CONFERENCE WITH THE BOSS
“You’d better sit down for this” she told me. I was stunned by by Chris' sudden seriousness of tone, and there was a brief pause on my part before I obediently sunk into the office chair.
“Now, you know that as part of my job I’m many times trusted with privileged film production information, right?” (Oh shit -- what have I done now?)
“Yes”, I timidly replied.
I started mentally rummaging through my more 'work-sensitive' actions of the past few weeks. Had I inadvertently talked about an upcoming shoot which was supposed to be kept under wraps?
(I quickly thought back over things I'd recently shared -- God knows there had been plenty of opportunities to let the wrong words slip and at the time I taught filmmaking at the local community college, with my circle of friends consisted primarily of working film professionals and indies.)
Chris' stern tone suddenly lurched me back to reality . . .
“Well, to be honest, I’ve been keeping something from you. Partially because it wasn’t yet a sure thing and partially because of the size of the project. But now I have to tell you, because you’re on a need to know basis.”
I was now even more mystified and confused -- and even a bit intimidated. She continued . . .
“The upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic is going to possibly be filming much of the movie at Engel Stadium, the old jewel box baseball stadium downtown by the University of Tennessee."
Oh, that’s cool, I thought. Figuring the discussion was winding up, I started to get up.
“It stars Harrison Ford.“
(O.k., I think I'm sitting down again.)
Harrison Ford. It’s hard to imagine a time when the very mention of the actor wasn’t a household name. But there was a time . . .
FINDING MYSELF AT THE MOVIES
In the late 1970s I was enrolled at Hixson Junior High when the original Star Wars came out -- a film which we know now by hindsight forever changed the face and direction of cinema.
But at the time, what I most vividly remember was the sense of exaltation the film gave me afterwards -- the way I felt when I left the theater and strolled across the giant parking lot that night -- like I could jump up and touch the sky!
I promptly went to my homeroom English teacher, Miss Surratt the next morning and triumphantly told her, “I know what I want to be when I grow up!"
“What’s that?” she inquired.
“I want to work in the movies!”
(And then, somewhat more demurely, "Where do I begin?")
Being friends with the city’s Film Production Liaison does not guarantee one an automatic job in the film business. What it does guarantee, though, is a certain degree of access, and where there is access there is opportunity.
Like the film itself, though, all good things take time and many times sprout from the humblest of beginnings . . .
A MASSIVE CRAPSHOOT
Now for those not familiar, making feature motion pictures is an enormously risky venture -- an expensive gamble whose advertising budget alone many times matches or exceeds the amount of just the pure production budget.
The discount bins of retailers will testify to the many expensive ventures who never found their audience, ridiculous amounts of marketing money going down the drain just trying to convince potential viewers of a film's must-see status.
So it is understandable that there would be a bit of trepidation on the part of anyone being asked to invest in the production of a motion picture based merely on any (if any) possible future revenues. And it is even more unlikely that someone would invest in a film who had nothing to gain from it.
THE FIRST MIRACLE
Pates Hauling and Demolition is a small family-owned firm located on East 33rd Street, in one of several light industrial areas on the periphery of Chattanooga. Production Liaison Chris Holley was familiar with the company from when they had done the demolition of the old Narrow Bridge Restaurant in Heritage Park, immediately adjacent to where she works at the Heritage House Arts & Civic Center.
Chris called them immediately and apprised them of the situation. The makers of a feature film with the nondescript working title of “42,” were needing demolition services and Chris was hoping to negotiate some sort of discount for the filmmakers.
Pate informed Chris that they would have to think it over but would get back to her as soon as possible. But before she hung up the phone Chris stressed that, like all things Hollywood, time is of the essence.
The Jewel Box In the Rough
Engel Stadium is a vintage abandoned baseball stadium constructed in 1930 as the original home of the Chattanooga Lookouts. Besides being iconic of the Golden Age of Baseball, (an era roughly defined as being from the end of World War I to 1960), the stadium features one of the deepest center fields, at 477 feet, of any baseball stadium in the country.
“It’s the perfect stadium for the film, but it’s also our last and only option.” Chris could hear the tension in the connection, as Senior Location Scout Eric Hogue explained the direness of the situation during one very early morning call from L.A.
“You have to understand. We’ve looked everywhere for this stadium -- Canada, South America, Japan -- even Bahrain, Saudi Arabia. The problem is, stadiums like Engel just don’t exist anymore -- and the few that do are usually being utilized all-through baseball season, which is precisely when we have to shoot.”
For Chattanooga’s Engel Stadium, if it could be repaired in time, was not to be just a location, but the location, having been cast in the starring role of Ebbets Field -- legendary home of the Brooklyn Dodgers and a structure whose mythos and later demolition became emblematic in baseball lore of the sport’s subsequent loss of innocence.
