Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Series of "Firsts" - Part Three

Welcome, Crime Scenesters!

While we were being put through our paces as Detectives on the set of Forensic Firsts, the costume and makeup departments were busy transforming fellow background performers Rich, Terry and Craig into G-Men.

Apparently the very same cliché that we've seen played out in a hojillion cop shows and movies also plagued the Green River Task Force.  You know what I'm talking about: underfunded and understaffed local law enforcement gets overwhelmed, progress on the investigation stalls and the FBI is sent in to mop things up.  Of course, there's a break in the case and the local cops who did all the ground work feel resentful when the FBI gets all the credit.  But that's where this particular story deviates sharply from tradition.

So while us local law enforcement types are pouring over our baffling and seemingly insurmountable mound of evidence, the Feds suddenly barged in.  Jozel was the first to notice them, inspiring one of her "patented" eye rolls.  She then shared a look of disgust with the rest of her fellow cops.  After a beat, Erik marched over and tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention.  Still engrossed in our labors, I finally looked up to see the agents.  When I first laid eyes on them, I certainly didn't have to act surprised.

Wardrobe and makeup had done a bang-up job.   With his lanky frame, Evil Spock goatee and stern countenance, Craig had the ability to cut you to the quick with a mere glance.  Terry had the bearing of a government-sponsored mortician.  Finally Rich, shorter of stature but with a full head of hair, was appropriately humorless and businesslike.

The first time they came in through the door and hit their marks this is what we saw:

Since it looked as if they'd come in to challenge one Monsieur Anderson to a kung-fu duel, Director Jay Dahl just started cracking up.  Even without my glasses on, I could see that the effect was unintentionally funny.  Soon the whole room was in hysterics.

"Okay, I need two of you guys to lose the sunglasses," Jay said between chuckles.  "It just looks too ridiculous."

We ran it again sans Ray Bans and it looked a lot more terrestrial.  As the scene continued to unspool,  I was asked to stand up, glare at them defensively, share a moment with my fellow cops, begrudgingly walk over to them, shake their collective hands and then guide them over to the evidence table.

We did a few iterations of this before moving on to our "whisper party".  Jay had us collect off to the side to talk some smack about the G-Men just out of earshot.  While the Feds were instructed to rummage through the evidence (evidence that we'd so painstakingly gathered, mind you!), Jozel, Eric, Thaddius, Justin and I huddled together in the corner to natter and gesture at the interlopers.  To give my actions some authenticity, I just kept mouthing the same sentiments over and over again:

'Unbelievable!  These guys think they can just waltz in here and take over the place!'

'Look at these suits!  They think they're so friggin' smart...'

'They don't know have a clue about this case!  As if they're gonna find something that we missed!"

Every once and awhile Jay asked us to suspend the "whisper party", shoot a collective dirty look at the fédérales and then resume our collective back-bitery.  Eventually, we did bury the hatchet with the G-Men.  Historically speaking, the FBI did bring a fresh perspective and level of organization to the Green River Task Force, at least initially.

As the agents began to make some headway on the case, we started drifting back to the table one by one in order to aid their efforts.  This initial synergy didn't last very long, however.  Jay proceeded to shoot a series of set-ups depicting the FBI experiencing the same level of frustration that we cops went through only hours before.  It wasn't very long before Craig was shooting free-throws with crumpled bits of paper and Rich was embroiled in his own stormy mock telephone conversations.

Around this time we had an awesome break for lunch.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that Shevon, who I'd first met on  the set of November Christmas, was providing the catering.  The spread she prepared for us was amazing: ham, butternut squash soup, two types of salad, gobs of fresh fruit and, get apple pies!  This amazing repast really gave us the fuel to power through such a long and demanding day.  

After lunch and a few more set-ups, I got whisked away for a costume change.  This would be for an entirely different episode in which I'd be playing a police sketch artist.  This time Sarah put me in a pair of light gray pants and a maroon-colored sweatshirt.  Dead sexy.

Another back ground performer by the name of Deborah was the focus of the scene.  Characterized by the call sheet as an "80's mom", she spent most of her screen time critiquing my "handiwork" and suggesting improvements.  We were instructed to sit in seats across from one another with the camera to my back.  During this time I had a chance to chat with her for little a bit.  Although this was her first time doing television, she had experience in live theater and did a fantastic job interpreting Jay's mutable direction.

Despite the length of time it took to hash out this shot, we still had to cool our jets while the real, off-camera sketch artist finished his prop drawing.

"Pity I didn't know you needed a sketch done," I told Adam as we waited.  "I probably could have whipped one up for you."

When the drawing was finally handed to me I impressed by the artist's skill while simultaneously put off by the subject's rough-hewn countenance.  Since I'd be tasked to sketch over the features as Deborah mimed changes, Adam called up the original forensic sketch on his iPhone as a point of reference.  Between takes I'd glance at it to make sure I wasn't "coloring outside the lines".

Again, Jay expertly talked us through a series of actions.  He got me to sketch for a little bit then ask Deborah if the eyes looked right.  After he told her to give me a thumbs up, I resumed my doodling  until Jay prompted me to quiz her about (of all things) the shape of his ear!

"Okay, Deborah," Jay instructed.  "Just shake your head; that isn't quite right.  Lift your hair up and show David the top of your ear.  It's more like that.  Okay, David, start sketching the changes."

After making an incremental alteration, Jay asked me to point to the subject's jaw line.

"You think the jaw looks perfect but the nose...the nose isn't quite right."

Deborah gestured to that part of the sketch and mimed some hot Pinocchio action.  I immediately set to work to make the nose appear "bigger".  After a few more light strokes of the pencil, Jay called "Cut!" and just like that Deborah was wrapped!  As I was whisked off for yet another costume change, I had a chance to congratulate her on a job well done and wish her well.

