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My Day on a Movie Shoot

Last year Greencastle native Zachary Spicer caught local attention when he and his film company, Pigasus Pictures, shot The Good Catholic in Bloomington.  Now making its debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the film has garnered strong reviews out of the gate.  Here, we are re-posting Donovan Wheeler’s recollection of the day he spent on location as Spicer stood face-to-face with Hollywood icon, Danny Glover.

by Donovan Wheeler
featured image courtesy of Pigasis Pictures
Originally Published, April 12, 2016

Pigasus Pictures’ Bloomington headquarters is the face of 21st century filmmaking.  Located in an obscure strip mall on South College Avenue—in what used to be a Damon’s restaurant—the shadows of long removed booth seats mark the walls, and electrical lines dangle from the ceiling in the once bustling kitchen.

It’s early.  Souls—mostly twenty and early thirty-somethings—lurk about the dark corners and blend into the deep brown woodwork, brought to life only by the pixelated sheen on their faces as they thumb through their iPhones.  In time, they’ll turn to each other, talk, and do their work.  For now, they have to shake off the sleep still hanging on them.  Over a chest-high divider wall (something once used to prevent food-laden servers from plowing over their customers) morning laughter wafts in tandem with the smell of coffee.  Graham Sheldon, a producer who had met me at the door, points toward the noise and escorts me to Zachary Spicer.  Over a decade ago, Spicer sat in my English class, a youthful, physically-awkward high school freshman bearing all the concerns of a ten-year-old.  Today, rising from the common folding chair where he just laughed in conversation with his team, he turns to me an accomplished man.  He’s leaner now.  Muscular.  Square-jawed.  Hollywood…if you’re comfortable with the adjective.  But that jawline still frames the same disarming, affable grin he used to throw at me when he was the one walking in on my turf at sunrise.

Spicer walks me around the building and shows me where the crew shot a couple scenes the week before.  Notable among them was the makeshift confessional they used to film his early scenes with Wrenn Schmidt.  Complete with removable walls allowing for good camera angles. I marvel at it.  Not because it’s a well-built bit of Catholic fantasy (it is…very well done), but because it’s here.  No doubt, when I watch the film, I will have no idea that Schmidt won Spicer’s heart in the spot where people once sat waiting for a hostess to seat them for braised chicken and a Cesar’s salad.

Zachary Spicer and Paul Shoulberg discuss the logistics of the running sequence on a frigid February morning. Photo by Donovan Wheeler
Zachary Spicer and Paul Shoulberg discuss the logistics of the running sequence on a frigid February morning.
Photo by Donovan Wheeler

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At a little after 8:00 we’re standing in the vestibule…waiting.  Director Paul Shoulberg, masking his exasperation, asks someone about a battery.  Presumably the battery which powers not only the Steady-Cam but also provides counter-balance…part of what makes the Steady-Cam “steady.”  The gadget itself is another facet shattering all the filmmaking clichés I brought with me.  Those lumbering cameras mounted on cranes—the ones with the operators seated behind them like tank-gunners—might still be visible icons on the big-budget sets, but on location shoots they’re impotent.

By 9:00 we’re circling a set of streets south of IU’s campus.  It’s the running montage.  Zach, sporting a “nerdy” sweat pants and shirt combination, leads a spectacle.  Behind him: four camera crewmen on a mud-spattered golf cart.  Behind them: Shoulberg and producer John Robert Armstrong in a Nissan Rouge—hazard flashers pulsating.  Behind them: a 15-passenger utility van carrying the assistant director, hair and makeup, additional camera and tech crew, and me.  Half a block long, snaking around street corners at 8 mph.  Late in the run, someone from the Nissan plays “Redemption” over the walkie-talkies, and Zach—obviously wearing an ear-piece—throws both fists up and “Rocky pumps.”

Without fanfare, Danny Glover slides onto the set.  Donned in the green vestments of the priesthood, he’s somber, aloof, isolated, and serious.

