“This is a location, not a vacation.”
Every department head in the history of Hollywood, upon taking his crew on location...
Most Industry veterans have done their share of distant locations. My own working travels have taken me to Washington state, Wyoming, Montana, Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi, Vermont, Acapulco, and Mexico City, among other far-flung locales. Many of my Industry friends have worked all over the world – Europe, Africa, and Asia. You get to see new things and learn a lot on location, which is half the reason to go in the first place. For instance, I learned that Austin, Texas is a lot more fun than El Paso, that the tab on a sinfully delicious heart-attack-on-a-plate breakfast for three at Brennan’s in New Orleans can run past $160.00 (and this was twenty years ago), and that there’s nothing quite like watching a rising sun turn the magnificently rugged and snowy peaks of the Grand Teton Mountains a gorgeous shade of pink as the cold Wyoming night gives way to dawn.
I also learned that no matter how careful you are (no non-bottled water, no ice in the drinks, no salad whatsoever), if you spend enough time and eat enough roadhouse food in Mexico, you will get the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge – and those first, gut-churning symptoms will sink their razor-sharp claws into your belly at the most inopportune time. In my case, it happened during the first thirty minutes of a three hour bus ride to a jungle location outside Mexico City.
Not a fun day, that.
Location work is mostly about suffering. All film work is, to a certain extent – the hours, the conditions, the pompous, power-crazed Id Monsters we so often end up working for – but the experience is invariably heightened by the simple fact that you’re on location. Like the old saw about hitting yourself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop, at the end of a location day, you feel great. You’ve endured, survived, and prevailed – and you did it working shoulder to shoulder with others who suffered right along with you in the trenches, far from the comforts of home. That shared pain and intensity of the experience may be intangible, but it means a lot.
Still, as the cautionary bleat goes: “It’s a location, not a vacation.” This warning -- usually intoned by the first Assistant Director in a futile effort to keep the crew from running wild on those first heady nights on location – seldom works. Those who listen, already know, while those who don’t (usually the younger ones), will soon be absorbing their own harsh lessons from the Joe Frasier School of Higher Education.
I’ve been on both sides of that equation. As a young grip/juicer, desert locations were my personal bete noir -- Death Valley in particular. Shooting in cities, mountains, and forests posed no problems for me: in those locations, I knew when to say when. But something about the harsh wasteland of the desert would spin my bearings every time, and I always seemed to end up in deep sand. Out there, I couldn’t resist drinking way too much the night before a long, miserably hot day in that most lethally inhospitable of environments. During our first night on a job in Furnace Creek (which, I was soon to learn, got that name for a reason), I drank enough red wine before, during, and after dinner that it later seemed an inspired idea to play a round of “Toad Golf” before turning in. There, on the hotel putting green under the luminous stardust of the desert night sky, the game went on until well after midnight.
You’ve never heard of “Toad Golf?” Neither has Tiger Woods, since I invented the game that very night. It’s simple enough: you find and/or place a toad on the putting green, then tap your foot very near the creature, which causes it to hop away. You keep doing this (never touching the toad, of course – rules are rules*), until the creature finally jumps into the hole. Just like the PGA, low score wins -- and since I was playing solo that night, 43 “strokes” took the trophy.
If this sounds moronic on a scale that would make Homer Simpson proud, all I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was young. I was drunk. I was on location.
And lo, did I pay for the intemperate nature of my sins. The sun rose at a truly ungodly hour, kicking off a rude and jarring death march straight into the Seventh Circle of Hell – the really hot one -- a day of brutal, head-pounding misery that stretched from the crack of dawn until well after dark. By then I’d sweated out most of the poisons, and in the process, learned a little something. Not enough, as it turned out: more such lessons were to follow, since despite my suffering, the lure of strong drink in such fiercely exotic desert locations proved stronger than my memories of pain. In time, those lessons sank in – although truth be told, I’m not certain whether I actually learned the fine art of self-control, or if those desert location jobs simply stopped coming.
All I know for sure is that I never played “Toad Golf” again.
Going on location is definitely no vacation. On features, location work generally means toiling six days a week, at least 12 hours/day, for two to four months. Slaving away at such a grueling pace is like trying to row a boat across the ocean, where that one day off each week looms in the distance like a precious island paradise in a vast, sweaty sea of work: a day to sleep in, do laundry (or have it done), catch up on the news and/or with people back home, and see the local sights to the extent possible. By the end of this lovely day off, you almost feel human again – but then suddenly it’s Monday morning, and time to crawl back in the boat. After a few weeks of this, The Movie pretty much becomes your life. Time distorts as each grinding day slowly bleeds into the next, and before you know it, another week has passed in a blur. Everything else fades away: the past, the future, and whatever might be going on in the world. There is only the here, the now, The Movie -- and the crew with whom you spend those 72 to 84 working hours each week.
Lest you think I exaggerate: I once worked as the set lighting Best Boy on a non-union, very low budget feature** filmed in rural Vermont, from October into December of 1987. Our deal memo called for the crew to receive overtime only after working a cumulative total of 96 hours a week. In trying to wring the very last drop from each and every dollar, the producers had budgeted for 16 hour work days – and the bad news was that we did indeed get overtime after some of those seemingly endless weeks. Towards the end, we were shooting night exteriors from late afternoon until dawn -- in the snow -- with a three man lighting crew. Working that job was like being in an eight week boxing match. It took months to recover.
But if we suffered up there in the snows of Vermont, we also had a great time. The actors were wonderful – the late, great, and always ebullient John Randolph, a young Lukas Hass, and the lovely Leah Thompson, who was a real sweetheart on that film. I think every guy on the crew had a crush on her for those two long, cold months. Our 45 minute drive to work every morning was a trip across the Appalachian Trail into Currier and Ives country -- a narrow two lane road winding through the snowy mountains, where smoke rose from the chimneys of little cottages in the distance. As we crested a ridge early one freezing morning, we saw a bare tree coated in pure ice, every delicate branch glowing like tropical coral in the golden rays of the morning sun. The drive home in the crew van was another story -- always in the dark, all of us bone-tired from the day’s work. But being on location means finding a way to make good things happen, and one of the crew (my fellow juicer) happened to have the full soundtrack of “Apocalypse Now” on cassette tape – all the dialog and music of the film – so we'd roll through the cold, dark Vermont night listening to the story unfold, mesmerized.
“Don’t get off the fucking boat...”
If this sounds crazy (and I was among the dubious naysayers the first time he pulled out that tape player), it turned out to be a great idea. The long drive back to hot showers and warm beds seemed a lot shorter under the spell of those tapes – and we were all sorry when the story finally came to an end. It was like going back to a time before television, when radio reigned as the modern miracle of the era.***
The days were long, hard, and very cold. We froze our asses off wherever we went – and then there were those awful nights in the snow -- but at one point, I got to spend two days in the warm caboose at the tail end of an old troop train, my only task being to keep a small generator running to power the lights in the cars up ahead. All day long, that train rolled through the snowy mountains and hills, along a flowing creek in the bright winter sun. For a California boy who’d never seen much snow at all, this was a unique and incredibly beautiful experience.
But if I had fun, it sure as hell wasn’t any vacation – it was a location.
* No toads were harmed during the course of this game.
** “The Wizard of Loneliness”
*** This was well before the days of Ipods and cell phones. I doubt such a wonderfully communal experience could even happen nowadays – the crew members would either sink into their own isolated world of earbuds and chosen music, or be yakking on their cell phones.