After I was re-dressed again as 80's era Jensen I was ushered back to set, plunked in front of a desk and given a generic copy of National Geographic to flip through.  I was re-united with my fellow officers, who were stationed strategically behind me.  We then proceeded to shoot another version of the "dwindling support" sequence from the first episode I shot.    

This was meant to simulate the slow, real-life dismantling of the Green River Task Force.  As the case grew increasingly cold and the funding dried up, the operation was scaled back until only Jensen and a skeletal staff remained.

To depict this, Jay fell back on the ol' time lapse fade-out technique.  After shooting all of us doing mundane tasks at our appointed stations, he instructed Justin to walk off-camera.  Then the Set Dec folks rushed in like locusts, dismantled about 10% of our "office"and made off with a similar percentage of props.

The cameras started rolling again and after a few seconds he asked Thaddius to slink out of frame.  Once again he'd pause video to send the Set Dec scavengers in to deplete even more of our surroundings.  This was repeated again and again until I was the only one left, sitting at a spartan desk on a nearly bare set flipping through a stale magazine.

To complete the time leap illusion, I was led away and re-dressed once again, this time in contrasting beige tones.  I was then escorted down into the bowels of the older church where Candace had set up a triage makeup station.           

By now it was getting quite late and I could sense that we were beginning to fall behind schedule.  Sensing that my most complicated scene was still imminent, I did my best to expedite the wardrobe change and get my ass back into the makeup chair.  Despite the fact that Candace had only been given five minutes (!) to age me by twenty years, she still came through like a trooper.

I tried to acknowledge this stress and alleviate a bit of it at the same time.

"Look," I said to her, "You can probably age we twenty years in a few seconds if you just remove the makeup that you put on me earlier.  I reckon that should do the trick."   

After allowing herself a chuckle she immediately set to work.  In order to transform me into a semblance of Jensen in his 60's she started by applying a fake gray mustache.  She slathered what I could only assume was spirit gum on my top lip and then plastered on the ol' soup strainer.  By now, a small crowd of curious gawkers had gathered, intent on witnessing my transformation first hand.

"Uh oh," someone commented.  "There's a warning label on this glue bottle.  It says it's toxic."

"Wonderful," I muttered.  "I'm gonna wake up tomorrow morning and my top lip's gonna be at the bottom of the bed."

After the moustache was affixed in place, Candace attacked it with a small pair of scissors, looking to create irregularities and make it look more "natural".  Then she brushed a few (more) gray streaks into my hair and added a few more wrinkles.   All the while, Adam was standing close by with a walkie-talkie, giving everyone upstairs a minute-by-minute progress report.

I can't express how taxing this must have been for her.  Realistically, it was probably a job that should have taken about a half hour, but she was initially given five minutes and managed to negotiate for seven.  By the time Jay came down to do an inspection and escort me back upstairs, she'd probably only gotten about ten minutes with me in total.  I can only imagine what kind of job she could have done if she'd only had more time.

Despite this handicap, everyone seemed to be blown away by the results.

"It looks incredible," Jay said, echoing the thoughts of everyone I passed by en route back to the set.

Of everything that happened that day, this is what frustrates me the most.  I knew that I couldn't take a photo of myself, but we were so pressed for time that I didn't even get a chance to see myself in the mirror.  Somewhere out there is a continuity photo of me dressed up like a sixty year old Detective!   

When I walked back onto the deserted Green River Task Force I slowly realized that I was about to experience yet another daunting first.  I was about to carry a scene all by myself!

Just before we started to roll, Jay wanted to put a set of glasses on me.  At first Beth Ann and Sarah were going to put me in an old pair of used prescription glasses.  Frankly I was kinda dreading this since it probably would have resulted in an instant migraine.  Since I'd been forced all this time to "act" without my glasses, I jumped at the chance to wear my own real specs.

"Uh, Jay, do you mind if I wear my own glasses for this scene?" I queried.

"Yeah, sure," he returned.  "So long as they're not super-modern looking."

"Oh, trust me, they're not," I replied, reaching into my pocket and putting on my woefully un-stylish five-year-old goggles.

"Perfect!" he shouted.  "Let's shoot something!" 

The scene itself was intended to represent the pivotal, long-awaited break in the case that came only upon the advent of genetic profiling.  Jay sat me down at my desk and gave me a new magazine to read, this one featuring an article on DNA evidence.  A subsequent tight shot of my face revealed an epiphany as I "read" through the article.  I was then asked to do all of the following actions in quick succession:
  1. Leap out of my chair.
  2. Tuck the magazine under my arm.
  3. Rush over to the last remaining file cabinet at the back of the office.
  4. Open up the top drawer.
  5. Find a particular evidence envelope.
  6. Take it out, hold it up and turn it over. 
  7. Run back to my desk.
  8. First throw down the magazine and then the evidence bag, making sure that they both land in such a way that the camera can see them.
  9. Sit down and dial a number.
  10. Take the vial out of the Ziplock bag, hold it up for the camera and examine it, all the while miming an impromptu conversation and not looking directly into the camera.         

Despite the complexity of the sequence, I personally blew about three takes:

  1. On the very first take I didn't rush back to the cabinet with enough urgency.
  2. Then I found the evidence bag a bit too easily (forcing the prop guys to hide the friggin' thing on me for each subsequent take!) 
  3. The filing cabinet got locked by accident.

Every other time it was some other issue forcing a go-again.  There was quite a bit of debate as to whether or not I should leave the magazine on the desk or take it with me.  One time the camera operators either weren't tracking me or keeping me in focus as I jumped up and ran to the back of the office.

