Preparing for life as a television Director’s Assistant (once again, caps mine…) was far more complex than I at first imagined.
As a complete neophyte, there were so many questions I had about the unique and mysterious situations I would be bound find myself involved in: where did this all take place? How long would our days be? What, beyond the laughably minimal instructions for assisting George had provided me with would I actually be doing?
And perhaps most importantly, what would I wear?
Luckily, I had next to no time to nervously anticipate – just one day to get ten days worth of wardrobe ready (the time one episode of an hour long show apparently takes to complete – sans editing and tarting up) to prepare the dog’s accoutrement for transfer, and to phone friends, ostensibly to tell them I was going to be unavailable for socializing for the next week and a half, but really to let them know I had achieved entree into the glittering world of the biz that is show.
I had, to put it in the parlance of a long ago beau, pulled another ‘Kramer’.
The first week of my immersion into the entertainment world was more like the slow comfortable dip of a toe into a warm bubbly bath. (Icy reality was still five days away.) Pre-production days began at around ten with a trip out to the Downsview Airforce Base soundstage (an impossibly gargantuan undertaking where you could probably squeeze in the entire Principality of Lichtenstein, and still have room left over for an Orange Julius and at least half of Angelina Jolie’s lovers) to meet the crew, look at audition tapes for the roles to be filled by various guest stars, and to sit in on a read-through of the script that continued to change and evolve as George and the writers and producers got their bearings.
We were usually finished by mid-afternoon and the drives back to Toronto were uniformly sunny and serene, going in the opposite direction of rush hour traffic as it battled and honked and fumed its way out of the city.
My first couple of days were exactly as George described, only less so. There was minimal script carrying, we were generally on our way home before the 4 o’clock pill-taking time – his wife would take over to enforce compliance – and since the days were short, I hadn’t bothered to trouble the dog to accompany us. I more or less just followed George about, watching and observing and wondering just what I was doing to justify $900.00 (plus GST) for this first week’s worth of assisting.
My biggest responsibility was picking the Director up in the morning and maintaining a quiet calm so that he could meditate over the script in the back seat. It must have looked pretty comic; George, who at the age of seventy-plus and well over six feet was pretty spry, but folding himself into the backseat of an ancient un-air conditioned Mazda 323 was an exercise in clown car-ology. Still he managed uncomplaining – I had been perfectly clear when describing my lack of credentials for the position that my biggest drawback was bound to be my car Sylvia – and said nothing about his discomfort, even when the mercury rose to near unbearable heights as June progressed.
(Everyone keeps whinging about how hot the weather is; how the heat and humidity of the other week is unheard of and unfair – more August than June. I, on the other hand am hard pressed to remember a June that hasn’t had at least a week or so of smog warnings and dire predictions of elderly death tolls due to heat… though thank heaven my pensioner wasn’t one of them. It was that hot, it wouldn’t have been entirely a shock…)
My favourite activity of that first week was being given the responsibility to select a couple of the guest stars. Since the individuals had been winnowed down to an extremely competent shortlist, it isn’t likely I could have made any enormous errors; still, I’m waiting to hear my name read out in an acceptance speech someday – the cute actor from Vancouver and the black actress from Toronto in particular have me to thank for whatever resulting stardom they achieve from the exposure. I’m still waiting, but then, so are they…
I think George just wanted to give me something to do. Keeping quiet and nodding wisely (as if anyone cared) was starting to wear thin around day three and the casting session perked me up no end.
We had a couple more days spent searching out office locations before shooting was to begin and ended up selecting something very high powered, all decked out in teak and leather and expensive ancient Bokhara rugs in the TD Centre. You know the sort – floor to ceiling windows somewhere around the 40th floor, priceless worthy Group of Seven paintings on loan from Ken Thompson on the walls – that sort of thing. We’d be shooting on the weekend when the lawyers or accountants or whomsovers it was that could afford such high priced sky-high real estate, were golfing or yachting or shopping in Milan, so we would have the space to ourselves.
(Interestingly, for all the location searching and office touring and swellegant work stations we considered, it was mostly the more boring, non-decorated nor art-strewn support staff cubby-hole cubicles we shot in. Oh television, you magical mystical messenger, you!)
It was definitely different (never have I driven so much before lunch) and it was interesting on a fairly regular basis (the conversations George had with the writers and the cinematographer and the Assistant Director – and by the way, transposing those two words means a world of difference – were fascinating; the conversations with the producers and associate producers not so much) and the craft services food was uniformly good (cappuccino! Off the back of a truck!) but I couldn’t help feeling a little bored and wasted around the edges and even more so, pretty useless as an assistant anything.
I felt less like I had in George’s kitchen (girlfriends in hats) and more like his bored and crabby adolescent daughter; if I hadn’t been a (nominal) grown up, I probably would have whined and demanded to be taken home or shopping. As it was, I just tried to stay awake and find something to be interested in while dad talked endlessly with the lady producer who I suspected had my number.
That was the other thing: there seemed to be a general ‘hand’s off’ policy where George’s assistant was concerned. Beyond basic civility, I was pretty much ignored – a state I’m generally unfamiliar with. And please don’t think I’m suggesting I’m irresistible or something, it’s just that I’m pretty friendly and gregarious and outgoing (concealing my soft, shy milky-white sensitive underbelly don’t you know) and to be invisible was a drag. Invisible and bored – drag city, man.
