Write Byte

Someone Cue the Bluebird

(March 19, 1999)

I won the lottery. Not the kind where you buy a ticket and wait a week. To enter this contest you have to write a book and then wait around a year - or, in my case, four.

That was how long it took for A Marriage of Convenience to move from being optioned for a television movie to the actual production.

How did it feel when the phone call came that the movie was cast and would start filming in a month? Mary Chapin Carpenter has a song that pretty well sums it up. Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug. For that one, magical night I was the biggest, baddest windshield on the road.

The whole thing started four years ago with a phone call to my agent, Mel Berger, at the William Morris Agency. I'd been procrastinating starting a book by doing "research" in front of the television when it dawned on me that the original movies being aired were a lot like the stuff I was writing. Two months after Mel shipped my books to the L.A. William Morris offices, A Marriage of Convenience was optioned by Carla Singer Productions. I was aware that few options lasted longer than six months - the time it takes to shop a project around to the major television networks - and was determined to be grateful that the book had made it as far as it had. A month later, CBS signed on and I thought, oh, boy, we're on our way. It's actually going to happen. It's a done deal. They're going to begin filming any day now.

It's okay to tell the world.

Remember the story about Chicken Little and how he told the same story so many times his friends stopped believing him? Well, you get the idea.

After more ups and downs than I want to remember, in April the miracle finally happened. I was unloading plants from the car when I heard the phone ring and decided to let the machine pick up. A half hour later, my fingernails black with dirt, sweat trickling down my spine, I finally got around to listening to the message. It was Carla Singer calling to tell me that Jane Seymour had signed that afternoon and it was time to celebrate.

John, my husband, happened to be in the room with me and for some dumb reason I decided to play it cool. I actually managed to pull it off for about ten seconds and then let out a whoop that rattled the chandelier. We opened a bottle of champagne, then I called everyone I could think to call, and we went to dinner. The next day we drove to the Napa Valley to buy a case of champagne figuring something that big required more than one night's celebration.

Despite knowing writers are not always welcome visitors on a set, there was no way I was going to let the filming happen without me. Incredibly, when I asked about going to Winnipeg to watch the filming, Carla Singer not only had the production assistant in Winnipeg check the schedule to figure out when I would see the most interesting scenes being shot, she suggested John and I bring a gown and tux and be extras in the black and white ball scene.

Three weeks later, our suitcases packed with the requisite finery, we boarded the plane for Canada. (I learned later the location for a movie that supposedly takes place in Denver and Sacramento was determined by a very large tax incentive offered by Manitoba.) We were met at the airport by one of the 14 drivers hired for the production, driven to the hotel where there were flowers and a note waiting in the room, were told by the front desk that the accommodations were being taken care of by the production company, and were then taken to that day's set - a beautiful, old, three-story house on a tree-lined street.

During the dinner break, the dispossessed homeowners gave us a tour and told us how excited they were to have a movie being made in their home--which was pretty amazing considering the only rooms not filled with movie-making clutter, and we're talking a lot of clutter, were the kitchen and the two bedrooms being used in the film. These rooms had been repainted, repapered, refurnished, and filled with photographs of the principal actors.

Somehow word spread that "The Writer" was on the set, the words spoken with the awe associated with celebrity. For me, it was one of those, "Who? Me?" times when you glance over your shoulder to see if it's really you everyone is talking about. And unbelievably, it is. Over and over people told me, "You know, none of us would be here if it weren't for you."

Confusing, disconcerting, heady - just a few words that come to mind when I think about how this felt. Of course, the feeling was as transient as it was glorious. The cat boxes still had to be cleaned when I arrived home.

Dinner that first day was with Carla Singer and Shirley Knight at tables set up outside the catering wagon. We talked while dodging raindrops. Midway through the meal Carla spoke the magical words I'd come there to hear. "I've been reading The Beach House and I think it's wonderful."

Another production company was in the process of making an offer and I'd decided I wanted to go with Carla, someone who had the tenacity to see a project through to the end. (The actual deal for the option with Carla Singer Productions was worked out two days after I arrived home.)

Before filming started again that day, I met Jane Seymour and James Keach, her husband and director of the film. She was warm and gracious and actually sought out an introduction to "The Writer." Dressed as she was, I doubt I would have looked twice had I passed her on the street. But she made me understand the meaning of the camera loving someone. When I saw her being filmed later, she was stunning. James Keach has a terrific smile and laid-back personality. He was easy to approach and easy to talk to. James Brolin, the lead actor, was somewhere in Winnipeg being stalked by photographers hoping to catch a shot of him and Barbra Streisand.

After dinner we were driven back to the set (four blocks) and given umbrellas. A tarp was constructed to cover Jane and the camera and director. Huge lights were set up to make it look like a sunny afternoon.

Jane had to cry in the scene they were shooting and managed to pull it off five times, stopping to wash her eyes with drops, dab the moisure on her lashes and cheeks, and reapply makeup between takes. I was so caught up in what was happening I actually believed she was emotionally overwrought—all five times.

The moment that sparked the deepest emotional response in me that day, however, came when I saw the clapper with A Marriage of Convenience written on it. Somehow, this made the fantasy real. Dumb question for that day was if I could take the clapper home with me for a souvenir. It turned out they cost several thousand dollars and belong to the person who uses them on the set. No need to guess the answer.

During the three hours that we stood and watched filming that day there couldn't have been more than five minutes of finished film shot.

It wasn't that people were fooling around or making mistakes, it just took forever to set up for a new shot, to get hair and makeup touched up, to rehearse, to shoot the scene, to tear everything down and then set it up again. Five landscapers stood around all day for a half hour of work changing mature plants to small plants to denote six years time passing.

