I’m driving to the set with my computer on my lap, heading for the bucolic farm in New Jersey that we scouted 10 times in perfect weather, and watching the skies nervously for any signs of sun. Herbie Lieberz, my teamster/driver who is always my first hire on every New York show, has been kibitzing with me for weeks about when we should try to get the farm. And now here we are, due to bizarrely conflicting weather reports, heading out in dense haze. Since the farm is our opening shot, we can’t shoot the wide stuff if it doesn’t clear, and we are too depressed to even second-guess our second-guess anymore. Now they are saying Thursday will be sunny, so no doubt we will be inside, on the office set with no air (the windows are covered with triple Plexiglas in a vain effort to protect against the cacophony of the Holland Tunnel). The airless set has been enervating everyone all week, cast and crew alike.
Most certainly my mood will shift with the changing (she said, optimistically) skies. Hopefully I can work out my mood swings in print so I can be upbeat and full of helpful suggestions when I arrive, three hours later than the crew and yet still before we have to get the important wide shots. They’re now shooting cows being oiled with perfume, an experiment designed to prove that changing the scent of an old cow doesn’t fool the bull into thinking she’s a new cow. With no movie stars to attend to today, it was designed to be a producer’s dream. (We producers often fantasize about a future in which we can merely buy the rights to the star’s hologram and skip the perk packages and personality contingencies altogether.) Cows have no agents, no turnaround issues, no peculiar demands. They are never late for call. (However, they don’t like Velcro, wardrobe has informed me.) It was meant to be an easy, low-key day.
My depression can bring down the crew; my job is essentially chief cheerleader, problem solver, and mood stabilizer. (Some might think this is an odd job for me.) Herbie, my driver, helps keep my spirits up with his good nature and “go with the flow Zen I’ve seen it all and it doesn’t matter” sweet swagger. This is the same delightful mesh of personality traits that helps him get Ben Stiller out of his trailer when he doesn’t feel like working, keeps Penny Marshall shooting when she’s exhausted, and Brad Pitt smiling as he’s pursued by hordes of screaming teens. Teamsters are the most underappreciated philosophers of the set. They see everything. Who’s drunk, who’s insubordinate, and who’s fucking whom. Who’s drinking or smoking or snorting what, which producer has his head up his ass. They’ve seen good shows become flops, bad shows become hits, good shows wrecked from actors taking over, bad shows wrecked from director’s collapse. They’ve seen producers produce, and Lord knows, they’ve seen producers not produce. I ask their advice on everything. Right now, Herbie is lightly singing, “Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh … laughing all the way.” I get the message.
This entry must be interrupted by a tollbooth. Writing and driving is a challenging combo. Actually neither is a personal strength. Family members will be relieved to be reminded that at least I’m not driving.
Well, we’ve arrived. And we’re rolling, tight shots. I can see some cows in wardrobe, getting on frilly dresses, waiting for their close-ups. They will play today, because we don’t need sun to shoot their glamour shots. I am not so sure about the two-day players: one playing a hick farmer, one a scientist. They may have a long wait in the holding area. Lotsa doughnuts. Everyone is a bit cold and grumpy. The director, Tony Goldwyn, is gamely wearing a T-shirt and shorts—it is August after all—and the hair and makeup team (for the cows?) is huddled together in jackets and sweaters. My appearance seems to promise a break in the clouds or at least some news, but alas I have nothing but conflicting weather reports. I feel like a failure. I’d love to give good news—the Santa Claus good-news-delivering aspect of my job is one of its unmitigated joys—but I have no good news. The last report said it would clear by 10. It is now 10:30 and densely foggy. My line producer, Jim Chory, with a wan look on his usually cheerful round face, tells me it will break by noon. It had better, or we’re both in shackles in producer’s jail. Our schedule is too tight to lose a day; if we have to postpone the wide shots again, we may have to relegate them to a second unit. (A smaller mobile shooting unit, without our own director and cameraman.) The director doesn’t want this, naturally. That is why he is wearing shorts. He wants to shoot his own opening, and now it’s prayer time. The religious component of movie making has long gone unnoticed, given what decadent, craven creatures we are thought to be. We are well aware of the current debate about religion in politics, and how it is necessary to counter the narcotic and mesmerizing effects of our work on the youth of America through prayer. Everyone is running for office against us this year. But we circus people are very religious, too. When we need something. Hint, hint. And there must be a reason why our trailer is parked in front of a church.
The wardrobe gals—the great Ann Roth’s fantastic team—who yesterday became my diary editors, have their hands outstretched waiting for copy to approve. They are tougher than my editors at Slate. I head back to my trailer to finish this, sneaking nervous glances at the sky. I think it’s getting lighter outside. It’s psychotic optimism, based on circus faith. There is even a tent set up for a catered lunch, where we’ll barbecue steaks and all eat together at 1 p.m. Unless our only sun comes while lunch is called, in which case we’ll let the steaks get cold. And hard. Maybe we’ll cook the cows, after we shoot them. Bad joke. Sorry, trying to get up for the long trek back through the tall grass around the barn, trying to come up with a punt, a plan, some lemonade. Maybe I should call the weather station first. I will only be the seventh person to call from our set in the past hour. And I thought I’d outgrown this. I have to remind myself: Never second-guess. Make lemonade. It’s the mantra I live by. I glance toward the steeple and a patch of blue is emerging. Cumulus clouds are forming. I feel we’re going to make the wide shots today, Goddamnit. It’s 11:45. My line producer was right. Time to go to set and take credit.