SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 7, 2014

Rested, Sober, and Ready for Action

 

“You know, this is completely against my character,” I told Erik at some point after a few days on the road, “but I’m having a hell of a time.”

            For all my hesitation and dread, all the potential nightmares I’d envisioned, all the weak attempts I’d made to weasel out of it, I was very glad I’d tagged along on this ill-conceived misadventure, and that shocked the hell out of me. But I’d never before ventured south of the Mason-Dixon line, had never seen any of this first hand before, had never been to a Waffle House, so the adventure had allowed me to experience a large part of the country I never knew, and that was worth something.

            Another shocking thing was that before we left, Erik, the co-director of this low-budget production of Noogie’s Time to Shine, had outlined all the shots and scenes he wanted to get at every stop over the course of the week, and he’d snagged everything he was after, with the exception of a ski lift in Tennessee and a movie theater in Pennsylvania, both of which might’ve been long gone. And those were secondary anyway. What the crew had ended up with was millions of dollars worth of production values, from a van stuck in the sand in the middle of Miami Beach to the changing autumn leaves to a cheap motel room in Cherokee, NC, and it hadn’t cost a penny.

            Perhaps the most amazing thing of all was that a white windowless van bought sight unseen for $6000 from some shady character on Craigslist had been through what it had been through and was still running.

            Of course all that said, we weren’t quite finished yet. We still had to get to New York, where they would have a day and a half to find locations and shoot three major scenes.

            Perhaps the trickiest of all involved finding a house in Jersey to stand in for the exterior of Noogie’s house, and get permission from the owner to shoot in the front yard without being shot at while we did so.

            After settling on a lower middle class neighborhood with a view of the Manhattan skyline that fit the bill perfectly, Erik and Brad, well, simply started working their way up and down the street armed with business cards and an official looking clipboard (in reality nothing but a prop for the movie), knocking on doors and asking people. It seemed the simplest way to go about it when you’re on a tight schedule. It also seemed the most dangerous in these paranoid, shoot first times we live in. Most said no flat out and slammed the door, which was to be expected considering the number of diversionary home invasions that had taken place in recent months. One woman even called her husband, who in turn called Brad to inform him he was a retired cop and they weren’t interested. Ten minutes later, just long enough for the retiree to make another phone call or two, Brad received a call from the local police station, asking him just what the hell we were up to. For some unfathomable reason, the cop accepted Brad’s “making a low-budget crime comedy” explanation, and never asked a thing about permits or insurance.

            The small miracles rolled on, though, and after Erik offered $200 for the trouble, an ex-con gave them permission to shoot outside the house that most perfectly fit the bill.

            As they were filming several takes of the first part of Noogie’s attempted escape from the greater metropolitan New York area, the stocky little man with the neck tattoo came and stood by me on the sidewalk to watch.

            “So,” he said, seeming quite tickled about the idea of his house being featured in a Major Hollywood Production (or something like that). “You the writer they were talking about?”

            “Yeah,” I told him. Then, hoping to keep him happy, I asked, “So they tell you what this story was all about?”

            They hadn’t, which was probably for the best, I thought. But as I explained Noogie’s plot, as well as the fact it was based on actual events, he got very excited. He liked stories about criminals, it seems. I didn’t bother telling him he lived in the perfect kind of shabby, run-down, low-rent house we were looking for. Everyone left happy, he had an unexpected two hundred dollars, and we headed on into the city, where I’d finally have a chance to see my wife again, amazed I’d actually made it to this point.

            For the past week we’d been running and shooting and running some more for eighteen hours a day, grabbing a few hours of sleep, then running and shooting some more. But none of it compared with what they needed to get done on the last day. Everything was simple compared to this. Walking into a 99-cent store in a desolate North Carolina town and acting all furtive and suspicious was a whole different kettle of wax from doing the same thing in a Manhattan bodega (or six of them), especially if you didn’t have a permit or permission of any kind and the actor was wearing a fake security guard uniform and holster. Then if they survived that there was the little issue of crashing the van through the Village Halloween parade. Both were absolutely essential to the film they were trying to make, and trying to reconstruct them back in Austin simply wouldn’t cut it. Not to say the rest of the week would’ve been a waste without these two things, but it would’ve been a massive disappointment.

            They had better luck with the bodegas than I expected, with only one clerk causing a real fuss. By that time they’d learned to work fast and dirty: get the shot and split before anyone knew what was happening. In the end they got the locations and the atmosphere and footage that was unmistakably shot in NYC.

            As I thought back on it, it was pretty fucking remarkable what all they’d grabbed so far, an iconic portrait of so much of the country, from the cheap and tawdry glitz of Miami to the singular haunted Southern Gothic vibe of Savannah to the dead misery of Cherokee to the deep, glorious wilderness of the mountains to the cramped overwhelming bustle of midday Manhattan to the tired blue collar muscle of the Jersey suburbs, and all the highways and bridges in between, all of it for a mere two hundred dollars. The plan was to turn everything they’d shot into a trailer that would convince would-be investors, seeing what Erik, Brad, Brandon and Gates had already accomplished, to finance, y’know, the rest of the film.

