Mostly you wait. It's worse than attending someone else's labor pains
. Harder than sitting in the dentist's office on a sunny day. Actors
lucky enough to be involved in the creation of a motion picture
become experts in the fine art of occupying themselves, waiting
while the crew gets things together. "Heavy-duty Greyhound Bus Station Action," is how director James Cameron
put it, referring to his performers on The Abyss
, who were forced into unusually long periods of inactivity because of the dangerous and technical nature of that shoot.
Indeed, enduring delay may be the business to which the more fatuous talk-show guests refer when they discuss how "difficult" their last (one hopes) job was. When you're alone, a long way from home, in a place not particularly inspirational, well the only thing to compare it to, I suppose, is soldiering, when the shooting's turned down and the air around you is still. People play cards. They read. They knit. A good story-teller is always popular too, in a war or on a movie set.
It was hot that day in Mexico City. Hotter than usual, because we were behind schedule and there were technical problems. The old brick sound stage was not well-insulated, the set had a lot of incandescent light on it, and the air conditioning was over-taxed. You could cook tamales in that place, the way the Aztecs did. Slowly.
But Wilford was cool. If professional, punctual, sardonic, and witty beyond words were not equally strong candidates, cool would be Wilford Brimley's middle name. And if you could manage to get him talking in the first place, he could bust your gut as sure as—I'm sure—he could rope, tie, and brand a steer that's been crossed with the Devil's own. But his humor's subtle, man, subtle.
So the old cowboy and his slick black young sidekick, J. A. Preston, who plays MacCleary, the dapper recruiter of hapless Remo Williams in the film version of the cult series of crime novels known as The Destroyer, are sitting backstage in that curious half-light that exists on the other side of Hollywood. It's probably their fifth or sixth twelve-hour work day together, I don't know, but I suspect they've gotten to know each other pretty well by now. They've probably pretty much exhausted each other's back pages, and besides, we've just finished lunch and that dreamy, well-stuffed mid-afternoon feeling has come over us all.
It's quiet, but for the slow hammering going on, over there, in the light on the other side of that false wall, like somebody's nailing a coffin together. I'm wishing I had a camera, cause it's yet another beautiful shot of actors, off-stage, in repose, at work but not at work. What a coffee table book that'd make I'm thinking.
Wilford's tipped back in his chair, chin resting on his chest, just starting to nod off. J.A.'s all nervous energy. A much younger man, just getting going in his career. A nice part in a movie after a continuing role on Hill Street Blues. Foreign city. Nice per diem. What's not to like? He's looking at me, smiling, and tapping his foot. Discretion is the better part of job security on a movie set. I know better than to mess with the director's actors when they could be going to work any second, so I smile back, saying nothing. I'm a little sleepy too.
They're shooting the scene where Preston, best-dressed black man on the streets of Soho, is bringing Remo to meet Wilford for the first time. It's the recruitment scene where—if Remo refuses the gig—Wilford will have him killed, by this self-same dangerous-beneath-the-tweed Afro-American assistant. National security and all.
J.A. throws the slightest little bit of syncopated hand-jive into the beat he's got going with his foot. He's sitting on an apple-box, a ubiquitous piece of movie gear, wooden, that resonates beautifully, like a drum. In fact, it resembles most the cajon, the box-like drum flamenco percussionists use.
Wilford's eyebrows rise surreptitiously. He's like a plainsman who senses game nearby but wants a few more seconds to collect himself. Cause he's cool.
J.A.'s getting into it now: bam badda bam badda bam badda bam.
But Wilford wants a little more shut-eye, dontcha know: boomp chakka boomp chakka boomp chakkity boomp.
Wilford lazily rocks his chair back down on all four legs, bomp diddly bomp diddly bomp diddly diddly, slowly opens his sleepy-like-an-eagle's eyes cong gogo cong gogo con go go and looking over his glasses and under those bushy old eyebrows at his new black friend he says, deadpan as only Wilford Brimley can be:
"Ah know what chur sayin'."
J.A. and I bust a gut. I love ole Wilford.
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
We Were Soldiers