5 Behind the Scenes Details That Change How You See Movies
Everyone has dreamed of working in movies at one time or another -- in fact, we bet a good many of the people reading this still do. And why not? Even if you don't get famous, you still get to hang around famous people and work on stuff that will get seen around the world.
But of course, working in movies -- behind or in front of the camera -- is still just a job, and despite the giant cocaine-and-sex parties that must be going on somewhere in Hollywood, there's a lot about filming a movie that the average person gets wrong.
To get a look at what happens on both sides of the camera, we interviewed a grip/electrician named Holden Wilson and a stand-in/background actor who, to preserve his anonymity, has asked to be referred to as Thrust Neckpunch. They told us ...
Movies Are a Massively Convoluted Cut-and-Paste Project
Obviously, when you see Tony Stark jump off the roof of an exploding building, that's not really Robert Downey Jr. -- stunt doubles and CGI are there to make sure the franchise's $50 million star doesn't accidentally get whipped in half by Mickey Rourke. But what you don't realize is how little of the star is actually in the movie. When they show anything that isn't the actor's face, there's a good chance the person you're looking at is someone like the stand-in we spoke to.
Robert Downey Jr. is way too famous to play his own back.
For instance, the hands shifting gears in the Fast and the Furious movies? All of the males were those of our actor, Thrust Neckpunch (again, not his real name). You're not going to notice that the hand that's only on the screen for half a second doesn't really belong to Vin Diesel, even if it isn't soaked in the blood of the thousands of people he's killed over his movie career, and Vin's time is too valuable to sit there and film a bunch of gear changes. So, they just grab a stand-in whose hands sort of maybe look like Diesel's in the right light.
You can tell it's Vin Diesel's real hand by his two extra thumbs.
That scene in Iron Man where Tony is being marched around by terrorists and has a bag over his head, clutching a car battery to his chest? Someone in charge of casting realized "Hey, if we put a bag over his head, we don't have to pay Robert Downey Jr. to do this shot. Someone get Thrust Neckpunch over here!" The same thing happens later when a reporter hands him photos of Stark weapons being used to murder innocent people. When the camera pans down to show him flipping through the photos, those hands don't belong to Robert Downey Jr.
Thirty seconds of filming his hands costs more than most small businesses ever make.
It's also done for convenience, too. The camera angle required for the photo shot would've required Downey Jr. to stand bent over backward for hours at a time so the camera could fit where his head should be, and that's not something you subject an A-list actor to, even if you are paying him enough to actually become Iron Man in real life, should he so desire it.
Also, remember that the interior and exterior of a location in a movie may, in reality, be in different cities. In True Blood (where Thrust worked as an extra), the interior of the Fangtasia Bar is a sound stage, and the exterior is a real bar, miles away. So something as simple as a character walking into a building requires multiple shots and miles of travel. Well, you can't have the actors doing that shit, so you have the extra walk toward the building for the exterior shot, then cut to the star on the sound stage once he's inside.
Then you just FedEx the extra back to Los Angeles and keep right on filming.
So what looks like a single performance can, in reality, be the Frankensteinian creation of a whole bunch of actors and extras having their performances stitched together. Thrust said he once filmed a scene where he was a police officer frisking someone. He had no lines, but when he watched the finished scene later, his character had a line dubbed over the shot. Why? Well, it's actually cheaper to do things this way and pay two people -- the voice actor and the filmed actor -- because they can both be listed as "extras," rather than actors.
This haphazard, cobbled-together method of filmmaking is one reason why ...
On Set, It's Impossible to Tell if the Movie Sucks
"Wait!" you say, "How can you not know if the movie is going to be good when everyone has read the script?" Well, actors get scripts. The crew, as grip/electrician Holden Wilson told us, usually does not.
"Andy Dick? Guess this job ain't going on the resume."
