Friday, August 17, 2012

Walking through fire… on season 3 of Boardwalk Empire

The residents of Greenpoint, Brooklyn –and for that matter, anyone listening to radio yesterday, got warned about the staged explosion… the eventuation of which, exceeded our jaded “heard that before” expectations. In fact, the call sheet designated the scene as "Ka-boom!".

Yesterday started some busy karma-burning for me… I got an early call in the morning from a cousin who needed a lot of time-consuming help with his computer that put me on a tight schedule. Soon I had to rush my shower-routine for a real-life-job interview in Manhattan… barely made the train to the city. The interview was great and lasted for a couple of hours -but then I had to rush to catch the train back home so I could jump into my car (in my interview-suit) and do the late afternoon rush-hour drive to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Of course I got stuck in traffic and had to roam around the neighborhood to find parking. But then I remembered the "BE Crew" parking lot!

The signs in front of the lot were foreboding: "Not for extras!" but I made a gesture to one of the three people guarding the gate and as each of them thought I knew one of the others... well, I just drove past them and into the deep recesses of the lot that held a bunch of huge Haddad trucks. Found a spot near the fence, Crook-locked the car, and headed over to the set just a few blocks away on Commercial Street. All in all, I got to the set a half hour late. And as I was filling out my I-9, the PA behind the desk said, "Oh, I was just calling you!". Felt bad about that because I'm usually early... but they were short of people for this overnight shoot, so I knew they wouldn't make a big deal about it.

A bunch of people were on line for wardrobe and I was about to join them when one of the elder guys behind me said, "They're not open yet -why don't you get yourself some food while it's still there.". A brilliant suggestion since I didn't get a chance to eat at all today due to my crazy schedule. At 6:35 PM, I realized that I was suddenly hungry. Stacked up my plate with lots of yummies and had a restful meal in the nearly empty holding area.

Wardrobe fitting was relatively quick and then came hair and makeup. The stylist made some small adjustments to my sideburns and I was getting ready for the green-goop that usually gets to plaster down your hair (feels like you're wearing a helmet)... but surprise, surprise -all he did was a light spray over my hair and I was done! I guess the hair wasn't going to matter that much in tonight's scene.

The hundred or so extras were taken toward the set at sundown. We were separated into two groups: CLEAN and D-GROUP! Wondered about that designation while we were taken near the set and held there for an hour as the night darkness became prominent. Helicopters were constantly hovering above us and people outside the set's fence were now increasing. The spectacle was about to begin!

Up we went to the make-believe boardwalk and scattered around the area for the pre-explosion template shoot. Our direction was to listen to the assistant director's cue (a demure pronunciation of "ka-boom") and then provide a "shocked reaction" by ducking down in a frightened repose. Some of the people among us were called "stuntees". Professional stunt-actors who literally hit the deck rather hard when "ka-boom" was cued. There were several retakes of this scene and we started to feel bad for these guys. The straw hat on one of them even separated and the brim of the hat came down over his face while the rest of the hat remained on top of his head... (almost comical). But overall, we were disappointed by the lack of the loud noise everyone was supposed to hear in order to "really" react.

Suddenly a "Safety meeting" announcement was made and all extras were taken to holding. Some time later our PA announced that no one was to leave the holding area -this was being strictly enforced. A minute or so later a huge KA-BOOM shook the entire building as the "controlled explosion" went off. DAMN!!! I thought we would be out there -able to see the pyrotechnics. But the "safety first" considerations of the production company sequestered us from any harm. Later we found out that only the film crew and the firemen experienced a scarry rush of heat as the big-bang fireball rocked the set. But it went off well; no retakes; and best of all -no one was hurt. Still it was a disappointment not being able to see the spectacle from a safe distance... the way that everyone else outside the set's fence was able to see it. In fact, the whole scene was on the news and YOUTUBE about 5 minutes after the event (we were watching it on one of the iPhones)!

The third part of this overnight shoot started after midnight. The D-group, as it turned out were the DISTRESSED group of extras selected to be made up as "blast survivors" (or messy dead people). Their wardrobe and skin were covered with fake "soot and blood"... and they really looked like the walking dead. Some of the principal actors were also distressed and we watched "Nucki" (Steve Buscemi) stagger from the "the ashes of the aftermath"... along with some of his "gangster partners".

The "ashes of the aftermath" were quite real as firemen and stage crew worked together to create a fiery scene that we actors had to walk through. Yes indeedy... many of us clean people, along with the distressed people were selected to participate in this final scene. Our direction was to help the distressed people out of the carnage while negotiating a path through the "controlled smoke and fire piles" that were set up on the boardwalk. I was "helping a young distressed woman" as the firemen were repeatedly lighting up the nearby area with some liquid accelerant goo and hidden gas grills that provided plenty of heat during our retakes.

The first run through the fire was daunting and we rushed like hell when "action" was called. The second time, we took it a bit slower as we stepped across the bodies and bumped into other "survivors". By the third, fourth and fifth retakes we were taking it easy with our jaunt through the fires of this boardwalk's empire. It's all psychological. Once you experience danger and survive it -there's a feeling of "Hey! It's no big deal." attitude. I wondered if firemen train this way... and then just as quickly stopped wondering when a mild flashback to 9/11 skipped through my gray matter: the distressed people were a bit too real all of a sudden... like the ash covered 9/11 victims I walked with on that day...

At 5:AM, we were released and I went to get my car from the lot. When I got to the entrance, a huge gate had been closed and I realized that I might have to take public transportation back home. OH NOoooo! But I'm resourceful and hate to accept defeat when there's a glimmer of an adventure ahead. I noted the foot-high gap between the bottom of the fence and the ground... a moment later I was doing an Indiana Jones roll underneath it and wound up with a flashlight shining in my face.

"Hey! Didn't you see me shinin' the light to let you know I was comin'?". An elderly watchman was stirred from his slumber as my noisy clambering under the fence woke him up. I told him my situation, showed him my signed I-9 paper and he apologized for locking the door, but due to the valuable equipment in the trucks, he was instructed to secure the area. The trucks were now parked in a completely different array and I couldn't even see my car, much less imagine getting out of the lot. But the old watchman assured me that a path had been left and I should follow him. Sure enough, I found my car and a back-path was left open for cars like mine to exit. Which I would have done, had the gate been opened. The watchman went over to unlock it but after about 10 minutes of fiddling with it, there was no result. I shined my headlights on the gate but still no result. He got anxious about the lack of results to his futile attempts and aked me to wait a moment as he turned toward the nook next to the fence and took a pee. A minute later, his renewed attempts proved fruitful as the gate opened. I bade him good night and wished he had taken a pee earlier.

When I got home, I noted that I had been up for 24 hours straight and crashed on my bed for a three hour sleep when the door bell rang the next morning. The gas man had to be let in to take a reading... it was going to be another karma-burning day!