Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll

Well, not really but now that I have your attention...

In my inaugural post I mentioned wanting to trade guitar solos with Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall or Madison Square Garden.  Given my total lack of musical skills, I've begun to think that my dream may never come true.  Fortunately there are other ways to scratch the "guitar god" itch.  Over the years my wife Christine has played guitar and sung at a variety of social events, typically holiday parties and family affairs.  Occasionally I have joined her.  One of these occasions was a couple of years ago on Labor Day weekend when we played for a group of friends at our beach condo in Maine.  We hadn't practiced that much and neither of us was particularly happy with the performance.  For some reason, a few in the group started asking when we were going  to do it again.  Maybe they were all drunk the first time?  Anyway, there's no accounting for taste. (For the record, Christine is a great rhythm guitarist and has a beautiful voice, so the real issues are my ham-handed soloing and off-key harmonica. Don't ask about my voice.) One night in June we were playing guitar at home and, in a moment of insanity, we decided to put together a playlist and practice all summer for another Labor Day weekend show.  That gave us about 8 weeks to practice, which sounds like a long time, but it's not, it's really not.  After a few days of suggesting, vetoing, arguing, debating and experimenting we settled on a 15 song playlist:

  1. I've Just Seen a Face (The Beatles)
  2. I'll Fly Away (Albert Brumley - as performed by Gilian Welch)
  3. Strong Enough (Sheryl Crow)
  4. Give Me One Reason (Tracy Chapman)
  5. Southern Cross (Crosby, Stills & Nash)
  6. San Francisco Bay Blues (Jesse Fuller - as performed by Eric Clapton)
  7. Don't Think Twice, It's Alright (Bob Dylan)
  8. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band)
  9. Bad Reputation (Freedy Johnston)
  10. Superman (Five for Fighting)
  11. Something About What Happens When We Talk (Lucinda Wiliams)
  12. Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
  13. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere (Bob Dylan)
  14. Leaving on a Jet Plane (John Denver)
  15. Let It be (The Beatles) 

We practiced as much as we could for weeks.  Christine on vocals and rhythm guitar, me on rhythm and lead guitar and harmonica.  In late August we assessed our progress:  we were in pretty decent shape.  It could be worse…much worse.  That, of course, is when things changed.  Our son Dillon, who had been away at a performing arts program all summer, had been listening to us practice since he'd gotten home and asked if he could sing on a few of the songs.  He's got a fantastic voice.  How could we refuse?  TWO weeks until the show and a new vocalist.  No problem, his vocal skills were welcome.  

Then came change number two.  We had made new friends, Jim and Susan, who have a place in Maine.  Jim plays guitar but told us he hadn't picked it up in years.  One night while sitting on the beach, in a drunken stupor and ONE week before the show, we asked Jim to join us.  Also in a drunken stupor, he agreed.  He confided that this was a "bucket list" item for him.  We had never played together and would have one opportunity to practice before the show.  When Jim showed up at our house for the practice session he was nervous, not only about his own playing but (I'm sure) about ours.  What had he agreed to?  Could we play at all or did we totally suck?  After one song (Southern Cross) we all wiped our foreheads and breathed a sigh of relief.  We liked how he sounded and vice versa.  Jim is an excellent player and really has an ear for chord changes and song structure.   

Sunday, September 1 -- show day.   We set up on the deck.  Our friends and neighbors gathering with lots of alcohol.  Excellent.  The drunker they were the better we would sound.  Jim and Susan arrived with a bunch of friends in in tow.  Christine, Dillon and I opened with "I've Just Seen a Face:" 

Jim joined us:


Soloing on guitar and harmonica:

The crowd:

In the end we had a great time.  Our audience seemed to enjoy it.  Christine, Dillon and Jim were fantastic.  Did it satisfy my desire to do scorching guitar solos?  Partially, but next year we go electric.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Shoot

