Most of us have heard of "Murphy's Law" by now. It goes; "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." It most circumstances the outcome of "Murphy's Law" is little more than a minor inconvenience. The package delivered to the wrong address in spite of repeated instructions, bad weather when you have just lost your cover set, you can think of a hundred other situations. In film production, holding Murphy at bay is a full time concern.
But on big city streets, at night, doing major stunt work, Murphy may have a much darker side.
Early in my career I had the privilege of working with the legendary writer, photographer, director, Gordon parks, on a film called Super Cops. It was shot on location in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. It told the story of two undercover narcotics detectives named Greenberg and Hantz, two adrenalin-fueled warriors known on the streets as "Batman and Robin."
Although I began the job as a Second Assistant Director, by the halfway mark, illness, personnel changes and other circumstance had elevated me to First Assistant Director.
One of the first scenes I had to deal with took place on the street and hallway of a tenement building.
The scene called for two bad guys in a getaway car to bail out and run into a building. They were followed by our two heroes, who, with guns drawn, raced after them into the tenement.
Because of the nature of the scene, and the potential danger of being misunderstood in that volatile neighborhood, the company went to extraordinary lengths to guarantee safety. We hired police to work with us. We had city permission and city permits. We had stunt doubles for our actors and armorers for the blanks-firing weapons. We even discussed the scenes with the local police precinct commander and called the precinct to notify them that we were commencing filming.
I stood next to Gordon on a rooftop across the street and called "Action." The bad guys came driving down the street and slid to a stop exactly as we had rehearsed. They ran into the building. Our two heroes came racing and slid their car exactly on their mark. Guns drawn, they raced into the building.
And then, as I watched in horror, another car, an unmarked detectives car, roared down the street and slid to a stop behind the other cars. Two men, not part of our show, with guns drawn, started for the building.
"Cut. Cut. Cut," I screamed into the Walkie-Talkie and waited for what I was sure would be gunshots and tragedy. It was by far the longest few seconds of my life. And then, mercifully, a voice came over the radio. "That's a cut."
So what had gone wrong? We had been so careful, so thorough. What had happened was this:
Two undercover detectives on their way back to the precinct had seen the car chase and thought they were coming to the aid of their brother officers. Even with all our preparation and attention to safety and detail, the real world had intervened.
Only because one of the quick thinking actors realized there were people in the hallway that didn't belong and yelled "cut" did that scene not end in tragedy.
I have carried the memory of that day and those events with me for a long time.
My favorite Murphyism and the one that I would advise all developing filmmakers to adhere to goes:
"If everything seems to be going well... you have obviously overlooked something."
This is not a cynical calculation. It is a reminder that in almost all situations, cinematic and not, the devil is in the details and you can't be too thorough. Remember, "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."
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