In my last blog post, from point four on the media, I explained how celebrity coverage is mostly a façade, i.e., that publicity agencies call the shots. You can now find that post here. And I will post my future mainly political or social criticism articles here.
It’s not that I have anything against celebrities. I just believe members of the public should understand the information they receive. Not everyone in the U.S. agrees or has historically agreed with this idea.
In this blog post, I wanted to show my more sympathetic side to performers. After all, artists, or more specifically here, actors, tend to have stronger sensitivities and empathy than the rest of the population (although, not always or necessarily). And I consider those to be among the best traits people can have.
Also, many of them (but not all) often support causes I agree with, such as better firearms regulations. You could argue that this is in their financial interests–they make more money if people aren’t afraid of getting shot in movie theaters, but so what? I think it could be both financial interests and a sincere concern, while it’s in the firearms industry’s financial interest to have more massacres in movie theaters and everywhere else, but that’s another post, though at this point I’ve lost a small percentage of readers.
Back in the late 1990s, when I was struggling to work my way up in the movie industry, I bugged a small production filming on the street to let me work as a PA (Production Assistant, general go for) for them.
The director wrote the movie’s script that was autobiographical. He based it on the story of his former girlfriend, who had a heroin addiction and died. There was a side story on the couple where the boyfriend liked to put makeup on her to make it appear as if she had been murdered and then take pictures. So the makeup person put the lead actress — let’s call her Carrie — in some gruesome makeup for some of the scenes.
The payments that I managed to negotiate were so bad that with my fourteen hours or so every day with them, my hourly wage worked out to around a dollar, though I also received daily meals and snacks. I told myself, as everyone else on these jobs do, that I was getting the experience, so I would get better jobs on future movies.
However, I soon encountered an obstacle. Most of the production crew liked to both drink a lot of coffee and smoke a lot of cigarettes. You can’t smoke right on the filming set, but a lot of where I had to be was just off the set. And I would find this on many movie productions — my joke was that there should be a drink with very strong coffee and cigarettes mixed in.
When I tried to avoid one person’s cigarette smoke by moving away, the next person I was standing near would light a cigarette. Soon I had a bad cold, bordering on bronchitis, even though this was during the Summer. Every morning, and sometimes at later times, I had painful coughing fits that would last a few minutes.
Fortunately, I wasn’t always watching equipment, in front of the warehouse where we were shooting, near the water, in the neighborhood of Greenpoint, in Brooklyn. We had to pick up and drop off equipment and the guy in charge of the crew, Callum, who was from England, asked me if I had a driver’s license and could drive. I said I could and he rode with me. I drove us into Manhattan’s East Side near the UN and under the tunnel on the highway. He and others who rode with us seemed to be comfortable with my driving–I had spent many hours driving in Ohio, before coming to New York.
So then it became my job to drive the van and pick up some of the crew in the morning. Then I also had to take them home in the evening.
At the time, I was a boarder in an apartment with a divorced mom from Puerto Rico, her daughter, Grandma and another boarder (someone else in the arts), in a neighborhood way up on Manhattan’s west side, near Central Park, that could be considered “iffy” as far as crime. After dropping everyone off in the evening, I parked the van on the street near my apartment and got out. There was a guy sitting in front of his building who waved me over. He told me that if I left the van where I parked, I would get a ticket or it would be towed. I thanked him and moved the car.
I knew the deal–I had heard of this. He was probably a drug dealer, apparently later confirmed when the police busted a bunch of them in the same building. He didn’t want the police showing up while he was dealing. So this was in our mutual interest.
In the mornings, picking people up, I remember listening endlessly to No Doubt’s “Just A Girl.” In the evening on the way home, it was Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt,” playing from a couple of crew members’ favorite station. I also would go on runs in the middle of the day to pick up supplies. And one time I was confused which lane I was suppose to be in, so a traffic cop stopped me, but when I answered his questions on where I was going and said I was working on a movie, he let me go, telling me not to drive in the bus lane again.
Back near the movie set, I guarded equipment, kept people who weren’t part of the production from walking onto where we were shooting and helped keep the noise down, when possible.
As film shooting days passed, one of the producers showed up. She was concerned about going over budget. Soon, a lot of the shooting would be done in a single take. I jokingly called it an “Ed Wood” production.
At one point when I was working where they were shooting, Carrie was disputing the scene where she was wandering in an infamous area near Alphabet City. She wanted to know why her character was there. I had worked in low budget productions before and I hadn’t seen that kind of depth in trying to understand one’s character before. “She’s going to be famous,” I thought.
Another evening I was outside the warehouse with my walkie. Inside they were shooting a scene where the boyfriend becomes angry and starts throwing things. Then I saw Carrie walking out, with blood on her face, that I assumed was fake, and she was crying.
