I made it everyone! I survived my first semester of film school!
But it was a close shave, let me tell ya. Also, I didn’t end up shaving that often. That turned out to be ok, though, because I didn’t have to impress too many people with my face, except with the mouth part of my face, and even then, it was more about what I was saying and less about the relative attractiveness of my succulent lips. What I mean to say is, my groomédness rarely came into play because film school is about 90% male, and as far as those Y chromosome folks are concerned, the mangier the better (after all, you can’t spell mangy without man! and guy is almost in there too). Which brings me to the first danger of student filmmaking: incidental abstinence.
It would be nice if we were like those frogs those scientists used to fill in the missing strands of DNA in Jurassic Park and we could just change our gender at will. But alas, despite Jeff Goldblum’s insistence, in my personal experience, Life does not find a way. It just ends up sitting in its room a lot, debating whether it has too much pride to head over to the casual encounters section of craigslist.
Luckily, abstinence is one of those non-life-threatening dangers. It’s when you go around town shooting without proper permits or crew that things get really interesting (not that I would ever do that, readers who are also Chapman faculty). Yes, I’ve come close to death on pretty much every set, but one of those experiences stands above the rest, the veritable giraffe of danger.
You see, I was to play the lead in a simple, one-minute story about a man whose car runs out of gas. We thought it would be a breeze, but as the things on our todo list spiraled out of control, it ended up less breeze and more tornado. A spiraly tornado.
First off, it’s raining, and since I’m part witch (of a Cardinal direction, no less), that’s never a good thing. I know then in my boots, or rather, non-rain-proof flip-flops, that it is an omen of fortune most ill.
Still, not wanting to have a meltdown in front of everyone (see what I did there?), especially that cute editor I was trying to impress (because film school did have at least one girl in it), I soldier on and hop in the car with the affable director, who proceeds to drive us way, way up into the clearly deserted hills, a place where no one would hear us scream. He pulls the car off to the side of the road on some dilapidated gravelly overlook near a bridge and tells me to get out. It’s time.
But before we can get the camera rolling, or sliding, or any form of lateral motion, another car pulls off onto the gravel right behind us. Keep in mind, there is nobody around as far as the eye can see. There are turnouts every few hundred feet, but no, this car chooses to stop directly behind us. Don’t they know this is a film set?
Oh, and then a bunch of gang members pile out.
It was a lot like a clown car, except instead of pouring out seemingly forever, there were only three of them, and instead of being clowns, they were all natural born killers! Or killers created by experience and circumstance or whatever; I’m no Calvinist. Experience that left them covered in tattoos. And muscles. Muscles everywhere.
“Let’s just keep filming,” says the director bravely, right before he crosses the street and walks far far away from the danger, leaving me all alone.
I act like my car has run out of gas for a little while (a stirring performance, I assure you), while shaking in my proverbial “boots,” feet soaked with the liquid fear that I hope is merely the rain and not something more. And then another car pulls up behind us. Just as my dark imagination predicted, more gang members get out. Now it’s a gang soiree?!
Oh, and then there’s another car. Suddenly ten of the most hardcore dudes I’ve ever seen are convening right behind me, plotting how to murder the witnesses who were stupid enough to be FILMING their drug deal.
I look at our possé. There’s me, a buffoon practiced at avoiding conflict; the affable director whose main form of attack is a barrage of smiles; the tall, handsome cinematographer who likes to sing silly songs and whose loyalties probably lie with the camera rather than with me; and this cute girl in front of whom I can show no fear lest I lose face (unshaven as it might be).
The three of them cower on the other side of the road, so far away that they have to call my cell phone to give me acting directions. They promise we’re almost done, but then I see it: the flash of something metal in one of the killer’s hands.
He’s walking toward me now; what little light filters through the ominous rain glints off the object he carries, and I say a quick prayer to Odon, but I know it’s too late. This is it for me.
I spin, confronting the bearer of my demise and see him squat down and pretend to take a dump? He hands his reflective phone to one of his buddies, and the whole gang starts cracking up. They’re posing in front of a “No Dumping” sign, and loving the shit out of it. They each take turns flouting authority by disobeying the government warning…via word play. Apparently three cars worth of these guys met up in the hills not for a drug deal, but for a photo op.
This shatters my perception of gangs.
Location Two: The Gas Station
We arrive at a seedy gas station, thankful to be alive, and more than ready to put this damn shoot behind us. Unfortunately, the location is overrun with homeless people. Now, I’m a big fan of bums, but maybe that’s because all the one’s I’ve interacted with are beach bums who like to talk about the waves, play you guitar on the sand, and compliment you on your fine burrito-purchasing skills. In fact, my most recent interaction lasted about half an hour, and the guy told me he’d written a story about how Obama and Santa Claus team up to prevent the Mayan apocalypse (which comes in the form of aliens).
I sort of assumed that all homeless people were friendly, but as we set up for our final shot, this one guy starts yelling at us about how we’re on his turf, and if we don’t get the hell out of there, he’s going to kill us. Now, I’m not a big fan of my own death, so this worries me, nerves fraying like that now-disintegrated blanket my grandmother promised would always keep me safe. After delivering his message, he simply retreats to a sort of homeless haven in the bushes, where he meets up with what are presumably members of his crew.
And that’s when we see that one of his compatriots has his pants around his ankles and is, um, defecating, right in the open onto some unsuspecting grass.
It’s some sort of conspiracy! The “No Dumping” sign, and now this! The hobos and gangs must have made a pact, working together to…I don’t know! Something!
I try to explain my theory to the director, but he laughs it off as one of those all-too-common crazy Russ ideas. Doesn’t he understand?! If there’s one thing my time as a detective has taught me, it’s that there’s no such thing as coincidence!
He instructs me to keep acting, dammit, but before he can call action, another homeless guy comes at us, screaming. “You didn’t listen to my king? He gave you a direct order, and what the king says, goes. Ya hear me? You take that camera outta here! You take it down now. NOW!”
He’s heading straight toward me. We lock eyes, and I sense his brutal purpose.
“I carry the word of the king!” he shouts, and he’s almost on us.
Finally the director’s resolve breaks, and we run for our car.
But it’s not enough. The homeless guy follows us, and we have one of those movie moments, the driver struggling to hit the unlock button, the monster only moments away.
And then, to our rescue, a shining knight. The lone gas station employee, not your usual knight figure, bursts out of the quik-e-purchase, sprints over, and antagonizes the homeless guy.
“Why you messin’ with their movie, man? Huh? Why you gotta bother these poor people?”
Before I realize what’s happening, the two of them are circling each other, shouting taunts just out of fist-smashing range. The gas station guy keeps telling us to go ahead and finish our movie, but we know when we’ve been beaten, and the driver floors it.
As I look back on it now, I find it rather odd that shooting a movie about running out of gas on the side of the road ended up being much more dangerous than any of the times I’ve actually run out of gas, almost as if, in making the movie, we were forced to live through the movie ourselves…
It’s like some sort of conspiracy.