Sunday, December 28, 2008

A working Christmas

On my birthday, I wake up at noon. But I have an excuse for this.

To make sense of it, let's back up a few days.

On Tuesday I'm in LA, on the set of a new series, working with my client and friend Eliza as she to pours herself into an enormous role. She's in almost every scene of this 63-page mountain of a script, courtesy of the young writers Jed and Maurissa (more on them later...). As if that weren't enough, Eliza's playing a recently deceased 55-year-old woman who's been put into her young body (it's complicated) and must return to her own home, as a young stranger, and endure the quite painful and unexpected things that are said to her, about her-- all while trying to unearth a truth without being found out. Like I said, it's complicated.

Thing is, my original trip to LA was intended to be one of my quick out-and-back jobs; fortunately, I'm able to rearrange things to remain in LA for the duration of the shoot. I've only got one commitment that I simply won't bail out on (yes, a class...). But the scheduling gods are smiling: class day, Wednesday, is the lightest on the schedule, so... if I leave Wednesday on a God-help-me 8AM flight out of LAX, I can arrive in NYC in time to do what I've got to do; then, if I can drag myself onto an 8AM flight back the next morning...

On Wednesday, traffic to LAX is light, thank God... I make my flight, which lands at JFK on time... arrive at my office at 5:30 to find a private client waiting and ready to go. I work with the client, then interview two potential new students before finally, at seven, teach what is my last class of the year. I'm back in my apartment at about 11:30... and can't sleep. I force myself into bed a little after midnight.


So, Thursday. To keep things simple let's do this in LA time:

I'm up at 4 AM (7AM East Coast), and in a cab at 4:20AM, back out to JFK for my return.... no upgrade (dammit!), but at least the flight's smooth, and on schedule. I'm in LAX by noon, pick up the rental car, head to Eliza's house... where I learn that, due to their late night on Wednesday, call time has been pushed. Sa-weet! I'm not due on set until 3PM, and Eliza's first scene goes off at four.

But but but... "set," in this case, is at a rural ranch about an hour out of LA, so as soon as I'm unpacked, I leave. I think they exaggerate about the drive, but no-- it's a solid hour before I turn into a remote ranch somewhere in Ventura county. Ends up they're doing pickups until the sun goes down, so there's little to do but work some scenes, run some lines, wander the property, relax.

I am reminded from time to time how California has its own beauty. The distant hills, bare save for a lone tree here and there, remind me of... something, something... a memory from high school, I think. I am, for a moment, completely dislocated. Or maybe that's fatigue.

Darkness comes and we head inside the stables, and as the night progresses I am again reminded of the work I do with so many of you in New York.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: what's happening on this set here (LA) is really no different than what we do there (NYC). Bigger crews and better cameras (and craft services!), that's about it. For this first scene, a bench has been placed along the wall dividing two stables, its smooth newness feeling out of place against the worn boards of the stables. But no matter-- most of the scene will be covered in close-up so the bench won't really stand out. The director sets up the scene-- "Jordan, you come in from over there--" she points to a vague location off camera-- "and Eliza, you're... no, why don't you both walk up to the bench and sit down."

So. The two actors step back a few steps, wait for "rehearsal... action!", then walk up, sit down, and play this important scene in which truths are revealed that move the story forward. That's all-- two actors, sittin on a bench, covered by two close-ups, one per side. They run it just once before clearing out for the crew to descend on the space and prep the scene, at which point we'll come back and quickly shoot it.

Sound familiar?

I am struck again and again by the... unlikeliness of this thing, this making of movies and television. Really, it shouldn't work: there are too many people, it's too disjointed; most of all, though, all of their work focuses on performers who perform (sometimes in rented horse stables in the middle of the night)without an audience. They only way it works - when it works - is through some alchemy of aligning desires and trust. So many people must be so proficient at their jobs (...a "boom guy?" Really? But, ya know, it's a talent, and it's important...), and must all desire quality above even, say, job security-- more, they all must trust that the others involved are equally committed and good at their own peculiar jobs. And the strangest job of all, of course, is held by those in front of the camera, those who must both forget the small army of tired, anxious, concentrated faces staring at them... and yet not. Those who must believe only in the intimacy of an imagined moment but don't tilt your head because you'll block the light!

