Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

Disclaimer: I just wanted to get some thoughts and images down. Maybe I'll build a FolkFire article from some of these pieces, plus some notes about media implementations of historical authenticity.

Shooting day, finally. Naturally, I was too excited to get to sleep at a reasonable hour the night before. Karen's alarm clock issued it's buzzing imperative at 5 a.m. She got up and into the tub. I spent a leisurely horizontal 1/2 hour trying to convince my circadian self that it was, indeed, morning. At 5:30, the more polite twenty seconds of "chirp-chirp" from my calculator watch alarm was enough to get me moving. We were fed, packed up with games, books, snacks, camera, and our portable picnic table and out the door at 6:30. We picked up our neighbor and fellow dancing extra Philip Alderman from his house around the corner in Compton Heights.

Did I mention that us men-folks were instructed to get as scruffy and stubbly as possible since the first audition? Philip, standing by the road, under a tree in the pre-dawn gloom with his thumb out, was a perfect poster child for a "don't pick this guy up" campaign. Aside from his incredibly successful scruffiness, he is remarkable in this account because it was his wife who was responsible for getting authentic midwestern musicians and dancers involved in this scene. NBC was ready to use imported New York dancers and non-musicians (overdubbed in the studio), until they heard a sample of Geoff's music, and saw that there was an ample supply of local folk dancers who had the look they wanted and would work cheap.

So, we arrive at Faust Park out on the fringes of the county, follow the explicit phone directions precisely down the winding roads, and got to exactly where we were not supposed to be. On the set. We got re-directed twice before we finally found the sign-up picnic table under a tree a hundred yards from the cluster of wardrobe and administration trailers at the far end of the park. We filled out forms. We waited.

Now, picture a woman with permed red hair frizzing down over her shoulders, a radio strapped to her waist with the mike on her shoulder, a clipboard on her right arm, and a perpetually stressed and exasperated manner. Add a touch of Chuck Jones' Tasmanian Devil to picture her movements. Now see the little, white "Relax, it's only a movie" button pinned to her fanny pack. This woman was in charge of shepherding all us extras to wardrobe, hair, makeup, and the set. Everyone was overworked in these locations. I got lucky in wardrobe; they had shoes that fit me. Later, after talking to some of the standing-around extras, I figured that they held out some of the best shoes for us dancers, who were among the last group to show up. They had all the extras arrive in shifts to try to even out the trafffic flow during all the preparations.

The hazy sky was getting bright when we were shepherded into a van and packed off to the set, the barn. We arrived to cascading calls of "QUIET", "Quiet", "quiet", and "ROLLING", "Rolling", "rolling". I've never been in such a hushed crowd. A hundred people standing around, and you could hear the flapping of passing birds wings. Then "CUT", "Cut", "cut", and it was like switching the sound back on. A normal crowd. We had been hurried down to the set in the middle of makeup and wardrobe touch-ups. Then we waited on set for them to ready the barn for our rehearsal.

This barn is remarkable. It was constructed at least a hundred years ago, because the vertical planks that make up the walls are old growth pine 1x18s. Very rustic and weathered. The set dressers had spread straw over everything, and hung bunting on the rails separating the central aisle from the side, raised floor areas. The central area, where we danced, was barely big enough for 1 square. We tried a couple of choreagraphies while the cinematographer and director and sound guys tried to line things up. Then they told us that two of the main characters would be dancing with us, then leaving, then 3 would join in again. Change choreography. I won't ring all the changes, but we rarely did exactly the same figures twice as directions and camera angles and other pieces of our couple-of-minute long scene changed.

After our first rehearsal, we noticed the dust. Under the straw, there was a dust floor. It felt good to dance on, but after each take, the cloud grew thicker. We crunched dust in our teeth and felt our eyelids scraping it off of our corneas. Karen had forgotten her contact lenses, fortunately.

