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.

They’re gonna put me in the movies…

It started with a call from the comedian Mary Mack. A friend of hers, she said, was making a short film, tentatively titled “Sara and the Boys.” She was going to be Sara, and had recommended me, if interested, for a part.

Visions of the Academy Awards® — well, at least Sundance — coursing through my head, I immediately expressed an…well interest wouldn’t do the response justice. Would-be actors had waited tables, served as personal assistant or nanny, even emceed open-mic comedy nights at Laundromats while waiting for a part — any part — to materialize after a series of demeaning and fruitless auditions; and an offer had virtually landed on my doorstop unsolicited.

And I didn’t even have to kick back ten percent to an agent! (Mary, I was confident, was not licensed by the state of California to pimp represent actors. Also, I was pretty sure, I wouldn’t have to pay dues to SAG, AFTRA, or the stage union, Actors Equity.  Of course I wasn’t going to get paid, either, but some of my best work has been done with no pay — the difference being that this time, I knew that in advance.

It wasn’t exactly my first brush with Big Time Show Biz. Several years ago, Art Fein heard about an audition for a non-union Tom Green project.  Art was taking his teenage daughter, just so she could see how it worked, and interrupted my daily viewing of Judge Judy to (probably) supply him some adult company. To compress events a bit, both Art and I auditioned (the character was a cranky old former skateboarder), among a long line of aspiring actors, some of whose faces I even recognized. I wound up getting a callback; Art didn’t. During the second round (me and a couple other guys and a whole bunch of attractive — this was a Tom Green special — young women), I explained to the producers that while I could read lines fairly well (as I had during the first audition), I had trouble memorizing them. I was dismissed; and as far as I know, the show was never produced.

Mary had said that my part in “Sara and the Boys” pretty much consisted of appearing to be asleep. Heck, I thought, I could nail that with minimum rehearsal, and there’d be no lines to memorize..

A day or so later, I spoke with the producer/director, Jeffrey Williams, who explained the concept. Without revealing too much here, Mary was to play Sara, and I would be the senior member of her “boys” – a pair of cats. With all four felines (there’s another, who’s not part of the “family”) portrayed by humans, I like to think of this as kind of like “Cats,” only without the tedious songs, expensive costumes and character names like Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer and Bustopher Jones.

He didn’t use the exact language, but Jeff made it pretty clear that my character would be officious, imperious, and condescending. This, I thought, would stretch my “acting” muscles to their limit.

Having viewed most episodes of Inside the Actors Studio, I knew that I should somehow pull the character from my own experience. As I had none of those qualities myself, I decided to carefully study the bearing and mannerisms of the Bravo program’s venerable host, James Lipton, and craft my own character’s identity from eliminating from the equation “obsequious” and those blue cards with the questions.

Williams explained that the film would be shopped to festivals (Sundance! Well, maybe the Valley Film Festival) and Internet sites like “Funny Or Die” — where he has already placed some shorts.
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And even if the film didn’t get worldwide distribution (heck, the Internet pretty well guarantees that it could be seen as far afield as Iceland, Bulgaria and Patagonia, should anybody find it), at least I’d have something for my reel. If, that is, I ever got around to assembling a reel. At this rate, though, I wouldn’t need to circulate samples of my work to casting agents; I was already being called in without having to audition. I really don’t see why actors are always whining.

At last, I thought, I would be allowed to speak the language of the theater: words like “sides” (what anybody else would call pages of a script); “off-book” (you know your lines and no longer have to hold  your sides); and even “choices,” about which, more in a couple of seconds.

On Saturday before the “shoot” (another bit of jargon, you non-show folk would call it “filming”), I was scheduled to meet with the writer, director and producer. For a seven-minute, non-union short, this was relative big deal; these were not the same person.

Furthermore, the meeting would be at Farmers’ Market, long known as a hangout for film and TV people. Most of the regular habitues were between assignments, as they say, but we were meeting in a place where real writers, producers (many of whom would while the day away at a table by Bob’s Doughnuts), and contestants for Let’s Make a Deal, which taped next door, congregated.

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The meeting took place, as scheduled. I met the writer/co-producer, Dan Greenberger, at Farmers Market and we walked to his office (café latté no doughnuts, no “between-assignments” writers other than me) at CBS Television City. Director Williams was there, together with all of the actors save Mary; she was committed to another project during the day, and had a comedy show to produce and host that evening.

All the other cats — Zach Palmer, Jackson Bond Jr. and Ryan Tutton— have professional experience; Zach and Ryan having met in a road company of the Cameron Mackintosh revival production of “Oliver.” And Mary is a professional comedian and musician whom I first saw on Last Comic Standing, where I noted her originality and Wisconsin accent and had made a point of looking her up. Mary works, mainly, throughout the Midwest, where she has an avid following — and was invited, she notes, to compete in the TV show without standing in line outside Chuckles or the Yuk Factory or whatever in an open call.

We “cats”  went through one scene, repeatedly. The three other guys were terrific as two “inside” cats and a rowdier, hipper and rather disdainful “outside” cat. As promised, my main duty was to appear asleep while the three younger cats played with a dead bird; at one point, I was to wake up and shift positions. Not much, but it wasn’t “background.” And didn’t Judi Dench win an Academy Award® for her approximately eight minutes in “Shakespeare in Love”? Charlie Chaplin felt no need to talk onscreen (well, at least until the technology was available). And comes the inevitable sequel to “The Artist,” I’ll be ready.

The scene went well enough, I suppose. The other guys were sensational; it was fun to see the words on the script come to life through them. It was I causing all the trouble; even with no lines and relatively action, I kept trying to find my motivation. I was a cat. Asleep. And then I woke up. “Why,” I asked the director. Patiently, he explained that I was tired, and then outlined some action. “How broadly should I play this?” I asked? (That would be one of those “choices” actors talk about). “Broadly,” he replied. I yawned harder; moved with more exaggeration. The director seemed pleased.

Piece o’ cake, this acting.

…to be continued.