|Austin-Bergstrom International Airport|
by Marco Perella
The army has assembled. It looks like an FBI convention in here. Here being a big empty warehouse out in the industrial slums of East Austin. Cheap rent for movie companies who need to save a few extra millions to pay Michael Caine. Casting facilities must take a back seat.
All of us are in our government-issue gray FBI suits. Every actor in Texas is trying to get cast as an FBI agent in the new Sandra Bullock movie being shot in Austin and San Antonio. The movie is called Miss Congeniality and features Sandra as a slightly butch agent who goes undercover at a beauty pageant to foil a serial killer.
For Texas actors there's a lot of roles for beauty pageant contestants...no help there... and for FBI agents who don't have many lines but wander around looking turgid and racking up major hours on the set. Major PAID hours at union rates. Yeah! That's the ticket! Regional Actor Nirvana!
So here I sit with forty or so other guys in gray suits trying to figure out how to project the essence of FBI man effectively enough to score one of these cash-cow roles, when out of the casting room pops the casting director, Jo Edna Bolden.
'Marco! Can I talk to you?'
Curious heads turn as I scurry forward to perform my obeisances. Hell, I haven't even read for my part yet and I've already screwed up somehow. Jo Edna has been good about reading me lately. She seems to have forgiven the Nora Ephron episode. Nora Ephron...a name like dragon's breath. Better not think about it...don't want to negatively program for auditioning disaster.
Now Jo Edna has me in a private clinch.
'I know I called you in for one of the FBI roles, but could you please look at this? It's a guy in a Starbucks coffee shop who gets mad at Sandra for cutting in line and we can't find anybody who gets authentically mad. I know you can do it!'
'Okay, but...can I still read for the FBI part?'
'Sure...sure! No problem! Just do this for me, okay?'
Like what am I going to say... no? I'm happy to read anything. The only problem is, this coffee shop guy is a one-day role and the FBI men figure to get about three weeks. So if I do real good on the coffee shop guy I just may screw myself out of several thousand dollars. On the other hand, what if I don't look government-issue enough to score one of the FBI roles? Then I'm out in the cold entirely. Bird in the hand, what?
I decide that the proper course of action is to be so dynamic and compelling as the coffee shop guy that the director will see my true potential and not want to waste me on this one-day role. Not when he could have me by his side week after week, lighting up the set with the authenticity and commitment that I bring to the role of FBI man Numero Uno!
Or maybe an even more glorious role! Like the guy who buffs the beauty contestants and adjusts their thongs and stuff! That would do nicely!
By the time my turn in the audition room comes, I am primed and motivated. From breaks such as these, careers are made! I stride purposefully in to read for the director.
Donald Petrie inherited this job on the rebound. I don't know what happened to the first couple of directors. Nobody ever does. It's always 'artistic differences'. Hollywood is so polite about the bloodletting that goes on in those rooms of power in the earthquake-sensitive skyscrapers overlooking downtown Burbank.
Anyway, Donald is the man now, and here he sits next to Jo Edna, waiting for some actor to demonstrate some anger skills. Well, Mr. Petrie, your wait is over.
My Sicilian drenched DNA kicks in on the first line and the bare concrete walls echo with the resounding cacophony of my wrath.
Mr. Petrie is pleased. He requests another take, this time with some kind of modification that means very little in the context of a four line part, but does establish whether I am responsive to the whip, like a good regional actor should be. I modify nicely, and Jo Edna smiles approvingly. I may have exorcised the ghosts of Ephrons past.
'Well...thank you very much!'
'But, er, how about the FBI part?'
'Oh...you don't have to read for that. Unless you just want to?'
Yeah...why would you want to hear me do a boring old three week FBI part when you could give me this scintillating one-day role? Oh well, at least I made Jo Edna happy. Always nice to make the local casting directors look good in front of the Hollywood heavies.
Two weeks later I get the call...'Starbucks Guy' is mine.
So the next time I see anybody is about a week before shooting starts. Everybody is invited to a read-through of the script. This is a quaint tradition left over from theatrical procedure, when casts would actually work together nightly and a little preliminary sit-down was a necessary ice-breaker. In film production, the read through is the only time I'll see most of these people.
Still, it is a nice tradition. It's pleasant for everybody to read the script together. Like we're a happy team! And it's fun to see who got cast as what.
They've set up a big room with a massive table at the production facility. (Another industrial zone concrete behemoth with bad air conditioning.) Everybody in the cast has place cards to show them where to sit. The farther away from the center of the table you are, the smaller your part is. Such brutal and undisguised separation of wheat from chaff.
