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Tag Archive: J. Torrey McClain


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WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Column by J. Torrey McClain

In theaters now, if you look quickly and listen closely, you can see my profile and hear my voice in the fantastic new movie from Shane Black, The Nice Guys.  I recommend seeing The Nice Guys, not only for me, but because it is a dry, fun, and interesting movie that has a number of laughs.  But, as usual, the movie is the background to my musings and in this case, my personal experience.

On my birthday in 2015, I got a text and a phone call on my way to meeting with friends.  Since I was in the car, I didn’t pick up, my preference, and waited until I was walking along the sidewalk to my destination, expecting to see calls and texts with well-wishes.  As I looked, I got another call, from my call-in booking service.  I answered and immediately gave my acknowledgement that I was available to work the next day.  It was only after this that I was able to look at the text and see that it was my first union gig, as a photo double.

To understand this all-new stage as a background actor, I must explain my normal experiences.  As a friend once relayed to me from a recent L.A. Times article, background actors are known as props that eat. Generally there are at least 20 of us descending upon a production to provide atmosphere and a realistic look of city streets, courtrooms, bars, malls or wherever the protagonists need to be.  We sit, we walk, we mime talking, we run for cover, we sit in a Ferris wheel, we play at eating food and generally try to be as real as possible with several cameras capturing the moment.  In between the scenes, we descend like locusts on craft services, lunch catering and our holding area, eating, talking, reading, writing, playing music or whatever we do to make the eight, ten, 12 or longer hours to pass by while assistant directors and production assistants try to corral us and keep us to a mild whisper so as not disturb filming.  I love the job as the time in between gives me moments with graphic novels or whatever I’m reading at the time, but it can be stifling to many others with low tolerances to being told exactly what to do, wanting to talk, preferring not to listen and expecting the spotlight.  If you’re happy just fading into the background and realizing that your issues are the smallest in the world of a production with many moving parts, days pass wonderfully well.

nice guys

My days on The Nice Guys were so much different.  My first day of my first union gig, I was nervous.  When I met the production assistant checking me in and he said something along the line of these words, “Great, glad you’re here!  This day is all about you,” my nerves shot up a notch as it became apparent that I was the only background actor there.  Instead of being sent off to hang with the other extras, I got to eat at the same time and table with the crew.  I felt guilty of impostor syndrome as I sat among the people there on a daily basis with specific jobs to make the production move forward.  After finishing my food, I got a full haircut from the people in the hair department along with some grey added to my dark brown hair to match the original actor.  A special suit of specific clothes awaited me at wardrobe.  Once ready for the camera, I arrived on set, ready to exit the production van, one of the PAs opened up an umbrella for me and held it over me until, feeling very sheepish, I took it from him and walked toward set.

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10 Cloverfield

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Column by J. Torrey McClain

For most of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the story takes place in an underground bunker without a view into the outside world. I dig those types of movies, like Room, where the audience is left to imagine what really is outside the camera’s purview.  The movies hint at something horrible outside until it is confirmed through a kidnapper or a woman scarred by some unknown pathogen, microscopic or much larger.  But, for a short time, we all have different ideas of what is happening in the world outside the movie.  What rarely pokes its head into our thoughts is what is happening outside the theater as we watch the make believe on the screen.

As a former janitor of a movie theater (as I have talked about before in my explorations in the horror genre) I began to see the theater as a closed environment.  While in the theater, the movie audience has no clue what is happening in the real world (assuming they turn their phones to silent and keep them in their purses or pockets).  From the time the overhead lights dim until they brighten again, the only world the viewer knows is that dark room with a story that envelops them in projected light and sound.

10Cloverfield

A lot can happen in as little as 90 minutes.  The world we know when we walk through the theater door can change dramatically.  It can be a local event or a worldwide one. Only if it is big enough to stir the theater itself or to cause our phones to suddenly beep with emergency messages will it enter our awareness.  The real world might never cut through the sound of Space Marines exploring an abandoned space colony or the laughs that erupt when watching two idiots clad in neon tuxedos trying to one up each other.  It has to be something big for us to turn our attention away from The Terminator as the future hangs in the balance once again.

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The Witch screencap

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Column by J. Torrey McClain

I saw The Witch last week and I got a few true scares.  I also felt a little sleepy at a few points due to a big meal beforehand, poor sleep hygiene at the moment and possibly, possibly, due to the movie and its time period.  It has made me wonder, when in the history, present and future of the universe is the best setting for horror?

