Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I Was A Teenage Production Assistant - The Birds II: Land's End Part One!

The Birds II: Land’s End!

Thanks to my Mafia Marriage pal Stephanie I was supposed to have a couple days work on the second unit of the the Coen Brothers movie The Hudsucker Proxy in early 1993, which I later discovered would have been an amazing opportunity for me as the second unit was being directed by Sam Raimi. (!) But that fell through for whatever reason.

I did have a slight and tenuous connection to the show when a wheeler dealer pal was hired to supply some duct work that was going to be used on set as part of the set design – in the room where all the workers look alike and are working on the big adding machines – it’s the duct work on that set. My buddy subcontracted for a couple of pals and me to transport that duct work to the set, and then we were hired for another couple of days to work more with the set builders getting the duct work installed. I ducked out (pun intended) before that was all over – I was not fond of working with the sharp edges and general nastiness of that duct work. My pals continued on for another few days and were rewarded when a group came to tour the set-in-progress and they got to meet Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Campbell….and PAUL NEWMAN!!! I kicked myself all over the place for missing that one!

I also missed out on the chance to work on the set of a medium budget fantasy film that had a lot of buzz around it – though that preproduction buzz took a distant backseat to the buzz that surrounded the project when it came to an end – I’m talking about The Crow. I wish I had more to say about it - something pithy or profound. I don't, sadly. I didn't work on the show - either the original shoot or the sad reshoot to finish the movie after Brandon Lee's death. I knew people who worked on it and were friends with Lee - they were devastated by the accident that claimed his life; plus all the other weird accidents and mishaps around that show.

I continued making my way through the spring of 1993 keeping busy doing some work as a background extra (on projects like Linda – a USA World Premiere Movie! – remember when the announcer on USA used to bellow that? And I worked periodically as an extra on Matlock, which had come to Wilmington and to ABC from Los Angeles and NBC to continue delighting everyone’s grandparents.) My stints on Matlock probably warrant their own post - so I guess that might be next up for this department!

I was also working as the one man crew on local TV commercial shoots for my old buddy Chuck (see the IWATPA post for Amos-n-Andrew). With these dribs and drabs of cash coming in I stayed solvent across the spring and into the summer. Another movie came to town in May, and I put in a resume but never heard back for an interview in their preproduction phase. I was starting to feel fairly frustrated. I just didn’t have enough movie work on my resume to get hired – and because I wasn’t getting hired, my resume was staying inadequate. I hate vicious cycles like that!

The movie was The Birds II: Land’s End – a late-in-coming sequel to Hitchcock’s classic from 1963. The thirty year gap between the original movie and this production dwarfed the meager 22 years between Psycho and Psycho II – and could it be possible to turn out a movie that honored the original while continuing/retelling the story? (Spoiler alert - no.)

The family: Chelsea Field, Stephanie Milford,
Brad Johnson, and Megan Gallagher. Note the
large black bird behind them in this publicity shot.

Things started looking up on the Wednesday of their first week of shooting – I got a call. It turned out they were having some problems on set and needed one more warm body to help out. They booked me for Thursday and Friday to finish out the first week. After that they were going to marshal on without me. I didn’t care that it was only a couple of days – it was a couple of days! And a new entry for my resume!

The house exterior on location - where I started work on this cinematic epic.
That's Megan Gallagher, Stephanie Milford and Brad Johnson in the
foreground, looking in vain for any sign of Alfred Hitchcock.

So, on that Thursday I headed all the way down to the very end of Kure Beach, where route 421 ends (although a ferry there can take you over to Southport NC). Right in this area the production had built a house façade for the movie – and the crew was shooting exteriors around the house. (Not interiors – they were to be shot elsewhere later.) It was a fairly enclosed area to shoot in – pretty easily controlled. There were noise issues so I spent the day familiarizing myself with the cast and crew and locking up (keeping noise down and keeping people from wandering in to the shot in some cases)

Not mine - but it illustrates lock ups in a very funny fashion.

I had been hired by 2nd AD Phyllis G . The first AD was Michael Kelly – and while I won’t usually identify people by full name – in this case it will matter – as I’ll get to in a bit. Michael was a brusque but not unpleasant NY guy – and that description (with or without the NY part) fit a LOT of first ADs I worked for. Phyllis was also very NY – and a very nice lady. Basically, in those days before the internet Phyllis had the difficult job of working on and producing the call sheet each day – which lays out the next day’s call times and schedule. Of course, we know all about the call sheet now after the previous entry in this department, right? If not, you can always go HERE to check that post out.

On paper, the call sheet should be locked because the entire shooting schedule should have been worked out by the ADs in pre-production – but in reality things go awry and you don’t always complete a certain day’s work – meaning you then have to jockey the missing scenes into another day’s schedule. On the tougher shows you often don’t complete a day’s work and the schedule ahead is like the future in a Terminator sequel – unclear and unknown. That was already happening on The Birds II when I came aboard. So, what should have been happening was that the call sheet would be produced for the next day in the early part of the second half of the work day. After the first AD and the production manager signed off on it – the call sheet would be transported back to the production office where it would be replicated about 100 times. If there was a new location involved a map on how to get there would be stapled on. Then the whole stack would be brought back out to the set to await wrap - then it would be distributed to the crew so they would know when to show up the next day, where to show up the next day, and what scenes would be shooting.

