22 April 2012

From Boardwalk-To-Boardwalk, Part V

Continuing my account of my first day of filming on "Empire": 

The PA's escorted us out of the holding area trailers and led us over to the set, passing along the bank of the Hudson River where the early dawn sun lit up the Manhattan sky-line perfectly. I walked near the front of the group and as we passed the shipping containers and I could see the "beach" and a quick glimpse of the boardwalk set, flanked by huge blue-screen panels where they add the ocean and extend the view with computer generated effects. My heart leapt a bit and I followed along through the back of the set to this little alleyway that ran the length of the boardwalk set but behind it. Suddenly, I was at a carnival, circa 1923, walking over planks and passing carny booths and games of chance. At the far end they had set up the cameras and the lighting, silver screens were positioned to direct the lights and parts of the set were removed to make room for the camera. The director was there with a contingent of assistants and the two stand-ins were on the marks, with masking tape on their jacket fronts denoting who they are standing in for. One was a little person perched on a box. He was the stand-in for the actor who plays Tommy Darmody, the son of Jimmy and Angela, both of whom died in the previous season. The other one was standing in for Jack Huston, who plays Richard Harrow, the guy with the mask. The crew were furiously running around, setting things up and talking into their walkie-talkies about everything at once. Construction was still going on here and there, painting and rigging. It was controlled chaos. There was a chilly and steady breeze whipping through the set but, with my excitement and nerves, I didn't feel a thing.
There was another discussion between the director and the PA's and suddenly they were parsing out our roles at the carnival, the director was grabbing us and positioning us around the set and giving us mini directions as to who we were in the scene and what we should be doing. There was a call for the "floozies", the "fat lady and tall man" and some of the other speciality roles and they set them up in their predetermined areas. Before I knew it, the director looked right at me and told me to stand right behind the stand-ins and then positioned one of the women to be my on-set wife and then called for two girls to be my on-set children. The one little girl was absolutely adorable dressed in her 1920's wardrobe, she looked like a little doll. I was instructed to hold her in my arms, so she could be seen in the shot. All of this happened so fast, I barely had time to register the fact that I was going to be DIRECTLY in the camera shot! Since we are shooting outside, there is a need for speed and the director quickly finished setting up the background actors that would be seen in the shot (several more were positioned around me) and we were told what the scene was and how to react.

I had no clue what I was doing. Honestly, I hadn't a clue what I was doing and a brief moment of panic set in.

We did a small rehearsal and they refined the placement of the actors and props, moving me over a bit so I was directly in the camera shot (yikes!) and they decided to switch my family, giving me a new wife and a young son. They reasoned that little girls wouldn't be interested in a shooting range as much as young boys would. We did a few more quick run-throughs and before I knew it, the principal actors took their marks, they handed him a loaded cap-gun rifle and I hear "Gun Hot", "Set", "Background" and then "Action" and we were shooting my very first scene for "Boardwalk Empire"!!!

I STILL had no clue what I was doing!

My nerves received an additional shock when the gun went off, over and over. Although he was shooting blanks, the report was extremely loud, especially since we were so close, and after the director yelled cut we were told to try and stifle our reactions. We were all jumping a little with every bang.
The refined the scene some more, there were discussions between "Richard" and the director as to where he should point the gun, how frequently he timed his shots, and a lot of other details and we continued to do our reactions over and over with each take. I did what everyone else was doing, trying not to over-sell my expressions and the director was pleased, asking my name at one point and telling me to make sure I stay on my mark so I could be seen behind the actors. I was loving every minute of this and in minor shock, I couldn't believe that I was actually going to be right on camera my very first day of filming!
Before I knew it, we were done and told to take a short break up on the boardwalk set while they reset the cameras and lighting rigs.

I walked over to the steps (which I would later rue but I'll get to that) and ascended them, looking around me at the detail of this entire operation. This was no plywood-front, Hollywood back-lot set, this was an actual boardwalk and shops, even from behind there were back doors to the little shops and alleyways built in off the boards. I went through the tarps they had stretched over the area and walked out into the direct sunlight and the actual set and it was a marvel to behold!
Where the beach and ocean would be, there was a two-story high blue wall (for the CGI effects). The railing and light poles were authentic and I turned around once I got to the railing to get the full affect of the set all at once. It was magnificent!
We all milled about and although we weren't filming here, it was cool to see everyone in costume wandering along the boards. I walked over to some of the shops and was once again blown away at how authentic it was. The shops were real, the restaurants had tables set with plates and glasses, the Fralinger's had a counter and displays of salt-water taffy, it was all so surreal, being from Atlantic City and seeing all the comforts of home up here in Brooklyn. The entrance to The Ritz was blocked off, though, so I couldn't go in there but the French dress shop next door, where Mary worked, was visible and it was a real working shop. It was amazing.
They called us to attention once again and we had to line up in the middle of the boardwalk and the wardrobe department went down the line giving us the once over, making sure the hats sat on our heads correctly, the make-up was touched up, all the little attention to details that makes the production even more special. We were admonished a few times to refrain from taking photos and I was only able to sneak one before we were called back to set.

Once back, they had changed the camera angle to a long shot, moving it behind the targets that "Richard" was shooting at and we went though the motions over and over, repeating our reactions and trying not to jump with each shot. There were more discussions as to when he should shoot and they seemed to get the timing wrong so it was a tedious process of repetition until the director was satisfied with the shot and we finally broke for lunch. 

