Standing Around on "The Corner"
My Big Role as a subUrbia Stand-in
As tough guy Tim (Nicky Katt) lounges and scowls, the actor with green hair -- Buff, played by Steve Zahn -- finishes intoning a strange chant and snaps a bite of his pizza slice. Linklater looks up at him, back at the monitor; leans back and announces "...and ...cut." "That's a cut," confirms Hensz over his headset. The gang confers. They're satisfied. "Check the gate," Hensz requests. The 1st assistant camera operator shines his penlight into the lens of the camera; other members of the crew starting doing whatever it is they're there to do. The camera gate is clean, no need to reshoot. "New Deal," Hensz booms. "Second Team."
That's me. I'm on. I take Nicky's place against the wall, slouching into the pose he has just abandoned. The new camera position is marked (in chalk, with a V to represent the position of the lens and its angle of view) and the grips start laying track for a camera move. People are staring at me: through a light meter, director's lens, the camera, cupped fingers, or just pensively looking, measuring the fall-off of light from one side of my face to the other. That's why I'm here -- I'm a stand-in. While the crew perfects the next shot, I stand so that Nicky can smoke a cigarette and leaf through his drag-racing mag.
I've never done this before.
I like everything about film, but an interest in everything doesn't work. The film business is a warehouse full of ladders -- you have to decide which one you want to climb, and start fighting for that bottom rung. But I wasn't ready to choose just one ladder and pass on all the possible others.
Since getting my MFA in film production, I've stayed at the University of Texas as staff, currently serving as undergraduate advisor for the Radio-TV-Film department and next semester teaching a film production class. In the summer of 1995, I took over as managing director of the Austin Film Society. This is how I met Linklater, who started the Society 10 years ago and is still passionately involved in its operation. Running the AFS is a perfect job for me: I get to meddle in lots of things all at once.
The Film Society has an office at Linklater's production company, Detour Filmproduction. For my first eight months at AFS, others in the building were working on preproduction of The Newton Boys, an epic based-on-a-true-story gangster western melodrama. But like any serious filmmaker, Linklater had numerous projects in various stages of development. So when production of The Newton Boys got pushed back, Linklater saw the opportunity to direct an adaptation of Eric Bogosian's stageplay subUrbia.
When things happen in the film biz, they happen quickly. From my office, I watched as the subUrbia production office came to life. The collection of classic posters came off the walls and were put into storage; bulletin boards and message centers went up. New phone lines were installed, and huge piles of mail started coming in and going out. Tables and chairs were rented, which soon filled up with new faces hired on for the film. Every time I used the fax machine, I had to wait while the resumés poured in. Hundreds of resumés, each with pages of credits. Vying for a position on a small film.
About two weeks before the shooting started, the actors arrived. And one day, I was sitting in the AFS office paying bills or something when an assistant came in and asked if I could do a big favor. The actors were learning their lines and needed readers to prompt them. Could I please do it?
My acting career peaked 22 years ago at age 11, when I both starred as Captain Hook in my sixth-grade play and held a bag of groceries in a refrigerator commercial. But I'd worked with actors extensively while at UT, and felt like I could read without frightening anyone. I agreed to.
On my way to the Embassy Suites Hotel for the rehearsal, I passed the crew of Michael, setting up on the shore of Town Lake. I looked for John Travolta, but only saw a bunch of folks clustered around the crafts services truck, while in the distance two men laid out dolly track.
At the hotel, a cheery sign bid "Welcome subUrbia" outside the conference room where rehearsals were being conducted. Inside was a table spread with snacks and beverages (clearly food is a large part of filmmaking), Linklater, three of the actors, and two other Detour interns recruited for the reading. I didn't know where to sit, drew up a chair at the table, then slunk to a different one at the side of the room when Linklater told me "We're just working some things out." He and the three actors were actually just chatting about Austin. I sat demurely off to the side, trying not to perspire. Finally Linklater said, "Well, if you're okay, I'll leave you guys to go over lines," and left.
Now the readers moved to the table. And I realized I wasn't the only one who felt awkward; the actors seemed just as nervous. Why not? They had just gotten to Austin and started working: They had been selected over dozens of others who auditioned and now they had to prove their worth.
I paired up with Jayce Bartok, who plays prodigal friend Pony, to review his lines. I hadn't yet read the script nor seen the play, and soon my nerves gave way to trying to piece together what was happening. My mind was racing with threads of motivation and meaning, which was pretty stupid because my "role" was merely to read various characters' lines to cue Jayce. He was trying to get them word-perfect before going into real rehearsal. This was pretty hard because Bogosian's dialogue is colloquial, and while the expository content was easy to master, the "like, you knows" tended to migrate.