Then suddenly there we were: pre-production finished, production underway. Yikes! Up at 5:30 to get George (not to mention Lily) to the set by six-forty-five, into their office-cum-dressing room (true to his word, the dog was welcome the entire time; when George would nap, Lily would nap, when George would ask for a glass of water – two ice cubes, in a glass not a cup – he would make sure Lily got a drink too… my comfort was not nearly so pressing, but twas ever thus) and calm and prepared, script inserted into leather casing, George and I would hit the set.
At the outset I felt pretty important; on a set peopled by hundreds of cast and crew, George and I were the only two to have those tall canvas director chairs to sit in. Brought to the edge of each individual set in prime watching position, mine always to his right, with cupholder and script sleeve, my home base and prison for the next sixteen to eighteen hours. And it was prison – not just because I couldn’t leave – but a weird kind of solitary confinement because I wasn’t allowed to talk (had there been anyone besides George and Lily who were allowed to talk to me) and talking, as anyone who knows me will attest, isn’t just what I do, it’s who I am.
There are worse forms of torture being committed on individuals right this moment in Guantanamo and in Gulags from Iraq to Irkutsk, but none for me more counter to my nature than telling me to shut up. I could actually feel conversation or a joke or a laugh bubbling up every tedious now and boring then, but each time all it took was a withering look from George and the communication was murdered before it left my lips.
That was when I began to feel exhausted. The strain of not saying anything for virtually every moment save lunch break between 5:30 AM and 1:00 AM was taking its toll. 18 1/2 hours of silence felt like a lifetime of buttoning my lip.
And my relationship with George began to change; I had somehow gone from friend to servant status – and though in my limited understanding of the role of Director’s Assistant I gather there is a butlery/nanny sort of vibe, it wasn’t the way we started, nor the reason I thought he’d wanted me there in the first place. To be perfectly honest, if Lily were more obedient (and had opposable thumbs for beverage bearing) she could fulfill nearly all the requirements of the job. As it was, with so few responsibilities, I found myself beginning to get nervous around 4 o’clock, fearing I would through a gradual deadening of the senses forget even the simplest of my two daily tasks – telling him to take his pill.
That didn’t happen, but something worse did. I committed the cardinal error, the fundamental crime – the number one no-no: one morning, I slept through the alarm. Not so much that George had to call me, just enough that I had to call George (shuddering, shamefully) as I had wakened at nearly precisely the time I was normally sitting out front of his front door.
Words cannot describe the chill I felt from his reaction – possibly because there were virtually no words; just the “I see” and deadly cold silence that fathers who prefer guilt over corporal punishment have been perfecting over the centuries.
(It reminded me of nothing so much as the time I ignored my brother when I should have been watching him and he set the living room couch on fire – we managed to pull it out onto the lawn before the really big flames erupted – and my parents arrived home just in time to see it ignite the bushes. But that's another story…)
Stumbling, bumbling, tripping and falling all over myself apologizing, I heard George quietly say he would call a cab and meet me there before hanging up without saying goodbye. I was 40 years old and felt like the biggest and most wicked disappointment since I watched a couple of thousand dollars worth of painstakingly selected fabric (it went so well with the drapes!) and wood burst into flame on a warm, still bright evening back in the summer of 1974.
Needless to say I raced through my ablutions, practically threw the dog into the car, and drove hell for leather out to Downsview, arriving about 10 minutes after George. But those 10 minutes might have been hours, as I was given the silent treatment for the rest of the day.
Already in virtual solitary Purdah from the rest of the crew I withdrew into myself further, until the fairly dreamy First A.D. wandered over to see what was the matter between myself and ‘Sir’.
“I slept in,” I whispered. “George had to come in a cab.”
“Gee,” he whistled. “That’s just about the worst possible thing a person could do on a film set. He must be furious.”
I sunk lower into my saggy director’s chair.
“But everyone does it at least once,” he confided. Then went on to tell me an absolutely hellacious tale of his own sleepy screw-up that nearly completely made my shame and embarrassment go away.
And that’s when I started to gain a little perspective. Why on earth, I wondered, would a grown up (nominal or otherwise) who made an honest mistake, then apologized profusely and sincerely, continue to be treated like a bad child?
And the answer is, possibly, because they acted like one.
After that things started going better. George and I got along better. I sloughed off the guilt (after apologizing once more) and carried on keeping quiet and fetching water and coffee and dispensing pills with all the professionalism and gusto I was capable of applying. I also began counting down the days until the series’ opening episode was complete and I could go back to writing and offering strangers the kind of advice I was only beginning to apply to myself.
The show ended, George and I went our separate ways and I’ve never written about it until now. And I write about it for two reasons: 1. Because I want to remember what it is I want to do with my life, no matter the interesting side offers that come my way and 2. Because I’m still at risk of treating virtually every older man like an angry daddy; one I have to either charm, or apologize or appease my way around, instead of just doing whatever job it is that is required and being satisfied with that.
I don’t need another father; though mine has been dead ten years, his memory is still more than enough to keep me on the straight and narrow, and to suffer not a few cold winter nights warmed solely by my own shame or sorrow.
I do need a new job on the other hand; with the Griffin Prize over, I need a new source of revenue and am considering all offers.
And BTW - the dog is so old and sleepy now she just stays home and no longer needs her own trailer - air conditioned or otherwise. Just so you know.