A STRANGE PARALLEL HISTORY
Sadly, Engel in 2012 was far from ready for her close-up. The Lookouts had long since moved away to AT&T Field, having played their last game there in September of 1999. The stadium had now laid vacant for over ten years, and vagrants from a nearby hobo encampment had quickly availed themselves of the stadium's dry interior, vandalizing the walls and floors of the offices and concession areas in the process. Piles of leaves knee-high now filled the hallways, and the distinct smell of urine emanated from broken and abandoned restroom plumbing.
Besides the backlog of maintenance issues, in order to be used in the film the stadium had to be returned to its original 1930 appearance. This would entail the demolition of two concrete dugouts as well as an elaborate two-story wood-framed office building adjoining right field. Chris Holley definitely had her work cut out for her, it seemed.
And that is when the first miracle occurred.
After discussing it with her husband, Butch, Eva Pate called Chris Holley back.
“We have a couple of questions for you?” Eva then asked.
“Will people from the Chattanooga area be employed for the film? And will they later, when Engel plans to reopen the stadium?”
“That’s the plan . . .”, Chris replied.
“Then we’re willing to do the entire demolition for no charge,” Eva stated.
Chris was stunned. Even more so by the fact that the Pates asked nothing in return. But the impetus of Pate’s generosity finally got the ball rolling. With actual work being done, funds quickly flowed in from the visitor’s bureau as well as matching funds authorized by the city council.
And after a herculean effort by people at all levels of government and private business to hack through the red tape, demolition on the post-1930 portions of Engel Stadium finally began.
But as preproduction by this point was already well behind schedule, it began the only way it could -- rapidly -- and with a BANG!
At 6pm on the evening of Friday, March 9th, 2012, demolition equipment and extra-large construction waste bins started arriving on the infield of Engel Stadium. The Pates came from their dayside demolition gigs and worked another three hours until sundown, then worked additional nights & weekends for several weeks afterwards.
CATERING TO HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
And this, my friends, is where I come in, as Chris Holley informs me that I have been officially drafted (hey, it is a baseball movie, right?) into the impromptu volunteer “Catering Staff” for “42” . . .
Armed with fluorescent pink and orange spray cans, a trim man in his thirties with curly locks of brown shoulder-length hair is walking quickly and with purpose from one end of Engel’s infield to the other, spraying marking points for the demolition crew.
When he comes to the catering table later that afternoon, I remark to him, “So you’re the graffiti artist messing up our stadium!”
“Yep! That’s me!” as he laughs and helps himself to a quick bite before returning to work.
(I later make the first-timer mistake of looking the kind gentleman up on IMDB (gulp!), where I learn his name is Aaron Haye: “42”: Supervising Art Director.)
Working with Aaron is Richard Hoover, an accomplished production designer (PD, for short) of deceptively small stature. He possesses a kind face and goes quietly about measuring the fields with a set of extraordinarily long cloth measuring tapes. He then enters the data into a Mac laptop set casually along the baseline.
Everyone is very much attendant to the task at hand, yet very polite and professional, and the positive first impression served as my official hi-profile introduction to “the movie business.”
TESTING THE DUMMIES
My next call at Engel was to accompany Chris for another essential, though not necessarily very glamorous, step to launching the film proper: the camera test.
I knew from my film school days that the crew would want to shoot during the “golden hour," a period of approximately twenty minutes during which the sun is about to set (or has barely risen, as in our case), but has not yet reached its full brilliance. The effect on everything it illuminates at this point is to give it a “golden” hue, a very pleasing effect usually reserved for the more emotional moments in a film.
Chris and I arrive before dawn. After chatting over coffee with some of the local construction crew, we are at last given security clearance to enter the stadium. As our eye trails across the great expanse of empty seats, we notice in the distance rows and rows of extras sitting patiently in the left field stands, all watching the sun rise slowly over Missionary Ridge, seemingly transfixed.
Only we soon realize these aren’t true “extras,” but inflatable dummies, with their torsos, arms, and heads all dressed in 1940s period attire.
After getting past the initial uncanny valley factor, I approach one of the assistants placing and dressing the fake spectators. His name is Joe Biggins, and he informs me that he runs the company supplying the “extras”, known as The Inflatable Crowd Company. He tells me that the dummies are to be used during filming to fill-out the thousands of seats in the rearmost portions of the stadium.
I pick up a loose hat which the wind has blown loose and hand it to him, noticing Inside the brim a small tag reading:
THANK YOU FOR PARTICIPATING IN SEABISCUIT
“Yeah, Seabiscuit was our first major gig. It actually held the record for the number of inflatables in a single film - seven thousand.”
