by Wayne Rapp
I am the Director of Photography for a large Midwestern film and video production company, and how am I spending my time? Not that you’d have reason to know, but I’m redesigning the crew section of our budget forms. And this for the second time in the last quarter. I should have better things to do, and the truth is I do have better things to do, but when the General Manager says do it or look for another job, your priorities change. “You caused the problem,” Jerry says for the umpteenth time, “so you fix it.”
The problem Jerry refers to is Enrique (Ricky) Soto. Ricky was one of our grips. Not one of the better ones I’d worked with, but he’d been with the company for about a year when the accident happened. Huck, the gaffer on the shoot, was a freelancer and one of these hands-on guys who gets frustrated easily if he can’t communicate what he wants. So, he’s always grabbing stuff out of the grips’ hands and doing it himself. Can’t get away with that on the coasts because of the unions. But we were a long way from New York or LA, and crew crossed jobs all the time. Except for the stylists—nobody dared touch their makeup or combs.
It was Wednesday, and we had a half-day prep in the studio for a Thursday-Friday shoot. We were hanging lights when Huck got pissed, chased Ricky off the ladder, and tried to horse a 5K onto a spud on the grid by himself. I started bitching at Huck because my crew was fed up with the way he works. He turned to holler back at me, and the barn door, which wasn’t hooked to the 5K by its safety chain (Ricky’s responsibility), came flying off and whacked Ricky right on top of the head.
Ricky went down and stayed down. He was out. It was deathly quiet. Blood from the gash on his head flowed all over the freshly-painted white floor. It was scary, but after we got Ricky to the hospital, I felt better. All the reports that we got were good. At first. Evidently there was some swelling inside his head and, we were finally told, it appeared Ricky was brain damaged.
He was in the hospital for about three weeks, and when he got out, Jerry called me into his office. “Ricky will be back at work next Monday,” he said to me calmly.
“What?” I said with what I know was a dropped mouth.
“I don’t have any room for him in the studio or the office, so get him back on the crew assignment list. He’s yours.”
“I thought he was brain damaged.”
“He is. What’s the problem? He’s just a grip. It’s not rocket science” (one of Jerry’s favorite expressions).
I thought Jerry knew something I didn’t, until I saw Ricky. Do you remember Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after he got the lobotomy? OK. So it wasn’t that bad. But almost. His mouth hung open, and he walked funny. You actually had to lead him around. And, of course, he still had a big bandage on his head.
I went back to Jerry. “This guy belongs at home,” I said, sure that Jerry really didn’t know the extent of his condition.
“I can’t pay him to sit at home.”
“Workers comp should pay him.”
“And where do you think that money comes from?” Jerry was getting ready to swing into his “you don’t know what it takes to run a small business today” shtick that he usually trotted out at year-end meetings.
“What’s the difference if you pay him to sit at home or to sit here? He can’t do anything. He has trouble talking, and he can barely move around.” I wanted to make sure Jerry knew how ridiculous his command was.
“I need his visibility,” he replied without missing a beat. “He already counts with the EEOC as a minority because he’s Hispanic. Now that he’s disabled, he’ll count double. All we got besides him is the Black guy in Duplicating. Lesbians don’t count—which they should ’cause they sure as hell are minorities. I’d hire a couple more if they did, but they don’t, so I need Ricky. At work. It’s up to you to find a way to keep him busy. Take him out on shoots, maybe it’ll come back to him.”
“What will come back?”
“Whatever grips do. Your problem; you fix it,” he said for the first time.
“How am I supposed to charge his time?” I asked.
“List him as ‘Miscellaneous.’”
Like I said earlier, Ricky wasn’t all that good gripping beforehand, so there wasn’t that much to come back to him, and, as it turned out, nothing did. We kept carting him around, though, and pretty soon the crew kind of got used to him. The freelancers thought he was strange, but if there’s something I know about freelancers, it’s if you feed them on time and keep the clients away from them, not much else bothers them.