            But of course there was still the parade.

            Here’s the situation: Noogie, an ATM maintenance man, has over the course of several years, siphoned off over three million dollars from the machines he was restocking. When his employer discovers the discrepancy and calls him on it, Noogie panics, grabs the money (which he’d kept in three laundry bags), grabs his cat, throws them all into his van, and speeds away from his house in Jersey hoping to get as far away as possible. Unfortunately blinded by the aforementioned panic he takes a wrong turn and ends up in Manhattan. Trying to get back out of Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel, he runs into the Halloween parade which pretty much blocks off all traffic between Canal and 18th Street. Much sweating and simpering ensues.

            Brad and Brandon picked me up at a bar where I’d been waiting as they finished with the bodegas and got all the cameras lashed to the van and the rental car. I told the bartender what the plans for the evening involved, to which he replied, “you’re fuckin’ insane.” He had no argument from me. The previous night we’d crashed back at my place, and before we headed out again Morgan told me, “I can’t imagine anything getting you into Manhattan on Halloween, let alone getting you to the parade.”

            “Well,” I told her, “a month ago can you imagine anything convincing me to fly down to Miami to get in a van with four kids then driving back up the East Coast?” Yeah, the whole scenario simply made no sense. A world gone all topsy-turvy, but there you go.

            The car and van were parked over on Second Avenue around Eighth Street when Brad, Brandon, and I arrived. Erik and Gates were just finishing up with the camera mounts. I got in the back seat of the rental car Erik would be driving. Brandon got behind the wheel of the van, Gates took the passenger seat with a camera, and Brad climbed in back to keep an eye on sound levels. It was going to be the most exhausting performance Brandon had to give, probably for the whole film. There had been a lot of running and screaming up to this point, some scrambling for loose bills and shooting guns and dragging heavy bags, but this here involved maintaining a level of panic and paranoia and frustration for as many hours as we were out there.

            For once, perhaps for the first time ever, the city cooperated. The streets were jammed with people in ridiculous costumes, as well as cops on horseback, cops in cars, cops in tow trucks, cops on scooters, hundreds of cops on foot. Lights were flashing, sirens were wailing, a massive fire raged near Union Square, all as Noogie drove from block to block in a mad effort to find his way out of town and away from the police, speeding through red lights, breaking every traffic law imaginable (short of vehicular manslaughter) and no one said a word. At one point a man dressed like Freddy Krueger and carrying a video camera of his own even rolled past Noogie’s van on a skateboard, filming him. If Erik and Brad had envisioned a Surreal, hyper paranoid escape for their bumbling hero, they could’ve never come up with something this insane. And it didn’t cost a penny. “All these cops,” Erik kept saying in wonder as we drove. “All this free production value.” At a few points he even handed me a small Go Pro camera and told me to shoot out the window. If those shots make it into the final cut, keep your eyes open for the parts that seem to be upside down. but hey, it wasn’t my idea to let a blind man film some of it.

            Brandon finally made his break to the Holland Tunnel and freedom. Then, however, much to Erik’s surprise and horror, the van pulled into Newark airport and parked in front of a terminal.

            “Oh, Jesus,” he said. “A windowless van covered in cameras parked in front of an airport terminal. The cops in Manhattan were too bored to do anything about us, but Homeland security isn’t.”

            After a few jittery minutes and cell phone calls with no sign of Homeland soldiers yet, the van once again started moving and we plunged back through the tunnel. Deciding we’d grabbed enough footage, we headed over to Gates’ place in Williamsburg, walked a few blocks to a pub, and raised a toast. That was it for now, the exhilaration overwhelming the sleep deprivation as for the first time we all stopped moving and were able to think back on what we’d just done. No one had died. The van kept running, there had been no arrests, and nature had cooperated. My god I was almost disappointed I didn’t come back with horror stories.

            Oddly enough, my only regret was this: in order to save money on the trip, Erik had packed a bunch of sandwiches and, as we drove, even kept a crock pot burbling in the front of the van where he had a huge vat of beans and rice, but we never touched any of it. Damn that Waffle House!

            Anyway, there’s still a lot of the film left to shoot, a lot of work left to be done, but my part of it, the standing out of the way and smoking, was finished. For now anyway. But from what I experienced, there’s no better crew in the world to do it. They were four men each fearless in his own way, be it Gates hanging out the windows of a moving car to get a shot, Brad talking complete strangers into things they’d never otherwise allow, Brandon dressing, driving, and screaming like Noogie in public without hesitation or shame (did I mention the number of bad wigs involved?), or Erik having this crazy damn idea and turning it into a reality. Each was a kind of fearlessness I myself do not possess, and I admire the hell out of them for it. I think it’s gonna be a hell of a picture (despite its rather iffy source material), especially knowing how and where so much of it was grabbed. I was glad to be home, yes, glad to sit back at the machine and return to work and be with my wife, but it was an unforgettable time, and my hat’s off to that tiny, mad, heroic crew: my friends Erik, Brad, Brandon, and Gates, you all bought the ticket and you all rode the ride.

 

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