They get the scenes they're shooting the night before or the day of -- one page at a time. The most efficient sets are lucky to get 14 to 16 shots done in a day, and when you're shooting a scene or two per day, it's impossible to get a sense of the big picture. Remember, movies are never filmed in chronological order, because it all depends on when sets, locations, or people become available. Anything shot outside is at the mercy of Mother Nature.
That means you'll never get context for what you're shooting until you see the whole thing later. So when somebody like Holden finds himself filming a scene in which a man is watching porn with one hand fixed firmly upon his junk and the other clutching a ventriloquist's dummy, he just has to go with it (he assures us that's an actual example, by the way). Hey, the ending of Apocalypse Now probably looked like the work of a deranged madman at the time -- you won't know until months or years later whether your movie will win an Oscar or wind up in the porn dungeon of some creep with a puppet fetish.
"Is ... is he acting? Because that looks like a real knife."
And when you consider how nightmarish the scheduling is on a film, it's amazing anyone on the set can keep track of what's going on. In addition to working around the narrow windows of availability of the cast (actors tend to juggle multiple projects at once, so you may only have them for a few days or weeks at a stretch), there are rules on top of rules about who can work when. You can make an adult work a 12-hour shift, but not children. So, every scene that has the kid in it has to be scheduled in that narrow gap before he has to be sent back to the orphanage. Same with animals -- they're only available at certain times and for so long. True Blood uses real wolves in some of its werewolf scenes -- you don't want them overworked, hungry, or cranky.
Jack Nicholson is the same way, although we hear he's even more of a biter.
So what we're saying is that if you're filming an ostrich-back race in the Coliseum between two 5-year-olds, good luck having those three things available at the same time. And even more luck figuring out how they got there when they were 30 years old and solving a murder in a Canadian brothel in the scene you filmed that morning.
Some of the "Fun" Scenes to Film Are Really the Worst
Imagine this: You're tasked with filming a late-night orgy scene out in the woods -- you know, standard fare for True Blood. It doesn't get any better than that. You're going to spend the next 12 hours surrounded by beautiful, naked actors pretending to have sex with one another.
But according to Thrust, there's a catch. Several, really. First, it's almost freezing outside, but you don't worry about your junk turning into a dongsicle, thanks to Catch 2: Your junk is securely inside a drawstring pouch to ... protect some degree of modesty? You'd think those dick pouches (the norm for Hollywood sex scenes) would just make it weirder.
But those scenes can be a nightmare for the crew, too, since some actors are so hung up about their privacy that you have to jump through hoops to get them to disrobe and pretend to do the nasty on camera. In some cases, the scene has to be shot with a skeleton crew behind closed doors in order to minimize the number of people who see the actors' naked vampire butts jiggling around. Which seems strange, since millions of people are going to see them anyway:
Just as long as none of those gross craft services people see this.
Then there are the fight scenes, the hallmark of a great action movie. That part is fun, right? You get to pretend to be a badass on camera, fake punching people and watching them go flying! Well, these "fights" are really more like dances -- carefully memorized sequences that have to be rehearsed endlessly. That means actors learn the entire fight, punch by punch and block by block, from start to finish. And then they shoot it. Over. And over. And over.
And there is often little margin for error, above and beyond the obvious prohibition against accidentally crushing Alexander Skarsgard's scrotum. Oftentimes a director will want a fight scene to be one continuous take, which means everyone -- the actors, the camera crew, the lighting technicians -- has to be absolutely perfect for the duration of the entire fight. This translates to "You're going to film this scene until Bruce Lee comes to you in a heat-exhaustion-induced fever dream and imbues you with the ability to get it done."
Or you just actually start fighting.
You Can Get Fired for Screwing in a Light Bulb
Much like an early 1900s coal mine, film sets have a union problem. Because the unions are so specialized, the work is intentionally split up into countless departments, and there are consequences for performing a task not specifically assigned to your department. For example, Holden heard a call over the radio asking for a light with a diffusion frame (read: transparent sheet) in front of it. Being an eager go-getter, he did the entire job himself -- and was immediately told by his boss that he'd be fired if he ever did something like that again.