Between the first rehearsals and shooting, the wardrobe guy caught up with us down on the set. He was skinny, fiftyish, well tanned, and his face etched with worry lines. There were plenty of adjustments to be made that hadn't been done yet when they rushed us down. As he fitted me into a vest and collar, he was cursing a blue streak directed mainly at the directors. Then he caught himself and apologized to the lord for his blasphemy and told himself that there was no reason for such straying from the path. He continued to say that he would never, never work with television people again. He was used to the movies, where doing it right came first and fast came second. With TV, it is apparently the other way around. I think he came from Atlanta with the wardrobe and office trailers, rather than from L.A. with the caterers and crew.

Each time they changed the camera angles, they herded the entire barnfull of extras outside, where we could breathe dustless and somewhat cooler air. We were very fortunate in terms of weather. The bright haze maintained all morning, with the temperature staying in the low eighties. In our turn-of-the-century, Wisconsin-appropriate, wool, go-to-meetin' clothes, a sunny day would have been murder. As it was, we patted our sweaty brows dry, slapped the accumulated dust from our costumes, aired out, and enjoyed the weather.

During one of our breathers, I chatted with several of the Indians and trappers and such other extras whose role while we are dancing is basically to watch us and make the barn dance into a party. The actor who plays the Sheriff looked familiar to me, but neither I nor anyone I talked to could place him. Part of this identity problem was that our fellow extras were not TV watchers, either. I have a theory: People who would volunteer for this kind of work and are available on short notice for a full day mid-week to earn minimum wage are probably self directed, if not overtly self employed. People who make their own lives are more likely to eschew the narcotic effects of frequent television. Disclaimer: This is a half-formed theory based on a single observation of an insufficient population using inadequately rigorous methods, but it feels right, somehow.

I noticed that there is a sort of food chain of personalities vs objects in this business. We are "background", the animate objects which are dressed, posed, and placed to suit the set design. Compared to us, from wardrobe and hairdressers up through actors and direction are all uphill. To a director, wardrobe is the tool which makes sure that the background looks as she desires and the cinematographer is the tool which captures the vision for later editing. The talent, guild actors, are regrettably personable players who sometimes nip at the directorial authority, but are usually just tools to bring the screenplay to life. Producer vs director? Writer vs actor? Maybe we need to graph these along the z axis. It's too complicated for me, an ephemeral prop, to comprehend.

Several of the shots in our scene had to be done with dancing but no music, so they could record the dialog. The sound guy had not been warned about how many dancers would need "cue aids," but he had 4; enough for the guys. He came around with a little red velvet jewelry box about the right size for a pair of earrings, and presented each of us guys with a little pink plastic cone with a tiny antenna sticking out of the broad end. Mine fit neatly inside my ear. The women just followed us as we listened to the ghost music that no one else could hear.

It just now occurred to me to wonder what it must have looked like to the other extras. They were standing around, silently pretending to clap along as the 10 of us dancers went through our moves, occasionally miming "hoots and hollers" with the dust quietly billowing up from our shuffling feet as dialog was recorded at the other end of the barn.

In the shots where the main actors were in our dance, I was right next to the young woman actress named (something like) Reko (Ray-Ko). I could be misremembering. As a result, KJ & I were often in the line of sight of the camera charged with following her. I think we'll be quite visible, albeit briefly. Just look for the barn dance in Wisconsin in "A Will of Their Own" which is currently scheduled to air opposite the baseball season playoffs, or maybe the world series. I suspect we'll see a lot of commercials aimed specifically at women when we record it.

Everything went quite smoothly. We were fed a good lunch buffet under the trees at 1:30, and they were done with us. It took another hour to change and check us all through wardrobe and pick up our receipts for 7 hours at minimum wage. The musicians had long run off. Some of us dancers decided to take the rest of the day as a holiday. After all, we had all put considerable effort into clearing our schedules through 10 p.m. as instructed. We decided to go see a rush hour movie and then have dinner out. As we pulled out of the field where we parked, it began to rain. It became quite a heavy storm. Our timing had been perfect! It was interesting to see a movie (The Horse Whisperer) right after being in a tv shoot. I much better appreciate all the work that goes into, for example, a short family dinner scene. I now noticed all the different camera positions, the various reaction shots, and establishing pans, etc. I think that this experience has expanded my future moviegoing experiences by another level.