Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Series of "Firsts" - Part One

Felicitations, Forensic Fiends!

I'm afraid that I've created a monster.

In April of 2010 I started this blog.  I used to do five entries a week but it was just too much to maintain.  Eventually I dropped it down to three entries and now I shoot for four posts a month.

But this doesn't mean that I'm slacking off: quite the opposite in fact.  In the interim I started up an entertainment review blog and another site for tabletop gaming.  Maintaining these three webby publications ("weblications?") on a regular basis keep me pretty friggin' busy, so much so that I tend to miss out on some real world (ergo: paying) opportunities. 

I hadn't done any background film work since the Stephen King A&E miniseries Bag of Bones back in September of last year and I was starting to get the itch to get back on set again.  Thing is, I'm often so immersed in my self-imposed writing deadlines that I don't actively troll the casting websites looking for gigs.  Which is insanely stupid since the film work actually pays me something and all my writing seems to do lately is bump up a hit counter.     

In order to properly set up this week's entry there's one other thing that I have to tell you: my friends send me a shit-ton of emails.  Honestly, I know that these people go to a place that they call work but I harbor some serious doubts if any actual work actually takes place there at all.  Cripes, back in my old call centre job I rarely risked sending an external email lest I be taken back behind the service entrance for what could only be called an Old Yeller special.

I'm also in a table-top gaming group with these passionate, dice chuckin' lunatics so between Monday and Wednesday my inbox kinda looks like friggin' Obama's.  The annoying thing is that I'm legitimately interested in the reading everything they send but I have to make a concerted effort to do so.  Sometimes it feels like another job, especially after I've finished editing an epic movie review or transcribing a lengthy board game session report.

And that was my precise mind-set last week.  I didn't check my email from Monday April 30'th until May 7'th.  Honestly, this was really weird for me.  Last Monday I finally broke down and had a peek at what had come through.  I was horrified when I came across the following notification:

 Hey there!

You fit the description of a character we are casting for Forensic Firsts season 2!

Forensic Firsts is a crime investigation docu-drama, produced for The Smithsonian Channel. We are shooting the dramatized re-enactments.

Shoot dates aren't set in stone yet, but are looking like they'll fall on or between May 9th and May 11th. The character will likely be for one full day (10hrs+) of shooting, potentially two. Shooting takes place within the HRM and you would require your own transportation. Lunch will be provided.

Please let me know if you're interested, available on those days, and if you still match your photos on the Hennessey Casting database.

If the answer to all of the above is 'yes!', then I'll show your head shots to the director and producers for final approval.

Please let me know ASAP! Thanks!


My heart shriveled up.  The email had been sent six days ago, which in movie terms might as well have been six months ago.  I was already somewhat familiar with Forensic Firsts, not because I'd seen the show (it's a U.S. exclusive on the Smithsonian Channel) but because some people I know in a local acting group had raved about their experience working on the show.

Despite how stale the offer was, I crossed my fingers and gamely wrote back, leading with an abject apology before asking if there was still something left for me to do.  Needless to say I positively jumped for joy after reading the following response:

Hi David,

Thanks for getting back to me!

We have cast most of the roles, but still have some left for Wednesday May 9th. We would need you for a full day, morning until evening. Exact times are being worked out, and the location is likely to be near the Armdale Rotary.

Please let me know ASAP if you're interested and available.



Although I'd probably missed out on a really sweet opportunity I was just happy to get back on a film set and hang out with some more cool n' creative people.  I didn't care if they intended to turn me into a human coat rack, I still still super-excited.  

I got the following location and call time email from Adam later on that evening:

Hi David,

I just left a voicemail on the number you have listed on the Hennessey Casting database for tomorrow, but just to reiterate, here are the details.

Your call time tomorrow is 11:00AM and the location is the Chocolate Lake Rec Center on 14 Purcell's Cove Road. I've attached some maps.

Wardrobe would like you to bring the following items:
- casual jeans (not baggy)
- dark shoes (not bright white sneakers)
- casual spring or fall jacket

Also, we can't have logos or brand names on the clothing.

Thanks, and see you tomorrow!

This email represented a genuine trifecta of pure "win" for me.  First off, the call time was at 11 am and not, say, 6 am.  Secondly, the location was only about a ten minute drive from my place.  And finally: for once I'd be wearing casual clothes on a film set!

