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Archive for November, 2014

Though it’s billed as a black comedy (and I’ll admit, that’s my favorite genre of film) I didn’t find Birdman all that funny.  I don’t know whether that’s simply the result of having spent so much time on set, of being able to anticipate moments that perhaps comedy demands come at you unexpectedly, or whether the film and I are not on the same comic wave-length.

However, despite the perceived lack of ha ha’s, what makes the film relevant, especially for performers, is the “voice of the super-hero” ringing in one’s head.  While on one level the character of the Birdman is a recurrence of a role that the protagonist, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) played in his earlier career, on another level, the Birdman is the super-hero in us all, the childhood-based, ego-building voice that says “I am bigger than this,” “I’m more important,” “Why don’t they listen to me,” “Don’t they understand how powerful I am?”  It isn’t just actors who have this voice in their heads, but other than CEOs and politicians, actors have fewer checks on that larger than life ego voice.

Psychologists trace the ego to the terrible twos, the time when the child discovers that the universe does not always comply with its demands.  For most infants, cries are met with comfort or feeding, wet diapers are changed, the world seems a place in which the infant is at the direct center.  Sometime around the age of two, as the demands become more complex and the toddler actually has the language to express them, there is a disconnect — frequently the world does not comply with the child’s wishes. Thus the tantrum — don’t you know how important I am?  I’m used to making the universe answer to me.

Many Americans get stuck in this stage of development, where the outsized ego is created to compensate for the physical smallness of the child.  In fact, there are whole fields of philosophy/psychology that claim that development is complete by the age of three.  The ego is simply an inner voice, a mechanism developed to protect to body from threat.  The problem is that we acquire other voices (i.e. the voice of a mother, father, teacher, friends, etc.) that may create conflicting desires.  And the ego will try to protect us from the potential hazards of our own desires as well as hazards that may be presented by our friends and family, et al.  The bottom line, however, is that the ego is designed to keep us from feeling small. And since growth involves taking risks, its a truism that our ego rarely has our best interests at heart.

Thus, as Riggan Thomson tries to move toward authenticity, abandoning the Birdman role that won him fame, and many years later writing, producing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver, the super-sized ego, in the guise of the Birdman, works to break down all the risk inherent in taking one’s desires seriously.  And that is the source of both the comedy and the tragedy of Birdman.

Ironically, Riggan Thomson, as a former movie star, can begin in NYC on Broadway.  By way of contrast Lesley (Naomi Watt), his co-star in the piece, though married to a well-known Broadway actor, Mike (Ed Norton), is making her Broadway debut.  For Lesley, her career has been a process of work that is culminating in a leading role on Broadway.  Yet as Riggan approaches his dressing room, the Birdman voice in his head calls the St. James Theatre “a dump” and reminds Riggan “You were a movie star.”

Almost any performer knows those voices — the ones that talk us onto the ledge half the time  (“go ahead, take a chance, you can fake speaking Swahili” “Maybe they don’t really want a black actor — just show up at Ma Rainey auditions, you’ll see”) and keep us closeted in our rooms the other half of the time (“Why go to that audition, they’ve already cast the show, this is just to comply with the union” “Your hair looks a mess” “When was the last time you even got a callback from Telsey?”) Half the key to having a career at all is the ability to move out the door before the voices notice what you’re doing (the other half is the ability to stop yourself in the hallway if you’re darting toward doing something absurd).

Birdman would just be a piece for performers if this tendency didn’t live in us all.  Actors, by benefit of their profession, go on 30 – 100 job interviews every year.  That’s right, job interview.  That’s exactly what an audition is — a job interview.  Most of us can show up at a job, slog through the routine work we do and never have to think about anything except what a jerk our boss is for five to ten years or more in a row. When we start to look for a job, the voices come out (“Do I really want to work there?” “Does this tie match?” “Do I even need to wear a suit?”).  Now imagine the voices being basically a part of your job — you’re looking for work 24/7.

For me, that is the underscore of the film — it is the physicalization, the making material a metaphorical construct — that what may have once driven us is now that voice that will seek to destroy us.  Yet, it is a comedy.