I had to pick Ricky up every morning and take him home every night, and he was always sitting on his front porch, all dressed and ready to go. Don’t know who took care of that. When the bandage came off, I started taking him on location. I’d bring a director’s chair with us, and Ricky would sit in it while we shot. When the clients showed up, they used to look at him and wonder if he was an associate producer, director maybe, executive producer, or even an account executive. Our company was kind of loaded with people and titles, so they always figured he did something on the shoot. The rest of us mostly ignored him. I would go over to him from time to time and close his mouth if it looked like he was starting to drool, and everybody would take turns ordering for him at lunch.
One day, a freelance shooter told me that when he called for a battery, Ricky was holding it up in his hand. After that, we made sure to set the bag of batteries next to him. We had to charge the batteries and mark them when they were expended, but if you went to him with a dead battery, he got where he could tell whether it was for the camera or monitor and dig out a fresh one for you. Life was good for Ricky. And for me.
That all changed quickly when one of our pain-in-the-ass clients started bitching about her invoice and demanded a detailed accounting. She bought everything else but questioned the figure for “miscellaneous.” When Billing couldn’t explain it satisfactorily, she refused to pay any of the invoice until it was straightened out. Jerry talked to her, and the result was that all the “miscellaneous” charges were dropped. He called me in then and said, “You can’t do that anymore,” as if charging Ricky’s time that way was my idea in the first place.
That’s when I got the idea for a new crew member, “Battery Boy,” and I put it on the crew call out list which is used for bidding, scheduling, and billing. Mercedes, the company’s resident feminist, flew into Jerry’s office, waving the list in her hand, and said it was sexist. The term should be “Battery Person,” she’d pointed out. Jerry went ballistic. Said this was a one-time classification for a special condition, and that she could take him to court if she wanted, but there would never be an equal-opportunity position of “Battery Girl” or “Battery Person” in the company as long as he ran it. We all had a little more respect for Jerry after that story got around.
The next thing you know, political season is upon us. Our production company works through national political advisers who provide spots for a number of candidates around the country. Management loves political season because some heavy money comes the company’s way. Editors hate it. They are constantly working—days, night, weekends—pulling together response pieces every time one candidate takes a shot at the other. Freelancers love it because of the long hours and the money they can make. Those of us on crews who are company employees have mixed feelings. Most of what we do for politicals is shot on film instead of tape, so that’s a plus, especially for your reel. Everybody wants some film on their reel. The budgets are pretty good, but the travel is long, and we usually don’t get paid for late nights and weekends. We work on “comp time.” But during political season, if you’re always working on panic deadlines, there’s never any time to take off. Also, most of the locations are pretty boring: lots of cornfields or sheep ranches, candidates at home with their families, at some picnic, or talking to kids in some school. The candidates usually fly in private planes from place to place while the crew loads up gear and hauls it by truck (most times at night after a long shoot) to meet the candidate and political handlers—all looking bright-eyed and well-fed—at the next day’s location. Then you start over. Like I said, at least film does look good on your reel.
We do Republican shoots only. You really have to pick your party and stay with it, regardless of what you think about certain candidates. This year Johnson Hooten, our most important candidate (one with the most money) is running for Senator from Texas. He’s dynamic (spastic), intelligent (reads a prompter well), and versatile (can change his position at the drop of a hat). He also has a dynamite-looking wife, and that’s good news because the male part of the crew can work long and hard when a pretty woman is around.
Wants-to-be Senator from Texas came in with his campaign manager and political consultants to check us out and sign the contract. He was raring to go right then, and we set up a let’s-get-started shoot for the next day. Didn’t matter that we were in the Midwest, and he was from the Southwest. One of his big pitches was for new jobs, so we found a couple of closed factories that were nondescript, selected angles that didn’t give the location away, and started to shoot.
There wasn’t a script, so we put a couple of points on cue cards for Johnson, and he winged the rest. At about Take 6 he said, “Dammit, this isn’t workin’ worth shit. I need somethin’ to hang my message on. Let’s go again.”
