NOTE: I plan to add pictures here, but words come first.
After finally surrendering to sleep at about 2:30, I set the alarm for 5:30. That wasn’t necessary; when it went off I had been up for an hour already, sucking down caffeine and trying to set up rocket igniters with shaking hands. I put things aside and went downtown for the last, most appropriate, and silliest of the pre-shoot ceremonies, the traditional shotgun start. When I got there the streets were blocked off, and Central Avenue was filled with milling film wanna-bees like me and film pros like fuego. A city bus was parked in the middle of the street. I had missed the big arrival of Coppola’s crew in their rolling set, but the man always likes to make an entrance.
His movie is either going to be brilliant or it’s going to suck hard.
Poof! The fake shotgun fired confetti into the air, at which point the Directors of Photography were supposed to race to their cameras, giving the event a sense of urgency. Right. Someone who’s been around long enough to be a DP isn’t going to race down the middle of the street in front of a lot of people. After a dignified stroll by the seven top camera guys it was time to rally the troops and get them out to the site.
Tired and wired I made my way back home to pack up the potato – this damn tuber-based special effect that has dominated my waking hours and haunted my dreams. Soon it would be over. I did a little more setup, testing the balance of the spud in the holder. Meanwhile, I needed to print up a set of storyboards. Pablo was coming by the house to pick them up so we could put them up on the wall at the location. Maybe it was the humidity, maybe sunspots, maybe I was just doing it wrong, but that damn printer did not want to work. I would get perhaps a page or two — sometimes none at all — before warning lights flashed, a klaxon sounded, the reactor scrambled and the neighborhood had to be evacuated.
The evacuation was necessary to protect the neighbors from the choice stream of invective issuing from my throat, complete with a spray of blood-tinged spittle.
OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. Anyway, by the time Pablo got there, about two-thirds of the pages had printed. I gave him those and promised the rest when I came out to the set. He left and I continued. When my vision wasn’t too clouded by blue spots caused by hyperventilation I worked on the potato, carefully taping sparkler fragments to rocket igniters, sorting them into piles of red and green. Finally I was ready to pack up and head out to the set.
Before I left I checked my email quickly, and waiting for me was a message from a musician buddy of mine. I hadn’t heard a response from my last nervous plea and had written him off, but Harvey had come through. He and Doug had put together a cover of an old sailor’s tune, All For Me Grog that rocked. Perfect for the last remaining musical hole in the flick, which starts with a shot of an empty pitcher with GROG written on the side. One listen to the music lifted my spirits immensely.
The morning was already heating up, and the humidity was becoming oppressive. As I wove down the deserted highway one of the lenses fell out of my sunglasses and the potato in the trunk started making an odd bubbling noise. The car began to glow…
No, wait, that’s Repo Man.
When I reached the set shooting had begun. fuego had decided to start with an exterior shot while the sky was still relatively empty. A big, loud fan was providing wind enough to hold Jolly Roger stiffly flapping, just as the script called for. I watched for a while as they repeated the shot in different ways, sometimes optimozed for wind, sometimes for sound. We paused when trains rumbled past nearby or a light plane buzzed overhead.
“Let’s move on,” fuego said, and the first shot was in the can. More than a hundred shots to go, but the team was working well.
I set up an area inside the bar and laid out the potato tools, but I held off carving up the stunt spud in case we wanted a hero shot of it in Kentucky Jack’s hand first. There was little for me to do then, except lend an ineffectual hand to Bonnie and her assistant Alex as they completed set dressing, undermine Archie’s productivity as he tinkered away on props in his mobile workshop, and hand out by the food table. I was a cheerleader more than anything else, but the pirate energy was gradually mounting, and there was a buzz on the set that things were working.
