Back in the Summer of 1993 I drove to Charleston, South Carolina to work on a made-for-cable movie called “They”. Among the notable events of that trip was that it was the third movie that my friend Dwight had hired me to work on, and it was the first time that I ever worked with a “new” propguy from Atlanta named Joe Connolly.
One night we were shooting a driving scene with the actors using poor-man’s process (simulating the look of driving when the car is actually standing still). The night was damp and the breath of the actors in the car quickly made the windows begin to fog.
For some reason we didn’t have any RainX on the prop truck. But Joe recalled that a film of soap could prevent fogging on bathroom mirrors, so he grabbed a bar of soap and began furiously scrubbing the inside of the window with it. Soon there was a thick chalky glaze of soap all over the windows…..and it just got worse from there……the soap he was using was DEFINITELY the wrong kind, and on movie sets people become fairly critical (think: vicious) of each other if their rigs don’t work. It’s a mean sort of game, but when you lose…you lose. And that night Joe lost. We laughed at him and poked fun at him, and every time SINCE that day he’s only become grouchier and more defensive of his soap trick. In fact, I count on getting a grumbly email from him as soon as he reads this post. In Joe’s defense, the trick DOES work…provided you have the right kind of soap….I just wish somebody would let Joe know exactly what kind of soap that is…
The movie’s plot was mildly interesting. It was about a father (Patrick Bergin) whose little girl died in an automobile accident. He couldn’t seem to let go of her memory and little things kept happening to remind him of her…strange things. Eerie things. Eventually he met an old woman named Florence Latimer (played by Vanessa Redgrave) who lived in an old plantation house. As time goes by he discovers that she watches after the spirits of dead children, and that his little girl is one of those children. If I recall correctly, the moral of this story is about letting go. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was…….either that, or “don’t go in the swamp”.
John Korty directed the movie, and looking back I can say that he falls into the “prepared director” camp. He took advantage of the production scouts to learn the lay of the land at all of his sets. He knew his shotlist every day, and seemed to stay close to his original intent (I really didn’t know much yet so this could simply be the perception of an inexperienced PA). He enjoyed his actors and encouraged them, but not to the exclusion of ignoring the technical events happening around him. He knew where the sun would be at any point in the day and I watched him tell the best-boy electric that he wouldn’t need condors (tall cranes rigged with lights) until a specified time when the sun would be in a certain part of the sky. It seemed like he’d really done his homework.
Over the course of the show, we had a chance to get to know John a bit and to my delight we discovered that he was the director of a movie called “Twice Upon a Time” (1983). I think I was the only one who had actually heard of it….it was an animated movie. I dimly recalled sitting in a movie theater one summer watching dreary slides of “upcoming movies”. One wacky “Yellow Submarine” looking slide popped up featuring “Twice Upon a Time”….I remembered it being described as “by” George Lucas. Being a child of Star Wars I was energized by the beat-up old slide. Oddly, I never saw the movie at the theaters. It probably opened and closed in a couple of weeks, perhaps to a limited release. Here I was sitting with the director of that lost movie! Yes, George Lucas WAS involved. He was the Executive Producer.
After he learned that I had been to England to watch the filming of BATMAN, he told me a story about Tim Burton. It seems that Tim Burton worked on the animation of “Twice Upon a Time”…and liked one particular scene SO MUCH, that he lifted it from the animated film and inserted it into the second BATMAN movie starring Danny DeVito as The Penguin. Watch the scene where The Penguin speaks to an underground auditorium filled with evil penguins, their eyes all a-glitter and him at their center. Then rent “Twice Upon a Time” and see the scene where Synonamess Botch delivers a similarly rousing speech to a similarly arranged audience….except this movie came out WAY before Tim Burton’s BATMAN sequel. John Korty wanted to sue, but the same studio owned both pictures and there was nothing he could do but grumble because they sure as heck weren’t planning on suing themselves. There’s a real behind-the-scenes story for you film fans.
John Korty is a contemporary of George Lucas. He could pass for Lucas’ older brother if you asked me. In a final confirmation of his “coolness” factor (for me), he was the director of the television movie “The Ewok Adventure (aka Caravan of Courage)”. I regret now that I passed along to him a bogus rumor that was circulating at the time…that the young actor Warwick Davis (who played Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi and Ewok Adventure) had died of pneumonia. Of course it wasn’t true, but there was no way to Google up the truth back then….rumors circulated person-to-person in those days if you can believe it.
