Thursday, February 23, 2012

On set with Gossip Girl

Empire State Building from 33rd Street and 6th Avenue. 2:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, February 23, 2012. A warm, sunny Winter’s Day in New York, not unlike quite a few of them we’ve had this winter.

Yesterday I got up at 5:30 a.m. I’d been invited to make an appearance on Gossip Girl for an episode that will air April 23rd. I was cast as DPC of New York Social Diary. I’m not a Gossip Girl aficionado because, among other reasons I rarely get a chance to turn on the TV. Secondly I’m sure not in their demographic. However, I know a lot of people – especially women, of all ages (and I’m not kidding), who wouldn’t miss it. I’ve heard this expressed unabashedly so many times by girls from 14 to 64.

One friend of mine, whom you know, or have read here on these pages, confided to  me that it was her favorite show. She “can’t help it.” Makes me laugh just to recall her confession.
The Silvercup Studios in Long Island City -- main entrance is the red canopy in the distance. The people on the street are heading to the main dining room for a buffet lunch with a wide and delicious menu.
So when they asked, how could I resist? Besides, of all my experiences in New York, I’d never gone over to Queens at the break of dawn to be in a TV show filmed at the Silvercup Bakery. It’s actually called Silvercup Studios now. But originally, for many years, it was the Silvercup Bakery with a big sign (still has a big sign) that you can see from all over Manhattan’s East Side.

I’ve never spent much time in Queens other than to pass through on my way east. That makes me old-fashioned because nowadays Queens is a destination for the young and the prosperous, and the creative, the restless, the adventurous, and the domesticated.

Silvercup is in Long Island City (borough of Queens) just over the bridge. It’s just a couple of blocks from the new City Harvest warehouse that we visited a couple of weeks ago. An area that was once warehouses, small apartments making up a bedroom community, where good people brought up New York kids.  It is now that and much much more.
Two of the exiting and entry rams of the Queensboro Bridge. Next to the lower one (out of sight) is a train track for the elevated that goes into Manhattan.
Standing in any one spot in front of Silvercup you can look up and see the elevated train running parallel to the entrance and exit ramps of the bridge. A few blocks to the south is the massive Citicorp tower. And on the other side of the building, there’s ole Mannahatta across the East River. All awesome, and exciting, and city and gritty.

Yesterday morning at 6:30 a.m. all of this sat before a bright blue sky above. Inside I was shown to my “dressing room.” Never having had a dressing room before, I imagined a cubbyhole with a sink. This had a bathroom bigger than the one in my apartment (that’s not saying much, admittedly). And the room itself, as you can see, was rather spacious. Sterile, perhaps; no personality, but then no personality lives there.

At 7 am, I was in Hair and Makeup. The girls there really do your hair and make up. They also, I would soon learn appear frequently on the set to primp and slick you up, face and hair-wise. All with a gentle manner and a kind, conscientious way. Over the course of a Very Long Day, one doesn’t ordinarily look like ten minutes ago. Because of these women, the cast does.
My dressing room. Very comfortable.
Another view. In the mirror you can see the door of the bathroom which is as wide as this room.
I am sworn not to reveal the plot of this episode. I hear the story will be a shocker to those who know the show. The scene I was in revolved around the dining room table. I can say that if what was revealed around that dining room table were revealed around any dining room table (or anywhere else in the house or outside), it would be a shocker, at least for those sitting around the dining room table.

After hair and makeup,  women in the Costume department came to look at my clothes to make sure they “worked” for the show. Not a hard one since they were my clothes and I’m playing myself.

Then it was off to the set. Big set. Rooms and rooms. Rooms with walls that can expand, disappear, getting smaller. Yesterday everything took place in the apartment of Lily van der Woodsen (Kelly Rutherford), the mother of the Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively). At table was her ex-husband Dr. William van der Woodsen (Billy Baldwin), daughter Serena; Carol (Sheila Kelley), Carol’s daughter played by Ella Rae Peck and this reporter. It’s a dinner party hosted by Mrs. van der Woodsen.

With Kelly Rutherford, the "hostess" of the dinner party. All set photos: Giovanni Rufino.
I don’t have a line in the scene but I have something to do, so I’m actually participating. Shooting a dinner with six people seated around the table, I soon learned, is an all-day-into-the-night affair. Ten minutes at table is ten hours in the shoot.

