Deerfield Magazine Fall 2012
By Charlie McSpadden
It’s 10:45am on the hottest day of the summer and I’m standing inside a cramped fifth floor Chinatown walk-up with a family of three who speak little English, staring down at a 60-pound black satin curtain that I must somehow transport to my TriBeCa office in less than 15 minutes for the first day of rehearsal of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Welcome to my life as a film production assistant.
A few months prior to that June scorcher, I was relaxing on my first day of a self-appointed weeklong vacation, enjoying an early evening meal with close family friends. I had just wrapped my time on the feature film Shame, which had entailed frequent pre-dawn, oft snow-laden starts to the standard 12-hour days, and I welcomed the break. Then, my phone rang; it was a call that would change the course of my fledgling career. After a brief interview with a co-worker’s friend, to whom I had blindly emailed my resume, and an excruciating 45-minute wait for a callback, the voice on the line offered me a job on the new adaptation of The Great Gatsby in New York. In clichéd cinematic fashion, I covered the phone with one hand and literally jumped, fist pounding the air above me. Regaining my composure, I accepted the job as calmly as I could, and was promptly asked to start the next day. So much for vacation.
The three months between the phone call and the curtain call redefined my budding understanding of what it meant to work on a film. First and foremost, I was hired strictly for the pre-production, so the job did not entail the typical prep, shoot, and wrap schedule of a film’s physical production. Additionally, Gatsby’s studio budget was a massive jump from the two indie films I had previously worked on. Scheduling and money aside, the job opened my eyes to an entirely different lifestyle—an all-encompassing universe of high creativity and art, fondly known as “Bazworld.” The challenge on the production end was constructing that universe and assembling an atmosphere that would facilitate both the creation and rejuvenation of Gatsby’s story.
Bazworld began with furniture.
We occupied two floors of a nearly 30-story building on Broadway, perched in the northeastern-most corner of TriBeCa, culturally saturated by the bordering neighborhoods of Chinatown and SoHo. I walked in the first morning, finally met the man on the other end of the phone, and promptly began to tackle the massive order of furniture to equip our entirely empty floors of office space. The 26th floor, the higher of the two, proved to be the gem—a beautiful, open room with 360-degree views of Manhattan, a spectacular terrace, and a private back office for Baz.
I soon discovered that no room was ever “finished.” Each office functioned more like a theater stage—any day could bring a scene change—and reflected the inspirations for the story. Photos of 1920s New York, Gatsby in timeline format, flapper fashions, and excerpts from the novel adorned the walls, leaving scarcely a white space. There were bookshelves that would have impressed old Owl Eyes himself, boasting tomes on the rigging of the 1919 World Series to the art deco styles of East Coast mansions, to the Prohibition Era and World War I journals—not to mention all the works by and biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. By chance, I had been reading The Beautiful and the Damned when hired, so I continued the process of enveloping myself in Fitzgerald’s world, and I read those texts that had escaped me: This Side of Paradise, Tender is the Night, and the compilation On Booze, among others.
And, of course, after consuming the script, I reread The Great Gatsby itself. I first studied the classic as a junior in Scottie Buron’s English class at Deerfield—a memory I cherish—and my copy’s emphatic underlining and scrawled margin notes brought me back to the basement of the Classroom Building. I recalled mornings spent discussing Nick’s function as a narrator, the difference between gesture and emotion (East and West Eggs), and the “colossal vitality” of Gatsby’s illusion.
Reacquainting myself with what I had learned then was crucial to my understanding of where Baz and all of us were taking the story. In addition to the thematic and narrative groundwork provided by Ms. Buron, I benefited from the extraordinary level of expectation Karen McConnell had for her students in her “Modern Times” class. The moment you stepped into her room you needed to be “on,” and thankfully, this ability to be ready at a moment’s notice prepared me well to be the sole production assistant in New York.
Despite the massive undertaking of the project itself—as indicated by the daily reminders of the set construction and preparation in Australia—the pre-production months in the New York office felt intimate with our fluctuating crew of about 20. New York happened because Baz and his Aussie team wanted to immerse themselves fully in the Gatsby lore, and tap into what Fitzgerald called “the restlessness that approached hysteria” in New York. They traveled beyond the city limits, too, not just to Long Island’s gold coast—the speculated non-fictional West and East Eggs—but also to Yale and Princeton, the alma maters of Nick and Tom and Fitzgerald respectively, and down to Daisy’s hometown of Louisville.
This preparation and research culminated with the “Playshop,” an intensive, weeklong orientation and rehearsal involving lead cast members and featuring table reads, fittings, and presentations from department heads. This essential step in Baz’s process was the closest thing to shooting I would experience, and the week, days, and moments leading up to the Playshop would prove to be the most hectic I had witnessed.
And so it was on day one of the Playshop when I found myself in that cramped apartment on that boiling morning, frantically attempting to figure out some way to get that colossal curtain in place on the 26th floor before everything began. A graveyard of plastic bags too small to swallow the behemoth surrounded the curtain-maker, who then spotted twine on her desk. Eyes brightening, she swiftly snatched the material and scissors and snipped off two pieces. She, her husband, and I all bent to the ground and bunched together the thick black satin, and she then bound it together, tying it off with a strong bow. Her son—his video game long ago abandoned for the entertainment occurring live in his own living room—watched as I gripped the knot and hauled the curtain over my shoulder. I thanked my fast-thinking vendors, took a deep breath and trudged down the five flights of stairs and out into the oven that was Mott Street.