Vanessa Redgrave struck a fascinating figure on set, being one of those people who project a palpable aura. I knew there was some political intrigue wrapped around her but the details were all but unknown to me at the time. I’ve since read a bit about the issues involved and steer clear of the whole mess.
She was quiet and deliberate in speech and had a precise carriage, I assume they were hers and not simply a manefestation of her character. I’ve worked hundreds of scenes on set, but only a few reside in permanent memory…one of them featured Vanessa Redgrave and Patrick Bergen.
His character has been drawn to this old mansion by the spirit of his departed daughter, and there he finds a blind woman who looks after the spirits of dead children…almost a tatterdemalion herself. In the back of the mansion in a semi-detached gazebo the old woman sat and spoke to this man. He asks her a question, I don’t recall exactly what it was…but her reply was rather indicting toward him. The way Vanessa Redgrave delivered the answer was understated and powerful, but what really underscored her delivery was a low rolling grumble of thunder that fell on the heels of her last line. I’ll be a ring-tailed hypontenuse if everyone on set didn’t have the hairs on the back of their necks standing on end. Most certainly one of those “WOW” moments.
Being my fourth movie, I had begun to fashion a concept of what a special effects department should be. These guys violated every tenet of that concept..repeatedly. Of course looking back they provided some great stories.
One day we were shooting in front of the old plantation house. In the back, the SPFX crew was preparing a water effect in the pond for later that evening. Now we’d heard an occasional low grunting noise in the back, especially in the evenings. The park rangers who operated out of this historic building had made certain that we knew there was an old alligator that lived in the pond, further noting that he was fairly shy. So it was the SPFX crew ventured into the pond to pull their fire hoses into place to the spray head that would later yield a supernatural geyser of water. Naturally the guys wanted to test the effect, so they turned on their beat up old 1950’s fire-engine’s pumps and the water roared into the hose from the truck to the spray head, from land to water. What the effects guys didn’t contemplate was that the powerful thrumming sound made by the hose might interest that old alligator….
Looking back, I recall seeing a jet of water spraying 60 feet into the air, some guys trotting around on the dock and yelling coming over the radio.
What had happened was that, out of nowhere, the agitated gator rolled into view with the firehose firmly clamped between locked jaws. In a split-second he’d severed the rock-solid firehose, and according to witnesses, in that same split-second the effects man who’d been chest deep in water “walked 15 feet across the water” to the dock. That was one of those sobering incidents that make film crews return to reality and acknowledge that they often work in dangerous conditions…until the next day when the joking returned with (tempered) gusto.
The ladies loved Madden the Butler.
The actors name was Bill Benser, and this may have been one of his only television appearances. I’m not sure if he did community theatre or television commercials or if he’d ever been in front of a movie camera in his life. But he shot GREAT. He was the creepy “everywhere at once” butler. By the end of the movie they were writing extra material for him and throwing him into scenes he’d previously been omitted from in the script. The producer wanted to take him home with her and make a movie starring Madden the Butler. As wrap gifts to a few of the girls I hand-made Madden-the-Butler stick pins out of Sculpey. I wonder if they still have them. Hmmm, how long does Sculpey last anyway?
At one point we went out to shoot at a Marina somewhere off James Island. As we landed at the basecamp and started to unload the trucks, the grips erected a long piece of speedrail then ran up the Jolly Roger…in a nod to the tendency of film crews to invade a location like marauding pirates. From out in the marina it looked like the grip truck was indeed a great pirate ship come for to plunder. It must have shaken up the natives because the police showed up to answer a complaint call. The producers chased us back to shore and it was shortly discovered that one of the residents had been seen by another boat owner brandishing a rifle. It seems that this gun-carrying boatsman had seen the prop department carrying around some guns….which we were. Ours of course weren’t loaded with live ammo like his was. I think they took him away for a little while…I really don’t recall.
I seem to recall two “last days of filming” so I’m not sure if I’m blurring two movies together….maybe I’ll remember later and come back to fix this part. But for now I’ll tell the one about the all-nighter first, then finish up with the chicken dinner.
This version of the last day of filming was when we shot all the stuntwork. The most important shot of the movie was done at night, and it involved a tractor trailer clipping a Ford stationwagon….this was the scene where the main character’s daughter is mortally injured. Naturally, they saved this scene for the last day to insure that nothing happened to the principals and prevent any slow-downs in filming. We were granted the use of a brand-new, as-yet-unopened highway. Consulting an online map of Charleston makes me want to say that we shot on highway 30 which crosses over to downtown Charleston from James Island. Any Charlestonians want to contest this? Let me know if I’m wrong.
