Monday, October 1, 2012


On the second day of shooting I realize I have no business being here.
I am, once again, sealed in a binding fiberglass robot suit and The Director explains to me what I will be doing today.
“So after the break dancer finishes his routine, he’ll, sort of, call you out and you’ll step on the dance floor and do what he did.”
            “Do what… he did?” My attention veers to the break dancer in the corner doing a no-handed back flip.
“Well, like a robot version of what he did.”
If a robot version of a back flip is simply not doing a back flip then I think I should be fine.
The Director falls into a hushed conversation with the AD. After a long moment he turns back to me and says “Don’t worry about it. All you have to do is some robot dancing.”
The two of them are walking away before I have the chance to explain that I can’t dance. I look back at the break dancer, who is balancing his entire body on just one arm, frozen in an exaggerated display of human strength and agility. I imagine his whole body as one giant middle finger aimed directly at me.
After a particularly disastrous first day of shooting it seems everyone has taken on the job of managing The Director. The crew usher him around the set, having him inspect their progress, waiting for him to nod, then moving him to the next item. He seems relaxed, in a Valium kind of way, as the AD hovers around him like a perpetually futzing mother.  He reminds me of a caged lion, patiently gnawing on a bone, waiting for the moment he can break free and ruin everything. I think I’m not the only one who feels this way.
The props guy has become my de facto helmet wrangler. We've developed a nice rapport. He’s putting the helmet on when I notice the front door open and a sea of people in ridiculous outfits cautiously enter. These are the extras, a concept I still have a hard time with. They stand around waiting to be told what to do. They look at me like somehow I’m important. I don’t know what they want. It bothers me.
I do notice that one of the extras is extremely beautiful. Her skin looks like a light brown stone that has been sitting in a rushing river for decades. She wears a strapless yellow dress. The advantage of my robot cage is that I can stare without her noticing. Sometimes, she even looks at me. We stare deeply into each other's eyes for a moment before I realize that I’m looking at a lovely young woman and she’s looking at a fiberglass robot.
The AD shouts "action" (which is his job now, I guess) and my costar and I stand by the dance floor watching the impossibly agile break dancer display his superiority. When he’s finished, his whole body snaps up, like a striking snake, and he’s on his feet, facing me. He beckons for me to join him. I oblige. It is at this moment that everyone starts cheering. I'm not sure why. They really shouldn't get their hopes up.
I do a particularly bad wave, then a lousy shuffle; I can’t even do a convincing robot. But I do have one secret weapon: the moon walk. I lay down a truly excellent moon walk. Or at least excellent for someone wearing a form-fitting recycling bin. The crowd goes wild. By the time my props guy de-helmets me, I’m sweating pretty bad. The Producer, ever the sweetheart, says “You were really good,” which I interpret as “You managed to not fall over or break anything.”
While The Cinematographer sets up the next shot, I notice the extra in the yellow dress. She stands, alone in a crowd. She adjusts her strapless dress, wriggling it up then letting her hands slowly fall to her sides, like some strange dance or Japanese ritual. She looks my way, but I turn around quickly. I call the props guy over and ask him to helmet me up.
He says “We’re not going up for a take anytime soon.”
I tell him I don’t care.
He fastens it tight and I make my way over to the crowd of extras. I don’t walk like a robot, though I don’t really walk like a person either. On the way, a midget asks me if she can take a picture with me. I tell her “Just a sec.” There are a lot of midgets on set. Not necessarily dwarfs, but certainly abnormally short. I’m not really sure why.
Once I reach the extra in yellow, I don’t really know what to say or why I wanted to say anything in the first place, so I just lean (or prop myself up) against the wall. Then, abruptly, I ask for her name. Her name is Erica. I want to say “That’s my mother’s name,” but that’s a weird thing for a robot to say. So, instead I say “Does my helmet look straight to you?”
She nods.
I think that’s probably the last thing I say to Erica.

While posing for a picture with the midget, a thought occurs to me; this must be what celebrities feel like. And I don’t mean the binding codpiece (though I’m sure they feel that sometimes). I mean, the fact that while I pose for pictures, no one wants to see me. They want to see my shell. When you’re a baby, people take pictures of you to cherish your soul, your truest self. Then you get famous and Maxim wants pictures of your body, US weekly wants pictures of your failures, fans want pictures of your fame. No one wants to see Julia Roberts’ soul.

