Monthly Archives: August 2013

Movie Millions

I just read that the cost of the new Lone Ranger movie was $225 million. Based on my past experience as a high-paid major motion picture star (Translation: Extra, “Atmosphere,” or A Person We’d Rather Not Be Forced to Deal With But Must to Make Our Celluloid Fantasies Appear Real), I figure that 3% goes directly into what you actually see on the screen, 2% goes into retakes and 95% goes into food for the actors.

     One typical day, I worked on Home Alone at producer John Hughes’ studio in the former New Trier West High School. I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and, with three changes of clothes draped over my shoulder, sauntered into a lounge with about two-dozen other extras. Twelve or so were selected and the rest were released with a day’s pay. There went a bunch of dollars. Cha-ching!

No nudity in this scene, so we dressed appropriately and went into the old gym, where the First Class section of a 737 had been constructed. After being seated (the only time I’ll ever be in First Class), the set decorators placed a breakfast of eggs, toast, and a glass of champagne (ginger ale) before us. When filming began, we started to eat. Cut! Do it again. A new plate of food. Eat. Shoot. Cut. Do it again. After Take 3, the set people said to take small bites because they were running out of eggs and toast.

The fifth take was good, so we had a break while the crew removed some seats for the next shots. Being a small puff of atmosphere, we got to eat with the big-time actors—-unusual because extras were accustomed to standing in line getting fed weasel meat with a slingshot. In the vestibule, tables were set with baskets of fruit, a squeezing machine to make fresh orange juice, all types of coffees, teas, bagels, cream cheeses, donuts, sweet rolls, a toaster, a chef making omelets to order, a cooler with milk and yogurt and another filled with various bottled liquids. Around 10:00, food service people morphed foodstuffs on the tables into brunch fare. We went back to the set. Cha-ching! Millions spent.

At lunchtime, a cook wagon in the courtyard supplied char-boiled half-pound burgers and thick-cut fries, with ice cream sundaes for dessert. Lunch over, back to work. Meanwhile, the food tables inside were restocked for afternoon snacks, including a frozen custard machine. By now I was so full I thought I would retch into my airsickness bag.

I’d been seated on the aisle just across from Dad, John Heard, and Mom, Catherine O’Hara. Director Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter, etc.) decided I should be reading a Wall Street Journal instead of just sitting there blowing up my barf bag and trying to grab the stewardess. There was no overhead light, so the techs had to install one. We cleared the set and went outside. I flipped a Frisbee with John Heard, a couple of the sound techs, and Joe Pesci’s stunt double. An hour later I was back in my seat, reading. After reviewing the film, director Columbus decided I was too distracting, so he had me sleep instead. Dinner buffet time. Cha-ching! Millions gone.

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After dinner, some more no-longer-needed atmosphere was sent packing, leaving only three of us. I plucked a Dove Bar out of the gym freezer, strolled to the camera, and peered into the monitor over the director’s shoulder. He was shooting the scene where Mom suddenly realizes she forgot a kid at home. After “Cut!” Chris turned to me and said, “What do you think?”

Did you think I’d tell him it was the most hackneyed bit of doo-doo I’d ever seen? No. With drippy ice cream bar and bare face hanging out, my educated, professional response was, “Uhhh…Looks good to me.”

Around 11:00 p.m., we last three expendables were released. I stopped by the midnight snack tables, said goodnight to John Heard who was hanging there, and loaded my pockets with rations for the road.

There you have it. Mass quantities of food and exorbitant pay for my fourteen-and-a-half hours, plus millions of other dollars spent for ninety seconds of useable film. Cha-ching!

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The Rockets’ Red Glare

Now that the Fourth of July, 2013 is history and pet dogs have entered another round of therapy for PTSD, I wondered where the tradition of igniting loud explosive pyrotechnic devices to celebrate the day actually began. After extensive and exhaustive research and a large quantity of grain alcohol, I learned that the widely accepted story wasn’t true—the one stating George Washington started it all when his father discovered that young George had chopped down his favorite cherry tree and George told him it was to make cherry bombs. George couldn’t tell a lie, so he was forced to invent a cherry bomb and his father, now convinced George had told the truth, didn’t beat him. Later, George blew up the family’s mailbox, and his father did beat him. Hard to believe, but none of that is true.

No, the pyrotechnics were actually to commemorate an eighteenth-century Valentine Day incident when four of Al Capone’s men, disguised as tubes of moisturizer and armed with 155mm Roman candles, blew away a handful of Mary Kay million-dollar sales ladies at their private sales meeting. The location was discovered when Capone saw the pink Mary Kay horses parked out in the street.

February was too cold to commemorate anything, so festivities were moved to July 4th in the middle of summer when it was hot, a much better time to have parades, shoot the exploding things into the sky, drink beer, slather on Mary Kay Sunscreen and sign national historical documents. Much to the consternation of pets everywhere, a tradition was established.

When I was growing up you could get fireworks anywhere. You could even find Flaming Death Pinwheels and Skyrockets of Armageddon in boxes of Cracker Jack or purchase Roman candles from the Girl Scouts in lieu of cookies and have great Roman candle fights—the 1950s version of laser tag. For you younger readers, Roman candles were longish cardboard tubes with a fuse, which when lit, shot out eight or more balls of colored fire preferably at another kid who, if he was smart, had already lit his own Roman candle and was ready to fire back before he was turned into an overly-toasted S’more. The evening was considered a success if there were at least a half dozen flaming children running through the yards. We knew how to have a good time!

These days, you can’t even strike a match if you’re under 12 without having a fire truck, rescue wagon and two squad cars screeching up to your front door to hose you down, haul you to the emergency room and cite you for attempted manslaughter. We still have wimpy sparklers that are no fun. For us kids, the only use for sparklers was to light the fuses of more lethal, colorful, detonations that, according to our parents, were sure to lead to our eventual, unavoidable demise.

Because of current laws, the 4th is much tamer, regardless of what your dog may tell you. Why don’t we all forget about what the Consumer Product Safety (“We Take the Joy Out of Everything”) Commission says and contact our representatives in Congress to see if we can’t get these anti-fireworks laws repealed and put fun back in the 4th? And be sure to let them know that the Fourth of July is not in February.

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