He bounced all over the place while he talked, and I was handholding the camera instead of working off sticks so I could stay with him. He got a couple of lines into the new take and started walking out of my frame, so my audio guy and I readjusted to keep up. We had to chase him while he kept at it: “My Democratic opponent tells you we need to take more of your hard-earned money away from you and give it to people who can’t support themselves. I say no.” By then he was standing right over Ricky in his director’s chair. He put his arms on Ricky’s shoulders and continued: “I say we give them a job and the dignity of earnin’ their own way. Like this young man is doing. I don’t know what others call it, but in Texas, we call it ‘compassionate conservatism.’”
Johnson Hooten was elated. “Now I’ve got somethin’ to hang my hat on.” The consultants agreed but thought Ricky sitting there just looked like a big prop. “Then,” he continued, “I’ll pull him into the scene with me doin’ whatever he does. What do you do, son?”
“Battery Boy,” Ricky slurred.
“What did he say?”
“He’s our Battery Boy,” I replied. “He’s responsible for providing fresh batteries when the ones we’re using go down.”
“So,” Johnson said without missing a beat, “we’ll shoot this again, and I’ll walk to the camera while he’s handin’ you a battery and deliver my message.”
“Only problem is,” I said, “the camera can’t see you walking up to it and shoot you doing it at the same time. The camera can’t see itself.”
It took a while for it to register, if it ever did. He still looked puzzled when he asked, “Don’t you have another camera?”
“Not a film camera,” I said. “We’ve only got a video camera on the truck.”
“Who the hell knows the difference? Set up the video camera, and I’ll walk up to it.”
So, we did. I put my film assistant, the AC, on the video camera and told him to pretend to operate it. Then I stationed Ricky right next to it with a battery in his hand (a film battery because we don’t have a video battery, but who the hell knows the difference?).
We re-shot the scene with our candidate walking over to the video camera and putting his arm around Ricky, delivering his message while Ricky delivers the battery. The consultants were ecstatic.
“Just right!” one said.
“Very real.” They all agreed. So we shot a couple variations and wrapped it.
A week later, we were in Texas for a five-day shoot in ten different locations. I took the AC and Audio with me, and we picked up the rest of the crew in Dallas. We started at Hooten’s father-in-law’s ranch and met the fabulous Mrs. Hooten for the first time. As we set up for the morning’s shoot, Johnson was raring to go. We were just about ready for an audio check, when our candidate walked over to me. “Where’s the Battery Boy?” he asked.
“Don’t need him on this shoot,” I replied. “We’ll take care of batteries ourselves and save you a little bit of money.”
“I don’t want to save money,” he yelled. “I need that boy! Got all my scripts written around him. Now you call Jerry and get that boy down here, or tell him I’m cancelin’ the contract. Tell him I’m pushin’ the schedule back a day and not payin’ him for today because I didn’t get a full crew. You tell him that,” he said and stomped off.
So I did, and Ricky showed up at my hotel room that night wearing a big sign around his neck with my name and the name of the hotel on it. He had a cab driver with him who said I owed him $57 dollars for the ride from the airport. Don’t know how they’d managed to get Ricky on and off the airplane, but he had drooled all down the front of his shirt in the process.
Johnson was overjoyed to see Ricky. True to what he’d said, each one of his scripts had some visual reference to Ricky. It was like he was the poster boy for our candidate’s “compassionate conservatism” stance on self-sufficiency. When we went outside to shoot, Johnson was worried about Ricky wilting in the heat and had his wife take him inside until we were ready to roll. It was a laugh, him telling Jerry he wouldn’t pay because he didn’t get a full crew, when, in reality, he was getting talent without paying for it. Oh well. I knew how Jerry would respond if I’d even brought it up.