I'm at the far, far corner of the table, between FBI man #26 and Beauty Pageant Contestant #17.
Everybody sits down with their script and waits for the stars to come in. Four empty chairs at the center of the table prepare themselves for star-butts to come.
Donald Petrie sits there patiently. Along the outside edge of the actor's table is a row of chairs for the production people and writers. Not only are we on our second or third director, but we may have gone through a baker's dozen of screenwriters by now. That's how things get done in filmdom. Keep hiring and firing people until you have a nice rich gumbo of script ideas, all stewing in the stressed juices of well-paid yet psychically abused writers.
One of our stars has arrived. It's Michael Caine, champion of the working man. I call him that because he works on every film being made world wide, all at the same time. Nobody applauds, because you don't at these things, but we all kind of feel like it. I mean, Michael Caine is great. He's just a Cockney wanker who got to be a movie star and somehow turned into a great actor along the way. Michael shakes hands with all those in range and takes his seat at the center of the table.
A little hippie girl follows him in. Must be part of Michael's entourage... wait a minute! That's not a hippie girl! That's our star, Sandra Bullock! She's gone way cajj...as in casual. We barely recognize her with all that hair in her face and wearing that baggie shirt. That's so star! That's so our girl! Austin's own screen queen...bringer of film dollars to our home town! Our Rainmaker! Give her a hand!!!
And now we just can't contain ourselves. Enthusiastic applause from all assembled. Sandra blushes and does a little mock bow and sits down. What could be more appealing than a modest super star? We're all behind you kid!
Benjamin Bratt is next. Sandra borrowed him from Julia Roberts for awhile to play her main squeeze FBI partner. I feel little bra-adjusting shudders from the beauty contestant actresses as Benjamin sidles over to his chair. Julia might want to get down here to ride herd on her boy with this particular cast.
Word has gone out that William Shatner has been cast as the Bert Parks-type pageant host. He's not going to be at the reading, but who hasn't wanted to be in a William Shatner movie? This cast is shaping up nicely.
Now there is only one seat left at table center. That would be...and here she is, folks! Whoa! Get back! Get blonde! It's Candice Bergen!
Candice is wearing a nice suit and her hair is perfect. She walks around the table and she moves just right. She says hi to the principals and sits down with all the presence of Cleopatra, or some other legendary doyen from out of the past.
Now THAT, my friends, is a lady. Candice sits next to Sandra Bullock and Sandra just kind of disappears. And Sandra is a dish (who will definitely have her moment when they put that tight little blue dress on her later in the movie...the one where she kind of rocks and rolls around in her high heels, falling down occasionally.) It's just that Candice Bergen is, even at fifty something, a truly gorgeous woman. The air expels from four-dozen cast members in a collective whoosh.
The room has just been ENTERED.
So we begin the reading and there's lots of stuff with kids who are playing Sandra and her friends as children. This is all psychological exposition to establish how Sandra got to be so macho about law enforcement. It's kind of dull.
Finally we get into the main part of the story and now there's some action. All the FBI men are involved, but very few of them have lines except for Sandra and Benjamin. Several of them get shot, but none of the local guys seem to have much to say yet. My little part comes in pretty quick and I does me bit. Nobody seems to notice. I sit back to listen to the rest of the story.
There's a lot of confusing stuff about the serial killer that seems pretty cheesy. (The actor who is playing that role was imported from L.A. After this reading he will be deported and his part written out. I hope the guy has a good agent who got him all deal-memo-ed up in time.)
Now we get to the beauty pageant section of the script and Michael Caine and Candice Bergen start reading their parts. Suddenly we are swinging!
Every line that Michael Caine says is a major zinger. Or maybe it's the absolute dry way he says them. I can't really tell if it's the lines that are hilarious or just Caine. And Candice barrels over everybody at the table.
Ten years of sitcom training and you think the girl can't do comedy?
Now the whole room is cracking up and laughing as we read the script. It's a very good feeling around the table and the production people seem relieved. Anytime a joke does fall flat they look anxiously at the new screenwriter and he starts scribbling notes in the margin of his script. There doesn't seem to be much to worry about though... this script is hilarious. By the time the beauty pageant contestants start lusting after pizza, Sandra comes into her own and I begin to think we have another Lucy on our hands. Ms. Bullock is totally whack! This script is great! This damn movie is going to be a hit! Let's all just line up and collect our money!
The only sticky detail is actually shooting the thing.
