Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Chain of Pain - Part 2 - Bad Day for Johnny

Fate can be a cruel mistress who toys with us, proof that sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel really is an oncoming train.

I think of the moving scene in The Perfect Storm, when the brave men of the Andrea Gail fight their way through what they think is the worst of the storm, only to be confronted by that giant rogue wave that they know they cannot overcome.

Stacey coming aboard made life on the film almost bearable.  As kindred production people, Van and Stacey got along great, and the producer and production coordinator loved her.  Things I requested from the production office got to me in something remotely resembling reasonable time, and she got the until-then awful crafty situation under control.

So it came that to pass that there was a day with four company moves.  As the person who had to coordinate this along with my other duties, and still having that one passenger-van, I came into the day primed to get it all done.

There is a masochistic element to being an AD, where the harder the day ahead seems to be, the more psyched you are to navigate it.  I know days when I had a large page count and tons of extras always got my juices flowing.

I was so ready for this.  I had a battle plan.  I knew that after the fourth move, our final location would include about twenty children, and the forecast for the night exterior was for rain.

Bring it on, I thought.

Van and I hit our stride and after the first three moves, we were about a half hour ahead of schedule.  The little I got to see of Van on set - I was always hustling the back set and one location behind him wrapping while he was onto the next set - he was in peak form.  There is that point as a First AD where you blow through everything - a newbie director, difficult DP - just keep truckin'.  Van was in a zone.

The only hold-up was that juggling all this had me behind on the call sheet for the next day, but as long as I got to the final location on time, I would be able to make it happen.

As things turned out, we had some extra day players to move, and as I put the last one in the passenger van, I realized there was no room for me even in the 2nd trip.  As I closed the door, I looked at the PA/driver and said:

"You drop the crew off and you wing right back here for me.  Don't stop for coffee.  Don't get out of the van.  Wheel around and pick me up."  He nodded with absolute understanding.

You know where this is going, right?

As I wrap the holding area (we had only paid for a certain number of hours) I realized the charge on my laptop computer was almost done.  So much for working on the call sheet while I waited.  No worries - as soon as I got to the last holding area, I would plug-in.

I wait.  I wait more.  Calls to the office.  We can't get hold of the driver - Stacey's call to the other location confirms he has dropped people off.  Where is he?

Stacey's relentless pursuit of the facts uncovered the fact that the idiot producer had taken the van from the driver, ignoring what I had told him, to pick up craft for the next day.

He had found a place where he could get it cheaply, so somehow that trip made it to the top of the priority list over getting the night done.  Van was on set with a ton of extras, fighting time and the weather, with no 2nd AD.

"JB," Stacey said haltingly.  "Van asked about the call sheet."

Stacey knew full well how frustrated the question would make me - remember, she had been my 2nd AD.  She got it.

Not one to give in, she improvised.  She had just hired a new PA that day from a shoot she had just worked on, a really bright young girl who was new to film but had smarts.

"Jenny has her own car, and she's going to pick you up in that. "  I love Stacey.

Of course, by now it's rush hour in Manhattan, and we have to get crosstown, a Herculean feat at any time, but punctuated now by the rain that has started.

Jenny is not just chipper - she is too chipper by half.  I am reminded of Lou Grant's line to Mary "You got spunk.  I hate spunk." Yes, another dated cultural reference.

We are moving at a snail's pace, and there is really nothing Jenny can do.  Her instinct, in this case, led her in the wrong direction, and that was to try and cheer me up.  She didn't exactly break into a version of "The Sunny Side of the Street," but I specifically remember her looking at the motionless bus ahead of us and saying, "Let's go, Mr. Bus.  JB wants to get to set!" and then smiling at me.

It was her first damn day, she had done nothing wrong, and Stacey said she would be a great PA.  I couldn't yell at her, so I held it in, held it in when she decided that our shared theater background meant this would be a good time to break out her collection of show tunes on the car's cassette player.  Yes, show tunes.

