SINGING IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT: Chapter 1, Living the Dream

Jan 9 • EXTRA! EXTRA!, Fact or Fiction, FEATURE SIDEBARNo Comments on SINGING IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT: Chapter 1, Living the Dream

Hey man, it’s the five stages of filmmaking.” The old Gaffer shrugged.

“What is?” his youngest recruit asked.

“Step one: Inspiration.”

He held up his fingers to count off as he recited: “Step two: Panic. Step three: Identify the Guilty. Step four: Punish the Innocent. Step five: Accept Awards by Non-participants.”

“So what stage are we on?”

“Kirby, my lad, you were the one who was just bitching about night-shoot schedules.” The Gaffer gave a half-hearted chuckle. “That sounds to me like ‘Punish the Innocent.’ Get used to it, kid. It’s called ‘livin’ the dream.’”

He glanced around the sound stage and mentally compared notes against the last time they shot the scene. Why another take right now? he wondered. Honestly, they were deep into step two—panic—with late-night shooting schedules on a film terribly over budget; injured crew members, two producers who were only communicating to each other through written notes passed by an assistant director; and a director who knew how to make a 3-minute music video but had no clue how to put together a 90-minute feature. In other words, it was business as usual.

“Besides,” he added to his young electrician. “If you think this is bad, try night exteriors in Canada in December. At least this is North Carolina.”

He gestured for help to pick up a light stand topped with a large and awkward mini-brute. “Have I ever told you about my worst night on a movie set?”

“No, sir.” Kirby shook his head. He might be young and inexperienced, but three weeks on a movie set had taught him that, when the boss told a story, his job was to be a fascinated audience.

Besides, he loved all stories about the stars, the locations. He dreamt of the day he would have his own stories about lighting Julia Roberts or Robert Duvall.

“Listen, night exteriors in Canada in the winter were so bad I used to sew heating pads into my coveralls, and run the chord down my sleeve and plug into an outlet when we were standing around waiting.”

“You mean like now?”

“Yes, like now. Hurry up and wait: That’s what the movie business is about, young friend. It was sleeting, my shoes were freezing to the pavement, and I walked over to the AD and said there was no way this night could get any worse.”

He paused then added meaningfully, “It was December 8, 1980.”

“You remember the date? It was that bad?”

“There are times in your life so awful, you will remember forever where you were. For my generation, people can tell you where they were when JFK and Dr. King were shot. Does the date mean nothing to you?”

Kirby shook his head.

“So I said to the AD the night couldn’t get any worse,” the gaffer continued. “She turned to me with tears in her eyes and replied someone had just shot John Lennon outside The Dakota—it had just come over the radio.”

Over a decade later, Gaffer could still see the droplets shining in the assistant director’s eyes. The whole moment was frozen in time, engrained forever on his heart and memory. He looked at Kirby. “What am I saying? You’re just a kid. You probably don’t even know who Lennon is.” He shook his head and headed off to confer with the director of photography.

“I know who John Lennon was!” Kirby called to the retreating back. “He played that song…“ Kirby stopped abruptly. No one was paying attention to him. No one was ever paying him any attention.

“Achoo!” The sneeze reverberated in the tin sound stage. “Sorry,” someone mumbled from a far corner.

“Well, someone just lost $50 bucks.” The always upbeat and lilting tenor voice of the film’s star rang through the sound stage. Embarrassed chuckles and gawfaws into crooked hands responded as the crew exchanged knowing looks and awkward glances. Cocaine on a movie set certainly wasn’t new or novel, but pointing it out was just … well a lot like standing in a crowd and screaming that the Emperor had no clothes. It just didn’t happen. Unless you were the star in a movie. Because the star could do no wrong.

Jeffrey Chen had arrived to set, and in spite of growing up the son of one of the most famous men on the planet, he was charming and likable. The antithesis of the spoiled Hollywood kid, he always was ready with a smile, a joke and open hand—even though his hands were trained weapons that could probably kill. He never met a person he couldn’t befriend.

