On Location

Headline: In Limbo on Location

 I recently had occasion to work on an independent film in Los Angeles.

Some old friends, Dale and Jenny, had worked for more than three years to raise $250,000 to make a $2 million feature film. With the help of a lot of friends and assistance from well-connected industry insiders, it is possible to make a film for one eighth of what it would cost a studio. Besides, it sounded fun, so I offered a few days of my time.

Dale and Jenny jumped at my offer, especially after I agreed to deliver an important prop to the shoot: a beautifully sculpted, 7-foot blue shark.

I folded down the passenger seat in my little Honda wagon and set the shark beside me, its head by the glove box and its tail at the rear hatch. I laid a sheet over it to protect it from the sun, but the sheet was a bit short and kept sliding off, and truckers on my right could look down into the car and plainly see the shark, which was latex and hollow and jiggled realistically with the bumping of the road. Its black glassy eye looked right back, and more than once a passing trucker sped up for a second look.

The set was a very large, beautiful house in the North Los Angeles area called Los Feliz. The house was atop a hill, with lovely views from the Hollywood Hills to the ocean. They said the place had been designed by ``an architect that mostly did churches,'' and there were no corners anywhere. Arched entryways, ceilings that curved into walls, walls curving into other walls. A huge round cupola topped the whole thing. It would have been a serene place had it not been overrun by a film crew.

The afternoon I arrived, the crew was huddled around the swimming pool. Two divers in wetsuits were in there fidgeting with an underwater camera and soggy props. Standing poolside were four lighting guys (one named Sparky), six grips, a couple more camera people, two production assistants, one props person, the director, the actors, two sound people, set dressers, a couple of assistant directors, the director of photography and an emergency medical technician.

I had a moment of glory as I carried the shark in, then I moved to the pool area to find out where I could be of assistance. There wasn't much for me to do, so I watched closely to see who was doing what and who might need help.

Now, it's not inconceivable that I could be of use -- I've had years of theater experience with scenery, sound and lighting. I also have a very good back. Yet for the first few hours, all I did was lift a heavy camera from the water and hand a diver a paper bag full of rocks five times. Besides that, I made this little list in order to keep my mind active:

Things That Slow A Pool Shoot

-- Removing moths in the pool attracted to the underwater lights.

-- Actress drying long, curly hair for another take of jumping in the water.

-- Empty air tanks.

-- City lights in the background that must be blocked out with plants.

-- Waiting for neighbor dogs to stop barking.

-- Noisy helicopters overhead checking for celebs or criminals.

I started to catch on to some jargon. ``Back to one,'' someone says, and everyone prepares to do a shot over. ``Hot point!'' tells me somebody is carrying something through the crowd, especially something long and heavy. Likewise, ``Make a hole!'' These are just two of the many ways to say, basically, get the hell out of my way.

Imagine being the only ant in the colony with nowhere to go. Where do you stand? The other ants are very professional and hard-working. They are considerate. They try to keep the noise down for the sake of the neighbors. They do not poison the barking dog down the hill. The huge lights are not pointed at the helicopters in hopes of blinding the pilot.

I was temporarily assigned to the art department, which didn't really want me, especially after they learned I didn't build the shark myself. They generally refused my assistance and instead worked at top speed themselves, making me look and feel particularly useless.

Later, I was assigned to the props guy, who'd been complaining about being all alone during a rough stretch of props-placing. We got along well, but by the time I was there to help he didn't really need anybody. He had things to do, of course, but not enough to share. A similar thing happened later, when I was helping with set dressers. What the hell's going on around here, I wondered. I've never seen so many people unwilling to fob their work off on someone else.