For all of that shoot, and the ones that followed, Ricky was part of our candidate’s message. He was the shining example of what could be accomplished when you provided jobs instead of handouts for the handicapped. Johnson took him to the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Round-Up (largest in the world, he’d told the camera) and fed him rattlesnake and pickled cactus. Johnson and Ricky ate alligator on a stick at the Anahuac Gatorfest, menudo in San Antonio, and fried bulls’ balls in Amarillo.
When we were close enough to Johnson’s ranch, Ricky stayed there overnight instead of in a hotel with the rest of the crew. At call time each day, he would show up with the family. It looked like they dressed him, trimmed his hair, and shined him up because he started looking pretty spiffy. He wasn’t even drooling much anymore. At times, when we had a break in the schedule and went home for a couple of days between shoots, Ricky stayed behind. I couldn’t say how the company handled this. I assumed he was banking a hell of a lot of “comp time.”
They say all good things come to an end, and this campaign did, too, with a big thud. We had finally wrapped the project and had taken Ricky home with us when the election results came in. Johnson Hooten lost. Not by much, but it was a loss nonetheless. The next day, Ricky Soto wasn’t on his porch when I stopped by to pick him up for work. When he didn’t show for the second day, I checked the house. A neighbor saw me knocking and told me he had gone to Texas.
I knew Ricky had gotten close to Johnson during the campaign, but I didn’t think he completely understood what had happened—the whole winning and losing thing. I honestly didn’t expect he’d take the loss this hard. Turned out I was right. The political consultant we worked with on the campaign called Jerry and told him the story. Mrs. Hooten and Ricky had run off together, and nobody knew where they’d gone. Mr. Hooten was going to call Jerry and talk to him about it, and the consultant felt he owed Jerry a heads-up.
Jerry was quaking when he called me in. I don’t know whether he was pissed off or scared or both. Of course, he blamed me for the whole thing. Said I hadn’t watched Ricky close enough, and he wasn’t sure he could save my job by the time the owners got through with him. Just then the phone rang, and it was Johnson Hooten on the line. Jerry put him on speaker and told him I was there ready to talk to him.
“Good. I want to speak to him and you, too, Jerry,” Johnson said calmly.
His voice quivering, Jerry headed him off. “Mr. Hooten, I can’t tell you how sorry I am about your loss.”
“Oh hell, someone loses every election,” he said. “Came damn close though.”
“No, I mean your wife,” Jerry said.
“Jerry, buddy, along the border we have a sayin’ in Spanish. ‘Caca pasa.’ Shit happens. She’ll be back. Ain’t the first time it’s happened. Probably won’t be the last. I called to talk to you about the election, though. Not this one, the next one. Be a U.S. Representative’s job open in two years, and I’m gonna want to start campaignin’ early. You boys did such a good job for me, I want to use y’all again. Really liked that Battery Boy thing you did. Want to do that again, but this time with a girl. I don’t want to tell you your hirin’ business, but pretty always works better than not. A little bit of color would go a long ways, too, if you know what I mean. And a wheelchair would be a nice touch. Can see me pushin’ that chair in front of the Alamo or along the River Walk. And that’s just in San Antonio. All sorts of possibilities. Called you now so you boys can start thinkin’ about it. Then when we get that Representative’s job, the other Senate job will be up before you know it. Lots of work comin’ up, Jerry. Lots of work.”
Jerry was all puffed up. Acted like somehow he’d had something to do with the whole thing. He gave me my marching orders: “Redesign that crew form. Make it “Battery Person,” and tell Mercedes about it. Say you’re following her good idea to be fair in our hiring practices. That’ll get her off my back for a while. Start interviewing as soon as possible and make sure you only interview women.”
“Whatever you say, Jerry.”
I had just finished redesigning the stupid crew form again when a postcard was dropped in my lap. It was from Ricky. Postmarked from Hermosillo, Mexico. “I’m slowly being nursed back to health,” it read. “My grandfather had a silver claim here in Sonora. Checking it out. If Jerry asks, tell him to mark me down for comp time. Muchas gracias, Battery Boy.”