About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Superbowl and The Sum of All My Fears

Not to fear, all my geeky readers of this blog, this post isn't really that much about the Superbowl. Mainly it will involve action movies, Tom Clancy and on set film business anecdotes as they relate to the biggest football game of the year.

The Super Bowl is this Sunday. It will feature That Team There playing against That Other Team There. If  that doesn't reassure you of this post's minimal Super Bowl coverage, I don't know what will.

I hope The U.S. Department of Homeland Security watches a lot of movies. If so, they will have operable intelligence that the Super Bowl is quite the popular potential target for terrorists and/or psychos. It's a scenario that very much predates 9-11.  Super Bowl attack paranoia goes at least as far back as 1976:

A psycho sniper at the Super Bowl that only Charlton Heston and John Cassavetes can stop?  Suddenly I'm a lot more interested in football. 

I know. I know. It's actually referred to as Championship Sunday in the movie. More than likely the producers could not afford the rights to the name Super Bowl. That NFL legal licensing team was on the ball even back then.  I wouldn't be surprised if this post is pulled for legal reasons because I did not title it The Big Football Game at the Beginning of February and The Sum of All My Fears.

A year later, Hollywood upped the stakes with this classic John Frankenheimer thriller

In Black Sunday, terrorists plan to bomb the Super Bowl (they had the rights to the name this time around) using the Goodyear blimp as the delivery system.  And, yes, actual terrorists do figure in the plot. Palestinians in this case. Just to back up the point, the hero of the movie is a tough Mossad agent played by Robert Shaw. Though, really, the Goodyear company should know better than to hire a bitter psycho Vietnam veteran played by Bruce Dern to pilot their blimp.

Back in 1977, such scenarios seemed quaintly far fetched.

Why is it that I'm only interested in football when it involves the threat of mayhem and destruction being reigned down on the sport's biggest game? Oh, yeah, right. High school Gym class.

Best selling political thriller author Tom Clancy brought the Super Bowl attack premise to its ultimate logical conclusion with this 1991 entry into his popular Jack Ryan series of books:

Yep. Part of the plot of Clancy's The Sum of All Fears involves terrorists setting off a nuclear bomb at -you guessed it- the Super Bowl.

Hollywood decided to wait until 2001 to announce plans to film The Sum of All Fears. It was kinda odd timing given that three other of Clancy's books about CIA operative Jack Ryan,  The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, had already been filmed featuring the 007-like switch-up casting of Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford as Ryan.

In The Sum of All Fears, the much younger than his predecessors Ben Affleck was cast as Ryan. James Earl Jones suddenly became Morgan Freeman.  In fact, there was no real indication if there was or was not supposed to be continuity between this newest Ryan adventure and the previous two. The Sum of All Fear has got to be the most secretive reboot of all time.

At this point,  you may be wondering where the acenecdotes about the movie biz that I promised earlier fits in to all this.  It's coming, trust me.

The Sum of All Fears was one of the first big Hollywood blockbusters to shoot in Montreal.  That meant that a great deal of Montreal actors would probably get quite a lot of smaller speaking roles (with various variations on the term "smaller").

That included yours truly.

The Sum of All Fears was one of the weirder auditions I've been on. I went in for some other movie or TV show entirely.  I don't remember the title even. These were the old glory days of the Montreal film and TV production boom. It was not uncommon to lose track of auditions, especially once I was done with them. In recession laden 2011, however, it's hard to forget something you do only two or three times a year.  Anyway, while I was auditioning for whatever, I was asked if I'd like to read one line for The Sum of All Fears.

Yes, it's true. Actors audition, sometime multiple times, for roles of one line or sometimes even less. This is especially true for Montreal-based actors.

They put me on tape saying my one line, "Mr.President". I said it while handing a video cassette box over to an unseen presumably off-camera President of the United States. I had no idea of the context of the scene in the story but I'm pretty sure that the prop in question was not actually supposed to be a video cassette case in the actual movie.

Auditions had already been held for The Sum of All Fears and all the parts had been cast some time ago. I even knew some actors who had already worked on the film by then. I had never auditioned in the first place. That I got to read for it at all was a total bonus.

Like many auditions back in the day, I put it out of my mind and went on with my life. A few weeks later, I was in Toronto working on the editing of "The Font Doctor", a short film written, performed and directed by The Vestibules. I picked up a phone message from my agent. The director of the movie, in the words of the casting director, "really loved" the way I said "Mr. President".

I had been offered a part in The Sum of All Fears.

Before the role was a done deal, they wanted to know if I could drive a manual transmission vehicle. If so, the gig was mine. Many years ago, I had an acting teacher whose advice when it came to any question regarding potential work was "always say yes". Can you sing? Yes. Can you dance? Yes. Can you speak German with a Scottish Accent? Yes. Can you drive a manual transmission? Yes. Thinking foremost of that advice and not wanting to lose a role of any size in a major Hollywood movie, I , of course, said "Yes."

As you may have guessed, I could not drive a manual transmission vehicle then (or now even). I decided that I'd take a crash course (no pun intended) and learn how to drive standard before my shoot date. In my experience, roles ivolving driving in movies usually meant going about four feet and then stopping and getting out. I was sure I could master that much in a short period of time.

