Tony and I rolled up to Griffith Park in the late afternoon and found the little pop up village that marks a movie set. This one was a little different, though: No Star Waggons, no craft service or catering trucks, no Teamster drivers sitting on their folding chairs, watching everybody else work. An actress pulled her costume from a makeshift clothes rod hanging over the back seat of her car.
“Where’s the food?” I asked.
“It’s a Roger Corman movie,” Tony said. “We work cheap.”
We found the electrical truck and I helped Tony unload cables and lights. He told me the name of each item as we unloaded it: “These are scrims…these are gels….That box is full of connectors we call suicide plugs….If I call for a 4k, bring me a light this size….”
A couple of guys hauled old mattresses out of the woods and stacked them on the road’s shoulder. “What’s that all about?” I asked.
“The homosexuals come up here at night and have sex. They’re going to be plenty mad when they can’t get up here tonight. Those big lights in the back are 10ks. We’re going to need help with those….”
We spent several hours running cables through the woods and rigging lights. When we were done an assistant ran around the set with a smoke machine. The billowy smoke smelled like burned oil. We shot a scene of an actor getting hit in the head with a silver ball. He did a sort of drunken, cross-eyed pratfall and the director yelled “Cut! Perfect!”
“I think we should do another one,” the actor said.
“Why? That was perfect.”
“Isn’t this supposed to be a ball of energy knocking me out? This looks like a painted tennis ball bouncing off of my forehead.”
“We’ll fix it in post,” the director said.
Another man walked up. He was large, with greasy long hair and a bulbous nose. “He’s right. Let’s set up for one more take, guys,” he shouted.
“May I see you over here for a moment?” the director said, and he grabbed Greasy by the elbow. The two walked to the edge of the set and stood almost directly in front of me. They must have mistaken me for a light stand, because the director started chewing ass in a low, threatening voice: “You do not come to my set and tell my crew to set up for another take.”
“Whose set?” said Greasy.
“This is my set. I’ll decide whether to go again.”
“I think you’re confused,” Greasy said. “This is my movie. It’s all my set, my crew, my actors.”
“I want you out of here right now,” the director said.
“You can’t kick me off my own set, Steve. If you want to keep directing the second unit, you need to remember who the director of this picture is. Got it?”
The two stared at each other for a moment, then Steve, the second unit director, yelled, “Okay everybody, let’s go for one more.”
“Man, that was tense,” I whispered to Tony.
“The director is having sex with that porn star who has been in the news.”
“That’s the name.”
“That old ugly guy?”
“He’s a director,” Tony shrugged.
We filmed until the early morning, and then we packed the electrical truck while the sun rose. I rode back to the Su Casa apartments and took a shower, then headed over to Music Plus for my shift.
I was supposed to work the record-side register, but our manager kicked Joe off of the video rental counter for tossing a returned gay porn back at a customer because the case was greasy. Working video rentals wasn’t too bad, aside from the omnipresent risk of a lubricated porn return.
A dude in his mid-thirties handed me a display box. “I’m sorry, I can’t rent you this,” I said.
“What’s the problem?”
“Shane Black wrote this movie. I can only rent it to people clinging to the hoods of cars.”
“That’s pretty funny,” he said.
“Thanks. What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“Are you in the business?” he asked.
“Yeah. Well, I’m trying. I’m working on a Corman movie right now, but not as a writer.”
“My friend Steve is directing second unit on a Corman movie,” he said.
“Steve? That’s the one I’m working on.”
“No kidding? Small world. Here, take my card. Maybe we can get together for a beer sometime and talk about writing.”
“That would be cool,” I said.
A few nights later Tony, Steve, Greasy, and the rest of the crew were over in West L.A. on another set. The star that night was a 1956 Thunderbird, driven over and over through the oily smoke-fog up a short road. Tony and I were pulling lights out of the truck when I noticed my new buddy from the record store milling around. “Be right back,” I said, and I chased the dude down. “Hey, man, what are you doing here?”
“Steve told me you guys were shooting up here tonight.”
“We just got here. Good to see you, man. You been on a set before?”
He laughed. “Lots of them,” he said. “I’m a writer-producer.”
“I thought your card said you work for a graphic design company.”
“I’m just helping out a friend with that. You remember the Combat Man cartoons? I wrote and produced those.”
“No way,” I said.
Steve approached us and said, “Hello, Michael.”
“Hey, Steve, good to see you,” Michael said.
“It’s good to be seen. And who is this?”
“This is my friend James. I thought you two knew each other.”
“From where?” Steve asked.
“Hey, Steve. I work with Tony. I’m a grip,” I said.
“Well then perhaps you need to go find Tony and do some work,” Steve said.
“I’ll catch you later,” I said to Michael, and I added Steve to my shit list, which now looked like this:
James’s Shit List
We shot a few more nights, during which I helped to paint, build sets, haul props, and helped Tony with the lighting. When we were done, Tony offered me a couple hundred bucks to help him rewire a house.
But the big score was my new friend, Michael. Although we were 15 years apart we clicked, or at least I did. I enjoyed being around him, listening to his stories, or just hanging out. His wife worked for Rhino Records. The label had recently signed Exene Cervenka from X—how cool is that?
“Hey, my boss is having a party this Friday night,” Michael said. You should come down. It should be a good place to do some networking.”
“Cool, what time?”
“I’ll be there,” I said, and I imagined all the clever things I was going to say to Exene.