Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Series of "Firsts" - Part Two

Hello, Habitual Habitué!

At 8 pm I received an email with the call time for my second day of filming on Forensic Firsts.  Here's what it said:

Hey everybody!

Here's the information for tomorrow! The location is the Dartmouth United Church, on 54 Woodlawn Avenue. Maps are attached.

Richard, Terry, Craig, David, Eric, Justin, Jozel, Thaddius, your call time is 930AM

Deborah, your call time is 430PM

I've spoken to many of you already regarding your wardrobe, but some of you I have yet to mention what to bring. If you can bring 3 options of the following items, that would be ideal.

Deborah, please bring a selection of casual wardrobe options, your character is a mother in the 1980's.

David, please bring the following: Suits, sports jackets, dress pants, black dress shoes. Also bring a selection of casual clothing, such as jeans, button up shirts etc. We will be able to use you as two characters tomorrow!

Thaddius, please bring the following: Suits, sports jackets, dress pants, black dress shoes

If you have any questions, please email me ASAP.

See you all tomorrow!

This was lot more complicated.  Whereas my last gig involved a simple wardrobe, late call time, and a handy close location, this day appeared to be the polar opposite.

With a 9:30 am call time and a shooting location on the opposite end of the HRM, the prospects of taking a bus to get there seemed pretty daunting.  Especially considering that the wardrobe requirements would have me lugging along a massive garment bag, a small rolling suitcase and my manbag/murse.

Mercifully the early start time dovetailed with my wife's work hours, allowing me to drive to the location early and then hand the car back over to her.  Frankly, I didn't give a crap if I was abducted by gypsies at the end of the day, just so long as I could get there and complete the shoot.

The night before I printed off three location maps, charted out a return bus trip, ironed everything precious and then packed up my luggage.  By the time I was finished it looked as if I was going on a business trip to Helsinki instead of going to a film set.

Knowing that I had reliable transportation allowed me to sleep quite soundly.  Unfortunately, my eyes still popped open by themselves at 5:30 am; a full hour before my alarm was scheduled to go off.

Unable to get back to sleep I got up at 6:15 and began to run around my apartment like Curly from The Three Stooges.  After scarfing down a bagel and packing up all my shiznit, we hopped into the car around 7:40.  I wanted to leave as soon as possible to give us plenty of time to find the church and make sure that my ever-patient wife had plenty of time to get to work.

Besides, the traffic fleeing Fairview in the morning is like watching someone pouring a thousand marbles into a funnel attached to a garden hose.  Extricating ourselves from this was tremendously frustrating at first, but it became smooth sailing just as soon as we got out of our subdivision and onto the bridge.  In fact, we managed to get to the church just a shade after 8 am.      

Since it was still ridiculously early, I just dropped my stuff off in the church basement, helped one of the crew set up some tables and chairs and then went out for a stroll to kill time and procure some caffeine.  I got back to set just before 9 am and by then some of my fellow background performers had arrived.  The crew was also rolling in, laying claim to their own individual corner of the basement.

While I filled out my paperwork, Adam was quick to give me the scoop.  In addition to serving as a sketch artist in a completely different episode, I'd be portraying yet another real-life figure for most of the day.  I was blown away when he told me that I'd be portraying Detective Tom Jensen, who was instrumental in capturing the notorious Green River Killer.

Prior to this, the only thing I really knew about this case was that it involved a serial killer, took place in and around the Pacific North West in the 1980's, and it inspired the name of a grunge band.  After investigating it further for this entry I discovered that Gary Ridgeway was convicted of murdering forty-eight women but later confessed to nearly double that number.  In fact, he's claimed responsibility for more murders then any other American serial killer.  In other words, this dude's real piece of work.

I barely had time for the shock to wear off before Candace wrangled me into the makeup chair.  This time instead of getting a scoutmaster side-sweep my hair ended up looking vaguely wind-tunnel tested.

Wardrobe then promptly went to work.  I hoped that my efforts in lugging along so much clothing wouldn't be in vain but after Beth-Ann and Sarah looked through the items I'd brought along (including no less then five shirts, a sport coat, and three pairs of pants), the only thing they instructed me to put on was a pair of dark grey pants and my dress shoes.  They augmented this with a lighter-color grey shirt and a tweedy-looking, green-gray sports jacket from their own costume bins.

But but when it came to picking an appropriate tie, they seemed a bit stymied.  To their trained eye, everything looked too contemporary and/or conservative.