“Jeffrey, Jeffrey!” Frank-the-director walked toward him, arms outstretched. “You ready to try this scene again? The last few takes were great—don’t get me wrong—but I think there is something a bit more we can get at with it, don’t you?”

“Yeah, Frank, I do. I’m ready. Let’s see if we can’t hit the note Dustin Hoffman says we’re looking for.”

“Yeah, yeah, the note. That’s great, mate, yeah. Listen, we’re so close to the end of this, we all just want it to be the best it can be. You have been fantastic—your work, your dedication. Now this. Let’s just get this scene perfect, it’s the one that sets up the whole movie.”

He massaged Jeffrey’s shoulder as they walked toward the folding chairs behind the camera.

“Stan, here we go. And where is the weapons master?”

“You sent Gilbert home three hours ago, Frank. Do you want me to call him and have him come back to set?” The AD appeared at Frank’s elbow.

“No, no, we should be fine. It’s only one take. We just want the energy of the moment!”

The crew grumbled to themselves about anyone finding any energy at midnight, but there was one person who had endless energy: Jeffrey. When everyone else was ready to drop, he was ready to do another take. And another one. And one after that.

“Are we ready?” Frank asked the AD.

“We are looking for the Plexiglas,” she answered.

“We’re holding up filming for Plexiglas?”

“Safety procedure, sir. We can’t seem to locate it after the last firearms scene.”

“Do we really need it? It’s not like we are firing real bullets, for Christ’s sake.”
Gaffer wandered away, clearly the lighting was fine and he had time to grab a quick coffee from craft services.

“What are they arguing about this time?” craft services goddess Shelly asked.

“Someone has lost the safety glass for the firearms work,” he answered.

“But haven’t they sent Gilbert home? Are they getting him out of bed to come back?”
Gaffer shrugged.  “Don’t they have to?”

“These are long nights,” Shelly lamented while pouring herself a cup. “I don’t know how Jeffrey has done this—all they’ve put him through. And he still smiles and is so…”

“Yes,” Gaffer nodded. “I know what you mean.”

“Quiet on the set!” someone yelled.

“Excuse me, Shelly.” The gaffer moved back into position behind the camera. Then it occurred to him he should have been able to drink a cup of coffee and eat a Danish before returning to place.

Surely, they wouldn’t shoot the scene without the weapons master present?

His thoughts were interrupted by a wail of from Stan. Gaffer rolled his eyes. Stan always protested on behalf of art. He did a mental checklist of the set and tried to tune out sounds from the bickering between the continuity supervisor and Stan. “The camera can’t tell; just aim off sides!”

“I’m method, man! I’ve got to do it for real!”

“That’s his goddamn mantra,” someone muttered loud enough for all to hear.

“Look, people, time is money; we need to shoot this thing,” Frank interrupted. “We are not going to hold filming just to bicker about something as small as the direction the gun is pointing. You are supposed to wave it around like a crazy man and shoot, so just make it look good.”

“Action!”

Slate: Blackbird, scene 8, take 22.

Jeffrey, carrying a grocery bag, opened the door.

“Don’t aim at Jeffrey!” someone shouted.

The gun snapped; Jeffrey crumpled on cue.

“Cut! Cut! Sound!” Frank screamed in irritation. “Who ruined the take? Who shouted?”
No one answered. It was so quiet the crew could count their own heartbeats. Even though most had more professional experience than their director making his first feature, the movie world still ran according to the laws of Feudal England. The “Lord of the Manor” might be an untried 24-year-old kid, but his word was law.

“Call 9-1-1 now!” The medic vaulted the script table and bounded up the stairs to the set. “Now!”
In confused silence, no one moved. Time and reaction slowed; the crew stared at the Medic baffled by his outburst—insinuating himself into the performance.

“Jeffrey? Jeffrey!” A thin trickle of dark brown blood slowly pooled out from under the actor  and mixed with the brighter reddish pink liquid from the squib that had detonated.

“Jeffrey! Stay with me man. Come on, it’s all right.”

He worked furiously to staunch the bleeding, open the airway, and begin compressions.  “Get an ambulance here now! Clear the set! He needs air!”

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