As frustrated as I can get, folks-- I do respect the job a film actor does. (my constant question: do you?)

Anyway. Southern California is in the midst of a cold spell-- and out here, in the inland foothills, the temperature has dropped below forty degrees. Sure, it doesn't sound like much, but when you're under-dressed and standing around... I flip open my cel phone: 9PM. Friday on the East Coast. Happy Birthday to me, I think to myself as I gaze at the moon for a few seconds more before heading back inside.

The "bench scene" comes and goes. As we move on, I'm reminded again about the difficulty of "Be Good Now."

For those unfamiliar with the term, "Be Good Now" is, as those who study with me say, a" PK-ism". For me, Be Good Now refers to a particular challenge: one of the talents required to act on film is the ability to do wonderful, truthful work when we need you to do it. It matters not at all how good you were yesterday, or in rehearsal, or in your trailer, or even during the run-through fifteen minutes ago-- all that matters is your ability to dliver the goods when we call action. Theatre actors don't have this problem, as much-- they know when they need to Be Good (it usually begins a few minutes after 8 at night), and can set their emotional performance clock, their prep rituals, accordingly (Think not, Theatre Person? Imagine if the stage manager, even once, would walk into the dressing rooms at 7:45 and say "hey, guys? The audience is really late, so we're gonna push curtain to 10:30."). But the film actor....

The value I add on a set comes from the fact that I prioritize one thing, and one thing only: my client's performance in that monitor. I'm not looking at the focus, or the light; I'm not even looking at my watch. And what I see in that monitor is the moment of Now. And the way I see it, the film actor's job? Be Good Now. That's the point of all of it: the casting, the rehearsals, the re-writing, the re-lighting... and if the actor can't bring it, RIGHT THEN, in a chilly stable smelling of horse manure and hay... then, really, what's the point? Of all of this?

When everyone's fresh and there's plenty of time, my job is easy(ish), and rewarding. But as we move toward midnight, a crew of twenty in a cold, cramped horse stall... the pressure to allow the B+, to say sure, good enough, skyrockets.

The truth? Sometimes, just once in a while... we do it, Eliza and I. We allow the B+. Because we have to-- there's a flicker in her eyes, just a glance between us, and we both know it-- after hours of takes and re-takes, new angles, and all that waiting... her tank is dry. She is something of an all-star at Be Good Now, Eliza is-- but like all seasoned pros she's also had to develop a pretty damned good B+ as well. And sometimes it literally saves the day.

In my experience, the novice film actor has no B+. They just kinda fall apart.

MIDNIGHT passes, west-coast midnight... cast and crew have passed "cold and tired" a while ago... but thankfully, we end with a fight scene. Here's the thing: location doesn't matter, age doesn't matter-- Boy Actors the world over love them their Fight Scenes. The energy perks, the DP goes hand-held, which picks up the pace. Still, we go right up to twelve-hour before wrapping at almost 3.

The 101 freeway is empty, but I resist the temptation to go too crazy on the drive back --the last thing we need is a chance encounter with the CHP-- and we're back at about 3:40AM. I've been awake for almost 24 hours, most of it in transit. For my birthday I decide to allow myself a some sleep.

SO now you know.


When I wake up (at noon), good news: today we're "on the lot," and at about one PM Eliza and I commence the tag-team drive down the hill to Fox.

I will always have a fondness for the fact that Eliza is one of the few drivers consistently more aggressive than I; as we slalom down Coldwater Canyon, however, it occurs to me that she doesn't realize that a pretty starlet is likely to receive far different treatment from the Beverly Hills PD than some dude with an out-of-state license. (actually, in my speeding experience, having a New York City driver's license adds an all-or-nothing element to the proceedings: if the cop's from anywhere at all in New York, provided I can talk intelligently about the Yankees my license becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card. Otherwise, it's: "well I don't know how they drive in NEW YORK CITY...") (But I digress.)

