For the past couple of days, I've been working on a commercial shoot. Rather I should say, for the past couple of nights, as our call times were anywhere from 3PM to 5PM with wraps at 1AM and 3AM, respectively. It's been a few years since I worked in the world of broadcast and I had forgotten how much I loved it. It didn't matter that as the Internet agency we were pretty much the bastard children waiting for scraps from the table of the traditional agency. The forward push of a large group of people making possible a dauntingly gargantuan feat is all inclusive, and makes one's heart swell with the companionship of collaboration.
The director was, no other descriptive word will suffice, a dick. Strutting about the set, his belly and lower lip thrust forward in perpetual Napoleonic defiance, he had nothing to say to anyone but the client and the traditional agency people. This was the fellow who was entrusted to tell the story the traditional agency had concepted and that the client had approved. The approved concept was about following one hapless guy who goes on a string of bad, badder, baddest dates. He, the hapless guy, had only tried the BAD online dating services. At the end, he tries the GOOD online dating servivce. And finds the love of his life who, incidentally, is the only one who looks like a supermodel. As a concept, it was pretty expected, but as written, the spot had nuance and subtle humor. I liked it.
Unfortunately, Dick had no comprehension of tints and shades. He was a veteran, his crew was fond of circulating, of beer commercials. We all know how sophisticated those are. As a result, if his actresses didn't repeat the lines he barked at them, in the same intonations he used, he brutalized them between takes. We watched as he psyched perfectly good actresses into wobbly, incapable wretches which he then further belittled, within earshot of the women, to the client.
At one point, during the last segment of the first night, he yelled, no, he sneered, "CUT IT!", then walked over to where the agency people sat watching monitors, and, in a perfectly pitched sotto voce that could have been heard out on the street, "I don't know what else to do with her. I suppose we could have the guy die of boredom." I was watching the monitor as he said that. The actress, Sherry, swallowed as bravely as she could, but her huge brown eyes said it all. She was wounded to the quick. I wanted to go over to her and tell her not to take that in; that this guy was a total dickhead and she was above all this. But I remembered my years as an actress. You believe it when they tell you how brilliant you are, too.
I also knew my place. We were the "Stills People", two words this jerk spat out as if he'd taken a bite out of a shit sandwich. Because this account was on shaky ground for our agency, we'd been told to mind our p's and q's. Dissing Dick was out of the question.
My art director, Danny, and I were standing to one side, taking our parts as the incredible shrinking man and woman very seriously, when, just before a take, Dick brushed roughly past us, and snapped over his shoulder to some poor lackey behind him, "You don't get to talk to me like that, Robert." It wasn't said with an exclamation point. There was no emotion attached to it. It was a fact. Robert, God bless him, was a peon, and apparently hadn't known it. Therefore, Dick had to point it out to him, and since he had an audience of about a hundred people, well, so much the better. We caught a glimpse of Robert as he walked by. His was the face of mortification.
The site where all this was taking place was an old apartment building near downtown L.A. It had definitely seen better days, but the whole area is enjoying a resurgence, and it was clear that this building was undergoing some dramatic surgery as well. The courtyard was sleek; the restaurant was elegant and the bar was a plush invitation to tie one on. Overlooking the bar was a dramatic balcony, which, for reasons unknown, was abandoned on the second night as they were doing the last scene of the shoot. Numb with exhaustion, I sank into a couch that afforded me a perfect view of all the activity below, and completely unnoticed. Finally. After two nights of stepping out the way, just in time, as a grip came crashing by with equipment, or tripping over cables or other people, I was finally a fly on the wall. Talk about heavenly.
Dick was no longer berating the current actress. He was now directing her by standing in front of her, with the monitor in front of him, not making eye contact with her, feeding her lines with absolutely no inflection whatsoever, doing the little "wrap it up, speed it up" hand motion as if he couldn't be more bored with her delivery. When he called the final cut, there was no exchange between himself and his actors. No hugs, no thank yous. He simply walked away, getting pats on the back from his cronies who clearly wanted another paycheck down the line. I watched the actress, who was still on the barstool where she'd been placed for the last hour, not sure of her next move. No one was coming up to her and telling her she'd done a good job. Nobody was talking to her. It was 2:30 in the morning. People just wanted to go home. That's when it was time for us to go to work.
Because Dick didn't want any "interference" with his actors, he didn't allow any over-the-shoulder still shots while he was shooting. Or even any shooting between takes. So that meant we always shot after the actors were done. Which meant after they were spent, or so degraded by Dick that getting something out of them required a Herculean effort. But this is where I think we were of service.
They'd allowed us to set up our still photography "studio" in the basement, which we'd affectionately, and not insignificantly, termed the dungeon. It was dark, it was dank, it was depressing. But we'd get these actresses down there and we would start by telling them what a great job we thought they did upstairs. It was heartrending to see their grateful, disbelieving expressions. Little by little, as the photographer took shot after shot, they started to come back from their recent employment as human punching bags. Danny was so kind and gracious, and I like to think that even though we were exhausted, we did our work with humor - we actually had the actresses laughing by the time they left us. The only one that kills me is the one with the big dark eyes that Dick had massacred on night one. Sherry. Instead of shooting her after he'd done his dirty work, we'd shot her before, and the poor thing had to go home with that sonofabitch's excrement all over her. And the irony was, I think she was probably the best actress of the lot.
Sometimes, life is so crazily unfair. But as I watched from my God-like perch in the balcony that night, even with Dick being a dick, I felt a parental affection for these people who are just trying to do what they do: tell a story. Maybe some of us lose sight of the original mission and, like the Dalai Lama says, get lost in fear. Maybe we strut and preen because we don't know what else to do. Maybe we're terrified someone might lift up the corner of the curtain and see that it's just a fat little kid behind it. Maybe we make other, more vulnerable people, feel terrible about themselves because we're desperately trying to distract any critical eyes from seeing that we are vulnerable too. Maybe that's what happened to Dick.
And so when I go to bed tonight, my circadian rhythms as mangled as those actresses' egos, I'll say a prayer. For the Sherrys of the world. And, God help me, for the Dicks, too.