09 May 2012

Wild Thing

I must have been in first grade at Bellmawr Park Elementary when I first found "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak. My memories are a bit fuzzy but I can see the book on the shelf in the school's library and I can see me taking it off the shelf and taking it to the librarian to check it out. I guess this memory is so ingrained in me because I checked the book out nearly each and every week, reading it often in my wood-panelled room, wishing I was on that boat with Max and sailing to where the wild things lived. I remember my mother telling me frequently to return the book so other kids could read it. I also remember being very, very angry that I had to let it go. Something about it spoke to my six year old self and spoke to me so deeply that  to this day, I consider "Where the Wild Things Are" to be my favourite book of all time. 

That book meant a lot more to me in my life since that first grade reading. Most importantly, it gave me the spark to read. The story was so simple and so powerful in portraying the incredible imagination of the human mind, even the tender brain of a young boy much like myself, that can create a whole world in his head was awe inspiring. To realise that you can find many strange new worlds between the dust jackets of all those other books sitting on the library shelves enthralled me. I quickly jumped, over the next few years, from reading at my grade level to tackling headier topics, diving into the stacks set aside for fourth and fifth graders, with science fiction and fantasy eventually captivating me to this day. 

I then spent hours in the Carnegie Library on the corner of Illinois and Pacific Avenues once I moved to Atlantic City, combing through the stacks for new adventures and ideas, taking me on journeys far and beyond the land of the wild things. 

But I always came back. Once in a while, I'd see the book in a store or when passing the children's section at the library and I would take it from the shelf and a sense of ownership would take hold as I opened the book and began to read. I felt that every copy of this book was my copy. Each time it was so familiar, so vivid, the illustrations always captivated me, it was as if it was the first time I read it. It was as if the thousandth time I read it. And I would laugh at little Max, gnashing his teeth and jumping about in his wolf suit, being so bad. I feel his sting as he was sent to his room by his mother, that fear of rejection. That moment when you doubt your mother's love. I lived his fear at meeting the Wild Things, these new and strange friends and his utter joy when he proclaimed, as their eventual king, to "LET THE WILD RUMPUS START!" 

When I woke yesterday and saw the news that Maurice Sendak died, I sat facing the computer and cried. I cried and cried as if I had lost a close friend. I have never cried over someone I've never met before, not in this way, and not over an author but I sobbed like a baby at this great loss. I'll leave the whys to those who care about such things. I know why I cried and it felt good to mourn his loss. I will be in mourning for a little while and hearing his name or seeing the book will probably bring tears to my eyes. 

Mr. Sendak, you have given me the most important gift one human could give another. You opened my mind. You showed me that the world is scary and strange and new and wondrous and that it can be whatever you make it. You have given me the strength to face that world as a brave little boy. As a young man. As a man. 

And you also showed that love is unconditional. And it's there. And it's waiting for you. 

"...and it was still hot."  

02 May 2012

This STILL Gives Me A Thrill!

"Here is your information for Boardwalk Empire for Monday (May 7)Please read this entire message, and reply to this email to confirm!" 

From Boardwalk-To-Boardwalk, Part VII

Continuing my account of my second day of filming on "Boardwalk Empire": 