So there I was. Sitting on a solid oak bench in a courtroom on a movie set. Eight or ten hours. Contemplating my next purchase ‐‐ Preparation H. Robert Downey, Jr. sat in the chair typically occupied by defense counsel. He was dressed in jeans and a gray tee shirt. That seemed odd to me as this was not the costume of an attorney in court. The remainder of the seats (defendant, opposing counsel, judge, court clerk, etc.) were occupied by people I didn't recognize. All except Downey, Jr. had signs on their chests that said "defendant" or "opposing counsel," etc. Also odd, I thought to myself. Then I realized what they were doing. They were body doubles for the actors so that lighting and camera positions could be set without having to make the talent sit around. After a flurry of activity the director shouted "first team!" The body doubles got up and left, including Downey, Jr.
The talent began to turn up. The judge and defendant were both character actors whom I had seen before but could not name. David Krumholtz, who was playing opposing counsel, strolled in still looking like the math geek on "Numbers" albeit with some extra weight. Then Robert Downey, Jr. walked in wearing a dark blue suit and tie. Did he learn about lightning fast costume changes on the set of "Ironman?" Something about him, other than his costume, was different. He was a little thinner than he had been 5 minutes earlier. I pointed this out to the woman sitting next to me and she giggled. "The other guy was a double," she said as if I were the biggest idiot she'd ever met. Wow. That guy was a dead ringer for Downey, Jr. I began to wonder how many people have thought they met Robert Downey, Jr. but had actually met the double. Clearly I would have been fooled. The AD gave us our instructions: look like you're interested in the trial. Based on my month of birth I was assigned the task of murmuring to the person sitting next to me, who thought I was an idiot. Now I had to think of witty things to say to her under my breath.
WARNING! Tense change. Reader discretion advised.)
The scenario is as follows: Downey, Jr. plays a hotshot Chicago lawyer known for his courtroom antics while defending the rich and famous. During a trial he receives a voicemail message informing him that his mother has died. He asks to be replaced as defense counsel. Krumholtz protests claiming it's a trick to garner sympathy and attention. Downey, Jr. lets the judge listen to the message and is excused. He then makes a dramatic exit from the courtroom walking by me and my giggly friend. A 60 second scene, if that. Eight to ten hours of shooting. The Director yells "action," the scene kicks off with Krumholtz making a statement to the court regarding some legal concept. Downy. Jr.'s cell phone rings, he ignores it. As Krumholtz's statement gets more tedious, Downey, Jr. covertly checks his voicemail. He looks alarmed. What's going on? The gallery watches curiously. Murmuring ensues. I lean over to my new friend (can't remember her name) with my left hand strategically placed over my mouth to hide what I'm saying: "Murmer, murmer, murmer." She nods, considering my analysis and responds: Murmer?" Maybe I'm not the only idiot. The judge orders counsel to approach the bench. They argue in hushed voices. The judge has the cell phone, he's listening to the VM. He excuses Downey, Jr., Krumholtz has a hissy fit. Suddenly it occurrs to me. Downey, Jr. is leaving the courtroom via the very aisle on which I am sitting. The camera follows him. We're murmuring ‐‐ what's this ahole up to now? He walks by us and out the door. Our heads turn to follow him. The Director yells cut. Downey, Jr. spins, comes back in and says in a very loud voice "That's the one." "Nope" says the Director. "Should use that one," responds Downey, Jr. Everyone laughs. We do the scene dozens of times. Every time, Downey, Jr. comes back in and says something amusing including: "Best background work ever." He must have heard me murmuring. This went on for hours. At one point Downey, Jr. addresses the extras in my row. "Excellent job," he tells us. He high fives everyone down the row.

(WARNING! Returning to previous tense.)

Until that moment not a single star on any set had even acknowledged that the extras existed. Maybe my opinion of him was premature. Later that day Downey, Jr. stood up got everyone's attention. We stopped murmuring and waited for him to speak. I was sure he had noticed my work. He'd heard the best murmuring ever and was calling me out for a greater role. I really like Robert Downey, Jr. Great actor. Great guy.