"You treat these things like goddamn cobras."
You see, he was an electrician. His job began and ended with setting up the lighting rig. When he set up the diffusion frame, he crossed over into the territory of the grips (lighting and rigging technicians), and crossing union barriers is a big no-no. Needless to say, when something as simple as setting up a light requires two people from different unions, things can get complicated in a hurry, and it's a large reason filming takes so long and costs so much.
If there's an electrical cord in the way, even an extension cord plugged into nothing, someone from the electrical union has to move it, regardless of how easy it might be to do it yourself. And there are unions for everything, making you twist, turn, and dance through so much red tape that you practically mummify yourself with it any time you want to finish a simple task. And when we say "everything," we mean it -- pushing the dolly, holding the clapper, setting up lunch, sculpting Robert Downey Jr.'s facial hair -- every conceivable task is assigned to a specific department. And only that department.
There's actually a whole union just for that goatee.
But hey, at least that means the job comes with all of those sweet union benefits, like job security! Well ...
Job Security Is Nonexistent, Regardless of How Good You Are
Working in movies means hopping from project to project. You don't know when these projects will begin or end, and taking one means turning down another. For example, at one point Holden accepted a job on a small project, only to have another offer come along after he'd already made the commitment, this one for a little crime film called The Dark Knight.
It was about clowns, if we recall.
This meant he had to say no to The Dark Knight (a psychological thriller about a man with a bat phobia slowly learning that what he should really be afraid of is clowns), and the very next day got a call from the first project saying it had been pushed back. A lot. That means he could have taken the Dark Knight job after all ... but it was too late; by that point it had already been filled.
"But," you might be saying, "if the original project was small time, why not tell those people to screw off because you've got a date with the goddamned Batman?" Well, Batman was going to come to town and then leave, but those guys at the smaller project weren't going anywhere. There's no guarantee that the Batman job will get you a spot on the next project, and the local guys you screwed over have long memories. And when you work project to project, connections are king -- if you burn too many bridges, you can find yourself trapped in Gotham with Bane about to detonate a nuke. And then you have to hope that Batman can magically walk across the ice or some shit.
Whatever restarts the punching. Which, in this analogy, is gainful employment.
So this is one case where being union doesn't mean having job security -- for extra actors and crew, there's a saying that "you're only as good as your last job." In a regular job like most folks have, the bosses have a lot of incentive to keep an employee on even if they mess up -- they don't want to have to pay unemployment benefits or spend the time and money finding and training a replacement. But that's not a concern in show business, where so much is done by freelancers -- there's always a pool of people the filmmakers can pick from if they sour on you.
That means if you make one big fuck up (or are caught in the middle of someone else's), you can suddenly find that your phone stops ringing and you're out of work. This sort of thing happens so frequently that the odds are a crew member is going to see it more than once in their career. Before turning down the Batman gig, Holden quit his day job, because he thought he'd caught the break of a lifetime as a cinematographer on a feature film with a decent budget. Three days later, he got that "We're pushing production" call and he was suddenly out of work and scrambling for cash.
"OK, so this has to carry me through till Batman vs. Superman."
Not to mention that his resume now had a big fat gap in it -- the kind of blank spot that makes future employers think you quit a paying job to stay home and eat cereal and watch daytime TV marathons. If you aren't careful and don't maintain a good contact list, that sort of situation can end your career.
So no, working in show business is not a matter of getting one big break and then having it made -- it's a series of breaks you have to keep getting, one after another, knowing they could dry up at any time. But hey, at the end of it, you're still making a goddamned movie.
Holden Wilson has a blog, which you should visit at once.
Did you know that movies have a greater impact on reality than you realize? From how we view stockbrokers to what we think really happens in crime investigations, Jack O'Brien hosts David Wong in our latest podcast to let you know how brainwashed you really are. You can download it here and subscribe to it on iTunes here.
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