Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Streets of New Haven

In July of 2007, I found myself standing on Yale's campus dressed in a tweed jacket, a bow tie, knickerbockers and penny loafers, surrounded by probably 150 other similarly dressed individuals in the hot summer sun. No, this wasn't a costume party, and I hadn't fallen into a time warp, though it felt like I did - I was fortunate enough to be on the set for the what was the then unnamed fourth Indiana Jones picture, working as an extra, which still stands as amongst the most rewarding experiences of my life. Not just because it was about an exciting beginning to what I hope will be a long career in the making of motion pictures, but because I got to witness firsthand the directorial methods of a man I consider to be the greatest cinematic artist in the United States. Watching Steven Spielberg work his movie magic first hand was and is, quite frankly, the thrill of a lifetime - an experience that I'll never forget, and one I'll always be grateful for.

This saga began in May of 2007 when I noticed I had a missed call on my cell phone from a good friend of mine. Now, this guy is as close a friend as I have in this world, but he's not one to call you for anything, ever. You wanna see him, you have to do the initiating, but I like this individual so much that he's one of the few people for whom I'm actually willing to make that dreaded first phone call. But on this day, he called me, so I figured something must be up - maybe someone died, maybe he robbed a bank, who knew, but I knew it was something big if he was picking up the phone and calling me.

As it turned out, he did have big news, but not on the order that I could have possibly predicted - he told me that he'd just read that the next Indiana Jones movie was going to be shooting in New Haven, Connecticut, just an hour and a half away from where he and I live in New Jersey, and that there was an open casting call for extras. "Do you wanna go?", he asked me, clearly trying to contain his excitement - "Hell yes", I replied, not trying at all to contain my excitement. Here it was, one of the most anticipated and talked about movies of the decade, a film that had gone through endless stages of development hell, a movie that would reunite the legendary Lucas/Spielberg tandem, and we had a chance - however outside it may have been at the time - to be in it? There wasn't anything that could keep me away.

A few days later, he came by my house bright and early and we hit the road for New Haven. From where we live, it's about an hour and a half up Interstate 95, so it was an easy, relaxing trip. We parked somewhere on the street and headed for what I think was a Marriott and were shuffled into this room with lots of chairs where we filled out an application - which was, surprisingly enough, just like every other job application I'd filled out - and waited for it to be our turn to go talk to the casting directors. When our time came, I did what I usually do, got friendly with everyone and tried to endear myself to them in some way. They asked me if the distance would be an issue, I said absolutely not, that I had a car and was willing to make any and all arrangements necessary to work on the movie. My friend and I gave our headshots, and that was that. We headed back to Fort Lee, figuring we didn't have a shot, but happy that we tried at least.

Truthfully, over the course of the next few days it was the farthest thing from my mind. I'd more or less resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to get it - that there were people more qualified (i.e., better looking with more experience) and closer to New Haven than I. Then, while sitting at work one day, the phone rang and it was someone who worked for the casting agency, informing me that, yes, I had indeed been cast as an extra. I somehow managed to avoid screaming into the phone and deafening the poor fellow, and when I hung up the phone the first thing I did was call my friend to see if he'd received the same glorious phone call that I did. He did not. To this day, the fact that I was cast in the film and he was not is a source of heartbreak for me, a blemish on what is an otherwise perfect experience. I met more than a fair share of interesting people in my time working on the film, but ultimately, I did it alone. A few weeks later I made the drive up to New Haven, all by my myself this time, to get my hair cut and to get measured for my costume. I was given a date and time to come up in July, and until then, I waited for my day to come.

And when it did, I woke up before the sun was out and, once again, made the trip to New Haven, this time watching the sun rise as I drove. I arrived at the very same hotel that I had just a month prior, this time not as a hopeful but as an employed member of the cast of Indiana Jones IV. I went to get made up (an experience I was used to because of the little bit of acting I'd done in High School), then I went to get my costume. On my way out the door, I walked past the prop master who goes "Hey! You! You want a bike?". Now, I hadn't ridden a bike since mine got stolen in 8th grade (a truly traumatic experience), but there was no way I was saying no to a bike - especially a vintage one. For what it's worth, I discovered later on in the day that I was given a girl's bike.

So, after helping myself to the complimentary breakfast (man I loved working on a Hollywood movie - you make great bank and they feed you), I walked my bicycle over to the Yale campus where the other extras had gathered. I decided to ride my bike around and get a feel for it, because I hadn't ridden one in years and the last thing I needed to do was make a jackass of myself (or make more of a jackass of myself). I pedaled about the campus and stopped at a gate away from everyone else and just kind of looked around, taking in the surroundings, when I heard coming from behind me a voice I recognized instantly. I turned around and there was Steven Spielberg, and he walked past me and stopped in front of me to the side, where he stopped and waited for his assistant, whom he was a good 40 paces in front of. It somehow made perfect sense that Spielberg would be in such a rush to get to work that his assistant wouldn't be able to keep up, and though he stood near me for a solid few seconds, I didn't dare say anything to him, though I know I should have. Not "OMG I love your moviez!!!!", but something simple like "Good morning". But I couldn't. I was star struck, for the first and only time in my life, and though we made solid eye contact we exchanged no words. His assistant finally caught up to him, and one of the great American artists continued on his busy way.

