Our movie is set in an unnamed mid western American town, where - as various characters mention throughout the script - they haven’t had snow at Christmas “for thirty years: This is an important plot point, as eventually Dennis the Menace, by acting selflessly, makes magic happen and “voila” (as they say here in Montreal), snow appears on Christmas Day.
But since the better part of the movie happens BEFORE Christmas Day, that means we have to have CLEAR DRY GROUND and no SNOW in the air. We have no snow. That much is true. However, freezing rain….well, that’s another matter entirely.
To be specific, it’s actually subzero temperature sleet mixed with pellets of solid ice. My camera, grip and electric team have valiantly pulled on their cold weather gear, bundling up in layer upon layer of gore-tex and fleece in a desperate bid to stay warm and dry. But no amount of high tech survival clothing will protect us from the most dangerous side effect of this horrible weather – falling wood.
It appears that this neighborhood is famous not just for the cranky rich and idly tasteless who live along its sidewalks, but also for the huge trees growing virtually untended up and down the streets which, when burdened with a thick coating of ice, crack at will and send gigantic limbs of frozen wood plunging down onto unsuspecting passersby below.
So now not only do we have scheduling problems, actor problems and weather problems, we also have to avoid decapitation by murderous maple branches.
Of course it’s on THIS day, the most disastrous we’ve had to date, that Robert Wagner finally arrives. And suddenly, everything just seems a little bit…better. The sheer charm of the man is almost overwhelming. Even in his mid seventies, while perhaps no longer the young male ingénue of Hollywood, he is strikingly handsome and completely elegant. Seated on a cheap fold out sofa bed in the mobile dressing room we’ve rented for him, the ice storm wailing away outside, his very presence made it seem as though we weren’t stuck in the middle of some suburban Montreal parking lot, but rather exchanging clever “bon mots” while sipping cocktails on a yacht in Nice.
And while there’s nothing I would rather have done than listen to his incredible and thrilling stories of Hollywood, then and now, the movie beckoned. So out into the ghastly weather we ventured, my idol and I, to set up the next shot.
If you ever find yourself directing a movie star, here’s a hint: DO NOT strap him or her to a paramedic gurney during an ice storm and wheel him around the front yard of a house in Montreal pretending to suffer the effects of food poisoning, the result of some cookies made by Dennis the Menace. Hardly a great way to start a relationship.
But RJ (he ACTUALLY told me to call him this!! For real!) was a trouper through all of this, emitting nothing more than an “oi” when the flimsy screen we erected above him as protection blew away with the first gale force wind.
When I asked him later how he managed to maintain his composure, give a terrific performance AND deliver a very funny adlib line all while in danger of frostbite he gave me one of those dazzling old school Show Biz smiles and said: “I learned how to do it in Star School.”
This is going to be great.