(Note: The photos used on this page were not taken by Cody)
Water for Elephants: A Rube’s-Eye View ~ Part 1
July 6-8 and July 11-12: WFE film set in Piru, California
© Cody Wood 2010, published with permission
Dust and limbs moved wildly around the ring. My legs stretched out in front of me faster and faster as the animals approached. On my left a llama came and went. Where were the zebras and camels? Screams echoed around and around and my heart pounded. Leaping over hay bales I came bounding almost even with the llama again…
There is really no way to make 4:30am a comfortable time to wake-up. It just doesn’t feel right. The body moves slowly and the mind even slower. Darkness continues even with lights on. But as I filled my cup with orange juice early last Monday morning my mind was churning with excitement; it was going to be my first day on the set of Water for Elephants. Still dark, I started my car and headed north on California Interstate-5 toward Santa Clarita. Out of the city and through the hills I arrived at the cast/crew gated parking area, about twenty minutes east of the Big Top tents. I grabbed my sun lotion and water bottle and boarded the nearly full bus. Quiet with anticipation we drove on through the desert. The sky began to glow as the sun rose above the gray fog that lay just above the mountain tops. In the distance I could make out a series of large white tents. Figures of men and women appeared along the edges of the field. One man slowly turned when the bus approached. He wore a plain cream colored suit shadowed by dust and a plume of smoke swirled around his hardened face. The authenticity of his appearance was shocking. For a moment I wondered if I had somehow been transported to the 1930’s.
I filed off the bus and into the tent where hundreds of future Rubes (townspeople/circus attendees) stood awaiting their hair styling or breakfast. The check-in line at the front of the tent moved quickly and once I had my work voucher I ping-ponged my way back to the wardrobe section. Hundreds of men’s suits hung on racks that stretched fifty feet long, each specifically numbered. My number was M826. I moved along each rack scanning the numbers. In between each aisle men sat hunched on benches lacing up boots and tightening suspenders. The breakfast spread was large and delicious. I piled fresh pancakes, hash browns, eggs, and fruit on my plate and sat down at a table. I was no longer Cody Wood 2010. I was Cody Wood 1931. I set my hat to the side and finished the meal like it was the Depression era. “Everyone! Thank you for your attention. If you’ve eaten please line-up outside for wardrobe check!” exclaimed one of the casting assistants. Checking my phone in the security bin I headed outside and joined the line of at least one hundred rubes. We stood shoulder to shoulder awaiting inspection. I passed. The Big Top tents were located two hundred yards north. The ground was still hard and damp from the fog. A blessing I wouldn’t appreciate until the afternoon sun dried everything to dust. I walked past movie trailers that looked out of place. Over the train tracks and into the holding tent we marched. Folding chairs faced in all directions and the snack table was already swarmed. Almost immediately I heard a megaphone. “Good morning ladies and gentleman. We are ready for you. Please proceed through the menagerie into the main tent.” Wow, already? I dropped my bag, stretched my shoulders, and moved to the front of the line..
Water for Elephants: A Rube’s-Eye View ~ Part 2
Screams echoed around and around and my heart pounded. Leaping over hay bales I came bounding almost even with the llama again….”CUT!!!! CUT!” shouted the assistant director. Everyone came to a stop and looked around. Twenty feet to my right an elephant lifted its trunk in the air. The megaphone rang out again. “Places everyone. Great job. Places.” We all marched back to our starting positions and tried to collect ourselves for another stampede.
Francis Lawrence, the director, sat under a black awning against the circus bleachers. His face was calm with a slight smile of satisfaction as he watched the footage. He exchanged words with the AD (Assistant Director). Almost immediately I heard the cue: “Pictures up!” A pause. “And BACKGROUND!” On background we all began the exhilarating sprint from danger once more. A plume of dust rose from our pounding feet and swirled around the swinging lamps. Wind pushed the top of the tent up and down like waves. As the motion of canvas, lamps, and people rushed about, the enormous elephant stood calmly in the center of the ring. “And CUT! Thank you folks! Good job.”