I dutifully packed three options for every requested article of clothing into my rolling suitcase.  I always bring along loose leaf and pens to write with and a book to keep me busy, but I'm usually so excited being on set that I never remember to use them.  Either I'm yakking with someone I know or I'm intensely studying the efforts of the crew as they set things up.  

Despite charting out my journey via bus (with its overly-optimistic travel time estimate of twenty minutes), I still left the house @ 9:30 to give me plenty of time to get over there.  Which was a wise move in retrospect since Metro Transit decided to throw in a twenty minute layover at the Mumford Terminal while I was waiting for my connector to show up.

The bus driver graciously let me off just a stone's throw away from the Chocolate Lake Rec Centre at around 10:15 am.  Once again, I'd arrived before any orientation signs had been set out so I just kinda stumbled around like Tom Hanks in The Terminal for a little while.  Mercifully, A.D. Adam, who'd sent me the previous communiqués, noticed me drifting around like a concussion victim and came over to introduce himself.

After taking me to holding down in the basement, he expertly filled me in what was going on. 
Every script for Forensic Firsts is based on a real-life crime story.  This particular episode dealt with a New Jersey teenager named Jason Henry who was accused of deliberately setting a lethal fire that killed his parents back in 2007.  After local police were quick to point the finger of blame at Jason, an entire community worth of character witnesses immediately rushed to the boy's defense.

Pretty meaty stuff, huh?
"Like I said in the email, we've already cast most of the roles," Adam told me.  "But we've still have a specific character that we want you to play: Jason's scout master comes out to proclaim his innocence at a press conference!"

Wow, this would indeed be a first for me.  Not only would I be portraying a character that figures prominently in a shot, I'd actually be playing a real person.

Soon wardrobe gals Sarah and Beth-Ann had me decked out in a tan-colored, badge-bedecked shirt with a blue neckerchief.   Not unlike this:

Then makeup-girl-extraordinaire Candace was charged with laying on the spackle.  After finishing my makeup, she applied gel to my hair and began twisting it into natty-looking side-sweep.

"Good Lord," I told her.  "You're not giving me dreads, are you?"

"Yes, didn't get the email about that?" she replied plaintively.

"Man, I gotta start reading the fine print," I muttered.

"Oh there was no fine print!" she quickly countered.

"Alright!  Alright!" I protested.  "But I gotta draw the line at..."

"Beads?" she said with a wry smile.  "Too late..."

I was delighted to see that fellow HalifACT!or Dale Willman had been cast in the role of Jason's mother and I'd be side-by-side with her at the "press conference".  Also along for the ride was a lovely retired gent named Gordon who played the part of Jason's priest.  This episode represented a first for Gordon as well: his first time ever being on set!

"Oh, you're in for a real treat!" I told him as I helped him fill out his daunting-looking paperwork.

The great thing about doing a fair amount of background work in a small city is that you start to recognize the crew and get to know quite a few of them.  For example, production assistant/human dynamo Zoe (who I'd worked on an indie film with just after the holidays) was like a house on fire.  Within a few minutes she's conjured up a fully-laden crafts services table, apparently from out of thin air.

I can tell you first hand: the fine folks who work professionally in the enterprise of illusion really work their asses off.  Say 'no' to downloading, kids.     

As we were being called to set I couldn't resist asking Adam about what part I was originally up for.

"Well, we hadn't nailed down anything specific.  We were going to pass your head shot along to the director for a possible feature role."

Feature role?  Feature role?!?  Man, I'd really screwed the pooch on this one.  My only hope was to try and do my best today, atone for this grievous oversight and hopefully make a positive impression. 

We were led into the rec centre's small gymnasium which was now draped with American flags, television lights and a slew of protest signs proclaiming Jason's innocence.  The set was dominated by small stage bearing a makeshift podium adorned with about eight or nine fake microphones.  Soon the room was positively congested with sign-wielding student protesters, professional-looking reporter types and ersatz cameramen and photographers.

*POOF!* just like that...instant U.S.-style media circus.        