I recall that all of the experienced film crew members were bemused by the Stunt Coordinator because he reeked of cologne and wore those sneakers that light up in the back every time you take a step. I think I had some like that when I was 11. Despite his nomination to the “get a load of this guy” Hall Of Fame, his moment of glory was to be stolen by the special effects crew. By now, these guys had been given the alternate affectionate nominative of Special “Defects” which I’ve heard bestowed to other crews over the years….except I don’t think the term was given to these guys out of affection. These guys earned the title fair and square.
As the dark night wore on, our shot schedule began to look more and more daunting. Shots were banged off with a mounting frenzy. The last shot involved a stunt and a rain effect in the foreground.
Now making rain sounds easy. I’ve never really done it, but I’ve watched. There are all sorts of rain, depending on the shot setup. There’s soft drizzle, foreground fill, blowing rain, mist, basically as many different types of rain as there are in real life. The Special Effects guys had to make it look like it was raining in a fairly wide shot of a mulitple lane highway. Their equipment? A dull red 1950’s fire engine. The sun was approaching and we were fighting to get the shot done before the growing light in the eastern sky killed all semblance of night.
The effects guys swarmed over their fire engine, grappled its hoses and wrestled the spray head. The old truck shuddered like a dying elephant, and oddly, water started gushing out from the bottom of the pumper truck…..contradicting their assurances that all was working properly. Although he was propmaster on this show, Dwight has worked special effects before and has a skill at rigging effects. So he attempted to step and help the guys. He parked me as ballast atop a chattering generator that had been skipping all over the road beside the pumper and I have no recollections as to what happened next. All I remember is a juddering, fume-laden ride that I endured for the next fifteen minutes.
Somehow it got done….it always does.
Now, as promised, this is the other “last day of filming” I recall from this movie. The more I think of it, I really don’t think this was the last day I just remember it had that kind of feeling.
We were shooting at a public pool facility in Mount Pleasant, using the pool as our tank. The grips blacked out the walls of the pool with duvatene (a heavy black cloth). The Production Designer Vaughan Edwards had someone anchor some wispy seaweed-like stuff to the pool bottom. For a couple of hours they shot Patrick Bergin splashing around in the deep end of the pool.
When lunch was called we headed outside to the caterers. Best Boy Grip Charles Seabrook (a local Charlestonian) came over to our table and sat down across from me. For some reason we decided to steal one of his pieces of chicken while he was turned around talking to somebody at the table behind him. Lorraine, one of his grips (girl grips are uncommon here in the south), took the chicken and put it into a clean bowl and kept it in her lap.
When Charlie turned back around to talk to us, the first words out of his mouth were “who took my damned chicken?”. More innocent and confused faces you’ve never scene. We were all terribly, terribly sincere in our confusion at his accusation. Hurt, we were.
Knowing movie crews, he blew right past our innocent act.
Like a television police detective, he carefully pointed to his mashed potatoes and indicated the distinct impression that had been made by his missing piece of chicken. As we continued to plead our innocence, he grudgingly began to eat his lunch. We of course couldn’t let it go entirely, and the producer who was seated behind him asked about his missing chicken. He was careful to put his hands on his tray as he turned his head ever so slightly to his left, keeping one eye on his plate. He was able to do that for a couple of sentences, but it was uncomfortable. As soon as he turned to fully look at Bridget, I quickly plopped it back into place on his plate.
He glanced back to his plate, in the middle of a detailed explanation of the theft to the producer. I think he was telling her of the fossilized chicken impression in his mashed potatoes. Whatever it was he was saying just gurgled to silence in an instant. The look on his face was priceless, and the table roared with laughter…..it was great. And a great memory of Charlie Seabrook.
Charlie passed away this Spring while working on a show in Charleston (I’ve received a correction by Charlie’s son who wrote to say that this happened in Charlotte). According to the reports I’ve heard, he died of a massive heart attack. I remember Charles with affection even though I only worked with him once or twice. The crews from Atlanta who have worked with Charlie were all shocked and saddened to hear the news, and all agreed that Charleston lost a wonderful person with his passing. I’ll always think of him when I hear the name of that wonderful little town.
That, and chicken.