During our lunch break I take off the upper part of my costume. I don’t want to go through the effort of removing the whole suit and putting my real clothes on, but I also don’t want to hang around in the form fitting silver jump suit I wear under the armor because it’s awkward in the way David Bowie’s pants were in Labyrinth. So, half robot, I make my way to the piano sitting in the corner of the dance floor. I open it up, take a seat, and noodle.
I don’t think much when I play piano. I like that about it. I turn off my brain and express myself, clearly, without the need for words or logic, or beginnings and endings. I think about space today. I think about the bathroom where I changed. A window in the back was lined with rusted bars. Beneath it, a painting of bars.
I’m interrupted by a woman with gravity defying platinum blonde hair and a giddy Australian accent. She wears bright blue spandex and sits comfortably in my cultural Rolodex between tank girl and superwoman. She’s shaking my hand saying “This is the robot!”
I say, “My name’s Tim.”
She laughs. What a laugh. Like a little bomb just went off inside her chest.
The Director calls her over to the craft room. I sit at the piano for a moment then play on.
It isn't until I’m back in the suit and ready for another take that someone explains to me who the incredibly excitable Aussie is. She’s one half of the musical group that this music video is for. She’s the financer, the talent, the artist, the boss, and she’s currently dancing around with a feathered headband. She’s handing out paper cut outs of her face to wear as masks. She’s laughing and screaming, and dancing. Apparently she’s some sort of techno-clubbing goddess. I don’t doubt it.
When we go up again, I’m back to faux-dancing in my clunky robot armor. Usually I try not to exert too much effort, half out of embarrassment, half out of fear of crippling dehydration, but the presence of the Aussie somehow jacks up the energy of the whole room, and suddenly I’m jumping around like a fool. When the AD shouts cut and my helmet comes off, I’m freely sweating rivers down my face.
The Aussie darts over to my side and aims her crystal blue eyes right into mine. She says “You are terrific,” with unwavering sincerity. She seems genuinely impressed. And more than that, she seems like somehow this all matters. As if me dressing up as a robot and doing the moonwalk is important to her. For the first time it occurs to me that this whole process isn’t some bizarre form of torture. There is purpose to all this, other than my forced self-reflection.

After we wrap, I go home and wash my hands for about an hour to clean off the weird rubber/sweat that builds up under the gloves. My hands are red and throbbing as I go to sleep.

The next day I wake up at 5:30 am, and once strapped into the robot, I am then strapped into the seat of a roller coaster. The helmet is duck taped to my head. I imagine it flying off anyway on this rickety wooden ride. Cracking on the Santa Monica pier like an egg.
The platinum Aussie has duplicated. Now there are two, identical, with unnerving blue eyes and blond hair. They stand taller than me with blue leggings, black combat boots, smiles far too wide for seven in the morning. Apparently they’re twins. The twin Australian techno-goddesses. I wonder if tomorrow there will be three of them, maybe more. I think about the paper masks the Platinum Aussie #1 had handed out at the shoot yesterday, skirting about the room with a pile of her own face, like two of them wasn't enough. Like maybe her sinister goal was to propagate her own visage until the whole world shone with earnest wonder, cherubic smiles, and platinum locks. I wonder which sister’s face was on the mask.
The roller coaster starts rolling and I’m sucked deeply into the present, in a robot costume, on a roller coaster made in the 1950's from the look of it. The coaster crests and suddenly I’m speeding along the rails. As I whip around a turn I get the strong feeling that my suit is being yanked forward, as if tethered to a dragon having a tantrum, spiraling and twisting in the sky, with my little gray shell, whipping around in helpless pursuit.
After the roller coaster, The Director decides he’d like me to play an arcade game and, for a moment, I wonder if this is still part of his ongoing plan to make me incredibly uncomfortable. But the Australian twins beam from behind him, watching me with childlike focus, and I agree. Of course, we don’t have permission to shoot in the arcade because that would be too easy.
“We’ll just try to do it as quick as we can and hope no one notices.”
“I’m sure I’ll blend right in,” I say.
