I’ve told this story before. But not in this forum. And I remind myself of it from time to time when I start getting precious about rules and unions and ceremony that get me absolutely nowhere. Still, the tale never ceases to cause a bit of acrimony and disagreement. So buckle up.
On one of my movies, there was a scene that wasn’t quite landing for the Big Kahuna star. The picture was still in prep, just two weeks before jumping off the fated cliff that was our start date. Film was going to roll and time would instantly turn from precious to priceless.
The scene was a two-hander. The star was set to perform it with a semi-experienced character actor budgeted and cast for two days’ work. I suggested that maybe the star and the character actor get together for a couple hours of relaxed discussion and rehearsal. Nothing like a little off-camera scene work to unplug whatever might be stuck in the dramatic pipes.
“Great idea,” said the Big Kahuna. “Make it happen, will ya?”
I called the production’s Unit Production Manager for the actor’s telephone number.
“Whoa,” said the UPM. “SAG says we gotta pay for rehearsal days. And there ain’t no money for this.”
I went on to explain the situation. The scene. The star. The nature of needing to release some creative play on my two troubled pages of script. It was a problem that required a creative resolution.
“Listen,” said the UPM. “If you, the star, and this day player wanna get together on your own time work on the scene, then good on you all. But it didn’t happen outta this office. I don’t need SAG up my ass.”
Understood. So I got the day player’s digits from the casting director and promptly dialed. I recall he practically picked up on the first ring. I introduced myself as the current writer of the film. After a brief explanation of my need to freely rehearse the scene in order to ferret out whatever speed bumps were still vexing the star, the actor seemed quite amenable. Still, he wanted to consult his manager first.
“I understand,” I said. “But your manager is going to call the production office and he’s going to find out that the picture can’t and won’t pay for this little journey. We’re a little out of bounds here.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I gotcha. Still gotta call my man, you know?”
“You got my number,” I said. “So call me back.”
Twenty minutes later my phone rang. Yes, it was my new day player friend.
“Talked to my manager and no can do, man,” said the actor. “I’m a professional. And I gotta be paid for my time.”
“Just a coupla hours,” I said. “That’s it. And we’ll make it work for you. You, me, and the movie star up at the Mulholland house. Beers and laughs. C’mon.”
“My manager says no.”
“Of course he says no. How’s he gonna slice his fifteen percent outta nothing? But this isn’t going to happen unless you and me and the Big Kahuna do it on our own. No money for rehearsal. They’re seriously looking for more stuff to cut every day.”
More discussion followed. I tried not to play salesman as much as fairly state my case that the scene needed his help. Eventually, the ice began to melt.
“Okay,” said the day player. “I get you. And I’m with you.”
“Great,” I said. “And thanks.”
“But lemme call my manager back. ‘Splain it to him. Then I’m good.”
“Okay,” I said, sucking air between my teeth. But since the day player was again going to call his manager, I wasn’t holding my breath for a quick call back. And sometimes I hate being right.
Fast-forward to two hours later. My phone finally rang.
“Look man,” said the actor, “Acting is my living. It’s my job. You understand that, right?”
“And as much as I wanna help, I gotta get paid.”
“How many days you booked for?” I asked.
“Two,” said the actor.
“That’s two days you’re going to get paid for.”
“Manager says I gotta get paid to rehearse.”
“Understood. But here’s a question. I explained to you that the Big Kahuna is having issues with the scene, right?”
“Yeah, you did.”
“Well, here’s the danger. If he continues having issues with the scene—and considering the cuts they’ve been making to the budget—your two days could get cut to one.”
“Ah, man,” said the day player. “Don’t do that to me.”
“Not doing anything to you, pal. That’s the world we live in. I have a scene that for some reason my movie star doesn’t feel comfortable with. I want the scene in the movie. I need the scene in the movie. It’s a scene that, if it works, will be good for the movie and will also be good for you. It’s just you and the big-assed movie star. Two pages.”
“Big Kahuna gettin’ paid?”
“For the movie. Rehearsal or not.”