Traditionally, comedy ends with marriage, tragedy with death.  (Yes, I am going to talk about the ending, so if you made it this far and you still haven’t seen the film, cover your eyes and back away now). The spectre of the Birdman becomes more prevalent as the film moves toward its conclusion.  After Riggan is talked into shooting himself on stage (and we see the life preservation instinct somehow defeating the grandiosity of the ego), his face takes on the aspect of the Birdman — his nose is masked from the surgery, the tape almost constructed like a negative inversion of his black bird mask.  When he goes to the bathroom and peels off the mask, his face is purpled and bruised with the aftermath of the event – his face is now etched with the details of his Birdman costume.  All that’s left is the denoument, the final union of the two individuals who are to be made one by the conclusion of the comedy.  We see Riggan standing on a window ledge, following the flight of a flock of birds.

When Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) comes back into the room, Riggan has taken flight.  He is no longer contained by the hospital.  A look of panic crosses Sam’s face and she immediately looks down.  There appears to be nothing below, so her gaze moves upward, into the sky.  A cryptic smile spreads across her face.  The end.  It is an enigmatic ending, to be sure.  One of the dialogue points has been that Riggan was never there for Sam (and it’s hard to believe that he’ll be there for her now).  So — what is the smile?  Does she finally understand him?  I personally believe the smile is to underscore the union — the two personalities we’ve watched dueling for almost two hours, are somehow merged.  In other words, we can choose to believe that Riggan has become insane or authentic.  It is our choice.  But it is Sam’s smile that points the way.

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It’s tricky to have a child and to be on call.  I never knew until 8 or 9 o’clock at night if I was going to have to be on set the next morning at 7.  I had alternate childcare in place each day, and after the first ten days or so of shooting at the Kaufman Astoria Studios (of which I worked five), when I checked in nightly about shooting the following day,  I was not on the schedule.

The truth is, despite my aversion to “extra” work, I enjoyed being on set.  They had told us during the second set of call backs that Alejandro was looking to cast a core group of 10 or so extras to function as the employees of the theatre — stage hands, wardrobe, make up, etc.  There would be a lot of work. On set, after a time, people knew who we were and on the whole were mostly respectful.  The 2nd AD, Feeny (as everyone called her) was skeptical about all background as a  rule (although, through competence, one could win her trust) ; her assistant, a tall skeletal looking man whose black hair and pale skin were highlighted by his mandatory black clothing, was borderline rude. I cannot recall his name — everyone called him by a nickname anyway and that’s the piece that escapes me now. Although the team of ten had been set at the last callback, on the third day of shooting one of the stage hands overslept.  He never returned.  The guy who was given a line (that was then taken away and given to someone else), also had a conflict toward the weekend.  He never returned. The attrition started to build.  It was not a cozy little world.

When the production moved to the St. James Theatre, I was told that casting would be in touch.  Yet several days went by without hearing a thing.  I continued arranging for childcare and cancelling it. On the third day, I was told to report.  At the St. James, the only other stage hand who’d survived from the Astoria Studios was “Keith.”  There were some “old timers” — people who made health care and pension benefits from doing background work  — who were now the replacement stage hands.  One guy in particular, an older man with balding scalp and white hair snuggled up to Feeny and kept putting himself in position to be placed in any upcoming shot.  Fortunately, “Keith” and I had earned PK’s trust.

Holding was now in the hallway of the balcony tier.  Sound was set up there in the hallway as well.  Crafty was in the second floor lounge. In Manhattan, the quality of the food stepped up a notch.  I was reading one of the “Game of Thrones” novels at the time.  I’d watched the first two seasons, but I refused to pay $1,000 a year for television (I watch only selected programming and insist that my son choose dvd’s if he wants to watch something, so it’s not worth the money to us).

One of the first scenes we shot in the theatre is more or less at the opening of the film — where the actors are seated at a table on stage and a light comes crashing down, hitting one of the actors.  Zach Galifianakis zips through the seats of the theatre, tells us to call 911, then jumps onto the stage where he and Michael Keaton flourish off stage left.  There was a line in the script at this juncture that would have been assigned to either “Keith” or myself — we are both working on set, me on a ladder and Keith off stage right.  The light crashes down, we both move toward the body stretched out on stage, there’s a line in the script, Zach yells out call 911, we improvise some dialogue and attending to the fallen actor.