Without a doubt, the most annoying thing was actually the friggin' magazine itself.  Instead of using an issue of Popular Science or designing a completely original prop, they'd somehow managed to find a DNA article inside, of all things, Cosmo-friggin'-politan.

Cosmo: discover the wonders of  genetic profiling whilst (and at the same time) learning how to protect your man from cougar attacks!

Since I had to keep the magazine aloft for the camera and flip back and forth between the two pages of the article, the rag was folded back on itself to obscure its completely inappropriate cover.  Unfortunately, there was no way to turn the damned thing over without revealing a "Sex Quiz", a "Sex Article" or some other "Sexy Sex Story Now With 25% More Sex".

Initially the Set Dec folks tried to remedy this by using double-sided tape to hold some of the pages together.  Unfortunately, all this did was reveal the next page in order, which invariable bore such fascinating articles as: "'My Gyno Talked To My Vajay-Jay' and Other Doc Shockers!", "Get Butt-Naked: Fun Things To Do While Bare-Assed" or "Sizzling Sex Positions (That Won't Give You Boob Sweat)".  Needless to say it wasn't long before everyone was busting up, no pun intended.

"Stop making me laugh!" I shouted.  "My moustache is gonna pop off!"

Eventually the props guy managed to solve the problem by ripping half of the pages out and completely busting the spine.

We shot this from several POV's.  First a stationary shot with me at the desk, then with the camera tracking me to the back of the room and then a side-view of the cabinet as I opened the drawer, flipped through the files and pulled out the evidence bag.

After we finally nailed this complicated scene it was off to the makeup chair to be transformed back into myself (and 80's era Jensen).  Again, Candace facilitated this transformation like a seasoned pit crew boss.

"If we're really pressed for time, you can just rip it off," I said, referring to my Porn-stache.
 "Just don't warn me..."

"Hells no!" she shot back.  "Do you know how long it takes to re-grow a top lip?"

She gingerly lifted one side of the 'stache she began to strategically dab away at the seam with mineral oil.  Although she was working quickly not once did she inflict so much as a twinge of discomfort.  She then scrubbed away the excess wrinkles, brushed (most of) the gray out of my hair and re-applied a new layer of Spackle.  I thanked her profusely as Sarah and Beth Ann expedited yet another hasty costume change.

Although most of my heavy lifting was done for the day, I still featured prominently in another scene in which Jensen is shown trying to use one of them "new-fangled" computers.  The props department had somehow managed to wrangle up a ginormous monitor and installed an older version of Windows (using post-it notes to cover up the more anachronistic on-screen iconography).  It seemed to take forever to fine tune the ancient monitor's refresh rate so that the fake FBI database graphics on the screen were visible on-camera.

I was directed to sit in front of this radiation-spewing monolith and cycle through some of the images with the arrow keys.  Then Jay asked me to do my best hunt-n'-peck job at the keyboard.  Apparently my interpretation of this was just a little bit too competent.

"No, David, I need you to really hunt and peck.  Act like your afraid of it.  Hunt and peck like your mom!"

After treating the keyboard as if had a secret self destruct button, I nailed the scene and we promptly moved on.

All that remained were a few sequences featuring Jozel instructing Officer Thaddius to scratch suspect names off of a flip chart and Rich conducting a departmental meeting RE: the discovery of a new victim.  For many of these sequences, Eric, Justin and I filled in the frame by doing multiple foreground passes in front of the camera.

As the time-pressure began to abate, I took this opportunity to check out the professional Nikon digital camera that the crew was using.  I had a chat with one of the assistants about how units like the Red and the GoPro were making digital film-making more and more accessible to semi-professionals.  High Def and 24+ Frames Per Second To The People!

I also had a chance to shoot the shit with Adam and Jay about some of our favorite films, including American Movie, one of the best documentaries ever made.  Jay also shared his mind-blowing plans to go to L.A. for the premiere of Ridley Scott's new Alien prequel, Prometheus.  Who's hella-jealous?  This guy...   

When we wrapped not long after I glanced at my watch and was stunned.  My day had started at 6:30 am and it was now closing in on 10 pm. 

Y'know, it's funny.  In every single previous workplace, I've always felt uncomfortable, nervous and ill-at-ease probably because I had no aptitude nor interest in what I was doing.  But while I was sitting there on set that day, labored in aging makeup, with a camera and light trained on me, and having a bakers-dozen strangers appraising my every move, I felt completely calm and relaxed.  In fact, it was the most fun "working" day I've ever had in my entire life and the closest I've ever come to actually "ACTING" on screen.

Although I'd still prefer to be on the technical side of the camera, my zen-like reaction to this amazing experience was shocking.

Sometimes you can really surprise yourself.  

EPIC GRAPHIC NOVEL   In September 2011, Tom Jensen's son, Jeff (a very talented comic book artist) adapted his Dad's incredible story in the 240-page Dark Horse graphic novel Green River Killer: A True Detective Story.

FAIL   Considering how many people work on a movie set, behavior like this is completely inexcusable.

GENDER FAIL   Cosmo: delaying T.V. shoots and setting the role of women back to the Dark Ages since 1886.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Series of "Firsts" - Part Two

Hello, Habitual Habitué!

At 8 pm I received an email with the call time for my second day of filming on Forensic Firsts.  Here's what it said:

Hey everybody!

Here's the information for tomorrow! The location is the Dartmouth United Church, on 54 Woodlawn Avenue. Maps are attached.

Richard, Terry, Craig, David, Eric, Justin, Jozel, Thaddius, your call time is 930AM

Deborah, your call time is 430PM

I've spoken to many of you already regarding your wardrobe, but some of you I have yet to mention what to bring. If you can bring 3 options of the following items, that would be ideal.