My shoot date comes about a month into the schedule. This after it gets changed several times because of various delays. The company keeps moving back and forth between Austin and San Antonio shooting various phases of the beauty pageant. These are big, complicated scenes that eat up time. (Much to the delight of the pageant actresses who will rack up fat residual payments for years to come.)
From all reports, things are going pretty well. Donald Petrie seems to have a light hand on the reins but the horse is getting down the road nonetheless.
The one hassle is our famous Texas summer. It's always a bit of a shock for the California crowd who are used to that seventy-five degree lap dog West Coast weather. When it comes to the outdoor shots, cast and crew are brain-boiled.
Naturally, my shoot day falls on the hottest day of the summer. In addition, we are shooting in downtown Austin where the pavement radiates the temperature up to around 130. At least I get to work inside the Starbucks, but with the doors open to accommodate cables and grip traffic, it's still pretty bad.
Through the genius of film trickery, downtown Austin is subbing for downtown Manhattan. A couple of stock shots of skyscrapers interposed with Sandra Bullock hotrodding down the street in her Buick will bamboozle the audience into accepting this illusion. It will also save the production several million because they won't have to go up to New York to shoot this scene.
Several streets are blockaded and parking places coned off. This pisses the downtown merchants off no end. My dry cleaners are on this block and their customers haven't been able to get close to them all day. I try to remind them how much money is coming into the Austin economy because of this film, but they can't see passed the lost day they are experiencing.
Of course, they're out on the sidewalks with everybody else trying to get a glimpse of Sandra Bullock while they bitch.
The first part of the scene involves Sandra roaring up the street in her motorcar with sirens wailing, doing a spin-wheelie and jumping out in front of the Starbucks. The whole deal is that the FBI boys won't let Sandra's character participate in the macho stuff; instead they have her go out for coffee and sweet rolls. She turns these little excursions into hot pursuits out of professional frustration.
While all this tire squealing action is taking place, I am safely submerged in my air-conditioned honey wagon home. Let all those other fools stand on the steaming sidewalks trying to get a glimpse of Sandra Bullock's stunt woman.
]I have learned the hard way: when they aren't using you, get lost. This is because filmmaking is such a tedious business that you need to conserve energy. Once I get on the set, there will be no comfort zones available and I will probably be standing interminably on a crowded and intemperate set, struggling to retain enough energy to gasp out my lines before expiring.
Eventually the 'action' sequence is completed and it's time to do my thing. I am escorted to the Starbucks set and ushered in. The coffee shop is packed with extras... I mean 'background actors'... all dressed to the nines in an effort to approximate a crowd of caffeine-deprived, nifty-dressing New York latte hounds.
The background actors greet me with congratulatory pats on the shoulder. I am their God because I have lines. This somehow imbues me with a magic quality. (And God help anybody who takes all this folderol seriously.)
I crack a few jokes to establish that I am a man of the people and Donald Petrie steps onto the set to give us instructions. He wants a throbbing herd crowding toward the order station. Then Sandra can do her big entrance and press through the mob, flashing her badge to gain access to the head of the line on 'official FBI business.'
I am to protest this outrage vociferously and do some snarling.
Laslo Kovacs is the Director of Photography. One of the biggies. He studies us from behind the bar where the camera is positioned. Sandra comes on the set to rehearse the scene.
Just in case you didn't know, this is the way they film a scene:
All the actors and live bodies disperse themselves around the set and melee around until somebody sees some kind of accidental interplay that might be filmable. Then they do this a couple of more times and adjust the angles and then they are ready to shoot the master. (That's the term for the basic wide shot to which all the close-ups and intercuts will relate.)
The director and DP will spend most of this time looking through the artificial box of their fingers held up in an approximated camera frame. The actors try to remember what it is that they actually liked about the way you did it in the audition.
Sandra is very cool, very laid back. She starts jawboning with me and the background actors about her house. Sandra has been trying to build a home for herself in our fair city and she has run into contractor problems. As in the roof leaks and the whole building may fall down. Nothing really too serious. She wanted to have a big New Year's bash for the millenium but the house wasn't ready. Sandra had the bash anyway. (I didn't get invited.) Now the lawsuits are flying and the house is still not right. We can tell this is actually a pretty big deal to Sandra and all of us try to comfort her. We want our screen queen to be happy. Sandra cracks a joke about living in a motel. (As if.) We start our rehearsal.
Everything goes well. Donald Petrie and his 1st Assistant Director adjust the extras, moving some of them to the front and some to the back. (The ones at the back hate it.) The extras move out of the way as Sandra sweeps in and I snarl. She moves up to the counter with her badge and delivers the laugh. Should be a snap.
