Once in a while I catch a part in a film or TV series. Mostly I get blink-and-you-miss me parts in European films. The one I’m dealing with here was shooting in France, Belgium and Germany, and my one-day bit was taking place on November 26, 2011 in an auditorium at the local Brussels university (VUB).
The film is called Mr. Morgan’s Last Love, with the well-regarded film actor Michael Caine topping the bill. I imagine every actor, after a certain age (and he’s hitting up against 80), get a lot of films with “Last” in their titles, complete with death scenes, getting old scenes, basically fading away/last gasp roles.
For once I didn’t audition in the flesh for this role, because when the auditions took place I was at another shoot for a poster for an online series I’m busy being in, now and then. So the casting director used my self-penned and shot/edited monologue Pigeons I’d put on YouTube to present me. On the strength of that video, I got cast for a role. Now THAT’S how I like the Internet to work.
The director was actually someone I admired, Sandra Nettelbeck. I rather enjoyed her film Mostly Martha. It gave me smiles.
On the day, I arrived at what I thought was the meeting point (having studied my dense Call Sheet I received via email the evening before), which was the set where I would be performing my scene, the university, only to find no one, no one at all, except a couple of guards sitting in a car with the motor on keeping warm, who told me everyone was at Set 1 (a graveyard, the other scene of the day), which is where I had to be for costumes and make-up. Calls were made and, since I didn’t have a car, they had to send one to fetch me. I got into make-up an hour and fifteen minutes late, but hey, they were running two shots late out in the graveyard, so no biggie.
One of the four scenes in the graveyard concerned a Chinese burial (I believe Caine’s character hung out at his recently deceased wife’s grave a lot, and this graveyard was “her set”). I found this sheet a few weeks before the shoot at one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, looking for cheap extras. (Click on the image to enlarge it for better reading.)
Once I had my make-up on, I was pointed over to the wardrobe trailer. Here’s a cozy shot.
I had gone a couple weeks earlier to try out about a dozen shirts, suits, pants, coats, this, that, the other. They had asked me to bring some of my own stuff, but most of what I had was too colorful. They told me, “The director wants everything shot in darks, gray, black, muted colors.” And they were filming in the Fall. Which brings us back to the word Last and the thematic twisting of the knife into the open wound of the metaphor.
Because the day’s shooting was running late, and thus not making me late at all, four of us hiked over to some anonymous business building nearby where lunch was set-up. Gloriously, it looked like this:
Yum! But the food actually wasn’t bad at all, compared to most on-set lunches I’ve encountered. I was accompanied by a production assistant and make-up and another supporting actor who’d be shooting his scene after mine (the janitor, who wakes the sleeping Caine I’d put to sleep with my lecture–more on that anon). When I walking in to this building through a large corridor, a guy passed by and said,
“I said, “Hi,” back not knowing who he was.
He kept walking.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“I see you on every film, and you never recognize me. See you later!”
Never did see him again, or if I did, I did not recognize him. I’m like that. I got to see you more than once every six months to remember who you are.
Meanwhile, I’m eating lunch, finishing lunch, always waiting for the director to show up greet me and the janitor. While waiting we nibbled dessert and endured deadtime. During this deadtime, another semi-big-time co-star came in with a handler–we’ll get into handlers–and, scanning the immediate environment, his eyes landed on us and out came the word, “Hello.”
He was Justin Kirk, who I have enjoyed in a TV series called Weeds. (I stopped watching it after the third series as it got redundant.) Having hello-ed us, we all hello-ed him in return, someone asked why he was on the set since he didn’t have a scene that day? He said he had work to do and rather than sit in his hotel room he’d come to hang out and do it in his “wonderful trailer”. I have heard actors pause between words, but Justin Kirk paused between syllables. It took him a while to say the above, but it was interesting conversationally, a technique for holding the audience’s attention with seemingly in-attention to communication. Anyway, he sat with his handler at another table and she conversed with him, handled and humored him perhaps, keeping up a buzz. At my table, after waiting some more and my own running out of conversation with all the one-day strangers at my table (I don’t “handle” well), the director arrived. Or, at least, my production assistant guy said, “There she is.”
First thing she announced was that it was too warm in the room and slid open a glass door and began setting a table outside to eat out there. I mean, we’re talking deep Fall here, puffy coat wearing time, and “my director” wanted the nipple hardening outdoor air to accompany her during lunch–Germans are a hardy, dramatic race. The production assistant decided it was best to depart un-greeted as the director was busy with the table and her personal food arrangements, which was exactly the moment she took to come say hi.
“I’m so happy and glad to have you for this part,” she said to me, making quite sincere eye contact.
“Thank you. My pleasure,” I said, adding, “I have seen your films and admire them so I am very pleased to work with you.”
She said, “I am honored, very honored, thank you.”
And she put a second hand around my single one, stared deep into my eyes saying this, and I was on her side.
Then got my buns with the janitor over to Set 2, the university auditorium, where I had begun my day.
I would be giving a lecture and here’s my lectern from the audience POV:
And here it is from the stage (my POV):
I wandered a lot of those stairs and stage space repeating my lines like a monk with his mantra. For a long, long time. As with much of movie experience, it is a cliché of “Hurry up and Wait”. I was called for noon, and in the end we began shooting my scene after four in the afternoon.
Then came the setting of the extras who were supposed to be there to hear my passionate lecture on bats. Yes, bats. Michael Caine was just arrived to film from being in the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. And now I would be lecturing him into the boredom on bats that only sleep would cure. Oh! The irony! The Exclamation Point of it all!
