A Somervillain Thereminist in White Castle’s Court: The Voyage Home

Feb. 21, 2007: Got to LAX at 7am for my 8:45am flight, only to find that it had just been canceled. Luckily, I was able to get another flight that would have me back in Somerville only a few hours later than scheduled. Otherwise, my voyage home was uneventful. It gave me time to reflect on the last few days. Everyone was so kind and patient! There are lots of people not already name-checked who I should mention: Gabrielle, the casting director, who gratiously tolerated my repeated emails asking for status updates; Chip, the assistant director, who let me use his office to practice in, and emailed me the storyboard drawings moments after I asked; Dana, the assistant wardrobe stylist, who made sure that they didn’t accidentally keep any of the costume clothes I’d brought with me; Ed, the VTR operator, who printed out a stack of still images from the shoot for me to take home as souvenirs; and, most of all, Jim, the production supervisor, who made sure everything ran smoothly, but apologized profusely when even the slightest thing went awry. They knew I’d never done anything like this before, and they went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. I think they got a kick out of the fact that I wasn’t (and wasn’t looking to become) a professional actor. I was probably a breath of fresh air to them. Jim emailed me yesterday about something and closed with, “Hope you enjoyed the experience and perhaps someday we’ll meet again.” I can say with complete sincerity that I don’t think my experience could have been any better! While I doubt that we’ll ever meet again, who knows? Maybe I’ll be the next Fred the Baker….

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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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A Somervillain Thereminist in White Castle’s Court (Day 1)

Ben & a random VW Bug owner outside the officesFeb. 19, 2007: Shortly after writing my Seamy LA post, I was picked up by Ben, a production assistant who comes to LA for a few months each year to make some quick cash, but spends most of his time in northern Idaho where he lives off of his earnings. LA is such a seductive place, you have to admire someone who can maintain a balance like that.

Sears Silvertone Twin Twelve Model 1484Small Silvertone AmpWe arrived at the office around 11:30. After dealing with some paperwork and various introductions, I set up my theremin in a small office to test out the two Silvertone amps that Ben had found for me. David, the director (with whom I bonded after learning that his wife was in the awesome Fastbacks), and I quickly decided that the larger two-piece version had more “huevos” (one of David’s favorite words, as I soon learned). We also quickly attracted a small audience (as theremin sounds are wont to do), and David encouraged me to “warm up” by playing Video Killed the Radio Star (as heard in the youtube video that got me this gig) for the crowd. There was much laughter and applause.

Me and Susan BarnardDavid WildNext, I met with Susan Barnard, head of wardrobe. David and Susan had encouraged me to bring the Silver Suit (as seen in the aforementioned youtube video) as well as lots of other fun clothes I’ve worn on stage. After trying on various combinations, they ended up choosing a pair of blue jeans and one of their own shirts. The only piece of my own clothing we ended up using were my two-tone red and purple/brown Hush Puppies. Ah well, at least they provided padding for the musical gear in my suitcase.

In the meantime, the folks from the ad agency, as well as Debbie, the representative from White Castle, had arrived. Which meant another performance of Video Killed the Radio Star! There was much laughter and applause.

I was pretty much done for the day, but I had no plans until the evening and was carless until then, so I killed the rest of the afternoon by practicing a bit on the theremin and chatting up the actors from the other spots (also there for wardrobe fittings). I would ask them if they’d been in other ads, and when they would ask me the same question, I’d tell them my story. There was much laughter but (thankfully, because that would have been weird) no applause.

Hali, the Icelandic PADue to my carlessness, the production company kindly offered to drive me wherever I wanted to go. So at the end of the day, Hali, a production assistant originally from Iceland who was working on a screenplay (a trip to LA is not complete until you meet someone working on a screenplay), drove me all the way to Atwater Village where I hung out in a coffee shop until my friend Donna got out of work. We ate dinner at a place Donna calls “Hipster Pho” and then rushed to Spaceland where her band Bedroom Walls were playing. The band was good, but a trip to LA is also not complete without a celebrity sighting. Thankfully, Kiefer Sutherland was in the house. I was very tempted to approach him and say, “My wife is a huge fan… of your grandfather’s“, but I restrained myself.

A cab ride back to Santa Monica (where I somehow found myself explaining a theremin to the driver) concluded Day 1 of my adventures in LA. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion, coming soon….

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Seamy LA

Just a quick post before I get picked up by a PA (that’s Hollywoodese for “Production Assistant”) for meetings with the director and wardrobe.

I’m currently internetsing from my swank Santa Monica hotel room that sort of overlooks the ocean (“sort of” because there’s a major roadway between us that all but eliminates any tranquility the view might otherwise have had).

What is up with the seemyLA tourism ad campaign? Posters were plastered all around LAX. Surely, I can’t be the only person who reads that as seamy LA? Were they being ironic, or just clueless?

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Would you like some theremin with your Slyders?

There’s a video of me on youtube playing “Video Killed The Radio Star” on the theremin that’s been up for nearly a year. Two weeks ago, all of a sudden, several people left me messages via youtube informing me that a casting agent in Los Angeles was looking for me! One of the message writers forwarded me the casting call from a popular LA casting website. It read as follows:

Theremin Musician - White Castle - Commercial - SAG Scale - SAG - 2/1/2007
/ Male or Female / All Ethnicities / 27 - 45 /
Must be an actual Theremin player, and be able to bring your instrument with you. Anyone who knows the guy, (and how to reach him) on YouTube playing Video Killed the Radio Star, please call us!

My jaw hit the floor! I got in touch with the casting agent who emailed me a 30 second script. I convinced Sue from UV Protection to come by the house to videotape me, and I FexExed them the tape. They loved it! Approvals from all the various parties finally came through yesterday (Thursday). On Sunday, I fly to LA, all expenses paid, for two days of planning and shooting. I return to Boston on Wednesday. It’s an SAG gig, so there’s some serious money involved, which is a nice bonus. :)

The content of the ad is simple: A guy says he likes White Castle so much, he wrote a song about it. He then plays theremin and sings a song about Slyders (White Castle’s tiny greasy burgers). For the audition tape, I went with a bluesy “I’m a Man” style call and response between my theremin and my voice. It’s unclear what I’ll be doing musically in the ad. They seem to want something melodic, but that also shows off the wackiness of the instrument. If I do end up contributing to the songwriting, yes, I’ll be certain to demand credit (i.e. royalties).

I’m very excited about the whole thing. I’ll be sure and report back with my experiences, if not during, then definitely after it’s all over.

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Countdown to Midnight

Jonnie Spaceman will be making an appearance at Boston’s First Night celebrations. I’ll be playing a few songs between sets by UV Protection, as well as making a bit of noise with them and homemade-analog-synthist Dave Levin (aka The Juliet Kilo).

The Best Part: This happens on the steps of the Boston Public Library between 10pm & Midnight! If Channel 4’s Jack Williams doesn’t kick us off stage, we’ll do the countdown, and if you’re really lucky (?) you’ll hear Auld Lang Syne warbled on the theremin at midnight.

The Extra-Wacky Part: Over at the Boston Common, there will be another simultaneous countdown with another thereminist! Eric Ross will be performing with Donald Knaack (aka The Junkman). Let the Theremin Death Match begin!

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Background Music

I was poking around for reviews of this past weekend’s Bazaar Bizarre and discovered this podcast. Skip ahead to 18:18 and you can hear Jonnie Spaceman in the background warbling out “O Holy Night” and then the Pixies’ “Gigantic”. Thanks to misshawklet for the heads up.

Oh — and the Bostonist had a nice preview of the event, including a photo of yours truly.

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