I have a confession. I have a prejudice against a particular minority group. And I’m being utterly unvarnished about this embarrassing fact. Upon my introduction to any member of this group, I have an instant opinion. You are not an individual. I’ve grouped you with the rest of the subset. You are one of those people.
Now, that I’ve said it. Let me add this tidbit. I love actors. No. I seriously do. At least fine actors. Other than some directors, no one else has the power to interpret and grow a screenwriter’s words and ideas to the fullest bloom. Sure. Poor or less talented thesps have their own kind of power. There are few pains more bone-scratching than watching a performer butcher my hard work. Transversely, though, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures to witness a brilliant actor taking my thoughts and intentions to frequencies and heights I hadn’t so much as imagined.
So why my prejudice? Well, too few of those who call themselves actors have the gifts or craft to elevate a writer’s work above sewer level. Sure. The same goes for any discipline. Writers included. Perhaps I’ll eventually examine my bigoted views of my profession. But for the sake of this post, I’m gonna stick to the skin puppets. Er… I mean actors.
On the movie Hostage, our casting director was the wonderful Victoria Burrows. Blonde and statuesque, she did an outstanding job queuing up actors for French helmer Florent Siri to choose from. Florent consulted me on most of the roles. But as director, he had final say. So over my objection, he cast newcomer Marshall Allman as Kevin Kelly who joined Jonathan “Tuck” Tucker and Ben Foster to complete the trio of young hoods who inadvertently find themselves holding a not-so-innocent family hostage. My argument was that as much as I agreed with Florent that Marshall had a “special something,” I was concerned his lack of craft might strike the wrong note in his numerous scenes alongside the vastly more experienced Tuck and Ben.
“I like him,” Florent said of Marshall. “It might be a little more work for us to capture what is different about Marshall. But it will be worth it, you think?”
“Somewhat agreed,” I remembered saying. “But the schedule is pretty tight. Do you want to be at the end of a day, fifteen takes in with Marshall and not getting what you need?”
“He’s worth the risk,” said Florent. And with that, young Marshall Allman was cast as Jonathan Tucker’s little brother, Kevin Kelly.
Eight weeks later we were a little more than a month into production and shooting some moving car stuff in the city of Altadena. So far we’d shot only a handful of scenes with Ben, Tuck, and Marshall. And due to the nature of the schedule, Marshall had only been working once or twice a week and every moment was out of chronological order. The poor young actor seemed lost. So Florent assigned me to help Marshall keep his character on path.
As it turned out, Marshall hadn’t any issues with his character. What appeared to be effecting his performance was his perceived relationship with his co-stars, Ben and Tuck. Marshall wasn’t cowed or intimidated by the pair’s combined credits and experience. He merely felt shut out and isolated. Where Tuck and Ben had instantly struck up a friendship full or bro-hugs and actor shorthand, Marshall was experiencing something akin to being a high school freshman whom nobody in the cafeteria wanted to sit next to.
With that, I took a walk around the block with Ben Foster. I’d come to enjoy these little strolls. Ben had already proved to be an astonishing talent. Moreover, his willingness to share aspects of his process to this curious writer just added to the collaborative pleasure. But there were limits. Not so much Ben’s. But mine. The darkness which he’d channeled in order to play the psychopath Mars was sometimes too much for me to digest. So when Ben stopped our stroll to morbidly examine the dead pigeon next to our path, I quickly stepped around it and continued our chat.
“Marshall’s feeling left out,” I finally said.
“I don’t have a problem with him,” said Ben. “Seems nice enough.”
“It’s you and Tuck,” I continued. “You’re already pretty buddy buddy. He’s trying to fit in.”
“What can I say?” Ben defended. “He’s pretty awkward to be around. Can’t speak for Tuck, but we don’t mean anything if he doesn’t feel like he can hang.”
“You don’t need to be pals. But he’s not as experienced as you guys, and it’s effecting his performance.”
“You got a suggestion?”
“Just this. You and Tuck, your characters are best pals. Marshall’s character is the little brother who’ll do anything to fit in. Be accepted by the alphas.”
“Which is what Marshall wants.”
“Right. To fit in.”
“I gotcha,” Ben nodded. “I’ll figure something out.”
What followed was a similar conversation with Jonathan Tucker. Tuck, whose heart is as big as the Hollywood sign, revealed a knowing grin and pledged to join Ben in treating Marshall like a little brother.
