We filmed Writer’s Block on a microbudget. Granted, it was a microbudget that could have kept Animal House’s John Blutarski in college for another seven years, but by Hollywood standards our funding amounted to couch cushion change. So when it came to special effects we couldn’t afford to hire an army of computer nerds to work their CGI magic. No, we had to get creative.
Unfortunately, creativity has its limits. Spear through the gut? No problem. A thrown hammer banging off a character’s skull? Piece of cake. Two guys riding in a pickup truck at night? Uh oh.
Wait . . . what? It’s just two guys in a truck – how hard can that be? Well, first off, where do you put the camera? More specifically, where do you put the person operating the camera? In the back seat? Can’t show faces. On a side mount? The equipment rental is too much. Strapped to the hood with bungie cords? Hey, Alex, how much do you weigh?
Camera placement aside, how could we safely film a moving truck on a busy highway? We didn’t know but, cocky bastards that we are, figured we’d come up with a brilliant idea by the time of the planned shooting day. Only that didn’t happen.
So, there we were on the morning of the planned nighttime shoot, scheming desperately to think of a way to film the scene with only one or two crew fatalities, when Greg Edwards, our brilliant lighting expert, pointed to the barn on location and said in his thick east Texas drawl, “Can you get the truck in there?”
“It’s a barn, Greg,” I said. “It’s built to hold tractors.”
“Okay, back it in there and I can make it look like nighttime on a highway.”
And he did. First, he instructed one of his assistants to cover all the windows with furnie pads. Watching this, I pointed to the cupola atop the structure and said, “Won’t light get in through that?” An unfazed Greg turned to another assistant and said, “Kyle, can you get on that roof?” Kyle could and, within minutes, the barn interior was as black as Anton Chigurh’s heart.
Next, Greg ordered up some “Christmas lights.” Unfamiliar as I was with that particular movie term, I watched with curiosity to see what ingenious piece of equipment would emerge from Greg’s trailer. The result was . . . a string of Christmas lights. Greg then produced a twenty-foot pole from his trailer, around which he wrapped the light string.
Satisfied with the light pole, Greg barked another command. “I need three C-stands, an apple box, two stingers, a spotlight, and a platypus! And some dirt!” By then I had already figured out that “dirt” was a sandbag for stabilizing the light supports known as C-stands while “stinger” was an extension cord, presumably called that for its ability to shock the unwary. An apple box was simply a wooden box used for supporting people or equipment. “Spotlight” seemed pretty obvious but, after the literal Christmas light experience and the request for a platypus, I wasn’t sure Greg didn’t have a small menagerie of trained aquatic mammals in his magic trailer. To my disappointment though, the assistant returned only with a specialized light shield.
With the barn wrapped and all the equipment in place, Greg was ready to create his illusion. Our actors climbed into the truck cab. At the shout of “Action!” one of the assistants began a slow walk past the side of the truck while holding the light pole. This simulated city lights passing by in the distance. Greg stood on an apple box with the spotlight, which he pointed at the ceiling and periodically swept in an arc over his head. The result perfectly emulated streetlights or passing headlights shining on our actors’ faces. Finally, two production assistants were stationed on the rear bumper and instructed to bounce the truck at irregular intervals, thereby creating the appearance of vehicle movement over pavement.
As impressive as all of this looked while being filmed, the on-screen result was even more spectacular. It actually looked like two guys riding in a pickup truck at night! Even when the driver “steered” onto the side of the road and “stopped,” (Greg simply doused his spotlight and instructed the guy carrying the pole to stop walking and the production assistants to stop bouncing) I could detect no glitch to give away the trick.
We, or should I say Greg, had done it. I just wish he would have had an actual platypus.