The Director stares me down for a moment, and I see in his face a slight hint of pain. As if after everything I've said, this was the first thing he’d ever actually heard. I realize at this point that my helmet isn't on. The Cinematographer approaches with his camera and, in a flash, The Director’s face switches back to his default mixture of confusion and stress, like he’s trying to solve a complicated math equation in his head.
My co-star hands me a water gun and I spray away at some strange targets on a stand. I have no idea what I’m doing. It doesn't take long before some sullen manager approaches us and tells us to get out. I hide in my shell, like a turtle. It’s times like these I realize how useful the suit would have been in middle school. Anytime something embarrassing happened, every time I was rejected or made fun of for wearing a robot costume, I could just lean my head back and it would be like turning the TV off.
Outside the arcade, a child bum rushes me. I freeze, unsure of what to do, as the toddler clings to a panel on my leg. His dad approaches, confident, leather-tan. He asks if he can get a picture of me with his kid. I agree. I don’t even know when we’re going up for the next shot. I don’t even know if there is a next shot.
The dad looks down at the picture on his phone and smiles. The two of them move along the pier and as I turn I start to notice just how many children there are on this pier, all of them staring at me with curiosity and fear, their parents taking out their cameras and phones. Taking that picture with the toddler opened a floodgate. I am now a tourist attraction.
After a few more photos with children, spring breakers, elderly couples, I start to feel less and less like a celebrity and more and more like a magnet, just sucking everything in towards me. Ever since I first put the suit on I felt the tug. This cloud of the bizarre and mildly irritating, anchored to me by some invisible force of nature. Even I am being led around by the suit, trapped by its will. It's at this moment, posing between a street performer and a Japanese tourist, that I realize I am no longer the main character in the story of my own life. I have become a passenger. How long have I been like this? It's easy to blame the suit, but looking back, I can't help but wonder, "What kind of person signs up for this?" It's not like I'm a stunt man, or a dancer, or in any any way talented. My only qualification is my lack of will power. My ability to say "yes," no matter what the consequences may be.
I manage to pull myself from the cloud of tourists and find the AD who says they're basically done and I can go home. Just like that, I'm free. I take off my suit, with the Producer watching me. We stuff all the fiberglass plates into a gray crate and together we stand over the remains of the day. Two silver eyes like shower drains staring up at us in silent judgment.
"Who are you without me?" it asks. And I have no answer, so I shut the crate.

A few days later I open up my email to see a message from The Director, written in all lower case with sporadic punctuation, thanking me for being so helpful and telling me that the reshoots are in three weeks and he won't be able to pay me until then. I lean back in my chair for a moment. There doesn't appear to be a question in the email. He isn't asking me to come in. He is declaring the future, as if from some prophetic vision. There is no doubt in his mind that I will be there, for who else could possibly don the heavy armor of absolute submission? I look down at my keyboard and stare deeply at the "n" and "o" keys. They seem so crisp, like they've never been pressed before.
I wonder what they feel like.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


             I knew I was in trouble when The Director asked me to cock my head to the right.
            “I can’t cock my head to the right. Or the left.”
            “Just like this.” He cocks his head to the right. But, see, he’s not wearing a fiberglass suit of armor with a helmet attached to the shoulders. He doesn’t look like a low budget Cyberman. Or, a lower budget Cyberman as it were.
            “I can’t move my head.”
            “Okay. Just, look shocked.”
            So the camera starts speeding, I take my mark, and it’s time to make this awkward robot costume convey shock. I try some Meisner. Why am I shocked? What is causing the shock in me? Well, I am trapped in a dirty robot costume, standing in a parking lot on Cahuenga. That should be shocking enough. Why am I here? Because at 11:30 last night I got a frantic text from the producer telling me they’d lost their robot guy and needed me to come in and replace him. Obviously, I thought this was a terrible thing to do with my time. So I was relieved when the producer texted a me a few moments later, saying she'd found a replacement. But bright and early next morning, another frantic text. It seemed the replacement had also disappeared (This should have been a warning sign but my reasoning skills aren’t the sharpest in the morning) and I saw this all as a sign from the universe. Some inescapable force of nature had determined it was my fate to don a clunky robot costume and have at it.
