Every now and then I run across a book that reverberates from start to finish with the unflinchingly brutal honesty that can only come from one who has walked barefoot across the burning coals, and has the scars to prove it. J.R. Helton's Below the Line is that kind of book. Helton writes in a relaxed, unpretentious style that draws you into his life working as a “scenic” (set painter) on a succession of feature films and television dramas shot in and around the southeast during the late 80’s and early 90’s, beginning with the mini-series Lonesome Dove. In steadfastly refusing to glorify, glamorize, or gloss over the inherently messy business of making movies, Below the Line offers an insider’s perspective on what this work is really like: the inflated egos, the body and soul-crushing hours, the endless stupidity, waste, and petty personality conflicts that plague so many film projects.
Although Helton’s scalding wit spares no one (least of all himself), it’s particularly lethal at eviscerating the self-important little dictators who oversee and take credit for the hard work done by others. His descriptions of crude and inexcusably boorish behavior on the part of certain big-time movie stars — a stark contrast to their on-screen image — will make you cringe. Every film industry veteran has witnessed a few real jerks on film sets over the years, but none quite like these. If you think you know what people like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Don Johnson, and James Caan are like simply because of their fine acting performances on screen, think again. Helton will set you straight.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Below the Line might have ended up a tabloid style slash-and-burn, tell-all screed, and that it didn’t is a testimony to Helton’s allegiance to the truth as he experienced it. He draws appreciative portraits of the good people he met on these films: hard-working technicians in many crafts who do their best to get the job done under difficult, frustrating circumstances. Anyone who has worked in this business will find something of themselves in these pages — good, bad, and ugly — while those planning on entering the Industry will get an unvarnished look at the process as it really is.
(Photo: J.R. Helton with R. Crumb)
First released in 1996, followed by a second edition in 2000 blessed with wonderful cover art by R. Crumb — an illustration that perfectly encapsulates the ego and power dynamics that rule the film industry — Below the Line is anything but self-serving. Indeed, Helton walks through some very dark territory in this book, unwilling to sugar-coat any aspect of his bruising seven-year odyssey into, through, and out of the film business. If he walks a thin line between cynicism and bitterness, it’s not without good reason. Living a hand-to-mouth existence at the whim of Hollywood-sized egos more concerned with how they look in the mirror than in treating other people with respect is enough to drive anyone into the darkness. Fortunately, Helton has a connoisseur's appreciation for irony and absurdity: two legs of the triad that is the movie business.
Publishing this book slammed the door on Helton’s film career. Once you’ve named names and told stories like these in public, a Rubicon has been crossed, with no going back. That, and his gritty, below-decks perspective is what sets Helton's book apart from anything else you've read about the film and television industry. More importantly, Below the Line is a highly entertaining and informative book. Whether you're in the film industry, a Hollywood hopeful, or simply curious what it's really like to work behind the lights and cameras, you're in for a treat.
~ Michael Taylor
I was still telling everyone I was quitting it all, so much that they’d begun to say, leave already, when a real movie, a feature film called Flesh and Bone came to Texas, and I had to eat my words, yet again. Tom Dreeson was applying for the job as construction coordinator with the designer, a hot-shot, up and comer named Jon Hutman. Jon was around my age, thirty, and had just done Redford’s A River Runs Through It and was being sought after as a production designer. He’d gone to school with Jodie Foster at Yale and had designed her directorial debut, Little Man Tate. My old boss, Brian Stultz had been the lead scenic on A River Runs Through It and was, I found out, the lead on Flesh and Bone. Brian only did features now and this promised to be a good one. The producer was Mark Rosenberg, the u.p.m., (unit production manager), G. Mac Brown, and the director Steve Kloves, a young man in his early thirties.
Rosenberg had produced Kloves’ first directorial effort, the successful The Fabulous Baker Boys, which Kloves had also written. This was his first film since then and everyone had high hopes for a quality picture. The story was about a bad, thieving father, played by James Caan, who comes back to cause trouble in his now-grown son’s life. The son was played by the actor Dennis Quaid and his wife, the actress Meg Ryan, was his on-screen love interest. Quaid and Ryan’s characters have a few adventures and then there’s a downer ending. It would be filmed all over Central and West Texas.
I heard about the film through Tom Dreeson and immediately called Brian at his Wilmington, N.C. power center. He promised to hire me, possibly using me as his standby painter. Within a few weeks, Brian was in Austin and took me up to meet the famously talented Jon Hutman, a short, pudgy man who looked like a young Don Rickles with curly hair. Jon had an ebullient, loud, in-your-face demeanor with his underlings that turned into little boy cuteness with his superiors or equals. He also had a large, braying laugh and constantly yelled out what were supposed to be funny little sayings such as “Hell-low!” in the voice of Ed McMahon or, when he gave you something shitty to do, “See ya! Wouldn’t wanna be ya!” He was, at times, the worst of all men: someone who thinks he’s funny. He reminded me of his friend and mine: Brian Stultz. Hutman’s fiancée at the time, Sam Shaeffer, was also his set decorator. As a couple, they were cute and young and smart and they knew it; having fun and getting paid for it. Between them both, they would pull down thousands of dollars on the picture. Both were hardworking, talented professionals who took pride in their sets and deserved every penny. The movies were their lives. They had to be, if you were serious about it.
Brian Stultz told me he was basically Hutman’s main scenic artist and would do most of his pictures. Over drinks, that first night at the Austin Radisson, Brian also told me about the movies he’d been working on, talking about the stars and directors, using their first names, as though they were close friends who consulted him on their work. We got into films we admired and I mentioned the re-release of the director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
“Oh, well, you know,” Brian said, “Ridley was very upset about the way they treated that picture. Of course, he has his 1492 Columbus picture coming out, which, I predict, is going to be a huge hit. See, Ridley’s been wanting to do this picture for years. It’s funny, I was actually called to do that picture, but I had to turn him down because I was in New York. Let me tell you something about Ridley, he really blah, blah, blah, blah....”
I nodded and smiled and listened. Here I was with Brian again, at his beck and call, pretending to like him. Needing the money, I convinced myself we were buddies, or would have to be for the next four months — we were filming until Christmas.
The first sets we worked on were two large farmhouses up in Pflugerville, an old German farming community north of Austin. Hutman knew all of the scenic tricks in Brian’s repertoire, and pushed him to the limit. It was fun to watch the great, arrogant scenic artist, Brian Stultz, get pushed around, scurrying here and there to please Hutman with a variety of samples and finishes. For three weeks or so, I worked hard with Stultz and his talented scenic foreman, or second, Jim Onate. Jim was a friend of mine and I felt he was actually the secret behind Brian’s success. He and an ex-merchant marine from Britain, Peter Duran, usually did most of the work and ran the crews. Jim did double-duty, busting his ass painting, and running around apologizing to the carpenters, the set dressers, people from the crew, the assortment of people Brian offended on a regular basis with his rude behavior. Brian treated the local carpenters, Dreeson’s men, like they were ignorant peons who worked for him. When any complained, Stultz could run to his powerful friend, Hutman, and get them in trouble. Even Dreeson, nominally Brian’s boss, was afraid of him and catered to his demands. To give you an idea, Brian’s favorite response to anyone who disagreed with him was a blunt, “Bite me.”
