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SOCS AND GREASERS (Chapter 11)
Back at the hotel I punch Tom Cruise in the face. I hit him squarely in the nose, and hard. I see his eyes water and blink, so I know he's stunned and in pain. He goes into a rage and begins to pummel me mercilessly in the chest and ribs. It's getting way out of hand, and finally Emilio and Tommy Howell step in and stop the fight.
We've taken to these nightly sparring sessions in the sixth-floor hallway as a way to kill time, blow off steam, and prepare for the upcoming "rumble" sequence in the movie. We wear headgear and mouthpieces; the gloves are pro-grade (all equipment provided by Emilio and Tom, the masters of fitness). Most of the time it's pretty friendly, but every once in a while...
"Hey, man, you okay?" asks Cruise, coming back to reality.
"I'm good. Sorry about the face shot," I say.
"Well, now you know what'll happen if you do it again!" he says, grinning his grin.
We high-five and begin to help the others pack up the equipment. Soon we are planning the next session of our "R and R," the nightly flyby of the lobby to check out any potential girl activity.
Since I first observed Matt Dillon's master technique, I have been wondering how I might fare on my own. I have been dating Melissa Gilbert back in L.A., but her mom thinks I'm after her for her fame and won't let her visit me. I'm also beginning to feel the unique effects of shooting on location--a euphoric and toxic mix of excitement, boredom, anonymity, recognizability, and loneliness. After a few weeks of walking by frenzied, available girls who look exactly like the cute girls at Samohi who always ignored me, I'm ready to have some fun.
And so begins a time-honored tradition of entertainers on the road--sometimes you chase girls, sometimes they chase you (literally), sometimes it's just to flirt, and sometimes it's more than that. But it's always fun and both principals in the equation seem to get exactly what they want out of it. We are all teenage boys, so you can imagine how enthusiastically we take to this pastime. Only Swayze, who is married, seems content to watch from the sidelines with a wry smile.
For most of us Greasers it's a perfect setup. My situation is complicated somewhat by my long-distance relationship with my girlfriend and there are times when I feel bad about that. But I begin to learn another great lesson: nothing quiets the inner voice you want to ignore better than a couple of beers. And between the open cooler on the van ride home each day and Francis's food-and-wine festivals at the end of each week, I'm getting a lot of practice at quieting my conscience.
You really know you've arrived in the movies when you are given your own stuntman. These are the guys (or in our case, boys) who will take the blows and make you look like a stud. Even looking at your stuntman is a cool experience; he is dressed in your clothes, has the same haircut and style, and is your same weight and height. In essence, he is your tough, fearless doppelgänger.
Buddy Joe Hooker was (and is) the most legendary stuntman ever. A hit movie was made about him called Hooper, starring Burt Reynolds. He is the stunt coordinator on The Outsiders and will help Francis design all the car sequences, knifings, fights, and, of course, the big rumble between the Socs and the Greasers. He's dressed head to toe in white (including his cowboy hat) and is smoking a tiny cigar as he stands in the muddy vacant lot that will be the set for the big brawl.
"Hey, Lowe, come meet your guy," he says, gesturing to an exact replica of myself as Sodapop Curtis.
"This is Reid Rondell. He's one of my best," says Buddy Joe, who knows his stuff.
Reid and I shake hands. Soon we are talking like old friends. He's a lot like me, the same age, and has been doing his thing since he was a little boy. He gives me my moves for the fight sequence, shows me how to throw a movie punch that looks great on film but doesn't "land," and he shows me how to get "hit" by one as well. We work in our own corner of the field. All around us, the other Greasers are doing the same thing with their stuntmen. The most dangerous thing you can ask is for two actors to "fight" each other (as Cruise and I know), so each Greaser will fight his stuntman dressed as a Soc, which means I will fight Reid.
"Let's kick ass! Let's make our fight the best one in the entire rumble!" says Reid.
We try to come up with cool elements for our beatdown. We also scout what the other Greasers are up to, to see where we stand. It's just like the audition process all over again--lots of camaraderie, but very competitive.
