Dark Matters

This is shaping up to be an unusual year. Interesting, but with weird bits. Here's a thing I did early on that's about to go public.

What happened

I arrived in the Abandoned Warehouse District of Brooklyn™ (you know the one; it's where all the superhero/supervillain battles in Marvel comics happen -- maximum property damage, zero harm to innocent bystanders) in mid-February, not long before noon. Why? Television. 

abandoned warehousesGreenpointThe entrance is that small steel door with the address spraypainted on in orange

No kidding, the glamorous setting made me smile, and started my day just right. The day had actually started at about 2:30am, then 3:30, then 4:30, then 5:30 when the alarm that I'd been worrying about sleeping through the previous three hours -- and thus missing my plane -- finally went off, but this was the real beginning.

The reason I was there was to take part in six episodes of a show for the Discovery Channel. The working title was "Dark Matters" (it's turned out to be the real title too), and being asked to do this is the weirdest thing that's likely to happen to me this year. After scratching my head and wondering why in the name of all that's commercially viable anyone would want me to do this (during a phone interview that I didn't realize was a phone interview until after the fact -- color me naive -- I asked, pretty much point-blank "Um...have you seen me? I'm no Johnny Depp.") I said yes anyway.

manifest destinyHaving done so, and prepped as best I could, and then made my way to Greenpoint on Thursday, Amy, the producer who I'd first spoken to lo those many days ago (this all came together in about a week) came down to meet me and brought me to the set.

The green room was a folding table off to the side, with no M&Ms of the wrong color, some half-eaten scones and cookies, rolls of duct tape, my backpack, etc.. The dressing room -- not that I needed it -- was down a series of almost-lit halls decorated with bare wires and taped up signs in different colors and handwriting indicating that you were indeed getting closer. It was a remarkably lifelike simulation of a dressing room disguised as a bathroom designed to be one step up -- no more, no less -- from a portajohn; no lids on the toilet tanks, a space heater pointed at the water heater (?), and another handwritten sign over the sink in place of a mirror. Its useful message: "Don't drink the water." I believed it. (My wife said I should have taken a picture, but for some reason I never think to take a camera to the toilet.)

the setThe set

The floor was heavy wood with nails showing and poking out every couple of inches, the prop was a table, and all the agonizing the night before about what to wear was unnecessary. As was the whole bag of clothes I'd packed. It was so cold in there (the temperature peaked at about 50 degrees, and dropped every time the door into the hall opened) that I wore what I had on when I got off the plane in La Guardia. So the leather coat I wear on camera wasn't about getting a specific look. It was for not freezing! When I asked, Richard, the camera guy, said the lights feel really hot in the summer but for some reason they didn't in early February in an unheated warehouse. So it goes.

And so it went... I faced Richard, Dan, and Amy as the latter fed me questions and I tried to answer with facts and ad libs that sounded like something interesting had just occurred to me in the middle of a dinner conversation. And when I stuttered or stumbled or shifted from side to side or looked away, I got to be spontaneous yet factual on the exact same sub-topic again and again, and again. I found this difficult. There wasn't much anyone but me could do about the stumbling -- you'd be amazed at how hard it is to say Ralph Waldo Emerson when you really, really want to (as I recall, it required about a dozen takes to get the "Emerson" part out) -- but these three were professionals, so they had no problem fixing other bits. Richard said the shifting is typical -- everybody drifts one way or the other. (I drift left. Surprised?) He stuck a piece of tape on the table and I aligned the zipper of my coat with it before every take. As for the eyes, initially Dan was sitting next to Amy, and like every polite five year-old I would make eye contact with both of them in turn. After two or three rounds of that, he moved his chair so he was directly behind her. No other face to see (Richard's was behind his camera) so the problem of my shifty eyes was solved. Of course that meant that I'd find out I'd done something well or poorly by either seeing an extended arm, thumb up, or hearing a voice, with suggestions for improvement, come from Amy's...how shall we say...anatomy somewhere between her lower back and hamstrings. That took some getting used to. But you'd be surprised at how quickly you can get used to unusual things in a day full of unusual things.