After the three weeks of prep, I’d had it with him again and hoped he would choose me over another scenic to be the production or standby painter. It meant I would travel with the crew, on their hours, always on set, only answering to my designer, Hutman, the cameraman Tass, the first a.d., Kara, and the d.p., Philippe Rousselot, a tiny Frenchman who’d shot the film The Bear and who won an academy award for A River Runs Through It. Hutman had already introduced me to the intense Philippe and I liked him. But with Brian, my tormentor, I had to use complicated reverse psychology to get this plum. He’d said I was the standby painter until he saw I was looking forward to it and started threatening to keep me by his side throughout the show. The more he saw I wanted to leave, the more the other scenic had the job. I started pretending I didn’t want the job and that I really cared about Brian’s opinions on movies, music, and especially writing. All of this was pointless though, because Hutman had already decided he wanted me on set as his flunky. Brian waited until the very last day though to tell me I was the on-set painter and did so grudgingly. When I told Jim Onate the news, he shook his head sorrowfully and warned me about Hutman.
“He’s a nice guy and a good designer, but he cares so much, he’ll have you running hard for weeks.”
That was fine with me, I said, as long as I was away from Brian.
Shooting began up at the H. L. Weiss house in Pflugerville. We would be there for a week, shooting late into each night. As standby painter, I was on crew call, arriving for breakfast with everyone else and not leaving until the last shot of the night was finished. I was never to leave early or arrive late. I did arrive ten minutes late one of the first mornings. Though everyone was still eating breakfast, Hutman came running across the hay field on his stubby legs up to my truck, yelling at me to never, never, never come to the set late, going on and on until I cut him off, saying it would never happen again. I was working as a local in Austin though I lived two hours away from the city in the country. So broke I could rarely afford a hotel room, with the four hours of subsequent driving, I was putting in some eighteen-hour days that week. Needing the money, I said nothing but yessir.
The crew got to know each other that first week. I was introduced to Steve the director, a nice guy, Tass the cameraman, Kara the first a.d., known as the Dragon Lady, tough but nice, the prop department Trish, Chris, and Greg, three people devoting their lives to the movies. I made friends with some of the other people on the crew, an irreverent electrician named Scott Graves, a p.a. extraordinaire moving up the a.d. ladder quickly, named Derek, yet another Jordan, the second-second a.d. who had Rosenberg as his friend and patron, and the DGA trainee, Christine Tope.
Right off the bat, there was a mis-step with the first caterer. A guy named Mitch ran the catering crew and he seemed rather obsequious and short-tempered at the same time. I’d seen him fighting with his guys a few times, yelling at them. He got angry with me one day, the first day I met him, because I didn’t have any empty five-gallon buckets to give him. My standby paint kit was packed tightly into my truck and I only had a few buckets, none to spare. Mitch acted like I was holding out on him and stormed off when I said no. Long lines at breakfast even caused our producer, Mark Rosenberg, to jump up in the catering wagon one morning to help cook, not a good sign when your producer’s flipping pancakes and yelling at you to hurry.
The final straw was when Dennis Quaid didn’t like his chicken-fried steak one day at lunch. The stars’ approval of your food could be the final word on a caterer’s job. If they don’t like the food they’re going to be eating for three months, the caterer can be gone. With rumors already circulating viciously (from his own employees) that Mitch was partying all night on coke as well, he saw what was coming. Since he used to write not-so-funny sayings with a colored marker every morning on the posted menu, Mitch did so one last time at breakfast before his departure. As I got my breakfast taco, I saw he’d drawn several tombstones and written, “They died with their aprons on.” When anyone asked him about the sign, he said, “Rosenberg fired me. Read the memo.”
“Rosenberg’s not gonna like this,” I said to someone.
“Wait ‘til he sees the memo,” someone else said.
Just then, Mitch came sweating past me and handed me a typed memo. “We really want to stay on the show,” he said. “Tell Dennis to give us a chance, please,” he said and ran off, passing out paper.
I read the memo which was essentially an all-out, embarrassing plea for his job directed to Dennis Quaid. I read: “Please give us a chance, Dennis, please.”
“This guy’s dead,” I said to no one in particular. Fulfilling my prophecy, several feet away, I saw an a.d. handing Rosenberg the memo.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?!” Rosenberg screamed. “WHO WROTE THIS SHIT?!”
I quickly fled the caterer’s wagon, not wanting to see the carnage. Suffice it to say, a quaking Mitch at Rosenberg’s approach, was gone that second, banished from the show and, I heard later, fired from the catering company for which he worked.
(Photo: Cast and Crew of Flesh and Bone)
Of all the problems the first few weeks, it was poor Christine Tope, the DGA trainee, so far down the ladder, who would have to deal with the most troublesome, that is, specifically, the actor James Caan. The DGA trainee has the responsibility along with other p.a.s , of ferrying stars and extras from their trailers to the set, fetching them coffee and breakfast, while also doing paperwork, passing out the next day’s call sheets, calling out “Cut!” and “Rolling!” as it’s passed down from the director over walkie, making sure people are quiet during shooting, and a number of other things that come up.
Caan was trouble from the very start. Not coming out of his trailer was the least of it. It was when he came out that things started. One of the first days, he called the director Steve, probably the nicest, most regular director around, and definitely a talented individual, a “fucking neophyte” on set in front of the crew. Caan talked at the top of his lungs, complaining about everything, especially doing his job. I watched him walk up to the house past me one of those first days. Jordan, his headset on, walked up to Caan and introduced himself.
“Hello Jimmy, I’m Jordan. Nice to meet you.”
Caan kept walking, making Jordan backpedal, waving him off. “Hey Jordan-nice-to-meet-you, who the fuck are you?”
“I’m the second-second,” Jordan said defensively.
“Oh Christ,” Caan said, “another shit job. Where the fuck am I going, Christine?”
Caan was dressed up in his bad guy outfit, a black coat, hat, pants, and boots. His skin had been pulled back with tape to lose his wrinkles and heavy make-up applied. The scene he was in was supposed to have taken place twenty years before. Without the hat, he looked like an old woman at a beauty parlor, with it, hiding all the tape, he did look younger.
“Christine! I said where the fuck am I going?”
Christine had been running behind him, trying to hold on to all of her paperwork, while talking into her headset, explaining the delay diplomatically to the first a.d., Kara. “He’s coming in now — We’re just going in the house, Jimmy.”
“I don’t wanna go in the fuckin’ house,” Caan said.
Christine laughed nervously. “Now, Jimmy...”
He patted her shoulder roughly. “Just kiddin’ ya, kid. Let’s get this piece of shit over with. They better have the fuckin’ air conditioner on in there.”
(Photo: Dennis Quaid in Flesh and Bone)
They went into the house where you could still hear him yelling. It was like that every time the guy appeared. Everybody had to see and hear that Jimmy Caan was there, everybody, even me. Afraid of power like that, I stuck with Hutman and avoided eye contact with Caan. Jon had me busy anyway, painting and re-painting the two trucks, doubling as one, that Quaid would drive throughout the film in his role as a vending machine operator. One day, I was sitting on my butt, down in the dirt next to one of the trucks working, Hutman standing over me, guiding my every move, grabbing my brushes and jumping in himself, when suddenly, a loud, obnoxious Jimmy Caan was squatting next to me, in my face.