"Hold on!" I enthused.  "I brought along an entire bag full of ugly ties!"

"Okay, let's see 'em," Beth-Ann replied.

After overcoming the stubborn knot that I'd tied in the bag I held up each tie in turn for her inspection.

"How 'bout this one?"

"Nope.  Still too modern."

"Really?  Okay, what about this one?"

"Nope.  Too hideous," she replied, perfectly straight-faced.  

"Youch.  Alright, what about this one?" 

"Nope.  Too bland."

"Huh.  Okay, I've got one here but it may be a bit too flashy."

I pulled out a stripy gold, blue and black number and suddenly her eyes lit up.

"Oh, wait a minute!  I think we can work with that!"

It was then that I realized that there's a fine line between 'loud' and 'hideous'.  

Also getting decked simultaneously was Jozel, who'd be playing my female counterpart.  Eventually they had her clad in a very sharp-looking black pantsuit, with her classic red lipstick a match for her fiery red hair.

The third member of our plain-clothes law enforcement triumvirate was Eric.  Tall, bald, and goateed, Eric truly looked the part of a real cop.  I remember being supremely jealous of him since, at some point in time, the props department gave him a very realistic-looking airsoft pistol and holster to wear.  Lucky!  (best said in Napoleon Dynamite voice)  

And then there were the "boys in blue".  Dark complected with a slim build and fashionable eye-ware, Justin was cast as a young cop.  Wry and world-weary Thaddius played a veteran gumshoe to perfection.  With their flowing, full heads of wavy hair, I initially thought that they were slightly miscast as cops but as soon as they were in costume and serving up some priceless reactions, my initial concerns proved to be baseless.  

We didn't have much time to sit around and chat.  Just as soon as we were prepped we were led over to the older church where the interior was dressed up to look like a police field office.  There were vintage desks, old filing cabinets, corded desk phones, and ancient typewriters all around.

Even more impressive: the far wall of the church was covered with four huge bulletin boards each one chock-a-block with fake crime scene photos, victim mug shots, witness statements, pinned maps and a slew of scribbled-up post-it notes.  Kinda like this:

I stood there in rapt fascination watching as the Set Dec folks colored all of this in, eventually crowning their display with a large banner that read: GREEN RIVER TASK FORCE.        

Once again Director Jay Dahl was front and center, co-ordinating all of the fevered activity.  He paused for a moment to say hello to us, giving me a chance to talk with him about the featured case.

"Yeah, I'm originally from the West Coast so the Green River Killer was actually a big deal while I was growing up.  He was pretty terrifying."

And with that he was right back at it.  Without a doubt, Jay is certainly a "hands on" Director.  He was like a whirling dervish on set: prompting people to fill out the bulletin boards with more notes, consulting with the camera and lighting crew on technical minutia and making sure that our skeezy-looking push-button phones were properly disinfected before we began to use them.

"We don't want our Actor Friends getting sick!" he declared before moving on to something else.

Now, some people might consider the whole "______-Friends" thing to be an affectation but I thought it was a great way to generate good karma.  When you're shooting very quickly and without a great deal of money, it's critically important to keep the cast and crew in good spirits.  Although there were moments when time constraints and logistic headaches were clearly resulting in frustration, everyone on the set of Forensic Firsts seemed to be getting along famously.  

Eventually Jay instructed Jozel and I to take a seat at our designated desks so they could light us and pull focus.  After this was done, Jay gave us our marching orders.  After the Green River Task Force puts out a request for tips in the media, the office gets completely slammed with phone calls.  Indeed, the scene would best be described as "fevered activity".    

In order to properly sell a harried and overworked office, Jay jumped in and began to dress up our desks with coffee cups, newspapers, file folders, occurrence reports, half-eaten bagels, dried out orange wedges and discarded banana peels.  He even went so far as to give Jozel's desk a light sprinkling of bread crumbs.  If I didn't know any better, I'd say that the dude probably started his film career as a Set Decorator.

Which sort of brings me to another fascinating aspect of film-making: creating a series of visually compelling images.  Have you ever watch a movie or a T.V. show and suddenly noticed how flat, drab and lifeless everything seems to be?  That it kinda looks like someone's crappy home video?   Well, it's usually because the Director and Cinematographer haven't made any effort to create depth of frame.