I’ve written before on horror in the future when I looked at A Walk in the Dark by Arthur C. Clarke.  (I won’t make myself shudder by mentioning spooky little girls again.)  As I wrote about in that essay, the compelling element of that story came from its application to any time period.  The dark scares us.  The dark scared us.  The dark will continue to scare us.

The future can be scary in its own period as any watching or re-watching of Alien can stir up the tension and fear of meeting with the unknown on the fringes of space.  If not a xenomorph, maybe it’s the weeping angels of “Blink” or the Vashta Nerada of “Silence in the Library” from Doctor Who that get you.  The future combines the unknown of our nightmares with the familiarity of the present (video stores, libraries, kitchens) set in just enough of a different place to make it believable.  When won’t we have libraries?  (In the presence of eBooks, after Netflix all but eliminated video stores, I maybe should have kept that question to myself.)  When won’t we gather with others to eat?  When won’t we watch video entertainment?

video store x

The present scares me because I can insert myself into the world of self-documentation like in The Blair Witch Project or the world of the omnipresence of cameras in the various Paranormal Activity movies.  As I type, someone could be scoping me as I scrutinize my screen, attired in a Kingdom Come Superman shirt.  Properly spooked, I may throw in the towel on this essay, go to my bed, open my Spanish language-learning app and get watched through the camera on my phone.  I could put the phone face down and still not solve the possibility of someone watching me through the rear-facing camera as I crack open one of those library books that pedants might argue as far-fetched.

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Innocence–Locke & Key

Locke & key

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Column by J. Torrey McClain

I just finished reading all six trade paperbacks for the main story of Locke & Key. (I will get to the side stories as soon as I finish Brightest Day and catch up on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, if other comics on my wish list don’t distract me first.)  It is fabulous in its creativity and has a few chilling scares.  One thing stuck in my mind though, and as readers know, that’s what causes my keyboard to clack and click.  In this case, the question I pose to myself is, “At what age do we lose our innocence?”

Per Locke & Key and many forms of government all over the United States and abroad, the age that innocence ends is 18, or in other words, around the time a person graduates high school.  In Locke & Key, the junior members of the Locke family host a party at the end of high school for the people that know about the keys because the knowledge will fade as adulthood surges into the body and possesses it.  I don’t quibble with Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez on their selection of this age or time in our lives, I just wonder what makes 18 the magic age at which we become adults.  Not only is 18 generally when people graduate high school, it’s when they are given the right to vote, it’s the age when they can own a gun in California and the last thing that comes to my mind is that it’s when they can enlist in the armed forces to fight and possibly die for their country.  I suppose any of those things could convey a degree in adulthood or at least a grown-up GED certificate.

Bode Locke

However, you can’t drink alcohol legally until you’re 21.  You can drive a two-ton vehicle capable of killing people at the age of 16.  You graduate college sometime around the age of 22.  You graduate law school at around the age of 25 if you start right out of undergraduate school.  Medical school is even longer.  If you are still in school, can you be an adult?  What if you are paying every one of your bills?  What if you’re not?

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Hail, Caesar! A day in the life…

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Column by J. Torrey McClain

When I first walked out of the new Coen Brothers release Hail, Caesar! my initial thoughts were that I wanted more.  I wanted more scenes of the characters that just had brief moments.  I wanted more of Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle.  I wanted more of Tilda Swinton as the Thacker sisters.  I wanted more of Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney.  I wanted more of just about everything (and instead of listing each and every wonderful actor, I choose to stop and get to my point.)  A few seconds later, I realized that the movie isn’t about any of those supporting people.  It is barely about the star, Josh Brolin playing Eddie Mannix*, a fictionalized version of a real life MGM fixer and studio head.  It is about a day in the life of Eddie Mannix.  Think about that for a second and then join me in the next paragraph.

*(For more Mannix, march over to MGM Stories from “You Must Remember This.”)

What’s a day in the life for anyone?  Do you see all of your loved ones?  Do you talk to all of your family?  Do you get to pet your pets?  Do you work?  Do you make love?

Channing Tatum Hail Caesar

A day in the life doesn’t have to be miraculous, stupendous, monumental or anything.  A day in the life is.  If you asked me yesterday what my life was like, I’d tell you I walked along the Pacific Ocean, ate fresh seafood at a seafood “shack,” saw clear vistas devoid of pollution due to low humidity and high winds, played a trivia video game against my girlfriend and went 1-1, and I drove people around as a Lyft driver.  Today I duplicated my driving, walked for forty minutes, gave my kittens their morning treats, got a positive phone call from my doctor, got a book recommendation from one of my Lyft passengers and started to write this essay and the day is not even seven hours old.  Maybe I’ll apply for jobs later or read a book or watch a documentary or fix myself a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon.  My future is in a state of flux as one of my kitten’s tails wags back and forth in front of my laptop’s screen, obscuring words just like the sands of time obscure the future of today.