Apparently he was saving my discovery for another movie. Instead he announced the Director of Photography (Janusz Kaminski, who was also Dir. Of Photography on Lincoln, Warhorse, Saving Private Ryan, Schinlder's List and many others) was celebrating his birthday. Production assistants burst through the door with a large cake. Everyone sang and clapped. While on the set Kaminski wore a brightly colored scarf around his neck and made everyone laugh with his over‐the‐top style. He began to dance around. Downey, Jr. stepped in and danced with him, pulling the scarf off and wrapping it around his own neck. It was almost worth taking a picture and being expelled for life plus a thousand years.  Almost, but not quite.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Placement

In the short time I've been doing it, I've come to realize that working as a movie or TV extra is all about jockeying for position. Most people who do background work, myself included, harbor some fantasy that they'll be noticed, which will eventually lead to larger roles. You can't be noticed unless you're location in the scene is noticeable. You need to be where the camera is pointing. Obviously, extras don't control their placement or there would be hand‐to‐hand combat over every prime spot. In "Hatfields and McCoys" I got lucky and was placed prominently in the ballroom scene,but it was just that ‐‐ luck. Some extras suck up to the production assistants (PA's) by bringing them coffee or pretending to be their buddy in order to get a leg up on placement. I'm not sure if that works but I've adopted a different tactic: eye contact with the assistant directors (AD's). These are the people who place extras on the set. Consistent eye contact seems to work when you're standing there waiting to be placed.
At the end of my last post I had just piled into a shuttle van with a lot of other extras to head from holding to the set, which was in the courthouse in Plymouth, MA. Ironically, I sat next to the guy playing the bailiff. My friend Mike had been picked for that part but the costume didn't fit. I could see why. This guy was about 5‐8 and weighed about 165 pounds. Mike is well over six feet and well over 200 pounds. The last time I saw Mike he was depressed and heading for the bathroom. He was wearing a necktie, which concerned me. Anyway, not only was this guy the bailiff, it was his second appearance in the movie! He'd had a different background role in another scene. This seemed odd to me. Surely some movie geek will point this out after the movie is released. (If not, I will) After a short ride we got to the courthouse service entrance. The van was so full that when a PA opened the door from the outside, someone literally fell out onto the ground. The bailiff stepped over him and kept walking. We were herded into a conference room which would serve as "set hold." I avoided the bailiff and sat down next to a guy who, like me, was dressed in a suit and tie. He introduced himself as Bob. This was Bob's first extra experience. From somewhere deep inside of me came swagger: "First time? Stick with me I told him. I've done this before." As a veteran of one television shoot, I knew the ropes. First we needed to get closer to the door that led to the set. Second, when they came in looking for people we needed to make direct eye contact. Third, if they pointed anywhere in our general direction we would jump into line and stay there until they told us otherwise. It wasn't long before a PA came in with a determined look on his face. My eyes were like lasers. He looked straight at me. This was it. "Help yourselves to drinks and snacks, we'll be back to get you in a while." Then he was gone. Shit. 

Bob and I chatted about the usual things, family, work, the Red Sox. After what seemed an eternity an AD came in. My eyes locked on like a sidewinder missile. To my surprise, he pointed two fingers at Bob and me and said: "You two, come with me." Bob gave me a nod of respect. I swaggered to the door. The AD then picked about 15 more people which took a little confidence out of my step. Eventually we walked upstairs to the set. It was a typical looking courtroom, judge’s bench, jury box, court reporter's desk, tables for the opposing legal teams, etc. There were actors sitting in all of these places but I didn't recognize any of them except one ‐‐ Robert Downey, Jr. was seated at the table directly in front of the gallery benches where Bob and I had been placed. Perfect! I'll be in the shot for sure. No sooner had that thought crossed my mind when a different AD came up to me and said "I need to move you. Too many men in suits in the front row." I almost said: "Move Bob, he's new." Instead I did as I was told. Head down, I slunk off to the back of the room like Charlie Brown. The right side of the gallery was divided by a perpendicular walkway that led out the main door of the courtroom. I was finally placed in the first row of the rear half of the split, along the walkway, next to where the bailiff stood. I couldn't seem to shake this bailiff guy but it could have been worse, I could have been buried in the back somewhere. I noticed that Bob had also been relocated further to the rear. More extras filed past where I was sitting. I saw Mike, he looked disdainfully at the bailiff as he walked into the room. An AD directed him to the back row, far corner. Mike's day wasn't getting any better. I settled onto the hard oak bench, my home for the next eight or ten hours.  

