Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Christmas Comes Twice in July

The cardinal rule of background performance is this: “Remember that you are nothing!” Running a close second is that you only get one, count 'em, ONE! role in any picture. It’s to maintain suspension of disbelief, you see. That's a fancy way of saying that the producers don’t want you, the viewer, to be a smarty-pants and point out the goof-ups. Hey, look! One of the dead guys from the beginning of the picture shows up later in a bar scene, just over the actor’s left shoulder. Look! There he is! Wait. I’ll rewind it.

Viewers are a bunch of smarty-pantses. I know 'cos I am one. Just ask me about my favourite goof-up from "The Untouchables". Sean Connery's magically opening and closing collar button.

We're like hawks, us smarty-pantses.

So anyway, I got called to do Finding John Christmas, a movie filmed here for CBS last July. I showed up early in the morning to play a fireman. I have to say that the nicest thing about showing up early in the morning for a film shoot is the free breakfast. The “Breakfast Burrito” is pretty much a staple on the early morning film set, bacon and eggs and cheese and salsa in a tortilla; it is especially yummy. I got dressed in my station house firefighter duds and went out to get me one.

Outside there’s a guy there standing next to the catering truck and he's giving me the hairy eyeball. I look back at him. There's a moment or so before he relaxes and tells me okay, go ahead. Seems that he wanted to make sure I was really part of the day’s shoot.

Here's where I need to provide a little back-story.

There are signs that tell you when a movie shoot has come to town. Literally, signs. Yellow signs with hand-drawn black lettering. They pop up along the highways and by-ways, marked with a strange kind of code. Sometimes pictograms, sometimes initials or partial words. If you can break the code, you figure out the title of the movie. The reason for all the signs is to help the team of drivers who have been hired for the movie. The signs go from "base camp" and other pick up points and lead to wherever the day's shoot happens to be. Need to get to the set? Just follow the yellow signs.

Well, when your city starts to be a hotbed for movie shoots (as has become our little neck of the woods), the locals start to figure this out, this thing with the yellow signs. The craftier ones (pun intended for all you film savvy folk) further realize that every day’s shoot generally requires a fresh crop of extras. Unfamiliar faces show up for work almost every day, anonymous "extras" that really aren't worth anyone's attention. Who deigns to talk to mere extras? Ignore them, please. They just aren't worth your time.

Hey and wouldn't you know, at every one of these movie sets, at a certain number of times a day, food is served. Food, glorious food.

So, putting it all together: Follow the signs, pretend to be an extra, be ignored, get a free lunch. Giddeeyup!

The guy next to the catering van told me all this. Slyness on this magnitude never would have occured to me in a million years. I marvelled at the rat-fink ingenuity and then chowed down on my burrito, legitimately earned. Yum.

The morning went by at a leisurely pace and I finally got to do my scene in the fire station with Valerie Bertinelli.

That is to say, she was there and I was there.

If I implied that there was any interaction between us, surely that was purely accidental! (Okay, yes, I was funning with you for a sec.) At one point there she was sitting quietly and by herself in her director's chair, me only a few paces behind her. A chance to chat her up, did you say?

Well, see, what do you say? Hey. Having a good time? Liking our town? Still in touch with that rock 'n roll guy? All good ways maybe to get your butt kicked off the set (some maybe better than others). So you stand there, silent, and most of all: employed. Be a professional, godammit!

I've bumped into several movie stars and with the exception of James Rebhorn who I almost accidentally killed in the bathroom (that creates an instant sense of fraternity, I guess) I've never chatted any of them up. It simply comes down to the fact that there's ... really ... just ... nothing to say. Also, you shouldn't.

(Also, alos: I'm severely socially handicapped, the subject of a different kind of blog. Help me, please help me!)

She is a sparkplug, by the way, that Valerie. She's not tall, not physically imposing or anything, but boy, when she speaks, she becomes the center of the universe. She's got that little girl voice that, somehow and pardoxically, explodes into a room.

She is made entirely of pleasant energy. I found her remarkable.

For the scene, I was just there to mill about in the background. The 3rd A.D. had us going to and fro, poking through the coats and boots and helmets that were there on a rack. On behalf of the entire group of extras, I decided that we were looking for the cat (an actor must have his motivation, after all). It cracked us up, somehow - gave us our own energy. We were rooting through pockets, checking out the big rubber boots, looking for the firehouse cat. "What cat?" someone asked and we giggled.

A few weeks later I got a call to do John Christmas.

Well ... hang on. I've done that one already. See Rule number two above, and all that. But the casting agent was desperate. It had been a long shoot and she'd pretty much run out of people. She asked me which scene I'd been in and I told her. Given the types of shots I was in, she figured it would be safe to use me in a second scene. Given that they were looking to pay me more money, I figured I'd do it.

For the second go-round, I played a doctor.

It was hot that day. I parked near some construction on a dusty road and schlepped past all the trailers for the stars with about forty pounds of clothes over my shoulder – you bring lots of options for the wardrobe people. I get myself to Extras Holding and they gave me scrubs to wear (too small and tight enough to show my religion). They even provided me with sneakers and white socks. I got to keep the socks. The perks!

There was snow in front of the building, this in the middle of July. On the hottest day. There it was. A front-end loader carted it in, more and more ice-as-snow to keep it fresh.

We makers of magic.

Speaking of magic makers, the executive producer for the shoot was Daniel H. Blatt. During my part of the shoot, a short, almost timid looking man showed up and kind of limped around behind set. He looked at me almost tentatively and I said "Hi". I'm a friendly guy, after all (socially retarded, but friendly). He nodded back. I didn't know who he was, but in spite of his less-than-imposing presence, I kind of got the sense that he was "somebody". After supper was over that night, the last night of shooting, the Executive Producer got up and made a little speech. It was the man from behind the set, Mr. Blatt. He thanked his cast and crew for their work on what had been a long shoot, especially Ms. Bertinelli who was present and appreciative. Following the thank-you speeches, everyone from the film’s cast and crew received a gift. This is customary. Hats, shirts, sometimes jackets, stuff like that - a customized memento as a thank-you from the producers to cast and crew. Since I was there as a background performer, well … I’m not part of the cast and crew, so, no gift for me (not counting the socks). But I thought myself fortunate to have been there for that day, because I got to share in the vibe, that feeling of the moment.

The gift consisted of a box, a perfect cube, about 4x4x4, wrapped in white paper and tied with a coloured ribbon. Unwrap the paper and what you found was a a mini-, aluminum case (imagine the picture in the link only silver and square). Inside the case was a watch. On the face of the watch were the exec producer’s initials. The crew was genuinely impressed and appreciative. This was a group of folks I recognized from many other shoots. I heard many of them saying it was the nicest gift they’d received on a shoot.

Christmas in July.


Still To Come

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