When they’re not reading from their script, actors can be hilarious, scary, and terribly awkward – sometimes at the same time – regardless if the camera is rolling or not.
Even though their performance is fed through a lens and molded by an edit, there is a live performance aspect to it that crew on set experience. In some ways, it’s like a private black box show with the camera at the proscenium separating talented actors and their audience of crew.
And on this stage, I’ve watched some of the most hilarious things take place — yep, by actors you would recognize — and been thankful I had a ticket to that private event.
Today, I want to share three of those funniest stories with you…
As a quick warning: some of the language used in this article is obscene. For some, that’s reason to keep reading. For others, it’s offensive. Choose your next actions appropriately.
Part I: “Hey, You Got Nice Boobs”
Generally when you’re crewing on a film, you’re too busy fretting over your own responsibilities to pay any attention to anyone else’s.
While the actors act in front of the camera, I direct all of my energies towards making sure they’re in focus, or the camera’s still rolling, or any number of things. It is because of this that I rarely catch the same “moments” a director might consider cinematic gold. This tunnel vision also gets in the way of enjoying a performance like an audience might.
Usually, I am completely unaware of this concentration. I just exist in it. But on at least one occasion, it was called to my attention by an extra sitting at a table near where I was working on the camera.
“Do you always stick out your tongue like that?”
“Huh? Like what?” I asked her. She just pointed at my mouth. I realized I was pressing my tongue firmly between my lips during a filter change.
“It’s cute,” she said, “My son does it all the time when he’s concentrating.”
I laughed, but before I could thank her for the compliment, the call to get ready for a take was relayed through the set. So I bit my tongue and kept doing my thing: setting up a wide MOS (no sound) establishing/character introduction shot in the restaurant we were at. In it, one character was to walk in, interact with another character in the aisle of the dining room, and then sit down at a table.
“Action!” was called on Take 1. The beginning of the shot went fine and was, for the most part, suitably utilitarian. But I’ll never forget what happened at the particular dining table the actor chose to sit down at — the very same table my new friend, the extra, had bantered with me earlier.
At this point, I should tell you the actor I’m talking about is fairly well-known — you’d recognize him — and sort of a big guy with a goofy voice. He is a character actor and for good reason — he’s a character himself. Let’s call him Tony.
So during the scene, Tony exchanges a few words with the other character and saunters over to a booth that is a bit too small for his size. He squeezes himself in and, knowing full-well the scene is MOS, starts to ad-lib lines with the extras:
“Hey how ya doin? What’s your name?” he asked the woman I had talked to.
“Barbara…” she sheepishly said.
“You got nice boobs, Barbara!”
Instantly everyone started laughing, especially Tony who was smitten with his own improv. I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed, but the director of photography (DP) and I nearly caused a delay shooting Take 2 as we struggled to regain our composure.
Still, we fought the tough fight and had the camera rolling again…
As Tony sat down in the booth, I quietly whispered to the DP, “What’s he going to say this time?”
We were about to find out.
“Hey what’s your name again?” Tony asked.
“Barbara” she smiled with a little more confidence.
“Barbara? I like your boobs … you wanna hump?”
One of the grips, who was watching the weight on a C-Stand, smiled like he had been given the first plate in line for craft services, immediately let out a howl, and everyone started laughing again.
There was no Take 3. Eventually we calmed down. Many laughs were later had over drinks.
As for Tony and Barbara? Well, I’m not sure if they ever got to hump or not, but she was a good sport about the whole deal.
Part II: “It Smells Like Shit In Here”
When you shoot a scene MOS, everyone is aware sound isn’t being recorded. Crew will sometimes do what’s called “side-coaching” and bark out instructions while the camera is rolling. Directors love to do this during extended takes where they don’t cut, but throw different directions at the actors while the camera still rolls.
But, for the most part, crew will still stay quiet — even during MOS shots — if they don’t need to talk. It’s less distracting for everyone involved and it’s respectful to the actors.
The actors, on the other hand, almost always continue to speak during MOS scenes because of the visual element of their mouths moving and also because it helps their performance.
One such scene took place on a crime movie in which I was 1st assistant camera (AC). In it, a detective searches a suspect’s room with some deputies and finds a stash of laundered money. It was to be shot loosely — handheld, no rehearsals, slow-motion — and there was no set dialogue.
