6AM: I arrive at the parking lot of the Buffalo History Museum, location for the final day of production on the feature film The Apprentice, at the same time as production assistants Kyle Mecca and Ken Cosentino. My title is key set production assistant, which makes me a department head. The three of us form “PA Nation.” It’s a small nation. Sam Qualiana, the production coordinator, joins us as well. All four of us are local hires on this visiting production, and each of us has made at least one feature film of our own. In the early morning darkness, we check our walkie-talkies and ensure our crew badges are visible. We are the first to arrive, but sometime Chris Ray arrives before us. Chris is the co-producer of this film, and is serving as unit production manager (UPM) and first assistant director (first AD, or simply “the first”).
The Apprentice is a Christmas-themed TV movie produced, directed and co-written by Chris’s father Fred Olen Ray, who first achieved fame directing B movies in the glory days of VHS. It’s the third film Fred has shot in Western New York in a little more than a year, and he makes maximum use of area locations and landmarks. When he shot A Prince for Christmas here in February 2015, there was plenty of snow, but there is none for this show, so the Christmas season needs to be sold with plentiful plastic trees and garland inside and holiday lights outside. The production has shot in downtown Buffalo, Ellicottville, East Aurora, the Botanical Gardens, and the museum over a period of 12 days.
6:15AM: Chris Ray and Alison Goser are the next to arrive. Goser is the line producer and second assistant director (second AD, or “second”). Chris produced the Syfy TV movie Battledogs here several years ago and pointed his father our way. Goser also worked on Battledogs. Chris’s production partner, Gerald Webb, cast The Apprentice and has a role in it. Webb also supervised production on Accidental Switch, the thriller Fred directed here last summer.
Locals make up a little more than half of the 26-person crew on The Apprentice. All of the visiting filmmakers have worked for the Rays before. By comparison, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles employed approximately 50 of us, but on a giant show like that, all most of us did was crowd control, shooing residents away from the railings overlooking the 33. On a smaller film like this, we actually contribute to set operations and learn from seasoned professionals.
6:30AM: Sometime during the early morning, Holly Scharnweber sets up craft services (“crafty”), the station where cast an crew find snacks and drinks. This is not to be confused with catering. Holly will maintain a constant supply of water, soda, coffee, fruit and junk food for the shoot and will often run items onto set upon request (“Bottled water flying in!”). Ideally she will be all set up by the time the rest of the crew arrives.
7AM: At the hotel where the visiting cast and crew are staying, the stars of the film—Abigail Hawke from TV’s Blue Bloods, comic legend Howard Hesseman (the improv group The Committee, WKRP in Cincinnati, This Is Spinal Tap) and David O’Donnell go through “the works”: first makeup, then wardrobe. Makeup and wardrobe will provide Chris with periodic updates on the readiness of the actors, who are identified by numbers: “Number One is 100 percent ready and Number Two is in the chair.”
At the same time, the crew arrives at location, and I distribute the call sheets and sides to the appropriate personnel. The grip and electric (G&E) crew comprises locals Kash Costner, gaffer/electrician; Frank Coppola, key grip; and Chris Rados, ”swing.” They immediately unload equipment from their truck. Some of it will remain in the parking lot until needed, watched by a PA, and some will move onto set, which is in a building across the parking lot from the museum. The art department has grown from two people—production designer Alexa Roland and art director David Butler—to four so they can better wrap out all of the set decorations at the end of the day. Our sound mixer, Michael McFadden, is from Rochester. Another local, set medic Christopher Srock, has worked on all of the Rays’ Buffalo productions. Director of photography Alex Yellen, who directed Battledogs, now shoots the TV series Z Nation, and local hire Brett Reidel is a member of his camera crew. The director arrives as well, and the next hour or so involves “building” the camera and setting up the lights for the first shot.
Howard Hessman and Abigail Hawk at Holiday Valley.
