I volunteered to help out on an NYU student film shoot. Before the holidays, I worked with the production designer to tweak the space a bit and purchase props. The past week I've spent most of my time on location during the shoot, doing a little of everything.
As anyone who's worked on a set will tell you, it's not that exciting, unless perhaps you're the director or you're applying body paint to Rebecca Romijn. Most of the time, everyone's standing around, and then suddenly it will be interrupted by a flurry of activity, and then everyone's milling around again for a while.
The days on this film shoot were long, at least 12 hours a day. I was an extra warm body (officially the art director), and was employed as such. One morning I found myself running around NYC trying to assemble a complete Santa suit from the detritus that remained of the Xmas section in all the costume stores. It's tough to keep your composure when you're asking one of the costume store workers where to find a Santa wig and beard and the Goth-themed worker with pale face, black lipstick, and a mohawk just stares at you and shrugs with indifference. 90% of your store revenue comes in one month of the year you unhelpful freak!
Sometimes I stood in for the lead actor and actress when the director blocked out shots. I was an extra in one shot. For an exterior night shot, I had to water down the street (standard technique so the water reflects street lights, otherwise the street just looks like a sea of black on screen). A family friend of the director got cold feet at the last minute and wouldn't let us take water from her sink. That might have been a good thing, considering we had only three buckets and she lived on the eighth floor of a walkup. We ended up splurging on eight gallons of water from a local grocer.
During lunch break one day, we played charades. Every answer was a movie title, but not like you'd imagine a normal game of charades. This was charades with film nuts. In one case, we got the clues that the movie title was two words, and the first word rhymed with rooster. From that, someone correctly guessed Brewster McCloud. Brewster McCloud.
On our one day of exterior shooting, the temperature was in the 30's. Fortunately, the rain failed to make call time that morning. I lost feeling in my toes by the end of the day, but by that point, I was beginning to feel the rhythm of filmmaking, and I was beginning to enjoy myself. On set, there are few meetings and little of the monotony that can seep into office work. It's not all fun and games, but it's closer to that than most jobs.
We could only afford to rent one generator, and supposedly it put out 27 amps, but we discovered otherwise. It felt as if we were Gary Sinise in Apollo 13, figuring out the maximum amount of power we could draw while still having enough juice to achieve re-entry through Earth's atmosphere. We cycled through tradeoffs. You can have the coffee maker or the hot water machine, but not both. You can one space heater, but it will cost you one light in the alleyway shot. What about two heaters at the lowest setting and one light? One heater on low and the hot water machine?
People always stop out of curiosity when they see a crew gathered around film lights on the street. What are you shooting, people would ask. Once, I told a lady we were shooting a few minor scenes from War of the Worlds. She didn't know what that was, so perhaps she'll be looking for that setting when that blockbuster hits screens this summer.
One day involved a montage of sex scenes. I felt like Ricky Jay during the Mark Wahlberg-Julianne Moore sex scene in Boogie Nights. It's true what they say--simulating sex in front of a camera and crew is not all that romantic, unless you're used to performing in front of a group of other people. I had to run into one scene to strew some more underwear around the floor while the actors stood there partially clothed, mid-coitus. I avoided all eye contact.
Everyone was professional about it, and we defused the situation with humor. The combination of the clinical and the vulgar in some of the direction was very odd.
"Continuity question. _____, were you wearing that watch when ____ was humping you over the bathtub?"
"_____, can you increase the horizontal displacement of your thrusting?"
"Whoa, we need to adjust the lighting. Your moonshine is going to overexpose the film."
I was impressed by the communal spirit of the cast and crew. Most everyone on set was a student, a mix of first, second, and third years. Everyone was pitching in to help the director finish his movie, and I didn't sense any competitiveness subverting the shoot. Most everyone was friendly (you might imagine film school students to be film snobs or aesthetes, but this group didn't exude that vibe), and I learned a lot chatting with various people during breaks in the day.
In the last hour of our exterior shoot, at some 2 a.m. in the morning in a dark alleyway in the West Village, we had just finished the last shot when the assistant director called for silence. We needed to record thirty seconds of street noise. The sound guy called speed, and we all stood in silence, heads bowed, nothing but the golden neon hues of street lamps reflected off puddles to leave halos in our hair. New York City is almost always a cacophony of noise, but for that thirty seconds, we heard nothing but the low hum of the city, like the sound of the ocean in the distance, or perhaps the sound of subway trains coursing through the veins of the city below our feet.
That's a wrap.