The rumble scene is a few days off and the company has switched to filming all the night shoots in the movie. This means breakfast at four o'clock in the afternoon, shooting at sunset, lunch around one in the morning, and finishing at sunrise. The first few days are magical: the crazy hours, the giant lights and exotic equipment, the buzz of adrenaline that comes from pulling an all-nighter, all in the company of your band of brothers. Then reality sets in. Your body begins to revolt. You are too wired to sleep at sunrise, can't sleep enough during the daylight hours to get the rest you need, and are always hungry at the wrong times. You start to feel like a vampire--you miss all of everyday life while you try to recuperate in your manufactured, light-sealed room/cave. As anyone who has pulled the graveyard shift will tell you, it becomes a serious grind.
It's around three thirty in the morning and Francis has asked that an entire section of the front of the house be removed for a shot he wants. As the grips continue this major piece of engineering, we try to kill time and stay awake. At one point I find myself alone with Francis, sitting in the living room. Coppola has been an enigma throughout the filming. He's always pleasant and clearly wants the best for me and everyone else on his crew, but he is also aloof and can play favorites (which as an adult I understand was his prerogative, but as a teenager I did not). Like everyone else, I do whatever I can to please him, make him proud, and to be in his good graces. Now, since it's just the two of us, I try to make conversation.
"Francis, I'm sure you hear this a lot, but Godfather was on in the hotel and we all watched it for the hundredth time. What an unbelievable movie."
"You know, Rob, to me The Godfather is like that lamp," he says, pointing. "It exists. It's right there. People have opinions about it," he continues mildly. "The real Godfather, for me, is the experience I had making it."
It would be many years and many projects before I fully understood what he meant. If you are fortunate enough to be part of a hit, particularly a transcendent one, all emotional ownership is transferred from you to the audience. They judge it and embrace it; project their own hopes, dreams, and fears onto it; take their personal meaning from its themes, and with these investments it becomes theirs. The significance of your participation pales in comparison to the significance the project has on their imaginations. And so, you are left outside of the phenomenon. Just as Paul McCartney can never experience the Beatles, Francis Ford Coppola can never experience The Godfather. It becomes a lamp.
Coppola's reputation as an innovator is well earned. For large chunks of the filming of The Outsiders, he watches from a monitor, covered in a blanket, or sometimes from blocks away in a specially designed Airstream trailer nicknamed "The Silverfish." Since movies were first made, directors have been close by on set, sometimes right in your face, next to the camera, observing. Not Francis. He is a pioneer of video hookups and on-set monitors, and there are days when we rarely see him on set as the cameras roll. Back then, it was surprising. Today, it is commonplace--all directors have their heads buried behind monitors and no one actually watches your performance "live."
Tonight, standing in the unseasonably cold spring rainstorm, part of me wishes I was able to sip an espresso in my own Silverfish. But mostly I'm just trying to stay warm by the huge bonfire that has been built as part of the scenery for the rumble sequence. Like with all great movie productions, on The Outsiders the artistic is also the practical. The fire is really only there so the actors don't try to leave the set to get warm in the shitty little trailer huts parked blocks away.
Same with the vicious, cold driving rainstorm all of us Greasers are standing in. Some directors would wait out the bad weather before shooting such a lengthy--three to four days--and important sequence. But Francis won't wait, and in fact, he uses what nature gives him to dramatic effect. He asks the great director of photography Steve Burum (whom I will work with again on St. Elmo's Fire) to light the rain in the most unusually stunning way possible.
As usual, I'm huddled with Tom Howell and the rest of the Greasers. We don't really mind being soaked in the mind-numbing cold because we know how great it will look on-screen. What none of us realizes is that if it doesn't continue to rain for the next few nights of shooting, rain will be created to match this storm, with fire hoses spraying even colder water up into the air.
It rains until lunchtime on the first night and then stops. Out come the fire hoses, which instantly give you an ice cream headache.
