Thursday, August 20, 2009

Around and round and round and.. oh my my

The title is a quote from the Stone's 'Let's Spend the Night Together': the full line is something like, 'we can have fun just foolin around and round and round and.. oh my my'. It's what you would call, in this case, ironic juxtaposition, in that my experience yesterday (Aug 20, 2009) as a driver/extra on the set of the Mark Wahlberg/Christian Bale film "The Fighter" was anything but 'oh my my'. It was, certainly, round and round and round.

But let's stay positive. For inexperienced would-be actors such as myself, there is always something to learn, 'on-set', even its learning that you never want to do 'that' again.

From the beginning then... This was about the fourth time that I had received a request from Boston Casting to use my old car - a low-mileage, 86 maroon Camry, on the "The Fighter'. On the first occasion they were considering it for a 'leading role': that is, they were selecting the cars that would be utilized throughout the film for the lead actors. They brought in ten cars and the Camry didn't make it but - they paid me $150 for three hours of my time. Later, as filming progressed, they asked me two other times to bring the car in for 'extra work', as it fit the period, but both times they canceled (never telling me until the morning of the shoot) because its color - I learned, was too close to that of that car chosen for Mark Wahlberg (who plays the lead, fighter Lowell-born 'Irish' Mickey Ward) This fourth time however, no one raised that issue, I did receive confirmation ahead of time, and I reported to the designated marshaling site on West 6th Street in Lowell, at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.

(Lesson #1: always have a cell phone number for someone involved in the actual filming process - not a casting director, because as happened here, all the cars showed up to the right address, but the address was wrong)

Eventually we made it (about a half mile away) to the right location, where we parked and went inside for orientation. Soon, as I noted elsewhere, you begin to see why movies cost so much - and why, tangentially, the food is so good. To film a simple scene inside a donut shop you need not only the actors, directors, camera operators, lighting specialists, sound specialists, wardrobe people, makeup artists and - those damn extras. But you also need people to wet down the street, fog the windows of cars in the scene (eliminating glare), street washing trucks, detail cops.. Okay, I'll stop there and speak to only what was required to have about a dozen cars driving endlessly by the donut shop while filming went on within. There is a guy telling you where to park, at first. And a guy going around replacing your license plates with ones that fit the period, and several more people in the street directing traffic, and several more at various locations to tell you to turn around and go back, or wait. You also need to arrange with the city to have the streets blocked off in all directions at certain times. Meanwhile, while all this is going on, the drivers literally cooked. It was 90 plus that day, and given the age of our cars most didn't risk running the AC (if they had it), as all the starts and stops and short runs seemed a perfect recipe for overheating. So it was only the drivers who overheated. I drank at least ten bottles of water, which just seemed to feed my sweat glands. I poured water down my back, and over my head, and splashed it in my face and drove round and round and round from - at the Top Donut, about 11-4 (it took them about two hours to get everything set up to be able to film us going round and round).

(Lesson #2: Driver and Extra?) One of the ways they lure you in - to get your car (which they really need), is to promise that when you bring your car in you will also function as an extra. Even if you are totally star-struck ,the idea of sitting in your car all day while, just a few feet away (usually inside, with the AC on, and gophers bringing around silver trays laden with crumpets, tea, cocaine, and issues of Popular Science. just kidding) the real acting is taking place. After all, you're doing this for the experience mainly, right? You want to learn the trade, get a chance to hone your skills, maybe even get to say a few words, like 'That'll be $1.99 for the donuts, and $1.20 for the coffee.." BUT the truth is that most of the driver/extras don't do anything but drive. Some get a little lucky, but don't count on it. So if you are looking for your big break and think that a twelve hour day sitting in your cousin's junker is it, think again!

Meanwhile, back on the set.. making the drivers feel like we were not at the lowest rung - crowds of onlookers stood - in designated areas, watching Top Donut. What was there to see? An occasional flash of an actor - usually as they transported them in big black SUVs, or the fancy star trailers that carried (I think) the Director around to the various locations. They certainly weren't there to see my vintage Camry going through its paces.

Did I mention the food. When we finally made it to the right location for the orientation earlier that morning, and after the wardrobe people had either approved what we were wearing, or re-dressed us, we had breakfast from a mobile cantina out back. Three kinds of eggs, several kinds of sausage, hash browns, fresh fruit, bagels, muffins, juices, coffee.. It was great, but I was reminded of an island in Lake Ontario, some 35 years earlier, where - as part of a kind of Peace Corp orientation six of us had gone to find a place to volunteer our labor. We found a family wheat farm, in need of harvesting (the oldest boy had broken his leg) and they told us to show up the next morning at 9. I was surprised by the late start, assuming they would want us there at the break of dawn. When we did arrive that next morning the farm owners laid on us the biggest, heaviest, whitest breakfast I had ever been confronted with: freshly milked milk in large, chipped off-white, perspiring pitchers; beige pancakes glazed with molasses; white-washed mashed potatoes; white sausage, diced and lightly fried potatoes the color of old lace. We ate and ate, and ate and as we did we slowly came to the realization that we were being fattened up for the slaughter. We were being fueled for a day unlike any other we had experienced. As soon as we had stuffed the last bit of pancake down the work began. Working until the sun was boiling in Lake Ontario we harvested field after field after field of wheat. Following closely behind the immense machine that cut and bailed the bundles, several of us would toss those bundles onto a trailer on which others from our group worked stacking the wheat. When it was stacked high enough, we'd take it to the barn and transfer it and then had back out again. The farmer's weren't task masters, but neither were they about to look a gift horse in the mouth. We could have stopped it at any time, but after the breakfast that had been served us, we knew what was expected of us.

Come to to think of it, that really was very similar to my day as a driver on "The Fighter" - I just didn't see it coming this time: I was blinded by the light, the klieg lights.

(Lesson #2: Be Prepared). Regardless of what you are asked to do, as an extra, or gopher - expect a long, grueling, boring day. I had brought a fold-out chair, a few books, a notebook and pens, a camera (careful, they are touchy about cameras on a closed set), Tylenol, reading glasses etc. All that and I was still unprepared for the heat. I should have used the old mommy's trick of a wet washcloth in plastic bag in a cooler. How sweet that would have been to be able to pull out a cold, wet washcloth and swab my face and neck. They were very good about getting us water, but even if my inner self was well watered, my outer self was suffering.

Did I mention the catering crews? Besides the specialists who provide fabulous meals at some point during the day, there are dozens of people on set who make sure that there is plenty of cold water, snacks, fruit, and more - all during the day. These people work as hard, and as long as anyone on set - and there isn't even the illusion that they have something to do with making movies.

[Pictures, from top to bottom: 1)Note the antique plate affixed over my actual plate. Wardrobe was responsible for giving all the cars their vintage green Mass plates. I ended up driving around Lowell with mine on.. 2)My view of the 'set' for most of the morning consisted of the Top Donut marquee seen through my moon roof. 3)That's Mr. Shogay, whose daughter graduated from Colby (as did my son Bob). A nice man and a practicing Carnegaist (making friends and influencing people). He owns an ice cream truck, a snow plow, and this classic, no frills pick-up. 4) That's about a third of the crew I worked with on Wednesday, standing before the real star - my 86 Camry. I was remiss in not getting everyone's names (on paper). If you're in the picture leave a comment with your name so I can be sure to get them right. 5) That last shot is poor me, after about 5 hours of stops and starts in brutal heat.]

To be continued...

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