Thursday, August 7, 2014

All In The Family: The Making of Town Diary - Cancer is Not Funny*, Well Sometimes

"Dark humour is like cancer. Not everybody gets it."
Anonymous cancer joke

Cancer. Among the scariest words around, because almost everyone has been touched by it, either directly or through a close relative. I lost my dad, grandfather, and two uncles to cancer, as well as many friends.

JR, my longtime friend and business partner in Town Diary, as well as our DP, was a cancer survivor, having beat the disease back in the 1980s, before I met him. Now, JR found out it had come back, but that the doctors were optimistic they could keep it under control.

Whatever JR's level of concern, he did a good job of hiding it. Because he knew he would be undergoing chemotherapy again, and that it would make him weak, we discussed hiring an operator. As a DP, JR had always been his own operator, so we knew this would be tricky.

JR was open to the idea, but it had to be the right person. The first and only person that came to mind was my old friend, Charlie Houston, the gaffer on The Rook and my DP on Plaster. (Follow the linked words for some of the fun Chalie and I had in the past).

Much like me, JR was a man of habits. He liked one wine - White Zinfandel (something I teased him about endlessly). He had a favorite restaurant, a little Italian place down the block from him on Carmine Street called Alfredo**.

JR was truly the Godfather of Alfredo. When he made a reservation, we got the best table in the house. He knew all the busboys. I could not kid JR about the food at this place, which was the wonderful, authentic, Italian cuisine.

So it was that when JR and Charlie would meet, we set up a time for them to do so at the restaurant. Stacey, JR's girlfriend, and I waited at his apartment down the block. It was like a waiting for a mob conference to take place.

One hour. Two hours. It was a good three hours later that JR got back. How'd it go?

It seems it was bromance at first bite. They liked each other immediately - the rest of the three hours seems to have been them talking DP geek stuff and movies endlessly. Obviously, a good fit.

My AD was Chris K. who had been my 2nd AD on Lucky Stiffs and 1st AD on many commercials and other gigs. A big, brusque Irishman, Chris K had started out as a stock broker, left a very successful job to work in film. We met when I was taking my Certificate in Film at NYU after my operation.

Chris K and I had some interesting adventures together. Years earlier, we had started a company that would produce music videos. One of our first meetings was with a record company on 57th Street, and we came out feeling certain that we would get it (um, we didn't).

Years earlier, a girlfriend of mine from a wealthy family had an aunt who used to take us for Royal Afternoon Tea at the Russian Tea Room. We got through the traditional parts of Tea pretty well - the mini-sandwiches, blinis, dessert et al - but then we decided to celebrate with small drinks of vodka. Mind you, we did not do shots - we sipped very good vodka in a very proper, gentlemanly manner.

Only, sadly, too many of them. Don't ask how many. All I remember was getting up to leave and thinking how far the door was from our table and how was I going to ever traverse such an expanse.

Chris had earned my never-ending admiration when he quit a shoot after a well-known actress (I won't mention her name, but her dad, a much better human being, was Detective Mike Logan's second partner on Law and Order) slapped a make-up artist, and told the producers Chris should apologize to her for pointing out that it was she, and not the makeup artist, who was wrong.

It was Chris who had nicknamed my crazy PA Satan's Child on Lucky Stiffs, and Chris who had this wonderfully dark and ironic sense of humor I loved. I walk with a cane, and on one children's PSA I was producing in Central Park on which Chris was the AD, I would tap my wrist (the sign for tapping a watch, or 'look at the time') as I feared we were behind. Chris did not take well to micromanaging (and he knew he was doing alright but I was having a little fun pushing him). He grabbed my cane, threw it as far as he could, looked at me and said "Oh, go fetch."

As the clients looked on astonished, I could only laugh as the horrified children scrambled to get it back to me as quickly as possible. That mean man!

So it was that one afternoon we were sitting in our production office, discussing a production meeting that had transpired in the morning. In the office was the production coordinator, Alison, and a few other crew members who were left over from the meeting. Keeping with the family theme, Alison was a friend from West Bank cafe who had a background in event management. If you're counting, that is one cast member (there would be another), the producer's and director's assistant, and the POC from West Bank Cafe.

The moral of that story is make sure your local watering hole has talented people in your industry. Or not.

JR had not been able to make the production meeting in the AM, having undergone chemo. He showed up as soon as he could in the afternoon.

Understand that Chris had worked with Jack and JR and I on a lot of ADA PSAs, and other projects, so we all went back a long way. Chris looked at him and said, "Hey, JR where were you this morning for the production meeting?"

JR informed him of the chemo session, which triggered one of the funnier very non-PC moments I have experienced.

In his very deep voice, Chris bellowed, "Gee, I wish I had cancer so I could skip production meetings."

Much like my reaction when he tossed my cane, JR immediately cracked up laughing. Going back to my early days with JR and his crew, a constant ribbing was how we got through 16-hour days on sometimes mindless movies with sometimes more mindless people. I started laughing right afterwards, and, after the shock wore off, so did JR's girlfriend (who had been my assistant, POC, and 2nd AD on various shoots).

Anyone who knew JR well knew the last thing he wanted was people's concern or worse, pity, which he ranked up there with sympathy.

The rest of the office, who did not share our past, had the more anticipated reaction - shock, horror, dismay and outright disapproval. Their reaction started with Chris' comment, and moved to these people actually laughing at it.

It's one of my favorite moments with, as well as memories of, JR (who sadly lost his battle with cancer shortly after the film was finished). It was a snapshot of group of friends preparing to embark down the dark river that is film, on the usual boat, the one whose last nail has been put in just as it was about to leave the dock on it's maiden voyage. Each new one is a maiden voyage, like the regulars on Starship Enterprise embarking on some newly-commissioned ship because the last one got destroyed by angry intergalactic neighbors. In our own insane way, this was the image of the crew smiling on the dock, all hope and good wishes.

As Star Trek fans (and JR was a big one) know, they don't make movies about the easy missions.

* It isn't Alfredo, but when I checked a Google map, it seems the restaurant is no longer there. It is something like that, though.

Cancer is Not Funny is a wonderful site that wields one of the most powerful weapons against the biggest fellow enemy of cancer, despair. Laugh on, please.

1 comment:

Michael Taylor said...

Love this post, especially that last paragraph on "the dark river of film" -- a dead-on phrase. Sorry to hear about your friend JR, though. We've all lost good friends over the years in this business, and it hurts just as bad every damned time.

Nice work.