I walked over the threshold and into another world. It was a bar, circa nineteen twenty. It was dark, with lighting rigs positioned outside the windows to control the light levels. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. Once I got my bearings, I could see to my left against the wall was a smaller bar with three or four stools up against it, to my right was a longer bar nearly the length of the room. Behind it was an ornately carved area for the liquor bottle shelves with mirrors between each section. The wood went up to the ceiling. Along the back wall was a three-quarter height wooden partition, with a miniature bannister running along the top, that ran the length of the room sectioning it off from the back offices and bathroom area. In the middle of the space were tables and chairs, with taller round tables along the left side wall and and the far end of the room, where the principal actors would perform most of the beginning of the scene. Strewn about were the lighting rigs and other filming equipment with the crew adjusting things everywhere at once. I was given the larger bar to run and I found my way in and made myself comfortable. At least this time, I had a better handle on what I was doing, I have spent most of my adult life behind a bar. The director was busy doling out the mini-roles to the rest of the background cast and positioning them around the room and I made myself busy looking around and watching the action. I realized that behind the bar, amid the cables and boxes stored there from the film crew, were working sinks and beer refrigerators, drawers and cabinets full of items and modern-day bar equipment. This was an actual working bar the production rented out and redressed for the series.  Although everything above the bar that could be seen on camera was period era, below it was all modern. There were only four sorts of glasses stacked behind me along the wall, rocks glasses, high-ball glasses, small Martini glasses and brandy snifters. All were very plain. The liquor bottles were lining the bar against the wall and they all had vintage labels, almost all of them were whiskey of some sort with an occasional gin bottle here and there. There were two prop guys behind the bar with me, furiously running by me back and forth getting everything ready for filming. There were vintage lamps on the bar at each end with dainty lampshades adding to the atmosphere. 
I noticed in one of the sinks there was an alchemist's collection of jugs and funnels and droppers and vials. It was the one prop guy's tools for making our "drinks". He had pre-set a few of them, gallon water jugs containing spring water coloured with brown food dye. Precisely fourteen drops in each to make it look like scotch. He finally seemed to notice me and instructed me on which bottle to use, a few of them were considered the "hero" bottles, they had better labels and were in pristine condition, and he wanted me to make sure I give the "hero" glasses (slightly larger and in perfect condition) to the principal actors. The rest were for the background actors chosen to receive drinks during the scene. I waited for the director to finally come over and give me my instructions, I was to slide over three drinks to one of the principals then go down the line, giving out Martinis (clear spring water with an olive on a large wooden stir-stick) and Manhattans (the fake scotch with a little ginger ale) and the regular whiskey drinks to various "patrons" at the bars. Each action was to be done at a particular time during the scene so I had to keep aware of what was going on during the scene to hit my marks at the right times. 
There were stand-ins taking the principal actor's places during some quick rehearsals and then, before I knew it, they called for play-back (the recording of music from the era), the principal actors were on set and we began filming the scene! 

Michael Shannon plays Agent Nelson Van Alden on the show. He was in this scene and I was very surprised when he walked on set. He is extremely tall, much taller than I am and I'm six foot one inch tall. He's very imposing physically and emotionally. He seems to remain in character and I didn't see him chatting with the background actors like I saw Jack Huston (Richard Harrow, the masked sharpshooter) do when we filmed the carnival scene. I watched him from the safety of my bar and was impressed at the presence he made in the room. Very intense. Very focussed.  

Believe me, I was doubly glad I was behind the bar because they had packed the place with extras doing all sorts of things. People coming in the door (which had a little peek-a-boo door in the middle for the password to get in), coming up for drinks, dancing, sitting at the tables, milling about, it was just like the Studio Six used to be on a Saturday night (minus the drugs and drag queens and the drug using drag queens).  I got into a rhythm behind the bar and redid the scene over and over every time they called for a re-set. The fake smoke combined with the real cigarettes, non-filtered since they didn't become popular until the nineteen fifties, made me think of the days before they banned smoking and I was glad that I didn't have to work in that environment on a daily basis any longer. 
We did the scene over and over to make sure it was right and then took a short break while they re-set the camera angles. 

Once back, we continued to shoot the scene over and over. The prop guys had to refill my bottles a few times and I went through a lot of glasses, the more I was there, the more I felt like I was working at Studio Six again (although I would have had half a bottle of Ketel One by now!). After another short break, they re-set the camera for an overhead shot. By now in the scene, we were getting raided by the prohibition agents, who come busting through the door and rough everyone up. They gave each of us our different reactions and we rehearsed the scene a few times. Then they brought in the prop department who made the door jamb breakaway so it had more impact when the agents bust in. Surprisingly, it only took a few minutes and we were back to filming. Stunt guys were brought in and we continued the scene, once again the word "reset" was used over and over, back to the first mark, do the actions and then all over again. We finally broke for dinner so we could film the next scene. 