There was one small problem. From the time when I got back to Montreal to when my shoot day was scheduled was only about one week. So as soon as I got home, I went to the driving school down the street. I told them I had to learn to drive a car with standard transmission in one week. The woman behind the counter asked me why it had to be done in such a short period of time. I said it's because I needed to know how to drive standard so that I could act in a movie with Ben Affleck. She looked at me blankly for a beat then said ,"No one will believe that. I'll tell the instructors you are going to Europe for business in a week.". Then she got on the phone to find any available driving instructors who could fit the lessons into their schedule in the next week.

I ended up landing four different lessons with four different instructors. I also ended up paying a nice and hefty "rush" fee on top of the cost of the lessons (still, though, at Hollywood pay scales, I'd be coming out way ahead).

At the time, I was writing and recording radio sketches with The Vestibules during the day and then doing shows with On The Spot Improv at night. So each evening that week, I'd finish with The 'Bules, shove a sandwich in my face on the bus, do an hour of manual driving lessons (at various weird locations all over the city, beggars can't be choosers) and then go do a show with Spot that night.

I think I wrecked many a clutch during that week. My fourth lesson was canceled by the instructor at the last minute. I would have to make do with just three lessons. I was still a little shaky on my abilities to drive a  vehicle with a manual transmission.

My shoot day finally arrived. I was lucky that first day. Production was behind schedule and they didn't get to my scene at all that day. I got paid to sit around in my trailer for twelve hours and then go home. It was a nice way to relax and build up my manual transmission skills confidence.  I kept coming back to "Hey, I'm only gonna have to drive for like three feet. I probably won't even have to shift gears." It was a night shoot so I managed to get some sleep in as well. Nice work if you can get it.

On the second day (we still call 'em days even when they're nights), they were ready to shoot my scene right when at the beginning of the day. Normally, that's a rare treat for a bit player in a big movie. This time around, not so much.

At this point, I should point what my role was. I did not get the role of a Pentagon official handing the President a video cassette box. No. Instead I got the role of a National Guard driver.

See, in the movie (SPOILER ALERT), there is this convoluted Chechnyian terrorist plot to set off a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl (which is again, for legal reasons, referred to as The Big Football Game or something equally lame). Of course, CIA analyst turned super agent Jack Ryan somehow figures out the plot. However, he is not in time to stop the bomb from exploding. Nice going, Ryan. James Bond would never have let that happen. So in my scene, Ryan is rushing to a makeshift aid station set up near the blast site.  Destruction and mayhem are everywhere.

I'm the National Guard driver that drives Ryan on to the site. I have one line. I say, "Oh, great. Now it's snowing too." to which Ryan says, "It's not snow. It's ash from the blast" (my guess is that this scene was added last minute over concerns that audiences might misinterpret the ash as snow-it being late January in Maryland in the story and all).

It seems I had, out of nowhere, suddenly landed myself a dialogue scene with  Ben Affleck. Score...sort of.

We were shooting out at the Armed Forces base airport in St.Jean Sur Richelieu (about half an hour out of Montreal). I walked on set and saw the whole thing in its entirety for the first time. By set, I mean two airplane hangers and a massive tarmac. There were two huge tents. One was for make-up for the extras so that they could all be made up to have simulated radiation burns and other injuries. The second was the hospital tent in the movie that they were going to shoot in. There was also a bunch of cars and trucks, military and otherwise. There were even actual soldiers from the US Army, presumably playing themselves (hello, typecasting).

Right next to the crane (OMG, a crane shot!), there was this very large truck. It had a great deal of expensive camera and lighting gear attached to it.

That was the truck that I was going to have to drive. Gulp.

Just then, the director, an extremely nice man named Phil Alden Robinson introduced himself to me. He explained that that day was the biggest and most complicated day of the entire shoot. The biggest day of the entire shoot of an action thriller involving a nuclear explosion. Did I mention that it would be best for the shoot and my career that I not fuck anything up and ruin a shot with all this other incredibly expensive stuff going?

I was then introduced to Mr. Affleck. We headed over to truck. I'm was about to do a scene in the middle  of a big budget Hollywood blockbuster driving a truck I didn't  know how to drive while playing a scene with Ben Affleck.

Piece of cake.

I got into the truck so we could rehearse the scene. I took a look at the gears. My mouth hung open in amazement.

The truck had an automatic transmission.

So when they told me I had to know how to drive standard, they were just kidding I guess. Can I have the last week of my life back now, please?

Immediately, my confidence level shot up about ten fold. However, I still have to drive a huge truck with lots of expensive equipment hanging off it. I ran the scene with Mr. Affleck a couple of times while doing some rehearsal driving. Other than almost running down some extras who were walking where they should not have been walking, everything went fine. Mr. Afflect disappeared back to his trailer. We continued to run the mechanics of the driving and the scene several times with his stand-in.

During that time, I was constantly told by the assistant director to drive much faster. Meanwhile the Steadicam operator, not unpredictably, kept asking me to make it all nice and smooth. I'm not sure where the director was in any of this.

