Dust and limbs moved wildly around the ring. My legs stretched out in front of me faster and faster as the animals approached. On my left a llama came and went. Where were the zebras and camels? Screams echoed around and around and my heart pounded. Leaping over hay bales I came bounding almost even with the llama again….
There is really no way to make 4:30am a comfortable time to wake-up. It just doesn’t feel right. The body moves slowly and the mind even slower. Darkness continues even with lights on. But as I filled my cup with orange juice early last Monday morning my mind was churning with excitement; it was going to be my first day on the set of Water for Elephants.
Still dark, I started my car and headed north on California Interstate-5 toward Santa Clarita. Out of the city and through the hills I arrived at the cast/crew gated parking area, about twenty minutes east of the Big Top tents. I grabbed my sun lotion and water bottle and boarded the nearly full bus. Quiet with anticipation we drove on through the desert.
The sky began to glow as the sun rose above the gray fog that lay just above the mountain tops. In the distance I could make out a series of large white tents. Figures of men and women appeared along the edges of the field. One man slowly turned when the bus approached. He wore a plain cream colored suit shadowed by dust and a plume of smoke swirled around his hardened face. The authenticity of his appearance was shocking. For a moment I wondered if I had somehow been transported to the 1930’s.
I filed off the bus and into the tent where hundreds of future Rubes (townspeople/circus attendees) stood awaiting their hair styling or breakfast. The check-in line at the front of the tent moved quickly and once I had my work voucher I ping-ponged my way back to the wardrobe section. Hundreds of men’s suits hung on racks that stretched fifty feet long, each specifically numbered. My number was M826. I moved along each rack scanning the numbers. In between each aisle men sat hunched on benches lacing up boots and tightening suspenders.
The breakfast spread was large and delicious. I piled fresh pancakes, hash browns, eggs, and fruit on my plate and sat down at a table. I was no longer Cody Wood 2010. I was Cody Wood 1930. I set my hat to the side and finished the meal like it was the depression era. “Everyone! Thank you for your attention. If you’ve eaten please line-up outside for wardrobe check!” exclaimed one of the casting assistants. Checking my phone in the security bin I headed outside and joined the line of at least one hundred rubes. We stood shoulder to shoulder awaiting inspection. I passed.
The Big Top tents were located two hundred yards north. The ground was still hard and damp from the fog. A blessing I wouldn’t appreciate until the afternoon sun dried everything to dust. I walked past movie trailers that looked out of place.
Over the train tracks and into the holding tent we marched. Folding chairs faced in all directions and the snack table was already swarmed. Almost immediately I heard a megaphone. “Good morning ladies and gentleman. We are ready for you. Please proceed through the menagerie into the main tent.” Wow, already? I dropped my bag, stretched my shoulders, and moved to the front of the line.
Screams echoed around and around and my heart pounded. Leaping over hay bales I came bounding almost even with the llama again….”CUT!!!! CUT!” shouted the assistant director. Everyone came to a stop and looked around. Twenty feet to my right an elephant lifted its trunk in the air. The megaphone rang out again. “Places everyone. Great job. Places.” We all marched back to our starting positions and tried to collect ourselves for another stampede.
Francis Lawrence, the director, sat under a black awning against the circus bleachers. His face was calm with a slight smile of satisfaction as he watched the footage. He exchanged words with the AD (Assistant Director). Almost immediately I heard the cue: “Pictures up!” A pause. “And BACKGROUND!” On background we all began the exhilarating sprint from danger once more. A plume of dust rose from our pounding feet and swirled around the swinging lamps. Wind pushed the top of the tent up and down like waves. As the motion of canvas, lamps, and people rushed about, the enormous elephant stood calmly in the center of the ring. “And CUT! Thank you folks! Good job.”
On my walk back across the circus floor I noticed a new excitement. There was no audible noise but something seemed different. When I came around the last large tent pole Pattinson had appeared at the end of the menagerie. I heard the start of the AD’s instructions. “Rob, we’re going to have you….” The young actor looked controlled and confident even while hundreds of Rubes tried to secretly glance in his direction. Most of the cast had arrived at their original mark but I was still walking. Fortuitously I was placed near the entrance to the tent just a few feet from where Rob was now standing.
While the cinematographer gathered lighting calculations I was instructed to wait for Rob to hit his second mark and run past him going out the menagerie. Again, the speed at which the cues came was surprising. The AD instructed, “Pictures Up, and Background”. On “background” the crowd began the stampede away from the menagerie. A third cue came for Rob and on “action” he became Jacob Jankowski. He took a slow step toward the running crowd and looked on with awe. He took another step and scanned the crowd left to right. From behind the camera I sprinted as fast as I could just past Jacob. The crowd was still screaming and running in the other direction. I hopped to my right to avoid a tent pole and stopped dead. My breath was gone and my eyes were frozen. A few feet in front of me stood an enormous buffalo. Dark thick fur covered the entire animal except for the large blood-shot eyes that looked directly at me. I methodically moved each foot backward while the stampede continued on in the tent. Finally the word “Cut” came bellowing out from the tent and gladly moved back to safety.
Rob was smiling at the director. He was obviously tickled by the intensity and size of the stampede. The entire experience was authentic. There were peanuts scattered on the ground and popcorn boxes tipped in the bleachers. Along the menagerie a host of animals did their part to make the scene possible and center ring the massive elephant stood like royalty. There was so much to take in that the twelve hour day passed like minutes.
After a long drive home I dropped onto the couch. My feet were sore and I could still taste a little dust but I couldn’t stop thinking about what the next day would have in store…