Working with Murphy: Volunteering A

There are many reasons to volunteer on someone’s production or project.  Sometimes you seem to have a free weekend and you feel isolated and want to keep active and help someone out, especially if you are usually out of touch.  But volunteering can backfire.

1999 I suffered a spinal fluid pressure incident that damaged an optic nerve and created a blurry spot in the center of my vision for more than a month.  My first concern was, “Gee, I hope my vision is healed by the time Episode 1 is released.”  That shows how naive I was.  Meanwhile, some friends from college got a Calling Card grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation to make their short film.  I was pleased to be asked to comment on certain scenes during pre-production by the director. Then I was asked to participate in the shoot, arbitrarily as continuity, but as, “an ally on the set.” That phrase I learned later was from a book being passed around: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. I said I could help on the Monday of the shoot week but the Tuesday I was helping someone move and then I could resume on Wednesday and the rest of the week.  I was clear about this.

Filmmakers maybe don’t hear that kind of thing, so it has limited much of my volunteering in the years that followed.  They figure everything else is unimportant next to filming.  I felt I should not leave this prior commitment in a lurch and I felt that I had given full disclosure about it to my filmmaking friend.  He mentioned the Tuesday on set and I maintained my plan and repeated it.  Much of the first day shoot went well.  I did have to run to the porta-potty because of the water pills I was on due to my condition and having had two spinal taps I had been weakened somewhat but was recovering. I was still contributing and I recall that when the props guy showed up with an unsatisfactory example of groceries I suggested using the craft services table materials to help bulk up the bag which had to seem like a horn of plenty. At one point the A.D. took me aside to ask me to convey an idea she had for shooting and I tried to reassure her that the director was approachable and she could ask. I don’t think she did.  When a community photo was being taken of the crew and people at the location, I volunteered my own Polaroid instamatic. As I started giving instructions about how to frame to compensate for the lens, she just handed it back to me and I took the shot. In the car ride back to town she remarked, “People who aren’t enthusiastic shouldn’t be making movies.” Or words to that affect.  In hindsight she may have meant me, which is far from being appropriate.  If anything, I was a little sunstroke despite the director giving me his baseball cap at one point. I was not prepared to do math at the end of the day, and the A.D. advised me that calculating the amount of film shot was my duty. I was certainly under the belief that I had drawn a sketch on each continuity page and that each shot was accounted for.  Even though asserting myself to get the camera info between shots from the assistant camera guy was more of a chore than in film school.

Ultimately, I got a call from the director that night with an anxious tone asking if I was going to cancel the prior commitment and just work on the film Tuesday. I reminded him that all along I had told him that one day was the only one I couldn’t be available.  I felt emotionally torn by it all the same, but held my ground.  The next day I went to help out the other friend who was moving.  At the end of the day I was advised by my director friend that I would not be needed for the rest of the week because they would keep the person who replaced me as continuity.  I let them hang onto my Polaroid camera, so the last person to use it would have been that replacement. Years later I would loan it out again and that camera didn’t function.  I also became aware of the fact that the A.D. had badmouthed me and encouraged my replacement.  Also, the Tuesday shoot day went as follows. The crew rode in the hold of a truck to a location the producer had secured and the director looked it over and found it unsuitable so they returned to town and called to book another location for the following day.  Nothing was shot and there had been no need for continuity.  Months later, I was still in the loop enough to be asked by the director to join him on an audio recording trip and also to be present for some pick-up shooting and to comment on the edit.  I was invited to the final screening and I did get a thanks credit but there was a lot of turbulence and Roshomon alternate views of the story.  It is for the best that I don’t remember the last name of that A.D..

I had heard that she recruited a number of people from that crew for a film to be shot in my home town with a noted actor.  It is interesting how easily people can be dangerous to your reputation or how your best intentions can turn against you.  I’m not sure what the take-away is here.  But it caused me to volunteer less for others and work on my own projects over the next few years.