Copyright 2008 Neill Fleeman

Laura Godwin and Neill Fleeman at the North Carolina premeier of Leatherheads

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Premier…

The very first installment of these Filmland Chronicles, as you may recall, concerned my work on George Clooney's Leatherheads film, primarily the press conference scene where I worked beside Oscar-winning actress Renee Zellweger for one memorable day. At the time that story hit the streets the premier of Leatherheads was scheduled for December 7, 2007, and as Fall approached all of the featured extras, myself included, were shaking the moths out of our tuxedos and pressing our posh frocks in anticipation of the local premier.
But then a funny thing happened. Because George Clooney's Michael Clayton was still doing well at the box office (“good legs” as we say in Filmland), the powers that be at Universal decided to push the release of Leatherheads back to April 4, 2008 to take advantage of the Oscar buzz surrounding Clayton. April 4, 2007 happened to be the first day our little group was on the picture, shooting train interiors on the Yadkin Valley Railroad, so although we were disappointed about the delay there was a certain symmetry to it. We put our formal wear back into mothballs and got down to work on some more films.
I did three more films in the interval, some of which you have already read about, including my first speaking part in Ramin Baharani's Goodbye Solo. After two auditions I was looking forward to the start of filming on Our Neck of the Woods, a comedy that was to start shooting in Mt. Airy, NC, in late February.
And then a funny thing happened.
One Sunday night I was walking across the bedroom floor when something popped and a streak of green fire shot down my right leg. Twelve days later ONOTW began filming without me as I was recuperating from lumbar disk surgery on my back. No more films for me, not for several months. As I lay in bed staring at the ceiling I consoled myself that at least I had the Leatherheads opening to look forward to.
Meanwhile the Oscars came and went, Michael Clayton almost getting shut out in the Academy members' fit of enthusiasm for the Coen Brothers'  No Country for Old Men. George Clooney got passed over in favor of Javier Bardem in the Best Actor category and my fellow members of the Yadkin Valley Railroad Little Theater Players, Extras, and Pinochle Society sent emails back and forth discussing how much lugging a tank of compressed air around increases your chances for an Academy Award.
Inexorably we drifted toward the Leatherheads opening. The official premier, we found out, would be in Hollywood on March 31. Greenville, SC, and High Point, NC would both be hosting extras premiers on April 4.  My Leatherheads compatriot Laura and I opted for the High Point event.
My April 4 got off to an early start with a 7:00 AM reporting time at WGHP, the Fox affiliate in High Point, for a chat segment in their morning news program. I arrived at the station fifteen minutes early, working on the theory, as I have in doing films, that the extra time would give me a chance to schmooze with the crew, let the make-up people play around, and the wardrobe people decide which of the jackets I had taken they wanted me to wear on camera.  On a film, finding out what the technical people want makes them happy and in my experience that means getting a little better shot.
But this was local TV, not a film. There was no make-up, no wardrobe check. It was just the two news anchors, the weatherman, three cameramen, and me. So I sat in the Green Room (it was actually beige) and watched Cindy Farmer and Brad Jones going through their paces, doling out the usual accounts of overnight mayhem mixed in with Tom Britt's weather and the local traffic reports. During one of the endless commercial breaks one of the cameramen came in and fitted me with a body mic, had me count to five for a sound check, and we were ready to go.
They work fast in television. It's not for Method actors.
Over in a corner of the set, up on a carpeted riser to get us off the bare concrete studio floor, a couple of squishy chairs and a coffee table sat in front of a video display screen. The screen had the Leatherheads logo on it and would show clips of the film during the interview. I was wearing my Leatherheads casting call outfit - a Humphrey Bogart ensemble of double breasted suit, garish tie, and snap brim hat complete with a Press Pass stuck in the hat band, just like a character out of The Front Page. Since I wouldn't be wearing it, the hat was a prop, something to pick up and fiddle around with. I arranged it on the coffee table at a rakish angle to the three cameras that were lined up in front of me and took a seat. I just had time to glance at the lighting - high, flat panels hung up in the rafters, a type of lighting invented fifty-seven years ago by cinematographer Carl Freund  for the I Love Lucy show  -- when Brad Jones hustled over. We would be out of commercial in twenty seconds.
“You're the guy who worked with Renee?” he asked. Eighteen. Seventeen.
I said I was the guy who had worked with Miss Zellweger.  
“We'll have about three minutes. You were a reporter?” Thirteen. Twelve.
I said that I had been a reporter that day and about a dozen other things during my ten days on the film. Nine. Eight.
“Ten days. Wow. Must have been fun. OK. I'll start with some general stuff and then we'll get right to Renee. Just follow my lead. This the hat you wore?”
Five-four-three-two-one. The red light came on Camera 1 and we were off and running.