I had decided pretty early on that I was going to treat this as a day job.  From day one, with the ten original actors in holding, there was much chafing, praying and hoping about getting upgraded to a speaking part.  On day one (in Astoria), one of the actors who chafed the most got a line — and then had it taken away.  When we’d rehearsed the fallen light scene several times and the line was not assigned to either Keith or I, Keith brought it up to PK.

“You know there’s a line in the script here?”

PK did not take it amiss.  “I hope to give everyone a line by the end of the shoot.  But you know if I give you a line today, you can’t come back tomorrow.”

And then we improvised.  Zach calling out to call 911, I took out my phone, dialed and in a near panic, said “911, we’ve had an actor struck by a light.” Spur of the moment, with a flash of wit, I continued, “No, not lightning, a light, a stage light.” Naomi Watts, who had knelt down beside me, looking over the actor with concern, lost it, trying to contain her laughter.  Well, after all, they did tell us it was a comedy.

I never knew if those lines would be used.  Or any of the others I improvised during the next four takes.  No one seemed to have an issue with the fact that I wasn’t miming dialogue.  I also knew everyone around me was miked — so that sound would be picked up.  It would be on different tracks if they decided to use it — i.e. it would not interfere with the take.

Once we were inside the theatre shooting, I was back for most of the following days.  I read until someone called me. Went where I was told.  Kept my mouth shut when I was on set — unless I was chatting with the steadicam guy, Chris Haarhoff.  He was originally from South Africa and our conversations ranged from world politics and economics (including Chomsky) to literature and philosophy.  Once, at “crafty” when I mentioned that I wasn’t fond of papaya — he asked if I’d ever eaten it with lemon juice.  I told him I hadn’t.  He insisted I try it.  Damned if it didn’t change the flavor.

One day, another new extra was called on set.  In fact, I knew the guy — call him John — I’ll leave out the details from where simply because it would make him too readily identifiable.  He had on an olive green coat and a black wool cap.  Wardrobe came up, looked him over and told him to lose the olive shirt and the hat.  He was wearing a navy blue t-shirt and that would do.  Take one — he’s asked to bring a can of paint forward at a given moment (cue).  Four takes later, he’s missed the cue every time.  Finally they take the paint away from him, and someone is yelling to PK that if he doesn’t go to lunch now, the union penalty is going to cost him a fortune.

Lunch — John-the-new-guy is lying in the middle of the floor, on his cell phone, telling someone he’s on a set with Michael Keaton.  He says fairly loudly that he wants to walk up to him and say, “you’re the Batman.”  Since I’d been involved with this guy on a project, I’d nodded at him once or twice — to acknowledge that I knew he was there.  Each time he found another direction to look.  Fine by me — I didn’t really want to talk to the guy anyway.  And at this point, with everyone in crafty looking over at what he’s saying, I’m glad there’s no acknowledged connection.  After lunch, he is on set, late.  He goes back to get the paint can that was taken away and resumes wearing his black hat and olive shirt that wardrobe had insisted he shed.  At this point, the skeletal tall P.A. (production assistant), the one who was generally dismissive of background came up and asked what he was doing.

“Weren’t you told to lose the shirt?”

“Yes, but I thought it served my character better.”

“Your character?”

“I studied at H.B.”

After the wardrobe was cleared up, with the skeletal P.A.. almost physically tearing it off John-the-new-guy, the scene continued.  Once that scene was shot, John-the-new-guy found himself in the darkest corners of the theatre when the next shot was sketched out.

PK selected me and the old timer who was snuggling up to Feeny to move a bed into place on stage as part of a filmed scene change.  Since Ed Norton and Naomi Watt were already in the bed, it was heavier that a simple piece of furniture, so tech had to be called to put it on rollers.  Then one of the rollers skidded sideways. Tech tried several times to adjust the wheels, but we were toward the end of the shoot and there was a lot of time pressure — Alejandro only had so many days in the theatre.   I knew where the camera was, but volunteered to move out of the shot to the head of the bed to control the sideways skid.