open shaftwayThe backdrop

Like saying the same thing over and over again, but not in hopes of correcting a misbehaving cat. (Did I say that already? But not succinctly enough? Another take, then: We did many things over and over.) Sometimes I got better with repetition, sometimes it seemed to me that I got stale. The nice thing about working with professionals, and smart ones, is that you quickly learn to trust them. Amy, Dan, and Richard were kind, smart, and professional, and when I apologized for being so lousy so often, they said something to the effect of "No, if you consistently sucked we wouldn't bother asking for more takes until you nailed it." So that was encouraging.

There were technical glitches as well as my own failings, but even with all that we got through all the material they wanted me to do by 6:30. Which I thought was a miracle. Everyone else probably thought so too.

Things I learned

Speak as if to an intelligent 12-year-old: This is what they told me up front, no doubt after my failing to get to the point quickly while chatting over lunch. (Brooklyn Label! Excellent. 180 Franklin St. Eat there! Or get take out and eat, standing up, in a cold warehouse!) TV is relentless in its linearity. Even though DVR and TiVo and all the other stuff people use to make viewing more convenient allow for it, folks don't often re-wind, re-watch, or do the equivalent of re-reading. TV is experienced, often only once, and then let go. I knew this in my head, but not in my heart. By the time Dan or Amy had prompted me with "Lovely. Now again, but shorter." for the 437th time, I knew that you only get a few sentences to make your point, and I knew it in the soles of my feet. (Will this stop me from rambling in prose? No. You are reading Exhibit A.)

Hands are good, to a point: Using your hands is fine. Kat had warned me that I am very much the ethnic stereotype of an Italian -- I wave 'em all over the place when I talk. On the car trip to Detroit Metro I imagined a set of force-field handcuffs, which allowed some freedom of movement, but with that movement being restricted and made more difficult by an ever-increasing force as the hands got further away from the body. This would be a valuable tool for a film producer having to work with someone like me. Kat rolled her eyes and said maybe they have some of those. But it turns out they didn't, and that they liked the hands. What they didn't like was the occasional smacking together of them I would do to put a period at the end of a point, since that would send a spike of sound through the mic. Then I'd get to do it "Again, and just like that, but without the clapping."

Sound is hard: Leaving aside my propensity for giving myself a (brief) standing ovation, sound was a consistent problem. The warehouse wasn't entirely abandoned, so when people walked overhead we sometimes had to do something over -- frustrating when I had just said what I'd said just the way I wanted to. That was when Dan's head would poke out from behind Amy and he'd point to his headset and say "So sorry. Noise. Again, please, and exactly the same." Which I could never do. Even weirder, especially in the context of the show's strange-science theme, was the hum I seemed to generate in the mic. I stand alone at the table and a noticeable buzz underlies everything. Someone touches me or tries the mic him or herself and it's gone. Jim's an AC power source all on his own! (So why am I so cold?) Well, no. Turns out that the initial spot they'd picked for the table and me must have been right above a pretty strong current -- conduit in the floor, transformer a few floors below...who knows? We shifted everything back five feet and the problem went away. Science! Also, there was a modeling shoot going on elsewhere in the building, and high heels on plywood are really loud. And apparently grow like bamboo in the south China spring. There was a window behind the camera, and we could see the models pass by. Frequently. Each time this happened, one particular very tall and skinny (sorry, not svelte or lithe or slender...skinny) model seemed to grow a few inches. We kept waiting for her head to disappear out of our field of view, but they finished their day before ours, and before her heels reached the upper atmosphere.

