Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bourne Background, Act 2: The Stalker

[Note: Some names have been changed, just in case.]

Tuesday morning, 11th of October, 3:00am. Traversing the avenues alone in the dead hours of the morning makes you see the world differently. I often walk the streets during these hours but I'm usually headed home from a bar. Walking to work at this hour, stone cold sober, made the quiet streets seem more jarring.

One of the hazards of walking NYC during the dead hours are the Rat Streets. They're not always easy to spot from a distance. They're not necessarily marred by an inordinate stack of garbage bags, or cartoonish rows of gothic arches carved into the sides of buildings. But you start walking down a Rat Street during the dead hours and the rats come out to greet you. They seem to follow horror movie rules of engagement, perilously darting across your path when you're just a few strides away. When you're half-dead from exhaustion, it causes a startle.

No Sherwin today. No security friend to help me be antisocial during the downtimes of the shoot. Would Miss "Londin" be back? No idea. Returning for the second day of shooting background was less about "the experience" and more about earning just a little more of a pittance of a paycheck. My expectations were ground underfoot.

The bus was moving out toward College Point, Queens by about 3:16am. I plugged my earbuds in and listened to an episode of This American Life. Something soothing about This American Life episodes. They help calm my nerves during long, dark journeys. Riding the bus through the black of night, zoning out with my ipod, it felt like I was headed to the airport for a flight. In a movie sense, I was. I was heading to a pharmaceutical factory in Manila.

Day Two would not be as much of a trial as Day One, I promised myself.

Check-in for papers. Check-in for wardrobe. Londin appears and I break the news that Sherwin has bailed. She is the portrait of shock.

"I must really want to do this for a living because there was no doubt that I'd be back here today," she says. "After 26 years of doing what my parents wanted me to do, I'm finally doing something I'm passionate about. And I love it." She did. After one day, she was friendly with most of the production staff and half the extras. Her first gig and she was making it count.

Sherwin wasn't the only one who bailed for Day Two. I hear a number of production assistants quit because Day One was so disorganized. And the number of extras had noticeably thinned. This being my first big movie shoot, I had nothing to compare it to in terms of order... but the lines continued to be a blueprint for chaos.

Planted my flag at a corner table in the holding tent. Londin joined me, along with a guy I hadn't met before. Ahmed. A portly South Asian fellow with a blemish on the slope of his nose that was impossible to avoid staring at. Londin pulled me aside and told me that Ahmed had been stalking her since the shoot yesterday. I thought, "This is the price you pay for being so friendly with people..."

She told me that Ahmed had invited her to sit next to him on the courtesy bus back to Manhattan yesterday. When they arrived in the city, he went out of his way to walk her back toward Penn Station; went in for a hug and kissed her on the cheek to say goodbye.

At the start of Day Two, he was trailing her like a puppy. Making cursory acknowledgement of my presence as he tried to tend to her needs. He fetched a plate of food from the breakfast buffet and offered it to her. She declined. Reluctantly, he offered me some of the food he'd collected. I declined. I declared that I was not going to eat today. To avoid the indignities of the public bathrooms available at the shoot (made more cumbersome to use by the awkward smock/apron costumes they had us wearing). A lone 5-Hour Energy Drink would be my main source of fuel to get me through the next 12 hours. I'd never had a 5-Hour Energy Drink before and was hoping I'd get better mileage than the name suggested.

The focus of the conversation immediately shifted to me and how fucked up it was for me to avoid eating for the next 12 hours. For me, avoiding eating meant avoiding the long lunch line and avoiding any potential digestive issues that might result from the crappy buffet. I didn't feel particularly compelled to discuss my self-torture but the ensuing debate helped to distract Ahmed from fawning over Londin. For a little while, at least.

Earlier than Day One, we were back on the set, pretending to work. The whole reason for the super-early call-times was that we were shooting at the New York Times facility, where they print the newspapers, and the production had to be cleared out by 4:30pm every day.