The premier was set for 6:00 PM at a new multiplex. This was as close as any of us are ever likely to get to a real Hollywood premier and we wanted it to come off appropriately. We felt, in our own little way, deluded or not, that we were representatives of the film and we wanted the people we had worked for to be proud of us.
Naturally we were disappointed.
Oh, the red carpet was out, and there was a photographer snapping away. Laura in her new dress and I in my tuxedo posed for photos in front of a Leatherheads poster.  We fielded comments from people who had seen us on TV that morning -- Laura's interview had followed mine. But the planning committee had decided to have the premier at an early hour so the extras with kids could be accommodated, guaranteeing us a steady ebb and flow to the concession stands, texting cell phones, chattering, and general loutishness. And the dress code had gradually relaxed from semi-formal to come-as-you-are. It could have been Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon.
“But what about the film itself?” I hear you ask. “What did you think?”
Well, I liked it. But I'm prejudiced.  We knew Leatherheads wasn't Gone With the Wind, or Citizen Kane, or It Happened One Night, or Bringing Up Baby. But I think it's better than the vast majority of the computer-generated slasher-car-chase-helicopter gunship-everything-gets-blown-up super hero junk released today. Maybe there were too many story threads for it to be completely effective. Maybe it could have been more of a screwball comedy in the Howard Hawks-Frank Capra tradition. Maybe it could have focused more on social conditions that made playing for five dollars a game attractive to the miners and farmers and roughnecks that formed pro football in the 1920's. Maybe it could have done more with the post-World War One era and America's need, as Clooney's character says at the end of the film, for heroes, real or imagined. But it does show to pretty good effect a time that was gone before 99% of the audience was born, who have never ridden in a train, visited a speakeasy, or had to pawn their gold watch. That was Clooney's vision for the film and to that end it works pretty well.
My shots?
Fairly early in the film is a scene shot inside a train car. It was shot on my first day on the film, a year to the day before the premier. Mr. Clooney is in front of the camera, screen left, and back there in the background, five rows behind, there's a guy doing a bit with a newspaper.  
It's me.
Remember the first time you heard your voice played back from a tape recorder? I do. It was in the fifth grade, on an old Wollensack reel-to-reel. “That's me?” I wondered.
That's the feeling I had when I saw that shot. And the one of me getting off the train. And the ones with Miss Zellweger.
And so some day twenty years from now, Leatherheads will be the late show on the Turner Classic Movie channel and there I'll be, a dim figure in the back of the shot, earnestly reading my newspaper. Thirty years from now some film scholar will be putting together clips of Miss Zellweger's career and he'll grab that clip where she jumps up and yells “Who got to you, Max? How much did they pay you?” and I'll still be there. No one will really see me, of course. But I'll be there anyway, just like Mr. Clooney and Miss Zellweger will be there. Just like Katie and Spencer and Bogie and Bacall and Coop and Bette and Vivian and Orson and all the others when we pop a tape or DVD into the machine.
Not exactly immortality.
But close enough to make you stop and think about it.