For that was my whole and only job in this film. Caine was playing a recently widowed man who spent some of his time just passing his time meaninglessly. Some of that time was finding his way into an auditorium to listen to a boring (though enthusiastic) talk on bats. My job was to put one of the most highly regarded film actors to sleep.
But where was the great man himself? Here was some of “my” audience in place, waiting as they set camera and lights:
Well, I was going to find our Mr. Caine was getting what we may term “star” treatment”. His stand-in stood, or in this case sat, in the auditorium, and would do this right up until the filming moment. So I would do my scene to him, the stand-in, and the disinterested others, since Caine didn’t have to be there while filming me.
When the camera was in place, concentrated action suddenly happened. I did my thing. Then the Director directed, “I like your passion, it is good. Just go slower.” They had a bat documentary film looping behind me, so she asked me to just keep repeating my lines so she would have all the different scenes from the bat film reappearing behind me so she could choose which was most appropriate when editing. Did as I was asked, repeating my words, and my bat passion.
Then she said cut and called from the audience, “Vincent, I hate to be difficult but I need you say the words correctly otherwise we could get in trouble with experts.” I checked my script which I had up there with me; I was saying what was on the page: I’d mantra-ed into my skull. “Let’s try again!” she called cheerfully. Camera, clapboard, action.
“Cut!” and this time she same right up to the stage, to my lectern, and wanted to go over my words again because I kept getting some of them wrong. I said my lines to her and she looked at me, still awfully pleasant, asking, “Can I see your script?” She had a look at it. “Where did you get this?” I said, “This was what was emailed to me.” “Well,” she said, “it is wrong.” She called out to the audience, “I thought we had corrected the script and these mistakes would not happen!” Back to me. “Here’s my script. Here are the word changes, so let’s do the same thing all over again, okay?”
Now I’m a guy who likes to feed his performing insecurity with preparation, and there I was, thrown some variations and the camera was ready to roll. The words had to be exact because I was playing a bat expert, and now I had to be that expert, repeatedly, word perfect, while the bat docu looped endlessly behind me, but with new words in slightly new order.
Action. I flubbed. Flubbed again. “Take a breath!” called the director. I gulped air. Action. Got one out, two, flub.
The Director came up to have another one on one with me. She was still smiling kindly (she’s going to make one hell of a grandmother some day) and had me quietly repeat my lecture to her, to calm me, then talked in a low voice about the funny coincidence about the bat lecture and Caine coming from his batman movie to here. “Only thought of it when we started shooting this.” We smiled, joked. She was doing what a professional does, what I’d sometimes done directing my own stuff, distracting a frantic actor’s mind with some off-subject banter. She was doing a good job, and I accepted her doing a good job, telling myself what a good job she was doing while she was actually doing that good job.
Action. She finally got what she needed. “Next shot!” And they moved to the following set-up, which was a reverse shot from my point of view to the audience and a certain sleepy Mr. Caine. Downtime happened as cameras and lights got rearranged.
When cameras were ready to roll Micheal Caine was, quite literally, led in. The same handler who had handled Justin Kirk earlier was beside him, chatting, guiding. Evidently, this lady was an all-purpose handler (and I wonder what her CV must read like: “Very good with movie folk needing faux friendly relationship during time in and around a film set.” Really, what’s the education or training for such a position? Labrador like chummy devotion? Professional distance and rabid protection?
Sitting off to the side, always waiting, I took two quick, very dark, very far away snaps of him being lead up the stairs to his seat. Here’s one, where you can’t see much at all:
Then another one where he is really coolly ghostly:
At which point, the gentle handler made a beeline for me. “Please, no photos of Mister Caine on set during shooting. At the end of the day, fine, as many photos as you want, please ask. Okay?” Sure, I put the camera away.
Caine, while seeming bright-eyed and alert, with the famous face in repose, his walk, however, was rather cautious. Tiny Chinese crush-feet lady steps, with his arms cautiously held near his side, as though ready for use should he stumble. Seemed almost frail. He only spoke to the director or his handler, who sat in the seat before him, chatting while last minute camera and light adjustments were made. Everyone else was kept well away.
Then Action, wherein I did my verbal thing, repeating my lines behind my lectern right beside the camera, and Caine did his thing out there in the dark beyond the lights. I did it twice, and the director was happy with Caine’s falling to sleep acting which I couldn’t see him from where I was because crew were blocking my view, and after two takes, he was led back where he had come from. I never got any closer, nor did anyone else while I was around.
So my experience with Michael Caine was very, very different than the lovely one I had with Julie Delpy the month before.
As they began setting up the last day’s shot with the janitor, I was lead to the wardrobe trailer, that was now nearby, and got my own clothes back. I was done.
I figured waiting another hour or less or more just to get some photos of Caine to stick in here and say and show I Told You So was not going to be a joyful way to spend my time. Maybe he was an affable darling when shooting ceased, but he gave a vibe of don’t-crowd-me. And why not? He’s probably be crowded much in his life, and knows how to protect himself from the numbing demands of the crowding admirers.
The last thing I did was head up into the audience to the director who was conversing with the camera folks and thanked her, for her patience and so on. Again she took both my hands in hers and thanked me profusely for the good job I did. I wished her and the film well. Here’s a surreptitious snap I took of her during shooting, with real crap light, and someone said immediately, Please don’t take photos on the set.
Then I went back to my life, walking through the dark campus without a handler to guide me, and then waiting for a tram to arrive with a lot of background extras in my real life. No action, no cut, no lines. Just my own personal scene when I get on public transport and go quietly away into the night.