8AM: Background extras arrive at the museum’s auditorium, which serves as their holding area until they are needed. Today we have 30 extras. Those reporting for the first time must fill out paperwork, and I verify their ID and lay out the rules: “Wait here until we walk you to set, notify me if you need to use the restroom, do not take any photos, do not approach the director or actors, please stay quiet on set.”
8:30AM: Cast members arrive, fully made up and dressed. The makeup team (Eric Wilson and Megan Norris) and wardrobe team (Monique Hyman and Alison Peroni) arrive with them. Makeup and wardrobe now set up in the auditorium, but at least one member of each team will be on set.
9AM: The director rehearses his actors for the first shot of the first scene for the day. Lights and camera are adjusted. One PA is stationed outside the room we’re shooting in to prevent people from walking in while we’re filming and another is stationed outside in the cold to watch the G&E gear in the parking lot. By the time the first shot rolls, some of us have already been on location for three hours. When the director is satisfied with the first shot, we move on to the next. The actors relax in offices which have been assigned to them as individual green rooms, and everyone but camera, G&E, and the art department clears the set. The camera and lights are moved into new positions, and the art department makes sure the plastic Christmas trees and garland fill the frame. When everything is set, the director is invited back to set, and then Michael Nickodem, the second second assistant director (the second second) walks the actors back to set. All of these actions are communicated via walkie-talkie. And so the set will run for most of the day.
10:30AM: Background extras are needed, and we walk them from the auditorium, across the parking lot, and onto set. When shooting on sidewalks and less crowded locations, I’ve had the opportunity to position them in the background and direct their “crosses” behind the main action. At this tight location, Chris places and directs them himself.
Hessman, and Hawk in front of Vidler’s on Main Street in East Auroa.
11AM: Rich Wall, director of operations for the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission, makes an appearance. Sometimes he arrives at the start of the day, and sometimes he’s on set all day long. Wall interfaces with the set representative, and when they’re needed for traffic control, local police officers. Sometimes Tim Clark, the film commissioner, comes around as well, and sometimes they are on set together. Wall often brings Spot coffee for the crew, so I always watch for him.
1PM: Lunch is called. One PA watches the gear on set and the other watches the grip truck; both fetch their meals before lunch is called. The rest of us file over to the auditorium, where Holly has set up our Buffalo Catering. The actors and director eat first, followed by the crew, followed by the extras. I’m usually the last crewman on line (besides Ray and Goser), and once I get my food “last man” is called: We now have 30 minutes to eat and to relax our tired feet.
2-4PM: Back on set, the day resumes. Since this is the last day of shooting in Buffalo, we work with two thoughts in mind: completing the film and “wrapping out” of the location. Each department has its own responsibilities for moving on. Chris calls a “wrap” on some of the local actors and extras, dismissing them from set.
5PM: Wall and Clark return, accompanied by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. The mayor’s presence is familiar to most of us who work on visiting films, and he says hello to each one of us. The man is a sharp dresser.
Hessman, O’Donnell, and Hawk outside of the Roycroft Warehouse.
6PM: Hesseman is the first of our three lead actors to wrap, and gift bags are presented to all three by Fred, Chris and Goser. Hesseman in particular appears to be touched. A short time later, while we’re setting up for the final shots with Hawke and O’Donnell, Hesseman exits his room for the last time and delivers a heartfelt speech to the crew which is greatly appreciated.
6:30PM: Hawke and O’Donnnell perform their final scene in the film from multiple angles. The extras have been dismissed, so the crew fills in for them. Chris calls a wrap on each of the actors to a round of applause, and then calls a wrap on the production, thanking everyone involved.
7PM: The crew immediately sets about breaking down equipment, moving it outside, and cleaning. The location needs to be left exactly as we found it. Walkie-talkies are collected. Farewells are sincere but perfunctory: Most of us will work together again.
8PM: Goser, Qualiana, Srock, and PA Nation wait for G&E to load up their truck. Everyone else has left. Once the truck is loaded, the final goodbyes are more celebratory, with a lot of man hugging interrupted by Goser. Another show down for Buffalo’s growing film legacy.