Before leaving the Bag of Bones set on Friday afternoon, I began to hear rumors that we'd be shooting the big "Jo Noonan gets smoked by a bus" sequence on Granville street in the heart of downtown Halifax. I was immediately skeptical since there were no bookstores in that area I could think of. Where could we possibly emerge, Stargate-style, that would jibe with what we'd already shot?
My curiosity was further piqued when I received the call sheet later that evening. The header offered some enticing clues as to what was in store for us:
Thank you for taking this Background Performer Call for us on Saturday September 24, 2011.
Have a great day on Set with us and please remember that it is not good Set etiquette to ask for autographs and the taking of photographs is strictly forbidden...thank you for understanding!
You have been asked to PLEASE COME CAMERA READY WITH WARDROBE, HAIR AND MAKE-UP IN PLACE
Location: St. David’s Church corner of Blowers and Market St.
Parking: Please park on side streets
Call times vary so please locate your name (not in alphabetical order) on the call sheet and arrive at background holding at the time specified.
PLEASE REMEMBER TO CONFIRM RECEIPT OF THIS EMAIL
Review of costume notes:
Please bring appropriate rain gear ie. Raincoat and / or umbrella, your Social Insurance Number, and Full address.
NYC Bookstore Patrons:
Same as Friday
Midtown Passerbys, Pharmacy Patrons, & NYC Drivers:
Generally this look is high end - big city - very sharp and crisp – non seasonal – colors should be earth tones. Shirt colors should be pale grey, off white, creams, blues). The style range is from business suits/office attire to upscale casual attire. Jewelry should be tasteful upscale for business attire can be larger for upscale casual attire. Also bring with you a casual option ie. Jeans and a shirt. Please bring 3 options from head to toe!
We would ask the Background performers to provide – a white crew neck t-shirt, black lace up classic shoes, black sox.
Background performers to provide – a white crew neck t-shirt, black lace up classic shoes, black socks.
Wear neutral solid colors, either beige or grey shirt/blouse and darker pants, navy, grey or brown (a dress pant or casual style, No jeans) and comfortable shoe.
Since I couldn't see any reference to Granville Street in the email proper, I hastily opened up the first attachment. After noticing that Ashley and I were listed first and second respectively at the top of call sheet, I then proceeded to check out the second document. This turned out to be a secret map to all of Saturday's relevant locations:
So, as it turned out, the Church would merely serve as our holding area and we'd likely be walking down to the actual set on Granville. Again, I tried to puzzle out what could possibly double for a genuine-looking book emporium down there. I honestly couldn't think of anything.
But then I remembered the old adage of cinema: if you can find the proper reality, just make it.
The details revealed by this privileged document instantly gave me the impression that we were in for a very long day. Notwithstanding our call time of 7:30 AM, the sheer number of extras being called in to pull this scene off was crazy. Between pedestrians, drivers, bookstore patrons, cops, firemen, paramedics, punk rockers and our own humble little continuity group, there were eighty-five people who'd been tapped to become human window dressing for this scene.
Mercifully I didn't have to worry about my wardrobe this time out. In fact, I'd probably be beaten to death with a sack filled with rusty doorknobs if I'd showed up wearing anything but my outfit from the previous day. So, as a result, my evening was pretty casual. I just carefully re-ironed the same clothes and made sure to put aside the same ugly tie. It was also going to be my first Saturday shoot, which was super-convenient. After all, this meant that I could drive down to the set in my own car instead of running the risk of marinating in a pool of someone else's urine while sitting on a bus seat.
The downside was that the location wasn't a quick bip up the street like the previous day. To ensure that I'd have sufficient time to wake up, caffeineate, snack, pack up and get down there, I set my alarm for 6 am.
Look, I'm perfectly capable of getting up early like any other self-respecting adult, but there are just some times on the 24-hour clock when its a bloody crime against humanity to be standing upright and shuffling around like an olde-skool George Romero zombie. When that goddamn alarm clock starts bleating at you to get up, you sway drunkenly to your feet and then crack your sleep-sealed eyelids only to realize that it's still pitch dark outside...well that, Gentle Reader, is just wrong.
