Ahhh, good old Scene 144 (night). You’re the one that really gave me a headache. The one that came back to bite me in the ass. The one that made Denzel Washington scold me like a schoolboy. Yeah, I’m talking about you Scene 144 (night).
I’m talking about a scene from the film “Remember the Titans“?, which was roughly based on the uplifting story of a high school football team that overcame personal prejudice and racial division in Alexandria, Virginia, in the early 1970’s. While it was a pretty big hit at the theaters, “Titans” really wasn’t all that fun a film to make. While Disney was taking indie filmmaker Boaz Yakin to school (the hard way) on what it’s like to work for a studio (interesting to note that he has since removed the credit from his record on IMdB).
The show was really, really hard. It seemed that all our time was spent on frigid, windswept football fields in the wee hours of the morning. No wonder that two of our 3-person prop crew (and the Director) came down with especially nasty cases of the flu. Meanwhile, our Production Designer was a friend of Mr. Bruckheimer’s wife and madly in love with the color blue. The never-ending hordes of extras were stressful and by the time the show had been going for awhile there wasn’t a whole lot of love going around (at least in our department).
And then there was Scene 144 (night).
In the early 1970’s, high school game footage was shot on 16mm film, which means that football coaches had to slog through a big stack of 16mm film reels when doing analysis and research on team performance. Locating the canisters to use as props wasn’t a problem: we could get most anything we needed at ISS if we couldn’t turn them up locally. The real problem is how the canisters were used the very first time we saw them, in Scene 144 (night), when Denzel, as Coach Boone, gets out of his car with the film reels and is greeted by his wife and daughters.
Now, I didn’t work any of the props in Scene 144 (night). That would be my friend and Propmaster, Dwight Benjamin-Creel.
Dwight is always thinking about realism when he props a show and in this case he knew that a cardboard box or a paper grocery bag would have been a logical way for a guy to tote around film canisters. So he pulled a selection of paper bags off the proptruck to show to Boaz, who wasn’t thinking of reality, he was thinking like a storyteller. Between them they realized that the audience wouldn’t be able to see the film canisters if they were in a paper bag, and they were forever trying to work in elements that sold the idea that this story was happening in the early 1970’s and needed to see the cans.
Boaz was thinking along the lines of a net bag, or better yet, a bunch of string wrapped around the film cans.
Dwight went to the truck and grabbed our roll of string and began making a haphazard net around the film canisters and we shot the scene with the thing before it fell apart.
Just like any other night, at wrap we loaded all our stuff back into the proptruck and went home for the night.
For more than a week (maybe weeks) our truck lurched and rolled around the periphery of Atlanta, bouncing from location to location. Tubs were slammed onto and off of shelves. Our rolling carts came and went. We climbed up and down shelves, strapping and unstrapping all the rolling stock and digging out things on high shelves. When we finally found ourselves at Druid Hills High School we were worn to a frazzle and the strings around the film canisters had fallen down into a tangled mess.
Our shooting schedule placed us at Druid Hills High on multiple weekends, while school was out, and became an ersatz homebase for us. One of those weekends found my co-Assistant Propmaster, Megan Graham, sick and tired of working on set. Megan usually loved working set, and I was all too happy to play Truck Bitch, but on this day she let me know that she needed some time out on the truck to organize her stuff so she asked me to stay inside and work the set.
It was October, deep into baseball season, and the Braves were in the playoffs with the Yankees. Spike Lee was in town for the playoffs and decided to drop by to see his boy Denzel – both of them are huge Yankees fans. While he may be a big sports fan, Spike was dwarfed by the puffy Yanks jacket he wore to set – he looked like a kid sitting next to Denzel. Our Executive Producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, was there as well. Rhea Lowenthal and I were standing behind Jerry at monitor and Rhea, being Rhea, sweet-talked the man into getting one of the lesser Producers to put up a two hundred dollar prize for a pumpkin carving contest for the crew (which Rhea, unsuprisingly, proceeded to win – hmmmmmm, how’d you do that Rhea?).
The next scene up was set on the morning after Scene 144 (night): Denzel gets into work, carrying those damned film canisters.
We ran the rehearsal. Space was tight and Boaz preferred to do his first rehearsals with the talent only, allowing the departments to watch the rehearsal after the actors had set their scene. So I handed off the film canisters to Denzel and went around the corner to stand with the crew while the actors worked out the scene, desperately hoping that there wouldn’t be a problem with the…. I heard a metallic clang followed by the sound of a bunch of empty tins hitting the ground. Those stupid strings had finally fallen apart.
Our 1st AD, Randy Fletcher, gave everyone notice that we only needed some camera and lighting adjustments and we’d be ready to shoot.
I only had a few minutes to fix some string around those cans so I ran to the truck, dug out the string, some double-stick foam tape and ran to sit down in a stairwell a few doors down from set. With far less time and far more adrenaline than Dwight had on the night of Scene 144 (night), I began trying to make a replica of his string arrangement. Yes, I cussed Dwight, but I cussed Boaz even more for thinking this was a good idea. I cussed the people who invented 16mm film and our far distant ancestors who gave us the gift of textiles.
Those string-inventing bastards.
“We’ll be ready to go in eight minutes,” came a voice over the radio.
It was time to shoot and I knew that I needed more time to rig the cans up. Randy thought we were fine and that we should go ahead and shoot the scene. The cameras were ready, lights in place, actors on set, Director in his chair.
“Fine,” I thought. Let’s just see what happens.
So I turned to Denzel and extended the cans and strings to him like I was handing him a hand-grenade.
“Be careful,” I quietly said to him, “they’re a little unstable.”
“What’s that?” he replied.
“The strings, they could come apart if you’re not careful. Just sit it down carefully when you get to the table.”
“Well I can’t be thinking about these things while I’m acting,” he scolded. “Fix it! Just make it right!”
Well that’s exactly what I’d wanted to do all along. Now I had Denzel on my side, sort of, in a pissed off kind of way.
So, with all the crew tapping their toes and looking at their watches, and Jerry Bruckheimer, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington and Will Patton cooling their heels, I shakily began tying more knots and double-sticking more tape. Somebody, several somebodies, jumped in to help me… I can’t remember who they were… it was just one of those times when you have to live with egg on your face, even when it’s not really your fault.
Looking back, I’ve been in much bigger pickles. But for some strange reason I’ll never forget Scene 144 (night).