I don’t say this to sing my own praises.  In my career, I have been as bad as the worst actor stereo-type you have ever seen.  I’ve been petty, resentful, unapologetically late and profligate with time and talent, you name it.  But over time, I’ve come to appreciate the joy of simply working at your craft.  Some years ago, I was working on a foreign play presented at a festival.  The lead was a U.S. actor, who’d until recently been a big fish on a popular soap opera.  He showed up late, beefed that his co-lead was only cast because she was the producer’s girlfriend, wasted an entire rehearsal using the subtext of “f*^k you” for every line he said to her — and in the same production, there were two Russian actors.  One had no lines, he simply walked through.  Yet each character who walked through with him was unique.  He and his compatriot showed up an hour early.  They took every item off the set, swept the floor, dusted the furniture and reset that stage as if they were laying vestments and chalices on an altar. Many times I ask myself — whom do you respect?  Whom do you want to emulate? The American actor or the Russians (not in general, just in this play)?

I remember W.H.Auden once saying that the author is always humbled by his work — his work is to capture some aspect of reality, and his work will always fall short of his best efforts.  The critic is always bolstered by his work — his work is to review one book, and he is always superior to that book.  When I look at the two versions of actors who showed up for the festival play, the feeling was similar — for one, he was much more important than the play, the work he was hired to do.  For the Russians, they were at the service of the work.  When I went to work on Birdman, this was the attitude I chose — to be of service, in any way I could, and to expect nothing in return.  And yet, I will admit, after being told in Astoria that I’d be billed at Tough Guy Stagehand #1, when I watched the credits roll, I felt a bit heavy in the chest when my name wasn’t there.

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During the last month, the month since its release, I’ve gotten more private messages, Facebook posts and phone calls about my three-second appearance in Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Birdman than I have for just about any other project in which I’ve been involved.  I discussed the process with Carl Kelsch, a uniquely-voiced screenwriter for whom I’ve done a number of readings, and he suggested I be open about the process.  So here it is.

I submitted my picture and resume to be an extra.  I don’t know how many people are aware of what it means to be an “extra” — it basically means you are set-dressing, you are furniture that moves. My last experience as set dressing came on the set of The Cradle Will Rock. I decided that day that there was too large a chasm between extra and actor to ever want to surrender the second to earn pay as the first.  Some examples:

On the set of Oz, the “extras director” (yes, the main director does not want to deal with the furniture) told the prisoners who were seated at the tables in the cafeteria to “mime talking.”  Immediately everyone at our table started to move their mouths.  Large, wide open, tonsil revealing mouth movements.  I decided that my character would be listening.  After all — if this many people at a table are talking, SOMEONE ought to be listening.  One of the other actors became very concerned; he started to pantomime to me that I should be miming.  I pointed to my ears, pantomiming the words “I’m miming listening.”  When the scene was shot and we were returned to holding, the actor approached me.  “Don’t you know how to do ‘the mime’?” Yes, those were his exact words.  “The mime.”  I tried to explain to him that if that many people were talking someone should be listening.  He thought I was putting him off.  “I can teach you how to do ‘the mime,’ if you want.”  I told him that mostly what I wanted was to eat my lunch in peace.

We shot Cradle Will Rock in July.  Hot, hot summer that year.  I recall — we shot during the days before my birthday. The first day we were in Madison Square Park.  We were filming a concert that had been banned indoors and was now being held in a park.  The police came riding through on horseback to break up the performance — and the extras ran through the park laughing and holding hands.  Tim Robbins had to get on the megaphone and yell: “People, the police are hunting you down.  You should not be laughing.  Or holding hands.”  Take two.  Did anyone listen?  Less than half.  You get the idea.  Extra work is largely for people who want to be on film but don’t want to take the time to learn about the craft of acting.

So — Cradle Will Rock is the late 90s.  No extra work since.  But — having left my steady job for unsteady employment in 2011, I looked at the ads.  Did not submit.  Looked again.  Then finally decided — hey, it’s like a day job.  I’m in the union  so it’s not going to be 12 hour days for $75 (as it was in the days when I first moved to NYC). So I ultimately submitted.  And forgot about it.

