General 6-13-2004

Letters from a Writer: The Making of Lump

Jean Sramek has a film debut.

Jean Sramek

The last time I actually auditioned for a play was in 1994. Theatre-wise, I believe I’m what’s called a naïve artist, which sounds infinitely better than “failed theatre major, ended up majoring in English.” I typically get talked into being in shows, which is a mixed blessing for everyone involved, since acting is my least favorite part of doing theatre. I get cast in spite of my attitude and profound lack of training and ability, so I was not surprised when my friend Gary’s daughter Sarah asked me to be in her short film, Lump. My telephone audition was par for (my) course:

Sarah: My dad said you’d be perfect for this part.
Jean: Well, um, the thing is I’m not very good at this acting stuff.
Sarah: Okay.
Jean: What’s the movie about?
Sarah: It’s about a little girl who’s poor and gets a lump of coal for Christmas and pretends it’s a dog. Sort of.
Jean: I have no film experience.
Sarah: Okay.
Jean: I’m not sure about this.
Sarah: You’ll get to wear a “festive” Christmas sweater. A really ugly one.
Jean: I’m in!

Two weeks later, we are on location in someone’s house. The crew, Sarah’s friends, fluff up the remains of winter outside, festoon the lawn with plastic reindeer, and cram bulky equipment into the entryway, where today’s two 30-second scenes will be filmed. Gary meets me at the door, a digital video camera around his neck. “I’m in charge of the documentary,” he explains, “The Making of Lump” The dog handler is an amateur (it’s his dog), as is Hannah, age 8, who is playing my daughter. The crew are all professionals—graduates of college film programs, now gainfully employed in the business, who take turns helping each other out on personal projects like this one. Gary thanks me profusely for agreeing to Lump, the completion of which is standing between Sarah and her bachelor’s degree.

I get into my costume—a red Christmas sweater with a tree thickly embroidered onto the front. The sweater’s 3-D decorations include bells that jingle. I have scoffed at many a festive sweater, but have never examined one this closely, let alone worn one. It is so festive, so hideously festive, that when I put it on, I feel an indescribable combination of clinical depression, hypoglycemia, and sexual arousal.

Hannah makes futile attempts at doing homework while being utterly distracted by her own excitement. Between takes, Hannah dances around the crew, asking, “How come you’re turning the ladder around? Why did you put that fuzzy thing on the microphone? What’s the other girl’s name again? What grade is she in?” questions which Sarah and the crew patiently and cheerfully answer. Hannah and I hit it off, and soon we have inside jokes and she is playing with the jingle bells on my festive sweater. Brooke, age 11 and the film’s star, has spent the day doing exterior scenes. She comes in to warm up. She has some professional acting experience—commercials and the like. Brooke and her older brother pinch each other and trade insults. For an 11-year-old, her comedy comeback chops are rather developed. Her brother is left to sputter, “Oh yeah, well shut up then,” while Brooke rolls her eyes. I like this kid.

Our scene goes like this. Ruby (Brooke) has found a dog, which belongs to a rich family (Hannah and me). Ruby knocks on the door, the mother answers, the rich girl runs down the stairs, the dog runs into her arms, the mother says some dorky things like “We have too much Christmas around here!” and then shuts the door on Ruby’s face after a few awkward pauses. We do this scene about 15 times from the front and 15 more from the back. The boom microphone is visible in one shot. The wreath falls off the door in another. I blow one of my four lines. The door doesn’t stay open. The dog refuses to run inside to Hannah. Sarah calmly solves the problems one by one. In the script, the dog is named Bingo or Scout or something like that, but her real name is Lucy, so Sarah changes her film name to Lucy so when Hannah says “Lucy!” she’ll come. The dog’s owner positions himself inside the door and rubs Hannah’s hands with doggie treats. It’s method acting for dogs.

Hannah gets cocky. “Should I yell ‘Lucy’ a little louder? Maybe I should put a whole doggie treat in my hand. Do I need another ribbon in my hair? What if I come down the stairs after the door opens instead of before it opens?” Sarah assures Hannah that the way she has been doing it is perfect and that Hannah should not change a thing. Ellie, the owner of the house, comes home and surveys the jungle of film equipment, slushy boots, and strangers in her porch and entryway. Ellie smiles woodenly and disappears upstairs. Sarah asks me for a longer pause before my last line. We finally get the shots she wants.

We have a side conversation about Brooke and what a trooper she is—Brooke has been wearing yellow snow boots that are two sizes too small for her, and has shrugged it off by saying, “They are perfect for this costume. It’s no big deal.” I laugh and say, “Suffer for her art, huh? I guess it’s not a true theatre experience unless your costume involves some level of pain.” Sarah nods. Hannah has been hanging on our every word. She jumps up and down, wrings her hands and says, “My dress doesn’t have any pain in it! I have no pain in my costume!” in a drama-queeny kind of way that would normally annoy me—except that in this case it was sort of my fault.

As I am leaving, the producer gets the spelling of my name for the credits and I shake hands with my co-star. “Hannah, it’s been a pleasure,” I say, and I mean it. A few weeks later, Sarah sends me a hand-written thank-you note, as though I had brought a present to her bridal shower. As compensation for my work, she will send me a DVD copy of Lump. If she really wanted to thank me, she’d have let me keep that festive sweater. But it belongs to someone—someone who wears it without irony each December, and upon whom it is wasted.