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My Life In The Movies
By Scott Nicholson
Photos by
Marie Freeman

I’m not an actor and I don’t even play one on TV.

But when producer Brad Batchelor told me about "A Tale About Bootlegging," an independent movie that would be filming in the North Carolina mountains, I asked if I could show up on the set and write an article. Brad insisted that I take a part as an extra. When I arrived in the Tennessee hollow on an October Wednesday, I was wearing shorts and a nylon sweater, definitely not appropriate for the 1930’s setting of the movie. However, Brad’s enthusiasm, a trailer full or wardrobes, and an opportunity to hang out and be in a movie proved too tempting to go back to my cubicle and computer.

I have some experience with video production, having earned my degree in it, so I understood the behind-the-scenes work involved. But I was surprised by the scale of the day’s shooting, with about 40 people dressed up as extras in addition to the actors who had speaking parts. Our scene involved a group returning from a hillside. The extras lined up behind a horse-drawn wagon. The director gave three cues for each take: “wagon action,” at which point the wagon rolled forward; “action,” when the main actors began moving, and “background action,” when we extras began our walk past an old, leaning barn.

As part of the scene, I was required to move the lady I was escorting, known in her off-stage life as Boone town council member Loretta Clawson, out of the way of a car driven by a blind and drunk Scotsman (played by Brad). The extras were told to spread out and scatter naturally, and we had to do several takes. With each take, the field became muddier, and the horses and wagon had to be turned around in a narrow space in the middle of the crowd.

I was wearing an old flannel shirt and blue jean overalls, but the period shoes were all distributed so I walked barefoot. The day was overcast, occasionally rainy, but a nice temperature, though several people (flatlanders, I suspect) kept asking if my feet were getting cold. My feet were never cold but somehow Loretta and I ended up walking in the high grass, which contained a garden of saw briars. After the fourth take, I had to fix my gaze on the ground and focus on not wincing in pain.

It was also the time of year when yellow jackets are most active, and two cast members got stung. A couple of the “social club” ladies literally got bees in their bonnets. At one point, the movie’s biggest star, Sonny Shroyer, slipped and fell, then walked with a limp until the cameras rolled, when he gamely went back into his sheriff’s strut. As the takes piled up, I didn’t have to act too hard during my piece of business moving Loretta away from the car. The car’s rusty hood was tied on with rope, sometimes it wouldn’t start, and the brakes seemed unreliable. The fact that the driver was Brad Batchelor in a kilt added to my unease.

Besides the logistical problems of organizing 40 people who had never worked together before, another delay was caused by Brad having to drive the contraption back up to the same spot after each take. The wheels were slick and the oily, blue exhaust grew a little more dense each time. After a successful take, the cast and crew broke for lunch and the entire army was treated to a catered lunch of fried chicken.

About an hour behind schedule, we returned to do a similar scene that could be used to cut in different shots over the first sequence. The camera was set on a different angle and placed on a dolly, which provides for smooth camera movements. The sun had nearly broken through the clouds by that time, and the co-directors were concerned that the lighting wouldn’t match. However, the clouds got back into character and work continued.

For this scene, Shroyer and his two deputies climbed into a car while the extras milled behind. The extras were then divided in half, with a number going up a long hill to be in a different scene. I stayed in the small group that walked past a car while the deputies performed a scene inside it. We had just gotten the perfect take when the boom microphone operator pulled off his headphones and asked the director, “Did you hear that?” Apparently someone on the hill had been singing an unseasonal and unscripted version of “Jingle Bells” a little too loudly. After a shout of “Quiet on the set!” that echoed throughout the valley, we then nailed the scene.

The actors were really personable and you could tell they enjoyed every minute of it, despite the hard work and weeks or months spent away from home. It’s a mental challenge to loaf around for a hour or so, then suddenly adopt a character and remember lines, only to have to perform the sequence over and over. The co-directors, who no doubt were under great stress because of the film’s multi-million-dollar budget, never showed any sign of impatience, even when small or silly things went wrong.

All the crew members were smiling, even during the rain. Everybody pitched in forthings that weren’t in the job description, such as hauling stage setting around. I was most impressed by the congeniality of the stars. They posed for photographs, and wanted photographs of themselves with their fans as much as the fans wanted to mug it up with a celebrity. I talked at length with several, particularly Shroyer, Randy Jones (the Cowboy in the Village People), and Robert Harris, best known as Old Man Cadwell, the general store clerk, in the horror movie “Cabin Fever.”

All in all, the few scenes shot that day, involving over 100 people including crew, will probably comprise a couple of minutes of screen time. There’s a chance Loretta and I will end up on the cutting room floor, though we were pretty near the main actors in the procession so we’ll probably be fuzzy blobs behind their shoulders. It was the most fun I have had in years, and I joked to Brad that it’s no wonder he would rather be in movies than his day job as a doctor. Where else could he stagger around in a kilt and dark glasses, tapping a cane against people’s toes?

I don’t think I’d ever want to be a director, but I can understand the siren song that beckons people to the stage and camera. After getting my 15 seconds of fame, I’m ready for twenty.

Copyright 2004 by Scott Nicholson. Photos copyright 2004 by Marie Freeman (Note: Randy Jones in the third photo is much taller than me, but he is also standing uphill in this picture. I wasn't trying out for a Munchkin part.)

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