The Strange Tale of Peter Borg
Back in the early 1990's I found myself making a movie on location in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. The U.S. Virgin Islands are a beautiful, but very difficult place to make a movie. I'd look out my hotel room window and watch the gigantic cruise ships pull into Charlotte Amalie's harbor and dislodge thousands of sunburned tourists. A great place to visit as a tourist - but never, I repeat NEVER make a movie there. The isolated, tropical setting was ideal for the script and its old-world charm as a former Danish colony was captivating. But the total absence of local production support and the shortage of basic necessities ultimately proved to complicate production much more than its tropical production value.
The Dutch influence remains in the form of traffic flowing down the left side of the street and Danish words for geographic features in the otherwise American-style Caribbean islands. A peninsula, for instance, is referred to as a "borg."
Midway through the shooting we found ourselves on an isolated, windswept area
known locally as "Peter Borg." As usual, our call sheets listed the actor's
names and identified the location of Peter Borg on the northern side of the
island. A map was attached to provide directions.
Now, fast-forward about two months.
Back home in Los Angeles I now faced the daunting task of supplying the final paperwork to SAG in order to have our $50,000.00 cash bond released to provide much-needed post-production funds. Now, I always expect the SAG contracts people will try their utmost to steal as much of the cash bond as they can. That's their job. Skillful businessmen/women, they KNOW you want your money back and they use this as leverage to force you to accept things (like liquidated damages and penalties), which even THEY know are not true. As a producer you have to decide what's more important: let them steal $5,000 to $10,000 now, or have ALL of your money frozen in a trust account until an arbitrator decides the issue about six months later.
Normally, I'd try to do the best I could and cry in my beer later. You know,
let 'em rip me off again and get the film finished. But this time I felt they
went too far...even for a rogue, proudly dishonest organization like SAG.
What did they do? The contracts people had obtained the call sheet for the Peter
Borg location and were now insisting that I pay a salary, fine, interest, liquidated
damages and pension and welfare benefits to a Mr. Peter Borg! I laughed and
carefully explained their mistake to them. But the British-accented, stoned-faced
contracts lady just sat there and dug her heels in.
Now, let's leap ahead about six months later.
The American Arbitration Association's Los Angeles office is almost completely supported by the arbitration fees generated as a result of Screen Actors Guild arbitration hearings, (really tells you something, huh?). My appointed arbitrator, the right honorable Sara Adler, veteran of hundreds of SAG arbitration hearings, sat at one end of the table. Seated across from me was her good friend, SAG's in-house attorney, and a rep from SAG's contracts department. This was the second of six arbitration hearings the SAG lawyer and Adler would conduct that day - they were just warming up with me.
There is a basic assumption in SAG arbitrations that the producer is always
wrong and only wants to cheat the actors out of their rightful compensation.
So, although I presented a map of St. Thomas, the call sheet and other evidence,
Mr. Borg was quickly determined to be a living, breathing, dues-paying member-in-good-standing
of the Screen Actor's Guild. At this point, Ms. Adler's only job was to determine
exactly how much I owed Mr. Borg. If I remember correctly, the original amount
was somewhere between $800.00 and $900.00.
By now, the session was beginning to feel more like a scene from "Alice in
Wonderland," than an arbitration hearing. The SAG lawyer was the ever-smiling
Cheshire Cat and Ms. Adler the bubbly, but bureaucratic Queen of Hearts. Thankfully,
I had recorded the entire hearing on tape. Otherwise, nobody would ever believe
"Do you have a social security number for Mr. Borg?" I asked them. "We're still
trying to contact Mr. Borg. He may be on vacation." Then I asked, "Can you tell
me where Mr. Borg lives?" "New York I think", was the straight-faced answer
from the SAG contracts rep. Now, Ms. Adler, the very image of judicial integrity,
jumped in, "New York?" The SAG contract rep nodded an assured "Yes." Ms. Adler:
"Then I believe Mr. Borg is also entitled to travel time and per diem." Now,
all three of them began to nod their heads like those bobble head dolls in the
rear windows of cars. What started out as $800.00 to $900.00 was now close to
$2,000.00. And they weren't finished with me yet! I sat dumbfounded as Ms. Adler
and the SAG attorney piled on more penalties, social security, FICA, disability
and other charges for a piece of land. Finally, Ms. Adler nodded to the
SAG attorney and said, "Okay, this hearing is concluded. Thank you for coming."
I've heard rumors that the SAG contracts department has a semi-secret Christmas
Fund from which unclaimed money is ultimately disbursed to certain employees
as an incentive. Keep in mind this is only gossip that I've heard from other producers
and I wouldn't be surprised to find out it's not true. Perhaps it has another
name? But if such a clandestine fund does exist, you can be sure that Mr. Peter
Borg has made his own, very special contribution to it.