Week Two: It’s the Pictures that Got Small

January 14, 2010 at 7:16 (Uncategorized)


All right. I’m sitting here in all the glory that is slight illness and underemployment,  suffering ’til dinnertime the daytime lineup of  “All My Children,” “Blind Date” and “Bachelor Party 2: The Last Temptation,” and I’m reminded that I need to write this week’s blog.

The rumors are true: Tuesday, I was in a national TV spot. I wasn’t some shmo in the background, by the way — I actually open the spot. Not to ruin the punchline, but you should know in advance that this is the mark of a very bad commercial.

So how did I get here? A few weeks back, a producer friend put a call out for non-union extras with headshots. I told him that with the sparseness of freelance, I was definitely interested in the money, but I didn’t act and I didn’t have a headshot. He asked me to send a Facebook photo and I did. That should have been the end of it.

Then, on Monday, while I was waiting among some very sorry looking people hoping to be drafted as workers for the 2010 Census, I got a call from the production house: They wanted me onsite the next day for the shoot. Yes! I was without-a-doubt available. As someone who has historically been on the other side of the camera as the writer, I thought this too good an opportunity to pass up. And maybe, my brain started wishing, I would put in my two cents about the script and they would hire me to do some writing in the future. But wait — the woman from the production house interrupted my freelance fantasy — there was more. They were sorry for the late notice, but they wanted me to be the waitress in their lactose intolerance commercial. Damn my friend and his string-pulling! I would have been happy just smiling away in a booth in the background, slowly polishing off a burger with the rest of the extras for 52 takes. The spot, whose lack of ingenuity you can taste in every bite, takes place in a diner where I, as the waitress, serve up sundaes to a woman who, thanks to this very obviously named product — Digestive Advantage — can now eat the things she loves. Even if you’re looking through your cable listings specifically for me in the near future, I’m going to bet you won’t notice this spot. If anything stands out about the rather bland ad, it will be my almost dropping the sundae in the poor woman’s lap. And if they know what’s good for them, they probably cut that part.

So (switch to present tense for some reason): Tuesday I arrive at the site a little early and it’s a bustling diner. I’m familiar with the place, so I know I’m at the right spot, but I’m used to desolate wastelands when I arrive for shoots. Both the table side and the counter side of this tiny restaurant on Chicago’s west side are packed with people during the lunchtime rush. I look around for cameras, lights, monitors, scrims, artsy looking middle-aged guys in dirty t-shirts… I know it takes hours of setup and quite a large crew to craft and produce even the most basic :30 TV spot, so I’m kinda shocked at the unusually usual scene, and I’m feeling like less of a star than when I walked in.

I approach the counter and ask one of the waitresses if she knows where the shoot is. “You mean the Comcast shoot?” she says, furrowing her brow. I shake my head, laughing on the inside that the employees don’t even know that in 40 minutes, a TV commercial is about to be filmed where they are standing. As an agency copywriter, I’m also a bit concerned: What kind of thing are they trying to pull off here? Have they even paid for use of the site? I decide it’s not the time to push the stick further up my ass, and I smile to myself as I figure out my next move.

“Well, who are you looking for, honey? Maybe I can help you there.” I give her the name of the coordinator, and she jerks a thumb over her shoulder at the tables around the kitchen where a few innocuous-looking people sit around a table, presumably discussing blocking. “I’ll just sit tight, then,” I say, and place my Spanxed-in ass on a hard bar stool. Suddenly, I’m getting all the celebrity treatment a diner can offer: “You want a coffee while you wait? Maybe some water? Here you go. And if you want to read the paper, I’ve got that here for you, too.”

OK, now we are talking. I relax and take full advantage (“Two creams for my watery coffee, thank you”) of my one-star treatment, closing my eyes and imagining myself to be regaled and pampered at the Four Seasons. Hey, I’m a writer without a gig. I’ll take my coffee-and-paper spa day and I’ll embellish it as I please.

At 1:20, ten minutes before shoot time, I go around the corner where old people, blue collar people and suits alike are wiping crumbs from their mouths, but no one is getting into wardrobe. I introduce myself to an in-charge looking guy who happens to be the Art Director, and he waves me back over to the counter where I had already been sitting for 30 minutes. They’re running late, he tells me. About 20 more minutes. OK, no problem. I’ll just go ahead and slurp on some more free Sanka. Send someone over when you’re ready for my close-up.

