Copyright 2008 Neill Fleeman

Rehearsing the break room scene in Our Neck of the Woods

Never Give Up!

If you've followed these Filmland Chronicles through their brief and sporadic lifetime you've probably noticed by now a pattern in their structure: an unlikely premise typical of the film business is offered up, a telephone call gets the ball rolling, the denouement comes out of left field and we wrap it up with a clever curtain line.
This story is a little different.
Ruth Gordon Jones was a little girl in Walleston, MA who wanted to be an actress more than anything else in the world. Her family thought she was nuts. She was 5 feet tall, bowlegged, nothing to look at, couldn't sing or dance. But in 1915 her father sent her off to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York with all the extra money the family could scrape together because he said “Everybody deserves a chance.” You've got to love Ruth's poppa but the Academy didn't love Ruth. They said she had no talent and threw her out.
Ruth's motto was “Never give up!” and she didn't. It wasn't all smooth sailing by any means but with her name shortened to Ruth Gordon she became one of the finest stage performers in America and England, wrote a number of plays and screenplays for the likes of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and, in 1967, won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Minnie Castevet in Rosemary's Baby.
Never give up, indeed.
Ruth has been on my mind a lot lately because of a film called Our Neck of the Woods. ONOTW is a quirky comedy by Rob Connelly about a middle aged guy named Bob who wakes up one day to the fact that he's been stuck in the same dead-end job in the same little backwater town for twenty years. His life isn't  going nowhere fast - it's already gone. When he gets the opportunity to help a young Russian immigrant woman avoid the same fate, he takes it, leading to a denouement that changes her life, his life, and the future of whole town.
Back in October 2007, as you may remember, I read for a part in ONOTW and I stunk. But after my speaking roles in Solo and Sisters I sent the producers an updated resume and they asked me in late January 2008 to read again.
On the afternoon of February 7 a Production Assistant called me to say I had a role in ONOTW. Fantastic! Eight hours later an emergency MRI showed I had to have immediate surgery to repair the ruptured disc in my back. The film was to begin shooting nine days after my surgery; it would take me at six weeks to begin to approximate normal movement again. There was no way I could do the film. I was crushed.
After surgery the ONOTW Production Office called every few days to see how I was doing and if I might be able to work. Although I was making good progress, doing the film was out of the question. There was nothing I could do except thank them for their continued interest.
 But maybe Ruth was up there looking out for me. Just a few days before shooting was supposed to begin, the Writer/Director of the film and the Director of Photography had a falling out. A Director has to be 100% in sync with his DP or filming can easily turn into chaos. A new DP was located, rushed to Mt. Airy, and brought up to speed on the picture. This took about ten days, delaying shooting by a week and a half. The Production Office called with a new schedule. Could I make it now?
By this time I was getting around with a cane, walking up to the corner of the street and back a few times a day. But I was still pretty zonked on painkillers. And, frankly, I'd given up the whole notion. Ten days off the operating table isn't a good time to start working in a movie, even if it had been Citizen Kane. So the picture started without me and someone else filled my role.
That's show biz.
And then the cold weather hit. It was too cold to shoot the exteriors and the interiors sets weren't ready yet. So production was shut down for another few days. More calls from the Production Office. More “Thanks, but no,” from me. But I was walking now without the cane. Finally a call: “Could you shoot the last two days? No great parts but we'd like you to be in the film.”
And so three weeks and two days off the operating table I found myself in the basement of an abandoned textile factory in Mt. Airy, NC, playing a factory worker in a union meeting scene. I did a couple of walk-throughs, got a nice bit of business at the coffee machine. My reputation as “the guy who worked with Renee Zellweger” had preceded me. I have no idea why anybody thought this was a big deal but I posed for photographs with the other extras and signed autographs. As for me, I was just happy to be off my back, out of bed, and getting on with things. The following day I was “Mr. Suit,” a businessman character in the day dream sequence that leads to the film's conclusion. We wrapped shooting at 8:45 that night after a 13 hour day. I was delighted to have been there.
Ruth Gordon said “Never give up!”
I'd say that's pretty good advice for all of us.