“HEY! HOW YA DOIN’?!”
“Fine, fine, thanks.” I kept painting.
“Great truck, ain’t it!?”
“Yes, it is. Great truck.”
I looked over Caan’s shoulder and saw the u.p.m., Mac Brown, watching us.
“You know something,” Caan said, “my brother Larry used to have a truck like this, but it was a ‘68. He had it all tricked out, took the seats out, and put in buckets and a 454 four-barrel. I helped him fix it all up and then he sold the motherfucker! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?! The stupid fuck probably sold it for a couple keys of cocaine! The whole truck went up his fuckin’ nose! Know what I mean!?”
I smiled and nodded my understanding and he stood up.
“Ahh fuck. Brothers, you know, what’re you gonna do?” He looked around and walked off towards his trailer.
Mac stood there shaking his head.
“Wow,” Hutman said, “what was that? His brother sold his truck for cocaine?”
“He doesn’t have a brother Larry. Whenever he tells you about his brother, I think he’s talking about himself,” Mac said and left us, chasing after his star.
At the end of that long first week, where everyone went into overtime and there were several third meals served, Mark Rosenberg bought five or six coolers of beer and wine and champagne. After the final shot that night, we all grabbed a drink and gathered around him. The producer was of medium height, had a large gut, thick curly black hair and a black beard. He drove around in a rented Ford Explorer, chomped on cigars all day and yelled loudly and often for his assistant Loring. I was scared of both him and the u.p.m. Mac, since I knew, once things settled down, I’d be standing around a lot and would have to avoid their budget-cutting eyes. Rosenberg raised a champagne glass once everyone was there. He said a few words about how talented Steve was, mentioned their good experience on the Baker Boys, thanked us all very much for working so hard that week and getting a jump on the picture, and promised a great show to come, all in all, a nice gesture.
Flesh and Bone though, in reality, turned out to be a hectic and even tragic picture. The actors James Caan and Meg Ryan caused trouble several times with only Quaid turning up every day with a professional demeanor, always doing his job without a lot of noise. Though I liked his work as an actor, to me, Quaid was just another guy from Bellaire High School in Houston. This view led me to make the error of speaking my mind one day at the caterer’s tables. The ‘92 presidential race was going on then and everyone was talking about it. Quaid was sitting across from me and going on about H. Ross Perot and how good he was, and how he would cut taxes and so on. A couple of wardrobe people flanked the actor, with one of them, Eva, agreeing with everything he said. Outspoken to a fault on my political opinions, I had to interject.
“Look,” I said, “I think anybody who supports Perot is making a big mistake. The guy’s a lying billionaire, completely removed from the reality of the majority of people who live and work in this country. He’s running against the government and yet it’s the lucrative government contracts he secured that made him a billionaire. A demagogue with his kind of wealth is extremely dangerous. We could be living in a totalitarian state before you can say Jack Robinson.” I went on to mention Perot’s long-ago promise to turn the education system around in Texas, one he’d seemed to have forgotten since it was still below average, and then I stopped talking.
The table grew very quiet. Eva looked at me as though she might stab me with her fork. I saw Quaid’s perplexed and irritated face and realized my mistake: I’d forgotten I was a nobody and had disagreed, vehemently mind you, with a star. What was funny was, he was rattled.
“Well then, who are you gonna vote for?” he asked me.
“Who else is there? Bill and Hillary Clinton.”
Quaid made a noise of disgust. “Shit. They’re not gonna do a goddamn thing but raise my taxes.” He stood up and left the table, his tray in hand, to eat somewhere else. Not having any money to have taxes raised on, I had nothing to say.
(Photo below: Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid in Flesh and Bone)
I met the actor’s wife, Meg Ryan, on the set not long after that. She was very pleasant and talked to me about their ranch in Montana and their new baby. She was so nice and talkative in fact, I had the brief delusion I could say “hi” to her when I bumped into her a few hours later at the craft service table. The bordering on lethal go-straight-to-hell look she gave me, brought me quickly back to reality. For the most part, no one got much of a chance to say hello to Ms. Ryan. The story was, there was a stalker after her, necessitating a bodyguard be by her side at all times. The first bodyguard only lasted half of the movie because he was too nice. At least that was the rumor, that she thought he was talking to people too much, not sticking close enough by her side, or looking mean enough. The guy she replaced him with was another nice guy who like the other guard, smiled often, but this time, would get a somber, mean look on his face whenever he escorted the actress from her trailer to the set. Though stalkers are a real and frightening threat I don’t mean to make light of, because the sets were mostly closed or in obscure, empty, easily watchable small towns, and the stalker was reportedly in another state being tracked by the police, many on the crew thought she may have been over-reacting a bit. The bodyguard was mostly looking at us and we weren’t going to stalk her, even though her arguments with Steve could drag the days longer.
While shooting in an abandoned house in Coupland, Texas, she held everything up before a big scene where she and the actress, Gwyneth Paltrow, were supposed to run through a virgin wheat field. I was standing next to Cecil, the Teamster captain, listening to the first a.d.’s frustrating conversation with a p.a. and the bodyguard over Cecil’s walkie. The p.a. had been trying to coax Ryan to the set but she wasn’t budging.
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing,” Cecil said and turned his walkie off. I turned my walkie to another channel and eavesdropped on the conversation.
“What’s the problem?” Kara asked. Any hold-up fell on her shoulders and she had to solve it quickly.
“I’ll let you talk to her bodyguard, Andy,” the p.a. said.
“This is Andy.”
“What’s the problem, Andy?”
“Meg has some concerns about the wheat field.”
“The wheat field?”
The field behind the house had been grown months before, especially for the film. The whole point was that it was this perfect, untrampled field and they would run majestically through it. It was surrounded by miles of empty farmland. Police were at every crossroads, halting very little traffic. The only people for miles were the crew.
“She would like me to check out the field,” Andy said.
“What do you mean?”
“To make sure that nobody’s hiding in it. She wants me to run through the wheat field ahead of her.”
“That might mess up the wheat and it could be difficult keeping you out of the shot, Andy.”
“She’s very concerned.”
“Will she at least come up here with you?” Kara asked, exasperated.
“I’ll try. It’s just she’s very concerned and I can agree with her.”
“Okay, okay, we’ll work it out if you can just come up here.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Eventually, she did come to the set and her bodyguard looked around the field before she ran through it with the other actress. Andy kept looking around the wheat, a gun in a pouch around his waist, looking and looking . . . Well, I don’t know what he was looking for out there, but I couldn’t blame Ms. Ryan for being worried about her fans. As everyone knows, the word does come from fanatic after all. Strangely, there was just something weird that happened to people when they were around celebrities that frankly, made them scary.
