Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Worst Thing I've Ever Done 04 - Life Is Empty And Meaningless

My own "I ate poo" face.
So, a quick recap.

First, all names have been changed to protect the . . . well, not the innocent. I changed the names, OK?

Second, the plot so far: I'd been commissioned by my buddy Lupo to make a skit show for the proto-YouTube start-up that he was working for. To that end, I'd written a script, and enlisted my old college buddies Lee and Morgan as actors, as well as a co-worker named Yoot, a man possessed of a formidable sense of humor, a love for the booze, and a total lack of experience as an actor. Lee's girlfriend Tiff, a University of Michigan film major, would be directing.

We partied the night before, and planned to shoot all weekend until we had it all in the can. The first skit up was "Commemorative Commemoration of Commemoration", a skit of rapidly escalating absurdity in the (we hoped) Mr Show-style, mocking the odd industry of kitschy commemorative souvenirs from kitschy pop culture and general direct mail-in TV advertising. We planned to shoot it in old age makeup, which made it the most technically challenging skit by far (hence its lead-off position on our shooting schedule).

Finally, we planned to shoot it on location at a retirement facility. Tiff's grandmother's retirement facility, to be exact. Tiff had secured permission and space from the head of the facility, and her grandmother was "really excited about it."

In retrospect, the problems really should have been obvious. You've probably seen it for yourself if you've been reading along.

Here it is.

I woke up early in the morning (10:00 AM was early in the years before parenthood -- everything is relative) to have my bald cap affixed and old age makeup put on. Lee had a degree in theatrical arts, which had included just enough theatrical cosmetics for him to get the job for this, our one "special effect" costume. I was going to be wearing big khakis hitched up under my armpits. My beard was the biggest problem; it had to be gray enough to pass for elderly. That took most of the gray that Lee had, and about 30 minutes, but when it was done, I had to admit that the effect was pretty striking. I was clearly a guy in makeup, but the illusion was there without much suspension of disbelief. Lee and Yoot were similarly successful, though the tufts of hair sticking out of holes in Yoot's fleshy skullcap looked more funny than realistic.

Who cares? I thought. It's supposed to be funny.

"Hey, are you drinking?" I asked Yoot.

"Yep," he said.

It seemed very obvious to all of us that we had to be old. Why did we have to be old? I don't think anybody really asked that question. The answer is, "because old people seem funny." Another is "because my grandfather collected coins, and so my skit's coin-collectors would be old like my grandfather."

I'll give myself this much: I was ambivalent about the idea. Tiff had said that she'd already swung a space with the director, but I still felt odd about going to a retirement community in this getup. We'd have to walk in before we got to our sequestered location, which just seemed kind of gross; a bunch of young kids aping old age in front of the elderly. I found myself wishing that we'd waited to get on location before putting on the septuagenarian motley. Out on the porch, I tried to appeal to Tiff to make a last-minute change.

"What about right here?" I asked Tiff. "We aren't shooting anything else on the porch."

Tiff was adamant. "We need to establish a sense of place. A place where old people would be."

"Yeah, but hey. You know where old guys sometimes sit? On a porch. It would be faster, too."

"We can't control the light in here; there are too many windows. We'll get flares and shadows, it'll take forever. Besides, they're expecting us."

"You're sure they know about what we're coming to do? They have a place for us?"

"Yes, totally. They're really excited to do it. My grandma would be really disappointed if we didn't come."

Not long after, Chad, one of Tiff's friends from film school, arrived, all suited up to play the part of the narrator/commemorative coin salesman. We were ready to go, so go is what we did.

"Are you drunk?" I asked Yoot.

"Yep." he said.

He is funny drunk, I thought. Hope this goes smoothly.

If ever there were famous last words, my friends, those were them. Not one part of it went smoothly. From the start it was a fail burrito the size of my head.

What went wrong, you ask? Let me tell you the things that went wrong.

The first thing to go wrong was the arrival. As we opened the doors and walked in, I knew that we had made, in the words of Gob Bluth, "a terrible mistake." The doors opened onto a spacious and sunny common room, which was (and this really was a predictable element) absolutely chock-full of old people. Old people who were clearly not expecting to see a cluster of young people striding in with cameras and lights and poles and props and . . . are some of them dressed up as OLD PEOPLE??? WHAT IS HAPPENING TO MY STRUCTURED AND ORDERLY DAY?