I thanked her and got out of the car about a block or two before we got to location, figuring that even with a cane, I could make better time than she could in traffic.  I was numb to the rain as I arrived, dripping wet, when Van looked at me hopefully and said, "JB, you have the call sheet right?"

I dejectedly had to tell Van that I did not, but he would have it shortly.  Man, did I hate letting him down like that.  He was busting his tail against all odds, and I wasn't holding up my end.   At that moment, that was the worst part - not the frustration, or the rain, or the show tunes.  It was letting my partner down.

Just as I flew into a Tourettes tantrum expressing how I felt about the job and the producer and headed up the stairs to our second floor holding area, I saw the young girl who was rustling the kid extras at the top of the stairs.  They were behind, the kids were cranky, and she had deftly gone into babysitter mode, having the kids do a sing-a-long to keep them from thinking about how long they had been waiting.

Much like Bruce Banner once someone had made him angry, there was no turning back.  A better man would have restrained himself in the presence of these innocent tots, but I could not, and I can only wonder what their impressionable minds thought of the mean man storming up the stairs with a cane and an attitude.

They weren't going to like me.

Without losing the beat of her sing-a-long, the wrangler turned the kids around just as they were going to head down the stairs, and actually sang "Let's step back and let the busy man through."

They didn't need her lead - they were already flying in every direction and clearing a path.   I plugged in the laptop and pounded out the call sheet.  Van approved it almost without looking at it, which was very unlike Van, who would have me correct a missing comma in the element breakdown.

As Jenny sped off to make copies, I hurried to secure the lock-up and make sure that we did not lose one more moment shooting.  This included holding traffic for takes on busy NY streets, and to the credit of the PAs, they flew around and made it happen.

When we wrapped, we were around the corner from my apartment, and, more importantly, around the corner from Kennedy's, a truly wonderful Irish bar.  All of the bartenders were from Northern Ireland - knee-capping was spoken of as an honorable end for those who opposed the cause.

At the back bar was a bartender named Morris, a dapper gentleman with gray hair, a bow tie and handle-bar moustache.  I was born John, and always hated the name Johnny - I would never allow friends or relatives to call me that growing up.  Morris had taken to calling me Johnny, and he was so classy that correcting him seemed rude.  He was my favorite bartender there, and he ran the back bar, which was in a separate room from the main bar.

Van was too tired to go out drinking; I was too wound-up not to.  I decided to take two of the PAs, Jenny and Joe (they later became a couple) out for drinks.

"How was your day, Johnny" was Morris' usual welcome.  I decided to tell him, over the next hour or two and many drinks.  We were the only customers in that back bar on that rainy weeknight, dripping wet and talking a mile a minute.  We must have been a sight.

I was sure I'd run up quite a tab, but it was alright, I needed it.  When I asked him what I owed him, that wonderful man looked at me and said, "Sounds like you had a bad night, Johnny.  It's on me."  Of course, I left a hefty tip on the bar, but that wasn't the point.  It was the old-school bond between a bartender and a regular that one would probably never see today, and, truth be told, was extravagant even for that time.

Not long afterward, Van and I were asked to come into the office at the end of a shooting day.  Even the optimistic Van knew what that meant.

My original estimation of the situation proved true.  The producers asked Stacey to stay on, and she was much too professional to leave because we were fired - I would have been disappointed if she had.  She believed, as we did, that you fulfill your obligations.

She drove us home that night - she had now taken ownership of the production passenger van, trusting it to no one else.  She started kidding us about bringing her on and then leaving, and Van and I replied with, yes, a  show tune, albeit an improvised one.

Where ever we go - except tomorrow's set,
Whatever we do - except this job,
We're gonna go through it together - well, not exactly together.

After reminding us that we sucked, she dropped us off.

It was only a day or two later that remorse set in.  I started thinking that maybe there was something I could have done to make the shoot better for Van, that maybe I hadn't served him well.  Stacey and I had a serious talk, and I realized that even if I had been better - and I wasn't perfect - it would have ended the same way - badly.

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