Remember back when you were just a kid and you needed about sixteen hours of sleep just to survive? Remember how awful it was to have your parents rouse you out of your warm cocoon at an ungodly hour just to facilitate some mid-winter road trip? They had to get you up at, like, 4:30 in the morning in order to catch a plane or a train or a Chinese junk in order to kick-start some sort of nightmarish "vacation"?
Then you'd wake up around 11 am in the back of a moving car, with only the vaguest recollection of pulling a Lazarus, putting your shirt on backwards, gagging on toothpaste and nearly drowning after falling forward into a mixing bowl filled with Corn Pops. I really firmly believe that there's no way we can shake off these traumatic childhood memories, even as grown adults. That resentment is still there, folks, it's just bubbling there underneath the surface.
Having said that, I'm also not one to sleep in late, spring out of bed with barely any time to spare, and then start running around the house like a madman. I need a bit of time to take my first tentative bites of the shit sandwich that mornings often serve up. Now, granted, this attitude is really a hangover from my call center days, when I had to do these daily rituals in order to come to grips with the fact that I was about to piss away the next nine hours of my life. But what can I say? I guess old habits die hard.
The next morning I hopped into the ole's Ninjamobile and sped off to my destination on Market Street. With the day still newborn, traffic was scarce and parking was plentiful. I found a spot on a side street close to the church and then hopped out. To add to the morning's doldrums, it was extremely dark and dreary outside. To try and keep my Captain Continuity monkey suit protected, I'd wisely chosen to wear a long gray trench-coat and carry an umbrella. To the casual onlooker I must have looked like the world's most gung-ho yuppie.
The precise location for holding was in the basement of St. David's Church. While the parish itself is technically on Brunswick Street, the grounds also border on Market and Grafton. I'd actually been in the basement of this place before to attend an indie craft fair, but the entrance that I'd used before was locked up tight. The surrounding environs were so quiet and deserted that I started to become paranoid that I was in the wrong place.
Mercifully, I spied one of my fellow continuity peeps who was also trying to figure out how to get inside. After reassuring each other that we weren't nuts, we then proceeded to search for secret doors in the church's outer walls like D&D characters. After tapping, listening and running our hands along three-quarters of the walls, we finally spied some activity at the top of Blowers Street. A gaggle of crew-members standing next to a craft services truck were loitering around just outside. Half way up the hill we finally noticed our first bit of low-key and ultimately completely useless orientation signage.
I ventured downstairs and saw that it was already a hive of activity. I don't know what it is about church basements but they all smell the same. That evocative but unmistakable odor of books, residual incense, mildew and righteousness always takes me back to my childhood. Instantly I'm eight years old again and preparing to lead my Cub Scout pack through a hearty round of DYBs and/or DOBs.
Soon I'm re-united with Ashley and Shannon and we quickly completed our daily ritual of check in paperwork. I wandered around for little a bit and then bumped into a former co-worker who's been making a real splash in the local entertainment scene lately. Her name is Naomi-Joy, and she's a recovering call center employee and former real estate agent. Even before jettisoning the drudgery of 9-5 toil she'd gained notoriety as a finalist for Canadian Idol and as a front-woman for the prog-metal band AQuestrya. More recently she's started to investigate acting opportunities full-time and has already appeared as the lead in short films such as Snappy's and in live theater with the Fringe Festival smash Steal Away Home.
Naomi was dressed as one of the "punk rockers" listed on the call sheet. Not that I was surprised since the leggings, skirt, bustier and bitchin' boots she was hastily trying to strap on likely counts as standard issue attire for her live performances with AQuestrya. We quickly took a moment to catch up before I went back to my table for some announcements.
Mike the PA showed up, looking decidedly more besieged then usual. Turns out that Maria, one of the other PA's is sick, so he was charged with running the show almost single-handed for most of the day. Immediately my heart went out to the guy. I saw how challenging it was to herd thirty extras in a single interior location the day before. I could only imagine what it was going to be like to try and wrangle over eighty extras, especially considering that we had to walk down to the set. In an omen for things to come, they didn't have enough check-in forms to accommodate all of the background performers, which I immediately interpreted to mean that the end of our day was going to be very interesting.