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By midday, the February chill wears everyone down.  The camera crew—four bearded men piled onto that muddy, green E-ZGO—sport a mixture of dead stares and frowns.  One technician, sitting backwards and facing us, casts a look of resigned contempt.  Besides the weather, the pulse of the city throws snags by the minute.  The farmer’s market, held in the nearby elementary school which the crew picked as their starting point, floods the streets with unusually high traffic for a Saturday morning.  Getting the run started had been a challenge.  Finishing it is proving impossible.  The aforementioned farmer’s market, wrapping up for the day, is spitting out cars onto the street downhill from Spicer, standing akimbo and now wearing his priest’s habit.  The crew’s crackled conversation plays out over the walkies.  They debate about blocking the exit long enough to shoot the scene.  Someone mentions that doing so is technically illegal.  Someone else considers it anyway.  Finally…finally…the traffic breaks and Zachary Spicer runs.

Sometime after noon we’re inside Trinity Episcopal Church.  For two hours, Shoulberg and camera chief Justin Montgomery place every camera position, every klieg light, as well as each foot placement for the boom mike for what will become six or seven takes of the upcoming scene.  As they work, the crew runs wires along the aisle, around and under the pews.  Above me, decades of history seep out of the ornate, dark woodwork of the church. Despite growing up a half-hour away from Bloomington, and having traveled up and down the length of Kirkwood Avenue tens of thousands of times, I had never set foot in Trinity until today.

Without fanfare, Danny Glover slides onto the set.  Donned in the green vestments of the priesthood, he’s somber, aloof, isolated, and serious.  He’s in character, sitting in the choir pews, reviewing his lines.  I had grown up watching him in everything from the Lethal Weapon movies to his Lonesome Dove appearance.  His iconic presence first as a supporting actor then eventually a leading man became part of the background of life among my generation.  Now, here he was some fifty-odd feet away from me, and standing next to him was Zach, the one-time goofy kid who had looked to me as an authority figure.  Both irony and the degrees of separation pretzeled though my mind.  A reality paradox: It is what it is as a simple matter of fact—yet equally surreal to the point of fantasy.

Spicer takes direction from Shoulberg (out of frame) while Danny Glover sit at the altar working through his lines. Photo by Donovan Wheeler
Spicer takes direction from Shoulberg (out of frame) while Danny Glover sit at the altar working through his lines.
Photo by Donovan Wheeler

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Spicer moves gingerly around the church.  He’s in pain. Crippling pain.  He tweaked his back shooting the confessional scenes the week before and aggravated it during the run.  After each day on the set he meets with an IU physical therapist as well as a doctor—who has put him on the kind of meds that knocks out horses.  On camera, you can’t tell he wants to cry.  Between scenes, the crew asks what they can do to help him.

“Everything that can be done has been done,” he says, disarmingly.  “So let’s just keep at it.”

Take one begins (scene 60, I think).  The steady-cam—strapped onto the abdomen of operator Michel Klein by a multi-hinged hydraulic arm—stands in the aisle.  Spicer calls out to Glover: “God is in the details.”

“I heard the same thing about the devil,” Glover replies softly.  Glover turns, and they face one other.  Spicer apologizes, and they shake hands.

“Cut!” Shoulberg confers with Spicer who is small-talking with all the crew…just one of the guys.  Then he moves to the altar where Glover keeps distant.  Having called out for three line cues, he returns to the script.  The lights, camera, and sound mic are all repositioned—now from the front.  Spicer and Glover repeat the same scene.  Everything is moved again—now over Glover’s shoulder—they repeat the scene.  Now over Spicer’s shoulder—repeat.  Now on the handshake—repeat.  Then a close up on Glover at the altar—repeat.  Seven minutes of actual screen time equals seven hours of physical work.  The magic of Hollywood.

Usually a solitary drive home is a cathartic, relaxing experience.  A chance to unwind and process the day.  But while driving home from Bloomington, the cabin of my car felt like an empty State Fair pavilion.  When we watch movies and television shows, when we see familiar faces cross our screens, we transform the actors in front of us into something greater than existential.  We forget that they eat breakfast, laugh, cry, root for baseball teams, and go to the voting booth like the rest of us.  But when they cross our eyes in the flesh, and we see them as full-fledged human beings, what we once accepted as the natural order of the universe loses form.  For all the austerity which existed outside the frame of the camera—an austerity rightfully demanded by the pragmatism of a location budget—I still went home largely unable to shake the feeling that the day I spent on the set was tantamount to a couple decades in Narnia.  And sitting alone in that car, I finally understood how those Pevensie kids felt when they fell back home into England through the wardrobe for the last time.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.

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