The rest of the day seemed to go along smoothly. They were basically filming 2nd unit footage, though Spielberg was supervising it, for the motorcycle chase that occurs early in the film. The whole sequence is masterful, displaying Spielberg's near perfect sense of geography and his inspired use of camera choreography - my favorite bit of staging being when Indiana Jones hops off his motorcycle, goes through an open car window, and comes out the other side and gets back on - but what was filmed in the courtyard over the course of the two days I spent there is visually uninteresting in the film. My guess is Spielberg was there to shoot a crucial shot of the Marcus Brody statue being decapitated, but the short sequence - about a minute of the finished film - was by and large standard from a compositional standpoint.

My first day on the set was a Friday, and I'd presumed that would be my only day. I was surprised when, on the following Monday, they contacted me in the later part of the morning and asked if I could come to New Haven - like now - because apparently they had to do re-shoots in the courtyard and were scrambling to get extras. I told them of course, and as quickly as I could got in my car and drove (really, really fast) back to New Haven, donned my costume, and went back to the Yale Courtyard for another day of riding my bike around the campus.

My reward for coming so far on such short notice was being offered to join them the next day, which truthfully didn't thrill me at the time because that would mean I get home just in time go right to sleep, wake up at 5 AM and do it all again, but obviously there was no way I was going to refuse. And I'm glad I didn't, because my third and last day was by far the greatest I spent on the set, though also the longest and most exhausting (though getting paid time and a half was a consolation). I spent a 10-12 hour day inside the Yale Law Library, and it was here that I really got a sense of Spielberg's directorial methods, because the staging was more intensive and required a more active presence on his part. The man worked with an energy that was infectious - his enthusiasm for his work was truly inspiring. One of the more touching displays I saw in my three days occurred when a young man, who has a few quick lines in the finished script, thanked Spielberg when he was through shooting. It was clear he was very deeply touched by being given this opportunity, and as he was in the midst of thanking Spielberg it was obvious to me that he was on the brink of tears. Spielberg sensed this, and just gave the kid, whom he probably barely knew, a big hug. Spielberg is truly as warm a human being as his films would have you believe, and that kindness was on full display in my three days on the set. Which is not to say Spielberg is a pushover by any means - on my first day, he kicked a member of the crew off the set for dicking around. Though the set was a very pleasant place to be, you never forgot for a second that you were there to work and work hard.

He filmed the whole sequence that day, and I had a feeling it would be my last. It couldn't have ended more perfectly. As I walked to my car, up the streets of New Haven which were decorated with vintage store fronts and lined with pristine 1950's cars - which, combined with everyone being dressed in period costumes, was truly surreal - I suddenly realized I was walking through Steven Spielberg's memory, his vision of his childhood both as it existed to him and our culture's perception of it. This feeling was very much echoed when I saw the film when it was released in May of 2008, which opens with a shot of teenagers driving their car through the desert while Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" plays on the soundtrack, through its opening which ultimately finds Indiana Jones on a nuclear test site and nearly killed by a bomb, to the sequence's shot in New Haven which convey cold war era political tensions, and through the finale which conveys a genuine wide eyed appreciation of science fiction pulp. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is Spielberg at his most personally populist, a channeling of the popular conception of the '50s through his own personal memories and imagination. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is by no means a perfect film, but it's certainly a film that illuminates a lot about where Spielberg is coming from as an artist, and to be able to participate (however insignificantly) in its creation is an experience I'll always cherish.

Yours truly, decked out in 50s attire, caught completely off guard (though that's the expression I usually have on my face) by some dude with a camera while riding my prop bike around New Haven, July of 2007.


Adam Zanzie said...

Ryan, not only do I envy your experience, but I envy your courage. I'm not the best when it comes to driving long distances and I have a very poor sense of direction, too, so I don't think I would have had the guts to drive all the way out there to New Haven every single day--even if I had gotten hired!

I would have thrown away my chance to meet Lynch just so that I could have had your experience of getting to watch Spielberg direct. And watching Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Januz Kaminski and all of those other people at work. It definitely sounds surreal. Again, I think I would have been scared out of my wits. I have no idea how you did it!

As you know, I'm in agreement with you on KOTCS as a film. Minor Spielberg, perhaps, but there's so much wonderful celebration of 50's pulp in it that it's difficult to dismiss. You have a better claim to that opinion than I have, however, since you were there.

