The Twenty Thousand Dollar Box

Here a war story for you from my time as a film director:

We were shooting “The Hounds of Notre Dame” in 1980, entirely on location in Wilcox, Saskatchewan with one day in Moosejaw and two days in a skating rink in Regina. To say it was a difficult shoot would be a great understatement.

For example, the script called for a blizzard at night.  I thought, no problem, we’ll just wait for a blizzard and shoot the scenes.  Hah.  You can’t stand up in a Saskatchewan blizzard, or see anything, let alone shoot a movie. The camera crew was having a hell of a time just keeping the camera warm enough to run film through it. I could go on, but that’s not this story.

We had a professional carpenter working in the art department.  I don’t know what his name was, but he was nicknamed “Machine Gun Kelly” because he loved his nail gun. Now, if I build something for a set, which I have done before I had a whole art department to work with, it will hold together just fine but it will also come apart with minimal effort.  If it isn’t structural, then as few nails as possible will do the trick. But that’s not how Machine Gun Kelly built stuff.  Whatever he built was built to be permanent.

Came the scene at the railways station.  A big wooden box has arrived from New Orleans, and Father Athol Murray plays a scene on the platform talking about the contents of the box with the station manager. So at call time we’re ready to shoot.  The box is on the platform.  Camera angle is chosen.  I was calling for a wide shot that showed the whole platform and the station manager’s office.  He would enter the scene from his office, walk to the box, and dialogue would happen.  I knew there was no way we would hold the shot past a couple of lines, but I wanted to catch those lines.

The sound man, Larry Sutton, came to me with a problem.  There was an overhanging roof above the platform and there was no way he could get a microphone in position to catch the opening dialogue. No problem said I (being the ex-soundman that I was, and proud of it thank you very much.)  I’m not seeing inside the box.  Let’s put your boom man inside the box for the wide shot.  Larry agreed that this would work.

So I called my AD and asked him, how long to take the top off the box.  He relayed the question to the art department, who said ten minutes.  Fine, I said.  Let’s get the top off the box.

What I didn’t know was that the box had been made by Machine Gun Kelly.  The ten minutes went by, then twenty, then half an hour.  We still hadn’t got our first shot of the day.  Actors and crew were standing around in forty below weather, and my lead, Thomas Peacocke, was wearing city shoes and no gloves as per the requirements of the wardrobe department. I was getting extremely antsy.

Now, a crack film crew is like a sports car.  You don’t want to go twitching the wheel, making decisions and then reversing them half an hour later.  But this was nuts.  I called the AD and said, listen, I can live with making this shot MOS (Mit Out Sound, a classic technical film term).  But my AD said give them a bit more time.  I’m wanting to teach them a lesson.  Really?  You’re teaching the crew a lesson on my filming time?  Really?  But the AD is running the set.  I’m not about to push him where he doesn’t want to be pushed.  So I fret and fume and time passes.  An hour passes.  An hour and a half passes.

What the hell is taking so long?

Well, they needed the top of the box to be intact for later shots.  They had to be careful when they took it off, because it could turn into a pile of splinters.  So they were working on it.  Carefully. And it was very well nailed together.

Two hours pass.  By this time we have blown out a morning of shooting.  My schedule has gone out the window.  I’m ready to choke somebody.  And finally, the top is off the box.  We can put the boom man inside it and start shooting.

And then we looked into the box, which was empty.   But way down inside, staring us in the face, were the boards of the station platform. There was no bottom on the box.  We could have turned it over and been shooting in three minutes.

At the wrap party, the Art Director gave me a one inch block of wood from that box on a shoelace.  Every once in a while I come across it among my career souvenirs. As if I would ever need a reminder, but it always makes me smile.

I hope the crew learned whatever lesson the AD was trying to teach them.  I sure as hell learned mine, though it wasn’t going to be the last time I got caught out. In some ways, the next time was worse.

If you enjoyed this story, please give me some encouragement in the comments. I’ve got a million of ’em.

And thanks for reading.

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