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Q: Why were dollies invented?
A: So grips could learn to walk on their hind legs.
We were standing under the Brooklyn Bridge when a production assistant ran over to tell us the actors were on their way. There was no time to rehearse the last scene, and if we didn't nail it before sunset, everything we'd shot with Julia Roberts would be worthless. Worse, Julia Roberts had to catch a plane that night for Prague, where she was shooting a costume drama with Brad Pitt. Since our half week in New York with Julia Roberts was the only reason the studio was making this movie in the first place, there was a strong chance that if we blew the last scene, they'd pull the plug and we'd never go to Texas and finish the movie. There was only enough light to do it once, and the only person who could screw it up besides the actors was me. The dolly grip.
"Do you need anything?" the production assistant asked, staring at me like I had a bull's-eye stapled to my forehead.
"Would a blow job be out of the question?"
"I'll take that as a no," he said and stomped off.
"Thanks for the understanding, fella," I shouted and trudged back to the eighty feet of dolly track I had set up two hours earlier. There was nothing to do, but I unlocked the brake on the dolly anyway and pushed the five hundred pounds of metal, rubber, and hydraulic fluid to the end of the track and back. On a movie set it's always good form to make it look like you're busy. My cell phone rang, and before I could pull it from my cargo shorts the production assistant was back in my face.
"Make sure that's off when Julia arrives."
"Absolutely." I felt like pushing him in the East River, but after twenty years in the film business, I'd learned that sometimes even the lowliest gofers grew up to be producers.
"You near a computer?" my friend Hank Sullivan asked when I answered the call.
"I just gave dickhead's movie the green light. It was supposed to be announced in tomorrow's Hollywood Reporter, but Variety posted it on their Web site an hour ago."
"You're kidding me."
"Nope, there's even a picture."
"Does it mention Natalie?" I asked.
"A least a half-dozen times."
"Sorry, pal, but I had to do it. There's a management change at the studio, and I need to have my third movie in production before they start firing people."
"No biggie," I said. "I wish you all the best."
"That was an excellent line reading. For a second I almost believed you."
The production assistant was back. "The actors are here," he shouted. "Cell phones off."
"I gotta go," I said.
"Hang in there, Bobby. When we get to Texas I'll buy you a drink."
"Right. See you in Texas."
Before I could begin to feel sorry for myself the big guns arrived and panic hour began. Production assistants ran in circles while the crew set up equipment they would never use but had to have standing by.
"Why did the scene in the taxicab take so long?" I asked Troy, the camera operator.
"Fucking first-time director. He wanted every take to be perfect. Even for shots where Julia Roberts was off camera. You want to go out for beers after this?"
"No, thanks. I have to pack for Texas."
"You sure you're okay?"
"The shot's just a walk-and-talk." Then I understood what Troy really meant and said, "You heard about the article in Variety, huh?"
"The sound guy had it on his laptop. You need somebody else to push dolly on this one?"
I shook my head. "I can handle it."
"It's your call."
"Oh, Troy, darling," said a singsongy voice with a thick Polish accent. We turned and saw Andrzej, the director of photography, strolling onto the set. He held a light meter in one hand and an ice-cream cone in the other.
"Go see what Andrzej wants," I said. "I'm okay. Really."
Troy slapped me on the back and dashed off.
More and more people arrived: camera, sound, video, script, makeup, hair, and wardrobe joined the gaggle of grips and electrics already working. The air filled with shouts and bursts of walkie-talkie static as Brooklyn-bound traffic clogged the streets of Manhattan. Car horns blared. Cabdrivers cursed. Sirens wailed.
"Why do they always have to schedule rush hour and sunset at the same time?" I whined.
"Run-through with second team!" the first assistant director yelled into his bullhorn.
"Run-through with second team!" the second assistant director screamed.
"Run-through with second team!" a half-dozen production assistants shouted in unison.
Troy climbed onto the dolly and said, "Keep an eye on my right hand. I'll signal you if the actors get too close or too far away."
"Here we go," the first AD shouted. "Action!"
The stand-ins for Julia Roberts and Ryan James Donahue, our male lead, walked toward us, and I eased the dolly into motion. My job was to keep the camera exactly six feet two inches from Julia Roberts at all times. If she slowed down, I slowed down. If she walked faster, I walked faster. If she grew a foot, I raised the camera.
Forty feet into the shot, Troy took his eye from the camera and said, "You think I should sleep with Julia's stand-in?"
"You haven't yet?"
"My ex-wife was in town."
"No, the first one."
We reached the end of the track, and I slowed the dolly to a stop.
"Cut!" the first AD shouted. "Everybody back to one."
As I pushed the dolly to the first camera position, I noticed the soundman glancing back and forth between me and his laptop.
