Lights! Camera! Cats!

We adjourned from our initial meeting/rehearsal in writer/producer Dan Greenberger’s office; filming our seven-minute comic film  would take place the next Saturday in Laurel Canyon. At co-star Mary Mack’s show the next night, I met Aviva Williams, director Jeff’s wife, who said she’d make cookies.

* * *

Wednesday. I receive the weekend’s schedule (I’m working both days from 9 a.m., but only ‘til noon on Sunday) and my copy of the final script.

While I’ve been on a number of television programs (more about which some other time), I’ve never been in a movie. In fact, the only time I remember even having been on a “hot” (i.e., working) set was when I was in New Mexico in 1971, doing a location piece on the film “Bunny O’Hare” for Box Office magazine. The film starred Bette Davis and Ernest Burgnine (not one of either’s finest moments), but I recall having spent most of the time ogling ingenue Joan Delaney. Trust me: you would, too.

JoanDelaneyandTE1971 cornered

The scene we rehearsed on Saturday is gone. Well, the scene’s still there, but my little piece of business (action without dialog) – the one that was so well received by director Jeff Williams and writer Dan – has disappeared into the ether. At least, I don’t see it in the revised script. I’m beginning to sense why actors whine. On the other hand, I’m not gone entirely, and my one line word remains intact. I’m not going to even attempt to memorize it, though; what’s the point, when it may be gone by the time we shoot (show-biz talk for “filming”) ?

I call Jeff. There’s no specific clothing mentioned in the script, and I know that the “cats” aren’t supposed to wear costumes; we’re humans, hopefully acting like cats. I have a big bulky sweater that might convey the idea, I suggest. “No, no,” he responds. “What you were wearing the other day will be fine.” I was wearing what I pretty much always wear: slacks, a shirt-sleeved shirt and comfortable shoes. I pack the sweater, just in case. Also, we’re going to be shooting over two days, and I only have two shirts that look exactly alike, a situation that would be less critical, I thought, if I wore the sweater. I’m beginning to empathize with costumers.

The shoot (still show-biz talk for “filming,” but this time a wider sense of the word) was to be at Dan’s home, deep in the hills that separate Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley. It’s also maybe fifteen minutes from where I live; L.A. is like that: a city of neighborhoods, some of them downright rural. When I arrive at the house, Dan tells me that it’s supposedly where James earl Jones lived while filming at least one (I forget which) of the “Star Wars” trilogy. The good one.

I am suitably impressed, and glance around looking for maybe the odd light sabre scorch from a rehearsal gone wrong. Then I realize: Jones probably never held a light sabre during the filming or post-production (that’s when all the actors have gone home and the editors go to work: another “inside” show-biz term. I’m pickin’ ’em up like bedbugs in a flophouse).

Having allowed for traffic that turned out to be pretty nonexistent in Hollywood at eight o’clock on Saturday morning, I arrived early. Which is to say “on time,” which is my habit, to the consternation of hosts all over town and to my own frustration when I attend a show that starts half an hour (at least) after the announced time. Jeff and Dan are there, along with cameraman (I think) Saul Herckis; and Mayra Rodriguez, who will double as sound recorder and boom operator.

The two “lead” (more show-biz talk: featured) cats show up in a few minutes; as do Mary Mack, who plays the only human character, and her friend and fellow comic, Tim Harmston, while the technical people are still setting up. Tim is an accomplished performer in his own right, and was in fact the person who brought Mary (who brought me) to director Jeff’s attention. The fourth actor, Jackson Bond, won’t be on hand until Sunday when his scenes will be shot.

There is coffee, plus snacks and soft drinks (the cookies would arrive later, with Aviva). I’ve brought a book; knowing that filming entails a lot of sitting around while other people do whatever it is they’re doing. But as it turns out, I’m too blasé to read; watching people moving furniture and setting up lights and cameras is still interesting to me.

All of the filming (or whatever you call it when it’s digital) involving me was done in Dan’s version of what — in my house, when I was growing up —  was called the “sun room,” though an additional scene with Mary took place in the kitchen, and was shot after I’d gone home for the day. In that one main room, scenes took place in maybe three areas; a sofa against one wall. an easy chair against the other, and on the floor somewhere in the middle. Each change of scene required the sound and light people to readjust — while on a much smaller scale, this was in many ways like what happens on any “show” (the term commonly used whether it’s a movie or TV episode — maybe I should append a glossary to this piece.But I won’t).

Jeff explains the equipment:

[The] camera was the Canon T3i, which is the cheaper consumer version of the Canon 7D. The whole world of DSLR cinematography sprouted up overnight about 2 years ago, and people go a little nuts with the model numbers. The short story is that we shot the cat video on a muscled up still camera, not a more “proper” old-school movie camera.