So I've lost Eliza by the time I turn into the main gate. once there, I lie and tell the guard that I've never been here before. Why? Because no matter how many times I do this (and I had my first drive-on to the Fox lot in the late eighties), I never tire of the following:

Guard: "You been here before?"
Me: "Nope-- first time."
Guard: "OK. you're gonna go past New York Street, make a right at Star Wars, then right again..."

Make a right at Star Wars. For me that never gets old.

We've got four more long, long days before the episode is over. Four days of craft service, rehearsing in a trailer, running lines during the one-hundred-yard van trip from trailer to set; four days of staring at monitors and trying to keep the work fresh through that push-pull of waiting-acting-waiting-acting that is the Television Shoot.

I get to know Jed and Marissa, the young couple who've written the episode, pretty well; Jed, in particular, is attentive to all the goings-on. We talk acting, and though he still sometimes analyzes moments in terms of "shouldn't he do it like (line reading)?", he's getting the hang of trusting the actors to do some of the work he needs the script to do. He'll direct soon, and be good at it.

Provided, of course, he stops bursting into song. He's given to spasms of impromptu musical creativity, like the following after a scene is shot:

We're checking-- the gate!
We're checking-- the gate!
We're checking,
ch-checking-- the gate!

And then we'll-- move OONNNNN!!!

Really, Jed should just get it over with and write that Broadway musical that's inside him, yearning to breathe free. Maurissa, his partner, is supportive of this-- I want to tell her to stop enabling him! when suddenly she kicks in with a harmony on some Monty Python piece. Funny thing, love. And for no reason that I can explain, that reminds me of the AWESOME Pecan Pie Bars that are at Crafty. I'm off!

The days go on like this. As is common on TV, day and night become attached not to the movement of the sun but to call times, and meals. Finally, at eight one night, we're done. Eliza's got a commitment and she dashes off; I check into some non-descript motel, and crash.

Good thing, too. I'm awoken by my phone - it's Eliza, on the set. The next episode has begun. We were both too burnt out to work it the night before, and her first shot goes off at nine. ACTORS, pay attention: new character, new script. Twelve hours later. I badly want to return to the set, but for personal reasons I've got to head east. I can delay no longer.

Christmas asserts itself in funny ways in Southern California. Out here, one has to be reminded of the season; for me, that's done by the radio. Over the past week I've heard all my favorites, save for one: "Christmastime is Here," the choral theme to the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. I'm not ashamed to admit that I own not only the Special itself (on VHS and DVD) but Vince Grimaldi's classic soundtrack CD as well. So I'm about a mile from the Alamo place -- and I swear I do not make this up, I mean I'm two minutes from dropping off the car-- when on comes that chorus of young voices: "Christmas tiiiime is herrre...." I've got a few minutes to spare, so why not: I take a right and spin through the neighborhood for a minute, letting the song play out as I note the surprising quality and ambition of the lawn decor in this modest neighborhood.

Driving past one candy-cane-festooned walkway, I get it: this is all one needs, really-- a few quiet minutes in Inglewood, driving your rented Pontiac, listening to Charlie Brown while taking a self-guided tour of the Best of Southern California Holiday decor. The Holiday spirit is upon me at last.

So now a week has passed and it's Christmas Eve. After returning to New York, I've driven through the snow to Vermont, to Boston, and back; I've gone to one funeral, and another wake; it's raining, and I've got strepp throat. LA already feels a million miles away.

Or maybe not. By the time I leave my apartment to head to midnight mass, it's warmed up to sixty degrees-- with the rain, it's almost exactly the weather of my last night in LA. As I hustle through the rain, sprinting against the light across Houston Street, I marvel at a God that allows such a life.

Truly, I do. And as I'm thinking about that, and about my time in LA and being here now, it hits me: it was my birthday then. It's His birthday now. Happy Birthday to you, Lord.