b>Dean Bull, James Cromwell, Ayelet Zurer, with the hinoki--the Northwestern Michigan College logo tree (unofficial, so far)
Note: at the bottom of the page are numbers in squares--click on them to read more...
Sometimes good things just fall into your lap while you are simply minding your own business. It all started Friday morning, October 30, while I was just getting my work day started. I had just posted a rather mundane thing on Facebook about storing my bonsai trees for the winter. The phone rang. His name is Shawn Carroll, Prop Master for an upcoming movie called “A Year in Mooring” to be filmed near Traverse City in late November, early December. He had been at Garden Goods nursery in Traverse City and talked to Robin, my friend of many years, about bonsai. He evidently asked enough questions that Robin suggested he call and talk to me. We had a 10-minute, light hearted chat about the movie and how the lead actress plays the part of a waitress at the Bayside Café who is trying to quit smoking. As part of her cessation program she tries her hand at the art of Bonsai. He needed a bonsai tree for a couple of days of shooting, and a consultant to help the actress learn how to become a bonsai artist. I suggested he stop by and see my trees. He did so, and we enjoyed about a half hour of delightful conversation and explored possibilities. He took pictures and notes and told me he would pitch the idea to the director, Chris Eyre, and others involved with the movie. Monday I got an email saying he wanted me to be the paid bonsai consultant, and now wanted to rent four trees for the shoot. He would need them for the full three week shoot, as they would be at least in the background for many of the scenes. In other scenes the trees would be close-ups with the actress ‘working on them’. Central to the plot is a mariner who left his business life behind and took up residence on a sail boat, docked at the marina, adjacent to the café. The mariner is to be played by Josh Lucas of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ fame where he starred with Reese Witherspoon. James Cromwell will also play a roll in the movie. Ayelet Zurer will play the part of the waitress--she was in Angels and Demons. ( http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0957909/news#ni0797879 ) Shooting will begin on Monday, November 16. I will be at the shoot on Tuesday, November 17, and possib ly at other times. I will try to keep this updated as things unfold.
Some links related to the story:
Record Eagle article from 11-11-2009:
(sung by Ringo Starr)
New lyrics offered by my Daughter, Jackie Petersen:
They're gonna put tree in the movies
They're gonna make a big star out of tree
We'll make a film about a tree that’s small and kinky
And all he’s gotta do is act like a tree
Well, I'll bet you tree’s gonna be a big star
Might win an Oscar you can’t never tell
The movies gonna make tree a big star
'Cause tree can play the part so well
Well I hope you come and see tree in the movies
Then I’ll know that you will plainly see
The biggest little tree that ever hit the big time
And all tree’s gotta do is act naturally
We'll make the scene about a tree that’s small and kinky
And beggin down upon his fallen leaves
Tree'll play the part but he won't need rehearsin’
All tree’s gotta do is act naturally...
I love it when you say "Bone Sigh". I was able to indoctrinate many on the movie set in the correct way to say bonsai. Ayelet has one of my 'license plates' with the above phrase on it. She asked me to personalize it, so I wrote a message on the back of it for her. One of the props guys, Evin, last evening as we were wrapping up the days work said into his microphone something about 'ban-zai', then he quickly glanced at me and corrected it to 'bone-sigh', smiled and went on his way. I said, "Good boy, Evin!" He has one of the plates too.
This write up is going to seem a bit disjointed. I think that will be OK, since that is how movies are made—pieces of the puzzle produced at different times get assembled in the editing room. I think you will be able to put the story together in your mind, better than I was able to write it. It also might be a bit long-winded, but like my friend Deb Kennedy taught me years ago—sometimes you don’t have the time to make it shorter. So here goes:
Yesterday was probably the last day that I will participate in the movie, “A Year In Mooring” starring Ayelet Zurer ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayelet_Zurer ) and Josh Lucas ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josh_Lucas ). The good news is it was a fun last day, with at least one photo I will always enjoy seeing and sharing. But I don’t want to get too far ahead of my story…
Shawn, the prop-master, checked the schedule for the day and wild-guessed that they would be shooting bonsai-related scenes by about 11:00 Sunday morning, November 29.
