There’s a guy. We’ll call him Alex. Alex owns a store underneath an elevated subway platform in Brooklyn. Alex’s store sells merchandise of a certain ilk: knock-off colognes, cheap luggage, bootleg DVD’s, overpriced 99 cent store items, etc. He’s as sleazy as you can imagine, and is clearly taking advantage of a clientele that doesn’t know any better.
As it happens, I’m working on a film that will be shooting nearby, and I’ve been asked by the Art Department to see if Alex might possibly allow us to remove his store awning, as it will be too noticeable in the background of the shot. So far, everyone on the street has been very accommodating to our presence, and I’ve got my fingers crossed as I go into the store.
I propose this to Alex, offering him about $1,500 for the shoot day, plus $500 for each non-shoot day that it’s down. While everyone thinks movies just throw money every which way, a film production would quickly go broke if you didn’t have some rationale for spending. The general philosophy is that we should be paying Alex for lost business due to lack of an awning, plus a little extra for his troubles.
Without blinking, Alex says “No way. I’ll lose too much business.”
This takes me as a surprise. For one thing, I’ve been on the street all week, and Alex has received very little business. Also, most of Alex’s customers seem to be regulars who do not need to see an awning to know he’s in business. But perhaps strangest of all is the fact that Alex’s sign seems to list a number of products he doesn’t actually sell. For example, it advertises him as selling cameras and camera supplies; however, from being in the store numerous times, I can guarantee there is not a single camera or roll of film to be found, disposable or otherwise. Frankly, it’s all a moot point, as the sign is nearly invisible due to the subway staircase blocking it.
But, OK, fine. I put the ball in his court: what would he like? “$5,000 for the shooting day and $1,000 for each non-shooting day.”
Now we’re talking some serious figures. Roughly speaking, this will add up to about $12,000, which is more money than we’re paying some of our shooting locations. Normally, this would be way too much, and we’d live with having an ugly awning in the background.
But something comes up. Now production is talking about shooting on the sidewalk in front of his store, which might mean some additional last minute request. You can’t predict what a director might ask for when he shows up on location, but it could be anything from rearranging store window items to having extras entering and exiting the shop.
Every store on the block agrees to this for a reasonable price. But Alex is fighting. He’ll do it all, but he wants his $12,000, or he’ll keep his awning up and shut his lights off when he closes up at 8pm. Production finally consents, and Alex is getting his money.
As we sign the contracts, I tell Alex that he needs to understand two things: one, he’s being paid an exceptionally large amount of money for this type of thing, and that’s it. Absolutely no more will be coming his way. Two, what we’ll actually need on the shoot night is not something you can predict. The contract we sign is all-encompassing on this note, but I remind him that he better be prepared for some last minute changes.
Alex says, “Fine, fine! Just get me a check!”, with a smile reminiscent of every Disney villain ever created.
Pre-production on the location begins, and his awning comes down. I bring him payment for the non-shoot days, and the awning is loaded onto a truck. I’m handling this location, and as I’m running around dealing with the locals (all of whom are exceedingly friendly and cooperative), I make sure to keep an eye on his business. I’ve seen it with the awning on, and now with it off, I see no change in business.
Of course, I get the call a few days later: “Nick, it’s Alex. I cannot do this agreement. I am losing too much business. People are not shopping without the awning. I want more money.”
We have a signed agreement. He has several thousand dollars of studio money. We have his awning on the back of a truck. There is no noticeable difference in customers as far as I can tell. And now he wants to renegotiate.
So I say, “Look, we have a signed agreement. But I’m not here to be a jerk. If you’re really losing business, we’ll try to help you, but you have to show us some past month’s receipts as proof.”
Now at this point, a good con-man will say “OK, I’ll have them in a few days,” then forge some receipts. Unfortunately, Alex is not a very good con-man. “We do not keep monthly receipts. It’s not that type of business,” he says.
Now, if I go back to the producer and tell him that the owner of the knock-off merchandise store is claiming to be losing money despite a $12,000 paycheck, I’ll get fired. Ultimately, I know he’s trying to scam me, so I say “I’m sorry, but we have an agreement we both signed, and we need to abide by it.”
Smiling that familiar smile, Alex tells me:” “I never signed the contract, so we actually have no deal.”
Now this is weird, because he handed me a contract with his signature on it. I point this out.
“That signature was written by someone other than me. It’s a forgery. We have no deal, since I did not sign it myself.”
Right now, I’m ready to explode. “Is that so, Alex?” I ask, my voice shaking. “Because if that is the case, you have committed an act of fraud, which is a serious matter considering the fact we’ve apparently paid you thousands of dollars based on a forgery you were aware of.”
Thankfully, Alex gets spooked and quickly backs off from this line of reasoning, but still claims he’s losing business.
Ultimately, I end up doing the shitty location guy thing I hate doing: I give him the run-around. He calls me (he is now identified as “Shithead” on my phone’s caller ID), I let it go to voicemail. He catches me on the street, I tell him I’ve told my producer, and it’s out of my hands. When our art crew comes to make a few minor changes to his store, he begrudgingly allows them to do it.