Ten minutes later, I get a call from some intern that they are taking stock of where all the actors are. I get off my bar stool and look across the line of segregation — the bathrooms — at the table side of the restaurant. I wave at a young guy on his cell phone and tell him I’ve been here for 45 minutes. He laughs nervously and I go back to reading about Rod Blagojevich, another minor Chicago celeb.

Soon, a woman with curly dyed red hair rushes over excitedly to me, and I can tell by the way she is studying my pimpled face that she is the coordinator who called me the day before. She tells me she just wanted to meet “our waitress,” but I know she is sizing me up, trying to see if I can squeeze into the vintage ’50s waitress frock that they’ve pulled out of some trunk for me, and she tells me as much. “Well, just a few more minutes until they figure things out over there and then we’ll see how you fit into that costume.” I get the sense the thing is not going to fit, and I make a conscious decision not to drink anymore as she rushes back to the privileged side of the restaurant.

People are finishing up their lunches and leaving the table side of the diner to return to work, and the owner puts up a sign that reads “This side is now closed” or something to that effect to let patrons know that if they want to eat, they’re going to have to do it at the lunch counter. I’m glad to see this, but there are still dishes and used napkins and cockeyed chairs everywhere, and the sounds of the kitchen and the HVAC system and the front door (in front of the bathrooms and also nestled between the two sides of the diner) as disruptors cannot possibly be ruled out. I push these anal thoughts out of my head and figure I’ll let someone else worry about interruptions and possible client complaints for the day. This time, I am not here to babysit a client. This time, I am THE TALENT. Yeah.

Young intern guy comes back over and asks me to sign a very short, two-paragraph release, which I willingly do when he tells me I’m going to get paid at the end of the day. I talk to a couple guys who are extras, and find out they’re both more qualified than I to be the part of the waitress: one is an actor, a former waiter and a co-founder of a theatre company; the other is his roommate and also co-founder of the theatre. I am astounded and a bit embarrassed that they’re about to waste hours of their time watching me fumble with a tray.

Now things are in full swing. Artsy, dirty, t-shirted guys come in with screens and monitors and poles and other equipment. The coordinator holds up a plastic dry-cleaning bag with three dresses too moth-eaten to be considered vintage. The director picks the greyish-blue one so I don’t stand out (good call, sir), and after they steam it for 15 minutes I go into the bathroom to put it on, waiting patiently for five more minutes as restaurant patrons, unaware they are in the middle of call time, finish up in the diner’s one stall. The whole thing is exciting and ridiculous.

The dress fits as you’d expect a ’50s dress to fit: It’s got room in the boobs for a cone bra with which I am mercifully not supplied; it’s tiny-tiny in the waist (which luckily for them I am or we’d have some interesting last-minute arts and crafts going on to make it work) and it hangs down too low and too baggy for me despite the fact I told them I am only 5’2″. I come out of the bathroom and everyone frowns. It’s too “old school” for them. Well, yeah, they picked out a “Flo” dress. I look like I could be serving pie, Sweetie, and doing the Twist on the bar at Johnny Rockets. “Did you bring anything else?” they ask me. Uhhh, nope. We didn’t talk wardrobe options. “I’ve got a Calvin Klein sweater and an ill-fitting pair of jeans that I can pull off without unbuttoning.” I say this with a hint of irony and an eyebrow raise, hoping they’ll heed my warning, but the director mocks me by repeating, “ill fitting?” and suggests I put them on anyway. The art director then grabs me a promotional t-shirt from the glass case behind the lunch counter and pulls it tight so it fits/holds up my pants. Dizzy from the realization that none of this ever would have flown at any place I’ve ever worked, I stare down at my new t-shirt with the crazy, eye-catching fonts that advertise the diner I’m standing in while I am about to stand before the camera and open the spot for a client whose name doesn’t appear on camera for at least 15 seconds. The confusion for TV viewers is obvious in my mind, but I keep my mouth shut and try not to imagine that I know better.

