I’m being driven in a white van. It’s 4:45 a.m. on my first day of shooting a low- budget remake of the iconic horror film Chainsaw Massacre. Outside my window the Red River appears and disappears as the pink Louisiana dawn creeps over the dash. I close my eyes, lean my head against the cool, foggy glass, and pretend to sleep. My driver chews sunflower seeds and spits the shells into a Styrofoam cup. He asks if the radio is too loud, which it is, but I don’t answer—afraid an answer would only encourage a conversation. There will be no fake, friendly banter at this ungodly time of day.
We pull into Base Camp. Such a serious name for a place like this, a place where breakfast burritos are made, noses are powdered, and hair is blown dry and coiffed—“Base Camp.” The name evokes visions of heroic moon landings and explorations, but there are no heroes or explorers here. Here, there are only working-class folks and a handful of actors trying to earn a decent wage, get health insurance, and make it home before their kids are asleep.
I thank my driver and wander off through the production trailers looking for my name, which will be written on masking tape with a black sharpie and stuck to a door.
I find my character’s name, “Marvin,” taped to a trailer door and step inside. I look in the mirror and rub my face. The fluorescent lights make me look a hundred years old, and I obsess on an age spot that has suddenly appeared under my right eye. Leaning in, poking it softly, my breath steams the mirror gray. Fuck, it’s cold in here. I flick on a switch that says “heat” and a blower kicks on, making the room even colder.
I sit on musty orange cushions surrounded by dark paneled walls. A “No Smoking” sign burned with cigarette holes hangs over the plastic toilet in the corner. A picture of a chubby teen in a Budweiser bikini, laying across the hood of a vintage truck, hangs on the wall. The door of the truck reads: “Keep it real.” If only I could. But that’s not why I got into this business over thirty years ago. I wanted to be anybody but the real me. If someone wanted to pay me to pretend to be somebody else, all the better.
I hold my hand over the blower, still freezing. Now the room smells like turpentine or gas or whatever other poisonous chemicals they use to run these archaic heaters. There is a knock at the door. It’s the second Assistant Director. She’s cute, in that twenty-something-black-horn-rimmed glasses-brown cords-hip-slung-walkie-talkie kind of way.
“I see you found your room, James. Is it Jim or James?”
“Hi, I’m Roxanne.” She squeezes my hand so hard I almost laugh.
“Can I get you some breakfast?”
“Oatmeal if they have it.”
“Want anything on it?”
“Raisins, brown sugar, nuts, milk, the works, and a toasted bagel, cream cheese. Anything’s fine, really. Thanks.”
She writes and repeats back what I’ve just said. “Well, okay then. Anything else?”
“Yeah, the heater doesn’t work.”
“Really? That’s odd, I’ll have Gil come and look at it. He’s our trailer man. In the meantime, you can get dressed and I’ll let you know when a chair in make-up opens.”
“Sounds good,” I say. She starts to shut the door on her way out. “No, leave it open. It’s warmer outside than in here.”
“Oh, right, I’ll send Gil right over.”
I sit on the steps of my trailer, take out my script, thumb a dog-eared page, and begin to go over my lines. My big scenes are today. I breathe in deeply. The wet earth and misty dew reminds me of fifth grade and catching the bus for school on early Ohio mornings. After my parents divorced, my mother took my little brother and me to live with her grandparents in Doylestown—a place known for its kettle potato chips and abandoned coal mines. I watch a raven the size of a three-year-old wrestle a bag of chips. Its wings flap as it boxes the bag against a rusted dumpster then flies off, crumbs falling through the air. The sun breaks over the trees, warming my face. I’ve filmed hundreds of shows and the nerves are always there. I thought it would get easier with age, but it’s only gotten worse.
“Here you go,” Roxanne puts a bowl of brown mush into my hands. “Sorry, they didn’t have raisins or nuts or milk or any of that stuff, but they did have toast, and I brought you an apple. Hope that’s okay.”
“Perfect,” I say.
“Make-up’s got a chair open if you want to head over in five.”
“And, oh, Gil says the heater is broken. So you’re right. It shouldn’t smell like gas. And if it was working the air would be heating up. See you in five.”
I sit on the aluminum steps of my trailer, stirring the mush. It’s not oatmeal. It’s grits or cream of wheat or some gruel-like porridge that probably gets reconstituted in forty-gallon buckets of swamp water. I take a slurp. Not as bad as it looks. I’ve learned if I don’t get something in my stomach I have to piss every five minutes. My prostate is inflamed and I’m on my fifth round of antibiotics because they still don’t know what causes prostatitis.
I look down at the script and mutter my lines as “Marvin”—“cocky small-town cop in way over his head.” It’s my ritual, a mumbling meditation that builds with intensity as I pretend to talk to someone—someone who’s listening, nodding, or laughing. I’ve done this so often for so many years, I’m not even aware I’m doing it. To passersby, I’m just another bald, middle-aged white guy with an inflamed prostate, babbling to himself:
Sheriff? This is Marvin. I’m inside the Sawyers house. Door was open… Well, there’s a whole mess ‘a blood here sir… What? You think Jed Sawyers is alive and those kids were sawed up with a chainsaw!?… But Jed Sawyers’ been dead for over twenty years… Ha, you know it, sir. Got my Sig Sauer extra clip. Just looking for a reason… Copy that, sir, but a chainsaw don’t make you bulletproof.
I repeat the lines, trying different inflections.