Deborah, please bring a selection of casual wardrobe options, your character is a mother in the 1980's.

David, please bring the following: Suits, sports jackets, dress pants, black dress shoes. Also bring a selection of casual clothing, such as jeans, button up shirts etc. We will be able to use you as two characters tomorrow!

Thaddius, please bring the following: Suits, sports jackets, dress pants, black dress shoes

If you have any questions, please email me ASAP.

See you all tomorrow!

This was lot more complicated.  Whereas my last gig involved a simple wardrobe, late call time, and a handy close location, this day appeared to be the polar opposite.

With a 9:30 am call time and a shooting location on the opposite end of the HRM, the prospects of taking a bus to get there seemed pretty daunting.  Especially considering that the wardrobe requirements would have me lugging along a massive garment bag, a small rolling suitcase and my manbag/murse.

Mercifully the early start time dovetailed with my wife's work hours, allowing me to drive to the location early and then hand the car back over to her.  Frankly, I didn't give a crap if I was abducted by gypsies at the end of the day, just so long as I could get there and complete the shoot.

The night before I printed off three location maps, charted out a return bus trip, ironed everything precious and then packed up my luggage.  By the time I was finished it looked as if I was going on a business trip to Helsinki instead of going to a film set.

Knowing that I had reliable transportation allowed me to sleep quite soundly.  Unfortunately, my eyes still popped open by themselves at 5:30 am; a full hour before my alarm was scheduled to go off.

Unable to get back to sleep I got up at 6:15 and began to run around my apartment like Curly from The Three Stooges.  After scarfing down a bagel and packing up all my shiznit, we hopped into the car around 7:40.  I wanted to leave as soon as possible to give us plenty of time to find the church and make sure that my ever-patient wife had plenty of time to get to work.

Besides, the traffic fleeing Fairview in the morning is like watching someone pouring a thousand marbles into a funnel attached to a garden hose.  Extricating ourselves from this was tremendously frustrating at first, but it became smooth sailing just as soon as we got out of our subdivision and onto the bridge.  In fact, we managed to get to the church just a shade after 8 am.      

Since it was still ridiculously early, I just dropped my stuff off in the church basement, helped one of the crew set up some tables and chairs and then went out for a stroll to kill time and procure some caffeine.  I got back to set just before 9 am and by then some of my fellow background performers had arrived.  The crew was also rolling in, laying claim to their own individual corner of the basement.

While I filled out my paperwork, Adam was quick to give me the scoop.  In addition to serving as a sketch artist in a completely different episode, I'd be portraying yet another real-life figure for most of the day.  I was blown away when he told me that I'd be portraying Detective Tom Jensen, who was instrumental in capturing the notorious Green River Killer.

Prior to this, the only thing I really knew about this case was that it involved a serial killer, took place in and around the Pacific North West in the 1980's, and it inspired the name of a grunge band.  After investigating it further for this entry I discovered that Gary Ridgeway was convicted of murdering forty-eight women but later confessed to nearly double that number.  In fact, he's claimed responsibility for more murders then any other American serial killer.  In other words, this dude's real piece of work.

I barely had time for the shock to wear off before Candace wrangled me into the makeup chair.  This time instead of getting a scoutmaster side-sweep my hair ended up looking vaguely wind-tunnel tested.

Wardrobe then promptly went to work.  I hoped that my efforts in lugging along so much clothing wouldn't be in vain but after Beth-Ann and Sarah looked through the items I'd brought along (including no less then five shirts, a sport coat, and three pairs of pants), the only thing they instructed me to put on was a pair of dark grey pants and my dress shoes.  They augmented this with a lighter-color grey shirt and a tweedy-looking, green-gray sports jacket from their own costume bins.

But but when it came to picking an appropriate tie, they seemed a bit stymied.  To their trained eye, everything looked too contemporary and/or conservative.

"Hold on!" I enthused.  "I brought along an entire bag full of ugly ties!"

"Okay, let's see 'em," Beth-Ann replied.

After overcoming the stubborn knot that I'd tied in the bag I held up each tie in turn for her inspection.

"How 'bout this one?"

"Nope.  Still too modern."

"Really?  Okay, what about this one?"

"Nope.  Too hideous," she replied, perfectly straight-faced.  

"Youch.  Alright, what about this one?" 

"Nope.  Too bland."

"Huh.  Okay, I've got one here but it may be a bit too flashy."

I pulled out a stripy gold, blue and black number and suddenly her eyes lit up.

"Oh, wait a minute!  I think we can work with that!"

It was then that I realized that there's a fine line between 'loud' and 'hideous'.  

Also getting decked simultaneously was Jozel, who'd be playing my female counterpart.  Eventually they had her clad in a very sharp-looking black pantsuit, with her classic red lipstick a match for her fiery red hair.

The third member of our plain-clothes law enforcement triumvirate was Eric.  Tall, bald, and goateed, Eric truly looked the part of a real cop.  I remember being supremely jealous of him since, at some point in time, the props department gave him a very realistic-looking airsoft pistol and holster to wear.  Lucky!  (best said in Napoleon Dynamite voice)  

And then there were the "boys in blue".  Dark complected with a slim build and fashionable eye-ware, Justin was cast as a young cop.  Wry and world-weary Thaddius played a veteran gumshoe to perfection.  With their flowing, full heads of wavy hair, I initially thought that they were slightly miscast as cops but as soon as they were in costume and serving up some priceless reactions, my initial concerns proved to be baseless.  

We didn't have much time to sit around and chat.  Just as soon as we were prepped we were led over to the older church where the interior was dressed up to look like a police field office.  There were vintage desks, old filing cabinets, corded desk phones, and ancient typewriters all around.