Evidently there's a pecking order and, since I was there to learn, observe and keep quiet, I quickly realized this and sat down waiting for the crew and the principles to get their food first. I didn't think it was rude, not by any means, it was simply prudent to get them fed and out of there to get the next shot set up. But a hundred and fifty background actors were waiting and the food smelled delicious. I took the opportunity to take a quick bathroom break and the small trailer set up as our facilities was overwhelmed by all of us and I had to wait a bit in the cold before I could get in there. 

By the time I got back, we were being served and I went up to get something to eat, my eyes popping out of my head with all the choices and the quality of the food set out on the buffet tables. I stayed away from the messier fare, since I was in my wardrobe I didn't want to be the one to get food all over it and have to have it cleaned. I don't remember what I had, exactly, but I do know that it was really good and I went back for seconds and thirds, getting dessert (the cakes, pies, cookies, and treats were awesome) not worrying about my waistline since we were filming out in the cold, I figured I would shiver off the extra calories. 
After eating, we were all lined up again and the wardrobe mistress came along with her team and a film crew and they went down the line, again, making minor adjustments and reapplying make-ups and fixing an errant curl or two. I later found out that this was for the mayor of New York's employment initiative documentary and I had to sign a release for my image to be used. I happily obliged. 

We milled about when we were done and then the announcement came that the elephant would be on-set and the famous line, "Do not walk behind the elephant" was made, good advice whether you are filming with an elephant or just advice for life in general. We were all a little excited to see the beast, cracking jokes and we filed back to the set to resume filming. They were setting the elephant up about halfway down the set, a good distance from where my mark was but I could still see her doing her thing. 

I swear the weather changed, it seemed a bit colder even though it was now afternoon and the sun was directly overhead, although the elephant was not allowed to film if the temperatures were too cold so I guess it was just me. I noticed they had changed a lot of the area where I was previously filming, the shooting gallery set was complete (the movable walls were all back in order) and the camera was now going to be behind me and to the left, they were going to do a tracking shot from where we were through the entire faux carnival, passing all the other booths, the barkers and the elephant as well as all the other background extras milling about.  Now, when the principals walk away, I was to encourage my "son" to step up to the booth and then we were to decide not to play and cross over and up the steps. Only this time, they had wet down the set and we were now standing in mud. In the cold. With a chilly wind. 
We got through the shot after only a dozen or so re-sets (a term I learned to loathe later in the afternoon). We were given another quick break up on the boardwalk and, once again, the wardrobe department came along to work their magic. It was a testament to the quality of the show that they continually made sure we all looked our best. 

They had moved the camera down even further we did a few walk-throughs mostly for the benefit of those actors that were now going to be in camera, we'd now be in the far background but had to continually make the same pass across the set and then up the steps. 
I had noticed, at one point, that we were just standing around for a lot longer than normal. The crew is very good at their job so when I noticed that they were just standing around I knew it wasn't a problem with the shot. Then, from my vantage point, I could hear some muffled arguing and then the voices became clearer and the problem was revealed. We had been standing there for the last 30 minutes because the child actor that plays "Tommy" didn't want to put on Chapstick and they were trying to convince him to do so. He stood his ground and no amount of reasoning was going to make him put it on and here, and entire film crew and a hundred and fifty actors were standing around in the mud (with very uncomfortable period shoes that had no lining nor protection) and cold all because of a minor temper-tantrum. I giggled to myself about the situation and mumbled to my "wife" that if I was that kid, my parents would have grabbed my face and covered me in Chapstick and told me to get back to work! In the child's defence, it was turning out to be a long day and he was tired and cold and cranky and had a lot of pressure riding on his little shoulders. He finally put it on and we started filming again only this time, it took so many takes I lost count. I can't tell you how many times we had to re-set and then climb back up the steps, over and over again. It also didn't help that Riley, the boy who was my on-set son, was a rambunctious little rascal and I had to continually corral him for the shot. He was enamoured with the elephant and I had to run through the set and grab him to drag him back to our mark. This is where the filming process can get extremely tedious and it was becoming an effort to continuously mime the same motions over and over with a smile on our faces. 
I felt most sorry for the girl who was playing the "fat lady", she was standing directly in the cross-breeze and was wearing a very skimpy dress. The poor thing had to be wrapped in a blanket between each "Cut" and "Re-set". 

The fading light meant we needed to get this shot and get it as soon as possible, they didn't want to waste yet another day of filming this scene and we mercifully were given the words "you're done" after a few more takes. We made a beeline back to wardrobe to take everything off. 

Although, when crossing over the boardwalk set, I stopped a moment and looked around, it was now dusk and they had turned on all the lights. It was magical to be there at that moment and I stifled yet another smile. 

Dismantling was quick and I changed into my street clothes, getting one of the assistants to sign-off on my sheet and I then went over to holding to have my pay sheet officially signed. I remembered to tell them I had been shaved and they added the extra pay and I went out to wait for the shuttle bus that would take us back to Manhattan. This took a little while, the women took far longer to get changed and we made chit-chat as each person boarded. 
Before I knew it, we were off, making our way through mid-town traffic and the bus actually dropped me off a few blocks closer to Port Authority. I barrelled through the crowds, marvelling at the mass of humanity that does this every day of the week, and finally got to Port Authority and my bus, which was waiting there and leaving shortly.

I settled in and promptly fell asleep. 

With a huge smile on my face. 

1 comment:

  1. I loved this story Mortimer ... because it's true and it stars you! Kathy