A prime example of crazy fandom occurred while we were shooting in a small, run-down home in a bad neighborhood outside of San Marcos, Texas. The house was supposed to be Ms. Ryan’s tacky home in the script. The real tacky people that lived there were a put-upon, brow-beaten woman and her insane-acting, hot-tempered unemployed, security guard husband, who, as I saw in his garage, liked to collect pornography and guns, an odd, but all-American hobby. There were many problems with this couple, the main one being they had no idea how much they were completely losing their home to the company. Though they were being put up in a hotel, they insisted on hanging around and trying to get near Dennis and Meg.
One horrible, hot, humid afternoon, the wife kept hovering around her back porch trying to get a look at Meg Ryan shooting a scene in her kitchen. Derek, the hardworking p.a. was having a hell of a time telling her, more politely, I noted, than I would have, to stay further away since they were rehearsing.
“I just wanna say hi to Meg,” the chain-smoking woman said.
“Please, ma’m, that’s not possible right now,” Derek said.
“I just wanna tell her something!”
“If you could please just lower your voice ...”
A call came over the walkie then from Kara that the woman was in Meg’s eyeline and had to be removed from the set. Though people were constantly in Meg Ryan’s eyeline (the actress seemed to have the eyes of a hawk) this woman was definitely in the way. When Derek told the woman she would have to get out of her own backyard, she started to cry. As Derek tried to move her delicately along, she threw down her cigarettes and pitched a sobbing, screaming fit, running away from her house. Even though the company was in her kitchen, she’d signed a contract and essentially lost her home.
Not long after this incident, Quaid was standing on the back porch of the house smoking a cigarette between scenes. He flicked his cigarette butt out into the yard and went back into the house, not noticing the irate owner, the former security guard, watching his every move. The skinny little man went berserk, shouting and yelling and screaming that he didn’t appreciate the way he and his wife were being treated. Ms. Ryan’s bodyguard held him back while several locations people tried to soothe him after calling the police.
(Photo left: Dennis Quaid & James Caan in Flesh and Bone)
“That son-of-a-bitch Dennis Quaid threw a fuckin’ cigarette butt out in my yard!” the man screamed. “Who does that bastard think he is?! He’s too much of a bigshot to say hello to me an’ my wife?! This is my house! This is my house! I’ll throw every one of you bastards out!”
The large bodyguard made sure he stayed between the house and the little man who was now pointing up at his chest.
“So help me God I guaren-fuckin’-tee ya, it’s gonna take a lot more than a gorilla like you to stay between me an’ Dennis if I see that bastard throw one more cigarette butt on the ground! Five of you bastards ain’t gonna be able to stop me! Motherfucker don’t respect my goddamn house...”
Locations finally calmed him down, one of them making a big production of putting a bucket on the porch for Quaid to throw his spent cigarette butts which, I also saw, Quaid now dutifully discard. The ridiculous thing was Quaid and Ryan had said hello to both of those people, the home owners, but somehow, it hadn’t been enough. They had to get some more of that celebrity, to which they were drawn like bugs to a light, hoping some would rub off.
Most of us working on a movie aren’t concerned with the actors. The worst thing they could normally do is make the day longer. The crew is usually busy doing their jobs, or hanging around the boring set, eating at the craft service table, and waiting to do their jobs. I had a walkie on me at all times which gave me the freedom to walk around or hang out at my truck where all my paint was and where an a.d. could call me if needed. Everyone near the camera rushes around urgently between shots, so, if you don’t have something specifically to do there, it’s best to stay away. When they did call me, it was usually for a shiny spot on something or an unwanted reflection. For almost every other project, I used a little tin of paste wax and some tint. In fact, Mac, the u.p.m., might have saved himself fifteen thousand dollars, my salary for the film, if he’d have bought a five-dollar can of paste wax and given it to props. Other times though, I used touch-up paint from the standby kit Jim Onate left me on each set, or pulled out a trusty can of streaks-n-tips, colored hair spray. No one seemed to know about the few little tricks I had, so I came out looking like I was worth something.
One night, there was a big scene with a fake staircase and Caan was to roll down it. The staircase was built horizontally and all the actor had to do was a couple of tumbles, three or four times, and that was it. Caan made a huge deal out of it as usual, acting as though he were rolling down a real, vertical staircase, and it took much longer than necessary. After a practice run, someone noticed the paint was chipping off the steps which were made of soft Styrofoam. As this was a close-up, the chips were obvious. An urgent call for J.R. Helton went out. I ran up there and found the first a.d., Kara, in a panic. I had one minute to touch up the steps. I said okay, nonchalantly.
“Listen to this guy,” Kara said.” You don’t understand, we’re running out of time. The paint has to be dry this instant. Right now.”
James Caan was standing there looking at me. “Yeah, I don’t want any paint on my fuckin’ shirt.”
I had two cans of streaks-n-tips, brown and gray on me. I sprayed the steps with brown and fogged the gray on as an age. Like most hair spray, it dried instantly. Kara kept touching the steps to see if they were dry.
“Don’t worry, Kara, it’s dry.”
“Wow,” she said. “J.R., I’ll never doubt you again. Now get out of the way — let’s go everybody, picture’s up!”
I stood by to touch the steps up periodically, with each take, and then went back to my truck and threw the spray cans inside. Another movie saved, I got inside my truck and went back to sleep.
Other days, my job was more ridiculous. I did a lot of work for props, glad to stay busy during the long days. One of Quaid’s character’s vending machines was a big glass and wooden box I had stained and aged surrounded by blinking lights. A colored chicken would stand inside the box and the sucker who put a quarter in played tic-tac-toe with the bird. The gag was the chicken had died and Quaid had to replace it. Therefore, we needed several, dead, colored chickens for each take. I was in charge of dyeing several of them to give the director a color choice. I remember sitting there on the ground, my hands turned purple from the dye, carefully blow-drying the feathers of a dead blue chicken when Dennis Quaid walked past me. He stopped to look at what I was doing. I started to say something and he just shook his head, muttered “Jesus,” and walked off. I didn’t know if it was a low point in his career or mine.
The real, live chickens that would be carried around the entire show in cages on Quaid’s vending machine truck were watched over by Karen Prince, a Teamster and animal wrangler. I saw a lot of Karen, she being the only person probably who sat around more than me. Her primary job, after dyeing the live chickens green, blue, and red, was to then watch them for the whole show, the chicken wrangler. I’d seen her be a duck wrangler on Gideon Oliver so it didn’t surprise me. I’d also seen goat wranglers, rat wranglers, and even bug wranglers. Karen was forced to do a stint as a fly wrangler on Flesh and Bone as well. A good person and animal lover, she caused our u.p.m., Mac, no end of aggravation with her humaneness. I remember watching him walk around in frustration when, before a scene that called for a bunch of flies, Karen wouldn’t just swat the flies or let anyone else do it or catch them. She had to capture them alive, not hurting them in any way. On two different locations, I watched her and felt sorry for her as she ran around with an empty jar trying to good-naturedly kidnap some flies while the expensive crew waited. Another evening, in another small town, Mac seemed to have had it with her since he said so.
“I’ve had it with Karen Prince,” he said to Jon Hutman who was standing next to me.
“What?” Hutman asked.
