Yippie-Ki-Yay, Mr. Falcon

I had no idea my neighbor was a model. Tracy was cute I suppose, but not arresting. Hardly worth peeking at through the Venetian blinds of my upstairs guest room while she sunbathed in her backyard in her amethyst bikini, glistening of mineral oil. Even though I’d lived next to her for five years, we’d only spoken a couple times. In fact, I think I called her “Terry” for three of those five years.

So I was a little surprised one Saturday morning when she knocked at my door and asked me to jump-start her car. “Mike wasn’t home,” she explained. Mike was the neighborhood fix-it man and all-around good Samaritan.

The Jetta stubbornly refused to turn over. No crank, no click. Not wanting to seem ill-informed about car repair in front of a woman, I stuck my head under the hood and glanced around. Despite MIT’s efforts to educate me about things technical I still didn’t know a carburetor from a crankshaft, so I furrowed my brow like Kasparov eyeing Deep Blue’s endgame and parroted something I’d heard once, “Must be your starter. Probably a dead solenoid.” To cap my diagnosis I cast a suspicious eye at the nearest component, a plastic jug of blue liquid, and wagged my finger at it.

“That’s the wiper fluid,” said Tracy.

“Uh, yeah, of course. It just looks a little low. Might want to check that.”

“Damn, now I’m going to miss my go-see,” she said.

“Go-see?”

“Oh, it’s just what modeling agents call an audition. You know, ‘go see’ this casting director. ‘Go see’ that advertising agency.”

Although using “go see” as a noun seemed a linguistic abomination, I was intrigued. “I’m not doing anything right now. I can give you a ride if you want,” I said.

“Oh no, I couldn’t,” she said, kicking off the Accismus Game. After a rally of feigned refusals and friendly insistences, she agreed and we sped off.

“I didn’t know there was much work for models in Washington, D.C.,” I said. “I thought models were generally found in New York and Paris and Leonardo DiCaprio’s bedroom.”

“You’re confusing fashion models with commercial models,” began her practiced reply. “Fashion models are the six foot tall, anorexic freaks you see in Vogue. Commercial print models are the people in magazine and newspaper ads, selling free checking and cell phones. We’re in your junk mail. We’re the people in your catalogs, the billboard urging you to car pool, and the smile on your box of toothpaste. We’re the politically correct mix of faces in corporate brochures and annual reports. We’re everywhere.”

“That stuff is shot around here?” I asked.

“It’s shot wherever you find companies. And do you know how many companies are headquartered here? They all need marketing materials and ads. And by ‘here,’ I mean Washington, D.C., northern Virginia, south to Richmond, and north to Baltimore. Sometimes Philly, occasionally Pittsburgh. That’s what we consider local.”

“And it pays decently?”

“A hundred and fifty an hour with a two hour minimum. Plus buyouts, bonuses, and usage fees,” she said.

“Wow! That’s enough to make me wish I’d had a stage mother dragging my ass to auditions when I was a kid,” I said.

“You don’t have to start young. I got into it three years ago, when I was twenty-five.”

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “Somewhere, at this very moment, there’s probably a brand manager flipping through photos of seventy year-olds looking for the next Depends adult diaper model.” Temporarily dependent on my chauffeur services, Tracy humored me with a polite chuckle. “Hey, you know what would be great?” I said. “To be the guy who poses for the photo that’s used in a picture frame. Shopping would be so easy. I’d just breeze into Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve, scoop up a bunch of picture frames, conveniently pre-stocked with a photo of me. Boom, done. That’s what you’re getting, everybody. Picture frames.”