Now I know that were weren't exactly shooting Silence of the Lambs but Jay always seemed concerned with creating a visually compelling shot.  Between takes he'd even dive in and assemble these little dioramas of detritus on top of copy paper boxes and place them in the foreground in front of the camera lens.  He was also keen on making sure that there were plenty of interesting things to look at in the background.

Despite this attention to detail, the phone that I'd been given wasn't for a desk.  In fact, to me it looked as if someone had just ripped it off a wall somewhere:

Laying flat on my desk, the receiver kept sliding off the hook whenever someone so much as glanced at it.  I mentioned this to Jay during one of his pass-by's and he agreed that it wasn't going to work.  After  swapping it out for a traditional phone, we promptly got down to brass tacks.

"Okay, Actor Friends, you've put out a request for tips from the public and now your office is being swamped with phone calls.  Try as you might, you just can't keep up with it.  This scene is all about exasperation and frustration.  You'll be on the phones, you'll finish with that call, hang up and not two seconds later the phone will ring again.  It's gonna be non-stop.  I also want you taking notes.  Try and come up with some real-looking names since we're going to do close-ups of this later!"

And just like that we were off and rolling.  Once again, even through there was no dialogue, we still had to emote our irritation and indignation.

"Oh, wow, that's great exasperation, David!" I heard Jay say at one point.

He followed this up by guiding me through an improvised telephone call in which I was allowed to audibly converse with him.

"Okay, David, you're at your desk, you're writing notes and then 'R-I-I-I-I-I-NG!', it's the phone!"

I snatched up the receiver.  

"Hello?" I demanded, rather testily.

"Is this Jensen?"


"Jensen!  What the hell is going on down there?!?"

With Jay virtually screaming at me, I reacted instinctively to his taunts.

"Now wait a minute...!"  I shot back.

"You're useless, Jensen!  You're never gonna catch this guy!"

"Hey, what do you expect?" I reflexively countered.  "We have no resources and our manpower is stretched to the limit!"

"You think you're smart, huh?  You haven't got a clue!"

"What?!?" I sputtered back.

"Yeah, that's right, you heard me!" he shouted.  "You're useless!"

"I'm useless?!?  What about you people...?  Why don't you..."

"I bet you won't hang up on me!"

"Oh yeah?!?"

 "Yeah!  I bet you don't have the guts to hang up on me!"

"OH YEAH?!?"



Friggin' brilliant.      

After Jay put Jozel and I though various permutations of this, the camera operators come in for a series of close-ups of various discarded items on my desk.  The camera man then expertly captured some whip-pans and quick zooms of us talking on the phone to create a mood of confusion, disorientation and all-around chaos.  During one take he asked me to stand up, whip my jacket off and roll up my sleeves.  He also called the makeup crew in to make Jozel look more harried and stressed out, even throwing a few bread crumbs from the desk into her hair!

I was then tasked to write down a series of names in my tiny notepad while I was being filmed.  Naturally, I used the names of various people in my life: my wife, friends and family members.  It's highly unlikely that it'll ever be legible on-screen but I thought this was more realistic then writing down shit like "Chuck Norris" and "Kim Kardashian".

While I was scribbling away, Jay would direct me to "circle the fifth name", "cross off the third name", "write a new name", "mark a star next to that" or tap the note pad.  When he asked me to come up with  a fictional phone number, I couldn't resist starting it with with "555".  Just as soon as Jay saw me doing this in the monitors he shouted: "Hey!  This guy knows about the '555' exchange!  We've got a real actor here!"  When I'd completely filled the page up, Jay asked me to pick up the note pad and "cheat it" (angle it) towards the camera without being super-obvious about it.

After depicting an office environment clearly stretched to the breaking point, things got even more intense.  I finally got my chance to be a first-hand witness to one of the greatest crime drama clichés ever...

The F.B.I. cometh.

Next time:
  • We have an unscripted Matrix moment.
  • In the immortal words of Huey Lewis and the News: "Gotta get back in time!"
  • If I'm actually drained and exhausted while playing drained and exhausted, does this make me a method actor?    
  • I participate in a "whisper party".  
  • I'm thrown into the skin of another character and then switch back again!  
  • The stress of the experience ages me a good twenty years.

EPIC  Y'know, I'm not a big proponent of capitol punishment, but I'd gladly make an exception for this Gary Ridgway creep...

FAIL  Whattaya mean these freaks and murderers are running free?!?

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