Being a Second in a First-Rate Series

“Wild” Hammer Work

Ten years ago, Beau Stephenson invited me to work on-set as a paid second for the Discovery Channel documentary series, Gold Fever. The documentary was a look at the historic California gold rush and some of the people involved. It was a rough-and-tumble time in U.S. history. I had never worked on a movie set, so everything was new and intriguing. It didn’t take long, however, to figure out how things worked, who was in charge, and how to get into scenes. And it didn’t take long to decide I really liked being in front of the camera.

I was cast as a hard-case, stinkweed dam builder. My job was to look mean, worn-out, and hungry for gold. I was to pound nails on a huge wooden dam, carry lumber, dig for gold, run a sluice, fight in a small army, and look tough. It wasn’t that hard; not much different than growing up in Idaho digging post holes, fixing fence, picking rocks, milking cows, fighting with my brother, bucking hay bales, and anything else dad told me to do, or else! Being in the movies is fun business. Here’s how it went for me.

After taking care of all the HR preliminaries, I went into the dressing area, got into my ‘work clothes,’ then went over to make-up – another first sitting in the chair and getting – well, made-up! I walked out of there looking like a grime-ridden 1800’s western laborer who needed a bath. I grabbed a bite to eat in the food tent, then boarded a bus and rode out to the set along with all the other rough-looking characters cast for the show.

The set was located along a river, west of Brigham City, Utah, USA, out in the middle of nowhere. It looked typical to me, with a few campers dotting the landscape, a big wooden dam in the distance, some old camping tents, and a bunch of props. The huge cameras set up nearby looked completely out of place. I asked a question I’m sure some others were wondering. “Can I pull out my phone and take pictures?” The guy in charge said, “Sure! I don’t care, as long as it’s not on camera!”

“Cool!” I mumbled under my breath.

My first scene was to hoist a couple boards on my shoulder and walk them over to the dam and hand them up to a worker at the top. On the signal, I did what I was told and tried to act natural as I made my way along, trying not to trip, stumble, or fall. Once the scene was over, I thought, “Hmmm, not bad. I think I can do this ‘acting’ stuff.

The director said, “Good job, man. You looked good! Just don’t talk! You’re not getting paid to talk!”

“Okay,” I thought. I’ll be a mute dam builder.

It doesn’t take long to figure out how things are done on the set to make scenes look, sound, and feel authentic and real. For our purposes, there were smoke machines and filters to make everything the camera saw look old. I also took note of the angles, background, foreground, and all other elements present. It was fun and easy. The small talk and camaraderie of the rest of the actors in the cast was fun and a bit entertaining. There was a lot of downtime between scenes when we ate, relaxed, snoozed, and joked around with each other.

One time, an assistant director came over and asked if I and some other guys would be in some B-reel he was shooting. “Absolutely, man!” We walked out and waited for him to instruct us where to be and what to do. This AD was kind of a smart-aleck who had pissed me off earlier when he got lippy over something somebody said or did. I could tell he was trying to impress his boss – bullying his way up the company ladder. It was in my blood to even the score – I could hear my ancient Hicks ancestors who fought oppression hundreds of years before calling for me to act!

I got my assignment, which was to swing a hammer and pound nails into the dam. I got a few nails started. Then when the camera began to roll, I swung my hammer as hard as I could, then let up just as the hammer head hit the nail. I figured the herky-jerky movement of my arm swinging wildly would cause the AD to blow a head fuse. I could passively get even with him for being a jerk earlier. He did go a bit nuts over what I was doing, but he didn’t re-shoot! Funny thing was, the film editor put a full shot of me being an idiot in the movie, and it actually looked awesome on screen!

The few days I worked on that set were fun and memorable. For sure, the most satisfying part of working on a movie is seeing the final product. Being on TV is cool and a bit surprising. It’s interesting to view the scenes, remember the exact moment when the camera was rolling, and then observe what the camera saw.

If you’re sitting around wondering what to do, go on Amazon and buy the movie, Gold Fever. It’s a good flick, is well-done, entertaining, and covers an interesting if not dangerous part of U.S. history. Check it out.  

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