Perhaps a month later, I got a call from Adam DeLisi — they’d been assembling pictures, narrowing them down — they liked my look.  Can I come in and audition.  I said “sure,” but in my mind I’m thinking — “for extra work? Are you nuts?”  I dressed the part, including the older guy who does physical labor elbow brace.  On camera, I was asked to pick up a chair, move it to stage left (they were checking — did I know which way was stage left?). I was called back.  Yes.  A call back.  For extra work. They wanted to match various actors who’d submitted — which groups looked the most likely. Called back again.  This time various actors were given scripted lines to read.  We were directed where to look, etc.  I have to admit that this callback took much longer than I’d anticipated and I needed to get to my son’s school by 2:20 to pick him up.  Though I’d normally have gone last to have the most time with the text, this time I went first.

For the film, the production company built a replica of the theatre’s backstage in the Kaufman Astoria studios. The first day on set, we walked through a long take.   I assumed these were establishing shots.  Wrong.  I didn’t know at the time that the film was to be a series of single unedited takes. Peter Kohn was the First Assistant Director.  He and his staff dealt with the self-moving furniture.  And I have to say, while some of his supporting staff may have been condescending toward the extras, “PK” as he was referred to on set was not.  He did not tolerate lack of focus, lateness, errors caused by folly, but to those who showed up, did the work, were focused and committed, he moved us to the front of the scene and gave us responsibility time and time again.  But I get ahead of myself.  On the first day of actual shooting, Zach Galifianakis and Michael Keaton were walking forward through a long corridor.  The camera preceded them down the hall.  Acting as a stage hand, my job was to cross in front of the camera and between the two actors and continue down the stairs at the end of the hall.

First take: goes perfectly.  Except it was a run through — and the camera was slightly out of focus — Michael and Zach need to walk closer together.  Next take, Michael and Zach are too close together for me to feel comfortable going between them.  I pass alongside of them.  PK — why did you go to the side?  I explained they were too closely involved for me to pass between, especially when there was room to the side, i.e. it would seem overly rude.  PK — they are close for the camera.   Don’t be rude but excuse yourself and walk between them.  Next take:  I start out and as I approach, I mumble, excuse me — and pass between.

Alejandro — loud enough for me to hear — “why is he talking?  Who told him to talk?” The sub sub furniture director comes over — why are you talking?  PK told me to excuse myself.  Sub sub — he didn’t mean it.  Mime excusing yourself.  Ha ha. Had I learned nothing? Take four.  They adjust where the camera comes down the hall.  It’s too tight to where I’m supposed to move.  I bump it on the way past.  Twice. Or maybe three times.  It’s something that has to be worked out.  More than once. After several bad takes, I feel like such a loser that I lay down on the set floor to try to collect myself.  I am told later that Alejandro came out to look for me, but when he saw me lying there, he turned back into the control room from which they watched the monitor.

I think we ended up filming something in the first six hours.  And yet it was not formally considered the first day of shooting.  Holding on this day is in the basement with all the electric equipment.  The place reminded me of Zappa’s “Dynamo Hum.” By day two, most of the “background” had positioned themselves upstairs, near “crafty.” Industry slang for the guys who put out the food (and by extension the food that is put out). They shot something else near Michael’s dressing room.  Mostly that afternoon we sat.

Next day, Ed Norton was on set.  I wasn’t involved in the morning shot, but just after lunch, PK called for me to come to the back of the set.  They walked us through the take: Michael would walk down the hallway to Ed Norton’s dressing room.  They would have words, walk back up the hall toward the kitchenette, enter the kitchen.  At that point we would round the corner.  They would begin to fight.  At a certain point, the camera would look up at me and the other extra — I want to say Keith, but he looked like a director from New Orleans I worked with who is named Keith, and I think I hit the overwrite button on those brain cells.  Anyway, the camera would look up at us and we’d look at each other, then look back at the two actors wrestling on the floor.  Alejandro’s instructions — “these two are pieces of shit.  Just total shit.  That’s how you should treat them.”  Easy enough.