Until now, everything I knew about movie making I'd learned from books and watching movies about making movies. The director pecking order was something new for me. There are five of them, each with a specific job. The first AD, or assistant director, did the work I'd always thought the director handled. Instead, James Keach sat back and waited until the scene was ready to be shot then watched the action in a monitor and decided how many times it had to be reshot. As soon as he was satisfied, he sat back again, joked with the men close to him, and waited for the assistant director to set up the next shot.

The following day was the ballroom scene. We reported to the set at 5:30 in the evening dressed and ready for our movie debut, figuring we'd be out of there early enough to go to a really nice restaurant. It's amazing when I'm wrong, just how wrong I can be.

The "ball" was being held at a beautiful old hotel, the room lavishly decorated in the black and white theme. It's a black and white ball, Jane Seymour shows up in a red dress. The paid extras were the dancers, members of the band and anyone who had to follow specific directions, like the waiters. The rest, about 300 of us, had either been given a special invitation or had responded to a notice in the newspaper.

Once inside the ballroom, we were assigned tables. We were given cake and diluted grape juice and told not to touch either. Two hours later someone changed their mind about the setup and the cake was taken away - uneaten. Six hours later it was offered for real. I didn't see anyone indulging.

Between every take, a crew member would run around blowing out the candles on the tables. Periodically, the candles would be replaced and allowed to burn briefly before the whole process started again.

By the time we broke for "lunch" at 10:00 p.m., we were starved. The film crew went one way to a full course meal while the extras went another way to salami, cheese, pickle spears, and rolls. John and I were invited to join the crew, but were actively bidding on some items in a silent auction that was also taking place, benefiting the children's hospital where some of the filming had taken place. They sold a couple of signed books I'd been asked to contribute for $140 each. I was speechless.

Ever hear the term hurry up and wait? I thought it originated in the military. I know now that it's pure Hollywood.

Around midnight, the assistant director gathered the extras. He said that he understood everyone had to go to work the next morning and that everyone was tired, but there were still several scenes that had to be shot that night and they desperately needed as many people as possible to stick around. The troops rallied and returned to their tables. As far as I could tell, not one person left.

We were finally told at 3:30 a.m. that the final scenes didn't need extras and we could leave. By then I was numb. Jane Seymour and James Brolin looked as if they'd just arrived.

Later that morning, we awoke to the hum of the vacuum cleaner in the next room. Filming wouldn't start again until that night but we'd been invited to the production offices. I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't what I saw. When a production company moves into town to set up temporary quarters they look for a warehouse-type building. Sharp, classy, sophisticated aren't listed in the requirements. They need large, empty rooms for the art department, wardrobe, fittings, offices, and props. This one had been a textile plant and still had some of the machines and bolts of cloth stacked in corners.

An enormous amount of paper is generated at the production office every day. A small part of it includes daily script changes, scheduling, payroll, individual daily scripts for each actor, communication between LA, Vancouver - where the film was being processed--and each day's set.

Our last day on the set was cold and the early scenes were being shot inside the house. With the camera and crew and actors, it was awkward being inside, so I spent the day in the sound van with Leon, a man who's been in the business 25 years and was not only willing, but eager to share stories about the business.

When the action moved outside again, I decided to stay with Leon. The scene being shot was simple; Jane and Kevin, her son, were to come out of the house, get in the car, and drive away. The unexpected happened. Just as Jane climbed in the car, a bluebird started singing. Everyone, from the actors to the director to Leon noticed and delighted in the bonus authenticity the bird had added to the scene. When it was time for the second shot, in unison, Leon and the first DA called for someone to cue the bluebird.

The week was up. It was time to go home. I left knowing that even if I win the lottery a second time with The Beach House it won't be the same. There's only one first time. Unlike other first times in my life, this one had been more than I expected, more than I dreamed.

-- Georgia Bockoven

Georgia Bockoven's newest book is Things Remembered, published by HarperCollins in October 1998. Tying in with the TV movie, A Marriage of Convenience was re-released in October 1998.

E-mail Georgia
Read an AAR Review of Georgia's Another Summer
Read an AAR Review of Georgia's Disguised Blessing
Read about Andrea Ryan, who secured and edited this Write Byte

Andrea Ryan – I'm 29 years old and live in St. Louis with my wonderful husband, who tolerates my marathon novel reading, an Irish Wolfhound, 2 cats and an African Grey Parrot that loves to talk. I don't have any children (yet), but I have two extremely adorable (but very demanding) brand new nephews so I'm trying to get in all the reading I can until having children hits me! I have a B.A. in Russian and Spanish and speak, read or write 5 languages. I'm working on a Masters of Public Health degree (long career story) and working full time, so I'm having to find creative ways to squeeze in books between work projects, mid-terms and finals.

I started reading romance when I was about 15 (Laurie McBain, Kathleen Woodiwiss and Judith McNaught) and was hooked immediately. If Judy Bloom counts, then I started with Forever on my school bus in 6th grade. Then, my mom caught me reading Wifey and I was banned from reading romance until high school. That was actually okay with me since I got the shock of my life with that book, anyway.

I primarily read romance (any kind), but will take a break whenever Anne Rice comes out with a new book and sometimes read mystery/suspense. My dad wrote three books when I was a kid and I've had a secret desire for years to write a novel. (Will never happen). I love to write, but I leave the books in the book store to those truly gifted (which is not me). My husband doesn't understand why I read romance, but, coming from a man who flew F/A-18s with the Marines, I don't take it personally and just tell him to go away.

Although my list keeps growing, some of my favorite authors are Nora Roberts, Julie Garwood, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Judith McNaught, LaVyrle Spencer, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Diana Gabaldon, Patricia Gaffney, Geralyn Dawson, Connie Brockway, Loretta Chase and Eve Byron. I can't imagine life without romance books!

Feel free to e-mail me here.

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