Copyright 2009 Neill Fleeman

The Kid Sells Out

     “They say it's going to be the biggest thing they've ever done.”

     Edd Robinson and I, charter members of the Yadkin Valley Railroad Little Theater Players, Extras, and Pinochle Society, are having dinner on an April night and discussing the current sad state of film-making opportunities in our little corner of Filmland. Edd and I met on the set of Leatherheads and have stayed in touch for the past couple of years, although we've not been on a project together since the Clooney/Zellweger comedy wrapped. Since then he's gone on to a PBS series and several features that haven't been released yet. In between he's done a couple of student films at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts film school to keep his hand in. And UNCSA is what he's talking about now.
     “It's a two minute commercial for --- ,” he named a local car dealer that has showrooms for about every make of car imaginable except Yugo. “Alex Taylor (The Damned Thing) is directing and Thomas Ackerman (Beetle Juice, Jumanji, Anchorman) is the DP. And they're shooting it with some new digital camera called the Red Something-Or-Other. The two minute version will show as a webisode on the internet; they'll cut it to a 30, 60, and 90 second spots for TV.”
     I had seen the posting for the audition call for the shoot. I decided not to audition because I was busy in pre-production with my own film The Third Act, and had a couple of other real work projects going. And there was the RiverRun Film Festival and the local premier of Ramin Baharni's Goodbye Solo, winner of the critic's Prize at the Venice Film festival, in which frequent readers of this infrequent column will remember I utter the immortal line “It says here you speak French.” But after hearing about the personnel and the technical arrangements for the commercial I began to wish I had auditioned. Alex is a promising young director and to work with a real Hollywood cinematographer again would be educational. Plus there's the Red 1 digital camera, the latest gee whiz cinema tool, a camera akin to the one I'll be using on The Third Act. And indeed, it would be the biggest shoot ever done at the school, with all the departments working to provide the props, costumes, dancers, jugglers, musicians and the like required to provide the sort of Salvador Dali-esque picnic - circus atmosphere the script called for.
     Ah well, I sighed. Another missed opportunity. But…
     The following Friday I was surprised by an e-mail from the commercial's casting director, Corey Hamish. “I saw your headshot in our Casting Book,” he wrote. “Would you be interested in coming in tomorrow for an audition?”
     And thus bidden I arrived at the appointed hour, met Corey and went in to see Alex, whom I had met a year or so before and who, in fact, was responsible for getting me in the UNCSA Casting Book. Alex gave me a brief explanation of the shoot. There were no lines to learn; I went through a little pantomime bit and left thinking I might get some small part. And then nothing happened. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero.
     After two weeks of nothing I sent Edd an e-mail alluding to former Paramount Pictures boss Robert Evan's famous line: “The kid stays in the picture.” My line was: “The kid's not in the picture.” Edd had gotten a nice juicy part as the Cadillac driver; I figure they only needed one geezer on the shoot and Edd was it. So for me it's back to plotting shot lists for The Third Act. Then…
     Out of cyberspace came Edd's reply: “Looks like we're working together again.” Hunh? You guessed it - someone at the casting office got my e-mail address wrong and since no one uses telephones for talking anymore (in these days of advanced communication, telephones now are only for texting, tweeting, web surfing, and taking pictures) I've not gotten the word. The good news is I've got a part; the bad news is my character is called THE OLD MAN. The Old Man? A kid like me?
     A couple of days later I arrived at our wardrobe call hoping to find out more about the shoot. Edd's driving the Cadillac, OK. Gina, another Leatherheads alum and charter member of the YVRRLTPE&PS, will be in the SUV. But what about The Old Man? I sidled up to Jannelle, our wardrobe person, to try to get a clue but she doesn't know either. “I only got put on this last night,” she whispers.  Lauren Goodnight, the first camera assistant, says the same thing a few days later when we meet at the RiverRun Film Festival. Nobody seems to know much about my character.
     The week before the shoot things are still pretty loose. We hear rumors of script changes. And wardrobe is in a state of flux. Finally, the day before the shoot is scheduled to start, Alex and I meet and come to a decision of wardrobe. Now if the weather will just cooperate…
     By now I've learned that The Old Man is the lead character, my second leading part if you include my baseball bat-wielding turn as the protagonist in Condos. The lead!
     Just in case you might be wondering, let me assure you right now that being the lead actor in any production is a good thing. In the first place you get a lot to do so you don't sit in the green room working crossword puzzles and putting wrinkles in your wardrobe; in the second place you are just about assured of not being lost on the cutting room floor; and in the third place - if you really need to have this explained - you have a lot of twenty-something young women brushing on your make-up, fluffing your hair, fussing with your wardrobe, rubbing sun block on your fevered brow, fetching you snacks, and holding an umbrella over you between takes so you won't be overheated by the sun. As Jack Thompson said to me, grinning, on the set of Leatherheads, “It's tough work, kid, but somebody's gotta do it.”
     As usual I reported to our location early to have an opportunity to meet the crew and take my time getting into wardrobe and makeup. The Friday shoot is just for me - no other actors are present - so I really get to work closely with the camera and crew. We shoot for about five hours and break for lunch at 3pm. One of the big advantages of shooting in high-end digital video is that you can see what you've shot immediately after you shoot it. We're thinking we've put in a pretty good day's work until we see the rushes and then the mood takes a nosedive. Three shots we've done are unusable and will have to be redone. In two the composition is wrong. In the third my eyeline is wrong. I feel badly about this because even though it's the director's responsibility to tell me where to look, I should have realized the camera had moved and it would appear that I was looking in the opposite direction from the earlier shots. A rookie mistake on my part. It's now late in the afternoon and we've lost the light; we'll have to re-shoot on Monday since scenes with the other actors and performers are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. If it rains we're in trouble.
     But it doesn't rain and the weekend shoot comes off very well. The Old Man's “family”, representing the Land Rover franchise, consists of Bill, Connie, and Gabby, the latter a cute, precocious, and thoroughly professional four year old who greets me with a big hug when I go on the set for our group shots. In the course of the two days the dancers dance, the jugglers juggle, the fantasy creatures walk around fantastically, and cast and crew alike have a good time, wrapping at nine each night. Monday we do my retakes and then we all settle in to wait for the finished product. Editing and scoring will be completed in ten days, by May 15 - a far cry from the six to nine months required for a feature film. The commercial will be shown to the suits at Warner Brothers in Burbank on May 18  and the spots will start airing mid-June on regional TV.
     So on May 29 Edd and I find ourselves sitting with several dozen other people in the main theater of the UNCSA film complex. While we wait, Edd tells me of the travails of a national commercial he has been negotiating for months and I natter on about the latest Third Act developments. We see cast and crew members from various other shoots we've been on. Rosemary Harris (a film and Broadway star now probably best known as Toby Maguire's aunt in the Spiderman franchise) walks by and waves. We wave back. And then the house lights go down and the screen lights up. And the commercial runs. And it's brilliant.
     Out on the street after the screening, Alex sees us and comes over. It's a fine moment, the two old geezers and the young director patting each other on the back. Then Alex has to rush off, reminding us to call him when we get ready to shoot The Third Act, leaving Edd and I to wander down between the soundstages in a reflective mood, trying to convince ourselves it's 1943 in Hollywood and Humphrey Bogart is going to come around the corner fresh off the set of Casablanca.
     OK, so you've stuck around for the best part of fifteen hundred words and you know the punch line is coming up because these stories always have a punch line. So here it is: Alex knew what he was doing when he cast THE OLD MAN. That kid up there on the screen is getting pretty long in the tooth.
     I console myself with the knowledge that even Cary Grant got old eventually.