“You gettin’ paid?”
“Actually, no. But that’s another story I don’t feel like discussing.”
“Man. You’re makin’ it hard.”
“Hear me,” I said in utter and complete candor. “I just want the movie to be the best it can be. That means I need every scene to be the best it can be. And I will do anything within my meager power to make it so. Because in success, we all do better, yeah?”
“Yeah, man. You’re so right. I wanna do it. Lemme call my man back.”
“Seriously?” I said. “We both know what he’s going to say.”
“Naw,” he said. “He’ll be cool. I’ll ‘splain it all to him. Make the best movie and all that shit. I’m good with it, now. Scene looks good, we all look good.”
“Dude,” I said. “You don’t have to call your manager. You and I are adults. We can do this without adding more opinions to the soup.”
“I know, I know. Call you back in five.”
As you might expect, the day player didn’t call me back for the rest of the day. Then came the call from the Big Kahuna himself.
“So we gonna get together and turn your scene inside-out?” he asked.
“Still workin’ on the actor,” I said. “He wants to get paid.”
“He should get paid.”
“Then you call the production office, okay? Because I got a resounding ‘talk to the hand.’
The movie star called me back after dinner.
“Can’t get it done,” said the Big Kahuna.
“Why not?” I asked, putting a muzzle on my incredulousness.
“I guess we don’t have the money.”
“Think that’s what I said—“
“Call the guy again. Tell him I said we really need to put a spark to the scene.”
“Already had numerous conversations with the guy. Your turn.”
“Cuz I’m a producer on the movie. And we don’t need SAG starting a shit storm.”
“Seriously, man. I don’t think I can make it happen.”
“… I’m starting to really hate this mother-fucking scene, man. Maybe we should think of something else instead.”
It was precisely what I warned the day-player about. That damned scene was in danger of becoming waste water. Soon to be flushed and replaced with Lord knows what.
And with no scene, my newest actor pal would have no job at all.
The next morning, I tried the day player one last time.
“The scene’s in danger,” I told him.
“Man, my manager said you’d say that exactly somethin’ like that to get me to rehearse,” he said.
“I’m trying to save the scene,” I said. “No lie. I’m not the producer. I’m not the star. I’m not the director. I’m the writer and this is about my scene. Help me out, will ya?”
“Y’all playin’ chicken with me.”
“Nobody is playing games here,” I said.
“My manager says I should report this shit to SAG.”
“Be my guest,” I said. “And give SAG my number. I’ll tell ‘em the same damn thing I told you.”
There was a sudden and odd silence at the other end of the line. The pause of a man I hoped was wrestling with the idea of growing a pair and painting outside the lines.
“Can’t do it man. Just can’t do it,” he eventually said.
I told the day player I understood and appreciated his situation. And I wished him luck.
“Think I’m gonna need it?” he asked.
“We’re making a movie,” I said. “We all need it.”
As you might guess, the scene was never rehearsed. And for awhile, it dangled by a frayed thread of gaffers tape, in danger of never seeing a frame of film. In the end, the scene stayed on the schedule, was filmed near dawn at the end of a very long and exhausting week, and once it made it into the picture’s initial cut, became a bone of contention between the Big Kahuna and yours truly. It must’ve been in and out of the movie three times before I negotiated with the star to re-voice his part in ADR.
The day player, you ask? He filmed his two days and cashed the check. Then disappeared from the production, nearly as forgotten as yesterday’s catering. To this very day I still don’t blame him for sticking with his manager’s advice. Nor do I have much issue with the unions or the structures erected to protect artists from Hollywood abuse. It’s only when those sticky rules put the quality of the final product in danger that I get a bit creased.
Would the scene have been any better had the day player seen things my way, taken two hours out of his life, thrown back a few brews and helped us turn those two pages into maybe something better? We’ll never know. But I’m certain that had he taken that little leap, there was a chance he’d have bettered his moment on screen, not to mention opportunities to better his career.
As for the movie star, he went on making movies. Me? Well, I continue writing movies. And last time I checked, the day player was still a day player.
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