hardest things

Stories from Below the Line

Animal trainers, prop masters, stuntmen, food stylists, and more recount the hardest, strangest jobs they’ve ever had.

“I always say we’re the hostesses of a giant cocktail party, but we’re not actually on the guest list.” Illustration: Sam Island
“I always say we’re the hostesses of a giant cocktail party, but we’re not actually on the guest list.” Illustration: Sam Island
“I always say we’re the hostesses of a giant cocktail party, but we’re not actually on the guest list.” Illustration: Sam Island

When Jenny Beavan won the Oscar for Costume Design at the 2016 Academy Awards, the ensuing moment wasn’t just an acknowledgment of the unforgettable desert dystopia aesthetic she created for Mad Max: Fury Road — it also served as a tidy metaphor for the standing of TV and film craftspeople in Hollywood. Rising from her seat on a literal different tier of the auditorium, she descended a small set of stairs and headed toward the stage. The walk took just long enough to give viewers a chance to think about how far she had to travel, and along the way TV cameras watched as she passed by rows of seemingly (though perhaps not genuinely) unmoved actors and directors applauding half-heartedly, if at all. Once on stage she gave a delightful speech, and then — naturally, inevitably — at the exact moment she began to wrap up with, “I just want to say one quite serious thing …”, the music came in; she was being played off. A box was ticked, on to the next thing.

(If you prefer your metaphors more on-the-nose, there’s always Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs referring to Mr. Turner cinematographer Dick Pope as “Dick Poop.”)

You could argue that at least the Oscars broadcast makes time for these craft categories, particularly since a subset of niche awards are given out on a different night altogether, at the Academy’s annual Scientific and Technical Awards a couple weeks prior to the main event. Then again, the Academy’s proposal earlier this year to relegate the presentation of four below-the-line categories to commercial breaks undermines such a position. That suggestion was swiftly snuffed out by a contingent of above-the-line stars and filmmakers, the people who know best how indispensable talented craftspeople are to the production of a good film or show. But the subtext remained; the spotlight wants who it wants.

As fall festival season continues and this year’s Oscar race starts to take shape, Vulture wants to cut down on the distance remarkable craftspeople have to travel to get some love. In this post and the series of corresponding profession-specific stories we’ve published, we’re going to be giving proper credit to those people whose work truly brings entertainment to life. What you’ll find below is just a starting point — it isn’t a comprehensive look at every role involved in a movie, though we want it to expand it in that direction. Have a story to share about working on a recent TV show or movie? Let us know at stories@vulture.com.

Foley Artist

Creating the Sounds of the Manson Murders in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

"What’s cool about Tarantino is he loves Foley and he loves sound, and he crosses the line."

Gary Hecker got into the business of making movies sound real after working on The Empire Strikes Back, where he helped sonically define characters like Han Solo and Darth Vader. That was his entrée into Foley art, or the live reproduction of sounds that are added to TV and film scenes after the fact, usually with a creative array of everyday objects. After 40 years in the field, he is nothing short of a veteran of cinematic reverberation, having distinguished himself by practically creating the kinds of sounds that would otherwise be left to sound designers or effects specialists to pluck from prerecorded archives. The layered booms of explosions, the delicate tinkling of shattered glass — Hecker creates them from scratch from his station at the backlot of Sony Pictures Post Productions, where he’s been in residence for the past two decades. His work spans titles like Big Trouble in Little China, The Witches of Eastwick, The Hunger Games, and Justice League, but one of his most recent credits is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film has one of the wildest finale of the year, so Vulture asked him to break down the Foley elements of the ultraviolent climax involving Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), three members of the Manson Family, and a well-trained dog.

Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) before the Manson Family’s attempted murder spree in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Columbia Pictures

Gary Hecker: That was an intense scene. I was working with Wylie Stateman, who is the sound supervisor, and he turned me loose on that just to do whatever I wanted. It started with the Manson gang getting out of the car and walking up that long street. Wylie wanted to hear their pants and jeans, that sound it makes when their legs move together. Then they were carrying knives and pulled out a gun. So, there were little nuances, all their feet and their cloth and jeans, and you see a little glimmer in the moonlight hit the blade. I made a little metallic “zshinng” that you hear when they go by the camera. Then the guy was pulling the gun out, so I had to do all his gun movements.

Once they get up to the house, the first thing I had to do, which is crazy with Foley, was the sound [that turned] Brad Pitt’s head [to notice the Manson Family members]. So, I had to nudge a door and jiggle a door knob, and it cued the dog’s head to look over. That was the sound that kind of started everything and triggered a reaction. When they came in, some of the sounds I did were they pulled their knives out and stuff like that, which was a big thing with the “zshinng” as those blades were coming out. There were a couple of different blades, so they all had to sound distinct, and the sound of the “zshinng” were my fingers lightly striking the blade of a machete on its edge. It had to be done softly, delicately and tastefully, to make it sound real, because they really were not scraping against anything. It was just enough sound to make an “essence” of the blade shimmering in the moonlight.