Giovanni Ribisi and Nicky and their respective readers joined us, proposing a field trip. Vanni wasn't happy with the shoes for his character, and wanted to go buy some. We could read in the car.
I became designated navigator (not the best job for me, as I give directions by the "Oh, it was that one," method). Hip boutiques were rejected in favor of the mall in order to retain that true suburban flavor. After hitting just about every store, Vanni found the perfect shoes at Sears: janitor shoes, $20. In the car I played the responsible adult, trying to make the kids stick to their plan of reading.
I read one more time, and met the actresses Amie Carey and Dina Spybey, who were playing Sooze and Bee-Bee. I taped part of a rehearsal for Bogosian, mindful of the responsibility. I was hooked. And I started thinking, "Hell, who needs sleep?" When I got back to the production office, I asked everyone I saw if there was something I could do on the film. Producer Anne Walker took me seriously.
I am poison to a feature film crew. I've done a fair amount of film and video work: I've been paid to check out equipment packages, operate studio and video cameras, load film and slate for music videos, and edit two travel videos. My bookshelves are about to collapse under the weight of filmmaking books I've read. I've worked in every conceivable position on over 20 student films, and I'm a card-carrying member of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF). But I haven't worked on a feature. People who work on features shouldn't be know-it-alls; they should know their specific job inside and out, and not worry about anything else. I am overqualified and underexperienced.
Film hiring is done by department. The director and producer hire key persons and department heads, who then hire their staff. subUrbia had been in preproduction for five weeks, and most positions were filled. When Walker asked me what I wanted to do, I mumbled something about working in the camera department or something. Something on the set rather than in the office. Walker thought for a moment, and suggested I be a stand-in. I never would have thought to ask for this position, but it seemed ideal. The nature of a stand-in's job is that they stand around and observe what happens, ready to step onto set if needed to replicate the actors' positions and movements during set-up. As a stand-in, I could observe what everyone was doing and learn about the process. And the stand-ins were one of the few positions not yet filled. Plus, I already knew casting director Lizzie Martinez (from a few of those student films) and figured she might actually hire me.
She did. And a week later I met the other stand-in Marcus Nelson, a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) actor who had auditioned for the part of Jeff. Usually, key characters each have a stand-in who is selected because their height and coloring match that of the actor, so that the lights can be correctly set. For subUrbia there was just the two of us, titled "utility stand-ins" on the call sheet; between us we would represent the nine actors involved in the ensemble piece. I was the tall one.
Marcus and I were called to a meeting with Hensz. When we entered the conference room, there were nine people looking at us: the various ADs and PAs (assistant directors and production assistants). We went around the room giving our names, then Hensz gave us our instructions: "Don't wander off. Make sure one of us always knows where you are. I don't want to ever wait on you. Watch the rehearsals. You'll catch on." That was the extent of my training. subUrbia crew member number 105, ready to report to active duty.
subUrbia is the story of a group of five 20-year-old suburban kids, whose unremarkable habits are disrupted by the visit of one of their high school classmates, now a big-time MTV folk-rock star. Hanging out at the Circle A mart on The Corner, they grapple with angst, desires, couplings, personal epiphanies, and a conflict with the Circle A owner and his wife. It plays out over the course of one night, primarily in the parking lot of the convenience store. We were stationed at the location on South First and Stassney for three weeks, working the vampire shift of 7pm to daybreak.
Arriving on the set the first night, I was terrified. I had an irrational fear that I would screw up, that 60 people would be staring at me in consternation as I held up the whole shoot because I didn't know what I was doing. When Melanie from wardrobe gave me a T-shirt to wear and told me I'd be standing in for Buff because he was on Rollerblades, I protested, "But I can't Rollerblade!" Melanie was patient. I wasn't going to be wearing Rollerblades, she had just meant I was the right height.
I donned the shirt and waited on set. I felt kind of lonely; everyone else seemed to know each other from other films, hugging and trading anecdotes like school kids back from Christmas break. I knew lots of people on the crew, but I saw them every day at the office.