“We’ve got this horse,” Mac said, “standing out there in the field. Her job is to just get it to walk over to Dennis and Meg. No big deal. But no, she can’t do it. So, when I tell her she absolutely has to do it, she makes me and everybody else turn around, close our eyes, and either send the horse positive energy to make it come to us or I don’t know, shame it into coming to us.”
I looked over his shoulder and sure enough, Karen and several others had their backs turned on the immobile horse.
“That’s it,” Mac said. “I’m going over there and telling that horse I’m gonna turn him into dog food. That oughta get him going.”
He must have, for shortly afterwards, they got the shot off.
Jon Hutman was doing his damnedest to keep me as busy as possible. Try as he might though, I had a lot of slack time, which made him angry. When he first introduced me to Kara he told her, “You gotta watch him. He’s lazy.” I’d come through a few times a day now for Kara with only two or three minutes to do my paint job with the whole crew watching and waiting, enough to let her know she could count on me when she called. I’d done the same for Tass and Philippe (who forced me to paint a green, summer landscape on a white screen in four minutes for one background shot.) The triumvirate around the camera (Steve was busy with the actors) now knew of me and my abilities. Because I was in fact needed a few times a day, I became more a part of the shooting crew than the art department, which was really the way it should have been. This aggravated Jon, who knew from those first few weeks of prep with Brian that I was a painter who could get a lot done for him. Being a good designer, Hutman wanted to utilize my manual labor talents by yanking me off the set whenever he felt like it to go bust my ass on a set we were yet to shoot, rather than sitting on it like I was doing. Not wanting to leave my cush job, I ingratiated myself so much with Kara that she told Hutman he couldn’t take me away from the set anymore and he had to obey. I made sure to rub it in afterwards, playing large games of touch football with the electricians and sound guys whenever Hutman came by.
We had a good time playing football and Hutman could say nothing about it, especially when Quaid started throwing the ball with us. On one set, the actor played catch with Scott Graves and me and another electrician whenever he got a chance. In one small town Quaid seemed to be uncomfortable with the fact that he had to act and would run over to where we were and throw the ball between takes even. This brought Mac and Mark Rosenberg over, seeing their high-dollar boy playing catch. Quaid drilled a pass at Rosenberg that went through his hands and bounced hard off his chest, almost knocking the cigar from his mouth. Rosenberg gamely tried to throw it back to Quaid, who then threw it to Mac and all of the sudden, there were several people making several thousand dollars a minute throwing a football around, much like the NFL I guess. There was a weird period there where many people on the crew were playing sports any chance they got. Even the director, Steve, was taking the time to throw a baseball with one of the sound guys. Being on set was so monotonous, starting and stopping all day into the night, you’ll do anything to break it up.
I broke up most of the monotony by reading and writing and smoking dope, while Quaid did it by playing chess. Between every shot, throughout the show, the actor was sitting with his make-up guy, Leonard, playing chess all day long. It was, I thought, a good way to keep busy and avoid talking to people who always want to talk to an actor. I thought my fellow crew members were going a little far with the suck-up factor though, when some of them started watching his games and cheering him on, as if chess were a spectator sport and interesting (yes, I know it is.) Sometimes I think — no, I know — an actor could clip his toenails and people would watch, hell, they’d offer to help him.
One of the best things about working on a movie are the free phone lines. They weren’t free for Mac or Mark Rosenberg, but they were free for us. The nature of the shoot had us all over west Texas using a number of run-down motels as our sets. On every motel set, besides the interior room we were shooting, there were a few rooms that had been reserved with phones and t.v.’s. There was usually a production room for Marge, the second a.d., to do her call sheets in, and for Kara, Jordan, Derek and Christine to put all their gear and paperwork. This room was also used by Mac and Rosenberg to make phone calls, etc. The other rooms were used by the crew, wardrobe maybe, or special effects, to stock items or just get out of the cold that winter. Myself, I hid in these rooms often, watching cable t.v. and occasionally using the phone to call home. Because of the paranoid feeling that I could be fired any instant, I tried not to abuse the phone privilege too much. I’d had so many low-paying, shitty jobs in my life, I still didn’t have the movie-worker attitude that I deserved all this money I was making. Even when working hard, I always felt guilty thinking about all the old house painters I knew, fifty-nine-year old men making in a week what I made in a day.
One can get used to money quickly though, and others on the crew had no difficulty sitting on the phone for up to an hour between shots. I saw many people gabbing, but mainly it was make-up, hair, and wardrobe. One woman in particular, throughout the show was on the phone, when she wasn’t sitting down on the set. Building a new home in Mexico, she was on the phone often to the foreign country, haggling with Mexican contractors over plaster, plumbing, and tile. Another person, in charge of Quaid’s looks and losing to him at chess, Leonard was constantly on the phone. He had recently done an info-mercial with the one-named actress Cher, one of her first info-mercials I believe, and was making gobs of money on his products, using the company phone to call Thailand to check on shipments of thousands of jars of wonder make-up (just look at Cher.)
Primarily, most of us were in the rooms to get out of the cold. When we reached the small west Texas town of Big Lake for some night shooting, the winter, for Texas, had grown severe. The water sprinklers for a rain shot froze at one point forcing special effects, Randy Moore and company, of exploding, coke-filled duck fame, to turn several fire hoses gushing cold water into the air, falling like rain on Quaid as he ran back and forth in the scene from his truck to the hotel room, earning his money that night. I spent most of my time inside a bar/pool hall across the street Mark Rosenberg had rented from a local to hold crew and extras and allow catering a warm spot to set up for lunch and dinner.
(Photo below: Davis Mountains in far West Texas / Dan Hubig © 2020 )
The bar was a typical west Texas hangout full of rednecks, roughnecks, racists and deer hunters. Big Lake was an oil and deer hunting town. A large empty, dry lake bed could be seen on the way into town off the highway. A tall billboard posted at its edge poised the eternal question: “Who pulled the plug on Big Lake?” Being from the state, and having several relatives not unlike the bar’s occupants, I knew these people and their particular brand of meanness and wariness of outsiders. I watched them closely as they reacted to the movie crew filling their bar which had, among other charming items, a flashing message board running a constant repeating array of racist and homophobic jokes. Rush Limbaugh was constantly on the t.v. set, his pasty, elephantine face moving freakishly on the screen. I realized that these people saw me as one of the movie company, rather than as a Texan, when I ate lunch across from the local sheriff. The presidential election was going on and no one knew who would win. I mistakenly brought up politics and George Bush and the man grew angry at my opinions, especially when I let it slip that I was for the Brady Bill and gun control. He stopped eating and looked up at me as though I’d said I was for child molestation.
“Well,” he said, standing up to reveal the .45 on his hip, “around here, we like George Bush. An’ we sure as hell ain’t for gun control. Maybe in California it’s different.”
He left then. I knew what he said was true. Everyone in the bar was probably packing. Our own governor at the time had to go hunting, killing animals occasionally, just to get elected. My own sweet little mother had a .38 under her car seat down in Houston. I finished my food, and went up to the bar, ordered a coke, and watched the election results. Quaid came bustling in from time to time, using the production phone near the bar and leaving. A pinched-face woman, her husband, and another man, all local extras, watched the actor come and go. I listened to them.