Accents hold your attention: Dan and Amy are from London, though Amy is originally from Leeds. ("You may not have heard of it." C'mon. The Who played one of the best live concerts there, ever!) She suggested that I'd be able to hear the difference, but I couldn't. But it's a pleasure to hear any such accent, especially since in my head the equation goes like this: British + TV = Smart + Funny. So that had the appropriate affect of both putting me at ease (This can be smart and funny!) and giving me a wonderful memory of Amy prompting me with "So, Jim..." in an identifiable, non-generic voice. My Chicago/Detroit-ish tendency of substituting 'd' for 'th' at the beginnings of words (like these/dese them/dem, and those/dose) apparently didn't surface, so for their part they were spared a similar and less euphonious memory.

My future on TV: This was not a career move. I learned a lot, enjoyed it, and was grateful to meet such nice, interesting, smart, and professional people. That's always worthwhile. But their protestations aside, I'm pretty sure I wasn't great, and I know for a fact that there's not enough CGI rendering software and computational horsepower in the world to make me a rival to Johnny Depp or that guy on that one commercial you saw last night. You know the one. Yeah, him. And damn, that was hard work. The novelty of the experience kept me pumped up from 2:30am Thursday morning to 2:30pm Friday afternoon, when I said my thank-yous and good-byes to all. And then, on the ride to La Guardia, fatigue hit like an anvil falling from a Warner Brothers cartoon sky. When it comes to vertedness, I'm more intro- than extro-. I can fake it for a while, but that many hours standing in front a camera faking it, along with a sense of ease (assuming I managed the latter), knocked the stuffing out of me. When Kat picked me up in Detroit on Friday night, she thought it must have gone horribly. My shoulders were slumped, and could barely string sentences together unless in a manic rush. And I only made it to 10pm that night before dragging myself to bed on my elbows. I woke up the next morning feeling fine and grateful. But thinking back on the 36 hours while washing the Saturday morning breakfast dishes? Well, dish washing is more appropriate to my level of star power.

can we make him look good?Is it possible to make him look good?

Coda: "Perfect! Now, this time..."

I went back for one more round a month later, to talk about stuff I knew more about, which was nice. When I arrived in the warehouse -- same one, but about 10 degrees warmer, which was also nice! -- Dan showed me some of the footage for the dramatizations, both as green screen and then composited. It looked great. They're using special effects to create interesting and moody backgrounds, not to trick up crazy, imaginary events. It was remarkable, really. I also saw a little footage of my pal Jay doing his bit, and he looked great too. Then Dan said "Hey, I'm sure we have some edited footage of you, too. Let me-" and that's where I cut him off because I didn't (and don't!) think it would have helped to see myself on screen, cleaned up or not. I was self-conscious enough already.

I did my self-conscious bit for another 3.5 hours, finding it harder than the first time, but also getting through more material more quickly (I think) and then it was off in the rain to meet Joan H., our editor for the Turing book. And that's that.

Will the show be any good? I have no idea. I've often wondered how a great cast working from what seems like an interesting script can result in a horrible movie. Don't they know?

The answer is no, they don't. Or at least not necessarily. I'm not an actor, much less a great actor, and the lines here were partly up to me. So my part in this might not even rise to the level of interesting, much less good. But still, assuming I do end up on screen I have no clue how I'll end up looking in the final version. None. I could look a bigger fool than I already am for agreeing to try this, or I might look brilliant. (I'm not betting any money on the latter.) But I didn't see what I looked like, won't have a hand in editing the show, and have no say on how much of what I did gets used.

A great actor probably does see, has a hand, and has a say. And even still, you get movies and shows like...oh, name your favorite bad one starring good people. I know you have at least a few. I do. I just hope I'm not featured in your next one.

p.s. The title of this coda is the first part of a sentence I heard many times. If you say it to me you'll get a response right out of Pavlovian conditioning: I'll groan, then stand up straighter, and then try for another go at feigned spontaneity.

p.p.s. Really? You want to know when it's going to air? Okay, here it is. (Wednesdays at 10pm, starting August 31st.) And yes, I will watch. Though as usual with anything resembling horror I expect to cover my eyes at the scary bits.

p.p.p.s. I watched, and I think the review in the New York Times of the first episode gets it right.

Greenpoint at nightGreenpoint (not Hollywood) at night

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