Being idle made me easy prey for the bored emergency medical technician, a chatty guy named John who was standing by, waiting for someone to fall or electrocute themselves. He had a radio always set too loud, as though to punctuate the fact that he was a vital part of the team. He was one of those people who always has to give you a high five as you pass, even if you pass four times an hour. He had an endless supply of inane patter: ``I thought you ordered the warm weather!'' ``So, Sven, how are the fjords?'' ``When do we cook that shark?'' It went on and on, and, thanks to John, I was never still. He was like a mosquito whom I could only evade by staying in motion. I prayed that I would not injure myself, or that if I did, I'd be lucky enough to be rendered unconscious. In fact, I could probably have collected hundreds of dollars from the crew for throwing myself from the balcony just to keep John busy and quiet for a while.

My inactivity also attracted another sort of character: the people who assumed that my sloth, coupled with my familiarity with the director and star, identified me as a big shot. Most of the crew knew this was not the case, but a couple of newcomers felt it couldn't hurt to chum up to me. Under the guise of casual conversation, they managed to mention their vast experience, their future goals and their availability. They didn't ask me what I did, of course, since I was obviously somebody and it would insult me to reveal that they were unfamiliar with my work.

Toward the end of the second day, the owner of the house where we were filming exploded. The pressure of having a film crew there 14 hours a day was wearing on him, he shouted. The crew was getting sloppy and wasn't properly protecting the property. A pot was broken, the floor wasn't covered beneath a lighting tripod, someone had cracked a tile at the entryway and, worst of all, someone was in the one room that wasn't supposed to be touched, working behind a cabinet full of expensive pottery. That person was me. I was trying to hang a drape so the camera couldn't see inside the room. I was following orders, but I figured I'd be a good scapegoat and offered myself up as a human sacrifice. I told him it was my fault, I didn't know about the room, so sorry, and so on. But this incident was the tip of the iceberg, and he rampaged around the house, shouting at the line producer that he's had it, he's going to call his lawyer and see if he can lock them out. Everyone could hear him, and everyone tried to look busy while being very quiet so they could hear. We all sympathized with the guy, but you have to admit that a person would have to be plain nuts to rent a $2 million house to a film company.

Eventually, someone got him simmered down and the filming was allowed to proceed.

At one point, I was asked to be an extra. As a result, I can now say that I excel at doing nothing on both sides of the camera. Well, not quite nothing. I actually was filmed from pretty close up while pretending to talk to another extra, played by the director's mother. I figure this makes me a tad less likely to end up on the cutting room floor, but it's a hard business. We both pretended to discuss something of mutual concern before walking off camera. We shot it several ways. I had to sign a standard waiver, which gave them the right to use my image in any way they saw fit. In theory, you might see me on the poster or on a clip on a talk show.

By my second day, I had worked about 17 hours and done about two hours of actual work. Nobody would let me do anything, and I was beginning to understand why. Film is a competitive business, where your being hired is dependent on your reputation as a hard worker. Nobody can afford to be seen doing nothing. It dawned on me that there were people on the set who had periods of time where there was nothing for them to do, but they looked busy (this was easiest for the sound person, who had merely to put on a set of headphones). According to an assistant director, the term for this in film is "screwing the pooch.'' She told me to move a box of tea bags to another table. I moved the box. Wrong, she said, and showed me the proper technique, which is to move it two bags at a time. Also, evidently smoking counts as doing something, although standing there does not. Smoking while resting implies a time limit -- the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Standing there not smoking might take all day.

I could afford to look as bored as I was. I was a volunteer, and I had no intention of breaking into the film biz. So when I had nothing to do, I could just stand there, or sit there, or walk around getting in the way, which is often difficult to avoid. But the others had to screw the pooch, though many were volunteers also. Some had volunteered to do the shoot because they were relatively new to the business and needed to make as many good connections as possible while picking up experience. These people seemed to be the ones I was being assigned to help. They didn't want me. They had to look busy. To them I wasn't help, I was competition.

I suppose I could say that, in a perverse sort of way, I served as a whip-cracker to these people. My offering help whipped them into a fervor of activity that might otherwise have been taken up by talking or smoking. I was a catalyst for the activity. This is probably nonsense, but I can't stand the idea that I spent three very long days on a movie set doing nothing for nothing.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to word it on my resume.

(Ran in the SF Chronicle)