I’ll admit, modeling long held a secret fascination for me. I’d get catalogs in the mail and see guys not unlike myself smiling and wearing shirts, and, presumably, getting paid for it. “I can smile and wear a shirt too,” I’d think. On one occasion I even flipped through the Yellow Pages under “Modeling Agencies” and made a few phone calls. Every place I called reeked of scam. They wanted to sell modeling classes, make-up, apparel blazoned with their agency’s logo, and sleek black leather portfolios, like the one in Tracy’s lap, to store those elusive tear sheets. But most of all, they wanted to sell photography sessions. Big, fat, hideously expensive photography sessions. Without even looking at a snapshot of me first to gauge my photogenicity. The whole situation was clearly designed to Hoover people’s wallets while playing to their basic desire to be told they’re attractive. If there was a legitimate modeling industry in Washington, D.C., it had to be underground. “So how do you find an agent?” I asked.

“There are about two dozen reputable modeling agencies in the mid-Atlantic region,” Tracy said. “But you won’t find them in the phone book. You need to know someone and get The List.”

And with that she whipped out a thirty page document listing all the modeling agencies in the region. More than just names and addresses, this had open call hours, preferred method of contact, likes, dislikes, and all sorts of insider information.

“I knew it!” I said. “A secret list! How do you get it?”

“I got it from an ex-boyfriend. He was a model, too.”

“Is that how it generally works? Boy gives it to girl, girl gives it to boy?”

“Yeah. A guy won’t give it to another guy. He’d just be adding to his competition. But he will give it to a woman.”

“In exchange for…”

“Whatever he can get,” said Tracy.

“So it’s an STD—a sexually-transmitted document.”

“Pretty much.”

“Would I have to jump your bones to get a copy?” I asked.

“Tempting,” she said, “but like my car, I’m going to have to refuse your jump. I’ll give you a copy though.”

“Who am I kidding,” I said, ignoring Opportunity as it banged at my door. “That list wouldn’t do me any good. I’m no model. I hate getting my picture taken. My high school yearbook photo is in the Dork Hall of Fame. My driver’s license photo makes me look like a Klingon.”

“I’ve got an idea,” said Opportunity. “I need to update my comp card with a new guy-girl shot. You know, happy couple walking in the park. Why don’t you pose with me and see if you like it?”

“But why would you want me?” I said. “You must have scads of male model friends you could call on.”

“I do but they all have dark hair like me. I think your blond hair would be a nice contrast.”

“What the hell!” I said. “I’ll do it. Thanks, Terry!”

“It’s Tracy.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

The next weekend Tracy and I did our shoot on the grounds of an abandoned gristmill in rural Maryland. The photographer was patient although it was clear there was much I did not know about smiling. A true smile comes from the eyes, not the mouth, he explained. It’s the difference between the forced smile of a flight attendant and the natural smile of a child. And, it turns out, an open-mouth smile is good for catching flies, not good for modeling. The tongue just ends up being too prominent. Although most shots were ruined by my uncanny ability to blink the instant the shutter opened, one was salvageable and wound up on Tracy’s comp card.

#

Two months later, my phone rang. Tracy’s agent had noticed me on her card and wanted to know if I was interested in working as an extra on the movie Die Hard: With a Vengeance. He needed twenty blond guys who could pass for German terrorists, and couldn’t find enough local actors who fit the bill, so he opened the casting to the modeling ranks, which apparently now included me. Her agent leveled with me: he was desperate.

It sounded fun, plus I was a huge fan of the original Die Hard and its hero, Lt. John McClane. Before Die Hard, action stars were Nietzschian superheroes, uberconfident highly-trained vigilantes with an unflinching readiness for combat. Stallone often wanted us to consider his character’s tortured past, while Arnold just had fun pummeling his adversaries. But the point remained: their heroes were invincible. When they tangled with entire platoons of bad guys, you expected them to tie one arm behind their back to even the odds. Bruce Willis’s McClane, on the other hand, is reluctant and fallible and feels pain. He’s just a regular, blue-collar guy who doesn’t go looking for trouble, but always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’ll tangle with those Teutonic terrorists because he has no choice, but you know he’d rather be home watching the game, downing a sixer.

Die Hard was also on my mind because I’d recently seen it on network TV with the profanities dubbed over. In the climactic scene where Bruce Willis drops villain Alan Rickman out the skyscraper window, his line “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!” became the deliciously daffy “Yippie-ki-yay, Mister Falcon!” which might have worked if Rickman’s character wasn’t named Hans Gruber.

