Over the moon, under the influence

Ah, it's been a busy two weeks, I tell you.

I may have missed an astronaut dropping the cosmic bomb that interstellar life has visited Earth, but I was deeply engrossed in a different form of "Lunacy" altogether — that being the name of the "Law & Order: SVU" script being shot over the past two weeks. I was on the set for virtually the whole shoot with my co-author Susan; we've got two more months to put together the "Unofficial Companion" for the show and it all came down to whether we'd be greeted with suspicion or warmth on the set, because these were the folks who'd be giving us the real poop and letting us into their New Jersey studio-enclosed world.

The answer: Warmth! We really couldn't have been been better treated, from everyone involved — including the director, the writer (who regularly gave up his director's chair so I could sit in it) to the crew (this may surprise you, but yay for Teamsters!) to the actors themselves (even if they did require a little chasing down to interview). We went from meat-locker temperatures in the studio (located in beautiful pylon-infested North Bergen, NJ) to muggy, mosquito-filled days in Flushing, but were always made welcome and treated like we were supposed to be there. Which we were — our new BFF Dick Wolf has given us the thumbs up on the project — but nobody made us call to daddy to get treated well. They just did it.

I will say it probably took about three days, though, to feel at home in any real sense. There's a rhythm to how everything works — as in any office — and inserting yourself and waiting for things to happen isn't always the best way to get around. We'd get driven in from the west side of Manhattan in a van with extras or background actors to the studio and then there'd be a lot of waiting around while crew set up the shots, the stand-ins helped the director block the scenes, the actors came in and rehearsed, the shots were taken, then taken again, then taken from another angle, then done in close-up, ad infinitum, until the director yells "Cut! Print! Check the gate!" and you get to move on to the next scene. We were given "sides" every day, which are small paperback book-sized mini-scripts of just the scenes to be done that day, just a few pages.

Most days they did perhaps 5 pages of dialogue, which you look at that and say, "Gee, we should be out by lunch with this little to do" but there's no way to convey just. How. Long. Everything Takes. Law & Order shows still use film (as opposed to video or digital video) so it's fairly old-school with lighting and big rigging and it takes an incredible long time to get everything just so. Then there are a hundred things that can go wrong, from the boom being in the shot, to an actor bobbling his lines (let's just say that happened a lot with one particular guest on this show, and very rarely with the regulars), to someone walking in the wrong direction in a shot, to a director just wanting to do things a little different once he sees how it looks in the monitor.

There are eight million details to consider, too — what kind of mugs do you want to use in this scene? where should the blood spatter appear on a shirt? is the A/C turned off during filming (too much noise)? Is someone sweating? Why are people still talking when we're about to roll? Can you hear that helicopter/airplane/boat noise in the background? There's tons of slang — I learned what the real meanings of "dance floor," "video village," "honey wagon" are. And then there are the union regulations: You can't bring back crew for 10 hours after you let them home, you can't bring back actors for 12. And when your shoots go into 12:30 am, that can put a crimp into your next day. Plus, four hours after call time in the morning you have to provide a "snack," then there's lunch (and before that breakfast) and then some hours after lunch another "snack" and then dinner if you're really there a long time.

I would also like to point out that the food part of all of this was like being on a cruise ship. When I told Ray about being on the set and all the food he noted, "You're in Crafts Services heaven." Before this I really thought "crafts services" meant a deli plate and some sodas — but nooooo. First off, there's breakfast, where they routinely had folks making Belgian Waffles or omelets or pancakes to order, plus the standing hot food of potatoes, two kinds of sausages, biscuits, Eggs Florentine, bagels with lox and other toppings, cereal, hot oatmeal and so on. There was a permanent table of varying snack foods, which could go from the most amazing egg salad and shrimp salad I've ever had to a basket of Ding Dongs to fresh fruit (loads of fresh fruit) and deli cookies, granola and Sun Chips and now I'm getting hungry again. "Snacks" weren't even "snacks" like egg salad — they would be like hot wings or tacos or something most of us would consider Another Meal Altogether. Lunch again was a wide choice of meats — you'd have fish AND beef AND chicken AND sides AND three or four kinds of dessert, plus salad with fixins (three kinds of salad). All the soda, juice and Gatorade you might want. The crew kitchen had permanent snacks too, in cabinets. The refrigerator in the production office was stuffed to the gills with so many kinds of sodas I thought I was temping at a high-priced firm again in the 1990s. You could eat in the cafeteria, you could bring it on set (where bottled water was also always available), you could take it outside if you wanted. It was just so much damn food. And yes, it's union regulated but I was also told that it's psychological — you have so many people doing nothing for long stretches while other people do something that if you don't feed them, you could have trouble.

I digress. But seriously, people: Omigawd FOOD.

The actors were generally quite lovely. A little unapproachable at times, though that was probably more me than them — I didn't want to be accused of getting in their way or messing up their "method" or whatever, and it was hit or miss for a while to know whether they even recognized me from the day before. But by the end of my time there I was rapping pretty comfortably with Chris Meloni (Mariska Hargitay often came with her boy August and was with him in the trailer or doing other work pretty regularly — though they did come onto the set and she was pointing out "where mommy works" to the kid). Ice-T makes you cool by just standing next to him; he's got a real Zen master smoothness about the whole thing and is very approachable; Richard Belzer is goofy but when he's not doing something amusing I think I found him the most difficult to approach — maybe beacuse of the sunglasses. He also tended to have his wee dog Bebe with him much of the time. The rest of the cast, from the famous names to the up-and-comers were also hit or miss but generally quite nice, and the stand-ins were some of the best hosts on the floor. As for everyone else — again, they just took us under wing, always answered questions when asked, and let us know how the whole crazy business worked. We heart the crew!

All of this is going into the book in one form or the other, in much greater detail. We have to turn in the manuscript by the end of September, so my weekends will probably not be my own for a while. But it was really quite something to watch a whole episode get filmed, from the way the scenes are all mixed up, to how they put together the sets in and out of the studio, to feeling like I was on the "inside" when we filmed down in Battery Park and all of these gawkers gathered to watch the thing getting filmed. The episode, as I mentioned, is called "Lunacy" and airs as the third episode in the new season, whenever that kicks off. And it's about a dead Belgian lesbian astronaut. What more could you ask for?



  1. Cameron G Rose on 7/29/08 at 9:17 am

    Wow how do those actresses stay SO THIN when there is all that food!  I’ve gained weight just reading that.

  2. mKc on 7/29/08 at 3:53 pm

    I think I missed when you explained what you were doing there, I tried to find it in your previous posts but couldn’t. What’s going on?  What book?