Reid Rondell and I go through our choreographed fight moves. Swayze is doing some sort of ballet dancer warm-ups that look very challenging. Cruise is tugging at a front tooth that he will later have removed by a local dentist to bolster the authenticity of his fight's aftermath. Under a tarp, Matt Dillon's boom box plays Tommy Howell's favorite mix tape--Adam Ant's "Stand and Deliver," Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," and Oingo Boingo's "Only a Lad." When I hear those songs today, I still feel wet, cold, and extremely pumped.
On the last night we shoot my part of the fight. Reid and I slug it out and in the end it goes pretty well. I feel particularly good about making it look like I took his punch in the face. What I didn't know then was that you are better off "selling" a punch you throw than a punch hitting you. And so, if you watch the rumble sequence today, two things stand out: the rain comes out of nowhere and Sodapop kinda gets his ass kicked. Ah well, live and learn.
As the weeks of shooting roll on, I settle into a groove. All of the actors have bonded deeply (think of your new friends in your first semester away at college) and we show up for each other on set even if we aren't needed. We play elaborate drinking games nightly (I am the undisputed champion of Caps) and share reconnaissance about the local girls (Tommy Howell being the undisputed king of local outreach by a mile). He and I share an adjoining room and never close the door, an indication of how close we are becoming. The script calls for Ponyboy and Soda to have a bond that is deeper than brotherhood. And after weeks of pressure, fun, hard work, and long hours, that relationship is now real.
Tonight, the music coming from Howell's room is so loud it's keeping me awake.
"Shut the hell up! We have a seven a.m. call time," I yell.
"No, man! I'm going method in the scene! I'm supposed to have been up all night, so I'm going to be up all night," says the fifteen-year-old Marlon Brando.
"Good luck with that," I say, plugging my ears and eventually falling asleep.
At 7:00 a.m. my alarm goes off and I go into Tommy's room.
"Still awake! Didn't sleep at all. I'm so ready," he says.
"I need my coffee," I yawn, as we pack for the set.
We shoot the scene. It's postrumble, all of us up all night, nursing our wounds. It's long and complicated and takes all day. Finally, around 5:00 p.m., we get to my close-up. (Anytime you are in a large ensemble, your close-up is a very important shot. Good actors are excellent not only in their own close-ups, but also, almost more important, off camera while others are shooting theirs.) As he does during every shot on The Outsiders, Francis blasts "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You."
"Action, Rob!" comes his voice from the big speakers (he's in the Silverfish today).
I start the scene. Somewhere in the middle, Ponyboy has a line that's a cue for me. It doesn't come.
Wow, that's a dramatic pause Tommy's taking, I think, as I wait for his line. The camera continues to roll. My back is to Tommy. I don't want to turn around and look at him, and I have a pretty good idea of what's going on. I look over at Swayze, who is staring at Howell. Then I hear it. Snoring. Tommy is literally passed out, sleeping right in the middle of my close-up! So much for the Method.
The big emotional-breakdown scene between Sodapop and his brothers got me this role. Now, in the last few days of shooting, it's time to do it for real.
As on any movie, at the end, everyone is on edge. The actors are contemplating what they have (or haven't) been able to accomplish, the director is clawing to shoot as much as possible before time runs out; the crew is exhausted and being driven into the ground. But I'm feeling pretty good. I've watched the other actors take center stage and excel. Now it's my turn. I've done this scene with giant pressure in New York and L.A. I've been to this emotional well before and I know there is water.
We shoot in a neighborhood park breathtakingly lit by Francis and Steve Burum. Masses of equipment surround the perimeter. Coppola wants it to be windy, so a Ritter fan with blades the size of a turboprop is standing by. I'm laughing and joking with Swayze and Howell, trying to quell the emotion I can already feel, just under the surface.
A technician cranks the giant Ritter fan and points it at the rows of towering elm trees. The blast is powerful enough to bend the branches. In the beautiful, eerie light it looks like a storm is brewing.
