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Sunday, July 6, 2008
Do NOT Look the Monkey in the Eyes
“Nature red in tooth and claw...”
From “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1849
A few years back, I worked on a sit-com whose writing staff emerged from The Room late one night clutching a script that featured a subplot involving a monkey. For one scene, the writers decided this monkey should crawl from the Designated Actor’s arms up to his shoulders, then atop his head, where it would finally escape to a conveniently located prop tree.
All in the greater service of Art, you understand.
What doubtless seemed like a stroke of comedic brilliance during that long, late night made a rather awkward transition to reality a week later. Before the first on-set rehearsal, the animal wrangler cautioned the Designated Actor against making eye contact with the hairy primate.
“Do not look the monkey in the eyes,” she warned, before taking the creature out of its cage.
Easier said than done. When a monkey is only 18 inches high, even a brief glance in the general direction of the beast can be interpreted by the simian brain as looking into its eyes. Sure enough, no sooner did the Designated Actor gingerly take the monkey into his arms than the little brute suddenly went ballistic – ape-shit, so to speak – baring a matched set of extremely sharp fangs while shrieking at the top of its lungs.
Work on the stage came to an abrupt halt, for this was a primal scream straight from the dark, pulsing heart of the jungle -- a heart-stopping howl of prehistoric rage that sent a jolt of pure adrenaline directly into the crew’s collective Reptilian Brain, that most ancient and unevolved enclave of the human mind.
The poor actor was terrified, his face inches from an apparently deranged wild animal capable of doing horrendous, career-ending damage in a matter of seconds. Before any of the stunned crew could react, the wrangler grabbed the hairy little beast and stuffed it back in the cage.
Had I been that actor, I might have walked off the set, straight to my car, and never come back. Fuck the goddamned monkey – tell those writers to come up with another, less lethal gimmick, and send that crazy ape back to the jungle from whence it came. But the Designated Actor was made of sterner stuff. Rather than fly into a self-indulgent panic, he simply waited for the monkey to calm down, and once the wrangler gave the okay, went about rehearsing the scene until man and monkey got it right. I gained a world of respect for this particular actor that day – who subsequently led the cheer for weeks thereafter, in what became the catch-phrase for the show: “Do NOT look the monkey in the eyes!”
In a way, this sums up the dilemma faced by all of us who work with actors, especially when a new one comes on set – you’re never quite sure what to say or do. The safe stance is to politely acknowledge the actor’s presence, then take your cues from them. Some walk on set like they own the place, and start cracking jokes to get everybody laughing, while others (not many, but enough that you dare assume nothing) remain quiet, nervous, and brittle out there in the glare of the lights, as if haunted by some horrible private pain that threatens to be unleashed by a careless smile – a monster that once loose, might carry them back to their own personal Hell.
Those ones, you avoid like the plague.
There’s at least one well-known actor currently working in sit-coms who refuses to allow anyone not directly involved with decision-making to watch rehearsals -- never mind that on shoot night, several hundred complete strangers will be watching his every move in front of four cameras all night long. Were he a truly gifted comedic actor, a case could be made that such mercurial talent must be indulged – but his talent is garden-variety (at best) in the spectrum of Hollywood. Still, being the show’s headliner gives him the power to make people jump -- and bully that he is, he enjoys using (and abusing) that power. When it’s time for rehearsals, the crew vanishes. They’ve learned the hard way not to look the monkey in the eyes.
To be fair, this sort of behavior is not limited to a few neurotic actors -- pop stars and other glitterati of modern media culture are often afflicted by the fear that non-paying, non-adulatory eyeballs might fall upon their visage, thus somehow soiling their tender psyches. Early in my career, I spent far too many long and miserable days (and nights...) working on music videos. One of those jobs (“Billie Jean”) called me in late, well after the rest of the crew, and thus I missed the warning not to look directly at The Gloved One. God only knows what his problem was (at the time, he still bore a resemblance to a normal human being), but during a slow point in one of the set-ups, I looked up from the lamp I was adjusting and found myself eyeball to eyeball with this strange boy/man, not ten feet away.
Suddenly everything got very weird.
It wasn’t that I wanted to look at him, but once our eyeballs met, his intense, piercing gaze locked on and simply would not release – he stared long and hard, violating every rule of non-verbal etiquette in the book. He didn’t nod, wink, smile, shrug his shoulders, make a face, or in any other way acknowledge my presence/existence: those eyes just bored right through me like X-rays, as if I wasn’t there. It got very creepy, very fast until I broke the spell and looked away.
King of Pop 1, juicer 0.
This may not sound like much, but the incident was way too weird for words. I stayed far away from Michael Jackson the rest of that day.