On arriving at the set about 10:30, I was greeted by Brit and Amy Eaton, two dear friends of many years. They were in the neighborhood and just stopped by to say hello—a delightful surprise.
Making movies, I am learning, is very inexact. From my limited observations, the ‘schedule’ is merely a to-do list, much like the errands list on my clip board. If I happen to be on the far side of town, I will take care of items that call for that—if not, that item can wait. At the movie set, if the equipment, lighting, weather and other factors are favorable to shoot a scene that is at the end of the to-do list, they do it now. Decisions are made and changed frequently and spontaneously. Keep in mind there are about sixty people involved in the process, most of them are wired with spy-like ‘walkies’ with freshly-charged batteries and a microphone pined to the lapel. Between takes, they move around quickly and talk into their mics in hushed tones—I could occasionally make out ‘what’s your 20?’ and the response, ‘I’m at 4’ or some such. Evidently they give each room or portion of the area a number at the beginning of the shoot. It is much more expedient to say ‘I am at 3’ than to say ‘I am out by the prop truck in the front parking lot’ or maybe, ‘I’m taking a bathroom break’ (My guess is that would account for the numbers 1 and 2, but that’s just me.) The lighting crew is a special bunch. The director and the camera man, along with others, set up a scene to shoot. They set the camera angle, making sure the background is clear of any unsightly items. Then they rehearse the scene, which to me is a lot like choreography between the actors, sound crew, lighting, camera, everyone. Once they have a plan they like, they roll sound, roll camera, quiet on the set, action, quiet as a mouse, CUT! Then all hell breaks loose again, albeit in hushed tones to reset props, etc, fix any problems… In one scene someone noticed that there was reflection from some of the framed photos on the wall. They spent several minutes fussing with wedge shims to tilt that photo this way and this photo that way so as not to glare window light back into the camera. Tedium. In one scene I noticed they had the ponderosa pine sitting on the café counter backward. (In a room adjacent to the set, there is a monitor; whatever the camera sees, you see. I spent much of my time watching from that vantage point.) Every bonsai tree has a front view—the one from which it looks most attractive. To any bonsai person, it was like having an ‘extra’ in the scene with his face up against the wall. It needed to be rotated 180 degrees. They were rehearsing, getting ready to shoot, so I mentioned it to Pete Vanderwall, the writer of the script. He talked to someone on his walkie, and a moment later Holly was on the set and gave the tree a half-turn. Pete and I gave each-other a thumbs-up. I felt I had earned my keep for that scene, at least. (Pete explained that he saw some bonsai trees displayed at a shopping mall and was so inspired by them he incorporated the art into the script—he said it just seemed like a very cool Zen-like idea.)
Oh, yea, the lighting guys…they have every lighting device known to man. They have huge spot lights, two feet in diameter with “18KW” printed on the side. That is an eighteen THOUSAND watt light bulb, all of it focused in one direction. The extension cords for these candles are the diameter of ring bologna—and I think you could cook a ring bologna by hanging it in front of the beam. Each time a scene changes, they move these heavy lights on wheeled tripods, level them up with shims and heavy wood blocks, then re-rout the heavy cords to power them. It is heavy work, and it needs to be done quickly. They do earn their wages. Then they put up diffusing panels that vary from 2 feet square up to 12 feet square. These require their own network of heavy tripods and clamps to position them just right. If the wind is a factor they use guy ropes to stabilize them. Then to keep light from going where it is not wanted, they use more heavy tripods holding opaque black panels. It is all trial-and-error stuff. Yesterday I counted thirty two of those tripods in use at one time—many of them weighted down with heavy bean-bags with strap-handles on them. Each time the tripod gets moved, someone must also move the bean-bags. At one point, the camera man talked to one of the lighting guys wanting a 30-inch florescent light installed under a shelf to illuminate a small tropical bonsai tree. Within five minutes the light was installed and wired. The sound people are another interesting group. They wire the actors with wireless microphones that are velcro-strapped to a harness under the costume. It makes a lump on the back. Ayelet had some scenes yesterday where she turned her back to the camera, and the lump would have been unacceptable. They installed a Velcro-strap to her thigh to hold the technology. It kept sliding down and she asked for help with it. I joked that maybe duct tape would help. She laughed and agreed that might be a good idea. They took her behind a screen and solved the problem—she did not say whether they used the duct tape idea, but she smiled as she moved past me and back to the set.