The call sheet. I'm using one from Lost
again. If I run across a Birds II call sheet
one day I'll scan it and replace this one.

But the ADs, the producers, and the production manager kept making changes to the schedule – so with only an hour or so to go before wrap the call sheet would finally lock. At that point there was no time to get the call sheet back to the office (35-40 minutes); get it copied (10-20 minutes); and get it back out to set (35-40 minutes).

We had a room in the honeywagon – which is a long truck and trailer with crew bathrooms and lesser light actor dressing rooms – we used as a production office on set. There was a small copier in there, and they were trying to produce the call sheet there after it had locked.

The honeywagon. This is actually a model from the rental company used
most often on the productions I worked on. The front two doors behind
the cab are the crew men's room and the crew ladies' room. Behind that are
two slightly nicer actor rooms - one of these would often be used for school
for any children in the cast. The other might be the production office on set,
or designated for a middle rung actor. The second trailer is six standard actor
rooms - and we sometimes used one of those for an office on set if the nicer
rooms up front were being used for other things.

The problem was, these little mini copiers at the time were extremely touchy, and we were shooting in the heat of a NC summer night, with all the humidity that goes along with the heat. Consequently, the copier would turn out one or two sheets, then jam. Once the jam was clear it would work for another copy or three, then jam again. And this was a primitive machine where you would have to run one side of the two sided call sheet through, then flip that paper over and run it through again to get the second side printed. So you were really running 200 copies.

My nemesis. Well, one kind of like it, anyway.

When the call sheet locked my job was to get the copies made, with Phyliss’s help. I fought that machine like Beowulf going after Grendel Thursday night – and the innovation I brought to the table was to run the call sheet in sets of 20, then flip those 20 and get the second side done – so you were turning out completed copies every 40 instead of only after the first 100 single sides were done. Due to the copier issues I was still battling to get the last thirty or forty turned out at wrap – but at least there 60 or 70 copies ready to go for those leaving first. By the time the last of the wrap had occurred I had all 100 done and everybody got their call sheet.

One of the six standard rooms from the second trailer. Couch. Sink. Shelf. Fold up "desk." That's it.
An actor would change into wardrobe in here, and this would be a place to hang out off set when they
aren't needed at the moment but aren't wrapped for the day.
When we used a room like this for a production office it would be JAMMED with boxes, cases, printers, etc.

Friday was my second day of two and it was a copy of Thursday – we did a mix of day and night scenes; I helped out around set for the first half of the day; then I teamed up with Phyliss in the second half of the second half of the day to fight that stupid copier to turn out Monday’s call sheet. At the end of the day we had again turned out the call sheet in the nick of time. As we were putting the final touches on the day, I thanked Phyllis for hiring me for the two days.

A really crappy picture of me and Phyllis.
She's got a paper respirator mask around her neck,
probably due to smoke being used on set.

She then surprised me and told me I was hired for the rest of the show if I was available as I was “indispensible” to her and the AD staff in her opinion. I was chuffed at the compliment, and I happily accepted the additional three or four weeks of work.

It was also very cool to be working with my buddy Jeff Goodwin - makeup artist extraordinaire - again. We had worked on Super Mario Bros. the previous summer - and here we were again. This was a good show for Jeff, who was providing the beauty makeup for all the actors - plus all the blood and gore for the squishy stuff (except for the reshoots - like the opening scene - which is why those makeup effects are not as good.)

Jeff provided the pecked out eyes on the game warden the family finds washed up on the beach - the makeup was really nasty. The guy wearing it was Jack Riels - a very cool older gentleman known for his physique - which he worked on copiously. Jack was in his late 60's when we shot this movie - but appeared 15-20 years younger, plus he was physically fit enough to be thrown around in the surf "washing up on shore." It's a great icky moment in the movie. Interestingly - a continuity photo of Jack and his gouged out eye makeup was used three years later as a tabloid magazine cover in Stephen King's The Night Flier. The headline says "Gangsters Put Out My Eyes!" or some such. Not sure if you ever get a look at it in TNF, but it's still a neat in-joke.

Frame grabs of Jack Riels in action.

It was also during this movie that Jeff and I invented the movie trivia game that was later invented again by others as "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." In our version one person would name any two actors (either gender - remember I group them under the one name) and the other person would have to connect them by co-star. I will keep from expanding this long post by pushing the game's description to its own separate post one of these days. In any case, we played the stuffing out of the game in the long hours on set.

It felt great to have been kept on for the rest of the shoot, so after a nice celebratory weekend I returned to set Monday morning bright and early. We were still in the same location – the exterior of the family home.

The house out on location.

