Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pyramid and my (brief) foray into Hollywood

Working in the heat this morning I was thinking about other times I worked I the heat and remembered the summer of 1975.

I had just graduated from SMU in Dallas, film degree in my hot little hands and looking for work.

Remember the movie Logan’s Run? Not many people do but much of it was shot in Dallas that summer. A call was put out for extras and I thought this might be a way to get on a movie set and meet some people that could help me get work in the future.

I went to the audition – which wasn’t much other than telling you to shave any exposed body hair and stay out of the sun since this movie was set in a place/time where everyone was indoors and no one was tan.

I wasn’t too thrilled about shaving my chest hair but it was a job.

It may have been that same day I got a phone call from my film prof, Tom Herod who was working as a location manager for another movie being shot in Dallas – working title Pyramid. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in working on the crew as a grip. This was much more up my alley than being a clean-body-shaven extra in a sci-fi movie so I said yes. Later that day I was with a similarly unemployed friend and explained what happened. He asked if he could take my place on Logan’s Run. I figured it wouldn’t matter – a body is a body and nobody knew who I was anyway so he planned on going down for the wardrobe fitting in a day or so. Honestly don’t remember how things worked out for him but seem to recall he worked a few days, had fun, met some people; the usual.

Back to Pyramid. This was a low budget movie (in today’s parlance it would likely be one of those straight-to-video flix.) But we did have a “name” director whose claim to fame was directing the TV series Man From Uncle.

My job? Electrical or lighting grip. That essentially means carrying around and setting up a bunch of heavy lights, running long heavy cables, plugging things into electrical sources (not your typical wall outlets) and then spending a lot of time standing around waiting for one scene to end so we could re-set etc. for the next one.

Prior to the shoot we took a long Ryder truck and built shelves, racks, hanging racks etc. to keep all the grip gear and this became our grip truck. I got to do a lot of shopping for stuff that was called “expendables” – meaning we buy them, use them and then we’re done; and “practicals” – stuff that is used in the scene like real light bulbs in real lamps but with special color-correct bulbs.

Did I mention the pay? A whopping $200/week, which in 1975 wasn’t bad but one caveat: $100 of that was deferred. I had taken a film finance workshop where the benefits of such deferments were explained from a producer’s POV but for a crew person? This means my NET was $100/week. If/when the movie finished AND actually made money, then, and only then, would the deferred money be paid.

I was happy enough to collect my $100/week for now.

The next 10-12 weeks were spent mostly outside shooting in one of the hottest summers ever in Dallas. I think in June/July we had something like 17 or 19 straight days of 100+.

As a grip you are somewhat removed from the politics of the movie but eventually we began to realize this movie was not going to be good. Crewmembers began to jump ship as our shoot dragged on. The most notable of these was Tak Fujimoto – our DP. Since then he has gone on to have a pretty decent Hollywood career. Another crewmember who was also a classmate of mine at SMU, Ron Judkins also went on to get two or maybe three Oscars for his sound work on Spielberg movies such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. I got together with him in LA a few years back to do an interview for a magazine article. He’s had quite a career.

Late in the production schedule Tak left and the Asst. DP moved up to that slot. The 2nd assist camera op moved into the 1st slot and someone asked me if I had ever worked with a film camera before. I said yes and they said “Here. You are now 2nd asst. camera operator. Go unload these magazines and start keeping camera logs.” I had no idea about either of these but figured it was better to shut up and go do the work. I thought maybe this would mean I could get paid more (it didn’t.)

Unloading magazines meant taking the shot or exposed film magazine off the camera, putting it in a black heavy bag, opening it up, removing the exposed 35 mm film, taping the ends down, putting the reel in a metal can and then sealing the can with more tape so no light could get in and ruin the film. Hard to imagine they’d let someone with so little experience do something that really could jeopardize the whole thing but they did and to my knowledge I never messed up any film. I also loaded magazines with unexposed film - less risky but also important to be done right. I had to write stuff on the labels from the camera logs and from that point on I also had to keep those logs which meant writing down scene #s, how much film was exposed for each take – all sorts of stuff that would be used later to determine which parts of the film to actually process and print to a work-print or “dailies” that everyone would watch at the end of the day. I also worked with the AD to put information on the slate and would hand it to him for the actual “clapping” that you see people do. I never got to do that. I also helped on some bigger scenes with setting up dolly track and other related stuff for the camera.

I never got to watch any dailies because of my other job – Winnebago driver. We rented a 26 ft. RV, which served as our “honey wagon”, make up room, dressing room and place for the talent to hang out before and after takes. I had to be at our location hotel early, get it started and cooled down and then drive it to our locations with talent on board.

At the end of the day, the reason I could never stay and watch dailies is because I had to drive the RV to a place and pump out the bathroom and get rid of all the trash so it would be clean for the next day.

My most exciting moment was on our bus crash scene. One scene called for a busload of kids to careen off the road down an embankment into a creek; where of course most of them were going to die.

We blocked off a suitable street and because this was more complicated than our usual scenes, we had 6 or 7 cameras to capture the action from every conceivable angle since no one knew how many takes we might get. We had ONE school bus.

Our driver wasn’t much of a stunt driver and while he was supposed to cut the wheels hard and make the bus roll over so it could of course roll down the hill, he never got it to roll. The plus here was we got to shoot several takes because somehow the bus survived the drive down the hill to be towed back up and done all over again.

How did I have an exciting moment on this shot? I got to operate a 16mm camera down in the creek at the bottom of the hill. I set my tripod up in the water to catch the action of the bus “rolling” down the hill. On one of the later – probably last takes, someone told him to go faster, I guess thinking the speed might finally get him to actually get it to roll.

Cameras all roll, AD calls action, bus starts heading down the street. Stunt driver cuts the wheel but I guess even though he sped up, it didn’t roll over but headed back down the embankment again; just with more speed. Headed right at me.

There were 2 or 3 of us with the camera and as the bus came right at us, all I remember is someone yelling and we all ran away as fast as we could. The bus did come to a stop but not before hitting the camera just hard enough to knock it over backwards into the water. I also do not recall if that film was ruined or what actually happened after that. I think this scene was saved to be one of the last ones shot since it was so much harder.

After about 14 weeks or so, we wrapped up the picture, dismantled everything and most of the crew and talent that came from CA, went home. A few of us stayed on a week or so to shut down the office etc. and get rid of the stuff we’d bought. I still have a hammer from the grip truck on that shoot.

That summer was hot, a lot of hard work and also fun but it gave me a brief taste of a life I would never experience again for another 10 years or so and even then only for a few weeks on another big shoot in LA.

That deferred salary? I never got it. A few years later I heard rumors that the film finally got finished and I thought maybe if it made some money, I’d get paid. I wrote lots of letters but after a few months just gave up. I don’t think the editing was ever finished.

Just as well.

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