A little after nine, we were ready for the first shot. Almost. The production designer had had the parking lot repaved; it had rained the night before and a big stain of dampness spread over the area we were going to shoot. This had to be gotten rid of, or it would be a nightmare of continuity. So for the next hour, the art department worked on the stain with heaters, and paper towels, and even an acetylene torch. Finally, it was mostly dry and we were ready; the actors took their places, the PAs hushed the crowd of onlookers, and the cameras rolled.
I stood by and watched. The thing that impressed me the most about feature production was that it was not unlike the work I had done thus far, with crews of up to 30 persons and borrowed, makeshift, or inexpensive equipment. The difference was that here there was a lot more (and better) equipment. The electricians had a truck full of lights and grip equipment: There was no shortage of lamps or stands. But they still used C-47s (what civilians would call clothespins) to fasten gels to the barn doors of the lights, they still rolled up their gels and diffusion material when done so that it could be reused. I didn't see any pieces of equipment I couldn't identify, although I did learn new terms (after hearing the electricians repeatedly talk about "redheads" I asked: 1K open-face lights).
I was also amazed at the speed with which we worked. Last year, I spent 11 days shooting my 30-minute thesis film (under three pages a day). On subUrbia's 23-day shoot, we were scheduled to average more than four pages a day. Everything shot had more coverage (alternate camera angles to provide choices at the editing stage) and more complex camera moves than anything I had ever done.
Part of the ease of production was that we were primarily in this one location, and that it was night. We needed enough ambient lighting to register an image on film, with harder pools of light motivated by streetlights (and the ever-present headlight gag: two lamps mounted on a horizontal stand that would swing by, as if caused by a passing car). The ambient light was cast by an oversized China ball, 20 feet in diameter: a circular lighting grid covered with silk and suspended from a crane. This had a hot side and a cool side, and could be swiveled into position by the crane operator and a team of folks with ropes, as if it were a hot air balloon. It looked like some sort of a UFO. We dubbed it "the moon" or "the Orb." (The poster artist from LA said he had seen the Orb from the airplane.) Additional ambient light came from lights mounted on the platform of a crane in the adjacent lot. One of the electricians spent the better part of the shoot sitting up there, swaying in the wind, ready to replace a lamp or adjust the focus of the lights.
The main lighting that needed to be done between shots was to add light to the actors to smooth out shadows on their faces and create visual depth between them and the background, and subtract light (by blocking it with "flags") where it was creating unwanted reflections or glare.
Meanwhile, grips would lay track or a wooden platform (a "dance floor") for the desired camera move. The camera (or cameras, sometimes we used two) would be put into position, a lens selected, distances measured and focus set, and moves practiced. The video monitors and their attendant row of directors' chairs would be moved into a position where Linklater would have a clear line of sight for both the monitor and the actors. The sound cart would also move, and cable itself to the video tap in order to watch for the boom mic dipping into the shot during a take. The 2nd AD would visit extras' holding and select actors to perform in the background, or more often than not, hand out walkie-talkies to drivers of picture vehicles. Props, wardrobe, and makeup would prep and primp.
When things were close, Hensz would call in the actors and Linklater would take them through a blocking rehearsal. Blocking and performance had already been rehearsed, first at the hotel and then out at the location for the week prior to shooting. Now, as the actors went through the scene, everyone watched, looking for improvements they could make. I looked at where each actor moved, in case I needed to replicate it. Wardrobe, props, and continuity checked their respective collections of Polaroids to make sure everything matched the shot immediately prior, which might have been shot a week ago. The gaffer evaluated the lights while the gang watched the monitors, evaluating shot composition and looking for unwanted distractions around the edges of the frame.
After the rehearsal, there would be a flurry of refinement. If this was going to take a while, Marcus and I would step in for the first team (the actors) so that they could psych themselves up for the actual performance rather than being distracted by the chaos of adjustments. When all was set, Hensz would announce, "First team in. Thank you second team." That meant that I was done.
Those who have seen a feature in production always comment on the number of people just sitting around doing nothing. This is a necessary part of production: everyone has a specific job to attend to, and they need to be free and ready to do it, even if it is just moving the video monitors to a new place. At times, everyone would be doing their thing at once, but most of the time people sit and wait for the next time they have to do something. This is another major reason for the speed of set-ups and shooting. On a smaller film crew, members assume multiple roles, and everything takes longer.
I probably worked as a stand-in about 20 minutes a night. The rest of the time I sat around and watched. The directors' chairs are there for the VIPs: actors and key personnel. But those folks don't usually sit, so I started parking myself in a chair and observing. I learned that once a shot was being taken, I probably wouldn't be needed, so this was a good time to wander over to crafts services (the truck full of snacks and beverages) or the bathroom trailer (the two most important places on a film set).
