I was no sooner settled in my new digs here the other day than a letter was slipped under my door. A notice, it was, that some production company would be filming in and around the building. That their equipment trucks would be parked out front and the street traffic controlled. They apologized in advance for "any inconvenience" and offered their thanks for my "understanding and cooperation." (I couldn't help but notice, however, there was no mention of any kind of recompense to me for this "cooperation.")
A movie company had come around to my previous domicile to make a film. And though they worked inside somebody's apartment over there, their big trucks were all over the place, blocking entrances and exits, making it very difficult for us residents to go about our business.
They show up on my job path at least once a month (well, it is quite pretty), with their lights and scrims and strings of cables, and if you don't get your workout done before the first light of day, you'll be cut off at the pass. (You can recognize a film crew anywhere, by the way, with their slightly worn jeans, loose shirts, Reeboks, easy stance and hands holding the inevitable foam plastic coffee cups.)
A couple of years ago I was visiting my sister over in Atlanta, and damned if an announcement didn't show up at her apartment house that a film company, with Burt Reynolds its star, wanted to shoot on the premises. You can imagine the excitement that caused in the Old South. (I don't know if the coup ever came off because I was long gone before the appointed date.)
Is it any wonder movie attendance isn't what it used to be? Why should anybody take the trouble to run around town paying for gas and parking and popcorn and shelling out the hefty prices movie houses ask these days, when all we have to do is step out our front doors and into the real (or is that reel?) thing and see for free the beginning, the middle, the end, see action on both sides of the camera and all the inevitable mistakes--wrong exits, forgotten lines, camera goofs, dropped props.
Alas, the fourth wall, that distance that used to be between watcher and watched, that gave us such a lovely sense of mystery and magic, and permitted our own imaginations to float so freely and easily, seems to have dissolved.
It's these new-fangled, midget-sized cameras, easily hoisted about, that have helped it to happen. These and the baby mikes that can pick up a falling rose petal at 50 feet, plus the super-sensitive, self-adjusting-to-any-change-of-light film that allow movie makers to be able to plop their companies down any old place they like.
Oh sure, there were always times when nothing would do but the great outdoors, times when the home ground simply would not hack it. Especially in the day of the Western. You could hardly have a posse chase across a sound stage, or properly show cavalry coming over a hill within the confines of building. But these outdoor sorties would be, for the most part, under fairly controlled conditions. On the back lot or the studio ranch out in San Fernando Valley, away from the would-be ticket buyers' eyes, the actors' work could be done in the privacy of their own family, so to speak.
In this way I've been mired in a Louisiana bayou (on a Paramount sound stage), mushed through Canadian snows (machine-made without leaving the Columbia lot), ensconced in exotic Macao, navigating in what was supposed to be the South China seas (but actually a pond on the Universal back lot).
But now? To do our scenes we'd no doubt have to go off to the real snows and freeze our buns off. Go into the real bayous and dodge an alligator or two. Although it may be a delight for crews to be able to move their equipment around so easily into every nook and cranny and mean street (saving a mint, of course, on building sets for the producer), I don't see how the actors' lot has been improved one iota. Actors, poor things, have to do everything in exactly the same way they always have. Learn their lines in the same old way, get up before the crack of dawn for makeup and hair, a process that takes just as long as it always has. Only now, in the absence of a stage, sound or otherwise, out they have to go, following the damned equipment, into the marketplace itself to perform in front of any and every casual passer-by, ready or not.
It does bring to mind something a then-father-in-law said to me many years ago as he and I sat side-by-side in canvas directors' chairs in this open field somewhere in the middle of Mexico. Walter Huston was working--I wasn't--in his son John's "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," and it was one of those movies when studio facilities could not serve. When there was simply no way of squeezing the grandeur of that mountain range onto a sound stage.