Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Friday, May 14, 2010


People always ask me, "So, does working on movies and TV spoil watching them for you now?"

I've always replied that it doesn't. At least, not if the movie or show is halfway decent. It's only if a film is kind of, well, bad that I start to watch the gears turning -- meaning that the formula the filmmakers used was so incredibly obvious that you can't not pay attention to it. The gears are pretty much sticking out of the screen like a 3-D ikran (that's one of those flying creatures from Avatar, get with it people). Otherwise, I find watching movies as absorbing as you civilians do. I am certainly more analytical about them, so when I do or don't like something about a movie, I can usually pinpoint what it is -- a weak performance, a great directing choice, a screenwriting hiccup in the second act (that hiccup often being that the second act is a directionless and never-ending pile of mush -- yes, I'm talking about you Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Matrix Reloaded, X-Men: The Last Stand, and pretty much any film where they bring on five writers and bring in some new hack director -- yes, I'm talking about you, Brett Ratner), etc. But for me, that doesn't diminish the enjoyment of watching it, if it's worth watching. The same with sound issues: I don't notice the bad sound or a boom shadow unless it's pretty darn bad, at which point it would've taken you out of the movie too. In fact, friends I go to the theater with are generally pointing out to me the egregious mike pack on a person's back, possibly because I am so used to looking at them that I think they look perfectly normal.

There is always, however, the "I can't forget I was there" problem.

I have been working with celebrities for years, and if you know somebody is a jerk, that certainly does make it harder to enjoy their performance. Ever since I worked on a film where William Hurt complained about how much he hated the crew and gave me his piercing and contemplative look of disdain every time I had to boom him (you know the one), I've had a much harder time enjoying The Big Chill. After Jennifer Coolidge (aka Stifler's Mom) almost got me fired when she had a hissy over my telling the director that she was overlapping someone else's dialogue (aka, doing my job), I found her distinctly less funny in Legally Blond, or Best in Show, or…well, let's just say it sucks a little because she's in a lot of funny movies.

By the same token, there are also positive if perhaps no less distracting effects to brushes with fame. Whenever I see a Johnny Depp movie, I often find myself distracted by the fond memory of our romantic moment together: him pretending he was going to tickle me while I was booming. Whenever I see David Strathairn in something, I remember killing time doing the crossword puzzle with him on long days shooting in a New York City courthouse; with Michael Imperioli, I flash on talking with him about the Emmys while standing on a countertop at Satriale's Pork Store. But because in these cases the I.C.F.I.W.T. effect is just a nice if not exactly motivated afterglow surrounding the characters they play, I can't really complain. Plus, when a performance is really good, it doesn't matter. It's very easy to forget that Stanley Tucci is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet when he plays a creepy psychopathic child murderer because he can act. And very often the truth is so close to reality that finding it out in the flesh it enhances an otherwise not-so-impressive performance. Blake Lively from Gossip Girl actually is kind of good-hearted but spoiled, and Matt Bomer from White Collar is charming and hot. Yeah, I know, major newsflash there, quick, somebody call OK Magazine!

Then there are the experiences with talent that forever alter your worldview. Working with supermodels the first few times was something of a revelation. For one thing, I realized what total freaks of nature they are. Most models are absurdly tall, dangerously thin (some of them look like their legs oughta just snap out from under them like twigs) and have huge eyes and lips that, in person, are actually a little frightening. If I were on their home planet, I'd be worried that they would eat my head in one bite -- luckily we have laws about that sort of thing here. But okay, the truth is that most of them are not aliens, or even sex kitten fantasy babes, but actually pretty normal human beings. They don't eat, true, but they do make conversation, which even, sometimes, extends to making jokes about how stupid the ways that they are made out to be sex kitten fantasy babes -- wearing giant wings, trying to act normal while staring into a wind machine -- can be. Believe it or not, Heidi Klum doesn't like to be stared at in her underwear by a crew of a hundred men who can eat their weight in red meat any more than you would, and Tyra Banks doesn't enjoy walking around all day in 6-inch heels -- even if they will both suck it up and do those things because that's their job. In general, knowing this has had the effect of making me hate them less, and less hate is always a good thing. It also reinforced my general feeling about what we worship as beauty in this country being really fucked up, because we worship freaks.

To be fair, though, I've had a lot of other experiences on sets that re-educated me about certain facts of life, many of them involving animals, inanimate objects and foodstuffs. The very existence of food stylists, for example, a whole profession of people who primp, plump and spray food to make it look desirable to eat -- and nothing like it actually looks when you purchase and/or cook it -- taught me quite a bit about the boundaries between truth and fiction in advertising. As in, what boundaries? I've also learned that cows are huge, cats are far more unlikely to be tricked into doing something ridiculous than dogs, and skunks are probably not going to do anything you want them to do, period. And that any object you see in the background of a shot was probably put there by a prop person, and is therefore somehow fake, and often held together with gaffer tape and safety pins. These are all good life lessons which have improved my day-to-day existence. Well, maybe not the information about the cows and the skunks, but you never know when that might come in handy.

No, I think that there is truly only one thing that is unshakable and affects my viewing pleasure: the pain of working in episodic television. It doesn't help that TV shows have a very short turnaround time, so I can watch them within a few weeks of working on them. At that point it's still fresh in my muscle memory that the scene I'm watching took a grueling eight hours to shoot -- the second half of a 16-hour day, which put us outside in the rain at 4 am on a Friday night, aka Fraturday. And I wonder why I've started shivering and trying to curl up in the fetal position on my couch. But even if I get past that, I move on to the sensation of being really pissed off, when I see that all of the unnecessary coverage we shot, which made the scene take the eight hours to shoot, didn't get used -- or it did get used, but it makes no sense whatsoever. That's the worst, because it's really distracting when you're trying to watch a scene and find yourself thinking, WHY are we cutting to the completely unmotivated shot through the glass table??? Or, Why the extreme close-up when we already had the close-up, the medium, the two-shot, the over-the-shoulder, the over-the-other-shoulder, the over-the-other-other-shoulder-of-the-other-actor, and the shot through the glass table? Are we just trying to see the actor from every possible angle and test how good his hair continuity is? And then you remember, Oh right, because we went into meal penalty on those shots and the director just had to use it to prove that every single one was necessary. The bastard. Back to more hate.

And yet, I also remember the fun we had talking about how much we hated the bastard. The nicknames we gave him, what we joked about doing to him, mimicking his pretentious and unidentifiable accent behind his back. And I remember the weird solidarity among cast and crew that working 16-hour days builds, even if a lot of it is built on misery. I remember the lead actress sticking up for us and forcing them to wrap at 14 hours one day when she couldn't take it any more, which, in my opinion, made her worth every dollar of her $5 million contract. Good times!

I guess the conclusion I'm coming to in my very roundabout pondering way is that my viewing experience hasn't been spoiled, it's just been altered. And as with most things in life, you have to take the good with the bad. Plus, is my take on a movie or TV show more altered than anyone else's who has a day job? Like have you ever watched Grey's Anatomy with a doctor? Man, is that annoying. So I just try to keep my pleasure and pain to myself, because nobody wants to hear about it…except for maybe you I hope.