I watched in fascination as some big dudes arrived and then promptly got outfitted as paramedics and cops. I could also swear that some of these guys arrived already dressed up as firemen. As it turned out, I wasn't hallucinating after all. Well, at least not on that particular occasion. Not long after, I overheard that more often then not these guys are actually real emergency personnel, which makes sense, since they certainly look and act the part.
Me, Shannon and Ashley chat for a bit before the makeup and wardrobe folks come by. I receive a bit of a touch up since the heat and humidity is already starting to make my face look a bit "dewy". I'm also slightly alarmed when no-one comes by with the continuity photos to give me final clearance to leave for the set. Just seconds before we're out the door I stop someone to get validation but all I get in return is:
"Are you wearing the same things you were wearing yesterday?"
"Then your fine!"
As a precaution, I grabbed my pack containing my entire ugly tie collection and prepared to join the mass business-attired exodus.
To make things even more interesting, it had begun to pour out of the heavens. Everyone except the "emergency personnel" was part of that pilgrimage, which Mike led very expertly. People on the street started craning their necks to look at us, obviously trying to puzzle out what the hell all of these well-appointed people were doing. After all, we were all clumped together and shuffling down the street like daycare kids with thyroid conditions and impeccable fashion sense.
En route to the set, Mike lost his shit on us a couple of times. I can't say that I blame him since the people at the head of the pack kept failing to hold up at stop signs and crosswalks as requested. I knew that if the throng split up, if someone wandered off, or if an extra ended up mounted underneath the grill of an Escalade Mike would probably be crucified. This was driven home earlier when I heard Mike say perhaps the funniest thing ever uttered by another human being:
"Put it this way: everybody who isn't me...is my boss!"
I'm tellin' you right now, if the dude were to copyright and print that shit up on a t-shirt it wouldn't take very long for him to become his own boss.
Mike tried to keep our route as simple as possible to prevent attrition. We beetled out way deeper into the downtown core, first trucking down hilly Market Street, then crossing Barrington and finally traveling north west on Granville until we reached the set. It wasn't hard to tell that we were approaching something big, really big. The George Street intersection had been cut off and the strip of Granville that separated the RBC building from the TD Center was positively choked with activity.
To simulate a busy New York city downtown scene, they had a slew of civilian cars parked two abreast on both sides of the street, with a little clearing right in the middle. In addition to this we also noticed the presence of several very legitimate-looking taxis, police vehicles and ambulances which looked as if they'd been teleported right from the streets of Manhattan.
Obeying the "no photography" rule, I didn't take any snaps but I did want to include some images from the interwebs just to give you an idea as to what these life-sized props looked like...
In addition to all the exotic-looking vehicles, soon the extras dressed as cops, firemen and paramedics showed up on the scene and began milling around.
There were also a slew of people just posing as pedestrians and onlookers, including Naomi decked out in her "rock-a-ware". As we were led towards our fraudulent storefront, I thought about how all of this had been coordinated for what might only be four or five minutes worth of screen time. Amazing.
The set decorators hadn't even bothered to find a real bookstore to convert, they'd just redressed the side entrance to the RBC building. Just inside the front window were rows of the fake Noonan book They All Fall Down as well as a huge promotional poster featuring Pierce Brosnan in an appropriately authorial pose. Even though our holding area was just inside it was far enough away from the camera to ensure a flawless illusion.
Just inside the side entrance, the corridor branched off to the left, presumably leading to offices. The main chair-lined passage continued on straight ahead for about forty feet and then hooked a sharp right. As instructed, Shannon, Ashley and myself took a seat at the far end of this long hallway and began to speculate as to what interesting sights and experiences might be imminent.
