August 16, 2015

An Alleyway in Austin, Four-Thirty A.M., Part One


Okay, let me try and set the scene. I had been in Austin a week, drinking Pabst, eating unfamiliar combinations of eggs, beans, peppers, tortillas and cheese, smoking, and mostly trying to stay out of the way as a small crew of highly professional and enthusiastic (if utterly mad) youngsters brought my goofy crime story Noogie’s Time to Shine to the big screen. Insisting a blind old broken down drunk join a madcap cross country trip in a questionable van was one bit of insanity, but asking him to hang around a more stable and more legal movie set was something else.

            The tricky part was staying out of the way, especially since during my first four days there the shoot was taking place in a tiny Air BnB apartment already crammed with half a ton of equipment and a crew which at any given moment ranged from eight to twelve people. Not only did they have to arrange things to allow the actors to do their thing while getting the shots they wanted in a space about half the size of where I’m living now, they also had to find space for the blind guy. But everyone was very cool and patient about it, and they kept me in beer. In fact, I comforted myself that I was actually helping out some that way since there were several scenes in which Noogie (played by the brilliant Brandon Potter) had to crack a beer himself. Sometimes these scenes took a few takes, and since he had to crack a new beer each time, well, someone had to help take care of those discarded props, right?

            Oh, in the end what we did to that poor woman’s home, which by the time we left was a swamp of beer cans, coffee cups, spilled snacks, and crushed capsules of trucker speed. It just seemed par for the course for a low-budget production. Unlike other low-budget sets I’d been on in the past, though, these guys actually knew what they were doing, and even made an effort to clean up the place pretty well before we moved on to the next location. The important thing was they were getting everything they were after, and everyone who’d seen the footage was very excited about how fucking great it looked.

            At least in the little apartment we had some air-conditioning as temps outside (it was central Texas in mid-July, after all) hovered near one hundred. The next two days we were outdoors, filming a few scenes in a parking lot and alleyway outside an office building that was standing in for a shady apartment complex in Miami. That most of the scenes would be shot at night was only a mild comfort, as temps never seemed to dip much lower than eighty.

            They had to grab all the scenes involving the building’s exterior in two days, which meant lots of shots involving assorted cars and trucks pulling up to the building and later driving away, some characters having brief conversations in front of the building, and some more characters going up the stairs to a door on the second floor, then back down again at various speeds. Since some of these shots required multiple camera angles, it all took a very long time between actual takes. And since one of the involved vehicles was a fully-equipped undercover police car, that meant the man who’d rented it to the production was on set along with everyone else, which only made things seem that much longer and slower.

            I’d heard other members of the crew mention Billy, but it wasn’t until I was actually at the location and heard him that I knew exactly what they were dealing with here. He was one of those creepy types who uses a very tangential connection as an excuse to not only hang around a glamorous movie set and bask in the dim reflected glow of showbiz, but also to inflict himself on the cast and crew, offering his loud opinions even though he had no idea what the story was about. His other job, I guess, at least the way he interpreted it, was to tell strangers what was going on and who they needed to talk to if they wanted a job on the picture.

            To make things even more uncomfortable, he’d brought a friend along to hang out with him. The friend was a hulking, drunken good ol’ boy who never spoke a word, but glowered at people in a way he clearly thought was menacing. Which, if you think about it, is just the kind of person you want hanging around, no matter where you are.

            The first day Billy steered clear of me, I think in part because he knew I was only a visitor myself and therefore of no importance or use to him, and in part because I was usually chatting with one of the editors, or the sound man, or the actors, or the director of photography or one of the producers. I was pretty relieved about that. At least those others were interesting, smart people who knew what they were doing. I guess in a way I kinda felt like Billy myself just hanging around that way, but at least I knew enough to keep my damn mouth shut once in awhile.

            Things changed the second day at that location. The cast and crew began showing up around four, when the camera and sound people started assembling their equipment and setting up lights as the co-directors, Erik and Brad, explained what they were after. I stood off to the side by the edge of the parking lot. Someone had brought me a chair, but I’d been sitting much of the previous five days and thought it better to stand awhile. I also switched from beer to water, just given conditions. It seemed a wise move considering the heat, and besides I’d already been hitting it pretty hard that morning as it was.

            The scenes they were after involved a hapless shlemazel of a lowlife named Kenny (Byron Brown), a female Miami detective (Lee Eddy), a pair of FBI agents, some stair-running, and the world’s shortest, most anticlimactic car chase.

            Things were going just fine, Erik and Brad were getting the shots they needed in the daylight, and everyone broke for dinner around eight-thirty, retiring to a bar a block away. Everyone knew beforehand the shoot would be going all night, so there was no bitching, though it was clear they’d all be relieved when it was over. The shoots had been averaging about fourteen hours a day all week, it was a soupy bastard out there, and the mosquitoes were murder.

            Well, Billy joined us to get a free meal and a few drinks out of the deal. At least he hadn’t brought his even creepier friend along for the second night.

            On the way back to the set, the actress playing the detective was leading me back over some fairly treacherous terrain between the bar and the parking lot when I took my standard cane-bending, head-cracking tumble down a flight of unexpected steps. That seemed to trigger something in Billy, because after we got back to the set and I took a seat off to the side, he settled in next to me and started talking. He would talk for the next eight or nine hours.

(To Be Continued)


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