|Shooting bowling balls|
By Rob Ryder
Special to Page 2
So I'm last-minute-subbing for Nigel as the basketball supervisor on a Professional Bowlers Association commercial, but no one told the director. And here he comes and I'm wondering if he's one of those screamer types.
"Where the hell's Nigel?"
He stares at me, considering. People who blow up at unexpected news usually have the luxury. A no-cut contract. A big budget. Powerful boosters. But for most people in charge, either you can waste a lot of time and energy throwing a temper tantrum or you can keep things clipping along and get the job done. On a one-day shoot like this, with a couple dozen camera set-ups to grind through and a sun that's going to fade fast come 5 o'clock, this young director makes the wise choice.
"Let's see it," he says.
"Okay, gentlemen, please go to No. 1," I say loudly.
The players all hustle into position, except for the one surly one. The director doesn't notice him because I've buried him in the paint, setting screens and taking up space. That's what you get for having attitude. You could've been a star, man. You could have been the big mean dude throwing that bowling ball through the glass backboard if you'd only been a little more cooperative.
"We'll do it at half-speed first. Then run it again, full speed. Ready? And ... action."
The players run through the play, with a basketball subbing for the bowling ball. Then again, and the director sees that it's gonna work fine.
"There's one thing," I say. "It might be smart if the shooter can work over on the grass with a real bowling ball. So he can find his range."
"Nah, I want it natural," says the director, and he walks away.
I head over to the special-effects crew, who are rigging the far hoop with a special glass backboard.
"How many of these things do you have?" I ask.
"Three," a grip answers.
"What's the changeover?"
"About an hour once we blow the first one. We can't set the explosives until it's up in the air."
The production manager asked me to help with crowd control for the day; and when I showed up on East 92nd Street, they put me in a leather jacket and a Yassir Arafat burnoose and stuck me right in the middle of all these half-crazed extras they found somewhere out in Far Rockaway or someplace. We stood there for hour after hour, waiting for them to rig the limo. Everyone was getting pissy, 'cause it was freezing out and they wouldn't even let you leave to take a leak. The A.D. rushed over (A.D.s rush everywhere -- it's the only speed they know) and said, "Listen, we're losin' the light. We're not gonna have time to rehearse this; so when we yell 'Action!', make sure it looks real. No laughing, no f*ing around, all right?"
"What's taking so long?" an extra asked.
The A.D. ignored him and rushed off.
"F--- you too, pal!" the extra shouted after him.
What was taking so long was that it wasn't enough to just blow up the limo. These guys wanted it surrounded by three stuntmen rigged with special harnesses so that when the bomb went off, steel cables would yank them up and away from the explosion like they'd been blown up. Now this is hairy under the best of circumstances; but on a cold November day on East 92nd Street with a mob of hacked-off extras and the light fading fast, it was a recipe for disaster.
I hate explosions. I hate special effects. Have I mentioned that?
Anyway, the three stuntmen were really scrambling -- making sure that the steel cables they were wired to were running away from the limo at the right trajectory, that the three explosive canisters would actually trigger the cable-yank and that they were synchronized to go off with the limo bomb.
One of the stuntmen was stretching his cable right through my part of the mob.
"You're with us, right?" he asked. "Production?"
"Yeah," I said. "So where you guys gonna land?"
The stuntman looked from the limo to the far curb.
"Uhh, somewhere between here and that building."
The A.D. suddenly screamed out through his megaphone, "If we don't get this shot in the next three minutes, we're dead! You hear me people?! Dead!"
"Listen," he said to me. "When that bomb goes off, I'm gonna come flying right through here, all right? Like right over your head, okay?"
"Yeah … " I said.
"So reach up and try to knock me down," he said. "So I don't hit that curb back there."
"Okay," I said.
The stuntman rushed off. The whole scene felt hyper-wired -- people hustling everywhere, jostling, elbowing, snarling, screaming instructions. Finally, the A.D. called "Roll cameras!" and about six different Panaflexes cranked up. Camera assistants held up clapboards, shouted the scene number and ducked away. Then the A.D. called for background action, and all the extras started shouting and surging forward and suddenly ... BOOM!!! The limo blew up and there was smoke and sawdust and cork pieces shooting everywhere; and that fast, there he was, the stuntman, hurtling through the air right towards me at about 9,000 miles an hour.
I hit the deck.
He screamed past, right overhead.
The whole street went silent. The explosion had knocked the air right out. A second plume of smoke rolled off the limo and through the crowd of fallen extras. It was surreal.
A voice yelled out, "Cut! That's a cut!!!"
You could hear a murmur/mutter spread among the crew and extras, "Holy s---."
The A.D. shouted through his megaphone, "Okay. That's a wrap! That's a wrap, everyone! Go to wardrobe! Sign out and go home. Thank you very much! Thank you! And don't steal anything on the way out!"
I looked through the mayhem to the far curb. The stuntman was crumpled up in a ball. He slowly unfolded his body, feeling for damage. His face was black with gunpowder and burnt cork. He rubbed his eyes. I walked over and he looked up at me.
"What happened to you?" he asked.
"I ducked," I said.
"Smart move," he said.
Back on the commercial, we bounce through a bunch of camera set-ups, then it's time to blow the backboard. The A.D. calls a safety meeting. The special-effects guy explains there might be tiny shards of glass, so we should all protect our eyes. One of the players says he was looking up at the hoop when the shot went up, so what should he do now. It's a good question.
The director and cameraman consider.
"Look," says the director. "We can cheat you back a bit. You won't be right under it."
He's not exactly answering the question. As the cameras are set, I pull the players together. I'd just learned that this isn't a union shoot. There's no SAG (Screen Actors' Guild) minimums here. No overtime. No stunt adjustments. No doctor on the set.
"Gentlemen, listen up," I say. "Just before the ball hits the backboard, turn your heads away."
It's a commercial," I say. "You're willing to lose your eyesight so more people will watch bowling on television?"
So they roll cameras, we run the play, the bowling ball smashes through the backboard (a little high and wide, but at least he doesn't miss), the explosives go off, the backboard shatters and nobody gets hurt.
At wrap, I pull the producer aside.
"We need to talk money," I say.
"What did you arrange with Nigel?" he asks.
"He told me a thousand bucks. He said you told him $500 for the job and another $500 for using him in the scene."
"We didn't use you in the scene."
"I wouldn't have been right," I say.
He stares at me.
"Look," I say. "Call it $750 and we both walk away. You're happy with the job, right?"
"Yeah," he says.
"So you just saved $250."
Nigel hits me on the cell as I'm driving home. He's up north, working on a Nike commercial with LeBron.
"Tell me it went fine," he says.
"It went fine," I say. "How's Sacramento?"
"It's Sacramento. Listen, man, about this column you're writing. I'm a little concerned. I got these projects developing with the Goodwins (LeBron's agents), you know. And that means yours too -- "94 Feet." I don't want to jeopardize anything."
"It's cool, Nigel," I tell him. "Everything's gonna be cool."
But I hang up, wondering: What am I doing here?
NEXT: EDITORS, HEADLINES AND WHOOPI.
Rob Ryder played basketball at Princeton and works as a screenwriter and sports advisor in Hollywood. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.