A question about the dude who snapped that great picture of you: how did you end up getting a copy of the photo? Did he give one to you right then and there? Photos are always difficult to take these days when one is in those surreal situations (especially since you were there alone). Even if the photo was not included in the piece I still would have loved this, but that's just a friggin' awesome photo... don't ever lose it!

Anyway, that's a long way of me saying how jealous I am and how cool it was to read this. You told me this story a couple of years ago back when KOTCS was released, but I never got to hear the full details until now. I don't live anywhere near Spielberg's regular shooting areas, so make sure you keep working on his movies for me, pal. Hey: New Jersery is near Pennsylvania, so maybe if he goes to Gettysburg to shoot some scenes in Lincoln you can go back for more!

Lee said...

What a wonderful story...and a magical memory to have! I can't even imagine how infectious the energy was on that set. Being that close to Spielberg would leave me speechless as well! I can't think of another director whose movies have played a significant role in every stage of my life (I still remember balling during "E.T." when I was six). Thanks for sharing this unforgettable experience


Jason Bellamy said...

Well that's pretty fucking cool! It's one thing to be an extra; it's another thing to be an observer. You got to be both. Sweet.

Ed Howard said...

That's just an awesome experience, and a great story, Ryan. I'm not even the biggest Spielberg fan and I'm still jealous.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, you gotta branch out kid! The great thing about having a car is that you can go anywhere you want - it may take a while, but it really gives you a lot of freedom. I drove from Jersey to Florida, so going from Jersey to Connecticut was nothing. Don't be intimidated by the road.

It was hard to keep my wits about me, but eventually I just settled into the reality that I was there to work. It took a little while (I was on cloud nine the first day), but I got used to it pretty fast.

And I don't think my opinion is any more valid because I was in the movie - if anything, I may be more fond of it than I would be otherwise. But I doubt it.

Anyway, I got a copy of the picture because immediately after he snapped it I stopped my bike dead in its tracks (nearly busting my ass in the process) and gave him e-mail and asked if he could send it to me. And he did! So glad I did that. But I knew I'd want it.

Ryan Kelly said...

Lee, Spielberg's films have been a huge part of my life as well - E.T. was, literally, my first movie. And it was kind of overpowering being in the presence - and even working for, however indirectly - of the man who crafted so many unforgettable films.

Ryan Kelly said...

Jason, that was indeed the great pleasure of it, which is why I'm so glad that I did that third day even though I was totally exhausted by that point (and, again, I made a lot of money for just standing around). But that's the day I really got to watch him work.

Ryan Kelly said...

Ed, then imagine how it felt for me, being a huge Spielberg fan! And I was a really militant Spielberg fan then - had been since I saw Munich - and even got into debates with people on the set! I've cooled in the years since, if only slightly.

Anonymous said...

What a great story! I think I remember when you got that role.

The pic is fantastic, and that bike is sweet. I see the passerbys turning their heads in the photo-- what a little show-stopper you were! haha.

Ryan Kelly said...

I think that picture is hilarious - between the "Wha?" expression on my face, the people in modern attire around me, and the guy behind me giving a thumbs up for whatever reason, that picture is definitely a keeper.

Anonymous said...

I didn't even see the guy giving you the thumbs up! haha. That's fuckin' great. Love it. A keeper for life, 4 sho!

Anonymous said...

Looking at it a thrice, that pic is priceless. You and vintage mesh like syrup and milk. You-- like myself-- were totally born in the wrong decade.

Mr. Thatcher said...

Yes, decapitating Marcuse Brody pretty much sums up that movie... Crystal Skull is pure Spielberg, his best at its worst which does make for one confoundingly, tempestuous, philosophical, rigamoraling slice of rigrmortis. But I'll stop before I get become any more hypocritical.

Chief Hard Face

Ryan Kelly said...

Yes, the decapitation of the statue is, along with the "mountain/molehill" opening, really shows you the attitude KOTCS is going to be taking with the beloved franchise, which I think is pretty hilarious.

Crystal Skull is pure Spielberg, his best at its worst which does make for one confoundingly, tempestuous, philosophical, rigamoraling slice of rigrmortis.

I've said that many times.

Merry Christmas, and happy new year, you crazy cat.

Sam Juliano said...

Ah, I have your picture now! I will be looking for a bespecled guy riding a bike near the George Washington Bridge when I head over to Manhattan by way of that route! This is a wonderful and fecund remembrance of some priceless moments, involving Spielberg. You attended Yale Ryan? That's fantastic all by itself.

Ryan Kelly said...

Aye, sorry it took me so long to respond to this, Sam!

I did not attend Yale, but that's where they shot the college portions of the film. I joked at the time that it would be the first and last time I would ever be on that prestigious campus. But what with it being such a (relatively) easy commute, I couldn't resist the chance to go. And indeed it was a priceless experience.

And my hair is much longer than that now! And I don't dress like that most days of the week.

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