At this point, the Manson Family members have entered Rick’s house, where Cliff is in the kitchen tripping on acid. At first, he fails to properly process the danger he’s in, even after the cultists brandish their weapons. But what the Mansons don’t know about Cliff is that, in addition to being a stuntman, he’s a war veteran trained in combat. The gang members threaten Cliff, but he and his faithful pitbull, Brandy, thwart their plans in extreme fashion.

Hecker: When Brad Pitt makes a little sound [with his mouth], click click, the dog takes off from the couch, so there are all the dog’s footsteps, the dog’s collar, and the dog just shredding that guy’s pants. That’s just tearing different pieces of jeans and thick pants, sweats — big tears and yanking on the cloth. Then the guy was getting bounced against the door, so I bounced against a door. When Brad Pitt is smashing that Manson cult member’s head with a phone, I had to go in my prop room and find the right phone with a really ringy bell. Back in that era, in the late sixties, the phones had the bells in them, so using one of those old-style phones I smashed it into the middle of a wooden desk, just making it really thick and resonant and violent. Just pounding. They wanted everything violent.

What was cool about that one is, Brad Pitt was hallucinating on LSD from that thing that he smoked, so I did that cue and I’m pounding the phone, and you know how that ring echoes? The last hit, the bell would be just resonating out and this machine I was using happened to do some weird thing to that last ring and it made it into a weird flurry, like it wasn’t real. We were actually laughing after, because that’s how this might sound in Brad Pitt’s mind. It was perfect.

After he smashed her head into the phone, he hit her face into the cement mantle, which they played huge, almost comical. It’s gross, but I had to come up with the sound for it. What I did was mic it super close and then I took the palms of my hands, the meaty part, and I smashed them on my stage on a cement slab surface that’s a little hollow underneath for the thunk. I got those face hits so you could hear face and skin. He probably did it like four times or five times, so I did those, and it actually hurt to do it. Then for the skull crunches or teeth, I cracked celery for each one. Then of course there’s the blood that you could see squirting out of her face. So, on another channel I used a shammy soaked with water. I also put water in my mouth to make it so I would squirt the blood out. When you played all those channels, it was out of control. It sounded killer.

When the screaming girl blasted through that sliding glass door to where Leonardo DiCaprio was out in the pool, I blew up a pane of glass for her, which they played giant. Then there was all the glass debris coming out onto the wet patio, and they had closeups of her crawling in glass; I did all that stuff. She ends up landing in the pool and Leonardo is freaking out, so he gets off his little lounge chair and goes into the closet to get the flamethrower. The flame itself, we don’t do fire on the stage. Once in a while we do fire effects, but I don’t like to do it. The fire was done with sound effects. I just had to come up with this sound of him grabbing and moving this metallic flamethrower and the gun that shoots the flame. So, the Foley was the tanks, the movement of the gun, Leonardo’s footsteps. And then sound effects had the flamethrower.

With a lot of the films you work on, the sound and the Foley is recorded at a good level, but then it’s tucked down into the movie, because they’re trying to tell a story. What’s cool about Tarantino is he loves Foley and he loves sound, and he crosses the line. If you listen to all of his movies, they sound awesome. He’s really into signature sounds, and that’s what I do in Foley: try to create signature sounds. He really appreciates it, and he’s really picky. Your sound can’t just be average, ordinary sound. It’s rewarding to me because if you know all that hard work is going to be under the magnifying glass, it’s a challenge. Then I’ve got to make it killer. I’ve been lucky and done Tarantino’s last three movies now — Django, Hateful Eight, Once Upon a Time — and hopefully his next film, whatever it is.

What are the hardest sounds Foley artists have created? Read more here.

Music Supervisor

Can an Actor Cover Whitney Houston’s Version of the National Anthem in a TV Show? It’s Complicated.

“'No is not an option' is how we approach Ryan Murphy television."

There’s a moment in the last episode of Pose season two, in which lead character Blanca lip-syncs Whitney Houston’s peerless rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — the one she delivered at the Super Bowl in 1991, practically inventing the words “gleaming” and “ramparts” right there on a football field. Most people probably watched Blanca deliver that last “o’er” and thought, Wow, I’m so glad this song is in the public domain. But most people would be wrong, as Pose music supervisor Amanda Krieg Thomas explained. The song might be in the public domain, but Houston’s take on it isn’t — and getting it into an episode of Ryan Murphy’s FX series was easier said than done. “First of all,” Krieg Thomas says, “you need to clear the recording with Whitney Houston’s label.” And that’s just the first step.