Even more impressive: the far wall of the church was covered with four huge bulletin boards each one chock-a-block with fake crime scene photos, victim mug shots, witness statements, pinned maps and a slew of scribbled-up post-it notes.  Kinda like this:

I stood there in rapt fascination watching as the Set Dec folks colored all of this in, eventually crowning their display with a large banner that read: GREEN RIVER TASK FORCE.        

Once again Director Jay Dahl was front and center, co-ordinating all of the fevered activity.  He paused for a moment to say hello to us, giving me a chance to talk with him about the featured case.

"Yeah, I'm originally from the West Coast so the Green River Killer was actually a big deal while I was growing up.  He was pretty terrifying."

And with that he was right back at it.  Without a doubt, Jay is certainly a "hands on" Director.  He was like a whirling dervish on set: prompting people to fill out the bulletin boards with more notes, consulting with the camera and lighting crew on technical minutia and making sure that our skeezy-looking push-button phones were properly disinfected before we began to use them.

"We don't want our Actor Friends getting sick!" he declared before moving on to something else.

Now, some people might consider the whole "______-Friends" thing to be an affectation but I thought it was a great way to generate good karma.  When you're shooting very quickly and without a great deal of money, it's critically important to keep the cast and crew in good spirits.  Although there were moments when time constraints and logistic headaches were clearly resulting in frustration, everyone on the set of Forensic Firsts seemed to be getting along famously.  

Eventually Jay instructed Jozel and I to take a seat at our designated desks so they could light us and pull focus.  After this was done, Jay gave us our marching orders.  After the Green River Task Force puts out a request for tips in the media, the office gets completely slammed with phone calls.  Indeed, the scene would best be described as "fevered activity".    

In order to properly sell a harried and overworked office, Jay jumped in and began to dress up our desks with coffee cups, newspapers, file folders, occurrence reports, half-eaten bagels, dried out orange wedges and discarded banana peels.  He even went so far as to give Jozel's desk a light sprinkling of bread crumbs.  If I didn't know any better, I'd say that the dude probably started his film career as a Set Decorator.

Which sort of brings me to another fascinating aspect of film-making: creating a series of visually compelling images.  Have you ever watch a movie or a T.V. show and suddenly noticed how flat, drab and lifeless everything seems to be?  That it kinda looks like someone's crappy home video?   Well, it's usually because the Director and Cinematographer haven't made any effort to create depth of frame.

Now I know that were weren't exactly shooting Silence of the Lambs but Jay always seemed concerned with creating a visually compelling shot.  Between takes he'd even dive in and assemble these little dioramas of detritus on top of copy paper boxes and place them in the foreground in front of the camera lens.  He was also keen on making sure that there were plenty of interesting things to look at in the background.

Despite this attention to detail, the phone that I'd been given wasn't for a desk.  In fact, to me it looked as if someone had just ripped it off a wall somewhere:

Laying flat on my desk, the receiver kept sliding off the hook whenever someone so much as glanced at it.  I mentioned this to Jay during one of his pass-by's and he agreed that it wasn't going to work.  After  swapping it out for a traditional phone, we promptly got down to brass tacks.

"Okay, Actor Friends, you've put out a request for tips from the public and now your office is being swamped with phone calls.  Try as you might, you just can't keep up with it.  This scene is all about exasperation and frustration.  You'll be on the phones, you'll finish with that call, hang up and not two seconds later the phone will ring again.  It's gonna be non-stop.  I also want you taking notes.  Try and come up with some real-looking names since we're going to do close-ups of this later!"

And just like that we were off and rolling.  Once again, even through there was no dialogue, we still had to emote our irritation and indignation.

"Oh, wow, that's great exasperation, David!" I heard Jay say at one point.

He followed this up by guiding me through an improvised telephone call in which I was allowed to audibly converse with him.

"Okay, David, you're at your desk, you're writing notes and then 'R-I-I-I-I-I-NG!', it's the phone!"

I snatched up the receiver.  

"Hello?" I demanded, rather testily.

"Is this Jensen?"


"Jensen!  What the hell is going on down there?!?"

With Jay virtually screaming at me, I reacted instinctively to his taunts.

"Now wait a minute...!"  I shot back.

"You're useless, Jensen!  You're never gonna catch this guy!"

"Hey, what do you expect?" I reflexively countered.  "We have no resources and our manpower is stretched to the limit!"

"You think you're smart, huh?  You haven't got a clue!"

"What?!?" I sputtered back.

"Yeah, that's right, you heard me!" he shouted.  "You're useless!"

"I'm useless?!?  What about you people...?  Why don't you..."

"I bet you won't hang up on me!"

"Oh yeah?!?"

 "Yeah!  I bet you don't have the guts to hang up on me!"

"OH YEAH?!?"



Friggin' brilliant.      

After Jay put Jozel and I though various permutations of this, the camera operators come in for a series of close-ups of various discarded items on my desk.  The camera man then expertly captured some whip-pans and quick zooms of us talking on the phone to create a mood of confusion, disorientation and all-around chaos.  During one take he asked me to stand up, whip my jacket off and roll up my sleeves.  He also called the makeup crew in to make Jozel look more harried and stressed out, even throwing a few bread crumbs from the desk into her hair!

I was then tasked to write down a series of names in my tiny notepad while I was being filmed.  Naturally, I used the names of various people in my life: my wife, friends and family members.  It's highly unlikely that it'll ever be legible on-screen but I thought this was more realistic then writing down shit like "Chuck Norris" and "Kim Kardashian".

While I was scribbling away, Jay would direct me to "circle the fifth name", "cross off the third name", "write a new name", "mark a star next to that" or tap the note pad.  When he asked me to come up with  a fictional phone number, I couldn't resist starting it with with "555".  Just as soon as Jay saw me doing this in the monitors he shouted: "Hey!  This guy knows about the '555' exchange!  We've got a real actor here!"  When I'd completely filled the page up, Jay asked me to pick up the note pad and "cheat it" (angle it) towards the camera without being super-obvious about it.

