Mad Props

Naturally, we didn't need to get THIS prop. (Which I'm positive is fully functional and fully awesome.)

One thing that a lot of actors fear is being typecast – that is, playing a particular character or role so many times that they become so identified with that role that those are the only parts that they ever get offered. Typecasting is why John Wayne was always a cowboy, why Jason Statham is always an angry guy driving a car, and why Leonard Nimoy is the saddest rich person on Earth.

What I discovered in the past few days, though, is that low level production assistants can get typecast as well. Last month I worked for nine days as an art department production assistant for the Call of Duty convention – a job consisting largely of manual labor and the use of power tools, tasks I was ill-qualified for, to say the least.

Regardless, I did the work, picked up a couple of skills, met a lot of really friendly gay dudes, and then deposited a large paycheck that essentially bought me three more months in Los Angeles (or 56 handles of Jack Daniel’s – I tend to measure wealth in how much whiskey it could bring me at any given time.)

Art department PA work isn’t really the sort of work I want to be doing – it doesn’t offer me a lot of connections in the writing department, and sweating all day doing backbreaking labor so I can take home a paycheck to provide for myself is a little too Bruce Springsteeny for the life I ideally want to live. I’d much rather be working as a pre-production PA, because it’s an office job that would put me in contact with writers, directors, and producers, or as a general production PA, because that job is mostly guarding the craft table and bossing extras around, and I’ll never pass up the opportunity to talk down to actors.

On Wednesday, though, I was at my internship when I got a call from a production manager I’d submitted my resume to for an upcoming commercial shoot – the art department needed another PA, and since my resume indicated that I had art department experience, she wanted me for the job.

Naturally, I took the job in a heartbeat, because money is money, but as I drove to the production office I realized that now I would have two art department PA jobs on my resume, which would only build my reputation as an art department PA until those were the only jobs I was getting offered, in spite of no real skill or inclination towards that field. Moving heavy props around would be my Star Trek.

Part of my job on this shoot was helping the art director secure props for the commercial – among them four surf boards, six incredibly heavy oil drums, and some retro looking chrome stools, along with a box of tiny perfume bottles. To carry all these props, they had me to go a nearby rental car company to pick up a cargo van.

Interestingly enough, it came with a bag of free candy!

The white, windowless monstrosity they gave me at the rental lot was the sort of vehicle you’d see parked under a barren tree near the Interstate somewhere on the outskirts of St. Louis. People might label it a pedophile van, but I think that’s narrow minded – there was enough room for easily five homeless dudes to smoke crack in there.

However well suited it might have been for child molestation or drugs, the van was shit for driving. It had more blind spots than Stevie Wonder and equally good shocks, which made for a nerve wracking and bumpy ride to the prop warehouse at Universal Studios, where the art director and I went about collecting the necessary props for the shoot.

On the productions I worked on in Eugene, we usually got our props from Goodwill, or any other musty smelling thrift store filled with weird, grimy 80s crap that nobody wanted anymore. Going to the multi-story Universal prop warehouse, the largest in the industry, I was expecting a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory style stroll through movie memorabilia, like giant Styrofoam boulders and the fake glass bottles you can break on peoples’ heads without hurting them.

As it turns out, the Universal prop warehouse is essentially a five story Goodwill that just happens to be on the lot of a major motion picture studio – everything is equally grimy and musty and has the feeling of being something that was donated because a small child vomited on it at some point. There’s shelves upon shelves of board games in crusty, deteriorating boxes, garish plastic faux-crystal glasses from the 1970s, dilapidated printers from every era… As I wandered around the warehouse, grabbing the items the art director told me to grab, I wondered if any of the props I was so carefully avoiding contact with had been in the background of any of my favorite movies.

The prop warehouse is like a video store, in that you browse through it, make your selections, and then take them to the front desk to rent them out for a specific period of time.* The front desk was staffed by a profoundly grumpy minimum wage earner who had absolutely no patience or sympathy for the fact that I had no previous experience with the checkout system and thus was making mistakes on the paperwork I had to fill out.

*Unlike a video store, it still exists.

“Wait,” I said, at one point. “I need to sign every page, or just initial everything after the first page?”

He sighed heavily. “You initial. And hurry up – it’s after 5:00, so you’re wasting my time now.”

I wanted to put the pen down and give him some tough love.

”Look here, fuckstick.,” I would’ve said. ”I’ve been on your side of the checkout desk. I know how much it sucks back there. I know that being a dick to renters is about the only perk to your job. But you’ve got to draw some battle lines for that shit, and right now I haven’t crossed any of them. I’m not some PR major trying to scam restricted equipment off you. I didn’t come in here reeking of American Spirits and B.O. And I sure as shit didn’t start out conversation off with, ‘Is this the prop warehouse?’ So until I do any of those things, I recommend you treat me just like I used to treat any given one of my old customers: Only subtle disdain and sarcasm until they cross the line. Go ahead and make a Facebook update about me. I want to see your weenie ass try some shit.

Of course, as I well knew, the person checking out items holds all the power in these situations – if I’m a dick to him, he has every right to just not give me the stuff I need. If he’s a dick to me, I have to either put up with it or go to the other Universal Studios prop warehouse. (There isn’t one.)

So I navigated the troll’s maze of bureaucracy and wheeled my rented props out to the pedophile van. Step one of my job – get the props – was complete. Step two – move those props around for arbitrary reasons – lay ahead.

Truman Capps will cover step two in part two, in case you didn’t catch that.