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BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: On a Film Set - Dirty Work

Doug Richardson takes you on a film set back in his film school days. Filmmaking isn't always a neat job.

Doug Richardson's first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder.Visit Doug's site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.

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If you’re looking for a lesson this week, turn around and don’t look back. But if a laugh at my expense seems appealing, by all means read on.

This happened in film school. It was during the production of Tony Gayton’s senior film, titled The Explosion Artist. My job on the roughly four-weekend shoot was as UPM-slash-general-ass-kicker. Essentially, I was the film school equivalent of the line producer, responsible for the budget, schedule, pizza, and generally begging Tony to cut his daily shot list in half—otherwise we wouldn’t finish our day before it morphed into the next.

It was an early Sunday morning. The location was the track field at Cal State Los Angeles, just east of downtown. The school sits in a low swale in East L.A. A fine mist hung over the spot with no lift in sight.

film set

The scene was essentially a multi-camera stunt involving the main character, a down on his luck stuntman whose geek act was using a stick of dynamite to blow himself up in front of state fair audiences. Our explosion was going to be faked with a release of compressed air, dirt, and foam with the sound effects added in post.

Oh. And in the truest film school tradition, we had no permits for any of it.

Our scenery was little more than a pile of old car tires. At first light, we backed a borrowed pick-up to the track field and began to unload that used rubber, tire by tire. We hauled it to the grassy center where we would be filming our fake explosion. Besides ourselves, there were a few early risers making use of the regulation track and field oval. I recall a rather diminutive guy and his massive Great Dane doing comical loops, as well as a couple of comely coeds cozily jogging side-by-side, gossiping about who knows what. No one seemed to wonder what the hell six film nerds were doing with a truckload of tires. And up to that point, we hadn’t spotted a security vehicle. If a uniform were to appear, it would be on me to delay him and begin telling the usual fibs.

Oh no, sir. But we have permission. We cleared it between our schools. Our department head talked to your department head and I swear everything is kosher.

While Jay was tossing tires from the pick-up, Tony and I were lugging those big rubber Os two at a time to the growing pile in the middle of the oval. The grass was wet and hadn’t been cut. I could feel the moisture already leaking through my sneakers. As I neared our tire pile, I began to smell something foul, yet familiar. Having been raised on a farm with a boarding kennel, I instantly recognized the offensive odor as dog poop.

Damn, I thought. First my shoes are wet. And now I stepped in dog shit.

I dropped both tires and, before I could examine my kicks, noticed that both rubber donuts were smeared in something brown, sticky, yet still freshly viscous. That’s when it hit me. I turned in place until I saw that runty runner with his oversized Great Dane trotting back to his car.

I cursed the SOB, decided to leave the tires where I’d dropped them and head back to the pick-up to find something to clean them with. Yet despite the distance I was putting between myself and the soiled tires, the smell remained fresh and pungent. As if chasing me like dirt beleaguered poor little Pig Pen from the Peanuts comic strip.

Oh… Shit!

I stopped again, looked down to examine my clothes. Yes. You guessed it. After those tires had been flung from the truck, they’d miraculously both found the same, massive Great Dane pile of soft clingy dung. As I had hoisted both tires, I’d unknowingly, but oh so successfully transferred the lion’s share of fecal tar to my person.

If you still don’t get the picture, it was as if God had reached down with a giant butter knife, loaded it up with warm, smelly shit, and troweled it onto the front of my shirt and trousers like a human bagel.

I cursed again. But not at the Great Dane and his master. It was myself I was cussing out with invectives I generally reserve for the worst of humanity. I had to get out of those clothes. Shower and change. But where and how and what the hell was the crew going to do while I was missing?

Hurrying to my car, I shouted at both Jay and Tony to keep moving and that I’d be back in a flash. I recognized I was lucky about one thing. From what I could tell, the stinking goo was buttered across my front alone. Thus climbing into my car, I might not risk transferring it to my upholstery. So I carefully opened each door and manually rolled down the windows. Then I backed into the driver’s seat, shut the door and keyed the ignition.

My apartment wasn’t far. It was still early on a Sunday morning. There was negligible traffic. I quickly calculated a round trip of no more than an hour, including the inevitable and potentially embarrassing clothes peel on my front stoop. I hit the freeway onramp and whipped my Ford Pinto into a maximum effort of maybe eighty miles per hour. The cold air sucking through all four open windows mitigated little of the noxious funk. It was all I could do to put a cork in my autonomic gag reflex and not projectile puke.

That’s when I heard the siren. I flicked a look in my rear view and saw the reinforced grill of a Ford Crown Victoria and the whirling lights of a California Highway Patrol cruiser. Sheesh. How long had he been following and flashing me before he’d decided to utilize his wailer?

“Pull to the shoulder!” barked the CHP over the loudspeaker.

Obediently, I braked. As both our cars slowed, I realized how much the blast of eighty mile-per-hour air flow had assisted in knocking down the overwhelming scent. Suddenly, I felt enveloped by the stink. And now I was going to have to explain myself to a CHP while providing my driver’s license and registration.

Screw it I said, throwing open my door and springing from my vehicle.

Note: This was some years ago. In today’s world, I recognize that jumping from your car just as a cop has pulled you over is an invitation to get punched full of hot lead.

“APOLOGIES OFFICER!” I shouted, feet apart, arms wide in surrender. “BUT I’VE GOT A BIT OF A SITUATION HERE.”

The Chippie approached, hand on the butt of his unskinned weapon. Then at fifteen feet, he began to recoil. I’m not sure if it was what he saw or smelled.

“Is that—”

“Shit?” I answered. “It’s exactly that. Dog shit. Please don’t ask how this happened. I just wanna get home to change and back to my job. Why I have the windows down and was driving so fast.”

“Wow,” he said, changing direction. “You go on then. Try and keep it under seventy-five.”

“Yes, sir,” I saluted, returning to my vehicle.

The CHP officer didn’t even follow me. I simple sped on, dropped trou on my doorstep, quickly showered, re-dressed, bagged my soiled clothes in giant hefty, and promptly returned to the shoot location.

“Where the hell were you?” asked Tony.

“You find those tires covered in crap?” I asked.

“Oh,” said Tony. “That’s right. You were wearin’ somethin’ else.”

“How far are you from getting off the first shot?” I shifted.

“FX guy is still settin’ up.” Tony crossed his arms and gazed out onto the field. The fog hadn’t even begun to lift. “Was the Great Dane, huh?”

“Shit as big as it looked.”

It’s about here that I usually sum up. Moralize. Punctuate the lesson. But what could the point of this tale be other than in the telling? It’s usually not so entertaining to repeat stories of unobstructed success. Boorish, too. It’s our stumbles and funny failures which bring the laughs. Even if it’s allowing folks picture you lathered in dog crap.

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