On my walk back across the circus floor I noticed a new excitement. There was no audible noise but something seemed different. When I came around the last large tent pole Pattinson had appeared at the end of the menagerie. I heard the start of the AD’s instructions. “Rob, we’re going to have you….” The young actor looked controlled and confident even while hundreds of Rubes tried to secretly glance in his direction. Most of the cast had arrived at their original mark but I was still walking. Fortuitously I was placed near the entrance to the tent just a few feet from where Rob was now standing. While the cinematographer gathered lighting calculations I was instructed to wait for Rob to hit his second mark and run past him going out the menagerie. Again, the speed at which the cues came was surprising. The AD instructed, “Pictures Up, and Background”. On “background” the crowd began the stampede away from the menagerie. A third cue came for Rob and on “action” he became Jacob Jankowski. He took a slow step toward the running crowd and looked on with awe. He took another step and scanned the crowd left to right. From behind the camera I sprinted as fast as I could just past Jacob. The crowd was still screaming and running in the other direction. I hopped to my right to avoid a tent pole and stopped dead. My breath was gone and my eyes were frozen. A few feet in front of me stood an enormous buffalo. Dark thick fur covered the entire animal except for the large blood-shot eyes that looked directly at me. I methodically moved each foot backward while the stampede continued on in the tent. Finally the word “Cut” came bellowing out from the tent and gladly moved back to safety.
Rob was smiling at the director. He was obviously tickled by the intensity and size of the stampede. The entire experience was authentic. There were peanuts scattered on the ground and popcorn boxes tipped in the bleachers. Along the menagerie a host of animals did their part to make the scene possible and in the center ring the massive elephant stood like royalty. There was so much to take in, that the twelve hour day passed like minutes. After a long drive home I dropped onto the couch. My feet were sore and I could still taste a little dust but I couldn’t stop thinking about what the next day would have in store…
Water for Elephants: A Rube’s-Eye View ~ Part 3
“Ladies and Gentleman!” His hand stretched toward us and traced the circular bleachers. He wore a bright red jacket neatly stuffed with a crisp white handkerchief. The black top hat fit snugly and in his left hand he held a long black baton. “…. The most spectacular show on earth!!” He shot his baton toward the entrance of the tent and the crowd erupted with applause. I clapped my hands and whooped. There were no animals entering the tent as suggested. In fact, absolutely nothing happened but we continued to cheer. Christoph Waltz had made an announcement that caused our hair to stand on end and imaginations to run wild.
By the third take some of the magic had worn off but Christoph continued the performance like it had been his first. Once the shot was complete we returned to our holding tent. I found an area of the tent where a steady breeze of air came through and wrote song titles inspired by the story of Water for Elephants. The AD returned about 45 minutes later. “Ok, I need some nimble people. If you think you’re nimble, follow me!” I closed my notebook and stuffed it in my open backpack. The AD wore a bright blue shirt that was easy to follow to the entrance of the tent. He lifted the flap and one by one we passed into the Big Top. The AD suddenly blocked the entrance. “Woah woah woah. I said nimble. Come on now.” A gentleman that was probably in his early seventies froze like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. The AD continued, “Go back to holding please. This is for nimble folks only.” The man turned with his head tilted toward the ground and walked away. For a second I felt bad for the man but why had he joined a group of twenty-somethings for an action shot?
Inside the tent four horses were harnessed to a tall carriage stuffed with men holding band instruments. The horses were pointed toward the entrance of the tent. Our gang of “nimble” Rubes were placed precariously in the bleachers near the carriage while Francis Lawrence and Rodrigo Prieto, the cinematographer, stood close-by discussing the angle of the next shot. Our instructions were to look shocked. This turned out to be very easy. On “Action” the horses took off like cavalry. As the carriage tipped side-ways the stunt musicians were strategically thrown from the cart and instruments went flying in all directions. My mouth opened and my muscles tightened. I stared at the men spread across the dusty circus floor in shock – no acting skills necessary.