The actor playing the detective, while talented, wasn’t necessarily a method actor. He didn’t feel the need to be “in character” perpetually and especially not for a mundane, physical action.
So when we started rolling on the first take, he began to narrate everything he was doing:
“Alright, gonna go over here and open this cabinet. Any money? Nope!”
The narration itself was tongue-in-cheek, but the words were bland descriptions of his normal actions. It’s something you find a lot of actors will do during small shots like a closeup of their hand grabbing a prop or the back of their head doing some action. They basically coach themselves through it as a way to keep themselves from getting bored.
And for the first couple takes of this shot, that’s how it went.
But on Take 3, the unexpected happened: as we were rotating around the room catching glimpses of deputies tossing papers, the detective opening drawers, and exposing the life of the suspect something began to smell… bad. A smell that is normally reserved for what the British call “the loo.”
Farts are pretty common on predominantly male film sets, but most wait to do their business off the set and definitely not during takes (Do you know how pissed an AD would get if you ruined a take with a fart?).
Still, as the smell penetrated my nose, I didn’t say anything — I didn’t want to break the mood of the take or call attention to it — but I kept wondering if I was the only one suffering through the stink.
Then I heard the actor playing the detective, in the midst of his “I’m doing this” dialogue throw in:
“And now, it’s starting to really smell awful. It smells like shit in here…”
The DP, who was operating the camera, burst out laughing and the director eeked out a “Cut!” with his shirt covering his nose. I grabbed the camera off the DP’s shoulder and hustled out of the room giggling the entire time with the actor close behind me.
“It really was bad!” he said in his defense.
I’d say so considering it cleared the room! And out in that hallway, during the brief break we took to relieve ourselves of the smell, we held a quick witch hunt to find the culprit.
The perpetrator: the 2nd AC who had maybe had a bit too much at craft services that night.
Part III: “It’s Not Just Your Right, It’s Your Privilege!”
In the midst of one of Washington, DC’s many residential districts, we were filming a scene where two characters interact outside an apartment building. It was a fairly light scene in terms of dramatic tension, but an important one as it was part of the film’s resolution.
For one shot, the camera and her crew (myself and others) were stationed across the street.
Flanking the sidewalk on the actor’s side were PA’s in a semi-lockdown mode. Their unenviable task was to stop pedestrians before they walked into frame and give them a rundown like this:
Hey we’re filming a movie here right now. It’s OK if you walk through just please don’t look at the camera and try to be quiet. Thanks!
Pedestrians who didn’t mind would continue on and those who did would wait until the shot was over. A minor inconvenience, sure, but the scene was short and our AD was very accommodating to those whose block we were occupying (more so than most movies might be).
A few rehearsals and takes went by with underwhelming results. Not bad, but not “great, one more time!” status.
But on Take 5 something priceless happened: as I was turned away from the camera organizing the camera cart, I heard yelling — and not from the actors. I quickly twisted around to see a pudgy, grey-haired old man with a baseball cap sauntering through the scene talking on his cell phone.
The yelling was directed at the PA who tried to deliver the above message. The old man didn’t like being interrupted from his (supposedly important) phone call and chose to shoot the messenger.
“Get out of my way! I can do what I want!” he yelled and continued walking.
That disturbance was enough to bring the two actors (let’s call them Jake and Ryan) out of their scene and, most definitely, out of their characters.
As I watched from the other side of the street, I couldn’t really tell what was happening because it was hard to hear. But later, I had the opportunity to dump that footage onto the computer and specifically sought out that clip. Here’s what I saw:
As soon as he heard the yelling, Ryan turned to watch: “Oh, we’ve got a disgruntled old man here…”
The man walked into the frame and continued his phone conversation. Meanwhile, Jake, who is a bit of push-your-buttons kind of guy, thought to have some fun.
“Is there a problem?”
“Is there a problem?” Jake repeated again.
“Yeah, they won’t let me walk on my own street! It’s my right, you know?” the old man said with indignance as he began to walk away from them.
“It’s not just your right it’s your privilege!” yelled Jake, “Don’t ever forget that! You live in the one fucking city where that matters… cocksucker.”
Ryan began laughing hysterically and Jake, too, as he began resetting his props for another take.
And just before the camera cut, Ryan provided this apropos observation: “Oh well… it wasn’t going that great anyway.”
Boobs…shit…cocksucker — actors say the darndest things.