            “Can you try tilting your head up?” The Director asks. He demonstrates again.
            After a moment of muffled stuttering, I convey shock.
            “That was great! Next shot.”
            This is going to be a long day.

            By 2:00 pm I’ve discovered this wonderful resting position. See I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.” So I’ve taken to leaning against one of the cars on set and using the back of my helmet as a headrest. It’s surprisingly comfortable. While in this position I can see, through the tiny little eye holes, Houston teaching the producer how to punch. Houston is my fight partner. We go on sets and choreograph the fight scenes. That’s how I wound up involved with this project. Of course, I had no idea that I’d be the one having to throw the punches. If I’d known, I would have had the robot fight entirely from this awesome leaning position. Houston isn’t choreographing the producer into the fight though. He’s just doing that thing that we all do where we constantly teach people how to throw a proper punch. You’d be surprised how few people can do it right.
            And The producer is asking “how many fights have you been in?”
            Houston says “Four, maybe. One of them was with that kid I was telling you about, in a Chinese restaurant. Then there was Japan, where I saw a fight and tried breaking it up.”
            I can’t imagine Houston breaking up a fight. He’s all Krav Maga and Hulk Smash.
            “Then there was the one at the football game in high school.”
            Huh. I’ve never heard this one.
            “Tim, have I ever told you about that one? It was a Stanford game and the guy behind me kept shouting these awful racist things and spitting sunflower seeds on me. So I asked my dad if it was okay to get into a fight with him.”
            I can picture Houston asking his dad for permission to get into a fist fight.
            “Every fight I got into, I broke these bones.” He points at the little bones in the back of his hand.
            “Where’s Tim?” I hear The Director call out. Like he can’t take the extra two seconds to locate the only robot on set. Maybe I blend in against the mustard colored 1982 Mercedes Benz.
            I say “here” but my voice just sort of meanders around the inside of my helmet, unable to squeeze through the tiny mouth or even tinier eye holes.  So I push off the car, which takes more effort than I’m proud of, and do my robot saunter.
            “We need the robot to fall over.”
            “I can’t fall over.” A nickel in the jar for every “I can’t,” today would really cost me.
            “Can you just go prone and do a reverse pushup?”
            “Nope.” I can’t even dougie. That’s how restrictive this outfit is.
            “Guys. That suit cannot touch the gravel,” the producer says. “It is worth 19,000 dollars and if we scratch it…”
            19,000 dollars? This awkward piece of shit?
            “Okay, so, Houston! Do we have those pads we talked about?” The Director asks.
            “No. I don’t have the pads. The producer does.”
            “Yeah, but I asked you to bring them.”
            Houston starts radiating cold hatred. I guess he has a short fuse when it comes to incompetence.
            “I emailed you. I said, ‘I don’t have the pads. The producer does. She owns them. She has them in her possession.’” Houston has taken out his phone by now. He’s reading the email. “She is in charge of the pads. She has them. If you want them on set, ask her.”
            The AD asks the producer if she brought the pads. I have to turn my whole upper body to look at her.
            “I didn’t realize I was supposed to.”
            By now, we’ve moved on. I’m dropping to one knee, putting one hand on the ground. Like I’m hiking a football.
            “Can you make a fist?”
            “No. I can’t make a fist.”
            As an added insult, my gloves are made of the thickest possible rubber, as if the designers were terrified that the suit would allow for any amount of dexterity.
            “Try something like this.” The Director demonstrates making a fist.
            Later on, I start to notice that the shadows are awfully long, and we still have most of the fight scene ahead of us. The Director makes an impassioned plea to the other, very blasé group of actors. He says “we’re running out of time, so we need to speed this up.”
            For whatever reason I imagine us doing the fight scene in Benny Hill double-time. Maybe it’s the tunnel vision, but by now I’ve begun interpreting everything literally.
            I overhear The AD tell The cinematographer, “I’m going to start calling cut, if that’s okay.” Which is nice to hear. Until then, every take ended with us just sort of going until we didn’t know what to do next. Every time we’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.
            I’m supposed to lower one of the actors to his knees in this take, and the actor seems really worried. He says his knees are messed up. I’m not sure what that means.
