So, the woman who doesn’t camp or rough it (except at a motel), semi-camped and roughed it. The woman who can’t act her way out of a paper bag did ACT, with some creative direction from a very talented director. I had a ton of fun, reduced sleep, and learned a lot from a group of very intelligent and creative people who banded together to help a nice guy name John Shaw (our director) realize his vision.
First of all, I was astounded to be asked to help achieve anyone’s vision. I haven’t acted one little bit – barring trying to scam my way out of a day at grade school. So, I when I asked to read for John and his wife/my friend Melissa, I was convinced that they would go off and find someone more talented. When they told me I had the job, I had to say yes. When would such an opportunity arise again? Probably never. I was in.So, I drove up north on Labor Day Friday, crawling along with all the campers, boats, and other holiday weekend traffic. I bunked down for a night with my hospitable Aunt Jeanne (more on her later), and showed up at the appointed time at Beyond, the 40-acre property that was to be my home and movie laboratory for the next 8 days. First, we had to clean. The pole barn (dorm and interior set) was full of stuff that had nothing to do with our film – including the rusting carcass of a 1979 Jeep. A lot of elbow grease took care of the barn, and the Jeep was towed out by a neighbor with a backhoe, bless him. Then, furniture and bedding was moved out of the house, the equipment was set up, cots were opened, tents were pitched in the fenced-in yard, and voila – a film company. With extension cords snaking the floor, lights, a fog machine (what’s a horror flick without fog?), food tables, pop cans, two fridges, and lots of water bottles. We were ready.
The days were long – we had day shoots and night shoots, with the occasional interior scene. My days fell into a rhythm – my bladder woke me up promptly at 8:30 each morning, regardless of when I crawled into my sleeping bag. (Note to self: request bigger bladder for next life.) We initially had sanitary issues – the house’s plumbing was really designed for only one or two guests for short periods. We had 12 people. A local port-a-john company solved that problem Next, I would trot to my car to grab my accouterments, take a cold shower and dress in the house (wake-y, wake-y!), and then walk three-quarters of a mile to the Marathon station for my morning java. No, this was not a luxury. No java, no Nice Julie. Trust me on this one. My talented colleague Roberto would often accompany me, and then we’d all have breakfast when the other people in the pole barn woke up (usually cereal). Fortunately, all of the pole barn sleepers either snored or made use of earplugs. I am a snorer, alas. So un-girly of me.
When everyone was awake and had their brains booted up, John would let us know the shooting schedule. The crew would set up the equipment; the cast would get their costumes together and go over their lines. My costumes were the clothes I had with me, and repeated wearing of said garments required constant – uh – monitoring. If it didn’t pass the sniff test, the offending garment got washed and hung up to dry in our endless beautiful weather. It was the least I could do for the team.
The scenes were shot out of order to maximize efficiency and effort, which was helpful to me. As a non-actor, I needed a lot of direction. John was unfailingly patient and creative in coaching me, and telling me what my character needed to do and be. And, I actually delivered. Wow. When Frances (my character), needed to belt someone, I belted someone (it took several takes, as I really suck at belting people.) When I had to rage, I raged (also several takes.) When I had to stare into the sun, Clint-Eastwood-style, I did. When he told me to smack the leading man’s butt, I…uh…had to work up to it. (If it’s not my part, it’s not polite to touch the part. But I smacked the part. Director’s wishes!) And, the director said it worked. When things weren’t quite right, we did another take. When things worked, everyone one said nice things.
This was one of the best group projects ever. I worked with The World’s Nicest People – they were intelligent, well-read, politically active, motivated, most had previous acting or performing experience, and as I’ve said, they were totally supportive. They even said I had a Meryl Streep vibe for one scene. (Is that confidence-boosting, or what? I ate it up, of course.) The director noted that I gave my best performances when I was most uncomfortable. Good to know, maybe pretty good for a newbie? Needing discomfort is better than, say, needing cocaine to perform, right? I hope so. And fun? Fun, fun, fun. We nearly hurt ourselves laughing at all our crazy goofs and improvisations. Check the outtakes on the DVD (coming soon! No, I’m not going to give too much away. Wait for the movie.)When the light died, we would take a break, wait for dark, grab a meal and watch bad zombie movies (in contrast to our good monster movie.) When it was dark, we shot cool action scenes and worked with extras. For the first three nights, we had volunteers playing drones. Since we had fewer people than expected, I called up my aunt and shamelessly recruited her, and anyone she knew. She showed up with two friends, went through make-up, and they starred in group scenes. They banged on walls, emerged from the mist, and pretended to die in creative ways. My aunt’s friends were excellent screamers, and all of them will be listed in the credits. Ain’t family grand?
We would stop somewhere between 3 – 5 a.m., and I would find my hat, set up my sleeping bag, and bless Melissa for giving me a cot that kept me off the floor– I repeatedly saw a spider the size of a bar coaster lurking near the grill. At 8:30 a.m., my bladder would start screaming…and the cycle would begin again. There were long periods of hurry-up-and-wait, and some nights were more exciting than others. One night I helped one of my colleagues de-gore himself with a ton of baby wipes, another night I was eaten alive by mosquitoes while trying to emote properly, and on yet another night I was ducking plastic body parts. It was an awesome experience. Film making is fascinating, and watching a movie will never be the same for me. It will be better.
In summary, the men were talented and handsome, the women were stalwart and heavily armed, the drones deranged, the script exciting, the direction inspired, and the technology fascinating. Check the website: www.chartarum.com for updates. Kudos to all those that invited me in, and made me welcome. I would do it again in a heartbeat. If anyone ever asks you to help make a film, just say yes. It’s worth it.
[Note from webgoddess (Mel): Julie has graciously allowed us to repost an essay she shared with family and friends after the shoot in September, 2009. Julie is a good friend and cheerful supporter of the project: she even made the drive out to shoots she wasn’t involved in to help out with whatever came up.]