"You set?" I asked Troy.
"Like a jelly."
"Then I'll be right back." I locked the brake on the dolly and ran to the sound cart.
"Okay," I said. "Let's see it."
The soundman turned the laptop around, and there he was: Elias Simm Harvard dropout, Kennedy cousin, and the man who stole my wife.
I scanned the article. It said that Hank Sullivan was pleased to announce preliminary financing for The Ant Eater Goes Down, the third movie in his three-picture deal at Columbus Pictures. Ant Eater (as Variety called it) was the heartwarming tale of the favorite nephew of an assassinated American president who grew up in splendor, flunked out of Harvard, and overcame drug addiction to fuck my wife.
Okay, so that last part wasn't in the article, but I knew the script and didn't need to read the synopsis. I skipped down to the third paragraph, where it mentioned Natalie:
Producing chores for Ant Eater will be handled by Natalie Miguel, veteran of a dozen features including Wit Carson's Empire, The Somnambulists and the Beverly Brothers' Au Bar Bouncer Blues. Miguel has shepherded Ant Eater through every stage of development and has partnered with Simm to form Miguel-Simm Productions. Simm and Miguel have opened offices on the studio lot and are looking forward to a spring start date.
As I tried to decide whether to vomit or send a congratulatory telegram, I felt someone tap my shoulder. I turned to see the production assistant hovering over me and was about to smack him with his walkie-talkie when I saw the fear in his eyes.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Look," he said and pointed toward the camera.
"Shit," I said when I saw Andrzej holding the viewfinder to his eye. "They can't change the shot now. We don't have time."
I raced to the dolly. There would be plenty of opportunities to feel lousy later. I grabbed my tape measure and a piece of chalk and ran to where Andrzej stood with the director.
"Oh, there you are, Bobby, darling. It seems our director wants to change the shot." Andrzej put the viewfinder to his eye and said, "This is two."
I ran my tape measure from the viewfinder to the ground and measured the exact height and position where Andrzej expected to find the camera after I tore up an hour's worth of work and reassembled it in the few minutes left before sunset.
"Got it," I said and marked the position on the ground.
"And this..." Andrzej said, taking twenty loping steps forward and fine-tuning the viewfinder, "is one."
Andrzej grabbed a fistful of my hair and smiled. "You're going to earn your money today, Bobby."
"Every day, Andrzej."
Andrzej clapped his hands and shouted, "Fellow filmmakers, we are losing the light. We must hurry."
I spun around and almost collided with Julia Roberts. Time stopped. The sun wasn't setting, and my wife wasn't sleeping with Elias Simm. I was inches away from one of the most famous movie stars in the world, and for one brief and surreal moment our eyes locked.
"Pardon me," I said.
"No, I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention."
I squinted at her and said, "Wow, with your hair like that you look just like Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound."
"The Alfred Hitchcock movie?"
"Yeah, have you seen it?"
"No, but I've always wanted to."
"You'll love it. It's got this totally surreal dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí, and Ingrid Bergman says the sexiest word in all of cinema."
"Really? What word is that?"
I took a deep breath and, doing my best Ingrid Bergman, whispered, "Liverwurst."
"Liverwurst?" Julia Roberts giggled. "That doesn't sound very sexy."
"It does when Ingrid Bergman says it."
I stepped out of her way and descended into hell. I ran to the dolly, and before I could unlock the brake, the first AD was all over me.
"This is a fucking disaster," he said. "How much time you need?"
"Not much, just keep everybody out of my way."
"Gotcha." He put his bullhorn to his lips and said, "Everyone please step back and let the grips do their jobs."
We moved the track to the new camera position, and I dove onto the ground to level the rails. I was almost finished when I looked up and saw the entire crew staring down at me with anxiety on their faces: sixty nervous people with families, mortgages, and assorted substance abuse problems who were screwed if I messed up and the studio shut down the picture. Luckily, the ground wasn't bumpy, and we were good to go in less than two minutes.
"Lock it up," the first AD yelled through his bullhorn. "This is for picture."
"Lock it up," the second AD and production assistants echoed.
"And how does this new camera position differ from the last one?" I whispered in Troy's ear.
"Not one fucking bit. And this guy's supposed to be an actor's director."
"Roll sound!" the first AD screamed.
"We have a plane," the soundman said.
The first AD turned to Andrzej, and Andrzej shook his head.
"Roll sound!" the first AD shouted.
"But we have a plane!"
"I don't care. Roll sound!"
In the cinematic equivalent of rock, paper, scissors, camera beats sound every time.
"Speed," the soundman said.
"Rolling!" production assistants everywhere shouted.
