Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Saturday, September 20, 2008

There's a spot

I went to work the other day on a commercial and noticed that there was a spot on my shirt. Typical day, typical occurrence. What we were shooting was actually a weepy PSA to raise money for colon cancer research, but in spite of that, it managed to feel just as crass as any other commercial; the production was just as ridiculously cavalier (they somehow forgot to tell us it was a night job until two days before -- oops!), the agency and clients were just as self-absorbed (one attempted to return a Comtek while keeping the headphones in her bag -- "Oh, did it come with those?"), my boss was just as psychotically stressed out ("DID YOU FIND THE GAFFERS TAPE?? WELL, GIVE IT TO ME, JESUS!" I've discovered after many years of experience that the best way to deal with this behavior is to stand where he can see me but out of the range of flying fur and expletives, nodding and looking concerned) -- all, in other words, as usual. And me finding a spot on my shirt is something that seems to happen every day of my working life. I'm always eating in a hurry, shoving a guacamoled chip in my face or slurping tea out of my Super-8 travel mug, and whatever I'm trying to get into my mouth inevitably ends up a badge of slovenliness prominently displayed on my chest. Thank God for Ecover stain remover, that shit works.

The spot I discovered on myself this time, however, was different. It was a small red dot that I noticed, actually, when I put on the shirt in the morning, but I was in a hurry and didn't want to change. Plus, sometimes you just want to wear a certain outfit because you know you look good in it, and you know people will notice you look good in it, especially when you've recently been dumped and you feel the need to have people flirt with you to make you feel attractive again…But I digress. When I saw the spot, it wasn't like all of the other spots that I usually see and can't tie back to the particular job or glob of grease that instigated them. I knew exactly where this one had come from.

It was a couple of weeks ago, the last weekend we were shooting in Vegas for the documentary, the last shooting trip of the film, in fact. We were with a family that we've gotten pretty close to over the past year or so, and who have braved some tough times. Not to be or cliché or sound like I'm talking about CATS, but we've laughed with them, we've cried with them, we've listened to wireless mic-captured conversation as varied as,

"You shut up!"
"No, you shut up!"

when shopping at the grocery store and

"Mom, don't be sad."
"What is there to be happy about?"
"That we're alive!"

when visiting the grave of a son who passed away two years ago, at the age of 23. On this particular trip, the whole family -- mom, six remaining kids, two spouses, two grandsons, four friends of the family who spent the weekend in the family's trailer, a very tolerant dog named Blue and a coop full of chickens whose clucking is now an indelible part of the film's soundtrack -- assembled for the birthday of the son who had died, to yell at each other, eat, swim, make tamales, and exorcise some demons, or at least take them out for a spin in the 100-plus degree desert heat. And we came out to film it all happening, not exactly knowing what "it" would be, but knowing we had to be there.

It's odd to stand by and watch other people's lives unspool. While you're shooting, a lot of the time, you have no idea what the hell you're getting. You're strung out and your back and arms are sore from wearing the mixer around your midriff and booming while you're rolling rolling rolling for eight hours a day with only quick breaks to talk with our subjects off-camera for a few minutes while eating or drinking whatever they offer us and trying to figure out, Should we be rolling on all this insanity and if so, which part?? (or at least, um, that's our method, such as it is). But sometimes, you have a moment of clarity, where you see their story -- or stories, because usually there are many to choose from -- and how time is shaping it, and them. You know that it's transitory, because their lives will continue, as I've said before, and take new turns, as real lives, unpredictably, maddeningly, tend to do. But for a moment, you can make sense of them in a way that you can never make sense of your own life. It's the privilege and also the burden that we have as mostly-mute observers.

Sometimes, it's more of a burden than at others. The last night that we were in Vegas, we went to a dinner with a bunch of the people we'd met there over the course of making the film, and it only then became truly apparent, because they were now so comfortable with us and the camera wasn't there, that every single one of them was right-wing -- we're talking Rush Limbaugh territory. But of course we couldn't tell them what we really thought about immigration reform, or the war, or the Bridge to Nowhere. Lauren and I have joked from the beginning of this film that we'd like, someday, to go on the "re-education tour" where we can tell everybody we've met in our travels what we really think, and try to challenge a few misconceptions we've heard along the way -- like that "Sean Hennessey" is an impartial newsman, or that Giuliani was a terrific mayor, or that torture is perfectly okay if it's what we need to do to keep our country safe, or that "those kids are taught to hate us over there so why should we be rebuilding their country?"

But we know we never will, even when the film is done and people have seen it (hopefully, some day) and we've moved on to other projects. Because we have, somehow, come to like these people, and even care about them, in some cases deeply, and want them to continue to like and care about us. So we just smile and laugh and watch, amazed, as the rhetoric that we don't entirely understand, probably because it comes straight from Bill O'Reilly, flies ("I could never vote for somebody who hasn't served his country and is ashamed of half of his heritage" Huh???). I gave the woman who approves of torture a big old kiss on the cheek when she left, and it wasn't just because I'd had four glasses of wine. She'd driven all the way down from her new house in Utah to see "her girls." How can you let that kind of affection go unreturned? More importantly, why would you want to? Not to get all existential on your ass, but what's the point of it all if you do?

That may be the bigger burden of being observers. There are moments when someone you're filming is crying, or doing something really cute, like showing you a missing tooth or just smiling and gurgling on your shoes (mind you, I'm talking about individuals under the age of 4), when you really want to step out from behind the camera. Generally, you can't. You have to keep rolling, not think about how you want to participate, and instead try to enjoy watching the movie you're making play out while you concentrate on trying to make it the movie you want it to be.

But stolen between shots, or before, or after, there are moments. On our last day of shooting we went four-wheeling way up into the mountains, ostensibly to film a couple of the kids at a spot where there was a small cross they had dedicated to their brother. I nearly bit it several times on the way up, and still have the scar to prove it. None of us three New Yorquinas had ever ridden four-wheelers before, much less in challenging terrain, at high-speed, led by a daredevil 14-year-old with no fear of death. But we made it to the top and looked down from beside that cross to see an incredible spread of pink and puce desert stretching all the way to Arizona, and it was terrifying and exhilarating and wonderful and worth it, and it made us remember that we were, indeed, alive.

And the spot on my shirt -- it was from a hug. It was the hug that the mom of the seven kids (one gone) gave me when she welcomed us into her house for that weekend-long visit, the last one we might ever make there. It came from a blouse she was wearing that was studded with giant, bright red sequins, that apparently were not color-fast. It was no ordinary hug either, it was the kind of strong hug you give someone when you hold on and you mean it. That's why its left its spray of small red dots behind of which, yesterday, only one remained, and that one will be gone the next time I do laundry. But even then, it'll still have left its mark on me.


Blogger Unknown said...

Ya see, one of your posts is worth, like, twenty of mine. So it is no biggie if they only come once in a while. Thanks.

BTW All mustard is gross in my book.

1:03 PM

Blogger Michael Taylor said...

What a great post. I love the way you contrast the stressful and crass (if life-sustaining) world of commercials with your conflicted but very human encounters while making the documentary. The ability to see and appreciate people as individuals distinct from their political persuasions -- and to judge them as human beings rather than followers of particularly repellent political persuasons -- is crucial to maintaining one's own humanity.

Nice piece of writing.

4:27 PM


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