In the Pose season two finale, Blanca performs Whitney Houston’s iconic rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Photo: Vulture and FX

On its surface, the job of a music supervisor sounds like a dream: Who doesn’t think highly of their own curated playlists, their ability to match an obscure song with a precise, emotional moment? But having great taste is far from the only requirements necessary in this line of work. When a producer or director wants something — like, say, the rights to include an iconic national anthem performance in a TV series — the music supervisor must begin the hunt, tracking down whoever owns the copyright, securing the approval to use the song in a particular scene, and negotiating the cost.

“Our job is to give the showrunners, the directors, the producers what they want,” says Robin Urdang, whose credits include The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Call Me by Your Name. “Everything else doesn’t mean anything. It’s what they want. You may not think it’s right, you may think it’s brilliant — whatever it is, it’s their vision and you need to show up and help them with their vision.”

In the case of the Whitney Houston anthem, which was featured in Pose’s season two finale, Krieg Thomas had to sniff out who owned the copyright to the arrangement behind that ’90s performance. It ended up being John Clayton, a well-known bassist, composer, and arranger in New York.

Amanda Krieg Thomas: We were chasing him. I tried every email, every phone number we could find for his individual publishing company. A member of my team, my music coordinator, was Facebook friends with someone who knew him, so he reached out to this one person he hadn’t talked to in many years. My coordinator’s friend then connected us to a close friend of the arranger, who then connected us to the arranger, who was in the woods of Washington teaching a workshop. Meanwhile, his manager was on safari, and we found him through another mutual friend on Facebook and used WhatsApp to talk to him in Africa.

“In situations like that, we send them a form with all the necessary information, the requested rights, a suggested fee. When it’s down to the wire, especially if it’s a song that we know will stay in the final cut, the key information is, ‘We need you to confirm that you actually do control this and that you approve the use.’ Once we finally got a hold of everybody, they were very excited to be a part of it. So that part was easy. We finally got it cleared the night before the scene was shot.

“In the eleventh hour like that, you just try every possible connection and hope and hope that one of them comes through. ‘No is not an option’ is how we work on Ryan Murphy television. Fortunately, my team, we’re all very good at our job so we haven’t heard ‘no’ too much. But we do often have backup plans. In the shooting phase, we tell people to get ‘coverage,’ meaning filming them singing different songs. We make sure the set is prepared with different options — we’ve had many situations where’s it’s been down to the wire and we’ve had to clear five alternate songs urgently to make sure that, by the time the episode is done, there is an option that is ready to be in the final mix. In this case, it would have been another version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ But watching the scene, it was so critical in every way to have Whitney’s version. So thank God, we got it.”

What are the hardest songs music supervisors have ever chased? Read more here.

VFX Artist

Just Fix It in Post! Right?

"At this point we can do so many things with visual effects that people just assume we can fix problems later."

The movie industry is undergoing an inexorable shift toward the spectacle, what with all its spandex-clad tentpoles and connected universes. Which means the work of VFX studios has never been in greater demand. But more demand breeds more intense competition, and as studios vie to land plum contracts with the likes of Disney and Netflix, they aspire to turn out state-of-the-art wonders faster, cheaper, and better than the next guy — a feat that only gets harder every year. Because, of course, the faster and cheaper a VFX studio can deliver incredible work, the faster and cheaper clients will expect to see the same caliber of work delivered to them next time.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) and a rubber knife in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum. Photo: Lionsgate and Vulture

Increasingly, VFX studios are challenged both by multimillion-dollar franchise movies, with their long timelines and bigger budgets, and by ambitious indies and TV shows, which often wish for Hollywood-level effects even if they don’t have the time or money for them. Situations that used to pose a production-delaying physical challenge can now be mitigated on a computer after the fact, at a fraction of the cost. The errant airplane or uncooperative crane in your shot, which otherwise might have steamrolled a full day’s work, are no longer even minor issues. “Fix it in post!” has become a refrain for all.

“Visual effects has evolved to the point where we can do so many different things, people just assume that we can fix it later,” says Derek Spears, a VFX artist who has worked on The X-Files and The Walking Dead. “It takes a lot of [production] planning out of the equation. A lot of the consideration goes out the window, because you no longer need it.”

In this brave new world of everyday CGI, it might surprise you just how many of the visual effects in a given film or TV show go unnoticed. “I think people would be surprised how much of what they’re viewing is digital. In a huge percentage of television — even normal, regular dramas, where you wouldn’t think there would be effects — there are large sequences shot on green screen or tweaked in post,” Spears explains. “People miss the mass majority of visual effects because nobody is supposed to notice them.”

What are some of the more mundane effects you’ve probably missed?

1. The fake knives.

Rob Nederhorst, VFX supervisor: On set, we have what we call “rubbers” — rubberized knives. The prop department takes a real knife, casts it in rubber, and make a mold of it. Those things are indistinguishable from the real thing. They’re phenomenal. The problem is, if you take one of those and slash at someone, if you go fast enough, you’re going to cut them. And we don’t want that. Safety on set is the number one priority for everyone. You cannot stab someone or slash their throat with a rubberized knife.