The craft service was excellent as usual, they feed us so well I went back for seconds and dessert. It's amazing, they actually have a carving station, several different salads with all the fixings, various sides, everything was delicious. All of this in a YMCA in the middle of Brooklyn. There was a door to the rest of the building with a little window and the kids from the other side were constantly peeking in on us all in costume, it must have been as exciting for them to see us as it was for me to be doing this. 

The break was over and we had to return to the set for the next scene. This time, the agents had arrested half the people and one of them recognizes Agent Van Alden, the other bartender and I are being interrogated by a prohibition agent at one of the tables. They were packing up all the liquor bottles and carting everything away. Here, the other actor playing the bartender and I began to talk. It was funny, he's done all three seasons and played a bartender in the third episode of each season. His name was Jack (I think, it's been a while) and he was very funny. During the scene, we had to mime an intense conversation but he kept saying funny things trying to crack me up and he nearly succeeded a few times. I would have killed him if he made me ruin the shot by laughing! Then, later in the scene, the agent does a cross of the bar to us and begins the interrogation. He was a veteran background actor and was interesting to talk to, giving me some very good advice. He had a lot of fun stories and it was great to hear, taking our minds off the the fact that it had been such a long day. 

We did a few more camera angles, replaying the same movements and waiting outside in the cold while they moved things around and then, after letting nearly everyone else go, told us we were done and could go to wardrobe to change. 

I had to pee so badly, I ran the few blocks to the church where wardrobe was and made a beeline to the men's room, relieving myself with a heavy sigh. That's when I heard the outer door to the church slam open, heavy footsteps running by the bathroom and then an excited voice saying, "Where are the bartenders!!!" I immediately knew what it was. They needed us for another shot. I zipped up and found the PA and we grabbed Jack on the way back to the location set. Evidently the last camera angle faced a mirror the reflected the table where we were being interrogated and now we were missing. We needed to be sitting there for continuity. Ugh!!! We did a few more takes, blessedly, and then they finally struck the scene and we were free to go. 

I quickly changed, said my good-byes to everyone and made my way across Brooklyn and then Manhattan in order to get to Port Authority. My mobile was dead and I was so exhausted I thought I would die, too. I realized we just worked 14 hours on set. I get to the bus station and all the doors are locked but one, with a guard there checking for bus tickets. I found mine, showed it to him and then ran down to the gate where the Atlantic City buses are.  Nothing. 

Nothing. I look at the schedule and see that I missed the bus by twenty minutes. 

The LAST bus. 

The next one didn't leave until seven thirty in the morning, five bloody hours away! I had no mobile, no money and it was freezing. All of the seats in the waiting area were full so I sat on the concrete floor, dozing off now and again. About a half-hour before the bus arrived, I had found an outlet and got a little charge going on the phone. I boarded the bus, sat down in a heap and promptly passed out as the bus whisked me from the island of Manhattan to the island of love. 

01 May 2012

From Boardwalk-To-Boardwalk, Part VI

I received another email from the casting agency informing me that I was needed once again for "Boardwalk Empire" and I was ecstatic! I didn't expect to get a call back so quickly and I readily accepted the offer and made my plans to travel back to Brooklyn. 

I had to check in at ten at night to get my call times for the next day's shoot and I patiently waited all day, finally making the call and getting a recorded message instructing me to call back in a half hour. This went on hour after hour, I reset my alarm waking up each time to call, finally getting the message around one thirty in the morning with my call times and other pertinent information I'd need for the day. Luckily it was a later call time then my last appearance but I still had to leave Atlantic City rather early to get to Brooklyn and find the set. 

