Rain, Broken Glass, and a Dead Body in the Dumpster
Fourteen hours of Elizabeth Reeder's 'Very Bad Day'
At the South Austin headquarters of the so-called Test Prep Guy, Elizabeth Reeder sits down to review the day's shot list with her cinematographer, Suezean Matarazzo. Reeder's cast -- five young men from her acting studio, Studio E -- is assembled at Test Prep Guy's conference table, rehearsing scene No. 27, the first of the day. Evan Lu, who plays dudely Carter in A Very Bad Day, Reeder's farce about an inconvenient dead body in a Dumpster, is concerned about his wardrobe: Left in the washer too long, his jeans reek. Everyone can smell them, even as stylist Charlie Hodges of Joie de Vie sprays the cast with Big Sexy Hair. Meanwhile, co-star David Richardson has gone platinum for the occasion. "He's rocking the Draco Malfoy look," Reeder explains; there was "too much brunette" in the cast.
As Reeder (Bush's Brain) presents the cast with add-ons to the shot list, Test Prep Guy's modest lounge area is converted to an office: a desk brought in, a computer set up, binders and blotters and Post-Its strategically assembled. The room is illuminated with a Chinese lantern for fill light and plastered with K-Line Dulling Spray. Cables are taped down, and Reeder herself steps in to prime and powder her actors. "I'm still smelling the pants, dude," Lu points out.
But spirits are still high. "Liz kind of grinds us into the ground, so we can focus in any situation," explains Peter Williams, who plays Theo in the film. "We're a pretty good team," key grip Wynn Bradford agrees. "We've worked together enough that everybody knows what everybody is doing." "We learn more here than we do in class," offers Carrie Kuhlman, one of two UT students working as production assistants on the shoot.
While designer Stephanie Schoch dresses the set with a tasteful Matisse print, Matarazzo sets up the master shot and considers the preponderance of women behind the camera: "I think it mellows it out. Less testosterone."
The tasteful Matisse print crashes, and its glass breaks.
The cast assembles for its first blocking run. Five guys will squeeze through a doorway into the makeshift office, then argue about the dead man in the Dumpster and the cops outside. "Y'all are doing really great," Reeder encourages. "It's complicated blocking, but you're doing really great." Yet moments before we roll, the camera's battery dies, and the Matisse print -- now without its glass -- is judged too wrinkly. There's an echo in the audio, so Schoch produces a rug. Finally, production assistant Amanda Glaeser slates the first shot -- our phones are off; our gum is silent -- and Reeder calls action. We film the master, a pan-and-scan, and close-ups. Noting each take for continuity is Lauren Lee, daughter of production manager Lisa Lee and an eighth-grader at Canyon Vista Middle School. Reeder gives notes: "I wanna see a lot more angry!" and "Feel free to step on each other just a little bit." The cast's youngest player, 17-year-old Drew Cauthorn, stumbles on the line, "Why don't you just toddle off to the Dumpster and get it?" Eventually the offending verb is eliminated.
It's break time, and the crew makes gentle sport of my sack lunch. Lisa Lee brings giant bags of Taco Bell, and Cauthorn is locked in the conference room with co-star Josh McVaney to prepare for scene No. 32. Outside there is spirited debate about Wal-Mart, where Reeder purchased necessities for the shoot. "If Bob and Ethel's Grocery was open at 4:30 in the morning, I'd have gone there," she shrugs. Efforts are made to secure a guy named Frank for the bit role of "redneck client."
We return instead to scene No. 27 to reshoot McVaney's close-ups, which need to be tighter. "I want him to walk away from that shot feeling good," Reeder says. The retakes are a success except for one ... when McVaney cracks up. "That never happened," he jokes. I write it down anyway.
Scene No. 32 is a beast. McVaney and Cauthorn will argue about football, their characters' futures, and a full-ride scholarship jeopardized by Cauthorn's involvement with the dead guy in the Dumpster. A special effect achieved with a filtered spotlight takes time to prepare, and Matarazzo gives props to Glaeser: "Amanda, you're doing such a good job. Thanks." Before Glaeser slates the first take, McVaney and Cauthorn knuckle one in. Everyone holds their breath. Finally we begin. In the midst of a perfect take, McVaney flubs a line of dialogue. "It's the title of the film!" Reeder hoots. "You might want to get that line right." Lauren Lee and I note the event as "A Very Bad Take."
We have our master shot of scene No. 32. Cauthorn isn't satisfied. "If you think you can do better, let's do it again," Reeder says gently. "You know what you're capable of." There are hugs and handshakes all around. Meanwhile, Test Prep Guy's ventilation system inexplicably begins blowing hot air directly onto sound recordist Jason Beavers, who is perched precariously on Test Prep Guy's couch holding the boom mic.
The skies outside of Test Prep Guy begin bucketing rain audibly. "We're okay," Reeder jokes. "We can turn it off."
The rain stops.
"Kids, the secret to comedy is to play it like drama," Reeder advises. We're all starting to get a little slappy, and McVaney's voice is giving out.
Coffee is reheated in Test Prep Guy's microwave. Preparations begin for scene No. 16 -- "a kitschy little scene," Reeder says -- for which we'll need dozens of Beanie Babies (provided by Lauren Lee) and cast-mate Deana Ricks as a frumpy receptionist won over by Evan Lu. Meanwhile, for reasons not entirely clear to me, Schoch has dressed the platinum-haired David Richardson in her old McCallum High School cheerleading uniform. The too-small costume reveals his hipbones. "Brain bleach!" Reeder yells, and Richardson changes back.
The clapper falls on Lu's scene with Ricks. "Seduce the crap out of her," Reeder advises. "Make it seem like Beanie Babies and sex are just this far apart." Lu nods. We block the scene, but Lu's moves come across as threatening rather than persuasive. Another poster falls down, threatening our continuity.
We're still on the scene. "What, are you afraid I'm going to steal your Beanie Babies?" Lu teases. "I'm really not supposed to do this," Ricks whispers. Then, without warning, she plants one on him, which is not in the script. The room is in stitches. "Keep it; keep it; keep it until Evan becomes a big star and I can sell it to Inside Edition," Reeder says.
Key grip Wynn Bradford is roped into the walk-on of "redneck client." Reeder considers whether a conference-room montage with a tricky circular pan can be accomplished today if we skip some cutaways. A group hug is proposed, and the feeling is warm. "This is an amazing crew that has put up with a lot of crap," Reeder says. "And I could not be more proud of this cast if I tried." Stomachs are rumbling, and Reeder offers "vouchers for shallot salmon at my house."
No longer the redneck client, Bradford begins setting up the dolly track for the day's most ambitious shot. The track is checked and leveled with blocks.
We hit a lull. The guys rehearse scene No. 39 while the women strike the office set and return Test Prep Guy's lounge to its previous condition. Lauren Lee threatens to steal the Chinese lantern for her bedroom.
At last the dolly is ready. There's no audio for the scene, so much of the cast and some of the crew are using Test Prep Guy's giant wipe board to play hangman while we await dinner and wrap. But there is no rest for Evan Lu, who in his smelly pants must run from the receptionist's area, through Test Prep Guy's conference room, and through the doorway of the fully struck office set while the camera dollies around him. On the last take of the day's last shot, Matarazzo dollies back again with the camera still rolling. Reeder grins. It's a keeper.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the August 24, 2007 issue: In "Rain, Broken Glass, and a Dead Body in the Dumpster: Fourteen Hours of Elizabeth Reeder's 'Very Bad Day'" (Screens, Aug. 17), a photograph of cinematographer Suezean Matarazzo was misidentified as Reeder. The Chronicle regrets the error.