It’s Academy Awards season again, and it always reminds me of one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had in production. Years ago I was working as a production assistant on set for Errol Morris, who was directing a short film to kick off the Academy Awards Ceremony. Internally, we called it The Movie Movie, and it was a celebration of film by folks famous and not-so-famous from outside of the movie business. I had the best PA job ever! I was the runner for the talent, greeting them and then escorting them through a labyrinth of stairs and corridors to the greenroom where they would wait their turn to be interviewed by Morris.
This was my first exposure to pure celebrity. It was after lunch when I felt like I had walked through the looking glass. I was paged on the walkie that Iggy Pop had arrived. I raced down three flights of stairs to meet him and his Miami-chic girlfriend. Out of breath, I managed, “Mr. Pop! You’re two hours early!” He smiled and said, “Yeah, when I saw the line up for today, I wanted to get here to hang out.” I’ve never been an autograph seeker, but this was Iggy Pop, and I had played his album on a constant loop when I lived for a short while in Poland. I might have told him something dramatic about his album saving my life during the dreary Eastern European winter and asked if he would sign the CD cover I had brought with me.
“Sure, baby,” he replied in a cool drawl.
A few minutes later, another page: Donald Trump was pulling up. I whisked him upstairs and into the makeup chair, but he didn’t want us to touch him. He paced around as our production inevitably started to slip behind schedule. Back downstairs as I waited for the next guest, Trump’s bodyguard asked, “How long do you think he’ll be?” I said it depended on when the director finished shooting him. The guy gave me the side eye and said that “shoot” is not a good word to use with a bodyguard.
Gotcha and noted.
Next up was Walter Cronkite, who at 86 had been retired for a while, and we decided against the three flights of stairs. The elevator opened up directly onto set, so we were stuck in the lift and left to make small talk until the cameras stopped rolling and we could move it. I asked him about covering the space program in the ’60s, and without missing beat, he told me a story about Ham, the first chimp to complete a suborbital space flight.
“He was a great chimp, very smart and eager to please, and he had a close relationship with his handler. When they retrieved Ham from the capsule, the first thing the chimp did was shake his handler’s hand and then bite it.” Mr. Cronkite laughed at the memory, “Can you imagine what that little guy was thinking? ‘What the hell did you just do to me?’”
If only I’d had a tape recorder!
The last guest to arrive was the VIP of VIPs of the day. A police escort, flying the wrong way down a one-way street, shepherded a black limo with diplomatic flags on the hood. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev stepped out along with his translator. I summoned enough of my high school-level Russian to say, “Hello and pleased to meet you,” to which he smiled and gestured for me to lead the way.
Once in the greenroom, there was this weird, collective moment where everyone paused to take in the random set of circumstances that had brought these people together. The look on the faces of these four men, icons of their respective professions, clearly said (with either respect or alarm), “I can’t believe I’m in the same room with these guys.”
It was definitely one of those days when I thought, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.”
Their favorite movies:
Iggy Pop: Bambi
Donald Trump: King Kong
Walter Cronkite: The Front Page
Mikhail Gorbachev: really liked Russell Crowe in Gladiator