Saturday, August 31, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods: Drop Me in the Water

"Some are reputed sick and some are not. It often happens that the sicker man is nurse to the sounder"
-Henry David Thoreau

Ok, when we move on from this movie and the pond, I will move on from Thoreau and Emerson. Promise. 

As the title of the movie might imply, a lot of the time was spent in the water; specifically, Norman spent a lot of time in the water.  Both Norman and Chad's characters were talented high school swimmers, and besides spending time lounging by the pond, their characters also competed against each other swimming. It was part of how they bonded.

There must be something about male adolescence and water. From a young Al Green wanting someone to  Take Me to the River, to Neil Young shooting his baby Down By The River, to Springsteen remembering Mary's body tan and wet as they went down to The River and wondering if a dream's a lie if it don't come true, or if it's something worse, right up to The Decemberists filling their cup Down By The Water  (see, and you thought this old guy didn't know any modern music!)  there is something mystical about the creek, the river, the pond, the reservoir.

Maybe it goes back to the biblical  image of baptism and rebirth, or maybe it's just about young men with over-active hormones seeing what young women look like with wet bodies. Probably it's a little bit of both.

We kept putting Norman in the water, and it wasn't biblical or stimulating. Western Massachusetts in the Fall can be chilly, and the water was downright cold. Add to that a very physical shoot and working long hours, and near the end, it was really draining for Norman.

Because of turnaround (the time needed between wrapping one day and starting the next, for those not in film) a lot of the night shoots by the water were near the end of the shoot, when it was even colder. According to a doctor, Norman was very close to having what used to be referred to as "walking pneumonia." Whatever it was, he was sick.

This is an important point for young filmmakers: actors are not moving props. When you decide to work ceaselessly, it takes a toll on actors, especially if they are expected to be doing physically draining scenes. Norman was about as fit as anyone I have ever met, but it was still a lot to handle.

We set up a few tents, and heaters, and did the best we could to keep him dry and warm between takes, but the reality was that we needed a lot of footage of him in the water. Not only did he never complain, he refused to slow down, pushing himself pretty hard to make our days.

I tried to walk that fine line between fulfilling one of the first responsibilities of the Assistant Director - making the schedule - and fulfilling "the prime directive" - safety.

In the end, much as an athletic coach sometimes has to trust an athlete's ability to manage pain, it was clear to me that while Norman was pushing, he was also realistic about his limits, resting whenever he could while still getting in all the shots.

Of course it wasn't much fun for us to be out in that weather either, and a string of night shoots is never fun. Your body clock never really adjusts to working at night and sleeping during the day; the answer is more just about breaking your body clock so it stops complaining.

Believe me, none of us were going to complain with what Norman was working through, remembering that all the while, he had to play a tough, strong, athletic young man on screen. He kept us going.

For people who are fans of Norman now from Walking Dead, it is hard to describe what it's like to see an emerging artist just starting to be aware of their powers. Much like young writers, musicians, etc., the work may become better crafted and more mature as time goes on, but there is still something special about that early work, an energy that is hard to describe.

At the time, I was probably more concerned with just getting it all done, but I was still lucky to have been there for that, and I will always admire Norman for it.


For my part, this shoot was one of the few times that my own challenge became an advantage.

The character of Norman's father, played by Will Lyman, had lost a leg in the car accident that killed his wife. Bitter and feeling useless, he had spun deeper into depression and alcohol, acting very much the invalid, refusing to do much outside his wheelchair and spending a lot of time feeling sorry for himself.

Will did an incredible job of not making this a caricature, always letting his entire personality shine through. One challenge for him came in a scene where he tries to learn to walk with an artificial leg.

Whatever issues of frailty came up for Will's character I had long since gotten over with my own condition as a bi-lateral amputee below knee. The mechanics of putting on a prosthetic I knew very well, as it's something I do a number of times a day.

The prosthetic the prop folks got for Will was a very old one, one that was no longer being used even in the late 90s, no less the better ones we wear today.

The one they got him was one which used a strap, which is only used today in certain situations, replaced by a suction device that is actually more secure.

older leg

Newer leg with suction cup and lock

In any case, this was the leg we had, and almost no one knew exactly how it worked.

Some of the crew knew I used prostheses, some thought so but weren't sure, some did not. Because of the cosmetics, unless I roll up my pant legs, it isn't obvious.

I have never made an issue of hiding it, nor have I felt the need to announce it, but this was a time it came in handy.

On a break, I took Will into another room and showed him how mine worked, and how he would put his on. Mystery solved.

One of the humorous notes at this point was Bill, our director. I didn't ever tell Bill, and he didn't know. As we were not on particularly good terms, I didn't see us needing to bond over this point. Once the character had the prosthetic, Bill would constantly ask if it were possible, say, for him to walk up steps with it, or other simple tasks that any amputee learns early on in rehab.

Will, to his credit, would just smile, having seen me go up and down not only steps but hill and dale around our beloved pond. Some of my crew would chuckle. No one filled him in.

One of those moments when, as Thoreau mused, the sicker man was nurse to the sounder.

For my younger readers, another blast from the past.

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