Strangely, the street was carless (and cab-less), and with no time to spare, I simply marched down the dead center of the road. Regardless of the absence of automobiles, there’s something otherworldly and timeless about that area of Chinatown—the streets curve, there’s hardly a sign in English, street vendors banter with customers across ice counters covered in fresh fish. An old man with a biandan across his shoulders nodded at me in solidarity as he passed; a few rickshaws whizzed by. With each step, the day’s swelter began to overtake me and silently I cursed myself for wearing a black shirt. The black satin curtain on my shoulder seemed to pulsate with the heat . . .
I slogged through the day’s thick humidity, eventually slipping out of the time warp of Chinatown and crossing into a more gentrified corner of SoHo. The sudden change of setting brought back the urgency of my task (not to mention a host of strange looks from the surrounding sophisticated shoppers), and I powered on, my melting mass parting seas of Canal Street tourists. I finally entered our office building on Broadway, looking like I had stepped out of a pool rather than off a street corner. Twenty-six flights up the elevator, and just minutes before the actors arrived, I handed off my haul to a team of men, who, in a few magical moments, sent the curtain soaring up on a golden rod that fastened to the ceiling. Shining in Sisyphean satisfaction (and sweat), I bounded down the stairs just in time to greet actress Carey Mulligan, offering a hand rather than a hug due to my soggy state.
In any job, there are moments that test your will and bring you to your proverbial knees; there may also be sublime moments that thrill you. If the satin beast had challenged me, its perfect counterpoint came exactly a week later, on the last day of the Playshop. For our final day, Baz isolated specific scenes to workshop with the actors, which we staged in various areas of the office. My boss dispatched me to where they were prepping the latest scene, to be a momentary on-set assistant. As I was moving props and clearing the area, Baz turned to me and asked what I was doing.
“Well, put that down,” he said, “and come block out this scene with us.”
I joined his assistants and one of the production designers, and Baz arranged us according to the scene. He summoned our cinematographer and began walking us through one of the film’s grandest moments: when Nick meets Gatsby for the first time. He handed out mini-scripts and we studied our lines—I read for a partygoer who runs off with Jordan Baker, leaving Nick to speak with an unknown man who turns out to be Gatsby himself.
Satisfied with our stand-in work after a few run-throughs, he called for the actors to come to set. In walked Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and newfound talent Elizabeth Debicki, all decked out in glamorous 1920s wear as Jay, Nick, and Jordan. Baz turned to me and said, “Oh, Charlie, and you just do the same thing over again.”
Between the lack of sleep, incredibly long days, and incredulity at the request, my baffled look prompted Baz to continue: “You know, do the same part, now with all of them. Actually, hey, could we get Charlie a blazer?”
I took my position next to Leo and a few steps above Tobey and Elizabeth, and Baz walked the four of us through the scene. I steadied myself against the rush of the moment, and summoned up my resolve to not let a “Mack truck pass” before one of my lines, a lesson instilled by John Reese during many post-performance feedback sessions in the Black Box. The scene prepared, lights and cameras pointed up at us, Baz exclaimed, “All right, ready everyone, and Charlie . . . action!”
I looked Nick in the eye, said my lines, swiped a drink off of Gatsby’s tray, grabbed Jordan, and dashed off. We went through it several times and with each attempt, it came easier; with each joke shared between takes, I became more relaxed. But it was still surreal, and after we wrapped the scene and I carried on with the rest of the day’s duties, the magic of my experience floated like dust in the wake of a daydream.
It just so happened that in-between these two extreme moments during the Playshop madness was my 5th Reunion at Deerfield, and although much was left to do in New York, I had signed up to attend, and mentally prepared to return to Pocumtuck Valley.
Amidst the excitement of seeing classmates for the first time in half a decade, striding across senior grass with my closest friends, entering each of my old dorm rooms and finding my name still carved in the desks, hearing the familiar creak of the doors to the Black Box and the foreign echo of my footsteps against the Koch Center’s walls, jealously gawking at the new squash center, and grinning as I hurled myself off the rope swing into the River, I remembered that I had also returned to the site of my introduction to the mysterious figure stretching his arms towards a green light. Although I felt slightly guilty about leaving Baz’s production for the weekend, I realized that in a way, I was completing my own immersion into the Fitzgerald classic.
When you leave a place, you begin to romanticize it. My classmates and I had returned to Deerfield, a place we had called home, a place that we haunted in our minds, a place imbued with deep and profound traditions, the likes of which Gatsby himself would have envied. We also returned to our former, youthful selves. And even as we reveled in the dormitories together, reliving for one weekend that existence, I recognized the difference between who I had been and who I had become, and the futility of recreating the past. Leaving the Valley that night, I prepared to reenter Gatsby’s universe, and in the cooling twilight I drove towards the continuation of a life made richer by the very past and place receding in my rearview.
Weeks later, I again found myself baking in the summer heat on a downtown Manhattan street, this time loading suitcases into a car for Baz and our producer. New York had wrapped, and we were sending them off to Australia, away from the East. Soaked yet again, I turned to say my goodbyes, offering a hand to spare them my sweat. Baz and Anton laughed at my formality and brought me into a bear hug, leaving me with these words:
“When we return to New York, we expect to be watching your work.”
Charlie McSpadden ’06 graduated from Duke University where he majored in English and received a certificate in Arts of the Moving Image. In addition to The Great Gatsby, he has worked on Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, Steve McQueen’s Shame, and Stuart Blumberg’s Thanks for Sharing. He is currently working on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and also editing a short documentary he shot in the Cape Verde islands in Africa. He is based on of New York City. The Great Gatsby will open in theaters nationwide next summer.