Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sean Penn plays a FAIR GAME

Sean Penn & Naomi Watts
The Bronx? It's shooting in the Bronx? I haven't been there since I got lost as a cab driver during my college years on the labyrinthine roads that crisscross the outer reaches of New York City. Oh well... I just had to see what Sean Penn was really like in person -so I took the gig.

There were 2 scenes that were being shot at Lehman College. One was to be a speech given in the gym at the sad-history-making college known as Ohio State. Four students were shot there by our National Guard back in the 60's. Today it's a magnet for political outspokenness. This is where Ambassador Joseph Wilson, played by Sean Penn, makes a poignant speech to students and faculty about the importance of doing our duties as responsible citizens and to speak out when there is injustice.
Mr. & Mrs. Wilson (not from Dennis the Menace)

Fair Game is based on the book of the same name -written by Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame. Valerie's role was given to Naomi Watts -who, unfortunately for us, was not in these scenes.
It's a fascinating story involving the political machinations of the George Bush administration and the Wilsons' court battle against the Chaney crew during the early invasion years of Iraq (circa 2003). The movie is set to be released in 2010.

After we were taken to the gym, and rehearsed for our reactions to Sean Penn's soliloquy... LUNCH was served! Interesting. I would have thought that we'd be going right into the scene while our cues were fresh in our minds. And after lunch we were arranged into our bleacher-seats and told to Shhhhhhhhhhh.

The door opened on the left side and Sean entered to a silent gym... the guy behind me whispered "...there's the man...in person...he has entered..." Needless to say the mostly-young crowd was gaga over the cantankerously demanding actor's presence. I almost laughed out loud but was afraid of immediate ejection -so I looked up at the ceiling and the walls...and regained my composure. Director Doug Liman
Doug Liman was the director. Not quite as clean shaven as his photos are on the web. A likable person who knows how to interact with difficult personalities as well as to joke around with the likes of the post-pubescent extras. At one point he wanted a natural reaction from us and prodded us to answer a mostly obscure question from Sean's monologue. Specifically: "Does anyone really know the first batch of words from the State of the Union Message?" Naturally, we all went "Whaaa....Wheeere....Whoooooah...." -when Doug revealed that "Perfect! You were all on camera with your natural reactions! Thank you all." Cute.

And then it was show-time. Sean began his lines, pacing on the podium...when all of a sudden, he halted as the number-4 train went rumbling by outside...every few minutes...interrupting the sensitive Sean's concentration -and he forgot his lines; prompting him to yell out at the script girl in frustration, "LINES!" After a few of those train passages, he announced "...and I'd like to thank the 'brilliant' person who scouted this location...Ahemmmmm...". He was definitely pissed.

Nonetheless, after a few frustrating pauses and sips of liquids, he regained his composure and continued like a trooper -for the next 3 hours. Repeating and repeating the takes until he was showing some exhaustion. Doug, the director, obliged and rode the camera dolly for as long as he had to... back and forth -right in front of me. My only hope of being spotted in this scene would be from the steady cam at the opposite side of the gym while Doug was not eclipsing me. A third camera remained in one place from the right side. Sean finally left -with a modicum of satisfaction.

Scene 2 would take place in Lehman College's concert hall (adjacent to the gym). Hmmm...Seattle was just next door to Ohio in movieland, so we didn't have to walk too much in the drizzling rain that was now coming down on the political set.

I was seated next to two young women. One was more responsive to my dopey quips between takes so we developed a comfortable cammaraderie and felt at ease chatting it up and exchanging observations while Sean was up on the stage greeting "Viet Nam veterans". Our direction was to get up from our seats when Sean ended his appearance and walk to the back of the auditorium. A walk that we had to repeat a dozen times. I chalked it up to some well-needed exercise. Not so for the girl 2 seats from us, who had a sprained leg and had to hold a "peace symbol". Trouble was, she didn't know which end was supposed to be up on the symbol. I was cracking up laughing in irony. Here we are in 2009, in a political film, and the new generation has no idea what that 1960's symbol is about! But protest with it, she did! Now that's acting... strange, but acting nonetheless.

And this too hath passed. The scene was over and Sean left the stage to our honest applause. To which he clasped his hands and "namaste'd" a "Thank You" with a... surprise, surprise... A SMILE! So he wasn't a grumpy old dickhead after all... he really could smile. I had to admit that I respected the way he worked. He did his acting well and completed the job to the best of his attempts... train sounds not withstanding. Bravo Sean.

After wrapping up, I packed my changes of clothes, said my goodbye's to my new friends and my old friends - and rode the No. 4 train past the new Yankee Stadium and back to "toidy-toid street"... a seemingly much faster ride home from the Bronx than I'd ever expected. And I didn't get lost this time.
[EPILOGUE: Went to see the movie in late November 2010 with my wife. Not surprisingly, the "How many of you know my wife's name?" soliloquy location WAS RELOCATED to some quiet realm. Probably where there are no subway noises to interrupt Sean's performance. I know this because there were red courtains shown in the movie and I know for certain that there were none in the Lehman College's gym!? As for the movie... it was ok. The best scene being the one at the end where Naomi Watt's character begins to speak into the congressional microphone... and the scene cuts to the real Valery Plame's testifying presence from real news footage.]