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Black Lamb

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On location

September 1st, 2003

BY ALAN ALBRIGHT

We were sitting around the table, someone said something stupid, and we all chuckled nervously. After all, we were on camera. But later, the editor made the most of it and turned our discomfort into quite something else in an episode in which, after all, truth is in the mind of the beholder.

Making movies was my father’s profession — commercials, to be exact — and so this rewriting of reality was more than familiar to me, the importance of appearances in our Midwestern culture. “If you want to be successful in life," Dad would say, "comb your hair a hundred strokes a day.”

“What’s going on here?” I asked the man suited, head to toe, in thick rubber. He was standing, out of sight, behind the sink where we’d just recorded the cheer of a simulated housewife, washing dishes with some product or other. I suddenly remembered she’d been wearing rubber gloves, too.

“You probably thought,” the man told me, “that it was water pouring into that sink where all those cruddy dishes became miraculously clean.” He paused for effect.

“Well?” I asked.

“Sulfuric acid,” he said with a smile.

I was spending the summer as a “gopher” for a commercial film company, much of it on a set where, to the tune of considerable sums of money, large Mitchells whirred, bright lights were cast about, and actors repeated their lines over and over again, until they got it right. “No oily soap!” That was a hard one. Twenty-five takes, if I remember correctly.
The Soup Man was famous. He had a bag of tricks that could turn a bowl of dog food into a mirage of mouth-watering fare. He used tiny spotlights and screens. “A little more to the left on those carrots,” he would tell the electrician. No one dared touch the lights, other than the electrician. Film studios scrupulously respected the rights of the handsomely remunerated father-son unions.

“Don’t get into this business,” Zoly Vidor confided one day. “There’s just too much money in it and it will wreck your life.”

Zoly, like the Soup Man, was an accomplished cameraman, well-versed in the art of deception. “Putting the best face on things,” as my grandmother used to say.

Marilyn, on the other hand, a director, was bent on putting her face on things. This was many years later, and we were shooting a small film in France, where I lived at the time. We were favored with fine weather, glorious light, cooperative people — but the France of Marilyn’s expectations remained elusive.

“Oh, there!” she suddenly said.

A fellow dressed in worker blues, sporting a beret and riding a bicycle, had appeared out of nowhere. Something you might have seen in a picture book of seventy-five years before.

Marilyn seemed to go into trance as the fellow parked his bike and went into the bakery to buy a baguette. He was recruited. After all, he was the very symbol of France itself — at least in the mind of our director.

No harm done. The editor would see to that. And it was in this spirit that the cameraman and I would sneak out, early in the morning, to record the glories of the “real thing” while our director was still asleep.

Film-goers little realize the miles of film needed for a minute of illusion. It’s tiring work. One day, I remember being particularly happy when we finally took a break for lunch. In France, one steps out of time for these things. But our director was still in America. She rushed us through our meal, herded us all back into the van (which I was driving) and said, “Let’s go!”

“We can’t,” I said. We were out of gas.

“Go fill up her up then,” she said.

I drove over to the gas station where we were confronted with a little sign saying: “Closed for lunch, 12-2.”

It was 1:45. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Albright, All Movie Issue | Link to this Entry

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