You ever have that feeling that you would like to disappear? I desperately gestured to Tiff to find the head of the facility to take us to the dedicated and sequestered area that I believed against reason had been set aside for us, so we could shoot without feeling like scum.

Grandmother arrived, a small, frail lady. Tiff went over on the other side of the room and spoke with her. Grandmother seemed very confused by what was happening.

The second thing that went wrong happened within a minute as it became apparent that a) the head of the facility had almost no idea what Tiff was planning to do, and b) no dedicated and sequestered area to shoot. I couldn't hear what she and Tiff were saying to each other, but from the gesticulating and body language, one thing was clear: we were leaving. This sounded like the best thing in the world to me.

The third thing that went wrong was that we weren't leaving. Tiff came back with a smile plastered on her face.

"It's OK," she said.

"Um . . . It didn't look OK."

"It's totally 100% fine. There was just a conflict that came up so we need to hurry. We have an hour to shoot."


"Sure, right over here." She pointed at a corner of the common room where a huddle of loveseats squatted next to windows just as large and sunny as the ones in the porch back at the house. The porch. I longed for that porch, so quiet and calm and completely empty of staring old people, as a thirsty man longs for water.

"Tiff, look," I hissed. "I want to be supportive, but I really think that this is a bad --"

"Cool," Yoot chirped, and copped a seat. He seemed oblivious to the crippling social awkwardness, the wrongness of this. All over the room, confused old people were shooting us glances and whispering. Lee took a look at his girlfriend, normally one of the most level-headed people he knew, who now had the sort of maniacal disciplined fanatical certitude of a cult leader or Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now, shrugged at me, and sat down.

The fourth thing that went wrong is that I sat down too. This is the part of the show where I should have walked. But I had agreed to support Tiff, and hey! -- maybe this was just how these sorts of things were done. I felt like I was floating to my loveseat. We were really going to do this. Tiff gave me a cane and I leaned on it and tried to relax. Grandmother was standing across the room, holding on to the back of a couch and watching us with what I hoped was pride.

OK, this one we're actually planning to read off cue cards,We'll shoot it fast and get the hell out of here.

This reasoning proved to be faulty.

Here's the fifth thing that went wrong: Everything else.

Yoot, who didn't know any better and actually didn't realize that he was doing it even while he was doing it, wouldn't stop looking at the camera during the take. The camera, meanwhile, would run out of batteries after about five minutes of shooting and have to be recharged for ten. We had to shoot twelve takes of one segment (recharging three times) and Tiff shouting at Yoot STOP LOOKING AT THE CAMERA! and I leaned on my cane and tried to pretend that I wasn't there and all the while grandma watched and the assorted elderly muttered. We were a hubbub. Our bald caps itched. Yoot's was beginning to tear. All I wanted, with a yearning that was almost physical, was for this to be done. I didn't even care anymore that it was quite obvious that the footage would be practically unusable. Even if by some miracle we could salvage the skit, it would be a very weak skit.

I made a character choice. I would be the old guy who was asleep the whole time. That way I could close my eyes and not see the elderly, their regular schedule disrupted, looking and murmuring and shaking their heads. Just sleep and then wake up to say your line and then . . .

The line. Oh God. That line. The line.

For me, the horror had intensified.

There was a point in the skit, when the high of collecting all 12 commemorative plates for the Golden Girls had worn off, and our characters were depressed and left wanting more, when all three of us would have to give the line.

"Life is empty and meaningless."

Now . . .I wasn't trying to say that the lives of old people were empty and meaningless. This sense of ennui was meant to be the more universal deflation after over-consumerism.

However. We were three young guys. Who had dressed as old guys. And walked into a retirement community. And were now going to have to say, while pretending to be elderly people ourselves, and loud enough for the microphones to pick it up clean and clear, "life is empty and meaningless."

It was fairly evident that it was not going to come off as a comment on pointless consumption.

Why did I do it? Why not just shut it down, say 'I'm sorry, this is clearly not working out' and just walk? I don't know. Honestly, as I remember it now, it seems like a trance of false justification. We'd come so far. We were so close to done. All we had to do was shoot this line, some fills with the narrator, and the final shot with the chocolate coin mean to stand in for the final ultimate commemorative coin, and we were done. I guess I stayed for it because I had stayed for the rest. Once you're up to your forehead in quicksand, what's the scalp as well?

