A Somervillain Thereminist in White Castle’s Court (Day 2, Electric Boogaloo)

Feb 20, 2007: My birthday! Thank goodness I was still sort of on East Coast time. It meant that being picked up at 7am for an 8am “call” (as they say in the biz) wasn’t so bad. This morning’s driver was a PA named Chris who’d moved to LA a few months earlier from St. Louis. His brother-in-law’s cousin is a film producer and had helped to get Chris some work. He hoped to become a producer himself someday. In the meantime, he was doing a lot of driving.

So many trailers!We arrived at the location right on time at 8, and I was immediately taken aback. So many trailers — so much equipment — so many people — all to shoot two 30 second ads in one day. Logically, I understand that there’s a certain amount of overhead you need to shoot anything, but part of me was overwhelmed by the tableau that greeted me.

Getting made up by TorstenTorsten WitteI found “my” trailer — really a small dressing and makeup area that shared space in the back of the makeshift production office — and settled in with the breakfast burrito I’d grabbed from the food truck a couple of trailers down. Susan the Wardrobe Stylist was there, as was my makeup guy, Torsten. My ears perked up when I overheard someone asking Torsten if he’d be going to the Oscars on Sunday. Turns out, he was the head of the makeup department for Little Miss Sunshine! I told him that meeting him completely outshined my spotting of Kiefer the night before. Torsten made me up, but it was so natural looking that, even when I looked in the mirror, I could barely tell I had anything on my face.

The SetOutside the setI still had a lot of time to kill. The prop truck that held, among other things, my theremin, hadn’t shown up yet (most likely due to an oversleeping Assistant Prop Master). So I walked over to the house where we were going to shoot. There was lots of activity, with various crew members setting up lights, those huge screens they build behind the lights, and various props (presumably ones that weren’t on the missing truck). I wandered back to the trailer, got into costume, and it was soon time for the shoot to begin.

I set up my (fresh off the prop truck) theremin, and (encouraged by David), warmed up one last time with Video Killed the Radio Star. Needless to say, there was much laughter and applause. It turned out that the huevos-filled Silvertone amp we’d selected yesterday was too noisy, so we plugged the theremin into a more hum-free amp off camera and used the Silvertone as a prop only (don’t tell anyone!).

The ScriptIt had been decided that we would film two different versions. One would be the bluesy call-and-response version I’d come up with in my audition, but with lyrics newly written by the ad agency that scanned better. The other would be more freeform hand-waving. In both cases, I started by facing the camera and saying matter-of-factly, “This is my theremin, and this is my song about White Castle.” In the first few takes I said something longer than that, but after several conferences between David and the ad people, it was shortened so that everything would fit comfortably into 30 seconds.

Long ShotClose-UpThe day before, David had told me that he wanted me to “be myself.” This concept went further and further out the window with each cry of “More Huevos!” from David. The concept of this first version congealed as follows: A nerdy guy (me!) introduces my White Castle song, and then transforms in an instant to an over-the-top white blues singer… playing a theremin. At the end, I howl into the air, “I got the Slyder bluuuuuuuues!” Then I look into the camera and say, matter-of-factly again, “thank you.”

Medium ShotI lost track of the number of takes we did. At one point, I started getting hoarse, and someone brought me a cup of hot tea with lemon and lots of honey. I thought my voice lost some “authenticity” after drinking it, so I held off getting another cup until I was all done singing. Method acting, baby!

Hands with SlyderAfter countless takes of my bluesy theremin playing and vocal howling, followed by that second cup of tea, we moved on to the second version. The day before, we’d tried this with me reading the lyrics like a beatnik poem, while playing in a freeform style (“So the theremin is like my bongos?,” I asked David. “Exactly,” he replied). They didn’t seem to dig that, so we did a bunch of takes of me starting with the same introduction, but then going wild on the theremin sans any “lyrics.” Sometimes, I held a Slyder in one hand and its box in the other, playfully bringing them towards the pitch antenna and then near my mouth, while my hip worked the volume antenna. Other times, I did windmills (à la Pete Townshend), jumping up and down before collapsing on the couch behind me. It was quite a workout!

Left Hand Close-UpstoryboardOnce these basic takes were done, we moved on to some medium shots, some closeups of my head and, finally, just my hands playing the theremin. These last shots were relatively easy. As a radio DJ, I’m used to being able to control my voice, but there’s so much more to think about when you’re in front of a camera! While I was never nervous during the shoot, I was stressed out, worrying about what my face looked like, whether I was smiling (or not smiling) too much, etc. The hand close-ups were a breeze in comparison.

Finally, shortly before 2pm, David announced “That’s a wrap!”, and there was much applause (but no laughter — that would have been weird).

We broke for lunch and I walked down the street towards the lunch truck. Every time I’d pass someone, even if I hadn’t spoken to them before, they’d smile at me and tell me what a great job I’d done. It was flattering but a little strange. I got some food and walked to the eating area — two long tables covered by a large canopy on a hill above the trailers. I sat with the ad people and asked them something that I’d been dying to know: How did they get the idea for the ad? Did they want to have a theremin player singing a song, so they searched youtube and found me? Or did they come up with the concept after stumbling upon my youtube video? Tom, the senior producer of the creative team, told me it was a little bit of both. Back in October, they wrote a script where an actor says that he likes White Castle so much, he’s written a song about it. He then plays his song on the most wacky instrument imaginable, like a ukulele. They poked around youtube, stumbled upon my video, and decided that a theremin would be perfect. It was even more flattering, but strange, to think that these ad people in the Midwest had been talking about me for four months before the casting call went out looking for me.

Birthday CakeAs people were finishing lunch, a cake appeared. I had mentioned that it was my birthday, but I didn’t expect this! They used those candles that can’t be blown out. Har-de-har-har. And for one final time during my White Castle Adventure, there was much laughter and applause.

Black Velvet White CastleCake was cut and handed out by me (why does the Birthday Boy have to do all the work — I’ve never understood that tradition), and then I walked back to the house to pack up my theremin. While there, I wandered into another room where the next spot was about to start shooting. In it, a woman proudly displays her latest creation — a black velvet painting of a White Castle restaurant. Part of me wanted to stick around, but I would have just been in the way. Plus, the adrenalin that had gotten me through the day was starting to wear off. Either that, or the sugar crash from the birthday cake was kicking in. At around 3:30, I gathered up all my things with Chris (the producer-in-training) and he drove me back to the hotel.

Birthday FlanI finished off the day by having a relaxing birthday dinner at Casa Vega with Drew & Kristin (who kindly drove me back and forth between the hotel and restaurant), Aimée & Joe (and their adorable two-year-old Emeline), and Sean. The group surprised me with a birthday flan, presented by a gang of singing waiters (who, thankfully, were not wearing sombreros). As the stress of the day evaporated, and the margharita entered my bloodstream, I found myself ready to collapse from exhaustion. Once back at the hotel, I barely had the energy to brush my teeth before falling into a deep sleep.

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2 thoughts on “A Somervillain Thereminist in White Castle’s Court (Day 2, Electric Boogaloo)

  1. I have to say, it’s a heart-warming story. You even show the human side of the production industry (I “aww”-ed aloud when I read about the cake)!

  2. Jon, I just read this. Not only is it AWESOME, I also wanted you to know that I didn’t steal the title of your post and use it in my blog Why do I keep stealing your ideas without knowing it!!?? Someday, we should have a “Rainbow Connection” – Off. BTW, did I tell you the name of my new band, The Rothars?

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