Copy that, sir, but a chainsaw don’t make you bullet proof.
Copy that, sir but a chainsaw don’t make you bulletproof.
I’m being driven in a white van. The set is only a hundred yards away, but they always make the talent ride in the van. It could be dangerous to let an actor walk on his own. He could get disoriented, lose his bearings, fall in a dry well, or hit his head on a low-slung mulberry branch.
Gil not only manages the trailers, he’s also one of the drivers. He apologizes for the lack of heat and swears the heater was working last night. We’re almost to the set when we stop, because they’re shooting and have the road on lockdown. Gil shuts off the van. “Might as well save the petrol. If gas were free we’d all be rich, huh?”
I’m not sure what he means. “If only,” I say.
“A lot of folks from these parts are rich now ‘cause of the fracking.’”
“I heard that was bad for the environment. Messes up the water tables,” I say.
“Never heard anything about that. But let me tell you, most folks ‘round these parts are dirt poor. Talkin’, they’d go to KFC and lick other peoples’ fingers. When they told Bobby Buckle he was sitting on a twenty million dollar reserve of natural gas and they were going to pay a million a year to lease his land, you’d think he woulda had the money spent, right? Well, Bobby got his first check, and the crazy fool wouldn’t even cash it. He carried that thing in his wallet for the better part of a year. And wherever he’d go he’d take it out and wave it around like a goddamn flag. True story.”
“Did he finally cash it?”
“Oh, yeah. His wife threatened to leave him if didn’t. So, he cashed it and got himself a new bass boat. And people don’t know this but the trick to a good tasting bass is not to let it get warm. Not for a second. Soon as I unhook it, goes straight on the ice. When you get home, you fillet it, cut it into little cubes, mix up your batter—I like Aunt Jemima buttermilk. And get your stale beer—stale beer, needs to be open and flat—and some of them fancy Oriental bread crumbs.”
“Panko?” I say.
“You tell me,” he laughs. “Then straight into the fryer. I always make two tartars. The wife don’t like dill pickles in hers.”
“Cut!” A voice on Gil’s walkie-talkie breaks in. “Moving on!”
Gil restarts the van and we roll up to the house. I get out and follow the electric cables down to the basement. Nobody notices me as they splatter fresh blood and body parts around the room. I already have to piss and I haven’t even met the director yet. The First A.D. appears and walks me over to the director, who’s playing with fake fingers in a bedpan.
“Allen, this is Jim. He’s playing Marvin.”
“These fingers are fucking amazing, but we can’t see them in the bedpan. What can we do about that?” Allen says.
“We pick them up in the shot when Jed brings Marvin’s face over,” says the A.D.
“Oh, that’s right! We’re cutting off Marvin’s face today. Perfect.”
The director puts his hand on my shoulder and walks me over to a bloody dentist chair. “This is where we’re doing it, James. You like Jim or James?”
“Okay, you’re almost dead, but not quite. He’s put a hatchet in your back and you’re going in and out of consciousness as he slowly cuts off your face. Sorry, we have to shoot your death scene first, but you know how it goes. Let’s rehearse this.”
I sit in the chair. What appears to be the largest man I’ve ever seen comes toward me. The man puts out his hand and I shake it. The First A.D. jumps in. “Jim, this John. He’s our Jed.”
“Hey, how’s it going?” I say. John wears a mask of faux human flesh crudely sewn onto his cheeks. He says nothing and walks away.
“Quiet on the set, everybody!” yells the First A.D.
“Action!” shouts the director. I close my eyes and let my mouth go slack. “Give me a couple moans, Jim.” I moan, aaahhhmmm. “Not so big.” I moan quieter, ammm. “Tilt your head. The other way. Towards me. A little more. Whoops, too far. Split the difference. Perfect.” The director motions to John. “Okay, go on in, Jed.” John moves into the scene and runs his fingers softly over his forehead. “Give me something, Jed. This is it. What you’ve been waiting for. You’re in ecstasy. I want to see it.” John giggles and pants. “Nice. Good. Now, start slicing, Jed.” John draws a plastic razor down my face. “Ecstasy, Jed! Come on give it to me. You should be fucking coming in your pants right now. Marvin! What are you doing? Stop twitching your foot. You’re dead.”
“I am?” I say. “I thought I was still alive.”
“You are, but you’re unconscious. No more twitching. Wait, I kind of like it. When we turn around, we’ll get both. And…ACTION!” I moan. I don’t twitch. John giggles and cuts off my face. “CUT. Nice. Okay, moving on. Think we’re good.”
I’m being driven in a white van. It’s warm now so I roll down the window. How can it be so damn cold one minute and downright muggy the next? I have another two weeks left on the shoot. Before I’m home a handful of extras will pass out in the triple digit Texas heat, the director of photography will be fired because we’re a month behind schedule, and I’ll have consumed enough BBQ brisket to deplete a lifetime of carbon footprint credits.
I’m being driven in a white van. I’ve just landed back in L.A. and I’m on my way home. I tip the driver, sling my bags over my shoulder, and walk up the driveway. My daughter will see me through the kitchen window and run to meet me, followed by my wife and son. One by one they’ll hug me, and I’ll pretend, at least for today, that things are different—that the corner has been turned, that other jobs are on their way, and that there is a divine hand in all this play.
My daughter hugs my side and presses her cheek against my arm. “What did you bring me, Daddy?” I smile. “You’ve been gone, Daddy. You were really far away.”