The first AD turned to the collection of video monitors, director's chairs, and VIPs known as Video Village and waited.
"Oh, action," said the director from behind his monitor.
"Action!" the first AD repeated.
I glanced down to make sure I had unlocked the brake on the dolly and watched Julia Roberts and Ryan Donahue walk toward me. Their concentration was amazing. Less than a minute earlier, hair, makeup, and wardrobe people had been swarming over them like a cloud of gnats, and now Julia Roberts was telling Ryan Donahue she was leaving him. I believed every word she said and had to force myself to pay attention to my job and not her performance. When the actors reached six feet two inches, I began walking backward between the rails. Troy's hand flew off the camera and signaled for me to move faster.
"I can't go on like this," Julia Roberts said with tears in her eyes. "I need a husband who will treat me like a human being, not like a character in a story. I'm Anne O'Hara, damn it. Not Anna Kournikova."
"Shit!" Julia Roberts said, breaking character. "I meant Anna Karenina."
"Keep rolling," Andrzej and the first AD yelled.
"Okay, okay," she replied. Julia Roberts shook her head, took a deep breath, and returned to the scene with the blink of an eye.
"I can't go on like this, Robert. I need someone who'll treat me like a person, not like a character in a story. I'm Anne O'Hara, damn it. Not Anna Karenina."
"Cut," the director called.
"I'm so sorry," Julia said.
"That take was no good for sound," the soundman announced.
"That's a cut," the production assistants echoed. "Release the lockup."
Andrzej, Troy, and the director huddled around the monitor to watch the playback. You could tell from their expressions they were not happy. The video ended, and they wasted a precious minute of daylight arguing.
"But I want to do it in one take, Andrzej," the director whined.
"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," the first AD shouted at the crew. "Everybody back to one."
"This fucking sucks," Troy said, hopping back on the dolly.
"What the hell are we doing?" I asked. "We can't shoot. There's no light."
"The director wants to wait until the sun sets and then bash a light into the actors' faces. Maybe we'll get it before the background turns to mud, and maybe we won't."
"But that'll look like shit."
"Hey, I'm only the operator," Troy said in disgust. Then he smiled and slapped me on the back. "You did great on that last take, by the way."
The grips and electrics rigged a soft light on the dolly, and I added a seat for Andrzej to ride. Andrzej and the new equipment brought the total weight of the dolly to a thousand pounds. I weighed in at a svelte one-fifty.
We started shooting the moment the sun went down and banged out three quick takes before we lost the light. Andrzej and the director huddled around the monitor to watch the playback, but everyone knew there was a fifty-fifty chance we'd blown it. Either way, the scene was going to look terrible. Nothing's worse than busting your ass for thirteen hours and knowing your work sucked. No, that's not true. Nothing's worse than busting your ass for thirteen hours, reading an article about your soon-to-be-ex-wife in Variety, and knowing your life sucked.
"Fucking British asshole director," Andrzej muttered as he stomped off set.
"That's one pissed-off Polack," I said.
"He's got every right to be," Troy said. "Making the most beautiful woman in the world look like a pile of dog crap could destroy his career."
"They have to blame somebody. If you hadn't moved that track in record time, it would have been your ass instead of Andrzej's."
He was right. And all because of some inexperienced clown who didn't know which end of a viewfinder to look through. "The hell with it," I said.
"The hell with what?"
I pulled out my cell phone and called Hank Sullivan. "I'm sorry, Hank," I said when I got him on the line. "But I can't do this anymore. I quit."
"What the hell happened? I just got off the phone with the head of production, and he said you guys blew the Julia Roberts scene."
"That's what I'm talking about. I can't stand around anymore while some idiot director who knows one-tenth of what I do gets to call the shots. I can't do it. I just can't."
"Calm down. You can't quit this movie, Bobby. I need you there, man."
"Come off it, Hank. I'm a piece of lint on this job. If I got hit by a bus no one would remember me this time next week."
"Stop being pathetic and listen. If this job doesn't come in on time and on budget, the studio will pull the plug on my third picture."
"And wouldn't that suck for Elias?"
"And for me. And for you."
"Why for me?"
"Name one other person besides me who would help you make your own movie if you ever got off of your ass and wrote a screenplay."
"Not anymore, pal."
He was right. "What do you want me to do?" I sighed.
"Anything you can to light a fire under the crew and help us get through this movie alive."
"I'm not sure how much help I'll be. I barely have the strength to crawl home to Brooklyn and pull the covers over my head."
"Stop being so dramatic. We only have one day left in New York. After that, we're in Texas for three months. And trust me, once we get to Texas everything's gonna be great."
Q: How can you tell when a producer's lying to you?
A: His lips are moving.
Copyright © 2008 by Billy Taylor