“That was him right there,” the woman said.
“Yeah, I seen him,” her husband said. “Mr. Movie Star.”
“He really is a snob ain’t he?” the woman said. “See how he just completely ignores us.”
“What do you expect?” the other man said.
“His wife is as rude as hell,” the pinched-face woman said, adjusting her green, camouflage windbreaker. “I mean a B-I-T-C-H bitch. I tried to say something to her on the set an’ she ignored me. I just can’t stand those people. Did you see the way Dennis Quaid looked at us? Like we were nobodies.”
“That’s right,” her husband said. “An’ this is our town. We live here.”
“If they don’t like it,” the other man said, “they can just leave. We don’t need ‘em here.”
I began to feel sorry for the actors of Flesh and Bone, all actors really. These people with no lives out in TV Land watched them on the screen, believing them to be what they were paid to play, speaking words others had written. They thought they knew Dennis Quaid because they’d seen all of his movies. Quaid and other actors couldn’t win for losing. If they ignored people, they were snobs, if they stopped to chat, they could be inconvenienced and bothered for hours, days; sometimes they were even stalked and killed. The only avenue I could see was to avoid people at all costs.
The three locals began to speak of the abundance of deer that season on the highways. Between Ozona and Big Lake, I know one morning I counted forty-five live deer running across the road and grazing beside it. Several more, as dead carcasses, littered the highway, hit by trucks and cars. While driving there, I crept along in my truck at night, trying not to hit any. That wasn’t the Big Lake way. Attempting to make pleasant conversation, I brought up my driving difficulties.
“Oh, I know,” said the pinched-face woman. “I’ve seen so many this year.”
“It really is getting out of hand,” her husband said. “I’m afraid I’m gonna wreck another truck hittin’ one of them dumbass deer.”
“I tried one of them deer whistles,” the other man said. “You know, on my truck, but they don’t work for shit.”
The woman lit a cigarette and smiled at me. “You shoulda seen what happened to us yesterday.”
Her husband smiled. “Yeah, tell him that.”
“Well, I was drivin’...” she picked a piece of tobacco off her tongue, “an all the roads were frozen over —”
“We got some sleet the other night,” her husband added.
(Photo below: Dan Hubig © 2020)
“Yeah,” she said, “so the roads were real slick. So, this momma deer comes out, just a trottin’ over the road, pretty far ahead of me you know, so I wasn’t gonna hit her. Then, her little baby, this little fawn came out of the brush an’ she’s tryin’ t’ follow her momma, you know?” She smiled and chuckled. “So, she gets in about the middle of the road an’ starts t’ slippin’ an’ slidin’, she just can’t get up on those little tiny legs. An’ her momma’s still standin’ there on the side of the road like she’s sayin, ‘C’mon baby, let’s go.’ It was hilarious. She was about fifty yards away then, still strugglin’ an’ tryin’ to stand in the ice, so I just gunned it an’ BAM! — flattened her out all over the road.”
Her husband laughed. “You shoulda saw the look on that little fawn’s face. I mean she just knew we wasn’t gonna slow down.”
Not a fawn killer myself, the woman must have seen the look of horror on my face.
“See, you gotta understand,” she explained, “there’s so many deer out here they’re like pests.”
“Yeah, like rats or something,” her husband said.
I turned back to the t.v. "Nightline" was on and Ted Koppel and his hair were interviewing Ross Perot and his ears.
“Turn it up,” the woman said to the bartender. Then to me, “I love Perot.”
“We need a man like him up in Washington,” her husband said.
Our producer, Mark Rosenberg, came loudly through the door then, followed by Mac. Rosenberg, having rented the bar, essentially owned it for the night. He looked up at the t.v. and said loudly, for all the room to hear, “Oh shit, it’s H. Ross Perot. I hate that bastard. What’s with him, he can never make up his mind if he wants to run. He’s in, he’s out, he’s in, it’s like he’s fucking somebody.”
The three Big Lake residents at the bar looked at one another, then to Rosenberg, with disgust.
“That man uses the most foul mouth language,” the woman whispered to her husband.
“New York Jew,” he said quietly, as if that explained it all.
To their dismay, Rosenberg and Mac pulled up two bar stools and sat next to them at the bar. They began to watch the election results with the rest of us. As more came in and the projections predicted Clinton’s victory, Mark grew more gleeful, especially whenever George Bush’s face came on the screen.
“Ahh, Bush,” he said, “you stupid son-of-a-bitch. One term, you stupid bastard. Look at him. Bush is gonna cry. What a miserable fuck.”
I watched the sheriff and the many locals in the bar and wanted to tell Rosenberg to watch his back. The two producers began to talk about adoption then. I’d heard Rosenberg and his wife were trying to adopt, and his and Mac’s conversation grew into a heated argument when the subject of qualifications for a good parent came up. Mac started saying that gay or lesbian couples could never be good parents and Rosenberg disagreed. As for the locals, they just kept staring quietly at the jokes flashing across the light bar over the liquor bottles: These two lesbians...These two lesbians...These two lesbians...
“Look,” Mac said, “you can’t tell me that some guy in New York, some guy who goes out at night and sticks his dick in a hole in a public restroom and lets total strangers suck him off and then he sucks off a bunch of other guys' dicks, is going to go home and be a good parent.”
“People shouldn’t be having anonymous sex with AIDS, I grant you that,” Rosenberg said, “but the government can’t go around telling people where to stick their dicks. A homosexual is the same person as you or me and it’s none of yours or my fucking business where he puts his fucking dick either.”
The pinched-face woman’s face turned in on itself even further. She nervously plucked at her hair.
“I’m surprised at you,” Rosenberg said.
Mac shook his head. “I know homosexuals are great an’ all. I have friends that are gay, I mean, I live in New York. I’m just saying the best, most ideal situation is a normal father and mother.”
Rosenberg laughed. “I’m not gonna argue with that, nobody is. All I’m saying is, we don’t live in a normal world. Who’s to say what’s normal or not? I’m not, are you? Lots of normal mothers and fathers have produced serial killers and turned out to not be normal after all. If I should die tomorrow, God forbid, I would hope that a person, any person, no matter what color or sexual preference, but only a loving, intelligent person, should take care of my child. I’m just saying the government should relax some of the restrictions on adoption. Look at all the trouble we’ve had trying to adopt and I’d say we’re fairly successful dependable people.”
The argument went on and Mac made the mistake of bringing up the law, the legalities of adoption and sexual preference.
“Oh,” Rosenberg said happily, “you fucked up now. I got you by the short and curlies, Mac. I got you by the short and curlies ...”
He then proceeded to rip Mac’s argument apart, limb by limb. I listened intently to Rosenberg. Before that night, I thought he was a typical blowhard producer who yelled at people. I knew he scared me. Just that day, at the catering wagon, I made a joke about some questionable potato salad and he got right in my face.
“What? WHAT?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with it? Is there something wrong with the food here?”