Which reminds me – we need to go over the storyline, I do believe. A family comes to the east coast island community of Gull Harbor and rents a home called Land’s End. The parents are trying to recover from the loss of their son, and their two daughters from the loss of their brother. They make friends with the local lighthouse keeper (Jan Rubes), and mom May (Chelsea Field) finds solace in the arms of the local newspaper editor (James Naughton). Then things take a turn for the Hitchcockian when the local bird population starts becoming very aggressive. After the family home is attacked Ted (Brad Johnson) and May realize the birds are a real danger. They cannot get the townspeople of Gull Harbor to believe them, including the cynical mayor (Dick Olsen) and the gruff local bartender (Muse Watson), and eventually the birds mount a massive attack on the town. (Sounds fairly familiar, right?)

Here is Megan, Kim Head Chapin, Elizabeth S, and Stephanie.
Kim was Chelsea Field's stand-in and also did some PA work.
Elizabeth and her brother Donnie were home schooled children
often hired around this time to stand in for child actors.
Kim is still a pal, and she actually supplied a lot of her
personal photos for this post - thanks, Kim!

Okay, so starting week two we were still at the end of Kure Beach shooting the exterior of the family home. We started the week with all day scenes, then moved on to a mix of day and night scenes. This was a fun piece of the shoot – while the actors did their thing in front of the camera – crew members tried to get gulls and other birds to linger in the back of the shots by flinging fistfuls of popcorn and bread – this would bring the birds in and they would hover and swoop in the background – adding a subtle menace by their constant presence.

Near the end of the time at this location we made a mini move over to shoot a beach sequence. In order to really sell the beach location, and because this stretch of beach was well set up to suggest an island setting – the director chose to shoot straight down the beach. However, there weren’t supposed to be any other people on the beach so we needed the entire stretch clear of people.

This is not The Birds II - but it is a nice shot showing the kind of beach shoot we were doing. I was actually
much further away from camera - like five times further - than this photographer is.

 After the first couple of takes were ruined by fishermen and beach goers coming on to the beach way in the background of the shot – they called for me and the locations people and stashed us out at the access points as far into the background as they could. Guess who ended up at the furthest point, like a half mile down the beach? And I was without hat or sunblock, standing in the open in the depths of the heat NC can generate in June.

It was miserable.

Sadly, it was also not feasible for me to come back in when that shot was completed – because there was a succession of shots to complete and some or all of them might look down the beach – so I had to stay on point in my lock up spot while they shot the entire scene. I was tethered to the set by my walkie talkie, and during a break in shooting after more than an hour one of the PA’s called me to channel two and asked me if I needed anything. “Water!” I croaked. Well, it took them another 15-20 minutes, but suddenly one of the teamster trucks rolled up beside me in my hiding spot and handed me one (!) admittedly cold 16 ounce bottle of water.

Then I had a dilemma. I desperately wanted to drain the bottle – so thirsty – but knew that would leave me thirsty again in a bare few minutes – and my buddy near set indicated they were probably only ½ or 2/3 through with the scene. So I nursed that bottle of water for about 20 minutes, sipping at it. I finally drained it around the 20 minute mark, and got thirsty again before they finally wrapped the scene and called me back to set. At lunch I was already showing signs of the incredible sunburn I had garnered after being out there in the open sun for more than two hours – and that night was a toasty sweaty thing with less sleep than I would have liked.

Now that we've quenched my thirst - briefly - I hope we've awakened your thirst - your thirst for more blathering about The Birds II: Land's End, that is! Because this is going to go on long enough that we need to break off and come back for a Part Two in a couple of days...

Do please come back...the Birds will be waiting...

Until next post, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. Oooh, do tell me more, Mr. Craig!

    1. Indeed I will - and it's looking like Thursday will be the day! Thanks for coming by Ms. G - you brighten up the place any time you appear!

  2. Your post sure brought back a lot of memories, especially about the heat issue that summer!!! I was an EMT back then too and helped Dione' out on that production when I wasn't standing in for Chelsea or doing PA work. I remember one day when we broke for lunch after Jack washed up on the beach and they filmed Brad walking out of the water we all ran and jumped in fully clothed to cool off. I always enjoyed working with you and everyone else back in the day and so glad we are still pals! I can't wait to read the rest when you post it!!!
    Love ya Craig!!!
    Kim (Head) Chapin

    1. I had forgotten that you were an EMT as well! Why did I suffer no accidents or illnesses! Dammit! Part two will post Thursday night - about 24 hours from this comment!

  3. Omg that was a fun read, can't wait for the second part.! Hope you give us some more information about Rick Rosenthal and Tippi Hedren.

    1. I will indeed give you my scoop on those two worthies - and thanks for the kind words!

  4. You know, I've never heard of this film, but I'll look for it Craig. With the heat and the malfunctioning printers it sounds like a miserable shoot working with great people.

    1. Missed this one, eh? It's hard to track down as there was only a VHS release that I know of - but it is on a certain video hosting site in its entirety...(I don't condone video piracy - but when the movie in question is almost impossible to find in a licensed release - you gotta do what you gotta do.)

      It certainly had some tough moments, but overall it was a fun shoot, actually.

  5. Very cool! I love all of your anecdotes. I remember watching this movie back when I was younger and living with my grandparents. My grandma had a thing about birds, those wings always creeped her out. :)

    1. Birds can be creepy, fo sho! Thanks for the kind words! Hope you enjoy part two - which is up right now!