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SMT X

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Column by J. Torrey McClain

Around this time last year, my good friend Steve suggested that we check out A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) at the Silent Movie Theater here in Los Angeles and I had no clue what it was.  I briefly checked the description, saw a positive Metacritic score and thought to myself, “Why the heck not?”  I ended up seeing a fantastic slow-burning film that made the vampire genre fresh.  I also saw one of the best images to portray a character in a long time.

Early in the film, the co-protagonist girl vampire decides to go home with a drug dealer who had previously threatened the other protagonist as well as a local streetwalker.  As he bursts into his lair, he walks by a large fish tank and gives it a smack.  Seconds later he’s doing lines of cocaine on a glass table, a mounted deer head and a mounted antelope head on the wall behind him, before turning on the annoying techno.  He sits on a couch draped with a blanket of what looks like tigers that would jump out under black light.  In the corner there is a hookah.  As the girl vampire explores the rest of the pad, she finds a set of drums just below a large marijuana leaf poster.  I laughed to myself as I immediately realized I had in those brief seconds already characterized this asshole in my mind with no redeeming qualities.  Sure, the actions earlier helped, but that apartment spoke to me clearly and it screamed into my brain “HE IS A DOUCHEBRO.”

douchebro

Those items and that music might not mean the same thing to every person.  Maybe to others they see a seedy drug-dealing criminal.  Some may see a guy that is definitely more current in his musical taste than I (as Clem Snide and The Replacements play as I write.)  Others may see an advocate for marijuana besides business reasons that has been stigmatized due to its frequent use by hippies and non-WASPs.  (I put myself in the advocate camp, by the way, as the criminalization and the imprisonment of many people in jail due to marijuana related offenses seems to be one of the many effects of the inherent racism in our justice system.  But, that’s for another discussion at another time by others much more qualified than I.  Check out Deray McKesson on Twitter to start your journey on that front or some of the great essays in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the soon-to-be author of the Marvel comic Black Panther).  I just know that for my viewpoint, the more the scene unfolded, the more it verified my judgment.

Such is the magic of great set design.  As a background actor, I get to see lots of set design up close.  Items might not show up distinctly on camera, but choices get made in the costume, prop and set departments that impact the feel of a scene.  The care that the professionals take in these aspects of filmed entertainment mesmerizes me more than most things.

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karina-longworth-crop

By J. Torrey McClain

I have an outsized morbid curiosity.  I am in the midst of reading “Devil in the White City” about the 1893 World’s Fair and the serial killer that lurked just outside its gates.  I definitely enjoyed reading Bill James’s foray into something not related to baseball, “Popular Crime.”  I’ve included several books by criminal profiler John Douglas in my reading list over the last fifteen years.  I wrote about “Green River Killer: A True Detective Story” for borg.com.  So, those personal facts may color my opinion, but I’m going to go ahead and say that if you’re looking for a true crime podcast, you can’t do any better than the season that “You Must Remember This” devotes to Charles Manson and the murders he and his family committed in the summer of 1969.* (http://www.vidiocy.com/youmustrememberthispodcastblog/2015/5/26/charles-mansons-hollywood-part-1-what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-the-manson-murders)

*However, if you’re looking for runner-ups, I suggest the first season of “Serial” from the producers of “This American Life,” and the ongoing “Criminal” that is part of the Radiotopia podcast network.  I’m sure you’ve already read WAY too much on “Serial,” but I may have to add my own “Hey Listen To This!” post on “Criminal” and several of the other members of Radiotopia.

Host Karina Longworth knows how to tell a story, gives the listener a bunch of great facts and lets you know when she ventures into the realm of speculation and rumor.  Each podcast episode comes with its own blog post that notes the sources Karina uses to edify and explain the years Manson spent living free outside of prison.  She connects Manson to various other figures in Hollywood like Dennis Wilson and Doris Day.  (I must say the Wilson part really intrigued me and got me to add his digital double album, “Pacific Ocean Blue & Bambu” to my music wish list.)  She takes her time telling the story, so the series runs for twelve episodes and each episode is at least a half an hour.  It’s not a rush job, it’s not a sample of one evening in the life, it’s a darn comprehensive look at a specific time and place centered around one of the most sensational and senseless crimes of the century.**

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by J. Torrey McClain

If you read Borg.com, there’s a great chance you love pop culture in all of its forms. I would bet that most of you really love movies like I do. If you do, I have just the thing for you – Matt Gourley’s podcast “I Was There Too.”