Sandra is whisked back to her Winnebago and now the real fun begins. The lighting of the set.
Most of the production time on a big film is spent preparing the shot. The actual acting time is miniscule compared to the endless tedium of lighting, gaffing, miking and masking that goes on before anything gets shot. It's humbling to realize just how much work goes into making a pud like me look human. (And a star like Sandra divine.) But while we bask in our air-conditioned motor homes, the crew is working full speed in the crazy heat, trying to make it beautiful so that we can hog the glory.
No wonder crews think actors are spoiled brats; crews actually work for a living.
Sandra has a stand-in for tedious moments like this; someone who is the approximate height, weight and coloring. Charisma is optional.
This young woman is doomed to do just what her title implies. Stand there while the DP looks through the lens and issues orders to the gaffers for lighting adjustments.
As the other principal in the scene, I would normally have a stand-in as well, thus freeing me for a cooling interlude in my honey wagon sanctuary. But seeing as I have only one day on this shoot, they let me be my own stand in. Who cares if I get exhausted and start glistening with the sweaty exertions required of me? They'll just slap some more powder on me and move on. They figure everybody will be looking at Sandra anyway. I think they probably figure right. If everybody is looking at me instead of Sandra in this scene, the movie is in trouble.
I strike up a conversation with Sandra's stand in. She gets momentarily distracted and fails to respond to Laslo Kovac's instructions in a timely manner. Thus she incurs the wrath.
'You are supposed to be a stand in! No talking!'
Know your place kid.
I tell Laslo that it was entirely my fault. I was engaging her in casual conversation. I am less easily intimidated than this poor young woman and Laslo backs off. The stand-in feels bad. I whisper to her my standard advice:
'Never be a stand in!'
At last we are ready to shoot the scene. All the extras... I mean 'background actors'... start milling around and crowding in towards the Starbucks counter. And towards me. With the impeccable logic of the truly glamorized, they have realized that where I am, Sandra will be, and where Sandra is, the camera will be. These people are spending a fourteen hour day not for the hundred bucks they're being paid, but for the off chance of actually being recognizable in the film. They want their friends and relatives to see them for an instant. Aunt Edna can rent the video and rewind it over and over so she can squeal with delight at her niece and nephew appearing in a real Hollywood movie.
Therefore, when we hear 'Action!', forty people start crushing towards me in a frantic, driven quest to make it into the frame. Sweaty, business-suited bodies are rubbing all over me. I am lifted off the floor and start bobbing around the room like a cork.
Donald Petrie intervenes. He issues stern instructions to ease off the throttle somewhat. Fat chance. Let's shoot it.
The first take is equally violent, but undeniably funny, so Donald lets it roll. I feel like I am in a tube of squeezed toothpaste.
Now Sandra makes her entrance, flashing her badge and forcing her way through the crowd. I decry her impudence and she shoves the badge in my face and takes her place at the head of the line. Once she comes to rest, the background actors draw a bead on the camera angles. They all become instant trigonometry experts and start triangulating the vectors and elbowing passed each other closer to the happy zone. As I am the last person in line, right behind Sandra, I am being buffeted about by inexorable geometric forces until I am pushed closer and closer to Sandra. This results in an unavoidable invasion of personal space.
Whoops! There's some contact there!... Whoops! There's some more!... Stop pushing!... Uh-oh! This is getting serious. I keep resisting but these camera-crazy extras are forcing me into... frequent and intimate contact with Sandra Bullock's leg!
I sense instinctively that this is probably not a good idea. In fact, I think that's one of the first things they teach you in acting class...don't go rubbin' yourself on the star's leg. How do I get myself in these situations? What would Al Pacino do? Uta! Uta! What's my subtext?
So far Sandy hasn't reacted. Hopefully she's lost in the Method. I must take emergency action. I slide over a little bit to the right, so at least I am not directly behind the Bullock buttocks.
Of course, all this time I'm still acting and doing lines and now it's time for my final scripted comment, which is a prolonged moan of agony at being deprived of my place in line.
I tell you folks, if you only knew how much went into this moan you would have new respect for the acting process.
Sandra turns back to me. I give her a sick little smile. I mean, what can I say? 'Thank you for a wonderful evening?' And she smiles back! What an understanding and tolerant screen queen you are, Ms. Bullock! Thank you for not busting me down to private... no, bad choice of words... thank you for not having me force fed to Laslo Kovacs!
Sandra Bullock bats her world class eyelashes at me and says one thing:
'I think you're ready for your close-up.'
Or at least in a perfect universe that's what she would have said.