Co-ordinating all of this fevered activity was veteran director Jay Dahl.  Jay is something of a local institution, having donned the producer's hat for Picnicface's feature film debut Roller Town (which I'd also worked on).  He was also the driving force behind a slew of creative indie films, including the genuinely unnerving Body Snatcher-esque horror feature There Are Monsters and the saucy comedic sci-fi short Sex! With Hot Robots.  He also scored a Best Director Award from the DGC for his debut film The Wedding Video back in 2001.

Although I've never watched an episode of Forensic Firsts (and can't, even if I wanted to), I imagine that the program probably employs a combination of documentary footage, dramatic recreation and voice-over work.  In addition to playing a character in costume, I'd soon be engaging in yet another first for me.

I'd actually be acting somewhat. 

Jay put Dale, Gordon and myself up on the stage to address the crowd of thirty or so extras.  Although we didn't have lines per se, we did mime being sad, outraged, frustrated and then resigned.
The first set-up had the camera locked down at the gym entrance, pointing at the stage through a veritable maze of protest signs.

Starting with Dale, all three of us gave an impassioned "speech" at the podium which required some creative ad-libbage.  The most challenging aspect of this was when Jay tasked us to deliver our "dialogue" in a halting, Bill Shatner style which I presume would be used to create some sort of slow-motion effect.

Once again, I'm endlessly thankful for my past experience doing training and public readings since one of the hardest things you can do is talk slowly in front of thirty people.  The natural tendency in a situation like that is to try and get everything out in a mad rush and then promptly flee the scene.  Fortunately, I didn't find this to be particularly difficult.  In fact, in some weird way, it was actually kinda fun.  

While Jay prompted her to gesture at a prop locket which had a picture of the kid playing Jason inside,
Dale launched into a genuinely heartfelt speech.  During this time, "Father" Gordon was asked to comfort her and I spent my time looking indignant, patting Dale reassuringly on the arm and gesturing at some of the loopier signs being carried by the protesters.

When I was asked to take the podium I just started blabbering on about whatever came to mind.

"I've know this boy since he was knee-high to a grasshopper!  There is NO WAY that Jason is capable of such a monstrous act!  The police are railroading this innocent teenager!  They're looking for an quick and easy scapegoat!"

As ridiculous as this may seem, try picture it being said by Kevin Pollack doing a bad Captain Kirk impersonation.

At the end of each line, Jay would direct the crowd to respond in some way.  Either with murmuring (with an intensity level ranging from one to ten), reporters firing makeshift questions at us, paparazzi firing off flashbulbs and the crowd going positively ape shit with a full-out roar of approval and signs held aloft.  It was a blast.

Jay was a master at fostering good karma on set.  Every time he needed something done, he'd refer to that department and include the suffix "friends".  For example, if he wanted more color on the back wall behind us, he'd say "Art Dec Friends, I was wondering if we could get a few more flags and signs on that back wall?"  If he needed us back lit he'd say "Lighting Friends, I was wondering if we could get another small flood back there behind Dale."  If he needed us to actually pay attention instead of babbling excitedly at one another like excited school kids he'd day "Actor Friends, how about we try this?"

He also employed a few really interesting stylistic techniques, including a "frozen tableau" which had all of us standing motionless for what felt like an eternity.  He also orchestrated an interesting fade-out which saw us slowly drifting off the set and out of frame, one at a time.  I imagine that it produced a pretty cool effect, helping to convey the impression that support for Jason was slowly fading away.

We had a brief break while the crew moved the camera onto the podium to get reverse coverage of our speech.  After Jay captured this and got plenty of reaction footage of the protesters we were informed that a basketball game was slated to repossess the gym so we quickly wrapped things up and hit the bricks.

Although it was only a five hour day, I still had an absolute blast.  I'd played an actual role, worn a real (if not slightly dweeby) costume, stood front and center on screen, and was actually asked to ad-lib and emote!

Although I was out of town this past weekend, I was certainly quick to check my email today.  Imagine my surprise when I read this:

Hey David!

I hope you're checking your email this week, because I want to cast you in a feature role for TOMORROW MAY 15 2012

We're still working out the call times, but it will probably be 9AM, and lasting all day. The location is the ___________.

Please get back to me ASAP, either by email or call me on our office phone, 902-***-****.


But that's a story for another day...

EPIC   The amazing true story behind this episode of Forensic Firsts.

FAIL  What you don't want to have captured forever.

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