Shooting took place over three nights in a warehouse in Jessup, Maryland. I was in charge of sales for a high-tech company at the time and we had a major proposal due, so this meant working all day in Northern Virginia, driving halfway to Baltimore, working from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. on set, then driving back to work and doing my best to stay conscious for 72 hours straight.

It was a foolish thing to do, but I asked myself, “How many times will I get to work on a movie set?” At work all the creativity I was supposed to put in the proposal went towards devising sneaky ways to catch a little sleep. The first day I shut the door to my office, threw paper clips all over the carpet, and laid down for a snooze with my feet a few inches from the door and my hands over the paper clips. When my boss opened the door, it banged against my feet, rousting me, and I pretended to be picking up the spilled clips.

He looked at me suspiciously and asked what was going on. I had to say something because there were several clues that things weren’t right with me. My hair was cropped ultra-short and slathered with perma-hold movie stylist hair goo. My bodily aroma was past its shelf-life; there simply wasn’t time to go home between the office and the set. And most suspicious of all, I was uncharacteristically wearing an olive green commando sweater with reinforced shoulder patches, matching rip-stop nylon assault pants, and combat boots—my Die Hard wardrobe.

“Uh, I read that book on guerrilla marketing you gave me. Very inspirational,” I said.

“I think you may be taking it too literally,” he said. “How’s the proposal coming?”

Zehr gut,” I lied. It was hard to break character.

The second day I curled up for a little catnap in my car at noon. I was dreaming of stealing billions in gold ingots from the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan and finally vanquishing that pesky troublemaker, John McClane. Boom, boom went our explosive charges. Boom, boom! I awoke to discover the only thing explosive in the vicinity was my boss’s temper as he pounded at my car window. I rubbed the crust out of my eyes and checked my watch: three p.m. This was the kind of company where people bragged about the overtime they put in and I was zonked out in the parking lot. I had to confess. I explained what was going on and he asked if this was a one-time thing. I assured him it was and for the first time that week, I was only lying to my boss unintentionally. I never expected to do it again. I was 32 years old and I’d been asked to work on exactly one movie, therefore, I figured this is the sort of thing that happens to a person once every 32 years or so.

Though I didn’t expect to do it again I wouldn’t have minded. Because back at the warehouse in Jessup I was having a rip-roarious time living out adolescent fantasies. I was dressed in a military uniform, toting an M16 carbine, pretending to be a badass. Plus our gang had trucks and helicopters and a secret hideout and all the beef jerky we could eat.

The first night director John McTiernan gathered the extras and said he needed “a great pitcher and a great catcher.” While my homophobic compatriots wasted precious seconds lewdly interpreting this request, I waved my arms like an idiot outside the Today Show window. Even though my hand-eye coordination is pitiful, I sensed an upgrade might be involved or at least a moment in the spotlight.

“Oh, pick me! Pick me!” I shrieked in a tone normally reserved for use by people signaling Coast Guard helicopters when they are stranded on roofs during floods. John made me the catcher and explained my enhanced role in the proceedings. We criminals were celebrating the completion of our caper. I would be seated atop a tractor-trailer and a comrade below would toss a wet, slippery bottle of champagne fourteen feet in the air at me. I was to reach out and catch the bottle without falling off the trailer, shake and open it as fast as I could, and spray the bubbly all over the head of Oscar-winner and thinking woman’s pin-up, Jeremy Irons. Jeremy would be standing directly below, so it would be disastrous to miss the bottle and treat his brooding face to high-velocity carbonation-propelled fragments of shattered glass.

As ill-suited as I was to be the Catcher, my partner the Tosser was even less so. He winged bottles in my general direction like I had a giant butterfly net to catch them and he was getting $100 for each end-over-end the bottle made in flight. Still, how hard could it be to catch a bottle a couple of times, I figured. Somewhere around the thirty-fifth take from the sixth camera angle I began to appreciate how painstakingly repetitive movie shoots could be. After each take a wardrobe assistant would blast Jeremy’s champagne-soaked hair and shirt with a blow dryer. Do not expect Givency to unveil “Burnt Champagne: The Fragrance” anytime soon.

