Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I Was A Teenage Production Assistant: In the Best of Families: Marriage, Pride, and Madness!

Production Assistant Day Work Volume 3!

This CBS miniseries started shooting in 1993, but I didn't get hired for the main unit shoot. I did hear that a 2nd unit was gearing up so I threw a resume in and got hired for a fast two day shoot - a Saturday and Sunday - fairly unusual. They were also paying horribly - basically a tiny bit more than the standard day rate at the time - but for both days. Flat, no overtime.

But you know what? It was a paying job, so I took it. Saturday we geared up for a downtown shoot. This was a true story about a crazy guy pretending to be first a medical student then later a doctor who mesmerizes his own cousin into leaving her husband for him. They commit some crimes and it has a very sad ending. Apparently the main unit had missed some shots, or there was a sequence that needed more punch - so we geared up to shoot a scene where the crazy guy - played by Harry
Hamlin - but photo doubled for these wide shots - got out of his armored truck and shot up downtown Greensboro NC in the 80's with an Uzi.

So we had the armored truck, the double - a guy named Vince - and about a dozen extras. We shot him pulling his truck into an intersection, stopping, then getting out and spraying his Uzi. After we had that we turned around to film the damage he did - first to a truck carrying 5 gallon jugs of water - then some store front property with the extras.
Kelly McGillis, Harry Hamlin, and Keith Carradine
It was very cool shooting with the blanks for the gunfire and then the various effects used to simulate his bullets hitting stuff. The water truck was loaded with squibs - little explosives that can be set off in sequence to fake the trail of bullets going across something - wild, and very cool. This was a long time setting up - but it went off without a hitch and looked amazing - the water jugs bursting and the water spraying everywhere.

Somewhere in there I did a spectacular stunt myself - I took off running to make something happen - and managed to trip over a wire holding a tent down - it sent me flying through the air and I landed stretched out on the cement sidewalk. It hurt like hell but I played it off and kept moving - a long soak later that night helped.

With the various effects this shoot took all day Saturday. The craziest moment came when there started to be a very light misting rain – not perceptible on film – but prompting the motorists driving in downtown Wilmington NC to turn on their headlights – which is a law here. The setup was a shot looking down Third Street – we were at the corner of Third and Red Cross, should you want to come and see the location. The movie was a period piece set during the time of the actual events in the 1980’s, so you would think there would be a problem seeing all of those 1990’s cars down Third – but there was a shallow depth of focus to the shot – so we had 1980’s picture cars all around us close – then everything further away was soft focus enough not to register as being the wrong time period. But those headlights were a problem.

Now – we were holding traffic intermittently, and detouring the traffic around our intersection so we could leave our picture cars and bad guy truck and water truck all in place. When we actually shot we would hold the traffic all around so the sound would be better. So they want the headlights off down the street the way we’re looking. I was told to head down there and “act like a homeless guy” talking to the drivers as I clean their windshields – but really work to get as many as possible to shut their headlights off. So, armed with a bucket of water and squeegee – off I go. Again, the traffic is being held – but I’m still walking on an open street among cars that are going to be released to move in a couple of minutes. It was a little scary being out there – but I had some success – I’d say I got 70-80% of the drivers to turn off the headlights.

We wrapped up as the sun started to go down – a fun (if low paying) day of work.

McGillis and Carradine in a prop family photo

Sunday we geared up again – this time shooting some light vehicular stunts as a warrant comes down for our bad guy’s arrest, prompting the authorities who have been shadowing him to swoop down on him for the arrest – but his armored truck proves to be too much for their midsize government issue sedans and he smashes his way out of their impromptu two car roadblock and makes his escape. As all stunt sequences do – this took a lot of setup – all morning in fact – and we finally got ready to shoot in the early afternoon. During one of the rehearsals we’d suffered a mishap – and the armored truck – meant to squall to a stop thisclose to the roadblock – accidentally hit one of the cars – doing a lot of damage to the right front (passenger) quarter panel. We did not have a replacement car – which we usually didn’t on most of the shows I worked on – and it was Sunday – so any ideas of a quick repair were pipe dreams. So, they reworked the planned shots to hide the damaged section of the car from camera – at least until after the impact on film.

It worked – but the 2nd unit director was not thrilled as it limited what angles he could use. After we’d shot the stunt stuff we moved around to a few different locations and shot some establishing shots of building exteriors with a few 80’s era cars to park outside. Nother earth shattering and the money was not great but it was a pretty good shoot and it got me better networked with one of the assistant directors in town – who might hire me for a future show.

Sorry for the lack of pictures in this post - I didn't take any and there just aren't a lot out there to grab.

Next up for this department – a TV movie reviving a beloved TV series and starring (among others) a bona fide Academy Award winner…

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


  1. Craig, that is so exciting! I love your personal stories, makes it feel like I'm right there with you. Yikes! You really hurt yourself when you fell, but shook it off! What a trooper! The show must go on, right? Did you get to meet Keith Caradine? I'm a huge fan of the Caradine brothers. I told you I always learn something new in your posts: Squibs! I see that all the time in movies and had no idea what it was and how long it takes to set up.

    1. I didn't really mention the other effects used - chalk hit and spark hits - which were little plastic balls filled with chalk and chemicals, respectively. Launched by an effects guy with a slingshot and a good eye - these little balls land near people with force - producing either a puff of chalk dust or a little flash of sparks on impact - looking like a bullet just hit near them, but with far less danger of serious injury. I did get to very briefly meet Keith Carradine when I stopped by the first unit the day before our second unit shoot to get my call time for the next morning. Mr. Carradine was very congenial - and as a fan of all of that talented family - it was a thrill to get to tell him so!

  2. A bit of a shame they didn't pay a few extra for making you work on a weekend but least the stunt works you saw (and apparently some YOU engaged i, hehe) was worth the memory!

    1. It's true - the money was terrible, but the work was still fun!

  3. Excellent stuff, Craig - sounds like a complicated enough shoot for a short schedule - but a fun one, nonetheless. Pretty funny story about pretending to be a homeless guy, though - the things you gotta do for the love of the art!

    1. Yeah - and nowhere near being in focus back there - but it made the 2nd unit director happy!