Monday, November 03, 2008

Getting back to the garden.

I went to Woodstock and I left Woodstock, but I can't really say I took Woodstock. I auditioned for Taking Woodstock, the new Ang Lee movie, in July. The movie is based on the book by Elliot Tiber, whose job running his family's motel in upstate New York put him at the chaotic center of the titular festival. The filmmakers have chosen Columbia County - about 40 minutes from where I live - to stand in for Sullivan County. This means that the cast, which includes Dimitri Martin as Tiber, Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano and Eugene Levy as Yasgur, will be filled in with hundreds of locals. The prospect of playing a hippie for Ang Lee is a no-brainer, so I go the casting call, am advised not to cut my hair, and wait for the call.
Two months later, after sweating through August (my hair doesn't grow down, it grows out), I'm given a Monday morning call time. As it turns out, I could have gotten a haircut - I'm playing a "wannabe hippie," a geek who wants to be cool (how could they tell?). I'm costumed in a plaid shirt, regular-cut jeans and brown loafers before being sent to hair and makeup, where my hair is blow-dried and awkwardly side-parted. I look like the loneliest guy at an orgy.

We're taken from holding to location, a winding country road in Scotia that has been closed to traffic so the filmmakers can create their own traffic jam. Dozens of classic cars fill the road, the owners sitting nearby and comparing the scene to their own memories of the '60s (mostly variations of "We used to have the best weed, man"). As they place us in the scene, I realize crew and principals are a couple hundred yards away - we're here to fill in an extreme wide shot. We're instructed to walk away from the camera towards Happy Av. In the distance, I hear drums and see what looks like a group of hippies dancing naked around a fire. I keep almost making it to the party before "cut" is called and I have to go back to my first position. Story of my life, man.

Given little to do but walk, I'm given plenty of opportunity to enjoy the perfect mid-September weather and admire the period detail - the above picture from the festival could have been taken on-set. The shantytown of tents on Happy Av., populated by kissing couples, acidheads and nudists, coupled with the rural location's lack of contemporary details, makes it feel as though I've stepped into a time machine. If nothing else, Taking Woodstock will definitely look fantastic. As the crew moves closer, I'm instructed to walk down Happy Av. while Dimitri Martin exchanges dialogue with an actor playing a motorcycle cop. When I read about the movie, Martin seemed like an out-of-left-field choice, and still seems that way. Between takes, I find myself mistaking him for an extra before remembering to myself, "Oh yeah, it's that guy." Perhaps that anonymous quality is what Lee is after; either way, Martin seems like a generally nice guy. But if Paul Dano was here, I would have told him I was going to drink his milkshake. He probably never gets that.

During lunch, we're asked who would be willing to get muddy, and of course, I get in line. The best job on the set might be "mud wrangler," as the crew member given the task has a big grin on his face as he pelts us with mud. When we get back to set, the streets are also mud-splattered - I guess Woodstock's over. I shuffle, muddy and tired, down the street as Martin walks the other way. My first position is behind the camera, so I'm able to watch Ang Lee work with DP Eric Gautier and the crew. Watch, but not hear, as Lee is the most soft-spoken director I've ever seen. He's also the warmest and most unassuming, frequently chatting with extras between takes. When the scene is over and some of us are wrapped, Lee thanks each of us as we walk by. It's a sweet gesture, and I feel a little bad about my lukewarm review of Lust, Caution. I'm tempted as I pass to let him know how underrated Hulk is and ask why he thinks people didn't get it, but there's probably not enough time to get into that.

Everyone is just as nice all day. The costumes and location have caused everyone to act like it's 1969. I wonder to myself why people aren't this nice to each other out of costume. I wonder (as I did with Farlanders) why it's easier to get people my age to play protestors in a movie than to really stand up for something they care about. But it's fun to pretend for a day like people still believe that change is possible. And I heard about 800 "brown acid" jokes, and yes, there was a lot of dope-smoking, which the production seemed to be tacitly condoning. But there was one important way that the set was nothing like the real Woodstock - nobody was sharing.

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