The nights were marked by a series of routines. We would arrive at sunset, a catered "breakfast" available for those who wanted to eat first. The gang, under the watchful eyes of department heads, would go over what was planned for the evening. Linklater would bring out the actors to block, then the actors would go to wardrobe, hair, and makeup while the crew prepared to shoot. At about 10pm, Nick, the crafts services man, would bring sandwiches; at one we would break for lunch.
After lunch, it would be much quieter. Most of the night's observers would have dispersed, and traffic was much lighter, although we still had police to lock down the intersection while we were filming. The amount of light we created was confusing the poor birds of the intersection, who would chirp tentatively throughout the night. At about 5am, they would start in force, and we would have to beat the trunks of trees or shoot off blanks to shock them into silence just prior to a take. At about six, as the sky lightened imperceptibly, we would rush through the final business of the night. By seven, the sun would be out and we would finish shooting. Crew members would break down the set, while I joined the commuters heading into Austin.
For the first week, I was very attentive. I chatted with crew members, inspected equipment, and asked questions. I smoked a lot, there being little else to do, and became the primary cigarette supplier on the set (I am still lobbying for a screen credit as set tobacconist). Because I know a lot about production, I was good at interpreting overheard comments or sudden flurries of activity, and could often fill others in on what actually was going on.
The second week, Marcus was sick, and a variety of extras were upgraded to stand-in with me. I became more cognizant of my relative uselessness on the set. When Linklater's assistant left after lunch, I would watch his notebook and give him chocolate at 5am (stimulant as alarm clock: a pick-me-up and a warning that only a few hours of darkness remained). I fetched coffee and tea and handed out cigarettes. I read five books.
The third week, I started taking AFS meetings on the set. Since we were settled in one location, this was easy: I just told people they could find me on the corner. A few of my friends stopped by, but primarily I dealt with Film Society business. When I couldn't attend our April board meeting, I invited our board members to visit the set.
By the fourth week, the inertia was killing me. I am used to working hard, but it was getting difficult to continue my office hours at UT and run the Film Society while working 13 hours a night. (I had "taken off" April -- which means I only worked 30 hours a week on Film Society business.) I started oversleeping, arriving a little later each night and striding in nonchalantly, as if I had been hanging out at crafts services instead of racing down to the location. One night, I woke up two hours late; when I got to the set I found that casting had called looking for me, but I hadn't really missed anything. Meanwhile, I brought my PowerBook laptop to the set, and spent the majority of my time putting together the April/May AFS newsletter and getting together T-shirt designs.
For the final week, we bid a fond farewell to the Circle A and started moving to a variety of other locations. This perked us all up -- each night brought a new location with new challenges and situations. I thought avidly about the hours of free time I would soon have, when the film was over and I could resume my life.
The night before our last shoot, a profound funk settled over me. I had been so looking forward to having 13 extra hours a day in which to resume my life, but suddenly I felt like I had no life beyond this picture. It was irrational, because I knew how replaceable my role had been. But I had persevered through this bizarre lifestyle for 23 days, and had forgotten how to do anything else. When Hensz called "...that's a wrap!" after the final shot, people cheered and hugged each other. Then they went back to work, breaking down their respective department's equipment so they could go home. I had nothing to be responsible for, so I got in my car and left.
Each weekend, there had been some sort of party or event for the cast and crew, all of which I meant to attend but didn't -- Film Society work or the lure of a few hours sleep would prevail. Mailing out the Film Society newsletter made me two hours late for the wrap party, but I made it. I missed the speeches, but got a souvenir subUrbia water bottle and a lot of hugs. They had hired a couple of masseuses and tarot readers, and I got in line for my tarot and waited the better part of an hour, while people drifted by and chatted with me. I have never had my tarot read, but profoundly believe in it. I thought that at this moment in my life the reader could give me some clue as to my path in life and career. But when it was finally my turn, she looked at me and then blew out her candle, muttering "no one more, no more" as she packed up her duffel bag and left.
So my name will be in the credits for subUrbia, and I've survived a feature shoot, but I'm little farther along on my great career in film. I'm not going to be a stand-in again; I need to feel like I have some responsibility to make those hours of inactivity bearable. But standing around on the corner watching the big picture made me more reluctant than ever to specialize in one department. I want a job where I can watch the big and the little simultaneously. Maybe I'll just have to make a film of my own. n