Here the shoot bogged down.  Alejandro instructed Ed Norton to move up a step on a certain line.  I think he’d blocked this out so many times in his head that he just knew what he wanted.  At this point, Ed Norton interjected.  “I don’t think that’s my motivation line.  I think the impulse to move comes from the next line.” Like a truck in mud, neither one of these two budged from their position for nearly an hour.  Alejandro asking Norton to “try it my way.”  Norton refusing, not seeing how that line could possibly be paired with any impulse to move.  The sub sub director came to “Keith” and I and asked us to clear out of the area — don’t go away, we want to be ready to shoot, but get as far out of earshot as you can get.”  The hallway from which we were to enter, was false.  Like the train track in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it simply ended at an overhang, though not quite as steep as that cliff.  Keith and I hovered near the end of the hallway train line looking over the wooden chasm at set-making personnel stressing new items to make them look old.

Eventually, the issue was resolved.  In whose favor, I cannot say, but it also alienated Michael Keaton, who had been Mr. Easy the day before.  Now his attitude seemed much less amiable.  Chris Haarhoff, the cameraman, followed Michael down the hall into Ed Norton’s dressing room, came back toward the kitchen, squatted down with them as they fought, and turned to face “Keith” and I as we stood there gaping.  On the first attempt, we mistimed our “head turn/look at each other/look back.”  Alejandro thought we didn’t get the concept.  I asked him for a count — when the camera turns, what is our timing to look at each other?  Three.

Feeling the heat of the underlying hostility, like coals that were dusted over but not out, I did not want to be the cause of any re-takes. There was pressure.  Take two — “the look” as I now thought of it was once again  mis-timed.  Then the unthinkable happened.  I was already terrified that I’d be replaced.  I’d watched one other actor be given a line the day before and then have it taken away. He was not back on the ensuing day.  Yet, on the third take, I got so engrossed in the fight I forgot to turn at all.

Alejandro came out and I thought it was over for me.  His decision now was to skip “the look” — just keep staring at them.  At this point  I was uncertain (actually, I’m still uncertain) if the change came because my reaction was so natural that it allowed him to see that “the look” was a forced comedic bit, or if he felt that “the look” was beyond my meager acting capability and therefore he lightened the load. I think it’s got to be either one or the other, there’s not a lot of middle ground.

We did one more take and that’s the print you see.  I made all the trailers, both U.S. and international — so the moment was clearly worth something.  After we worked through that bit, Debbie DeLisi called me — “how do you like it? You will now be ‘Tough Guy Number One/Stage Hand.'”  I assumed that meant I’d be credited.  At this moment, according to IMDB, I am not.  I remember asking an industry person who called me (“Is that you?”) when the trailers first hit the theatres: how do you market being an extra?  It’s like saying “I can be good furniture.” I’ve done much better work, more intricate work on smaller films.  Birdman? It’s the highest profile performance of my career — and yet, it’s extra work….

How do you market that? (to be continued)

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The First Intention

When I named this blog “The Magic Lantern,” my initial thought was to have many blogs, a veritable Venice of blog canals, weaving their dirty sea water through the ancient city of thought.  “The Magic Lantern” was created to hold reflections on the cinema.  I would make other blogs about writing, politics, philosophical reflections, poetry.  Yeah. Things have changed.

In March of 2011, a few months before I put this blog in motion, I left a “steady” position to work as an artist-in-residence at Colgate University.  The plan was to perform in Sarah Kane’s “Blasted” — a challenging role for an older man, to appear on stage naked, at one point to rape, at another to be raped — spend the summer with my eight year old son while looking to re-position myself in the NYC acting scene.

I left my desk job (which, by the way, was a two week temp job in 2005 that never ended, and with a small child a steady paycheck that you can’t just walk away from without another plan) and a few days later was driving North through a blizzard on the first day of Spring.  Little did I know that by the time I reached Colgate, the play would be scrapped due to a conflict between the director and the lead actress.  I was told I’d be paid, but that I’d have to return at a later date and give a workshop of some sort (TBD).

I tried to take it in stride.  This, I assured myself, will lead to bigger and better projects.  I am now free to pursue my career on a full-time basis.  Yeah.  That was three years ago. During that time, I’ve had occasion to wish for a forum to share my journey, my inspirations, and maybe one or two prayers I’ve bitten off for help.  Yeah.  This is it.

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