Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


I was working on a commercial recently with a lot of actors. I mean, a lot of actors. Probably over 200. It was the kind of job where the first AD requests his own PA system to talk to all of them, which we call "the voice of God."

We all know that first ADs love anything that lets them be more like God. They have the illusion of control and world (read: set) domination, because they get to do all the talking and shouting and giving of orders, and yet they are under so many thumbs -- director, producer, agency, client --- that the backs of their heads must be permanently stamped with the prints. And they're also somewhat at the mercy of the people they're supposed to be ordering around. The AD needs the help of the crew to make his day, so he still has to be nice to us, or at least pretend to be nice to us.

And the AD is also at the mercy of the actors, which is what he (or she, but I have yet to meet a female commercial AD) hates more than anything. Because at least most crew members are rational. Sure, there's the gaffer who loves to fuck with sound people and hide their comteks just for fun, sending them scrambling for one right when we're supposed to shoot (not that this has ever happened to me). And there's the prop person who will NOT be rushed when wiping down the color-corrected, hero soda can and spraying it with just the right amount of glycerin water to get it to glisten perfectly in the shot (it's not his fault, some client from Fresca made his life hell for a week once and he's been scarred ever since). But at least crew people deep down really only care about going home, and so will generally suck up their sonofabitchiness or neuroses when the time comes and just do their jobs --
and only their jobs, because this is the union, and if there's one thing I know, it's what is and is not my job. And it's the actor's job to express those neuroses and marshal them to the cause of selling Shakespeare or Fixident, whatever the case may be. And none of us can go home until they do it right.

As with a normal job, how long this takes generally has to do with the work itself (Faust or One Life to Live?), their co-workers (Sir Ian or Scott Bakula?) and their boss (Busby Berkeley or Ingmar Bergman?) -- as well as, like with any normal person, whether they're having a good day or a bad day. But unlike with a normal person, the difference between a good day and a bad day is the difference between joy and despair, and that difference can be made by a call from their agent or a hangnail or how you (yes, you) said "Good morning" to them when you showed up on set half asleep at 5 am.

Basically, actors are the neediest people you will ever meet. This is what comes of being in a profession where your emotions are your bread and butter -- only, when you're an actor, it's like you're the bread, and the butter is melted, and you soak it all up like a sponge and then you're supposed to ooze or squirt it back out on cue (oozing or squirting depending on the genre of course). It's like being a top athlete in terms of the total control you need, only more so, because if you're a tennis player, or a pitcher, or a gymnast, the idea is to keep your head in the game and take your emotions out. Whereas as an actor, your emotions are the game. Without them, it's just a book of instructions bound together with three holes and two 1.5-inch brads (not three, aspiring screenwriters, two), and somebody's got to make it real. And all of those mixed metaphors I've just described -- the buttery, spongy balance beam routine where you have to stick the dismount or get a 6 from the Ukrainian judge -- that's your job. Every day. No pressure.

Some actors, who are masters of their craft (Catherine Keener, Cynthia Nixon, David Strathairn, Michael Imperioli, to name a few I've worked with), make this look easy. At "Action!" they can cry, and mean it, while saying half a page of dialogue and pausing to pick up and put down their fork on the same mark with the same hand on the same line on every take -- no matter how many takes it takes. Then there are the actors (Frank Whaley, Vince D'Onofrio) who often need to actually get themselves emotionally and/or physically worked up to do a scene. A lot of people say, "Oh, they're just 'method.'" But the truth is, any actor working today worth his or her salt is a method actor, and that's been true ever since people like Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner started teaching people how to have a method. And the idea behind having a method is that you can get in and out of character without having to make everyone else crazy by actually becoming that serial killer or neo-Nazi asshole 24-7. Still, these methody pains in the ass generally turn in a good enough performance that people hire them for their work even if they're a little -- sometimes more than a little -- extra trouble. The line between genius and jerk is pretty fine, especially when some producer's smelling Oscar. Then there are those (no names on this one, sorry) who take the fact that they think they are ACTORS, with a capital A, as a license to commit bad behavior, without actually doing any very good acting -- or, often, any acting at all. It's the fact that they can't act, and they know it, or that they used to be able to and now they're not, is what makes them such a nightmare. These are the people I have absolutely no respect for, because they make everyone else's lives difficult, and for what? So that they can coast on the pathetic skateboard that is their ego and hide their lack of talent from the world just a teeny bit longer. I also know a number of bad actors who get by on charm, and I have no problem with them, as long as they stay sober enough to remember their lines. Hell, be bad, just don't give me guff when I try to mic you, or boom you, or look at you (yes, sometimes we mere mortals actually need to look at you, not because we like it, but in order to do our jobs). And never, ever, extend the length of my day.

This is why we all need the director. The director's supposed to provide the outside guidance, discipline and honest perspective to get the actors to knock it out of the park, or at least not double-fault. This does not, in my mind, mean that directors need to find some insidious means of wringing a good performance out of an actor -- although we all know the stories. How Steven Spielberg, when trying to get the little boy to give his expressions of delight and wonder when the spaceship was trying to beam him up in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, had a pile of Christmas presents that he slowly unwrapped, one at a time. How when Barbara Streisand got so frustrated because she couldn't cry in The Way We Were, Sydney Pollack just went over and gave her a hug, and the tears came flooding. Every director, deep down, wants to play puppetmaster in that critical moment that pulls the film together -- although the truth is, if you cast well, generally all you'll have to do is tell them they're swell and ask them to dial it up or down a little as needed.