Soon we were reunited with our respective wayward prop books from the day before. Regrettably, the inside cover of my copy was lamentable pristine, with no signature in sight. As of this writing I still have no idea why the props department abducted my copy, got it "signed" and then gave it back to me. Somebody really needs to get the guys from Homicide: Life on the Streets on this.
Pretty soon P.A. Mike materialized again to try and organize us into different groups. Already I'm amazed that he hasn't experienced some sort of stroke. To make communicating instructions even more frustrating, a small handful of extras had wandered around the bend and were drifting around the main lobby of the bank's arcade. This really wasn't a major transgression, since chairs had purposefully been placed around the bend accommodate overflow, but some people had started nosing as if they were in the friggin' Louvre.
Initially our little continuity group was excluded in lieu of designating some fresh faces to walk around outside and constitute packs of post-collision gawkers. Mike divided the gathered into groups One, Two and Three and groups A, B and C. As a result of either sleep deprivation or complete mental exhaustion this process was both protracted and quite confusing.
"Alright," he says, struggling to keep everyone focused. "If someone comes in here and asks for Group B, who's gonna raise their hands?"
A small contingent of extras tentatively raised their mitts towards the fluorescent sun overhead.
"Okay, good. And if someone, especially someone other than me, comes in here and asks for say...Group Three, who do we have?"
Another cadre of background folks raised their hands sheepishly as if confessing to breaking wind.
"Okay, excellent, perfect," he muttered and then swept a lock of wet hair out of his eyes. He dashed off again, presumably to try and exterminate another handful of hypothetical fires that had probably cropped up during the time he'd taken to address us.
Naturally, based on the dictates of Murphy's Law, there were a few hiccups when these groups were eventually called upon. Some of the extras had gotten so strung out for a nicotine fix, that they'd propped open the doors to the front lobby for the express purpose of smoking just outside. Naturally this played havoc whenever the P.A.'s were attempting to locate everyone.
For a little while, the movie people tried to ban folks from going out that door to smoke, but I imagine that someone must have thrown a diva addiction hissy fit. This privilege was soon reinstated with the caveat that they had to tell someone on the crew where they were going before heading off to Project Black Lung.
To make matters worse, the washrooms could only be found by navigating an elaborate maze that would confuse the crap out of Theseus. This epic journey started by taking either a flight of steps or an elevator ride, then trundling down a corridor, then passing through a doorway, then turning left down another hall, then passing through yet another portal, then hoofing down a shorter passageway and then going through the bathroom door. During the last leg of my first pee crusade I half-expected some old, one-eyed man to leap out and yell: "Answer me these questions three!"
After some background folks were placed strategically outside, Ashley and I were selected to walk out the front door just behind actress Annabeth Gish, who was playing Mike Noonan's wife Jo. At first we thought this was kind of odd since the continuity established on the previous day dictated that we should still be standing in the lineup long after she left the bookstore.
We also didn't want to protest too loudly because it seemed like a cool scene. As we waited just inside the door with Annabeth, the wardrobe people finally came by with the continuity photos and gave us the thumbs up. Even more baffling, the props guy from the day before tried to give us plastic shopping bags to carry our books in as we left the "store". When this clearly confirmed that we'd actually "purchased" our books already, we just had to say something.
"When did we pay for these?" Ashley whispered, waving her prop novel underneath my nose. "Aren't we still supposed to be waiting in the lineup to get our book signed when Mike's wife gets hit by the bus?"
"Yeah, I know," I replied. "From a continuity standpoint, it doesn't make any sense."
When the propmaster tried to insist that we take the shopping bag just before the cameras started rolling, we protested. We patiently explained that there was no way we could have made it through the lineup, gotten our book signed, paid for it and then gotten back outside before the accident.
"Alright!" he capitulated, then stalked off.
This modest little triumph must have gone straight to our heads. The closer the time came for Annabeth to walk out that door, the more we thought that we were about to consciously participate in a pretty hefty continuity error. We mentioned this to a few of the crew standing around nearby and got one of three responses in return:
Or my own personal favorite:
"Oh, don't worry, it'll be alright."
Even Annabeth seemed sympathetic to our cause.
