November 16, 2011

SCA Family Stories: Joe Wallenstein

Head of Physical Production Talks with SCA

Joe Wallenstein has many names among the students of SCA. He’s known as the safety seminar guy, the permit guy, Professor Wallenstein and even, lovingly, Chairman Joe. The Head of Physical Production recently sat down with SCA Family Stories to talk about his long career in the entertainment industry, how students can navigate his office and his new book, Practical Moviemaking: A Handbook for the Real World.
How long have you been with the School, Joe? Coming up on nine years. Nine years, Valentine’s Day 2012.

Joe Wallenstein photograph by Vince Gonzales
Valentine’s Day? Was that planned? No, it’s an accident.
This is your first book? Correct.
Why did you decide to write a book at this point in your career? Three reasons. Number one, because so many kids come to me with these questions that, in spite of the fact that we are probably the best film school on the planet –we’re great in directing and we’re great in editing and we’re great in cinematography –putting it all together and the ability to spend somebody else’s money… no film school teaches it.
I’m in a unique position. I’ve got a ton of experience. Practical, hands-on experience and I wanted to help.
It’s a very thorough, by the book and not a guerilla style of filmmaking discussed in the book. It reflects my background. I came through the studios, the networks, the production entities and the professional world. I’m not, at all, a guerilla filmmaker. It’s not my mentality.
We aren’t a guerilla filmmaking school. We generate professionals to the industry and I thought it would be helpful to navigate that. One of the points I make in the book is that there’s a world of difference between you making a five or a fifty-thousand dollar film and being asked to spend Universal or Paramount’s fifty-million dollars. Big difference.
The other reason I wrote it was that there’s a whole lot of young people out there like myself. I didn’t know at nineteen or twenty what I wanted to do. I was lost. So, maybe someone looking for a career path would find this interesting. Either, “yikes, it’s too much work,” or, “I can do this.”
The third reason was that I’m around so many gifted professors that I felt that I should make my own contribution.
Let’s talk about your background. Tells us about your journey. What were the linch pins that made you who you are? That’s a real big question.
Let’s start with how you got started. I graduated from New York University and I went to work as a production assistant. In those days… I’m the last guy into the Directors’ Guild in New York prior to the trainee program. I came in under Taft-Hartley.
I went from production assistant to second assistant. Second assistant to first assistant. At a

"Chairman Joe" looking over filming applications
certain point, I realized –in those days- films were generated in California and came to New York. Unless I was going to stay an assistant director, I needed to be where the films originated. In 1976, I moved to LA.
At that point, I had only done movies. In those days, there was a great prejudice. If you did movies you didn’t do television and vice versa. So, when I came to California, the first job I got was as an assistant director on a television series. It pretty much killed my feature career but it accelerated my career path. Three years later, I was producing.
There are so many great stories in the book about the people you’ve worked with including Aaron Spelling. Who are the people that you’ve encountered that really informed what you do? One of the people I admired the most, but I can’t say I had a close relationship with, was Lee Rich at Lorimar. He and Aaron were the two smartest, savviest guys around, but their styles were totally different.
What were the differences? Lee was, for me, a very intimidating guy and Aaron was smooth as silk. Both brilliant at what they did. Both respected writers a great deal. Television is the writer’s medium as opposed to features, which is the director’s medium.
I met a lot of directors and I’ve worked with guys –I mention them in the book- who I really look up to. But, Lee and, of course, there was a fellow named Eddie Denault who was head of production for Dallas. What Eddie did, in addition to changing my life, was to give me confidence. He was really responsible for the confidence that I eventually got in myself because he had so much confidence in me.
Your trajectory is different from the average SCA student. Is there anything you learned from the “trenches” that you always share with students? I’ve said this in class a couple of times. Chances are ninety percent of the students here are smarter than me. Chances are one hundred percent of them are more talented than me. No one in this institution has more desire than me.
I say that because anyone can make it in this business on desire. You don’t have to be “one-in-a-million.”  You have to really want it. You don’t have to compromise your ideals or your integrity or step over anyone or anything like that but you really have to want it. I really wanted it.
If you had to pinpoint one, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the film business since you started? Multi-platforming. No question. When I started, if you made movies, they played in the theatres. If you made a TV show, you were on one of three networks. Now, you don’t even go into it unless you have a website, a book, a DVD, a music video and a game.
Also, shelf life. I walked into a bookstore the other day and saw my name on television movie I produced in nineteen eighty-one.  And I thought, “yikes.” Here it was two thousand eleven and there it was.
I did a movie for Paramount – the one feature I made before my career went all television – it was called American Hot Wax. It was about disc jockey Alan Freed. When they put it out, it was in an eleven hundred-seat theatre in Westwood and wanted to have a Friday night screening. That weekend, three other pictures came out. It killed our market but that film went to cable and it played forever.
Let’s talk about Physical Production. It’s the office that works with permits and clearances. What do you say to students who work on more on the Rodriguez and Kevin Smith model? You’re fine until somebody gets hurt…then, you become hard to insure.  At the safety seminars, I say, “Why do you care? One word. Bondable.”
First of all, I think there’s a great mystique about that. I used to hear how Robert Rodriguez made his movie for eight thousand dollars. That depends on when the clock starts. By the time they were through, it cost more than eight thousand. You have to separate the myth from the reality.
Can you make run and gun movies? Sure. You can. But, remember, the School and, me in particular, come out of the structure of the industry. That industry is not run and gun.
Where that raises its head is the difference between directed action and documentary. We have a fabulous documentary department… world class documentarians; Mark Harris, Amanda Pope, Lisa Leeman, Doe Mayer; they are all more flexible because of what they do.
What is the Office of Physical Production? We are an office of facilitation. All rumors aside. We are not a policing agency. We are not the bad guys. I am not Dr. No.