Around 4:00 in the afternoon, I started feeling like maybe my visit to the set was not going to contribute much to the film that day. That is when the bonsai action began. In rapid succession, they filmed numerous takes of five scenes involving bonsai, and from different angles, and with different zoom values. In the half-light of the sunset they filmed a scene from the deck showing the bonsai trees on the deck of the café with the lights of the café in the background. The timing had to be just right to catch enough natural light to illuminate the building, modified by the 18KW double-diffused and illuminating the trees and Ayelet. She asked me if it was appropriate to “prune the bonsai trees when they are brown”. I had to ask for clarification, but once I understood what she needed to know, explained the brownish look to the white cedar was normal in November, and that it will ‘green-up’ beautifully in the spring when it begins to grow once more. And yes, it is fine to prune them at this time of year, at least moderatly. She asked me to install some prosthetic limbs on the white cedar so she could do exactly that for the scene. She was meticulous in making sure I pointed out which were the branches she was to cut. I think she was a little intimidated that she might destroy an important branch. She had asked me how old the trees are; I estimate the twin-trunk cedar is one hundred years old. (I had counted 75 growth rings on a limb back in 1989 when I collected the tree.) As a result of her concern, I was not worried in the least; I trusted her completely. She was reluctant to prune the ponderosa pine which is probably 200 years old, having grown at the 8,000 foot level in the mountains of Colorado.
Another scene was the result of our initial meeting as well. I had told her if I were going to display a tree, one of the things we do is to oil the pot. That piqued her interest and she pushed me for more details. I explained that clay pots look a bit dull and drab. Putting mineral oil on them gives them better color and a bit of a sheen—the same basic idea as rocks on the beach when it rains. In rehearsing that scene, she asked me to clarify how to go about oiling the pot. I handed her the flip-top plastic bottle of mineral oil and the old worn bristle paint brush I have been using for this purpose for the past 15 years or more. I showed her how to flip the top, squeeze a bead of oil on the tips of the bristles and rub the oil into the pot surface using the brush. That makes the pot just a little too oily, so you follow that by rubbing it down with a dry towel. The result is a nice glow. She told the director and camera man they had to get it in one take, as the second coat of oil, does not do anything—that was not well received by the powers that be—what? One take? You must be joking! But she insisted, and they decided to go for it. They ended up doing one wide-angle take with the tree’s front to the camera. For the second take, she turned the pot around and they zoomed in tight on the pot—you can’t tell it is actually the back of the pot—win-win. Hollywood. The scene takes about 60 seconds. She is sitting at the counter and brushes the oil onto the pot, then pauses when she hears the engine of Josh’s boat fire up and run for the first time, signaling that he may be leaving the area soon. She silently rubs the excess oil off with the towel…
Around 4:45, between shoots, and while the set was being reworked, I was watching them replay one of the scenes on the monitor. I noticed a tall gentleman working his way through the people in the room. James Cromwell. I said, “Hello, Mr. Cromwell, my name is Dean Bull.” (It has been a long time since I have been accused of being shy.) He enthusiastically shook my hand and asked what my job was in the movie. We talked about bonsai for about ten minutes. He mentioned that the art must be very ‘contemplative’ to which I agreed. He said it must require a lot of patience, to which I disagreed. I said that patience is what you need when you DON’T LIKE what you are doing—and offered the example of hanging wallpaper. It turns out we both hate that job, and so would need patience. Bonsai is something I love and patience is not needed. I found him to be a vigorous and engaging person—a real pleasure to meet. His character is an old sail-maker who supplies a new sail for the Hesperus—Josh Lucas’s character’s boat. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Cromwell (It just occurred to me that I don’t know the character’s names in this movie—hmmm.)