So I stayed. And, with grandmother leaning on the couch and everybody else watching, I said it.


"I did NOT!"


He had.

"Shoot it again."

"Look, I don't care if he looked at the camera. This is really bad. Let's just move on."


So I said it again. If you do it once, you can do it twice, right? The room was full of retirees. Grandmother was watching, still leaning on the couch, watching with what I was pretty sure as not pride. She looked flustered and confused. We were 20 minutes over our hour. Tiff was talking with the head of the facility, who looked like she might be about to call the cops.

Tiff came back. "OK, she said, we have ten more minutes. Where's the chocolate coin?"

There was a terrible stillness. Then Yoot said:

"We weren't done with that?"

Yoot had eaten the coin.

"Not all of it!"

"I'm going to kill your friend," Tiff informed me. Yoot seemed unperturbed. I leaned on my cane and 'slept' while the battery charged. Tiff was talking with her grandmother, who was clearly very agitated. I heard Tiff say, "Just WAIT, grandma."

And then grandma pointed right at me, and in a voice as loud as an angel's trumpet yelled:


Sometimes realization comes to you in bits and pieces. Sometimes it comes all at once. And sometimes it tears into you like a polar bear and eats your guts out of you while you're still alive.





So there it is, folks. The worst thing I ever did. I walked into a retirement village dressed up like a parody of an old man and stole and old lady's cane, forcing her to stand and watch for over an hour as I mocked her and her friends. I hope to never top it.

I just about broke my neck rushing to give the poor lady her cane back. I may have apologized to her over twenty times. Tiff did not suggest that it would ruin the continuity of the skit, which was wise on her part. We shot the coin scene with a poor sad crinkle of gold foil and chocolate scraps in Chad the narrator's hand. I stopped pretending to be asleep and instead pretended to be dead. Five minutes later, we were out of there.

You might say I was at low energy for the rest of the shoot. Luckily, it was mainly smooth going from there. We got a spare battery that held its charge. We shot in controlled locations with minimal distractions. We actually put together a couple skits that are close to succesful and occasionally a little bit funny.

But the first skit we shot, the one where my soul died? It was terrible. We went through hell to make one of the worst things ever made. It's an apotheosis of bad acting, stilted editing, jokes that just die on the vine like poison grapes, and sheer incomprehensibility. Watching the video now, I am struck by the extent to which we absolutely failed in any way to capture the fact that we were on location. We could have been anywhere. We could have been in a hotel lobby. Or a coffee shop.

Or a porch.

So, what did I learn from all this? I've learned that artistic collaboration is very hard, and making even a medium-quality program (which is at least three marks higher than we were able to hit) is the sort of thing that can make you crazy. It's much more fun to watch than to do. I've learned that you have to know to put your foot down when things have very obviously turned for the worse. The thing is, Tiff is a really genuinely nice person. I think she just got an artistic idea in her head and let it take over for a couple hours, and as the meticulously-appointed furniture of "how it is supposed to be" got kicked over and mashed, I think she let it make her temporarily crazy. I know I must have been temporarily crazy myself to think this was a good idea. So, I've learned that there are worse things you can be than an actor who argues with the director. I've learned not to dress up in old age makeup and go to retirement communities to shoot skits.

Most of all, I've learned not to accept strange canes.


Emily of Deutschland said...

Oh God, I know I've heard this story a few times, and yet, the sheer awfulness of it makes me die laughing every time. I suppose it's not very nice of me to laugh at your pain, but, well... it *is* after all the worst thing you ever did, so count this as retribution.

Being that I am your sister however, I would like to dispute your claim of 'worst thing ever' and point to a number of incidents in my harrowing childhood brought upon me by my very clever, master-teaser of a brother... but since this story is undoubtedly funnier, I guess I'll let it stand.

JordiTorre said...

I add you in my blog
can you add me?

Aaron said...

Funniest thing I've read in years.

Love it!

"He is funny drunk, I thought. Hope this goes smoothly.

If ever there were famous last words, my friends, those were them. Not one part of it went smoothly. From the start it was a fail burrito the size of my head."

Aaron said...

Do I still owe you the $10 commision for this peice?