Some of you may know Gourley from his appearance in Volkswagen commercials before VW imploded from within based on emission shenanigans. Others might know him from Superego, a fantastic comedy improv collective that has had episodes like this one devoted to H.R. Giger (voiced by Gourley) animated on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUD7rmHartE Others may know him from his other podcasts James Bonding and Pistol Shrimps Radio, his frequent guest appearances on the “Comedy Bang Bang” and “Spontaneanation” podcasts and more still from his hilarious collaboration with Andy Daly on the “Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project.” For those more visually inclined, you may have seen him on “Drunk History,” “Comedy Bang Bang” the television show, or heard his voice as he details the actions of his cat Margaux in the adventures of Margaux the fat guy.

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Robert Pittman Wikipedia Commons Killer Whales

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Column by J. Torrey McClain

I do not currently host a pet of any kind in my home.  I grew up with a cat and dogs and I love to visit friends and family with cats and dogs, but it has been a long time since I have enjoyed the company of a pet 24/7.  I add that preface because I want to say that I don’t have stories of a pet’s behavior that reveal “emotions,” “feelings” and “empathy.”  I use quotes because I do not want to personify any animal mostly from a place of ignorance but also from a place of logic.  How I interpret and see the world HAS to be different than a pet.  But, I will not claim they don’t “feel,” I will not claim they don’t “learn,” I will not claim they aren’t “intelligent;” I just don’t know if human language has a word for how animals see the world.

As far as how humans treat animals, I understood about obvious cruelty like I’d see in reports of dog fighting, circus cages and pet abuse.  I remember even in high school, thinking that the idea of anyone “owning” an animal seemed fishy to me and I began to think that zoos might not be the best idea, except in cases of endangered animals, injured animals, education or scientific study, but only in limited scale.  I didn’t think much beyond this for a long time.

In my consumption of books due to my own curiosity and recommendations from friends, I read about nutrition.  I read about healthy diets.  I read about fast food ingredients and practices.  I read about modern factory farm practices.  I read about the idea of sustainable farming.  All of this got stored in my noggin.  Then, I watched the documentary Blackfish.  I started to consider removing meat from my diet as all my experiences combined to form this idea.  It had been simmering in my mind, but the impetus of the call to action came from Blackfish.

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Edward Hopper original sketch night scene

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Weekly Column with J. Torrey McClain

We’ve talked about horror movies before on borg.com, and in my discussion, a common theme of creepy girls and the supernatural emerged.  The thing is, these things aren’t scary on their own.  “Thor” isn’t scary. “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” isn’t scary.  What gives them the ability to scare me comes not as much from their intrinsic natures, but from the images that come from the masters of horror combined with my imagination.

My imagination is the key.  The supernatural have no rules and no limits.  They can do whatever you dream them to do.  Once you start down that road, then anything can trigger those pieces of the mind that start the skin crawling and the sweat to run cold.  The rustling of leaves outside my tent?  Probably the wind.  But, then maybe it’s a mouse.  Maybe it’s a snake.  Maybe it’s a softly moving wolf.  Maybe someone is in my camp.  Before I know it, an army of undead, animals, and adderall-crazed ankle biters have amassed on the other side of the thin sheets of nylon.

Those are two other keys to fear: removing senses and being alone.  If my tent was clear material and I could see the leaves drifting along the ground, my fear would be gone.  If I can hear the voices of friends still up around the campfire, I can feel safe.  If I have a friend telling me to go back to sleep after a late night trip behind a tree, I can rejoin his or her slumber.

Original sketch Edward Hopper Nighthawks

Arthur C. Clarke hits me perfectly again with the short story, “A Walk in the Dark” from the same collection as “The Wall of Darkness.”  The opening is innocuous.  The first paragraph introduces Robert Armstrong as a man who has walked two miles and his flashlight just went bad.  It give you those two pieces of information and depending on your imagination, it might be perfectly safe as you think of a two-mile round-trip hike.  Maybe you just finished trick-or-treating and you can use the streetlights on the rest of the way home.  Maybe your friend has a flashlight.

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