I had the pleasure of meeting Rich Brauer during a break. He was gracious enough to recall my name from a few years back. One of his office people had brought his antique clock to my shop, which I repaired. He thanked me for doing such a good job, and I thanked him for paying the bill—we all laughed. I also looked over his shoulder as the guy who labels and stores each take on a computer, showed him the footage they shot recently. Josh falls out of the boat, Rich is in scuba gear in 30 feet of water (remember, this is November in Michigan). He shoots strait up with Josh flailing, the look of panic on his face. Interesting scene—I guess that’s why they get the big bucks…
Earlier in the day, I had approached Ayelet as she was having her makeup redone (that happens a lot on a movie set, I found). I asked her if she would be willing to pose with me and a tree for a picture. It did not surprise me at all that she agreed. We would watch for an opportunity later in the afternoon. Lana is one of the workers on the set—one of her jobs is to yell “Quiet please! We are rolling!” Then when the director yells, “Cut!” she repeats it for those who may not have heard it. In between, you can hear a pin drop. We all learned quickly where the floor squeaks and to avoid those areas. If you have to cough, you choke it back and hold it. That happened to me twice. Self control. Well, it was about 5:00 when Lana appeared at my station at the monitor, and she motioned for me to follow her. In the café Ayelet and James Cromwell were sitting at a table waiting for the next setup out on the deck. Lana suggested it was a good time for the picture, and Ayelet agreed. She asked me if I wanted Mr. Cromwell in the photo as well, to which I agreed instantly. I handed my camera to Lana—you see the result here. I will always treasure this picture.
One more observation I made that I found very interesting: I was on the set for a total of about 30 hours during five different days. Keep in mind, most of these sixty-or-so people are away from home, working from early morning until late at night. Sleeping is never as good as you get at home. Meals are good, but it just ain’t home. Finding the right tool, extension cord, camera component, prop—literally thousands of details have to be satisfied in order to get the job done right. Trust me, during my time on the set, there were hundreds of opportunities for little screw-ups and situations to escalate into shouting matches or worse. It never happened. Every situation I witnessed was handled in a spirit of cooperation. Whatever situation cropped up, everyone I observed seemed to say something akin to: “OK, this is what we have got, how can I help get this fixed as quickly as possible?” Suggestions offered from any source were greeted with consideration and respect, whether they worked or not. I admire that kind of work ethic. I love that kind of spirit in a workplace.
That first meeting with Ayelet on Tuesday, November 17, in addition to being enjoyable, was productive, and a learning experience for both of us. I said to her that she knows about acting and I know about bonsai and our job together is to make her character become a bonsai artist. She told me that since a writer produced a script, then it follows that there is a truth in that script. Her job as an actress is to find that truth and portray it on the screen. My job she said, is to help her learn how to do that where the trees are concerned. I liked her take on the subject. In addition to pruning, wiring, watering, and oiling pots, we talked about top-dressing the growing media in the pots. The media we use, while it benefits the tree, simply isn’t attractive. A pot completely covered with moss is a bit too much moss. Some fine gravel adds some visual interest and it just looks cool. She pushed me to give her more information about the gravel. I offered to bring out my sifting pan with two grades of screen—one to remove the big chunks and one to let the fine stuff fall through. The medium chunks are what we use. Tiny stones are pretty and they don’t clog up the growing medium—the roots need air. Well, she told me one of the scenes was to be her on the beach simply looking out at the boat with Josh working on it. She decided she wanted to incorporate the sifting into that scene. I don’t know if that actually happened, but it would not surprise me to find that they did that on one of the days I was not there. Another nice moment was when I told her we share a birthday—she was born on my twentieth. She seemed very pleased to know that.