Finally, the shoot day arrives, and I have his big check for $5,000. It kills me to hand it to him, knowing how much trouble he’s been giving me, but a deal’s a deal. At least, in my world.
So production starts shooting and things are running smoothly. Alex closes his store as planned and seems mildly amused by the filming. In fact, he even makes some money when production decides the scene could use some shitty luggage in the shot, and buys several suitcases from him, several of which already have broken zippers and holes.
Then the director has a last minute request: can we put an extra in Alex’s store purchasing something to make the store look a little more active?
Here goes nothing. I go and explain the situation to Alex, reminding him that this was the very kind of unpredictable scenario I was talking about when we made our agreement. The store is empty, the lights are on – the only difference will be someone standing at the counter. Would that be OK?
All he does is smile that smile of his and rub his thumb and index fingers together, indicating money.
That’s it. I blow my temper in a very unprofessional way, and now we’re arguing back and forth about contracts, money, etc., etc. Shooting continues outside, unaware of the drama inside Alex’s store (though now that I think of it, I was probably doing a great job acting as a disgruntled customer).
We go outside to continue our debate, and Alex locks the front door of his store so no sneaky extras can slip inside. He tells me I never talked about shooting in his store, I tell him we’re NOT shooting in his store. He says the contract says nothing about having an extra, I say the nature of our agreement allows us to do whatever we want within reason.
Somehow, I talk some sense into Alex, and he finally agrees to allow the extra in…But it’s almost too easy, like he has something else up his sleeve. Oh well, it’s now about 9pm, and I’ve been on set since 7am. Shooting began at 7pm and will likely go til the sun comes up, when I’ll have to be back on set. So I get permission to take off and head home for some much needed rest.
At 12:05, just as I’m about to go to sleep, I get a call from one of my bosses: “Nick, why the fuck did Alex just shut off his lights?”
I happen to live within biking distance of the location, so I furiously race over to set to find Alex in a heated argument with my boss, while the director of the film is freaking out because there’s suddenly a dark spot in the background his shot.
Alex’s new claim: “You said it was $8,000 for each shoot day. It is now after midnight. I want another $8,000 for an additional shoot day.”
In the world of film, a “day” is not your average sun-up to sun-down day ending at midnight. It is a 14-16 hour period beginning whenever we want. Sometimes it’s as short as 10 hours. Sometimes as long as 18. Either way, it’s in the contract as such. I can just see Alex, plotting all night about this moment – probably why he gave up on his “extra in the store” fight so easily.
But he’s sticks to his guns on this one, and finally, someone just hands him $500 cash to turn the lights back on. Yes, he’s shaking us down, but what are we going to do? We’ve got a crew and cast of about 200 waiting for him to flip a switch.
And ultimately, I’m the one who failed. No matter how much prep I did on the street, the director’s angry, and I’m the one responsible. I bike home and lie awake for the next few hours, the events rolling around in my head, until the alarm rings and it’s time to go back to work.
The next morning, I go back to the location to supervise the rigging crews taking down equipment and help wrap out. Alex is nowhere to be seen. Finally, we’re out of the location. We get the awning guys in immediately to put his awning back up so we don’t have to pay him extra for days the sign was down. It goes back up, and as much as I hate to, I give him the last check he was owed.
“It’s all just business!” he says with that sleezy smile.
The movie continues, and I forget about the whole thing. Then, a week later, a call comes through on my cell phone: SHITHEAD. I let it go to voicemail, in which I learn that he’s claiming the awning guys put up his awning wrong, and now rain is leaking through.
I know, I know, this is where I’m supposed to get sweet revenge for all the shit he’s put me through, right? Poetic justic, just desserts, the whole thing.
Except I can’t do it. One the one hand, I represent a major studio, and my actions reflect more than just myself. But really, I just can’t bring myself to stoop to his level. We had an agreement, which included leaving the location as we found it – and despite all the crap he’s thrown at me, I’m going to stick by it. I send the awning guys back to do a patch-up. And that was that.
Every neighborhood has an Alex- someone who is engaged in shady business practices, and has no qualms in shaking down a movie crew for every dollar he can scrounge. Good location scouts are seasoned enough to know to avoid doing any business with Alex-types, but when the director demands it, you often have no choice.
What really kills me, though, is that Alex’s shitty behavior ultimately made him a lot more money than any of the other business owners on the block, all of whom were incredibly cordial, honest, and infinitely more deserving of it than he was. No one in New York will be filming anywhere near Alex’s store for a long time to come because of this, but it doesn’t make my handing him that final check feel any better.
The production wrapped up, and I moved on to another job. Oddly, a few months later, my phone rang, and the name SHITHEAD appeared on the screen. It took me a moment to recall exactly what shithead this was referring to, but when I did, I immediately sent it to voicemail. Shithead did not leave a message.
I can only hope his awning has begun leaking again.
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