Where there’s muck there’s money. A film shoot was going on in our street and the crew paid us to let them squeeze the lavatory trailer onto our drive.
We were also recompensed for allowing them to film a scene on our front path. It was of a skipping little girl and her mother heading to our front door – a few seconds on film that took nearly an hour to rehearse, shoot, and re-shoot.
And we got to eat with the crew on the front lawn of a house at the other end of the street. No doubt the owner also got a cheque. I wasn’t sure whether some of the police I saw were real. But I figured the FBI guys with identical haircuts tucking into the generous spread of food were probably actors.
Living in Los Angeles County, we see many movie shoots around here, and I’ve always been envious of people working on them. It’s like being on a busy traditional newspaper, where talented people of diverse talents come together to create something as if by magic.
This time the filming was for an episode of CSI: Cyber, a show due to hit the UK later this year, starring Patricia Arquette, Ted Danson, and James Van der Beek. The latter was spotted by a neighbour but we didn’t see him spend a penny. Lavatory trailers, by the way, are often called honey wagons, maybe because the old-time trailers were followed by flies, or maybe because of the colour of what comes out…
The deep vibrating growl accompanying the emptying of the honey wagon disrupted the night filming of the villain being apprehended in a house across the road. The guy who’d turned up to do the pumping was ordered to stop between takes.
It was an expensive production, very different from the low-budget indie movie – a supernatural thriller called Killing Joan – which I worked on as an unpaid production assistant the previous week.
My duties were largely fetching, carrying, and sweeping. But I was allowed to operate the clapperboard, or slate as it’s called in the trade, that helps editors synchronise sound and pictures and marks scenes and takes. Unlike the digital slate on CSI: Cyber, it was old tech with scrawled removable numbers.
Who knew saying “scene 29, take one” could be so hard? I fluffed my lines. And it was only after friendly advice from a sound guy that I realised you clap the clapperboard after you’ve spoken.
Weeks earlier, when I’d heard Killing Joan needed an extra production assistant on re-shoots, I’d leapt at the chance.
“Wear what you’d wear to do housework,” said my partner Bill. He obviously doesn’t watch me doing housework in high summer when any activity brings on a sweat – I’m usually in bra and pants. However, I listened. After all, he’s an old hand. He worked on the original shoot four months earlier when, as well as being co-opted at the last minute to play a bouncer, he’d also made a door seem to shut on its own by pulling on a piece of string stuck to chewing gum.
Bill was right to tell me to dress down. Day one of shooting was in the equipment-strewn backyard of actor and stunt guy Erik Audé’s house, and day two was in a studio covered in dust, not surprising considering how much creative carpentry goes on. I watched in admiration as a ‘room’ was built in a couple of hours.
Following this experience, I’ve now got something in common (apart from our Leeds birthplace) with my hero, writer and actor Alan Bennett – pedantry on set, albeit my experience was somewhat more modest.
A scene in the film version of The Lady in the Van, his true story of the elderly eccentric who lived on his driveway for 15 years, features manure. After one take Bennett suddenly realised it should be steaming, but dry ice and kettles of hot water failed to create the illusion. Previously everybody had been happy with the scene. But his intervention made it feel disappointing.
One of my jobs on Killing Joan was buying candles for a satanic set-piece. While I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find black candles made out of human wax at the 99c Store, I was hoping to get blood red ones, which as well as being a touch spooky would chime in with the woody decor. But there were no red candles to be found, except some bearing the face of Jesus. With minutes to make the purchase, I reluctantly settled for white ones. They did the trick, but it bugged me.
The candles brought a continuity problem. The budget being small, I’d only bought a few. After every take, someone had to remember to blow them out so they’d be the same size. It was the Martini shot – the last one of the shoot, so-called because the next shot is out of a glass. This crew’s wrap-up ‘shots’ were beers from cans – fetched by Bill from a local supermarket.
On day one, about midnight, there was real life drama when Erik, playing a baddie, crashed into a nail sticking out of a wall. “We’ll have to stop,” he announced matter-of-factly, popping around the corner of the set, blood running down his neck and an ice pack on his head, before being driven to hospital for five stitches. No wonder the call sheet notes the locations of the first-aid kit and nearest hospital.
Erik, who was back on set the next day, has a life like a script. Aged seven, he was run over by a school bus and in his 20s spent nearly three years in Pakistan’s hellish Central Rawalpindi Jail. He learned poker there and is now a professional player.
CSI: Cyber’s filming also carried on late. We went to bed and fell asleep to the banging of the honey wagon’s cubicles.
The following morning it was as if nothing had happened. Everything had been cleaned up. Last to go was our honey wagon. As we waved goodbye while it drove off into the sunset to provide relief for another movie, we felt quite sad. Well, sort of.
By Lynne Bateson, US Correspondent
As a child growing up in a Yorkshire village, journalist Lynne Bateson rarely went to the city of Leeds just a few miles away, but she dreamed of living in the US. She made it. Here she recounts her adventures, taking a down-to-earth look at life Stateside.