Well, a lot of commercial directors don't even know how to do that. Why would they need to learn? Most actors are never going to get genuinely orgasmic when opening a bag of steaming microwave popcorn, or not to the extent that the client wants them to -- and oh, I've seen them ask for it: "Can they be even more excited?" No, the actor's going to have to fake it anyway, so why would a director bother? Not to mention that he or she is focused on way more important things than the performance, like the precise angle of the pizza box that shows the logo to fullest advantage, or the degree of drip of the mayo that's been food-styled within an inch of its life. These are the moments of genius -- GENIUS! -- in a commercial. (See, and you wonder why the prop people are neurotic). Not to mention that commercial actors are generally nobodies, which really makes them less important than the Redi-Wip (yes, that is how you spell it). Everyone caters to big actors. If they don't know how to direct them, they will at least pretend to talk their preferred brand of psychobabble and make sure that they have a never-ending supply of their drug of choice, be it coke or Diet Coke, and lunch from Nobu waiting in their trailer. But with actors who aren't important, if the director has, say, scrubbing bubbles to worry about, those thespians had better just crank out the facial expressions right quick and ask for nothing, or be labeled difficult.

This is how I often end up in the weird position of helpmate. Really, it is in fact my job to watch actors -- to make sure that the mic is pointing at them and moves when they move, etc. So in between shots, it's often just me and them, standing there, waiting on The Word (from the AD, who gets it from the director who gets it from the agency who gets it from the client). Often there's nothing to do but make conversation, along the lines of,

Handsome and charming actor who knows that he's handsome and charming: So that thing must be pretty heavy, huh?
Me: Naah, you get used to it.
Handsome and charming (feeling my arms): You must have some muscles, huh?
Me (blushing -- exactly the desired reaction): I guess.
Handsome and charming (now gently stroking my arm and looking deeply into my eyes): Hey. Do you know how I could get a water?

Actress who has to do a jogging scene in a tank top and short shorts on a suburban street in the middle of January (shivering): Hey, it's a little brisk out here, isn't it?
Me: Do you want your coat?
Actress: CLACKCLACKCLACKCLACK (that's her teeth chattering) Oh, me? No, no, I'm good, I'm great.
Me (to the 2nd AD): Hey, is wardrobe around? She's starting to turn blue.

And then, sometimes, I have to play cheerleader. Like on the set with the 200 extras. We were doing a scene where the main actor had to act as if he was a coach psyching up a football team for a game. It didn't help that he was wearing a red spandex suit and a football helmet that he couldn't really see out of and that he had to walk at high speed over dolly track. It didn't help that he had a whole bunch of fairly technical lines to do in a short space of time because the spot was 30 seconds. Or that he had to walk past a long line of all the other actors,
who were all also wearing brightly-colored spandex, and whose job it was to stare at him. Or that, after four days, the director had completely lost any interest he had ever had in the spot -- and most of his interest to begin with had been focused on the exact placement of the sea of 200 bodies in spandex.

The red actor tripped over the dolly track on the first take, and of course he wasn't wearing any shoes over his spandex booties, so that hurt. On the second take, he flubbed his lines. And the third take. The director and the first AD were focused on getting the dolly move right and didn't even come over to talk to him, and didn't seem to care that he was limping. He caught my eye.

Actor: You know, it's just once you trip over it, it's kind of hard to forget it's there. Then you start spending all your time thinking about not tripping over it. And I know, it's just a few sentences --
Me: I know, look, what you're doing is not easy.
Actor: I'm gonna get it.
Me: You're gonna get it.

He did the scene again -- and blew his lines, and almost crashed into the dolly, which still wasn't in the right place. People were tired, it had been a long day -- it was the third spot and it was the martini, and everyone just wanted to go home.

Actor: Boy, everybody's just waiting on me, huh?
Me: No, no. Well, partly. But the dolly move --
Actor: It's the fourth quarter, gotta pull it out, you know? We're in the end zone, 4th down --
(he was a little methody)
Me: Er, I'm not too good with the football analogies.
Actor: All right, what would you say it's like?
Me: Well, I'd say…it's just like when everyone's staring at me and I trip over the dolly track and ruin the shot.
Actor: Yes! Exactly!

He got it right on the next one, but then the AD called out that we were going again.

Actor: What did I screw up this time?
Me: It's not you, it's them, they always do a million takes.
Actor: Right, right…

He did it again, and this time they were happy. Everyone applauded, he gave me a high five, and we were out of there.

Maybe I shortened my day a little. And he had a cute butt -- which looked especially good in red. And look, I can't say I don't enjoy talking to the actors, doing what the director should be doing -- even if nobody's going to hire me to do it, and nobody can actually know I did anything, because if they did, I'd get in trouble.

But it's more than that. Sure, actors can sometimes drive you nuts. And some of them are vampires of love and adoration who will suck you dry if you let them (which is why you should never date one). But when they do what they do and they do it well, that strange and incredible alchemy inside of them that I don't understand, that's one of the wonders of making movies -- or sometimes even lowly commercials.

Sometimes you have to stop and remember that being part of that is what makes it more than a paycheck, that what we do is a team sport where everyone needs an assist or a forward pass -- or maybe even a little sugar
. And maybe that makes us needy, but I think, really, it just makes us a part of something. So sometimes, you've just got to give it up -- even if it isn't, technically, your job.