"Action, Rob!" Francis yells. Five cameras shooting different angles and sizes roll. The crew of fifty or so people watch quietly as I race into the park, chased by my two brothers. As I reach the baseball backstop, they tackle me in the pool of light created to play the scene. At the end of this very long take, I dry my eyes, feeling pretty good. Francis sends us back to go again. Once more, I'm tackled into the backstop. After another eight or nine takes, I'm starting to tire emotionally, but I know I've given 100 percent. I'm glad we had five cameras to capture every moment.
"Hey, buddy, good job," says Swayze, giving me a long, hard hug.
"Thanks, man," I say, punching him in the arm.
Francis comes ambling out of the darkness.
"Hey, how ya feel?" he asks, putting a big paw on my shoulder.
"Good. Um. Good. You?"
"I think it's time to do your close-ups," he says, full of encouragement.
I can feel my legs go to rubber and my pulse skyrocket.
"Um. None of the cameras were close-ups?" I ask, trying not to panic.
"Oh, no. They were all extremely wide. Now we'll punch in and really get the emotion!" he says, walking off to set the shot.
Standing alone now, I know I'm in deep trouble. Through take after take I have poured my heart out, cried my eyes dry for the last hour. I have nothing left, and I'm terrified. I've wasted all my emotion on giant wide shots where you probably can't even see my face. I feel like an idiot.
I don't dare tell anyone. I begin to pace, to wind myself up to refill my tank. It will take them a while to reset the cameras; maybe that'll be enough time for me to regroup.
Soon they're ready. No need to run through the park and be tackled now. I throw myself to the ground on my own. The camera is two feet from my face. It's not a good sign that as I begin my "breakdown" speech, all I can think about is that I've probably said these words over fifty times on camera, but this will be the only version that will matter. I try to wrestle myself back into the scene, but I can't; I'm thinking one thing and one thing only: I can't possibly duplicate what I did in the wide shots. And it turns out to be true. Where I wept before, there is nothing, no tears, and no real emotions. So I do what all actors do when they have nothing authentic left to offer: I begin to act.
I can feel everyone around me tighten up. It's obvious that it's not happening for me. The take ends.
"Let's go again," says Francis.
"I hate it when you two fight," I say to my brothers (please, God, let me get this, let me let go, I need to cry again, this is for everything). Howell and Swayze are willing me to the finish line but I can't get there. I'm actually more locked up than I was in the previous take.
"Okay. Let's all take a ten-minute break," offers Francis. The crew wanders off to smoke or get coffee.
"Hey, c'm'ere!" says Tommy Howell. "I wanna talk to you."
We step off the set into the shadows to be alone.
"What's going on?" he asks.
"Fuck that, man. You gotta. You can do this! This is what it's all about. Right now! You, me, and Swayze!"
I'm looking at my feet, getting lectured by a fifteen-year-old.
"I don't know what to do. I didn't know to save it for the close-up. Nobody told me," I say lamely.
Tommy grabs me by my face, hard.
"Look at me," he says, his eyes shining. "I love you. You're my brother. We're gonna get you ready."
And then come the most loving, generous, wise moments I've ever shared with another actor. He starts a narrative, a hushed, hypnotic story of our life together as orphaned brothers. He tells me about our mother, how beautiful she was with her blonde hair, and about the day she nicknamed me Sodapop because I was always so happy. He asks me to remember Dad and how much we miss him--his strength, his laugh--and reminds me of the pony he surprised us with at Christmas. As he winds down, he pulls me close to him and whispers: "There's no one else like you in this whole wide world, Sodapop Curtis. You're my brother and I love you so much. You're all we have left."
"Come on, guys," calls Francis. "We've got about twenty minutes before the sun's up."
"Don't listen to that," says Howell firmly. "You're ready now. Go nail this fucker like you know you can."
We walk back onto the set. I'm full now--full of the emotion I need, full of love and of unending gratitude for this amazing friend. His compassion and leadership will remain unmatched in my professional experience.
Francis rolls the camera. I do the scene. This time, there are tears. When it's over, I hug my brothers as the sun breaks over the horizon.
SOCS AND GREASERS Copyright 2011 by Rob Lowe.