”That’s a lot of bicycle pumps”, I reply.
“Nah, electric. Much faster.”
I leave Joe to tend to his dummies and rejoin Chris in the cavernous interior of Engel.
Through the initial contacts Chris and I made on that first demolition day, people became used to us being discretely on-set and slowly connections were made.
After Aaron learned I taught a class, he quickly volunteered to come speak one night after work. And we also managed to get my entire “Art Direction for Film” class on the set as unpaid interns.
The Engel Art Director (there is usually one for each primary location), Sharon Davis, especially appreciates our assistance, and my students and I are invited back regularly to help out with various simple, but tedious tasks such as masking off chairs for painting and general clean-up.
The crowning moment of the semester's hands-on training, though, comes towards the end of preproduction when we all do an “all nighter” to change the color of Engel’s/Ebbets steel railings from black to orange. In cooperation with the regular set painting crew, we manage to repaint every railing in the place over the course of a 12-hour period. And I still have the orange dotted t-shirts and shoes to show for it! !
Amid the expected media fanfare, the official first day of shooting finally arrives on May 21st.
Wanting to be involved in any way possible, I have volunteered to be a promotional extra, working a full day from sun up to sundown. I'm not paid, but as I'm happy just to be on-set, I avail myself of the "baseball diet" provided by the catering department -- an assortment of hot dogs, sandwiches and snacks (no beer, unfortunately).
HURRY UP AND WAIT . . .
It is an interesting experience, however, as the day drags on, we spend the majority of our time sitting down in the stands. Then, every half hour or so small groups of extras (with code names like “Pina Colada” and “Mai Tai”) are moved from one section of the stadium to another, like a giant Tetris game.
The tedium is broken up by regular snack and restroom breaks, and as I explore the stadium's environs I am happy to see that several of my students have taken the next step and actually been hired by the casting department.
WHERE SHALL WE PUT THE CAMERA?
On any major film there are usually several individual units, with each being organized around its respective camera -- in this case a relatively new type of technology known by the brand name of "Red," with this particular model referred to as the Alexa -- basically a very hi-resolution video camera which is tied directly to a series of computer hard drives -- enormous hard-drives housed in a wheeled cart the size of a sofa which is kept in a special air-cooled white tent on the infield. From the tent thick black cables snake their way to the various cameras located in different corners of the field and in the stands.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE STANDS . . .
Besides my green and white plaid shirt and newsboy cap, I have thoughtfully accessorized my vintage costume with my dad’s binoculars. With my enhanced viewing capability, I am now able to discern four individual shooting units, all working simultaneously and in concert with each other.
The primary, or ‘A’ unit is responsible for filming all of the key actors and dramatic scenes and is where you are most likely find the director, in this case a gentleman by the name of Brian Helgeland -- a tall, lanky gentleman with red hair and a quiet manner. In fact, Mr. Helgeland keeps such a low profile that I am frequently asked by fellow extras,
“Which one’s the director?”
'B' IS FOR BASEBALL
By a strange twist of fate I find myself a member of the next unit, the ‘B’ unit, when a member of their ground support team was injured on the first day of shooting.
Location Manager Tom Smith quickly phoned Chris to see if she could recommend an immediate replacement.
“Can you do it?” she asked.
“What will I be doing?” was my reply.
“Pulling the big tarp that covers the field in case it rains. Can you do that?”
”Sure”, I said, as long as I don’t have to do it all by myself!”
"Oh, and doing something called ‘Port-a-Mat’. Do you know what that is?”
Port-a-mat (or Port-a-Floor, as the brand name is called) is a light gray or tan-colored plastic flooring material made up of hundreds of individual rectangular tiles (around 10 x 4 inches each) that can be interlocked like Lego blocks.
By doing so, you can create any size or shape of walkway or “pad” -- such as you might park a tent or piece of film equipment on. The pads are about an inch thick, and because they are made up of many smaller pieces, are able to be rolled and unrolled fairly easily.
Unfortunately, even in the smallest totable configuration, they weigh around fifty pounds. Moving these rolls would be the majority of what my job would be for the next five weeks.
. . . This as I became part of what came to be known on-set as the five-member “Shake ‘N’ Bake” Port-a-Mat Team!
MORE TO COME . . . !
* (AUTHOR'S NOTE: The acclaimed 1971 Robert Mulligan film, Summer of "42 (based on the memoirs of author Herman Raucher) was an early favorite of mine growing up. The film tells the story of a young boy's coming of age while vacationing off the coast of Cape Cod. Similarly, my years of film schooling suddenly came of age when I worked on my first feature film, '42': The Jackie Robinson Story, in the summer of 2012.)