After depicting an office environment clearly stretched to the breaking point, things got even more intense.  I finally got my chance to be a first-hand witness to one of the greatest crime drama clichés ever...

The F.B.I. cometh.

Next time:
  • We have an unscripted Matrix moment.
  • In the immortal words of Huey Lewis and the News: "Gotta get back in time!"
  • If I'm actually drained and exhausted while playing drained and exhausted, does this make me a method actor?    
  • I participate in a "whisper party".  
  • I'm thrown into the skin of another character and then switch back again!  
  • The stress of the experience ages me a good twenty years.

EPIC  Y'know, I'm not a big proponent of capitol punishment, but I'd gladly make an exception for this Gary Ridgway creep...

FAIL  Whattaya mean these freaks and murderers are running free?!?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Series of "Firsts" - Part One

Felicitations, Forensic Fiends!

I'm afraid that I've created a monster.

In April of 2010 I started this blog.  I used to do five entries a week but it was just too much to maintain.  Eventually I dropped it down to three entries and now I shoot for four posts a month.

But this doesn't mean that I'm slacking off: quite the opposite in fact.  In the interim I started up an entertainment review blog and another site for tabletop gaming.  Maintaining these three webby publications ("weblications?") on a regular basis keep me pretty friggin' busy, so much so that I tend to miss out on some real world (ergo: paying) opportunities. 

I hadn't done any background film work since the Stephen King A&E miniseries Bag of Bones back in September of last year and I was starting to get the itch to get back on set again.  Thing is, I'm often so immersed in my self-imposed writing deadlines that I don't actively troll the casting websites looking for gigs.  Which is insanely stupid since the film work actually pays me something and all my writing seems to do lately is bump up a hit counter.     

In order to properly set up this week's entry there's one other thing that I have to tell you: my friends send me a shit-ton of emails.  Honestly, I know that these people go to a place that they call work but I harbor some serious doubts if any actual work actually takes place there at all.  Cripes, back in my old call centre job I rarely risked sending an external email lest I be taken back behind the service entrance for what could only be called an Old Yeller special.

I'm also in a table-top gaming group with these passionate, dice chuckin' lunatics so between Monday and Wednesday my inbox kinda looks like friggin' Obama's.  The annoying thing is that I'm legitimately interested in the reading everything they send but I have to make a concerted effort to do so.  Sometimes it feels like another job, especially after I've finished editing an epic movie review or transcribing a lengthy board game session report.

And that was my precise mind-set last week.  I didn't check my email from Monday April 30'th until May 7'th.  Honestly, this was really weird for me.  Last Monday I finally broke down and had a peek at what had come through.  I was horrified when I came across the following notification:

 Hey there!

You fit the description of a character we are casting for Forensic Firsts season 2!

Forensic Firsts is a crime investigation docu-drama, produced for The Smithsonian Channel. We are shooting the dramatized re-enactments.

Shoot dates aren't set in stone yet, but are looking like they'll fall on or between May 9th and May 11th. The character will likely be for one full day (10hrs+) of shooting, potentially two. Shooting takes place within the HRM and you would require your own transportation. Lunch will be provided.

Please let me know if you're interested, available on those days, and if you still match your photos on the Hennessey Casting database.

If the answer to all of the above is 'yes!', then I'll show your head shots to the director and producers for final approval.

Please let me know ASAP! Thanks!


My heart shriveled up.  The email had been sent six days ago, which in movie terms might as well have been six months ago.  I was already somewhat familiar with Forensic Firsts, not because I'd seen the show (it's a U.S. exclusive on the Smithsonian Channel) but because some people I know in a local acting group had raved about their experience working on the show.

Despite how stale the offer was, I crossed my fingers and gamely wrote back, leading with an abject apology before asking if there was still something left for me to do.  Needless to say I positively jumped for joy after reading the following response:

Hi David,

Thanks for getting back to me!

We have cast most of the roles, but still have some left for Wednesday May 9th. We would need you for a full day, morning until evening. Exact times are being worked out, and the location is likely to be near the Armdale Rotary.

Please let me know ASAP if you're interested and available.



Although I'd probably missed out on a really sweet opportunity I was just happy to get back on a film set and hang out with some more cool n' creative people.  I didn't care if they intended to turn me into a human coat rack, I still still super-excited.  

I got the following location and call time email from Adam later on that evening:

Hi David,

I just left a voicemail on the number you have listed on the Hennessey Casting database for tomorrow, but just to reiterate, here are the details.

Your call time tomorrow is 11:00AM and the location is the Chocolate Lake Rec Center on 14 Purcell's Cove Road. I've attached some maps.

Wardrobe would like you to bring the following items:
- casual jeans (not baggy)
- dark shoes (not bright white sneakers)
- casual spring or fall jacket

Also, we can't have logos or brand names on the clothing.

Thanks, and see you tomorrow!

This email represented a genuine trifecta of pure "win" for me.  First off, the call time was at 11 am and not, say, 6 am.  Secondly, the location was only about a ten minute drive from my place.  And finally: for once I'd be wearing casual clothes on a film set!

I dutifully packed three options for every requested article of clothing into my rolling suitcase.  I always bring along loose leaf and pens to write with and a book to keep me busy, but I'm usually so excited being on set that I never remember to use them.  Either I'm yakking with someone I know or I'm intensely studying the efforts of the crew as they set things up.  