After the parking lot scene, it was time for the pirates to load up into the Crusader and head out onto the highway for the trickiest shot of all. The Sheriff’s department was there to seal off the road while we shot, the pirates filled the crusader to overflowing, the flag snapped in the breeze as the mighty vehicle pulled out of the parking lot for the first run. What followed was a long, grueling, sun-baked period, fuego’s voice crackling over the walkie-talkie: “Let’s do it again.” Finally we were as close to getting the shot as our equipment would allow, which meant it was not bad but not great. The editors had a lot to work with and there was coverage to fall back on if the shot just didn’t work out. Archie had created a superb “Crusader” nameplate for the back of the craft that gave us a nice alternate shot.
Some time later that morning the documentary crew showed up. There were two cameramen, a producer… and the woman I had see at the party the night before. The one who looked like Rose. She was interviewing crew members during the lunch break, and eventually she asked to interview me. “My name’s Delilah,” she said. She has dimples and an open smile. Her eyes were behind sunglasses.
The cameras focussed on me. The last time I had been interviewed was long ago, and I had been wooden and awkward. Not this time. We were making a movie, based on words I had helped write, and I was floating. I projected my excitement back at Delilah and into the camera, and they were all smiling too, and I could feel them catch the bug. I don’t remember what all the questions were, and I don’t remember very many of my answers, but Delilah and I had a nice chat. “We’re making a movie!” I said more than once.
She ended by asking me about the creative process. My answer to that is different than what most people expect, and I wish I had another chance to express it for the cameras. Later, I came up with a much more succinct answer than the ramble I gave the cameras: Everyone is creative. Artists are people who use their creativity and finish what they start. That last part is important. How many creative projects have you, dear reader, started and not finished, or simply planned in your head, hoping to do one day?
After the interviews, Delilah and crew stuck around for a while, to get some footage of one of our particularly choice shots. Perhaps it was my imagination, but she seemed to be hanging around next to me more than was strictly necessary. I was all right with that, though when Moab came over to discuss the woman he had slept with the night before (complete with body language) it did kind of spoil the magic. “Are you in love?” Delilah asked. “Oh, no,” replied the pirate captain. “My primary lover is here in town.”
I think it was my imagination — the hanging out part, that is. Finally I had to prepare the potato, and I didn’t see much of Delilah after that. I carved and taped, and Archie provided improvised toothpicks to hold the stunt potato together. I broke a potato probe, but fortunately the electrician had a spare. All was ready, or as ready as it was going to be. I went back outside but Delilah was gone. She would not see my big moment on set, when my pyrotechnics would either make or break my career as a special effects guy.
As it turned out, I wouldn’t get to see it either. I was hunkered down in the dirt behind the bow of the Crusader, watching Pablo for a signal when Kentucky Jack stuck the probes into the potato. Finally all was rigged and ready. I lay in the dirt as we went through a couple of rehearsals. I watched Moab and the crew working together as if they had been sailing together all their lives. Nobby Pete was off-the-wall looney and added to every shot. Rehearsals done, I gripped two wires between sweaty fingers and watched for my cue.
“Hold on,” Giovanni, the Director of Photography, said. A glitch was fixed and we were ready.
“Train,” Sam the sound guy said. We waited for the lumbering freight to pass. I wiped my palms on my grubby shorts and waited along with everyone else.
Finally, fuego said “action.” Paul gave me the cue and I touched the wires together. After a small but agonizing delay I heard the hiss and saw the look of surprise on Pablo’s face. “It worked! It worked!” hollered Nobby Pete, ad-libbing. I wanted to holler, too.
I had ammo for three more shots, and we used it all, and it worked every time. We adjusted for the delay and things got even better. On the last take the delay was longer than on the others (it used a different style of rocket igniter), and (I am told) Nobby Pete had time to put a disappointed look on his face before lighting up along with the potato. I scrambled up out of the dirt and my work was done.
The rest of the day passed. The plan had been to use the last part of the day to rehearse the biggest scene, an interior shot, but things went so smoothly we had time to go ahead and shoot it. We wrapped for the day, tired, dirty, and ahead of schedule.