The last show I did without a union card was the Made In Canada show where I shared that brief bon mot with Rick Mercer at the end of a long day. It convinced me (the long day, not Rick) to go after my union card. I had enough screen credits to qualify for an apprentice membership, so I got one. Having a union card is both empowering and limiting. It's empowering for all the obvious reasons. Better money, better representation, better craft table. It's limiting because those other jobs that used to come my way, non-union commercials produced by the local television station for example, were no longer available to me. So far I haven't noticed that I've been missing out on any work that I'd like to do. And it's very nice being on a union voucher every time you go out on a shoot (mo' money, mo' money, mo' money).
Case in point: My first job as a union apprentice.
The name of the show was "Catch a Falling Star", starring Sela Ward. I was called to play in the background as a "special effects guy". Note that I was not to be responsible for any special effects for the movie, I was just to play a special effects guy. Try to keep up, it can be confusing sometimes, I know.
So anyway, I have to dress the part and so went out to buy khaki shorts and olive green short-sleeve shirt - stuff with lots of pockets. Put this on, add wool socks and hiking boots, and voila. You look like you're part of a film crew. Except for the shirt, which I've since remarked is usually a t-shirt, and often black. But I was younger and less experienced in those by-gone halcyon days so I got the Jeff Probst type thing.
The wardrobe lady looked at me and said, "Perfect". Mission accomplished.
The director had me stand up on some scaffolding where there was a giant fan and a giant box full of potato flakes. The shot was set up to be a shot within a shot. We were filming a film crew filming a movie. The director in the scene, not the real director, but the actor playing the director was actually a TV chef and in the scene had to cajole and mildly berate the Sela Ward character, spoiled Hollywood brat that she was. The character. Not Sela. The director, the real director, was concerned a mere background actor (me) might not be able to accomplish the business of the shot - that was dumping the giant box of potato flakes into the fan so that it would create the illusion of falling snow (extras not having figured out the trick of gravity and the inclined plane? I don't know). Instead the real director got a real member of the crew to play a fake special effects guy and get up on the scaffolding. The director (real) told me to hold onto that pipe right there, look like you're helping to steady the scaffolding. So I'm holding the pipe. Maybe that's what on a film set is called a "grip". Ha-ha. I made a little funny, there.
We started shooting, we did a few takes. the snow (potato flakes) fell from the clear blue sky. The director (real) at one point asked for someone with a knife (a real "Cut!" .. ho-ho ha-ha, I can't stop myself this morning).
Someone approaches. "Here's a knife."
"That's not a knife," I say in my best Mick Dundee voice, which must have been pretty good, because it cracked up the director.
It was a good day on set, beautiful blue skies, warm and sunny. I ate in the lunch tent with one of the L.A. producers, blissfully unaware of who I was chatting up. I recommended a fantastic restaurant to her in the local area; I hope she had a chance to go. Sela wasn't with us for lunch. She'd left the set very suddenly when word reached the set that her toddler son had burned himself on something. The injury must have been minor since she returned later in the afternoon. I must say that in real life, Sela is both shorter and more beautiful than she looks on TV. Being a recently accredited professional and all (the union card, remember) I tried not to look at her too much.
At the end of the day, we happy few background performers lined up to be signed out by one of the production assistants. She asked who wants to be paid now and who wants to wait. Those who wanted to wait to get paid would be put on a voucher and their cheque mailed to them. Those who wanted to be paid now could get the cash in their hand and leave now. It sounded like a good deal to a couple of people who chose to be paid by cash.
I thought this was a pretty crappy deception, but I said nothing.
Shame on me, shame on me, shame on me.
There was one woman who discovered the ruse after the fact, after she already had her cash in her hand, that to be paid later meant to be put on a voucher which meant to be paid about three times what she ended up getting. Upset more over the deception than the money, she wept in frustration.
I stood next to her and felt small.
Still to Come
- Eric Neilsen and his brother Leslie
- The old "Carrot Up the Bum" trick.
- Christmas with Valerie Bertenelli
- Stuff I haven't done yet but hope to.