The afternoon sun took over the valley and heat set in. After a satisfying lunch I contemplated how much had happened in just two days. I wondered what Tai the elephant thought of all the commotion. My hat had flattened on top so I re-shaped the dimples and slugged down a big glass of water before heading back over the tracks. In the Big Top the camera equipment had been moved toward the menagerie. The acting doubles for Rob and Christoph talked with the stunt coordinator and began rehearsing. First in slow-motion but soon in full-speed, the two actors fought. They choked, pushed, and hit each other as we watched from the bleachers. Soon, the lead actors emerged and studied the scene their doubles had worked out. After several reenactments, Rob and Christoph took over. One rehearsal and “action”; Christoph grunted heavily and swung with might. Rob winced in pain and shoved the bull-hook away. His expression of agony made the painted blood on his face come to life. I watched on from the edge of my seat imagining my own musical film score as the scene played out.
Finally the “background artists” were called to work. “Come on down here folks,” said the AD. He grabbed my shoulder and lined me up a few feet from where Rob was now laying in the dirt. Christoph straddled the wounded young actor and Reese Witherspoon stood two feet from my right. Rodrigo, the cinematographer, worked with Reese for a moment to find the perfect angle for her entrance. A few seconds later the slate snapped in front of the camera and the scene turned fierce. Reese approached the scrapping men and I raced ahead to the menagerie. Phew – no buffalo. A line of Rubes followed after me. When I turned, Francis jumped out from his director’s chair and approached the lead actors grinning with excitement. “It looks really great!! Let’s do it again.”
Water for Elephants: A Rube’s-Eye View ~ Part 4
July 19, 2010: 20th Century Fox Studios, in LA, California
Monday July 19th, 5am. Twenty or more cars waited single file for entry into the Fox Studio parking garage off of Avenue of the Stars. I reached to the passenger seat and picked up my water bottle. The cars inched forward.
Once past the security guard, the security gate, and the second security guard, I was directed toward the white canvas wardrobe tent. The tent looked odd now that it was planted in the middle of a mini-city. The entire experience felt odd now that we had all been transplanted from the desert.
I found my suit in the usual spot and hung the pants and shirt I wore on the empty hangers. The hats were stored in boxes that ran along two walls. I scanned each one for my number. Nothing. Finally I came across a miscellaneous bin and found my hat crushed on the bottom. I fell into a sleepy trance just staring at the hat before Ellen, one of the wardrobe specialists, came to the rescue. “Good morning, Cody!” she said in her usual chipper demeanor. I mustered up a big smile and returned the exchange. “Good morning! How are you today?” Ellen was a petite woman in her 50’s who had probably been working on movies for a long time. She was always alert, always friendly, and could fix a torn shirt in seconds.
I felt refreshed by my encounter with Ellen and headed over to the “hair and make-up” tent with a little more pep. I was quickly called in and plunked down in a chair that faced an old wooden framed mirror. The hair supervisor looked over and said to my hair stylist that I could probably use a fresh cut. I thought to myself, “alright, another free haircut!” Immediately I regretted the offer. The stylist either had a personal vendetta or had never cut a man’s hair. She grabbed the top of my head and pulled up so hard I almost verbalized the pain. She cut quickly and pulled again. “What the hell is going on?” I thought. The only good thing about it was the speed she was moving. She finished in two minutes and I wondered how much hair she had pulled out rather than cut. I relaxed. “Ahh, thank goodness that’s over….” Bzzzzzzzz. The clippers interrupted my moment and she dug the blade so deep into the back of my neck my eyes started watering. “F#$k!” I silently yelled at her. When I finally got up I felt like I had a rug burn from my shoulders to the top of my head. If it had been SuperCuts, I would have asked for a refund and recommended that she never cut hair again. In this case it was free, and how could I ask for my hair back? At least there would be food. I moved up the hill to the third location. The dining hall was a giant empty movie studio. The room had been completely gutted and it was big enough to hold an airplane. The buffet was also huge and ran like a landing strip down the center of the room. I felt much better after breakfast. I walked happily down the hill. When I looked up Christoph Waltz was coming my direction! He looked rested with a pleasant expression. “Good morning!” I offered. “Good morning,” he said, and gave a genuine smile. I smiled all the way to our holding site.
Our holding site was behind the biggest green screen I have ever seen. On the other side was a small city. I scanned our holding area for the perfect spot. Not too close to the other actors, but not so far that it looked like I was avoiding them. We were called as soon as I had picked out my chair for the day chair and set my bag down. The group of Rube’s had slowly dwindled since my first day on set but there were still over one hundred of us; dirty, and ready to work. I followed the group toward the little city. On the other side of the green-screen we split down the left and right sides of the street. It was beautiful. The buildings had been designed and decorated to look like the 1930’s. There was a barber shop, a candy store, a restaurant, and a small convenient store that was selling plump watermelons. On the corner of the alley-way four large posters read: “Benzini Bros Circus!”