This scene lasts about four minutes, and it took one entire day to film—Thursday, November 19. I arrived at 6:30 a.m. as instructed. The mass scurry was well under way. They served up a very nice breakfast bar at the Boathouse restaurant for the cast and crew. I ate breakfast and began my education—Diana, Shawn’s wife and a well-organized props person, told me the document she just handed me is called a ‘side’. It is the plan of the day that always changes, but today it should be very close to schedule, and will include a lot of bonsai work. It has the script for this one scene so everyone is ready to dance to the same tune. The scene takes place in the café where Josh, not feeling well, sits alone at his table—the only customer, two eggs on a plate, and two pancakes on another, coffee cup, etc. There is some dialog between them. She is trying to quit smoking and allows herself only one puff on each cigarette. She spends some time in the scene, actually pruning foliage from my hinoki. At that first meeting we worked it out that I would install some foliage from another tree in my back yard, wire it in place on top of the branch that she was to prune. That way she could snip away and not change the design of the tree. That turned out to be a very good plan indeed. They ran through the scene about seventy times during the course of the day—I am not exaggerating. Each time the props crew would ‘reset’ they had to be sure she had cigarettes and a working lighter in her apron pocket. Shawn spent the day in the restaurant kitchen, frying two eggs, sunny side up, and two pancakes over and over; Evin spent the day making pot after pot of coffee so she would have a steaming pot to refill Josh’s cup. Diana had to be sure the watering pitcher for the bonsai was filled to the same level with water from the bay—(no well water for my trees, please). When she had pruned away the foliage, I would move in and quickly install another sprig of green for her to destroy. Every detail had to be just right every time the director called for ‘action!’ I told Diana it looked to me like their job was that of standing dominoes on end so that when the first one tips over they all go down. She said it is an accurate description. In the scene is my ponderosa pine. At the beginning of the day they wanted that tree in the foreground of the first camera angle. Then they wanted Christmas lights on it and would that be OK with me. I put lights on the tree. They tried it again. In working out the details, I saw that the electric cord was hanging down, an invitation for someone to move past it with a ladder and yank the tree off the counter. I asked for some tape, and Holly helped me resolve that. They suddenly decided the tree needed to be slid to the left 18” but the tape held tight—it jerked the tree, but no damage. Then they decided the tree would not have lights. Then the tree would not be in the foreground in this camera angle. Later, we put the lights back on the tree where they stayed for all the other camera angles that were to come. And they were many. The first take they would be in wide angle mode and repeat the scene maybe three times. Then they would zoom in part way and shoot it three or four more times, more if needed. Then they would zoom in tighter and run through it again. Then zoom real tight and shoot three more times, panning the camera to follow facial expressions. Camera moving must be smooth and keep pace with the actor. Then move the camera to a new location, negotiate that out, put shims under the table legs to raise it up two inches. Keep in mind, Josh and Ayelet have to ‘hit their marks’ in the correct sequence, Josh has to cough at just the right moment, she lights a smoke at the same mark on the floor, prunes the branch the same way, and they have to recite each line like it is completely spontaneous—something they just now decided to say to the other actor. Josh sat in that chair the whole day taking one bite of pancake and sipping coffee and reciting the same lines, over and over again. I had no idea movie making would be so tedious.
I am so very honored and pleased to see the art of bonsai being so prominently featured in a movie with such talented actors and crew. To be a part of that is a major thrill for me, to say the least. I am also pleased to be able to share it with family, friends and especially bonsai buddies. I first became involved in the art in 1988. There were no books on the subject anywhere north of Grand Rapids, and I only found one book there. Today you can find a dozen books on bonsai in any bookstore. And the internet is loaded with information, much of which is actually true. Being on the movie set opened many opportunities to meet and get to know some of the people involved. I will never watch a movie quite the same way. I am very much looking forward to watching many movies that these people have made—we watched Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre just last week—a very interesting movie. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_eyre ) (Thanks Deb)
I owe thanks to so many people who have helped me in my bonsai obsession. Eunice Corp, from Cadillac is my Bonsai Mom--she helped give birth to the bonsai artist in me and many others in the club. She is the founder of Sakura Bonsai Society of Northern Michigan(1990)--that club fostered friendships with Jack Wikle, Bruce Baker and Jerry Meislik who took me under their wings and helped me grow with my trees. Julie Franke at Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids rolled the dice ten years ago and hired me as bonsai consultant. The experiences and friendships there have been priceless, Steve LaWarre is a case in point. And I want to mention the Board of Directors, who I adore and cherish. Her name is Sandie and she tolerates being a 'bonsai widow' every spring when my sap flows out of control. The list goes on, with bonsai buddies in Travese City and elsewhere--you guys know who you are, and you know I love you.