The scene required, as I predicted, a short drive. I do my lines with Mr.Affleck while driving, drive a few more feet then stop. Mr.Affleck gets out of the truck and the Steadicam follows him out, the operator seamlessly walks onto a platform on the crane as it rises up and we see Mr. Affleck continuing to cross the tarmac in, to use Mr. Robinson's words, "the most complicated shot of the picture".

The whole scene is almost second nature to me by the time that we are ready to shoot. As we prepare, the stand-in is suddenly gone and I'm sitting next to Ben Affleck once again. We rehearse the scene once. We now are ready to shoot. There is a long delay. Mr. Affleck goes away someplace again. The assistant director comes over to me. He asks me if I can get out of the truck for a moment. They need to run the scene with one their guys, for some technical reason.  So I get out and watch them run the scene with a member of the crew driving the truck. It goes nice and fast.

Suddenly, Mr. Affleck is back. He gets into the truck. The crew member gets out of the truck. I figure they will be calling me back any moment. Then I suddenly notice that the wardrobe and hair people are hovering around the crew member.

They are putting a national guard uniform on the guy and giving him a military style haircut similar to mine.

Years earlier, I played the lead role in a wonderful play by Christoper Durang titled The Actor's Nightmare. It's about an actor who suddenly finds himself in a production of Hamlet but has not rehearsed the part and doesn't know any of the lines. As an improv veteran of many years, that scenario was never my version of The Actor's Nightmare.

That moment on set that night was my Actor's Nightmare. My Sum of All Fears.

Now nobody had said a word to me at that point. So I decided, "Fuck it. I'll play dumb".

As they were getting ready to roll, I walked over to the truck to get in. The assistant director came running over and said, "Um, we're gonna do the shot with one of our guys. It's a big rig and it needs to move fast.".  Thanks for the update, pal. Then I asked him what was going on with my lines. He said he didn't know.  I was quickly ushered away.

Later Mr. Robinson, the director, came over to me and apologized. He said that with all that equipment on the truck, it was an insurance issue. And they just suddenly realized this before rolling? To this day, I'm still not sure if I buy that explanation.

Though the director did tell me that Mr. Affleck and I would record our lines at the end of the shoot.  The shot in the scene is of the back of our heads so they could just dub the lines in later.

I was still not at all happy. As it turned out, the branch president of ACTRA, the actor's union, also had a small part in the film and was shooting that day.  "Ha! Little do they realize that the union branch president is on set today. They have not heard the end of this!", I thought.

I marched over to his trailer and explained what had happened. He very calmly and casually said, "Yeah.They can do that. As long as they're paying you.". I walked away singing Billy Bragg's "There is Power in a Union" to myself.

Just then the second assistant director came up to me and told me that they would not be using me in the shot tonight but that I would be recording me with Mr. Affleck at the end of the night. Boy, are those second assistant director's ever in the loop or what?

The end of the night came and me an' Ben (he wasn't Mr.Affleck anymore) recorded our two lines in the truck while it wasn't moving. About a thousand people stood around being completely quiet until we were finished.

I went home thinking that ,well, at least my voice would get to be in a major motion picture. And I did make something like 2500 bucks for two days work.

My date on set was in April of 2001. I think the film wrapped some time in June (they had been shooting since February).  I don't think I need not get into the events that followed in September. The original word that I was getting through my agent was that in the aftermath of 9-11, the movie would be shelved permanently and never released.  What had once been a far fetched Tom Clancy plot was now hitting way too close to home.

About a month later, Collateral Damage, an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about a firefighter tracking down a terrorist that had killed his family, was a huge hit. Add to that all those stories of  how movies like Independence Day were flying off the video store shelves (which, it was later learned, was based on a report from one New York area Blockbuster -so all those post 9-11 pundits were actually analyzing the behavior of one movie geek).

Early in 2002, I began seeing this in the theatres:

The Sum of All Fear opened in May 2002. I went to see it.

Most of the scenes depicting the attack were cut way down or were right out completely. Gone were the tents full of survivors with radiation burns. Only one short scene about the aftermath of the blast stayed in the movie on account of its importance to the plot. Also gone also was me, the damned truck, the crew member standing in for me and even the dialogue Ben and me recorded. Less than a year after 9-11, not showing the horrific aftermath of a nuclear attack on U.S. soil was understandable. A big drag for me but understandable.

When The Sum of All Fears came out on DVD, my scene was nowhere to be seen even in the deleted scenes. The movie was never a big enough hit to warrant a super duper two disc collector's edition DVD or Blu-ray. I doubt that footage will ever be unearthed. No. It will forever remain one of the great lost scenes of cinema history.

Every year I could care less about the Super Bowl except for one thing. It reminds of that day on the set of The Sum of All Fears. Showbiz is totally and utterly unpredictable.

Much to my surprise, a couple of years ago, I got suddenly $400 royalty cheque for The Sum of All Fears. I started singing "There is Power in a Union" with a different meaning this time.

Those royalty cheques keep coming in every year. And I'm not even in the movie!

Imagine what  kind of cheques Ben Affleck must be getting.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further write ups thanks once again.
    Super Bowl 2013