The first question I ask when I’m looking at line producing a film is, of course, “what’s my rate.” The second question, however, is “what’s the gestalt of this project.” This seems to be the same thing as “what’s the budget,” but it’s not.
In fact, I had a hard time figuring out how to concisely define gestalt in the context of filmmaking. Essentially, it boils down to the following: the combination of the director and producer(s)’ experience, plus the script’s story, plus the budget, plus the approach of both the director and producer towards fiscal and creative issues, plus the attitude of the crew and cast, equals the gestalt of the production. Sort of.
To put it more concretely, if you have $300,000 to make a small drama, and the producer decides that he really, really needs a huge crew to execute the film, you’ll end up with one gestalt (and hence one set of problems to deal with). If the director is also the producer, you’ll have another gestalt. If you have a mismatch in experience between the different departments (something that happens a lot even on bigger budget projects), you’ll have a different gestalt again. And so on.
Often, I try to gently push the director and producer into a certain gestalt based on the budget, story, and their experience level. A first time feature director who’s used to improvising and moving quickly will be better served in many cases by a smaller, more responsive crew. The smaller crew, however, won’t be able to mount a complex night exterior scene or build an elaborate set too quickly (or will need some extra manpower on certain days).
Here’s a brief breakdown of the kinds of gestalts that I try to “cast” a film into.
Run and Gun: This is my personal favorite, and a very good choice for $200K and under films. The crew should be no larger than 14-15 people. The gear needs to be able to fit into ONE truck (preferably in one van). The crew needs to understand that every department will be understaffed. The cast needs to understand that they may have to “rough it” a bit (most are more game than you would imagine). The producers and director need to understand that you have to make decisions quickly, that elaborate camera/art department/lighting work may require extra time. That the line producer will be very tired at the end of the day. The shoot is three weeks long, tops; preferably two plus. “Non-essential” positions are eliminated.
30-Man Team: This is my LEAST favorite, because there’s usually just enough money around to get everyone to thinking that there’s more. The shoot length is 4-5 weeks, the crews are larger (around 30 people), and the cast and stories are generally larger (more locations as well). You’re looking at four cube trucks (camera/sound/wardrobe, art, grip/electric, slop/unit) and possibly a fleet of smaller vehicles. You need a large enough infrastructure – ADs, PAs, a real locations department – to handle this kind of shoot. Most of the time, these departments (not to mention mine) get the shaft.
The Real Shoot: You’re looking at 60-70 people in the crew, which is still not enough somehow. But now you can go to more places, build more stuff, and burn more money. You’ll need an experienced group of people in the production department to deal with this team. You will have between five and eight trucks, depending on what you’re doing and where you’re going. Day-playing gear and personnel is essential to staying on budget. You will probably be able to attract more experienced people in the crew, and the cast will feel a little better taken care of. The positions start becoming very specialized at this point.
Obviously, trying to a use a “real shoot” model on a $200K film is a disaster, and run and gun, as much fun as it can be, has some severe limitations. So when you’ve just signed on to a project, look at the elements – does it fit together? Do you have a lot of locations but you can’t afford a good location manager? Are you trying to shoot on 35mm with a five-person crew? Does the gestalt make sense for the film, or will everyone have to make too many compromises?