I immediately said no, I just didn’t like potato salad and left it at that. I detected a hint of humor though in his rebuke. Listening to him speak amid all my fellow Texans, disturbing them deeply, going on about the right to be an individual, to be different, to be free in this country, all the ideas the United States were supposed to be founded on, I had to respect and admire him. I suddenly had this vision of him as the last real liberal and, to me, American, isolated out here in the West Texas desert, in the heart, or the spot where a heart might be, of conservative America. I got a call on my walkie — I actually had something urgent to do — and stood up to leave. Before I left, I felt I should lend my support, and stopping next to Rosenberg, I told him I was on his side. Mac frowned at me, but Rosenberg smiled, saying, “Well, thank you very much,” and went back to arguing with Mac, who sat there quietly, obviously losing the debate.
We traveled to Midland the next afternoon where we were staying to film some scenes in the nearby town of Stanton. The first day of shooting there, we gathered around the caterers having a late breakfast. Tom Katz was the new caterer and they had a well-deserved reputation for quality. Quaid had liked them so much on Great Balls of Fire he specifically asked for them after the other caterer was fired.
(Photo below: West Texas desert / Dan Hubig © 2020)
To me, their food tasted like a lot of movie-catered food but they had this great thing they did called service, filling your plate in quick buffet lines, filling your glass with tea, taking your tray, things you remembered. I was standing before their open catering wagon, through with my breakfast, talking for a moment with the busy Kara. I noticed Rosenberg was standing next to the coffee dispenser on the wagon, when he began to stumble and fall on some people, holding his throat as if he were choking. A man of great girth, no one could hold him up and he fell down on the ground, rolling and writhing on his back. The man seemed to be either choking or having a seizure. Kara called quickly for the on-set medic, Annie, and she wasn’t there. As it turned out, she was at the hospital, checking on Rosenberg’s assistant, Loring, who’d contracted a case of salmonella poisoning the night before. This was bad news for Rosenberg, who was writhing in pain. Mac and Steve Kloves were now kneeling over him, speaking calmly, reassuring him, “It’s gonna be okay, Mark,” Steve said. “It’s gonna be okay.”
An ambulance had been called and many of us stood around helplessly and quietly waiting. Several extras had wandered out of their holding area to watch the spectacle. Two blue-haired, bee-hived, polyester-clad women stood behind me, talking loudly, laughing and complaining.
“When the hell are we gonna start this show?” one said.
“I don’t know, but I’m ready to go home. Hollywood can make it without me,” the other said and pointed to Rosenberg. “What’s wrong with him? What’s he doin’?”
I looked back at them and then at Kara, who’d heard the same thing. She quickly ushered the two women and the other extras back inside the building, and went to Rosenberg’s side.
The ambulance finally arrived and I knew he was really in trouble. Two befuddled men jumped out and fumbled around with their equipment, seeming to be confused and not knowing what to do. When they finally got an oxygen tank and mask ready, it turned out the tank was empty. The set medic, Annie, showed up then, immediately saw the seriousness of the situation and took charge. They loaded the writhing and struggling Rosenberg into the ambulance and sped away.
Not fifteen minutes later, we were working. The first shot was a crane shot. Steve and Tass were up on the crane ready to go when, suddenly, they lowered the crane and everything stopped. I saw Steve’s shoulders slumping, people hugging each other and then someone walking past said, “Rosenberg’s dead. He died on the way to the hospital.”
“There was only like one doctor when they got him there and he was in surgery.”
The second a.d., Marge, walked past. “Mark Rosenberg just died,” she said. “Steve can’t go on today.”
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“We’re all going back to the hotel and we’ll figure it out from there.”
Back at the hotel, I walked in a side door and found myself passing the production office. Steve and Mac, both friends of Rosenberg, were standing in the hallway with tears in their eyes. Not knowing what I should say, or if I should say anything, I gave a somber nod and kept walking to the hotel bar. I met the electrician Scott Graves in there and we had several drinks. We went back up to my room and drank some codeine-laced cough syrup I had for a cold I’d contracted and smoked some dope. I was also taking a synthetic opiate called Lortab I’d procured from the medic for a sore throat, so I was feeling pretty comfortable. Scott and I talked about Rosenberg.
“So, what do you think will happen?” I asked him.
“Ah, we’ll take a day off and go back to work. We’re too far along in this picture to stop now. Everybody will say shit like ‘This is what Mark would have wanted’ and we’ll go back to work.”
“Only one day?”
“Hey, look at Mac’s position: thousands of dollars riding on every lost hour. What would you do?”
“I guess I’d get everybody back to work. Still though, one day ...”
“Fuck it, man. You didn’t know Rosenberg, neither did I. None of these people do probably, except Steve and Mac. I mean, I’m sorry Rosenberg’s dead, really, but how much time do you think they’d take off if one of us died? Me or you?”
“Exactly, dude. They’d say, get that dead painter out of here.”
That night, the caterers threw a special memorial dinner at the hotel in an upstairs dining room. The whole crew was packed in there. Quite a few of the women were crying their eyes out, telling Mark stories, and acting as if they had been childhood friends with the producer. This canonization of Rosenberg would amplify for the rest of the show until, at the end, Mark had many good friends. One real acquaintance of his, the second-second Jordan, whom Rosenberg had helped get on the film and had patronized for years, took the Rosenberg homage to a great extent, going as far as telling me one night, when we got stoned in his motel room, that this was Rosenberg’s old pot pipe we were using, that this was even his lighter, as though it were something holy. Jordan had always been a snobbish jerk, flaunting his powerful connection before Rosenberg’s death. After the passing of his benefactor, all of us, his cut-throat colleagues, began to wonder out loud how long he would last. Almost overnight, Jordan became much nicer, suddenly needing friends. I know he kept asking me for days afterwards to watch the videotape of the funeral. “I spoke,” he kept saying, “I spoke at the funeral.”
Before we all went to serve ourselves dinner, Mac stood up and said a few words, basically that the show would go on and that Mark would have wanted it that way, which was, I would think, completely true. “So, all of you,” Mac said, “let’s just eat dinner tonight and try to have a good time and think of Mark.”
Almost before he was finished, at least before there was a proper period of somberness, my friend Scott jumped to his feet to go eat. Everyone in the room, seventy people or so, stared at him. He looked at me.
“What? He said, ‘let’s eat.’ Right?”
With that, I stood up, as did everyone else, to get our food and eat it, amid the sound of sniffles and fond remembrances that could no longer be refuted by their subject. We went back to work the next day.
(Photo below: Marfa City Hall / Dan Hubig © 2020)
Before we left for Marfa, Texas, James Caan was shot out of the picture at the wheat field house in Coupland. The last gag involved a stunt double for him falling down a real, vertical flight of stairs. Caan would replace him at the bottom of the stairs on the floor. The stuntman, a wild-eyed person who couldn’t stop talking to all of the women on the set, had to fall down the stairs four times at Steve’s request. Each time, he got up a little slower, and with a little more money at five hundred dollars a tumble. And each time he fell through the balsa wood railing, breaking it into pieces, a carpenter and I were there to quickly put the staircase back together.
Caan, as usual, took forever that day. When he was finally through with his last shot, Kara called out loudly to everyone, all of us huddled in a downstairs room for warmth, “That’s it for Jimmy!”