The Physical Production Office is on the third floor of the
Steven Spielberg Building
But you are Chairman Joe. I am Chairman Joe. That’s a name the kids gave me. Kidding around. How that all started was, I have these quotes, you see them in the book. I teasingly said to someone, “I’m going to have my own little red book. Just like Chairman Mao, only we’ll have to call me Chairman Joe.” I was throwing away a line but they picked up on it.
I wouldn’t even know. I’ve never read Chairman Mao’s book. I’m not into politics. I don’t want to go down that road.
So what is Physical Production? How do you get locations? How do you work with permitting? How do you get equipment? Insurance. What happens with actors? It’s the whole place of actually making the film.
Most film students. Most filmmakers are A and C filmmakers. A, they have the idea. C, they see the finished product. Film is made in B.
Where do you get the trucks? How do you secure a location? How do you keep a location? What do we do if it rains?
The book is funny. It’s funnier than most textbooks. I write the way I talk. That’s either a good thing or a bad thing. Of course, I have to pull back some of the things I say.
In addition to talking a lot, I sometimes wander into inappropriate territory.
Do you have any advice for prospective or newer students on how to use Physical Production better? First of all, we’re going to change the name of the Safety Seminar to the Production Procedure Seminar.
Safety is the least sexy part of filmmaking to film students and it’s more than that. It’s about how to you deal with the bureaucracy of the city and the state and the School. We’re going to change that.
What I always say is, the difference between the graduate students and the undergraduate students is… the graduates look at us and bureaucracy and the hoops that they have to jump through as the armor that they have to don when they go out to meet that dragon of the industry. To the undergraduates, to the younger ones, all of that is the dragon.
So, what I’d like for them to understand is to trust us and trust the system. We’re not there to thwart them. We’re there, not only to help them, but, if they take our help, to expand their ability to reach their goals.
Kids come to me all the time and say, “When I first met you, I was really scared of you but it turns out you’re really a good guy.” If you can’t judge a book by the cover, don’t judge Joe by the frown.
Is the frown just because you know how much can go wrong? I have a tendency to carry a lot of information in my brain. If I write something down I’ll leave it somewhere. Most of the time, I’m thinking and they misread me.
Plus the timbre of my voice… I could sing Happy Birthday to you and you’d think, “Why is Joe mad at me?”
Is that part of being a producer? Over the years, it’s become part of being a producer.
What’s next for you? I’m working on another book. I have several movie projects that are in several stages of limbo – like everybody. The Dean is brilliant at looking over the horizon which is something I really like about her. In my way, I’m the same way. I’m always asking, “what’s next, what’s coming up.”
If I didn’t do that, I think I might get old, which no one wants.