"You can't really tell continuity anything," she told us. "They've got it figured out."
Appropriately reassured, we proceeded to shoot the scene, which was quite elementary. Annabeth went out through the door and crossed the street. We followed just a few beats behind her, then turned right and walked down the sidewalk, miming an animated conversation along the way. We did this about three times,
varying our "performance" by gesturing to our books, pointing out the promotional signage in the window or babbling excitedly to one another.
We did several takes and every time we marched back inside, I couldn't help but marvel at the huge coordinated pantomime being played out around us. Simultaneous to what we were doing, Annabeth was dashing across the street, drivers navigating a score of vehicles were simulating the early stages of road rage, oblivious pedestrians were walking towards non-existent destinations and fake city cops were keeping a vigilant eye out over everything. Every time we were asked to reset, we just went right back to our starting places as if some higher power had hit ◄◄ on their omnipotent remote control.
After the forth go-round we waited for the command to "return to first positions" but it never came. The shot was complete! No sooner were we back to our seats before the debate flared up again about how wrong-headed things seemed to be from a continuity standpoint. Fortunately, a girl whom Ashley had befriended chimed in. Although her name escapes me right now, I know that she's done enough local films to warrant her own IMDB listing, so her opinion certainly carried tremendous weight.
"Keep in mind that the last shot might have been from so far back that you two weren't even recognizable," she told us. "When you see the scene, you probably won't even to be able to tell that you're the same two people standing in the lineup."
"Plus there's all sorts of editing trick they can do," Shannon contributed. "Trust me, they know what they're doing."
Both of us felt somewhat idiotic for dwelling on this so much. Ashley was particularly upset over the fact that we'd refused to put our books in the plastic shopping bags when we had the chance. In retrospect, this certainly would make a lot more sense if we were two completely different characters.
"Naw, I would have refused the plastic bag anyway," I maintained. "It's actually written into my contract that every character I portray on screen is environmentally conscious."
After we had a few yuks over this, craft services arrived with a military-style blitzkrieg of nummy treats. We'd been fed and watered so efficiently the day before that I hadn't bothered to pack my own lunch, so their timely arrival was quite welcome. Unfortunately I only managed to snag half of a very tasty veggie sandwich before the balance was torn asunder like Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead.
Meanwhile the crew was feverishly prepping for the big accident scene just outside. Some of the street-level extras were called back out to lens the sequence in which the dummy representing Annabeth Gish gets plowed down in the street by a bus. In fact, a small handful of lucky folks were even selected to be passengers on the bus when it ran into the dummy.
When I caught a glimpse Annabeth's plastic stand-in I thought it was kinda eerie. Special effects have certainly come a long way from throwing a lame, floppy fabric dummy off the top of a windmill like they did in the 1932 version of Frankenstein. This one was very closely modeled after the actress herself. It had the same height, body type, hair style and even eye color. The mannequin doppelganger was also attired in identical clothing: white top with red flowers, red shirt and red high heels. It was friggin' creepy.
They wanted to keep the exits clear while making these pivotal preparations, but I still manged to sneak a few peeks. The crew was diligently working to clear the street to allow the stunt driver behind wheel of the bus an opportunity to really build up some momentum as it bore down on the mannequin.
Needless to say, with such a complicated sequence, it took quite awhile to set things up. In fact, I was half-way back down the hall (after my third glimpse out of the window) before I realized that they weren't doing another rehearsal. I heard a powerful motor rev up, caught several blasts of a loud horn and then detected the distinct sound of the bus slamming into something like a bag filled with wet cement. Just as I got back up to the entrance I saw the tail end of the bus fly by at top speed.
When "Cut!" was called, the "sick little monkey" factor kicked in as a round of applause and cheers went up. Disgraceful!
But still pretty cool.
Next time on my Emblogification Capture Device:
- PORK LOIN!
EPIC I wonder if Mick Garris considers Bag of Bones to be a walk in the park compared to adapting The Stand?
FAIL This heart-rending doc shows just how horribly awry film productions can go. Honestly, it's like a comedy of errors...