            Now, during the next take, he’s supposed to just wait on his knees a while. For a moment, I forget he’s there because he’s left my pathetic field of vision and I’ve taken to imagining that the universe is just two little disks, joined in the middle and if I can’t see it, it’s not there.
            Then he stands up.
            “You have to stay on your knees,” The Director says.
            The actor goes back down, exiting the universe. I hear him say something about his knees bleeding.
            I know every move. I came up with half of them. But I can’t really see what I’m doing so it’s harder than I’d hoped. I start feeling like I’m actually in a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize. It resists at every instant.
            Someone comes up and tells The Director his cat has gone missing. Someone else makes a meowing noise.
            While a fellow actor wildly thrashes my armor with a rubber crowbar, I notice that the crew has shifted their attention to the parking lot entrance. I rotate my entire body around to see a white pickup pull in. The driver, who looks like Terry Crews in a golf cap, jumps out of the car and starts shouting at us.
            “Either someone shows me a permit right now, or you get the fuck off my lot! Right now! This is private property!”
            I hear someone say “Okay, pack it up. Pack it all up.”
            So we’re all rushing around, packing up the crafts table, the props, the rigging, the camera. I’m very slowly making my way out of the parking lot. There are no extra hands to help me take off my armor, so I’m doing my best impersonation of an embarrassed robot, one foot at a time, while Terry Crews eyes me from his pickup.
            Finally I manage to get my gloves off. I use my new found dexterity to remove my helmet and all sound comes back to me. My shell of solitude is gone. I suddenly realize how loud everything is. Everyone is shouting at someone, somewhere. Terry Crews is shouting at the producer. Cars are peeling out, tearing up the road. The props master finishes removing my armor and now I’m in a form-fitting silver jumpsuit feeling more than a little naked. I climb in the back seat of my car because it’s the only open door and Houston has my keys.
            From inside the car I can see everyone is still shouting. I spot Houston talking with The Director. As The Director talks I imagine a little red bar above Houston’s head slowly building up. Like when it reaches the limit he’ll have enough power for a fire ball, or go Super Sayan or something. I wonder if The Director realizes he’s very close to the edge of a very unforgiving cliff. Does he really want to start a fight with the fight choreographer?
            It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled. I’m not really here. I’m just observing from my spaceship. Then Houston gets in and starts the car. I put on my seatbelt and think of Houston as my chauffeur. I’m still wearing the silver jumpsuit.
            We’re driving to The AD’s house to regroup and for some reason Houston’s gone all The Italian Job, weaving through traffic, driving in the breakdown lane. I’m not sure why we’re trying to get there so fast but it’s all very exciting nonetheless.
            Houston rants in the front seat and this is what I pick up between the growling: First, The Director blamed Houston for not rehearsing enough. Then, Houston didn’t punch him. Then, when Houton asked him about whether or not we had permission to shoot there, The Director said he talked to Management. Then, when Houston asked again the same question, The Director revised his story saying that he “called them, like, five times and no one picked up so I assumed it was okay.” Then, Houston didn’t punch him.
            “I swear I’m going to punch him,” he says. I think about the little bones in the back of his hand. “If he tries to blame anyone but himself for this mess, I’m just…” Then more growling.
            We’re the first people to arrive at the AD’s house. We sit on the porch and the sun starts to set over Silver Lake. Ten minutes later, everyone except The Director has filed in. Each of them haggard, shell shocked. The producer has been crying. She asks if everyone’s here.
            “Everyone except our fearless leader,” Houston says.
            “Where is he?”
            “I don’t know.”
            Someone calls him. His phone is dead.
            The AD talks about some other shots they need to get today while the sun is out. But we need the Mercedes, which The Director is driving. They also need The Director, though I’m not sure why.
            The cinematographer is on the phone with someone in the car with The Director. He’s giving directions.
            “760 Harvard Ave... 760 Harvard Ave.760… Harvard… Harvard. Harvard… Like Harvard University. Like the college. Like, ‘I went to the Ivy League college, Harvard University.’ Yes… 760. Harvard.”
            Houston starts laughing.
            “Did he just get in the car and drive somewhere, anywhere?”
            Apparently, he is in West Hollywood. No one really knows why.
