Monday, April 7, 2008

This Had Better Look Really Good When We're Done, 'Cause It Totally Sucks Being Here!

Matt has posted Part XXI of Sophie from Shinola. And it turns out, now Jeri's posted Part 22. And Saqib is done, done and double done...with Part 23. And, Jeez Louise, Michelle's already posted Part 24. The beginning and the explanation of the whole thing can be found here.
I can't tell you how many times someone has contacted me to let me know they have a really gorgeous house, farm, store. or whatever that they'd love to have used in a movie. This is all fine and dandy and I always tell them that I'd love to have some pictures and their contact information for my files, and that if it comes up in a script, I'll be sure to contact them. The thing is, and if you think about it, you'll realize this is true, movies don't always happen in really gorgeous places. The scripts I get contain lots of really nasty places.

This is where a bit of schizophrenia comes in. The script may call for a really nasty place, but the crew has to be willing to work there. In one movie, I needed an alley with an anonymous doorway. The two lead actors were going to have a scuffle in the alley before making up and going through the door. So, there's this really nasty alley in Downtown Brooklyn I knew would be perfect. About three quarters of the buildings that back up to it are abandoned, and otherwise, it's mostly used as a place to store the garbage for a couple of days before the garbage company picks it up. It's got a lot of rusting fire escapes and the paint on all the buildings is peeling and it's just a really creepy place. Perfect!

So I take the Director and the Production Designer there one day and sure enough, they love it. So, while we're standing there, I ask the Director to give me some idea where exactly he'd like to stage the scuffle so I can have that portion cleaned up in advance. The Production Designer is horrified. "Don't touch anything," he says, "It's perfect the way it is." At this point, I need to explain that the actors are not going to be wiling to roll around in an actual trash-strewn, pee-stained alley with God-only-knows what other needles and detritus are on the ground. Not only would that be really unpleasant, but it'd be dangerous. So, the day of the shoot, before the crew gets there, I had a Sanitation Dept. streetsweeper spend an hour driving up and down the alley to get it as spotless as possible and then, before we could shoot, the Art Dept. spent two hours putting in the "clean" garbage.

This is the good kind of crappy place to shoot. It's been chosen with everyone knowing what the situation is and a plan to deal with it.

More often, either, you don't realize quite what you're getting into or if you do know, there's not a damned thing you can do about it. On Iron Will, our second week of shooting was at a boat landing on the St. Louis River where we'd created a really small town centered around a railroad depot. Since the movie was set in the early 1910's, there would be more livestock than automobiles. So, we shot there for four days with a bunch of cattle and horses and sheep running around. All of them shit. A lot! And what do you have strung out behind the scenes on every movie set known to man? Electric cables. Two bad things happened to the electric cables. Bad thing number one was that the cables would be warm during the day, what with the flow of electricity and all, and they'd be cold at night what with the 30 below zero temperatures. At the end of the four days, about half of the cables were frozen solid to the ground with no hope of picking them up. Some of those snapped in half. Bad thing number two was that the rest of them were all completely encrusted with shit...frozen shit. The next day's filming was to take place in a grand old building's lobby with the original carpeting and a bunch of other reasons they wouldn't appreciate us bringing in 2000' of shit-encrusted cable to thaw out in their lobby. Needless to say, the Electric Dept. spent a really unpleasant evening cleaning up the cable that could be rescued and we had to order a bunch of new cable to replace the stuff that couldn't be retrieved until the following May.

Another script had a scene set in a live poultry retailer's store. I don't know how many of you have ever been in a small room with a few hundred chickens in cages stacked to the ceiling before, but let me tell really sucks! Birds get scared when people enter the room. A bird's response to fright is to shit...and flap their wings. Bird shit dries really quickly. Dried bird shit becomes dust in the air when birds flap their wings. You can clean the place before the crew shows up but it only takes about an hour for the birds to make the place really suck again.

Not all locations suck because of animal excrement. If you're doing a show on the road somewhere, the Director will think he's got nothing to do on the weekend during prep, so he'll go exploring. Now, he only cares what stuff looks like. He doesn't care if you can get the trucks anywhere near the place. He doesn't ask questions like, "Is this place full of toxic mold?" He doesn't think about what it might cost to clean the place up and then dirty it up again "cleanly" so he can shoot there. He just cares that it looks really fucking cool and it's where he wants to shoot and there's not a damned thing the Location Manager, Production Manager, Producers or anyone else can say that will dissuade him.

Now, I'm not asking any of you to feel sorry for me. I get to go to a lot of cool places and I get to meet a lot of cool people. But I spend a lot of days in some really crappy places. In spite of that it's a pretty cool job to have and even though it may sound like I'm bitching, in truth, there are some advantages to shooting in a really crappy place. For example, I don't have the anxiety of worrying about the Grips trashing somebody's 100 year old Steinway when we're shooting in a cesspit. That's actually a really good trade-off.


mattw said...

That's pretty interesting. I never would have thought that you'd have to clean up an alley or other location only to have to then fill it with clean garbage. Who woulda thunk it.

John the Scientist said...

"I don't know how many of you have ever been in a small room with a few hundred chickens in cages stacked to the ceiling before,"

Yup. Hello, upper respiratory tract infections!

Nathan said...


The thing is, you can wear a dust mask or even a fairly decent industrial respirator and it doesn't solve the problem. It just flat out sucks being in there.


If you've ever seen "Made in America", there's a scene where an elephant goes charging into a lake with Ted Danson on its back. We had to did a pool next to the lake, and make it look like part of the lake because the authorities didn't want us going into the real lake. Meanwhile it was this stagnant thing full of goose shit that we couldn't possibly have made worse.

We do a lot of stupid stuff for a lot of stupid reasons.

Tania said...

You weren't kidding when you used the word "crappy", were you?

Nathan said...

Well, yeah Tania, shit is one of the most common problems, but there's closed factories full of 10 years worth of dust (not to mention whatever metal-dust there was when it closed). There's places where standing water just stinks to high heaven. There's even days where just standing out in mid-town traffic all day means you're breathing in so much crap that blowing your nose won't do you any good. You actually need a hot shower just to get your nose running clean.

Some days, you just really can't wait to get home.