“I want it to look... Christmas-y,” the director says.
Okay. How the hell am I going to make something look like a word that doesn't really exist? Agreeing to set decorate, do this low budget Christmas film was one of the worst decisions I've ever made. And when you've worked in the film industry for 25 years, you've made plenty of bad decisions.
Crap money, a two-week shoot. A terrible plot - a magic elf puppy (an elf puppy?!?!) needs to get home to Santa and, at the same time, a family learns the true meaning of Christmas. And of course it's not the “true” meaning of Christmas. Nothing about peace on earth and goodwill towards others. It's about buying the biggest, flashiest present and making sure everyone notices how much money you've spent. It's about bullshit.
So, what's my response?
“Boss, I know exactly what you mean.” That's what I say.
I know what he wants. Giant fake tree in the corner with lots of lights and ornaments, nutcrackers on the desks, fake snow on the tables, stockings hanging from the mantel and a carton of eggnog and cookies left out on the kitchen counter for Santa. Ho ho ho. It's just I know ten minutes after I finish dressing the set, this director, 28 years old, J. J. Abrams wannabe and fully intent on making every single thing politically correct, will ask me to change everything. In his subtle, passive aggressive way.
“This won't offend anyone, will it?” he'll say, frowning at a plastic Santa Claus figure handing out gifts to children.
Who would it offend? Fat people? Materialistic people? Jews, Muslims, Hindus? Christians angry their savior has been replaced by an overweight, vaguely pedophiliac gift-giver? I'd go into how no one is going to notice one particular prop and the director would probably sigh. And look around until he found something else to complain about.
The director walks away and I decide to check the exterior. I need lights hanging from gutters and trees in the front yard, Santa's sleigh with all eight reindeer, and a nine-foot inflatable snowman. Of course, nothing I want has been done. So much for Christmas miracles. The unit production manager said I would have a P.A. working for me, I try to walkie the kid, but the P.A.'s below 60 IQ prevents him from being able to use the most basic technology. When I find him, he's outside by the side of the house checking his cell phone.
“It's daily fantasy sports,” the P.A. explains to me as he taps his cell. “If Antonio Brown scores three touchdowns, I could win more money today than I'd make on this entire film.”
Kid, that's so not the right thing to say on a film set.
I could chew him out, but what's the point? He's the producer's cousin's son, so what's the use? The movie starts shooting tomorrow so I decide to attach the lights, set up Santa's sleigh, and inflate Frosty myself. After three hours of making the outside of the house look as “Christmas-y” as possible, I walk back inside. The director is talking with the UPM, waving his arms, looking pissed, moving past passive into aggressive. Who cares? In two weeks I'll be home for Christmas in San Diego with my family, even though there'll be the usual chaos. Somebody inevitably drinks way too much and goes on a drunken rant, strips off their clothes and tries to climb down the chimney (okay, I only did that one time). My sister and her husband, the aspiring poet, will get into a huge fight and he'll threaten to take an overdose of Vitamin C. My brother may or may not violate his parole by showing up with a concealed weapon. But compared to this film set – give me my fucked up family Christmas.
I notice a tiny Linus Van Pelt figurine on the table next to me. I loved “A Charlie Brown Christmas” growing up, even growing up in a household of secular (well, lazy) Jews. Linus was always my favorite character and seeing him makes me relax and feel better. Sort of.
Unfortunately, good feelings on an ineptly organized movie set never lasts. My uber-loser P.A. wanders into the living room, with a smudge of jelly on the bottom of his shirt. Operating a walkie-talkie was too much for the kid, so I shouldn't be surprised that eating without spilling food on himself presented a challenge. He's trying, it's almost Christmas, I should be nice to him - damn, I wish I could remember his name. I think it's Joe.
“Joe” tells me one of the transportation guys wants to know if I'll move my car so they can park their passenger van in front. I tell Joe no and he needs let them know the deal is to park in the nearby parking lot. The space in front of the house in for set decoration. While I'm explaining this, Joe is looking outside. Has he heard anything I said? I tell Joe I'll deal with this myself. If I let Joe try to talk to these guys, he'll return and say, “Everything's fine. I just traded your car for these magic beans.”
Devon is the head transpo guy. Some people are mild-tempered, others short-tempered. Devon is just pissed off all the time. I walk up to Devon and start to explain the situation, but before I say much, Devon calls me an asshole. I try to lighten the mood by saying, “Hey, Dev, where's your Christmas spirit?” This goes over like a lead fucking balloon and Devon calls me an asshole again.
I am middle-aged and setting up Christmas lights for a movie. I should tell Devon he's a prick, but I walk away. Because – what's the point? I'll let Devon park in front of the house, I'll move my car somewhere else, get yelled at for parking there, move my car to another spot, get yelled at for parking there, and then I'll just move my car really, really far away and discover later there was another space for me to park much closer to set.
I look at Santa and his sleigh and notice there are only five reindeer. Will anyone notice? Not like anyone will be counting reindeer. Also, not like anyone is going to watch this movie period. An elf puppy. Shoot me in the head.
I decide that not only will no one care about the number of reindeer, but even if someone did point out the shortage, it's not as if I could find more reindeer right now.
When I go back in the house, I see the Linus figure again. When I was a kid, I was in a Christmas play at my friend's church. They originally wanted me to play Joseph because I was super tall, but some of the kids pointed out that wouldn't be acceptable since I wasn't a member of the church. I thought it would be perfectly acceptable because I was Jewish. I got to be one of the wise men (who probably weren't Jewish). I had a fake beard and held some gold-spray-painted rocks. I thought diapers would have been a better gift for a newborn baby. But I still loved being in that church. It looked so nice, stained glass windows and candles, the organist playing carols, everybody dressed up, and the story of Jesus was great. It's all the same really. Linus's wise words from television, being in a Christmas play even though I'm Jewish, plodding through a horrible film shoot surrounded by dunderheads who wouldn't know a Christmas light from a pogo stick. Christmas is about little moments of reprieve that take your mind away from the problems in the world. It's a time to relax and enjoy things that usually you don't have time to enjoy.
The director walks in. I stand up, holding the Linus figure. “There's been a rewrite of the script,” the director says. “The family's Jewish.”
Jewish? That means I'm going to have to redo the entire set.
The director is looking at me, the passive-aggressive thing again. “That's not going to be a problem, is it?”
I shake my head and look down at Linus. “No problem,” I tell the director. He walks away. I wish Linus would say something to me. But he doesn't.
So I smile at him and pat his tiny head. “This is what Christmas is all about on a film set, kid.”
Elijah Steadman is a writer living in California.