Part of me wishes this incident had a more sanguinary climax. If only I could say that I dropped a bottle, blood was let, the production was halted, and I was banned for life from the movie industry. But something dramatic did take place that night. I experienced a kairotic moment of transformation that inaugurated in me a strange obsession with volunteering for things I was entirely unqualified for. I decided to say “yes” first and consider consequences later.

So the next night, when the stunt coordinator asked for a few volunteers for “something a little dangerous,” I jumped up and down and flailed my arms like Gilligan signaling a rescue ship off the lagoon. I think he chose me just to calm me down. In this scene Bruce Willis was flushing us from our lair. Trucks were pulling out of the warehouse with a few of us still on the roof of one of the tractor-trailers. Our job was to jump from the moving truck to a stationary truck. The speed wasn’t much—the truck was only going about ten miles per hour. The leap wasn’t far—the gap was only about five feet. But if we misjudged anything, the pavement was a long way down.

Apparently the bit was too tame to bother the stuntmen, but for me it was the pinnacle of daredevilry. I stretched and limbered up and double-knotted my shoelaces so I wouldn’t trip. As a kid raised on cop shows like Mannix and The Rockford Files, it had seemed to me then that adults spent much of their day jumping on and off the roofs of moving vehicles. At last my turn had come.

The director yelled “action,” the truck started moving, and I leapt the five foot chasm, knowing in my heart that this was surely how Evel Knievel felt jumping the double-decker buses at Wembley.

The final night I got to watch a truly hairy stunt—a pilot started up a helicopter in the warehouse and flew it right out the front door. The margin of error was only a few feet in any direction. What a world these movie people inhabited. Unlike the rest of us, they never lived the same day twice.

That morning I bid auf wiedersehen to my gang of gold thieves and left the Maryland warehouse for my Virginia office. On the drive, I took inventory of what I’d been given. I had been given a line to say: “Kameraden!” A toast to fallen comrades. The experienced extras gushed about what a rarity this was. I’d been given a more than fair paycheck when you tallied up the union wages, overtime, and sundries like night premiums, smoke pay, and meal penalties, fines the production company incurs if they don’t feed you on time. And the escapade made me eligible to join the Screen Actors’ Guild, whose Catch-22 rules say you can’t join the union until you book a union job, and by the way, you can’t get a union job without being in the union.

But the thing I valued most was being given responsibility for the structural integrity of Jeremy Irons’s skull based on nothing more than my assurances of my fitness for duty. I had been trusted by strangers on a movie set more than my corporate overlords who required three signatures just to buy a new stapler. And it got me thinking, maybe there are parts in the movies for people who can’t act, emote, craft characters, or cry on cue, but can reliably follow directions, like “catch the bottle” or “jump over there.” So, like all mortals who get a brush with show business, I fantasized about quitting my day job.

I got back to the office hoping to catch up on my work, then my sleep. But my boss called me into his office and forced my hand. He said my disappearing act during the proposal was very unprofessional and I needed to make a choice right there. He said, “What’s it going to be: government contracting or Hollywood?” which in my bleary, but giddy frame of mind sounded more like, “What’s it going to be: beets or chocolate?”

I might have mulled it over longer if he’d said something realistic like, “What’s it going to be: a regular paycheck, raises, bonuses, company-paid medical and dental insurance, and a 401(k) plan, or a world of perpetual unemployment and crushing disappointments, an excruciatingly difficult trail, littered with the carcasses of people far more talented than you?”

But deep down, I just didn’t want to be the kind of person who sells out his dream for a good dental plan. Even if that dream was only a few hours old. And utterly unrealistic. And conceived in a state of total sleep deprivation. So, in a move that my descendants will surely lament while they ponder their meager inheritances, I told him, “If you put it like that, I gotta go with Hollywood,” and walked out the door.

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About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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