They switched me to a different station on this day. The 5-Hour Energy Drink had me way too jittery for five hours before it dumped me in a ditch of despair. I'd gotten less sleep than the night before and I was just pacing about, trying to remain conscious.

Fortunately, Day Two was when the action began. This was a "BOURNE" movie, after all. (Called "The Bourne Legacy", "Bourne 4" on the paperwork, even though Matt Damon wasn't in this and the new star, Jeremy Renner, wasn't even playing the character of "Bourne".)

The scene: Jeremy Renner's character shoots some gunfire in the factory, busting a few pipes. The Filipino factory workers freak out and run toward the exit, offering Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz cover as they coolly exit the facility.

[Fake bullet holes]

Strangely, this required a modicum of acting. Everyone couldn't just start running as soon as the gun went off. They made us wait by the gunshots. 1st gunshot: What was that? 2nd gunshot: Oh shit, someone's firing a gun in here! 3rd gunshot: Do we leave our stations or do we run?! And so forth. They directed us in sections, to avoid a bottleneck. Women were to start running before men. Elderly extras were to shuffle forward as younger extras were allowed to sprint. Above all, they wanted us to be careful. We weren't stunt people, we weren't being paid as stunt people. While it might be more visceral to have people falling all over each other, the production didn't want to invite lawsuits.

Some of the extras were hamming it up. Over-indicating shock and fear as they jogged out, throwing their hands up in the air as if they were trying to remove an invisible cat from their heads. This meant more takes. More directing the extras.

At the breaks, I rejoined Londin and her extras-boyfriend Ahmed. She was NOT showing him signs of interest. Her body language and responses were clearly saying "No". And he kept failing to read any of it. For my part, I tried to make casual conversation with him. Tried to feign interest while I was exhausted, famished and decidedly uninterested in getting to know him better. Ahmed had been living exclusively off of background work like this for the past TWO YEARS. How anyone could suffer these hours and conditions for an extended period of time was beyond me. It's like living as cattle. Being herded about, talked down to, fed shitty food; existing as something less than human. I was fighting to make it through three days of this and Ahmed had been doing it for TWO YEARS, on some productions that had worse conditions. I was quietly judging his failure to read social cues but he was making a LIVING off of something he was passionate about. Which was more than I was currently accomplishing.

The day dragged on. My fatigue set in as I seriously questioned what I was doing with my life. Some people were doing this as a lark. Some people were doing it to advance their careers, network, maybe shift into production assistant work. I was doing it for the small amount of cash it would earn me. Slightly above minimum wage. With all the screenwriting projects I'd been working on this past year, the past TWO years... this is what I'd been reduced to. Unskilled work. A job I landed by emailing a cell phone picture to an office.

Londin stuck close by me as we negotiated the winding queues to check-in wardrobe and drop off our vouchers at the end of the day. Ahmed kept a watchful eye on us. Saved a spot in line and encouraged us to cut in front of him. We declined. Opting to wait for the very ends of the lines to come to us.

Ahmed was done at least 20 minutes before us... but he waited. He waited for Londin. But waiting for Londin meant waiting for me with her.

We boarded the last courtesy bus back to Manhattan. Ahmed stepped on ahead of us. I jumped into a free seat and Londin jammed in next to me.

"You know, he's going to kill us both now," I warned her. "He's probably got a hunting knife in his bag."

He was two seats behind us for the trip home. Sitting alone.

When the bus stopped, Londin and I leaped for the exit. We walked briskly down the sidewalks, continuing to joke about how he was probably right behind us. We were joking but we were also a little afraid. A few blocks away, I dared to steal a glance back:

Ahmed was nowhere in sight.

We both felt bad.

It had been a long day. And we only had a few hours before we had to be back for our last day. We'd do our best to smooth things over with Ahmed at the breakfast buffet.

[continue to ACT 3...]


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