Despite charting out my journey via bus (with its overly-optimistic travel time estimate of twenty minutes), I still left the house @ 9:30 to give me plenty of time to get over there.  Which was a wise move in retrospect since Metro Transit decided to throw in a twenty minute layover at the Mumford Terminal while I was waiting for my connector to show up.

The bus driver graciously let me off just a stone's throw away from the Chocolate Lake Rec Centre at around 10:15 am.  Once again, I'd arrived before any orientation signs had been set out so I just kinda stumbled around like Tom Hanks in The Terminal for a little while.  Mercifully, A.D. Adam, who'd sent me the previous communiqués, noticed me drifting around like a concussion victim and came over to introduce himself.

After taking me to holding down in the basement, he expertly filled me in what was going on. 
Every script for Forensic Firsts is based on a real-life crime story.  This particular episode dealt with a New Jersey teenager named Jason Henry who was accused of deliberately setting a lethal fire that killed his parents back in 2007.  After local police were quick to point the finger of blame at Jason, an entire community worth of character witnesses immediately rushed to the boy's defense.

Pretty meaty stuff, huh?
"Like I said in the email, we've already cast most of the roles," Adam told me.  "But we've still have a specific character that we want you to play: Jason's scout master comes out to proclaim his innocence at a press conference!"

Wow, this would indeed be a first for me.  Not only would I be portraying a character that figures prominently in a shot, I'd actually be playing a real person.

Soon wardrobe gals Sarah and Beth-Ann had me decked out in a tan-colored, badge-bedecked shirt with a blue neckerchief.   Not unlike this:

Then makeup-girl-extraordinaire Candace was charged with laying on the spackle.  After finishing my makeup, she applied gel to my hair and began twisting it into natty-looking side-sweep.

"Good Lord," I told her.  "You're not giving me dreads, are you?"

"Yes, didn't get the email about that?" she replied plaintively.

"Man, I gotta start reading the fine print," I muttered.

"Oh there was no fine print!" she quickly countered.

"Alright!  Alright!" I protested.  "But I gotta draw the line at..."

"Beads?" she said with a wry smile.  "Too late..."

I was delighted to see that fellow HalifACT!or Dale Willman had been cast in the role of Jason's mother and I'd be side-by-side with her at the "press conference".  Also along for the ride was a lovely retired gent named Gordon who played the part of Jason's priest.  This episode represented a first for Gordon as well: his first time ever being on set!

"Oh, you're in for a real treat!" I told him as I helped him fill out his daunting-looking paperwork.

The great thing about doing a fair amount of background work in a small city is that you start to recognize the crew and get to know quite a few of them.  For example, production assistant/human dynamo Zoe (who I'd worked on an indie film with just after the holidays) was like a house on fire.  Within a few minutes she's conjured up a fully-laden crafts services table, apparently from out of thin air.

I can tell you first hand: the fine folks who work professionally in the enterprise of illusion really work their asses off.  Say 'no' to downloading, kids.     

As we were being called to set I couldn't resist asking Adam about what part I was originally up for.

"Well, we hadn't nailed down anything specific.  We were going to pass your head shot along to the director for a possible feature role."

Feature role?  Feature role?!?  Man, I'd really screwed the pooch on this one.  My only hope was to try and do my best today, atone for this grievous oversight and hopefully make a positive impression. 

We were led into the rec centre's small gymnasium which was now draped with American flags, television lights and a slew of protest signs proclaiming Jason's innocence.  The set was dominated by small stage bearing a makeshift podium adorned with about eight or nine fake microphones.  Soon the room was positively congested with sign-wielding student protesters, professional-looking reporter types and ersatz cameramen and photographers.

*POOF!* just like that...instant U.S.-style media circus.        

Co-ordinating all of this fevered activity was veteran director Jay Dahl.  Jay is something of a local institution, having donned the producer's hat for Picnicface's feature film debut Roller Town (which I'd also worked on).  He was also the driving force behind a slew of creative indie films, including the genuinely unnerving Body Snatcher-esque horror feature There Are Monsters and the saucy comedic sci-fi short Sex! With Hot Robots.  He also scored a Best Director Award from the DGC for his debut film The Wedding Video back in 2001.

Although I've never watched an episode of Forensic Firsts (and can't, even if I wanted to), I imagine that the program probably employs a combination of documentary footage, dramatic recreation and voice-over work.  In addition to playing a character in costume, I'd soon be engaging in yet another first for me.

I'd actually be acting somewhat. 

Jay put Dale, Gordon and myself up on the stage to address the crowd of thirty or so extras.  Although we didn't have lines per se, we did mime being sad, outraged, frustrated and then resigned.
The first set-up had the camera locked down at the gym entrance, pointing at the stage through a veritable maze of protest signs.

Starting with Dale, all three of us gave an impassioned "speech" at the podium which required some creative ad-libbage.  The most challenging aspect of this was when Jay tasked us to deliver our "dialogue" in a halting, Bill Shatner style which I presume would be used to create some sort of slow-motion effect.

Once again, I'm endlessly thankful for my past experience doing training and public readings since one of the hardest things you can do is talk slowly in front of thirty people.  The natural tendency in a situation like that is to try and get everything out in a mad rush and then promptly flee the scene.  Fortunately, I didn't find this to be particularly difficult.  In fact, in some weird way, it was actually kinda fun.  

While Jay prompted her to gesture at a prop locket which had a picture of the kid playing Jason inside,
Dale launched into a genuinely heartfelt speech.  During this time, "Father" Gordon was asked to comfort her and I spent my time looking indignant, patting Dale reassuringly on the arm and gesturing at some of the loopier signs being carried by the protesters.

When I was asked to take the podium I just started blabbering on about whatever came to mind.

"I've know this boy since he was knee-high to a grasshopper!  There is NO WAY that Jason is capable of such a monstrous act!  The police are railroading this innocent teenager!  They're looking for an quick and easy scapegoat!"

