“Ladies and Gentleman!” His hand stretched toward us and traced the circular bleachers. He wore a bright red jacket neatly stuffed with a crisp white handkerchief. The black top hat fit snugly and in his left hand he held a long black baton. “… The most spectacular show on earth!!” He shot his baton toward the entrance of the tent and the crowd erupted with applause. I clapped my hands and whooped. There were no animals entering the tent as suggested. In fact, absolutely nothing happened but we continued to cheer. Christoph Waltz had made an announcement that caused our hair to stand on end and imaginations to run wild.
By the third take some of the magic had worn off but Christoph continued the performance like it had been his first. Once the shot was complete we returned to our holding tent. I found an area of the tent where a steady breeze of air came through and wrote song titles inspired by the story of Water for Elephants.
The AD returned about 45 minutes later. “Ok, I need some nimble people. If you think you’re nimble, follow me!” I closed my notebook and stuffed it in my open backpack. The AD wore a bright blue shirt that was easy to follow to the entrance of the tent. He lifted the flap and one by one we passed into the Big Top. The AD suddenly blocked the entrance. “Woah woah woah. I said nimble. Come on now.” A gentleman that was probably in his early seventies froze like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. The AD continued, “Go back to holding please. This is for nimble folks only.” The man turned with his head tilted toward the ground and walked away. For a second I felt bad for the man but why had he joined a group of twenty-somethings for an action shot?
Inside the tent four horses were harnessed to a tall carriage stuffed with men holding band instruments. The horses were pointed toward the entrance of the tent. Our gang of “nimble” Rubes were placed precariously in the bleachers near the carriage while Francis Lawrence and Rodrigo Prieto, the cinematographer, stood close-by discussing the angle of the next shot. Our instructions were to look shocked. This turned out to be very easy. On “Action” the horses took off like cavalry. As the carriage tipped side-ways the stunt musicians were strategically thrown from the cart and instruments went flying in all directions. My mouth opened and my muscles tightened. I stared at the men spread across the dusty circus floor in shock – no acting skills necessary.
The afternoon sun took over the valley and heat set in. After a satisfying lunch I contemplated how much had happened in just two days. I wondered what Tai the elephant thought of all the commotion. My hat had flattened on top so I re-shaped the dimples and slugged down a big glass of water before heading back over the tracks. In the Big Top the camera equipment had been moved toward the menagerie. The acting doubles for Rob and Christoph talked with the stunt coordinator and began rehearsing. First in slow-motion but soon in full-speed, the two actors fought. They choked, pushed, and hit each other as we watched from the bleachers. Soon, the lead actors emerged and studied the scene their doubles had worked out. After several reenactments, Rob and Christoph took over. One rehearsal and “action”; Christoph grunted heavily and swung with might. Rob winced in pain and shoved the bull-hook away. His expression of agony made the painted blood on his face come to life. I watched on from the edge of my seat imagining my own musical film score as the scene played out.
Finally the “background artists” were called to work. “Come on down here folks,” said the AD. He grabbed my shoulder and lined me up a few feet from where Rob was now laying in the dirt. Christoph straddled the wounded young actor and Reese Witherspoon stood two feet from my right. Rodrigo, the cinematographer, worked with Reese for a moment to find the perfect angle for her entrance. A few seconds later the slate snapped in front of the camera the scene turned fierce. Reese approached the scrapping men and I raced ahead to the menagerie. Phew – no buffalo. A line of Rubes followed after me. When I turned, Francis jumped out from his director’s chair and approached the lead actors grinning with excitement. “It looks really great!! Let’s do it again.”
TO BE CONTINUED