It was a beautiful day and I had mapped out my route to the location set, not really sure what I was going to do, exactly. Supposedly the scene was taking place in a Chicago speakeasy which seemed exciting and full of promise. This part of Brooklyn was rather charming, full of little cafes and eclectic bars and my map was surprisingly accurate, taking me right to the YMCA that was rented to act as our holding area. I followed the signs upstairs and met with the PA, filled out my time sheet and then got directions to the church that was going to be our wardrobe area. On the way over, I met a nice young guy who was also on the show. It was his first time so I, being a veteran now, gave him a little advice and we talked a bit about the show. The church was a few blocks from the set and the YMCA and out front, craft services had set up a light breakfast right in the street, which garnered a few questions from the neighbours passing by. I walked through the little courtyard and through the doors. Through the small vestibule on the left were the bathrooms and to the right was another small room that led into the larger church basement area which now served as our hair/make-up and wardrobe. I went in the men's side and I looked at the walls and windows, over-painted and peeling, the linoleum faded and missing here and there and found a spot to get changed. I got into my costume, listening to the bustle of action around me. Once again it was controlled chaos, with the PA's herding us through the process and making sure things were running as smooth as possible. They were constantly talking into their radios coordinating the millions of minutiae that concerns the filming a television show. I stood in line and waited my turn for hair and make-up making small talk with everyone around me, smiling to myself, again, that this was happening to me!
One of the women there grabbed me, directing me to her chair to fashion my hair into something more era appropriate. As she started, she said, "So, you're a bartender." and I was shocked. How did she know what I do? So I asked her, "How did you know?" and she said, "No. It says it here on the call sheet.". 


So I had a role (of sorts)!!! The rush of emotions nearly overwhelmed me, I wasn't expecting anything like this. I was happy, scared, nervous, terrified, excited, each feeling competing for attention but I didn't let any of that show. I just sat there as she finished her work and I got back in line for final wardrobe approval and then back to the holding area. When they asked my number for the day, ninety-four, I told them and that set off a frenzy of action. I was not in a bartender's costume, I was in my original wardrobe! Suddenly they removed my jacket and vest, found a different tie, suspenders and an apron so I would look the part. My trousers were also wrong, too long and creating a crease and that had to be adjusted by hiking them up very high, tightening the suspenders to their very limits. Evidently, men in the twenties did not have that little crease at the bottom of their pants. I found the attention to detail to be admirable, the camera wouldn't focus on our legs but they made sure we were still appropriate for the time period. I was also missing a button that needed replacement and they sewed it on while I was still in them. 

After a few more adjustments, there was another "bartender" as well, to make sure we were similar but not the exact same (yes, they argued over the tying of the aprons and how they should sit on our bodies), we were approved and released to have breakfast. By now, most of us were in costume and it was later in the morning, the neighbourhood was busy with people going about their business but it's not every day you wander down your street and see dozens of people dressed in clothing from another era. The camera phones came out and pictures were snapped by almost everyone walking by us. We milled about talking and passing the time before we were told to go to holding and wait for the set-up. 

This is when I noticed the set, or where the set was to be more precise. We had passed it before but I wasn't really aware of what was going on. Yes, they had equipment everywhere around the building, huge black-tarp tents covering the entrance of the building and generator trucks, trailers and other on-set items all over the street out front. You may wonder how I could have missed it but I did. I guess I was just focussed on finding out where I was supposed to be and getting ready than I was on where I was going to end up for the rest of the day.  It's amazing how the mind works. I made a few phone calls, updated my Facebook status and wasted time. They finally gathered us together to take us over to the set, explaining what we were about to do. It was indeed a Chicago speakeasy, where we would see the character of Agent Van Alden enjoying himself when we would get raided by Prohibition agents who later recognize him as one of their own. 

This was going to be fun! 

We filed out of the YMCA and across the street to the location set, now the streets in the neighbourhood were teeming with people and traffic, all gawking to get a look at all of us in costume. The director and crew grabbed us according to our characters to be placed on the set. I walked through all the equipment carts, full of every sort of item you could think of, props, lenses, extension rods, clamps, simply everything you'd need to make a film and I made my way through the tarp, over the snaking cables and wires, into a little area set up with the playback equipment, monitors and electrical boards of every sort. To my right was a door and we went through it and back in time! 

"Empire" Update

I'm currently writing my next "Boardwalk Empire" instalment detailing my role as a speakeasy bartender. Watch this space!