“You’ve already talked to Ben,” I said.
“Yup,” said Tuck. “We’re gonna welcome Marshall to the family.”
About an hour later, we were back on the set. The scene took place in the cab of a rusty pick-up truck. Tuck behind the wheel, Ben riding shotgun, and Marshall sandwiched between. It was a simple set-up. And on the monitors, I could see the trio were all laughs between takes. As if a magic wand had been passed over them and the tension in Marshall had all but vanished. He was suddenly in the groove with his two co-stars.
“Okay, let’s do it again,” called out Florent.
Then just as the cameras were settling into their starting positions…
“Wait,” called out Ben. “Marshall?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Marshall. With that, he youngest thesp briefly slipped his head down and out of frame. The cab of the truck erupted in laughs.
“Okay,” said Tuck. “Read to go.”
Cameras rolled. And set-up after set-up, take after take, the afternoon moved along seamlessly. But always with the same brief interruption before the director called for action.
“What the hell are you guys doing in there?” I later asked Ben.
“Just making Marshall part of the family,” he grinned.
“And it’s working,” I said, appreciative. “Thanks. But what’s the trick?”
“Not sayin’,” said Ben.
“Nope. Just between us bad boys.”
“Whatever,” I said, holding up my hands in resignation.
I had nothing to complain about. I’d asked for help and presto-change-o, my wish had been granted. I didn’t need to know how or why. Marshall’s performance was easy and free and as flowing as his newest compadres. That still didn’t keep my curious side from asking both Tuck and Marshall.
But mum was the word.
Maybe a month later, we had finally wrapped location work and were happily ensconced shooting interiors on a pair of large soundstages at Raleigh Studios. It would be our last locale before burning the set for the movie’s finale.
The thing about shooting on soundstages for extended periods is that the workplace can take on an office-like atmosphere—all the way down to when and where people sit for lunch and that corner of the company refrigerator that is reserved for certain individuals and their personal supplies of Yoplait.
One day, one of our union set decorators cornered me near the craft service table.
“You’re a producer,” she said. “When do we wrap those damn boys.”
“I’m not a producer,” I corrected, though I was certainly operating as such. “I’m just the writer.”
“Well, you seem to know things around here,” she said. “Do you know?”
“When who wraps?”
“Those gross and stinky boys.”
“You mean Tucker and Ben?”
“And that other one.”
“All of ‘em,” she said. “When they done?”
“Week or three,” I guessed. “Is there a problem?”
“The problem is in the freezer unit.”
I shook my head, as lost as young Marshall Allman when this story began.
“You don’t know?” she asked.
“Afraid not,” I admitted.
“They got a dead pigeon in the company fridge.”
“In the freezer,” she snapped. “And some people put their food in there.”
“There’s a dead pigeon in freezer?”
“What do you think I’m tellin’ you?”
Moments later I was at the company fridge that was plugged into a dark corner of the soundstage. I opened the freezer, nearly certain as to what I’d find. Sure enough, wrapped in a kitchen garbage bag was the same dead pigeon Ben and I had stumbled upon during our Altadena stroll.
“So lemme guess,” I said, visiting Ben at his trailer dressing room. “After our talk, you went back and picked up the dead pigeon.”
“Somethin’ like that,” he smiled.
“And before every take in the truck…” I teed him up.
“We told Marshall to kiss it.”
“Kiss the dead pigeon?”
“It was wrapped in plastic,” said Ben. “We kept it under the car seat.”
“And your thinking was?”
“It was your thinking. Make him part of the family. So we came up with this initiation to the club. Kiss the pigeon.”
“Okay,” I laughed. “So why’s it in the company freezer right next to the fudge bars and popsicles?”
“Just as a reminder,” said Ben. “Every so often, when Marshall gets a little hinky, Tuck and I tell him he’s gotta kiss it, and he straightens his act right up.”
I don’t recall when I stopped laughing. In some ways, I haven’t.
- More Behind the Lines with Doug Richardson
- Behind the Lines with DR: Don’t Be a Jerk – What Goes Around…
- Primetime: Getting Your First Job in Hollywood
- Mapping the Journey for Professional Screenwriters: An Interview with Diane Drake
Tools to Help:
- Tales from the Script DVD
- 10 Steps to Empower Your Career
- Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing
- Screenwriters University