The entire crew cheered, “Yeah!” letting him know how sad we were to see him go.
Caan was standing two feet away from me and waved us away with his hand. “Ahh, fuck all of you guys,” he muttered and then began to mumble a strange, garbled thank you to the crew. No one was listening and he gave up trying, his voice trailing off. I watched him and he seemed vaguely old and alone, at that moment. He left the set and was driven away by a Teamster, out of our lives.
Hutman made a point of telling Mac he needed me as a slave in Marfa, so I went with the crew out there for the last week of shooting. Most all of the crew stayed in Alpine, a small town centered around cattle ranching and a rodeo college called Sul Ross that sits on a hill in the center of town which Texans call a mountain. We made the thirty-minute drive to Marfa every day, while the other higher-ups stayed at the hotel in Marfa or in Fort Davis.
(Photo below: Hotel Paisano, Marfa,Texas)
The first day of shooting, it snowed thirteen inches the night before. Since the scene was supposed to be in the summer, it was a slight problem. The whole reason we’d all journeyed to Marfa was so Steve and Philippe could shoot the beautiful, stark, West Texas vistas, now covered in snow. Hutman and Mac were running everywhere trying to figure out how to clear the snow. Several of the locals standing around said not to worry, it would melt off, all of it, by the next day’s sun. Mac didn’t have time for waiting though. It was almost Christmas and he did not want to bring everyone back after a holiday break. An army of locals with makeshift flame-throwers were hired to melt snow while people like me and the set dresser Marcus Brown, grabbed a shovel. I became the stand-by shovel guy then and Mac began to direct my shoveling so we could clear background grass and roofs. With the interior shots as filler, we were able to work around the snow that day and soon, as the locals promised, it all melted.
That last week was the most enjoyable for me on the whole movie. There was very little for me to do, frustrating Hutman. I was no longer running up to him trying to find anything to do either. I hung out in the motel rooms watching t.v., eating sunflower seeds, and drinking hot apple cider and rum, being called to the set once a day. Kara called me over to the set for something one day and, after doing my little job, I stood around too long and noticed Kara staring at me.
“I want your job,” she said smiling.
“I don’t want your job,” I said back.
“J.R., I’m putting you in this next scene for that.”
I was sent over to wardrobe where Tania put a cowboy hat on my head and a vest on me. I walked by in the background behind Quaid, three times in the cold. Jordan had me fill out some paperwork and told me I would be paid seventy-five bucks for the ten minutes of work. Coupled with my salary, it was an easy money day.
At night, I hung out with Scott, Derek, and Christine, smoking dope and chasing the Marfa lights across people’s ranches. I saw the fabled, mysterious lights almost every morning and night. Some of them were probably headlights in the distance, but there were other phenomena I saw often and couldn’t explain, such as floating, darting lights, and a solitary flame lighting up, disappearing and reappearing quickly in several different locations on the horizon. Kara, who seemed as skeptical as me about things, told me one morning on a drive to the set in a Teamster van, what she had seen. It coincided with the flame-like light I’d seen so, in my opinion, there was something strange out there in the desert, and it wasn’t just our crew.
The shooting went fairly smoothly and quickly. Because we had to finish up, Mac arranged walking lunches for the last day which meant, grab some food and keep working. The last shots of Quaid and Meg Ryan saying good-bye, the sad ending, were done and that was it for the two actors. We gathered for a crew photo and Quaid asked for a moment of silence in memory of Mark Rosenberg. Then, as soon as the shutter had clicked on the camera, the two actors, our king and queen, hopped on a plane and got the hell out of there.
Later that evening, in lieu of a wrap party, we had a lobster dinner at the El Paisano Hotel. Before it was ready, several people were milling around the lobby near the production office bitching about a meal penalty; because of the walking lunch they wanted more money for the day. Mac overheard the grumblings and I watched him get pissed out on the street. “Goddammit,” he said, “I have bent over backwards to accommodate everyone on this picture and now they’re gonna bitch about a meal penalty? Fuck this shit!”
(Photo below: Lobby of Hotel Paisano, Marfa, Texas / Dan Hubig © 2020)
I couldn’t blame him a bit. He’d been generous to me, paying me well, renting my vehicle and tools, and I’d seen him transporting others’ motorcycles so they could ride around, putting up with complaints, the death of his producer, a foot of unwanted snow, the coming of Christmas, and now people were getting petty. I could tell he was tired of dealing with all of us on the picture. In one revealing moment the night before, one of the hairdressers, a demanding old woman who reminded me of a sea turtle, who always walked around with a tiny dog in her coat bitching about people sitting in her special chair, slipped and fell on the sidewalk outside of one of the hotel room sets. The woman really went tumbling and after helping her to her feet, I watched Mac throw back his head and laugh heartily at her fall all the way to his office.
I went back inside the hotel for the lobster dinner. After we ate, there were several heartfelt speeches about how wonderful Steve was. In fact, we all stood up and gave him a standing ovation when he walked into the room. As the dinner broke up, everyone walked around the tables hugging and saying some real and phony good-byes. Steve was stopped and thanked and congratulated by everyone as he toured the room. When he stopped near my table, I couldn’t think of anything congratulatory to say. I’d read the script and watched the scenes and yes, Steve was a nice guy, but I thought his movie was boring. Scott didn’t say anything either, except “Hi Steve.” That was all I could muster, too. Steve stood there for an awkward moment, a pleased smile on his face, and walked away to be lauded by others.
I stood up and went into a large den where comfortable couches surrounded an active fireplace. Warming myself in front of the fire, I noticed Jon Hutman sitting across from me on a couch, eating another lobster off the plate in his lap. If I was to say a sincere good-bye to anyone, it would be Jon. He was the man I’d spent the most time with, for whom I’d worked. He made a point of proving it that last day, on the very last shot, making me run to the set and paint something inconsequential, touching up a background sidewalk. When he got Steve’s non-caring approval of what I’d done, he turned to me and said, “Alright, J.R., that’s it for you on this movie. Get out of here.”
I stood across from Hutman and thought of how much he reminded me of Brian, except for having more intelligence. It was Hutman’s intellect that had impressed me more than anything, and I felt I should say something. Though he had been openly disdainful and patronizing of me at times, he had been complimentary as well, he and Sam even buying me dinner one night, and had kept me on for the entire picture.
“Well, Jon,” I began, “I guess we did it ...”
Hutman set down his plate, looked at me, and let out a long, loud fart. His way of saying good-bye, I suppose. Saying, or rather, emitting nothing else, he stood up and left, his empty plate still on the coffee table.
J.R. Helton © 2020
J.R. Helton retired from the life of a scenic below the line and now teaches writing at The University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the author of the memoir Man and Beast, the novels Drugs and The Jugheads, and Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions, Dispatches from the Working Class. He has published two books in French: Au Texas Tu Serais Deja Mort and Voyage au Bout de la Blanch, in addition to short stories and poetry in The Sun, The Missouri Review, and Mineshaft Magazine.
J.R. describes his upcoming novel, Sanctuary, as similar to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?” His narrative podcast "Man and Beast, a Love Story" is now available on iTunes, Google Play, and on his website at http://www.jrhelton.com/podcast
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