“Did the scene bring out some traumatic memory from her past?” I wondered. “She’s so good,” I thought. I asked her if she was ok and she didn’t say anything at first. It turned out the blood was not fake. When they were shooting and the boyfriend was throwing things, one of the items was plugged in and it whipped back, hitting her on her temple. She said she was crying because she was hurt.
We had to take her to the hospital. One of the crew members who I had known, who was nice but seemed a little off — he told me how he had been a drug dealer and lived on the streets — jumped into the car with Carrie, one of the producers and the director. Callum looked a little horrified as the car was peeling out. He asked the guy to get out of the driver’s seat and asked me to drive them to the hospital.
On our way, people shared stories. The director said, “this always happens to me–something always happens to me.” He said when he was a kid, riding in his parents’ convertible on the highway with the top down, something hit him. A guy sleeping on the bridge they drove under dropped a glass bottle he had just finished drinking from. And his parents had to rush him to the hospital.
Carrie told us about an incident where she was walking down the street when a woman jumped from the top of a building to her death, landing just in front of her. She told her boyfriend when she got home and he didn’t believe her.
We walked her into the emergency room, checked her in and were told to wait. One person with us expressed surprise that that it was so quiet, unlike the shows that were popular at the time. I sat next to Carrie and looked at her. She still had a long streak of blood running down her face and neck. I told her and she went into a bathroom, washed up and came back.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Iowa,” she said. She told me the town in Iowa, but it was some place I had never heard of.
While we were waiting, I remembered a story my mom told me when I was younger. Before I was born, a little girl, who was cousin of mine, was playing when she fell from a chair and hit her head. She said she wasn’t feeling well, but she tried to watch some TV. Later she felt worse, so her parents took her to the hospital, and she died from brain injuries. I cried when I finished hearing the whole story with all its details that my mother recalled. Hearing about something so mundane as my cousin hitting her head and watching some TV, trying to feel better, made me feel like I could almost hear her talking before she died.
Sitting in the emergency room, I wondered if this kid, really (as she appeared to be in her twenties), who came from some obscure place in Iowa to New York with big dreams would see everything end today in this hospital? I was angry at the unfairness. Maybe she would have made it big, but instead she was dying before her hopes were realized, and so young.
I lightly brushed my hand on her side and tried to comfort her. Then I thought that I might have gone too far. I told her I was trying to comfort her.
The waiting started to bother me more and more. I went to the window where a nurse sat. I explained we have someone with a head injury. The nurse asked me to go back to my seat and someone will see her shortly. After waiting a while longer, I started to grow more concerned. I wondered if we were running out of time. We didn’t know until someone examined her.
I explained the urgency again, this time more angry and alarmed. Then a doctor finally came to see her and took her to the back. She had to have stitches.
Before we left, the nurse and her staff came out to compliment me, saying, “You were really good!” I was startled by the whole thing, as if actors who were playing villains had just stepped outside their roles. All I could guess is that their hands were tied and my behavior gave them an excuse to bring a doctor to her faster.
As we drove away from the hospital, she talked about how glad she was to have had the chance to work with an actress who was somewhat known. I made some comment about how the actress she mentioned had put on an enormous amount of weight. I probably shouldn’t have said that.
When we made a stop and Carrie and I were alone in the car, I said to her “don’t you ever, ever let them put you in a dangerous situation like that. You have a right to tell them no. Do you understand?!” She agreed that was probably a good idea.
When Carrie went home, she had a friend wake her up every few hours through the night in case she had a concussion.
The next morning I had a card that I asked everyone to sign for Carrie. Some of the crew seemed oblivious to any problem, but some signed it anyway. I gave it to Carrie and she said “thank you, Michael.” She wasn’t supposed to think it was just from me. Anyway, it was good to see she was going to be ok, but she would probably have a scar.
Before the shooting ended, there was a scene where the makeup person had her looking like a corpse. I said, “You look like you’re dead — the makeup person is really good.” Carrie laughed.
Ok, so the name of this actress wasn’t really Carrie. Her name is Calista Flockhart. The movie I was working on is called Pictures of Baby Jane Doe, directed by Paul Peditto. The movie she was talking about in the car that was later released is called The Bird Cage, and she was so happy to have worked with Diane Wiest. She went on to star in the show Ally McBeal, that I still haven’t seen. But I remember hearing about people walking out from a play she was in that was a little dark–they were upset that Ally McBeal was behaving that way–it might have been Bash: Latter-Day Plays. I thought that was unfair — I knew her dark side, and from what I’ve heard about Ally McBeal, she is not like that person, though she must have found a part of herself to play her.
So she went on to big success in acting. However, I believe her career’s been restricted by her prior success and the public’s inability to see her in other roles, once again, an illusion preventing people from seeing.
I lost contact with most (but not all) of the people involved in working on that movie.