Actors, all actors – from the stand-ins to the stars – work hard. I’m not sure I can convey exactly what is “hard” about their work – but putting in a 14 to 16 hour day on a set, which is what the cast of this show does, for starters, is hard. Exhausting is another word for it. Six in the morning till ten at night, with a half hour for lunch and none for naptime, on a schedule ranging from two days a week to five, is hard work. That may sound naive but the irony of this business is that it requires massive effort almost constantly to not only succeed, but survive. I report this not with sympathy so much as with admiration for the commitment involved on everyone's part.

Same for the crew – from the director – David Warren, for this episode, to the newest p.a. They work. It’s amazing. And impressive. These episodes require a crew of a couple dozen men and women, not to mention the executive staff behind the scenes.

By 8 a.m. yesterday everyone was on the set and shooting. At first I felt like a neophyte. But both cast and crew were all welcoming (amidst their assignments) and I soon fell into the drill which is Get The Job Done.

There are lots of “breaks” --  basically waiting for the next shot to be set up, then rehearsed, then rehearsed again, and again, and again. And then shoot it. Several takes at a time.
DPC the reporter listens to an exchange at the dinner between Kelly and Sheila Kelley with Ella Rae Peck looking on. The looks are deceiving ...
The atmosphere is altered. DPC the reporter has to take notes.
As a non-pro, I can assure you it’s tiresome in some respects, but highly professional. All of those actors, including the young men and women in the cast whom you see on the Party Picture pages, who you might imagine are partying in New York every night, work. After yesterday, I don’t know how Blake Lively can even make it out to dinner at night. If she does, it never shows. And the entire crew perhaps works as hard and even harder keeping things moving.

The atmosphere is one of complete cooperation. Everyone knows they’ve got to get the job done No matter what. It's a great way to have a hard job for many of these people. It’s a lesson for all of us on how to succeed.
Looks are deceiving for some and not for others. At the center of the table: rack of lamb, carrot salad and a mushroom dish. The conversation curbed everybody's appetite.
There’s lots of food around to keep up everyone’s energy. Buffet tables for gnoshing, for lunches, big menu for midday and another for dinner. All kinds of soft drinks, coffee, teas, water. Cookies, candies, Hershey’s Kisses, gum. I had a ham, egg and cheese omelette for breakfast at a quarter to eight (and about eight minutes to eat it before call).

I’d been told that my day would probably run until about five or six. It ran to almost ten. I was getting nervous around the nine o’clock hour because the NYSD was waiting too. However the crew and the cast understood (they were ready to go home too). By quarter to ten I was told they didn’t need me anymore for that day. I think I was the first to leave.
With Billy Baldwin, Ella Rae Peck, Kelly Rutherford.
It was a beautiful night last night in New York. I got a ride back over to Manhattan in a van driven by a guy named Dave who is in the crew. Dave previously worked for five years on “Sex and the City.” (He told he loved working with Sarah Jessica Parker).

The ride across the bridge at that hour is spectacular.  It was about 10:30 by the time I got to the door. The dogs were barking – not having seen their master for an entire day. I took a quick shower to wash off all the makeup and hairstuff. Before I sat down at my desk to write this, I went out onto the terrace for a look at the neighborhood.  It occurred to me that this is a prime neighborhood for The Gossip Girl.
The view from my terrace at 11 a.m. That's the Chapin School on the corner. Beyond are apartment houses stretching to the top of East End where many lives can compete gloriously and vaingloriously with those lives on "Gossip Girl." Flawlessly.
All those lighted windows still bright looking up the avenue have, no doubt, some of those Gossip Girls behind them. The girls’ private school on the corner – Chapin – no doubt has had many pre-Gossip Girls among its alumna. And many others coming along. Is it a type? Maybe in some ways socio-economically, although more in people’s imaginations than in reality. Is it a drama? Aren’t most of our lives a drama, small and large, occasionally or frequently?

I was thinking while looking at those lights still burning as we drew closer to the witching (and bewitching) hour, that I’d just spent the day present in a fictionalized portrait of real lives, fantastic and otherwise, re-created for viewing/witnessing by a lot of hard working people over at the Silvercup Studios in Long Island City five days a week.

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