FEATURE: 25 APRIL 2012
If being an intern on the set of Kill Your Darlings has confirmed one thing for me, it is that, should I fail in film, I do not want to move into law enforcement. Manning lock-ups and giving grips with rigs to break down lessons in quietude is not the stuff that propels you out of bed to face a 15 hour day. Though I have developed a stentorian tone and mellifluous cadence “And we’re rolling. Quiet Please” — one set dresser tells me I could do voice over work… boom! — it’s my accent that gets me a long way when a request for silence amidst the roar of NYC seems unreasonable. Apparently indistinguishable i and e sounds are pleasing to the ear.
What gets me up when my alarm blasts me awake is that I am right there while Daniel Radcliffe is tapping a bop beat to propel him into his next scene as Allen Ginsberg. I am getting to see actors like Michael C Hall (Dexter) and Ben Foster (The Messenger, X-Men, 3:10 to Yuma, Here) as they drop into the depths of their characters. Foster nails it every time. If I’m off set, I weasel my way close to a monitor. If there is no monitor, I talk to whoever is close by. There are lots of people with interesting stories – both in life and film. Wolfie, one of the grips was a DJ at New Jersey’s iconic Stone Pony rock club (stamping ground of Springsteen and others). He is going to be working on a movie featuring himself this summer. Lori, the make-up artist has worked on big-budget films such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Last Airbender, and Melinda and Melinda as well as some smaller projects upstate. She has a wealth of stories about life and film: it is interesting hearing about how people got to where they are in the industry. Spencer, Daniel’s English assistant, is a filmmaker and former dancer who can be persuaded to morris dance in the wee hours. (Not so Spaze, the Macedonian body-guard… though one night I do force him into a game of set-themed hangman, which he wins). The DP Reed Morano is great to watch: a master of hand-held, she has a lot of sass, two young children, and an enviable career by her early thirties. The director John has unceasing energy: his style is hands on and specific and his concentration over long days is impressive. Being on the AD walkie channel (walkie talkies… a childhood dream!) is an education in itself– levels of tension here are an accurate litmus test of how well the production side of things are going. The fact the Beats stayed up late means a lot of night shooting. By the end of a 70-75 hour week there is some fraying at the edges.
Achieving KYD on what is a small budget for a US indie is an ambitious undertaking. But Killer has a history of making things work within tight financial parameters. Producers (and there are quite a few on this project) cluster around the monitor, break off to pace and talk on their hands-free headsets. At one point when time is tight and a department head is pushed by those on high, a certificate for “free and unlimited go fuck yourself” is handed over. Kudos to the producer who sees the funny side. I see where the points of stress lie. Where there is space to move. See how space is created but also how tight spaces can be easily stumbled into. It’s good to be part of a committed crew and have the chance to see both the creative and practical architecture of a Killer indie.
I also spend some time working with first team. I walk talent from the hair and make-up truck to set, keep the vanities informed as well when last looks are up so they can do touch ups before we roll. Time is tight and there isn’t room for hunting people down. Different actors have different patterns. The brooders and smokers and those that stick to the green room are no trouble. But then there are also the wanderers. Amongst a stellar crew there is only one actor who gives off a full of himself vibe, all swagger and celebrity entitlement. Everyone else is sweet as. Despite his immense celebrity, Dan is down-to-earth, interested and interesting. One freezing night in Harlem he slums it on the street with the shivering crew though a warm green room is his for the taking. Camaraderie! On an interminable night in Washington Heights, cramped into a small, ratty apartment building, a mud truck (gourmet coffee, hot chocolate etc.) pulls in: Foster has wrapped for the night and called in a morale booster for the crew. For the few days she is on set Lizzie Olsen is luminous but natural and unaffected.
One day early on in the shoot hordes of paparazzi turn up in the Brooklyn sun. The scene we are shooting is a dawn scene with a drunken Ginsberg and Carr collapsing on the pavement (or should I say sidewalk); it’s the first moment of physical tension and intimacy between the two. Every time we roll, a chorus of camera shutters clatter on continuous shoot mode, ruining the sound. Ken, the sound mixer, is obviously pissed-off. The 1st AD looks like he is going to explode. Jared, the line producer, pleads with the paps to just stop shooting while we roll. There’s a nasty tension on Smith Street. Most do stop, but some keep on, invade the actor’s eye-lines. Even the hyperventilating schoolchildren who gather and threaten to break the lock-up (not on my watch!) fall into a hushed reverie when we shoot. When the company slides down the block to the next location one particularly brazen paparazzi sticks in the middle, gets in the way. When I ask if he might mind moving on and out of the way of the work (which as I am asking of every pedestrian that lingers – no-one wants a tripod in the face), he snarls and asks “would I mind getting out of the neighborhood?”.
The unions are strong in New York. Film runs in families. Emma, master of the superlative and employer of the adjective ‘dope’, is on set set-dresser and the daughter of two electricians. Rob the electrician is the brother of Frank the gaffer. Rob is being considered for the union at the moment. A union rep visits set to make sure he is up to chop. (He is). Then there is Colleen, the props assistant, who generously lends me her second coat on the night of the Harlem freeze. Colleen is from the Dolan family film dynasty (her grandfather started up the electric union). It is union etiquette to buy interns drinks. When Connie, a camera intern from Austria, is robbed the teamsters pool cash for her.
I get called “kid” and “sugar”, “sweetheart” and “New Zealand”. I learn department specific jokes “What weighs more than a 35 pound sandbag? “A wet one”. Some of these guys can carry an impressive number of sandbags (wet and/or dry). Cries of “points,” “watch your back,” and “free dental work” resound. I find myself using set language out of context. I dream only about set. And then I get too tired for dreaming. There is high-fiving and fist bumping a plenty. There is a lot of winking. Sadly, I cannot wink back. My whole face shifts, making for an awkward, pained sight. I stick to fist bumping.
On a Thursday night I am protecting c-stands and stingers (much better name for an extension cord) on a grassy knoll in Central Park. Soon I will get the low-down on the unions from electrician John who will come to strike a set that we are not going to make it to tonight. But at midnight my only company is a happy raccoon fossicking in a garbage can. It is brisk but not too cold. I’m almost out of range so the crackle of rushed voices is distant in my earpiece. Impressive apartment buildings rise above the fresh-budded treetops. Their lights are all about the romance of New York. Later, I get to ride on the back of the stake bed truck out of the park and down East Avenue. I look forward to having some time to see more of this city and its offerings (a Rangers game, MoMA, Tribeca Film Festival) but I know I will miss this immersion in the trials and tribulations of independent feature film making in NYC when we wrap.
This internship is made possible with the support of the Film Investment Corporation Foundation and the New Zealand Film Commission.