“What the hell we gotta do to get a performance out of her?” asked the big bald one, aka Bruce Willis.
“Maybe she’s intimidated,” replied the fat bald one, aka me.
“By me?” asked Bruce.
“Who do you think?” I answered. “You’re the movie star. She’s not. Some people get brain lock when they’re under pressure.”
“Not my job to get her to up her game.”
The movie, once again, was Hostage. And the “her” about whom Bruce and I were speaking was the usually more-than-capable actress we’d cast to play Laura Shoemaker, who was far better in both her audition and scenes where she didn’t interact with Bruce than those moments where she did. Unfortunately for Ms. Shoe (real name withheld, but if you really want to know you can IMDB her) most of her scenes were with Bruce.
Now, we all get intimidated. One can imagine getting somewhat apprehensive at the prospect of acting opposite an international superstar, not to mention someone with Bruce’s irascible rep. Ms. Shoe was hardly a novice with movie stars. Hell, in Bloodwork, she’d acted opposite no less than Clint Eastwood, who’d also served as her director.
So maybe the fault lay with Bruce. But my experience with him as an actor was nothing less than sterling and pretty much sans any movie star bunk. Especially on Hostage. He was on time, thoughtful, prepared, rehearsed both on and off the clock, and unlike many big movie actors, shot all sides of every take. And what that means (for those of you unfamiliar with production), when the movie star is finished shooting his on-camera sides of a scene, he or she often retires to his comfortable trailer while an assistant A.D. or the script supervisor is left to read the movie star’s dialogue while the lesser actors get their camera time.
That wasn’t Bruce. No matter the stature or experience of the actor—veteran thesp or lowly day player, Big Bruno was there for every turn of the camera. And not just that, his mere presence usually inspired every performer to up his game.
Unfortunately, such wasn’t the case for Ms. Shoe.
But hey, this was the big league. A fifty-plus-million-dollar film with a full, union roster practically setting fire to Benjamins with every minute wasted. Suffice it to say, all cast and crew were expected to bring it.
“Got an idea,” said Bruce. “Let’s get a coupla stuntmen to dress up as sheriff’s deputies. Big guys who can handle me.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Cuz whatever’s going on with (Ms. Shoe,) I’m gonna wake her the fuck up,” pissed Bruce. “For real. If they don’t hold me…”
The scene in question was supposed to be a tension-choked moment when Lt. Shoemaker usurps control of the local PD chief’s (Bruce’s) hostage situation while the lives of the chief’s wife and daughter hang in the balance. Our locale was the interior of a Ventura County Tactical Command van. A tight space with cast and cameras.
Then came the rehearsal. Low speed and easy in order to keep Ms. Shoe’s surprise under wraps. Only there was a wrinkle. Missing for the run-through was veteran actor Robert Knepper who’d been playing the county sheriff’s hostage negotiator. His character had no dialogue for the scene, yet was supposed to be in the middle of the scrum. Only Robert was nowhere to be found.
“Where the hell’s Bob?” groused Bruce during rehearsal.
“On his way,” reported one of the assistant directors.
“To set or location?” I asked.
“In his car,” said someone in the know.
“Fuck it,” said Bruce. “Let’s finish the run-through. Bob’s gonna get a surprise, too.”
Now, I can’t speak for Robert Knepper or why he was late. He’s a pro’s pro with plenty of TV and film credits. Perhaps he’d read the call sheet and seen that all he was doing in the scene was standing amidst the scrum with no words to be concerned over. Or maybe it was some lousy L.A. traffic. The result was that he’d missed the rehearsal and would only have time to suit up and breeze through hair and make-up before stepping onto the set.
Now, if the surprise was going to work, it would be important to have at least one camera dedicated to a tight-shot of Ms. Shoe. So director Florent Siri dedicated his resources accordingly. As we began the countdown to the shot, Robert Knepper arrived with an apology for missing the rehearsal.
“No problem,” countered AD Mark Catone, who placed Robert in front of Bruce and the two strapping stuntmen dressed in SWAT GEAR.
While Florent fine-tuned the cameras from his perch at the monitors, Bruce let Robert in on the blocking.
“Pretty simple, Bob,” smiled Bruce to Robert. “Shoemaker’s gonna walk up the steps. Fire me. I’m gonna lunge in her direction. You and these guys hold me back.”
“Sounds good,” said Robert with a casual nod, with the understanding that whatever he’d missed in the run-through, he’d probably catch up on by the second or third take. He positioned himself, expecting some kind of low-speed, half-assed first shot.
With the actors in place, marks set, cameras on lockdown, all that was required was for Mark Catone to order film to roll and Florent to yell “action.”
So they did just that.
Ms. Shoe loosely laced her authoritarian boots, calmly climbed the steps of the van and delivered her bad news to Bruce Willis’ local chief of police.
Bruce, fully kindled with his character’s rage, lunged at Ms. Shoe as if he was going to actually put both hands around her neck and wring it like a chicken’s. And though the stuntmen were braced to restrain the star, even they appeared to have nearly doubted Bruce’s commitment.
And poor Robert Knepper, having missed the rehearsal and not weighing in at more than one hundred and sixty pounds, wasn’t clued in on the stunt. If the cameras had been trained on him, we would’ve had a record of a character actor suffering from true shock and awe as all six-plus feet of Bruce Willis strained to get beyond him to defenseless Ms. Shoe.
Oh, and speaking of dear Ms. Shoe. If she’d previously had trouble finding herself “present” for scenes with Mr. Big Time Movie Star, once her fight-or-flight response overwhelmed whatever acting cool she’d already summoned, she found herself in a moment like none she’d ever experienced. Her eyes exploded to full dilation, her posture crumbled as the scrum unfolded before her. Seconds later, Florent called cut and the scuffle was over.
Were there bruises? Yes. On the stuntmen, Bruce, and Bob Knepper. Was Ms. Shoe ever in any real danger? Absolutely not. But hell if that wasn’t her most real moment in the picture.
What followed were more takes, a quick camera turn around, and a lot of nervous laughs. Ms. Shoe kept making certain Bruce wasn’t actually going to maul her. And all the cast did their level best to repeat the energy contained in the initial shot until the scene was in the can and we wrapped for the night.
Unfortunately, despite the inspiration and/or terror from the previous evening’s scene work, it was the consensus of Florent, Bruce, and myself that Ms. Shoe continued to bring her B game to the set. When asked what we could do, I suggested that I could dig into the script and write her character out of certain scenes while working the black and blue, but usually excellent Robert Knepper into more of our drama. Of course, this didn’t go over to well with our UPM and Executive Producer Hawk Koch because Ms. Shoe would and should be paid for all her scheduled work despite her early exit.
Now, for the record, I think Ms. Shoe is a solid and accomplished actress. Nor can I, or will I, pretend to get into her head and surmise just why, on this particular picture, she might not have given it her all. Hell, we all have bad days, bad months, and bad years. And as for me, I don’t have enough toes and fingers to count the times I’ve come up short at critical moments.
I do choose to use each and every one of those snapshots in time to remind me that no matter how long I’ve been at this game, it’s still important that no matter the circumstance or situation, I need to show up, keep up, and when it matters most, shut up and deliver.
Get Judith Weston’s book for more advice on directing actors.
Directing Actors:Creating Memorable Performances for Film and Television