Next time: The Shoot

Thursday, July 4, 2013

On the Lot

This was it.  Hollywood.  The big time.  No worrying about whether or not the pilot got picked up. This movie would be out there -- it might be a huge flop but it would be out there nonetheless. Early the next morning I made the drive to Plymouth, MA where the shoot would take place. The marshaling area was Plymouth High School. I arrived at 6:30AM and walked down a long, and surprisingly crowded, hallway to the cafeteria which was the designated "holding" area. Signs posted in the holding area said that the movie was called The Judge. I googled the title.  It's the story of a hotshot Chicago lawyer who returns to his hometown to deal with the death of his mother and ends up putting the CEO of a healthcare company on trial. Cast:  Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D'Onofrio, David Krumholtz. Just my luck. I've never liked Robert Downey, Jr. and my hollywood debut would be a movie in which he stars. Oh well, I do love Duvall and Vera Farmiga is kind of hot. We would be shooting a courtroom scene. My first thoought was that I should have brought suspenders with my suit. I closed my eyes and pictured Gregory Peck's courtroom monologue in To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the best movie scenes of all time. I hoped like hell that Downey Jr. wouldn't attempt something similar. I checked in and was told to have some breakfast and wait to be called. Breakfast? I turned around and saw, like a beacon shining through the fog, a buffet. I don't typically eat much breakfast (I know, most important meal of the day, blah, blah) but when it comes to unlimited portions of pork products I have as much willpower as Lindsey Lohan at an open bar. There were also custom omelets, breakfast burritos and espresso drinks. Wow, $87.54 plus a serious meal.  Not bad.  I toddled towards the chow line drooling and grunting like a zombie from the Walking Dead. As I struggled to carry the fruits of my gluttony to a table I ran into my old buddy and acting mentor Mike who had guided me through the waiting process on the set of Hatfields and McCoys. He recognized me and we chatted for a while but he had to run off to wardrobe for a fitting, he had the inside track on a part as the bailiff.  Damn, I need to get into the union.

After eating I considered my next move. On Hatfields and McCoys I got dressed early then sat around for hours. I checked the line at wardrobe, very short. Screw it. I got into my suit and tie, combed my hair and waited to be examined head-to-toe by 2 or 3 very critical people who never seemed to be happy with what anyone was wearing. This time was no different. I had been told to wear a suit and the wardrobe people were looking at me like I'd worn cutoffs and a tee shirt. They conferred with each other as they checked me out. Lots of furrowed brows. They called over another person who also appeared to be concerned. Do I look that bad? Is there bacon grease on my shirt? Wait! It must be that I'm being considered for a bigger role and they want to make sure I looked perfect. Of course, what else could it be? I stood tall and proud. At that moment a man walked over to us and said:  "he's fine" and walked away. The others said nothing and immediately turned their attention to the next guy in line. I waited. Should I report to the casting director for further instructions? Finally one of them looked quizzically at me and said in a somewhat annoyed tone of voice:  "you can go back to holding." Dejected, I slunk off to the cafeteria where I ran into Mike, who was also unhappy. He didn't get the bailiff role because the costume wasn't large enough to fit him. Like the pigs that had given their lives for our breakfast, we wallowed in our mutual disappointment.

After only about an hour of waiting the assistant director starting lining us up in the hallway for movement to the set, which was in the county courthouse not far away. I had lost track of Mike who, I think, had wandered off to the Men's room to hang himself. Maybe I should check on him, but then I might not get to the set until later when the good background parts had been assigned. Mike would be okay. I fell into line. We squeezed about 18 people into a 12 passenger van and for the short ride to the set. Hollywood was about to be introduced to Tim McGuire.  In my head I recited my Oscar speech.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Out of the Ashes