Saul [Herckis] is a talented, jack-of-all-trades on set with a lot of experience as a grip, gaffer, and DP. On the first day, he was controlling lighting and exposure and running camera. On the 2nd day, where some of the shots required a little more camera movement, I did the camera work while Saul worked lighting/exposure.

[T]he whole thing was loaded onto a memory card. Two cards, actually. I would shoot until one card was full, then I would swap in the 2nd card while the first card was backed up to a series of laptops and hard drives.

* * *

Shooting was pretty much a blur:, especially as I didn’t really have that much to do. The actors ran through their lines as scenes were blocked (the director told everybody where to stand or sit, or — in the more complex scenes, move).  Scenes being shot were complicated as Mayra scrambled to avoid the barking of neighborhood doge — “neighborhood,” in this case, being across a barranca — sound travels a long way across a canyon when the air is still and there’s no ambient noise like traffic. The dogs began to bark; the hounds began to wail. It was too late in the morning to incite little red roosters, at least.

I observed “Monster,” writer Dan’s ancient cat and the inspiration for my character. He didn’t look like me; for one thing, being old and fat (on second thought, maybe I hadn’t been cast only because I had the weekend free). Also, I was wearing the wrong color shirt: Monster is not blue. So I had to dig deeper and study the inner Monster. That was pretty easy to do: he’d sleep in an adjacent room, occasionally arising to check out the kitchen, and see if dinner was being served; if not, he’d go back to bed. Again, I could see why I was cast; his is remarkably close to my own daily routine, especially if you substitute “watching television” for sleeping. Uncanny, really.

Monster framed

The production  goes relatively smoothly, I think (never having experienced anything like it before). Is 7½  minutes onscreen from two days good? The guys and Mary were great; I guess I was ok, though most of the ruined takes seem to have been my fault, as I had to be alerted several times that a scene wasn’t (as I’d though) a run-through for the other actors. Everybody was more patient than I probably would have been. Maybe I should have tried to pass off my semi-conscious state as “method” acting. Director Jeff seemed to have the most fun setting up and “shooting” a semi-masticated prop bird.

The scenes were shot out of sequence, so we all didn’t have to spend much time lolling around during scenes that didn’t include us. That meant I got to go home at about 3 in the afternoon on Saturday, and right after lunch — Aviva’s chocolate chip cookies; various soft drinks and sandwiches from a caterer in (I think) Eagle Rock. The professionals told stories; I drank it up. The Snapple®, I mean, as I listened attentively to the stories.

Jeff again, on post-production (without getting into color-correction and all sorts of other technical stuff:

After the shoot, I downloaded everything to edit. Then I took Mayra’s audio, and used a program called DualEyes to automatically sync her sound with the picture files, and then I started to edit. For various technical reasons (things like rendering time), it took almost as long to prep all the shoot footage to edit as it took to shoot the film itself.

* * *

Enough stalling;  here it is (Zach is on the left):

The film had its world premiere at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood on Sunday afternoon, June 3, 2012. It was on one of three programs of shorts in the “Dances with Films” festival. The competitors were varying degrees of “quite good.” You’re now in a better position to judge “A Day in the Life…” than I am, and results of the competition won’t be announced for a while. But people definitely laughed in the right places, and seemed to enjoy it overall. (I might add that it was the closest to pure comedy of any of that afternoon’s program).

On June 7, of the 24 shorts entered in the “Dances with Films” competition,  “A Day in the Life of Your Cats” won the “audience choice” award. In September, the film won an audience choice award at the 2012 Chicago International Reel Shorts Film Fest.

.* * *

Another thing: Taking his name from a character he played in the 1942 film “The Gay Sisters,” Byron Elwsorth Barr thereafter became professionally  “Gig Young.” And, after starring as Nathan Detroit in a production of “Guys and Dolls,” the actor then known as Joseph Lane changed his stage name to “Nathan Lane.”

Both changes were made, at least in part, because there were other actors named Byron Barr and Joseph Lane, and the Screen Actors Guild has a rule that no two actors can use the same same name — fair enough, as otherwise we might go to a film starring “Brad Pitt” and discover to our great distress that it wasn’t the same guy we’d so enjoyed in “Growing Pains.”

As it happens, there is an actor named “Todd Everett” – years ago, from time to time, I’d get his call from casting directors. SAG doesn’t always enforce the rule — to the eternal frustration of any number of actors, including a long-time Los Angeles talk radio host who was “Michael Jackson” long before the musical superstar and self-proclaimed “King of Pop” of the same name. But the guilds probably won’t make any exception in my case.

So, if my acting career skyrockets as expected (I’m already in IMDB), from now on you can just call me “Dusty.” Even if that relegates me to a career playing weather-beaten sidekicks in “B” westerns.

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One comment on “Lights! Camera! Cats!

  1. Lezlie says:

    I laughed so hard I thought I was going to pee. Thank Goodness my pants don’t have a zipper and I remembered that I’m not a cat.

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