vision to life and more often than not, we need answers and we need them quick. You may be the architects, but we are the finishing crew. Only with the most effective collaboration, can we build the most inspired movie, one that weathers the test of time.

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3 comments:

JPS said...

Terrific guest blog! Thanks for a fun (and informative) read.

screen scribe said...

That was a great guest blog!

Christian M. Howell said...

Great post. I just did blog about props. I hate thinking about everything in a room. I rarely even describe clothes.

Feng-Shui, Contemporary, rundown, pig-sty, crack house in disguise. Chaste, daring, sweet, slutty.

Much easier. This is hard enough without trying to see and touch everything the character sees and touches.

Hopefully you'll get to read one of my scripts. That'll mean I don't suck anymore.

Oh Joy. :-)