OK, this is the last of it. Part 5 of the Jane Doe Chronicles From Hell. I’ve sworn off Jane Doe posts. If you want to see my red-haired stepchild of a movie, you can now do so for free on YouTube:
This is a closure piece, wrapping up with a quick, joyful recollection of my time with Niki Nikita—which is not her name—lead producer on the project. The Producer-Writer relationship is a complicated matter. With mutual respect, it doesn’t need to play out with drama or poisonous bile spewed. Unfortunately, here, it did. This one will be juicy, so put on the raincoat.
SGMD rules apply. I regurgitate this cautionary tale not because it must be told, but to serve some distant philanthropic hope that by demonstrating how not to direct your movie, you will make proverbial lemonade from bitter lemons.
I’ve mentioned Niki previously and how she came onto the project. This is a woman who had won a producer Tony Award for Nicholas Nickleby. You would walk into her office and there was the Tony, right on her desk. Broadway awards were a long way from frozen Aurora, Illinois, where your humble narrator toiled as a part-time playwright and full-time graveyard dice dealer amidst all manner of degenerate gambling madness.
Life Lesson 4F: A theater producer, even a Tony Award winner, does not a MOVIE producer make.
We started out on good terms. I was blown away by her theater accomplishments. She was brought on by Unapix Entertainment, our distributor, as a Producer and guiding force. We would need a firm hand on the producing side and Niki Nikita was plenty firm. She professed great respect for the script. A Fire Was Burning Over The Dumpling House One Chinese New York had proven a strong play. And Niki knew plays. She could smell out a powerful story. The sky was the limit for Pictures Of Baby Jane Doe, our working title.
We were fully cast and crewed up when she came on board. Production schedule was 14 days in New York, four in Atlantic City. Just days from production, I met with her second in command, Kenneth Titan, and learned that he would be Niki’s point man on set. As Co-Producer he would give her daily reports. Niki would occasionally be on set…that was the plan.
Now, to be fair, remember: 1-I was a first time director who had never stepped foot on a movie set. 2-I had 4 AD’s in 18 days. 3-The budget, not drawn up by Niki N., was pure fantasyland. Not one day in 18 did we make our day. Every day we left entire scenes behind, never shot for lack of time. By the end, over 20 scenes went unfilmed.
Niki’s response was a frontal assault. She came in fully, wielding the control she contractually had, firing people seemingly at will, making script cuts according to her own tastes. This would leave me, the director, in a position of complete impotence. It would also lead to awkward circumstances, like me arriving on set to find Niki and Ken and their toadies sitting at a table in wait of my arrival. Waving me over, the “conversation” would go something like this:
“Paul, you didn’t make your day yesterday. Again.”
“We shot 6 pages.”
“You needed to shoot 8. I had to make some changes for today, because of that.”
“You know that five-page scene that Chris and Calista were rehearsing all last night. Go up and tell them it’s been cut.”
“We’ve got to stay on track, Paul. For the good of the movie.”
Even if, theoretically, she was right, it might have been nice if she had even once consulted me about such matters.
Life Lesson 4G: When producer-writer communication goes out the window, so does respect.
Who could forget the day—because this was shot on film—that my DP, Toshiaki Ozowa, took HOURS to light the critical fight scene between Jane and Horace. This was one of the most important scenes in the movie. We were up against it but I agreed, giving him the time he needed to set up properly. Hours went by. At last we were ready. The actors were brought to set, we blocked and rehearsed it once, then we rolled camera. Jane was coming home after a 3-day binge, Horace shows her a needle he found in the ceiling, they implode. When it came time to implode my brother Chris swiped a dresser table and a portable radio flew off and up…toward Calista’s face…
Slamming into Calista’s face, actually.
She reached into her hairline, and came down with a handful of blood.
CUT! And then some…
This was a hospital matter. Calista needed to go to the emergency room and get stitched up. The master shot of that critical scene couldn’t be filmed. Even worse, every shot and scene left that day had Calista in it. There was nothing to be shot, nothing to be done. I closed the set down and jumped into the car, heading over to the emergency room with Calista.
While waiting for them to stitch her up I was lead to a pay booth and a phone call. It was Niki Nikita. I was expecting to hear: “What happened? My God…how is she?” What I heard instead was this: “YOU CLOSED MY SET. YOU DON’T CLOSE MY SET! YOU DON’T EVER CLOSE MY SET!”
That…callousness. Even if she was right (she wasn’t) and there were singles and CU’s of Chris/Horace to be picked up for other scenes, the heartlessness of it was just too much. I hung up on her. If my old man wasn’t co-Executive Producer (uncredited) I’m sure I would have been fired. To which I said, and say…
Flash forward to post-production. I somehow muscled in a finished film. Spent weeks in the Avid room with our editor putting together a Rough Cut. We screened it for producers and crew. I remember my brother crying on exiting (he’ll never admit that) and my father shaking my hand. Job well done! Called into Niki’s office the next day, there she sat at her JSI Brogan oak desk, opening up our conversation with: “I’m …not grasping…your vision.”
Life Lesson 1, 1A, and 1B: Never, ever, ever give up control of the Final Cut of your movie—unless there is no choice. And even then…
Niki had the contractual control to take over the movie from here. And she was exercising that control. She would be overseeing the Fine Cut. I was fully welcome to participate, of course. There would always be room for me in the edit room. I soon discovered that was illusion as well. I would sit in the back and watch Niki and the editor cut out entire scenes, re-cut virtually every remaining scene, strip all music, changing not just the structure of Jane Doe, but the essential tone of it, the very identity of it. The rough cut was a flawed but dark tale of drug abuse in the vein of Leaving Las Vegas. Niki’s Final Cut was an ABC Afterschool Special. There was precious little left of Dumpling House, the raw Chicago play the movie was based on, let alone of Claire G., to whom the movie was dedicated.
It took years to get over this one. I still avoid directing, not for lack of vision, but for the knowing of what’s expected in terms of responsibility. I’ve learned what it means to call yourself a director.
I’ve also learned that the producer-writer relationship can actually be dynamic and incredibly creative.
Just not with Niki Nikita.