They do my hair in a ponytail and finish my makeup with a bright pink smudge for a mouth, put a dirty apron complete with pen and pad around my waist and the director begins his orders to the cast and crew. They’re still cleaning off tables and  checking the light at the same time they’re getting ready to roll. The lead actress (the only one with a speaking part) is sitting at the table running through her lines as they try to standardize the number of condiments at each table. The extras take their seats, their burgers and Cokes are brought out and the actual waitresses finally cut the HVAC and retire for the day — but not before making a few amazing-looking ice cream sundaes for the focus of the spot. At least some things are left to the professionals.

The director is talking out loud and I’m paying attention, but mostly to everything going on around me. I just can’t shake the Type-A part of me that wants to fix everything. Suddenly, I hear my name and key in on the fact that he’s talking to me. “Now, Ellen: you’re going to pick up your tray, come over here, put down the sundae, walk back over, put down the tray and then pick up your pad and take Talya’s order,” he commands, walking me through it rather hastily. I say OK, and nod my head, hoping I’ve got it all. Then he goes back behind the camera and stares at me like I’m stupid. I think he was expecting action the moment he stepped back there, as if his presence behind the camera made whatever was in his head come to life, but I’m too dense for that. I found this part of things to be exactly like babysitting a client: They fully expect that you can read their minds. I’ve gotten no better at that than when I began in this business, so we waste a few minutes while the director shakes his head and hurls a few soft insults my way: “Ellen, geez, I know you’re shy, but… come on.. the spot BEGINS when you Put. Down. The. Sundae.”

Look, I’m game for whatever they want, but I’ve got no tray and I’ve got no sundae. They rush to get me a tray and then I begin to walk over to the main table from where I have been standing for 45 minutes when the director expresses his disgust. It takes about four people to communicate to me something a simple script would have done alone: I am supposed to take my mark right there at the table with sundae balanced precariously on saucer-atop-a-tray. Thanks goodness. If they had asked any more of me in the way of walking or waitressing, the out-takes would have been priceless, as would have been the replacement cost of the dishes.

They finally realize I have no sundae. When it arrives on my tray and they place it just so, I remind myself to tip my waitresses better in the future. That shit is HEAVY. I mean, you would not believe the weight on one hand of three scoops of ice cream in a fountain glass. I thud that thing down in front of the actress like an amateur probably 15 times before I notice my practiced and frozen smile is for naught. At some point, they have gotten wise to my discomfort in front of the camera and have pulled in much closer on the shot. If we see my shaking hand, we’ll be lucky, so if you’re really a fan, keep an eye out for its pastiness.

But I digress. Man, do I have newfound respect for waitresses. Every time I’d leave the table, I’d kind of topple sideways from the relief of the weight and bang into the chair behind me. And every time I’d put down the sundae, it would teeter on the saucer. Rather than drop it in her lap (I was certain they hadn’t brought a costume change for her in the case of sundae disaster), I took about three seconds longer than I should have to place the thing down without incident. In a :30 spot about a product that is not ice cream, three seconds is too valuable to waste on ice cream. I can’t believe they picked the clumsiest, most awkward person in the universe to do a job that involves just a little bit of grace. This is exactly why I have never become a waitress: this is one thing that a girl with a Masters degree is no more qualified than anyone else to do. I am pretty lucky that their standards are so low because no one says a thing to me about my lack of skill all day. I am pretty sure they are going to fire me any moment, but three hours and about 20 melted sundaes later, we wrap. And without dropping a thing.

When the spot comes out on national cable TV, look for my fat ass in the background, taking a woman’s order. I am preparing myself for the ten pounds the camera adds. I am preparing myself to not cringe at my awkwardness on camera. But I’m not sure anything can prepare me for the humiliation of being part of a spot that does such a disservice to its client.

It really was a fun and interesting day, and my left arm is now a lot stronger than my right, but think I’ll stick to my side of the camera from now on. And my side of the restaurant as well.

Tip your servers, ladies and gentlemen. It’s harder than it looks.

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3 Comments

  1. Denise said,

    that was nothing short of awesome. can’t wait to see it!

  2. 52weeksofnew said,

    Thanks, girl! I hope we NEVER see it!

  3. Alex said,

    And to think I worked just a few steps away from a future star! 😉

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