A few weeks ago I found out that NBC did not buy the Hatfields & McCoys pilot.  I had expected a personal call from Charlize Theron breaking the news but instead I saw it in a Tweet from actress Virginia Madsen, also a cast member. I was crushed. My premier performance on the small screen would never see the light of day. I had totally nailed that ballroom scene, walking across the background like I owned it. Rubbing elbows, literally, with Rebecca DeMornay. Flirting with Charlize -- I would stare and she would pretend to divert her eyes and hurry away uncomfortably. I Tweeted her, pleading for her to shop the show around. If NBC didn't want it then perhaps a trendier venue. Netflix?  YouTube? Alas, she must not have received the Tweets because I didn't hear from her. Despondent, my career in tatters, I contemplated the future. I had to avoid the tired route followed by so many other has-beens:  alcoholism, drug addiction, the inevitable life of petty crime and - the final blow - a mug shot on The Smoking Gun. But wait, that path might get me a recurring role on Celebrity Rehab which could help me out of the gutter and into a stint on Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice and eventual rebirth in a Quentin Tarantino movie. This could work, but now what? The alcoholism would be easy, I can pound whiskeys with the best of them. Drug addiction would be the real challenge. Cocaine is passé. Heroin and meth would mean hanging out in unsavory neighborhoods buying from unsavory people. Not really my thing. As if channeling Sherlock Holmes, I realized that what remained was the truest, as well as the trendiest option: pain killers. Getting opioids would be a cakewalk, I'd just tell my doctor that I'm experiencing excruciating, non-specific low back pain. Bingo! Years of Vicodin  prescriptions. I had chosen my path. It was 10PM. On a Wednesday. The phone rang. It was the casting company. Could I be on location for a movie shoot the next day at 7:30AM? I almost declined due to excruciating, non-specific low back pain but reconsidered. My entire career had been in television.  Would the big screen be my acting salvation? Could I use this job to rise from the ashes? Not to mention the $87.54 I would be earning. Suddenly full of hope, my hand shaking, I brought the phone to my ear. "I'll be there," I said. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The excruciating, non-specific back pain would have to wait. An Oscar worthy background performance in a feature film would come first.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Day to Remember

Ah, Memorial Day weekend. The opening salvo of summer. Barbecues. Beer. My Facebook and Twitter accounts are overflowing with recipes for grilled everything, summer cocktails and workout routines to get you in shape for the beach. In spite of the dismal New England weather (rainy and in the 50s Saturday & Sunday) I'm right there with all of it. Monday morning brings sun and warmer temperatures which means opening the deck, planting the herb garden, firing up the gas grill and popping open a cold beer or summery bottle of sauvignon blanc.

Last night, I had Twitter and Facebook battles with several people on the other side of politics from me. They attacked, I counterattacked and vice-versa.  I actually tweeted Sarah Palin and referred to her as "The Queen of Stupid " because she used the pretense of thanking veterans to attack the President. Harsh perhaps, but her message was in bad form and my response was no harsher than she doles out on a daily basis. I had a Facebook argument with an old friend about how long it took the President to make the decision to launch the Bin Laden raid, implying that he had no right to criticize because he'd never served in the military. Wrong? Possibly. He certainly has the right to comment as do we all in this great country.

This morning Twitter provided more tips for the perfect burger in addition to a half-dozen hate-tweets from Sarah Palin fans. Scrolling through the messages it occurred to me that today it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that since September 2001:
  • 6640 US service members and 16 Dept. of Defense civilians have been killed in combat
  • 50, 155 service members and 295 DoD civilians have been wounded.
  • 131,341 service members have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

We must never forget them. We must never use them as political pawns. We must never take the decision to send them into harms' way lightly. We must never blame them for the political decisions with which we disagree. We must always keep in mind that they willingly and without question deployed to another country, engaged in combat with an enemy and consistently defeated that enemy irrespective of the politics behind the battle. Some died, some were wounded. The survivors will be forever altered by the experience, even if they don't know it.
So as we bring our grills back to life after a long hard winter and  sip from a frosty beer bottle, we must take a minute to think about them and the hundreds of thousands who came before them. Today it doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum we favor. What matters is that because of them we can favor any side we please.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Misadventure #1 -- Artistic Expression (Part III)

Acting Part 3 – The Aftermath
Last time…I had just received my paycheck for the extra gig on Hatfield and McCoys.

I sat in my living room, basking in the glow of my $87.54 windfall and brush with fame.  I was charged up.  Despite the long hours and low pay I had a lot of fun.  On the downside I learned that acting is hard and tedious work.  We spent 6 hours shooting a scene that might end up as a two minute segment of the pilot.  On the upside I’d had close encounters with Charlize Theron and Rebecca DeMornay.  I had walked through the shot and will probably appear in the show if all of the following happen:

·         NBC buys the pilot

·         The scene appears in the pilot

·         The portion of the scene that appears in the pilot features a wide angle shot

I think I have a pretty good chance.

Would I do it again?  In a heartbeat.  I set up a profile on the casting company’s website and my name has been submitted for several extra jobs on various shoots in the Boston area.  So far no bites.  I guess that’s show business.