At the far end of the city street the film crew was poised. Behind them was the trailer park. Of course, in this trailer park you’re probably served filet mignon and given an afternoon massage. “Scrape. Scrape. Scrape.” I looked over and two men in cargo pants shoveled dirt onto the street where the barren asphalt had been exposed. Their movements got faster and faster until the first animal cages came around the corner for the parade. The men pushed the wheelbarrows off the street and the Assistant-Director yelled, “This is a parade folks, have fun!”…. “Action!”
The animals came two-by-two. The line-up was like a giant mix of Animal Crackers. Clowns rode by on unicycles and zebras trotted along side. We cheered. Four horses pulled a majestic cage through the center of the dirt covered street. On each corner the wood had been carefully carved and on the top a silver-embroidered lion looked on. A Persian rug had been draped behind the bars to hide the secret contents. The lower right corner of the rug lifted up. The eyes shone first. The rug raised higher. Two large nostrils. The rug swiftly lifted all the way up and an African lion revealed its triumphant mane.
In unison everyone watching gasped. The noise of our breath was loud and visibly startled the lion back to the darkness. The cage rolled on making room for the star of the parade: Rosie. Wearing a shimmering headband she lumbered down the street. Her trunk swayed back and forth, back and forth. Children laughed with excitement and pointed from the window of the candy store. A man next to me lit a hand-rolled cigarette. I gave a big holler to Rosie and clapped my hands. Back and forth, and back and forth, she lumbered. I rested my right leg on the bumper of an old two-door Ford – a relic from an era passed.
“Great job ladies and gentlemen!” “Back to the top!” The AD had the megaphone again – and for good reason. All of the cages, carts, clowns, and circus animals turned around and walked back to their starting positions. Christoph and Rob slipped into the parade without fanfare. On the next take the two actors walked near each other but not too near. There was a visible tension between them, especially now that Marlena sat atop her prized Rosie. She looked stunning in her silver shimmering costume and waved at the crowd. She looked my direction and I waved back. Who knows, maybe she was looking at me?
The parade continued on for a couple of hours before we returned to our tents and I drank six Dixie Cups of ice water. Some of the Rubes sat in circles and talked, others went to sleep in the grass. I paced. I wanted more. When the next call came I was first in line. We followed the AD back down to the street and gathered around the corner grocery store. I wondered why they had so many watermelons. A middle-aged Asian man stood high-up on a ladder in cargo shorts and a sweaty t-shirt. He wore a faded blue baseball cap fastened down by an over-sized pair of headphones and held a ten foot long boom mic over the crowd. “Ok folks, make some room!” Out of thin air, Rosie appeared and was walking toward the middle of the crowd. We immediately split and cleared a path. Once she was in position I was so close I could reach out and touch her hind leg.
“Thank you for your patience folks. Here is what’s going to happen. Tai (Rosie) is going to be eating the watermelons and Rob and Camel are going to come and take her away. When she starts to back up, make sure you….” Ptthhhmmpppp. Silence. Laughter. “Ewwww,” a group of people groaned at once. The Rubes directly behind Tai took a few steps back and covered their mouths. Elephant fart…
Once everyone regained their composure the filming began. My job was to look enthralled by the fact there was an elephant eating at the grocery store. How could I not be? Jacob and Camel pushed their way through the crowd and attempted to lure Rosie away with the smell of whiskey. This turned out to be harder than they’d imagined. In between takes Rob stood comfortably in the back of the crowd. He had an undeniable composure and worked diligently to make the scene the best it possibly could be. He inspired all of us to give our best until the sun began to set.
I didn’t want to, but I hung my suit back up on the wardrobe rack. I dropped my hat in one of the boxes, and took one last look at the set. The sky darkened and the lights of the Fox Studio buildings covered the evening canvas with glimmering light. This was the end for my time on Water for Elephants, but just the beginning for everything else…..