236. Hey Verne, It’s Me, James

scene from 'Metropolis'

scene from ‘Metropolis’

We worked like orphans in a Dickensian factory, 16 hours a day, 6 days per week.

Few industries demonstrate the transformative power of unions like the movie business. Working 100 hours per week on a union film wasn’t unheard of, but the production had to pay for it. If they wanted to pay us double, triple, even golden time — five times our hourly wage — to work us around the clock, most of us were more than happy to forego sleep. Union contracts allowed both the studios and the labor force to make informed decisions about grinding out too much work in too little time.

Non-union films had no such protections. With those gigs, we signed on for a flat rate that could be as low as $0.00 if you were willing, and the company ground you into the dust because they could. And so Rosemary and I arrived at our non-union cutting rooms early every morning, where we “popped tracks,” or synchronized the prior days’ film footage to its corresponding audio. We ran the reels of film and sound through the coding machine, the stinky beast that heat transferred a code number onto the film stock at a rate of one unique number per foot.

We filed the trims, the thousands of feet of film that Craig, our editor, meticulously cut from the daily reels then chose not to use. Some of the trims were as small as a single frame but they had to be spliced back into their proper spots in their respective rolls, which is where the coding machine’s numbers came in. The average finished movie ran about 10,000-12,000 feet, and the average cutting room contained at least 10 times that footage. Keeping up with each individual frame was the assistant editors’ responsibility.

If Craig was in the mood he’d drive us to lunch, which usually meant vodka and grapefruit juice. Most days I just wandered out to the set and scavenged from craft service, the table piled high with snacks for the cast and crew. I wore long hair and a beard and never bothered putting on my shoes before walking to the set. The crew called me Jesus, but I didn’t know that.

During one craft service run, while I was stuffing M&M’s into my pockets and trying to fit as many pretzels into my mouth as I could without unhinging my jaw, the movie’s writer-producer asked me what I did.

I held up a finger, gagged down the pretzels, and said. “Assistant film editor.”

“Oh, so you want to be an editor?”

“No. I wouldn’t mind, but I just sort of fell into post-production.”

“Well, then what do you want to do?” he asked.

“I want to write,” I said.

“Then write.”

“Nobody’s exactly lining up to pay me to write,” I said.

“If you want to be a writer, write,” he said. “Somebody will pay you for it.” It sounded like good advice, so I ignored it for 20 years.

In the evenings the cast and crew gathered in a makeshift screening room near the sound stage. It reminded me of a revival tent: a few folding chairs, a screen, and a projector. We screened the dailies for them while they drank beer and unwound. The crew quickly realized that I was too fucking blind to focus the projector, but I was the only one who knew how to operate it so a volunteer had to join me at the back of the screening room to pull focus. I was now Blind Jesus.

Here’s what I learned over months of popping tracks, screening dailies, filing trims, and watching rough cuts of Ernest Scared Stupid: Jim “Hey Verne” Varney, the actor who played Ernest, was incredibly talented. His best known character may have been a rubber-faced dullard, but Varney was a brilliant comic. Given a different birth date, he may have been a Buster Keaton-like figure rather than the idiot from those car commercials.

Or maybe he wouldn’t have gone into comedy at all. Word around the set was that Varney had a photographic memory and was a trained Shakespearean actor, both of which seemed likely. One day while he was killing time in our cutting room, he went off on the history of German Expressionist cinema. There sat Ernest, lecturing on Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Another day it was the history of the wristwatch.

My favorite Varney moment, though, happened in the bathroom. I wandered in to do what people do in the W.C., and heard the most violent nose blowing in the history of noses emanating from the stall. Out stepped Varney with a wad of toilet paper against his rubbery nose.

“Sounds like you caught a cold,” I said.

“It’s just the weather,” Varney said, and he gave me 20 minutes on how barometric pressure affects sinuses while I listened politely and tried not to pee my pants. I’m not kidding: Ernest was brilliant.

Sundays I slept until noon, and then I’d tear into the fat manila envelope filled with forwarded mail. Usually it was just bills, but this time my house sitting buddy included a British music magazine featuring Jane’s Addiction on its cover. Inside I found a sticky note: Saw this and thought of you. How’s the moving going? Call me! – Jody

I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.

Categories: Memoir

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3 replies »

  1. Jim Varney and Shakespeare: two names I never expected to be connected. I always enjoy having my preconceptions shattered. Thanks for the eye-opener.


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