            So, later, an hour later, The Director, our fearless leader, shows up. He looks awful. I wonder where his cat is. I picture the little critter, wandering Cahuenga, playing with strays, smelling new smells. Seeing new sights. Then the sun sets and the cat is alone and hungry and his home is nowhere to be found. He licks his fur. He curls up in a ball and forgets everything that’s ever happened. He accepts the wild.
            So now I’m putting the suit on again. They’re turning on the little blue bulbs around the eye holes so now everything I see is framed in little blue glowing lights.
            I’m sitting in the passenger seat. I can’t even put on my seatbelt without help. They’re mounting a camera to the hood. And the driver, my lovely co-star, she decides this is a good time to mention she’s almost blind without her glasses. And it’s night time.
            “So, put on your glasses.”
            “No, see,” The Director pipes in. Fuck. “If she wears the glasses then she’ll have to be wearing them in the next scene.”
            “We could have her take them off.”
            “No. We don’t have time for a shot like that. No… Are you comfortable driving just around the back roads?” he asks.
            I can hear Houston restraining the urge not to hit The Director.
            “You cannot seriously be thinking…” he says. Then storms off.
            “I couldn’t drive on the freeway. But back roads should be fine.”
            “We could have Tim help spot for her.”
            Then we could have the blind literally leading the blind. Between the two of us we could barely read a stop sign.
            “Jared will sit in the back and give her directions.”
            So we start to pull out, but the light attached to the dashboard falls off. Correction, the dashboard falls off. So The cinematographer is taping the dash board back on. The props master is helping him. The AD is sitting in the back. The cinematographer accidentally opens the sunroof. Suddenly everyone bursts into motion pressing every single button they can find trying to get it shut. They’re reaching over me, fumbling over each other. I can’t help but notice that the car has a bright red button on the front panel. Occasionally someone’s finger drifts over it then moves on. I wonder what it could be.
Finally, the sunroof is shut. The light is attached. The dash is attached. We’re ready to go. And I guess she’s not wearing her glasses, so that’s cool.
Two rings of glowing blue frame the lights of Western Ave and I start to realize that there’s a good chance I will die in this stupid robot costume. And the funny thing is I don’t really care. I can see the red headlights and the orange pavement. I can’t really see my driver, but when she asks the AD where to go next, she sounds confident enough. Of course she doesn’t seem to understand how to follow directions.
“Turn right here.”
She goes straight.
“Okay, it’s okay. Just keep going straight.”
She turns.
“This is fine. It’s fine. Turn left here.”
I watch a pedestrian skitter across the road.
I pull back from the eye holes and look around the inside of my helmet. My iron maiden. My little spaceship. It’s just me in here, alone. I’m not in a car, headed towards my inevitable early death. I’m in a robot. I trust him to keep me safe. I trust him to lead us home.
Then someone’s pulling off my helmet. We’re parked at the house. We’re not dead, which is nice.
We wait inside for The Director to make an appearance. Secretly, I think we’re hoping he’ll make things worse for himself. Blame someone else, maybe make some racist comments. But maybe we’re too exhausted for that. Even Houston looks haggard.
When he finally arrives, he sits down on the couch between Houston and the producer. He doesn’t speak at first. He just stares at his shoes. Then, after a long electric moment, he begins, “Guys, my girlfriend is going to be so pissed when I get home, for the cat getting out. Just so you know, she’s going to tear into me so…”
So… so what? Are we supposed to pity you? Should we mount a search team? After all the ridiculous events of the day I wonder if possibly this is some sort of elaborate practical joke, or maybe performance art. It would be called “A Dog Teaching a Human How to Wag His Tail,” or “The Limits of Tolerance,” or the always classic, “Sabotage.” I think about the robot, now in pieces in his box. They didn’t need me. They just needed someone to fill the skin, someone to carry it. I wonder if that’s all The Director is. Maybe this kind of thinking is dangerous.
The Director makes some comment about how we might have to cut the fight scene completely and Houston gets up. He doesn’t look The Director in the eyes, but he points his whole body at him. Then, something truly amazing happens: Houston doesn’t punch him. He just pulls out the keys to my car and we leave in silence.
On the drive back we see an empty car parked in the middle of the street with its lights on, its engine running, and its doors ajar. It hums quietly to no one.