As ridiculous as this may seem, try picture it being said by Kevin Pollack doing a bad Captain Kirk impersonation.

At the end of each line, Jay would direct the crowd to respond in some way.  Either with murmuring (with an intensity level ranging from one to ten), reporters firing makeshift questions at us, paparazzi firing off flashbulbs and the crowd going positively ape shit with a full-out roar of approval and signs held aloft.  It was a blast.

Jay was a master at fostering good karma on set.  Every time he needed something done, he'd refer to that department and include the suffix "friends".  For example, if he wanted more color on the back wall behind us, he'd say "Art Dec Friends, I was wondering if we could get a few more flags and signs on that back wall?"  If he needed us back lit he'd say "Lighting Friends, I was wondering if we could get another small flood back there behind Dale."  If he needed us to actually pay attention instead of babbling excitedly at one another like excited school kids he'd day "Actor Friends, how about we try this?"

He also employed a few really interesting stylistic techniques, including a "frozen tableau" which had all of us standing motionless for what felt like an eternity.  He also orchestrated an interesting fade-out which saw us slowly drifting off the set and out of frame, one at a time.  I imagine that it produced a pretty cool effect, helping to convey the impression that support for Jason was slowly fading away.

We had a brief break while the crew moved the camera onto the podium to get reverse coverage of our speech.  After Jay captured this and got plenty of reaction footage of the protesters we were informed that a basketball game was slated to repossess the gym so we quickly wrapped things up and hit the bricks.

Although it was only a five hour day, I still had an absolute blast.  I'd played an actual role, worn a real (if not slightly dweeby) costume, stood front and center on screen, and was actually asked to ad-lib and emote!

Although I was out of town this past weekend, I was certainly quick to check my email today.  Imagine my surprise when I read this:

Hey David!

I hope you're checking your email this week, because I want to cast you in a feature role for TOMORROW MAY 15 2012

We're still working out the call times, but it will probably be 9AM, and lasting all day. The location is the ___________.

Please get back to me ASAP, either by email or call me on our office phone, 902-***-****.


But that's a story for another day...

EPIC   The amazing true story behind this episode of Forensic Firsts.

FAIL  What you don't want to have captured forever.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Big "C"

Greetings, Fellow Carbon-Based Life Forms.

I hate to get all "Debbie Downer" on y'all, but The Big "C" has been on my mind recently.  And by recently, I mean all of my life, but increasingly so in the past week.

This past Friday Adam Yauch (a.k.a. M.C.A.), founding member of the hip-hop group The Beastie Boys, died.  He was only forty-seven years old.

I remember seeing the video for "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)" from Licensed to Ill back in 1986 but it didn't inspire me to pick up the album.  At the time I thought The Beastie Boys  were just a novelty act, plus I was heavily into THE METAL at the time.  Even though rap music was barely on my radar, I could still appreciate the rebellious nature of this fresh, fly, pimp jam.    

Then, when I was in university, I heard the album Paul's Boutique for the first time and I was instantly blown away.  I purchased every B-Boys album that followed and their music really sustained me during the mid-to-late 90's when music sucked Herculean amounts of ass.

In 2009 Adam was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary glands, a condition that he optimistically characterized as "very treatable".  He underwent surgery and radiation therapy prior to the release of the band's amazing eighth studio album Hot Sauce Committee Part Two.  Unfortunately Adam was too ill to appear in any music videos or tour in support of the new album.  He also couldn't make it when the Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame in December of 2011.

He passed away on May 4, 2012.

In my own circle, the Big C constantly seems to be rearing its ugly head.  Most of the time I feel like one of the more lily-livered characters in Harry Potter, with their inability to utter the name "Voldemort".  I feel that by saying "CANCER" out loud I'm empowering it somehow or courting its cruel regard.

My closest friend lost his Dad last year.  The disease claimed both parents of another close friend.  At least five of my wife's relatives have fought against it.  Personally speaking, I've lost two Grandparents and an Aunt.

Some people try and tell me that we've just come to a stage in our lives when we should expect to hear news like constantly.  Some people say that just as many people died of cancer back in pre-Victorian times as they do now; they just weren't diagnosed.

To that I unequivocally say: horseshit.

You mean to tell me that we can put people on the friggin' moon and arm everyone with palm-held personal computers, but for some reason, we can't even lower cancer rates?

I think there's been no progress on the elimination of cancer for the very same reason that there's been no elimination of modern warfare.  It's just too big of a business.

Worst still, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that there's a deliberate campaign to put carcinogenic additives in our environment, perhaps to fuel this grim industry.  Why else would the government allow such clearly harmful things to happen on their watch?

There's bad shit happening to our food:

Our air:

Our water:

Hells, even our friggin' containers ain't kosher :

(in an odd but fortuitous bit of synchronicity make sure to listen for "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys at the 31 second mark in the trailer below for Tapped)

Of course, I'm writing this with a bottle of Dasani sitting on my desk.  F#@ksticks.  

And then I'm hearing more and more stories about possible cancer cures that aren't getting developed simply because no company has a patent on it and, subsequently, there's no profit to be made.

And then there's this fascinating local story:

Who knew that the scariest Big "C" out there really stood for "corporatism"?

Although I can't confirm the validity of these cures, I can tell you one thing for sure.  There seems to be a helluva lot of money tied up in something that's making absolutely no discernible progress.

For me, cancer continues to hit increasingly close to home.  It's also denied the world any new Beastie Boys albums and tours. 

F#@k cancer.  F#@k it up its stupid ass.   

EPIC   No more inspired genius.  Like this...    

Or this...

Or this...

Or this...

Or this:

FAIL  Follow the money.