Many years later, the phone rang one brutally hot summer afternoon with a job to help light some promos for a certain television celebrity who has forged a gold-plated career by administering on-camera therapy to our nation of needy, troubled souls. I won’t identify him in this public space (yes Virginia, I do have to work in this town again), but unless you’ve been holed up in a cave with Osama Bin Laden for the last few years, you know his name -- and since I don’t want to end up on anybody’s Do-Not-Hire shit list, let’s just call him The Great Man.
The job entailed a full day pre-light followed by a one day shoot, which was plenty of time to get everything primed and ready to go. The Great Man did not grace us with His presence during the pre-light, instead sending his official stand-in for us to light. The stand-in turned out to be considerably shorter and wider than The Great Man, but this posed no serious problems -- that’s what apple boxes are for.
The pre-light began with the usual jaw-flapping cluster-fuck of hyper-caffeinated confusion, but order began to emerge from chaos once a few key decisions were made. We commenced hanging, powering, and adjusting the lamps with the help of some of The Great Man’s show crew, who knew the stage rig backwards and forwards. Things went well, and after lunch, the cameras arrived, ready to be assembled and mounted – one on a dolly, the other on a crane. We worked our full ten hours tweaking things while the camera operators rehearsed their moves.
Before we left, the show crew had some advice for those of us who hadn’t worked with The Great Man before: be ready, and don’t fuck up. Once Himself was seated in his enormous Falstaffean throne, any adjustments of the lighting were to be avoided at all costs.
I’d already heard a few stories. Friends who had worked with The Great Man told me of his legendary temper, a veritable tsunami of blind, going-postal rage triggered by the tiniest of perceived slights. The tales were legion: how he’d tried to get a security guard fired after the man had the temerity to politely ask The Great Man’s wife to move her car from a “no parking” zone right in front of the main stage door, that he once stopped the show to go on a half-hour spittle-flecked rant because a camera operator dared whisper a response to the director, and how he’d fired yet another crew member who inadvertently dropped a pair of pliers in The Great Man’s presence.
If it sounds like The Great Man could use some serious anger-management therapy of his own -- well, that’s not my department. As the day ended, the producer gathered us around to issue a final warning: “When he comes on stage tomorrow, don’t stare at him, don’t talk to him, and don’t ask him any questions, okay? If you have to go in there to do some work, don’t ignore him, but please don’t initiate any conversation.”
So here I was on a very different show, once again being told -- in essence – not to look the monkey in the eyes.
We arrived on set the next morning ready to go. After seeing how big The Great Man really was, the director of photography told us to stand by the two back lights, ready to adjust them once he sat down for the cameras. This is standard procedure – no pre-light gets everything perfect, and even if the lighting really was spot-on the day before, the D.P. invariably has some brilliant last-second idea requiring an adjustment or two.
The bad news was that those two back lights were twenty feet off the stage floor, hanging from pipes, with no way to reach them other than our single, noisy hydraulic man-lift. With yesterday’s warnings echoing through my head, we rolled the lift into position, whereupon I climbed in and hit the button taking me up. There I waited.
Warnings or not, we had a choice. The lighting crew is hired by the director of photography, and thus must follow his orders through hell or high water. Whatever else happens, happens, but the D.P. must be obeyed. So there I sat, gloves on, ready to work. When The Great Man finally sat down, I quickly adjusted the lamp, rolled to the second lamp and adjusted it, then descended and rolled the lift off stage. Mission accomplished in less than two minutes – no harm, no foul.
Or so I thought. After watching The Great Man speak his softly urgent platitudes to the twin cameras for twenty minutes, I wandered back to the craft service table, where the show crew was grazing. Taking a bite of a cookie, one of them cocked his head and raised one eyebrow.
“What’d you do to piss him off?” he asked.
I assumed he was joking, but the look on his face said otherwise.
“He’s pissed off?”
“So I hear,” he nodded, pointing to his walkie-talkie. “What the hell’d you do?”
“Nothing. We had to adjust the back lights, that’s all.”
“That must be it,” he nodded. “I hear he wants to bring a new crew in.”
“Fine,” I shrugged. “Let him fire us.”
I was dead serious. Since we were on a ten hour deal, we’d already made our money simply by showing up. If The Great Man wanted to pay another crew to come in, shoot the promos, then wrap all the equipment we’d rigged, so much the better – I was more than happy to take a full day’s pay for two minute’s work.
What happened? Nothing. We went about our business and finished the shoot by late afternoon without hearing another word about it. I’ll never know if The Great Man stifled his famously volcanic temper in the interest of getting the job done (and in the process, saving his company a nice chunk of change), or if the whole thing was just a silly prank on the part of the show boys.*
All I know for sure is that we waited through the rest of that long day wondering what the hell was going on -- and once The Great Man left the stage, we still had to take all those lights down.
And I never did look the monkey in the eyes.
* There are many below-the-line who hold the practical joke to be a sacred ritual.