Instead, we make a handle, so the performer has something to grip on to. Then we match-move them on a computer and put a knife in there digitally. Ninety-five percent of the knives you see in John Wick 3 are digital. In the case of throwing knives, we won’t even have a handle — people will mime out the throw, mime the catch, and mime someone getting hit. It’s all mimed out and rehearsed meticulously. They practice this stuff so the timing feels correct. What they’ll do is build up the set with cardboard boxes, and shoot rehearsals. It’s not something the cast usually does, just the stunt guys, but in this case Keanu did that too. He’s an unbelievably insane dude who went to the absolute max. The way we did it was like ballet.

I’m really fussy about data capture. In fact, I’m a pain in everybody’s ass about it. We scan all the performers and all the knives, and get complete, super-photogenic versions of every single person and prop, so we can re-create them digitally. If you want it to look real, you need real-world measurements. You need lighting measurements. You need to do the work.

2. The substitute legs.

Derek Spears, VFX supervisor, Pixomondo: In season six and season seven of Game of Thrones, we started putting Daenerys on top of the dragon. One of the things we learned, doing season five, was that when those dragons flew out of the arena, it looked a little bit too simple, because the cameras didn’t move. We thought, well, next season we should move the cameras more, and move her more, too.

The production came up with a system of using moving cameras and putting Emilia Clarke on top of what’s called a buck, which is a wooden form for the dragon. That would be moving, everything would be moving, and we planned out all these moves ahead of time, planned in motion control. We thought, okay, this will all line up, and it will be perfect, because we did so much planning. It’ll look great.

What we found out is that dragons aren’t like solid pieces of wood. They move, and when they move, they flex, and their muscles move too. So we had the dragon flying and the muscles moving — but Dany’s legs didn’t react to any of it. So we had to replace her legs. We ended up replacing her legs on so many of the shots just to get it to follow the trap muscles on the back of the dragon. It was a nightmare. Everything else in those sequences was easy compared to trying to get her to sit on top of the stupid dragon with its stupid muscles. Some of the shots, we replaced her legs completely; others we mapped them on to a new piece of geometry and moved them around. Literally we had to deform the lower half of her body to make it fit.

It’s one of those things: You look at the dragon sweeping over the ocean and there’s fire and all these amazing things happening, and the hardest thing in the world is having her stupid knees not slide on top of the dragon. That one little detail was probably half the labor that went into those shots. Just getting her to sit down. The first time we did it, we had no idea how hard it would be. The second time, it didn’t get any easier. It was just as hard.

3. The dripping.

Martin Pelletier, VFX supervisor, Rodeo FX: The Duffer brothers are full-on fans of ’80s movies with old practical SFX — good old animatronics. If you want fake blood, you bring fake blood to the set, and if you want slime, you get real slime. Of course, this approach requires really long reset times, and it’s not always convenient. The main reason they prefer it to CGI, though, is if you look at CGI creatures versus those in, say, The Thing or the original Hellraiser, the CGI monsters aren’t dripping goo; it wasn’t really possible to do that with CGI. So going into Stranger Things three, the number one thing they said was, if we are going to make a creature in CGI, it has to be insanely wet and slimy and stick. Everything has to drip.

The first creature we did was the first version of the Mind Flayer — this little creepy thing that forms after the rat explodes inside the cage in episode two. We refer to this creature internally as The Goop. It would be the first creature established as the materialization of the Mind Flayer, and it grows and evolves and becomes more agile and defined. We started with the idea of thousands of rats screaming in pain in a very dark basement. The Duffers wanted the rats to explode — or to be more precise, implode. That made it a little more interesting. You’re not looking for guts and blood to splatter all over the place like a grenade effect. You want the rats to sort of flip inside out, instantly. It would splatter, but not separate into isolated chunks.

The problem was, as much as the Duffers loved gore, they said they would have a hard time getting it through Netflix if it was too descriptive — that is, once the rats start flipping inside out, we had to be careful not to make it too biological, where we can see the heart and the lungs and the eyeballs. It had to be something that looked nasty, but on that thin line between spooky-cool and outright gory. So we made a system using an animated rig rat asset and a recipe from the creature effect department. We could make it flip inside out and hide the fur instantly in a thick pile of nondescript guts and blood and mucus.

What are the hardest effects SFX artists have pulled off? Read more here.

Food Stylists

Give That Plate of Cheesy Lasagna an Oscar

When do you call in a food stylist? "When the food itself seems to be performing."

If you’ve ever tried to Instagram an enticingly symmetrical plate of food only to be thwarted by bad restaurant lighting, you’ll have some idea of how hard it can be to make even the most delicious food look good on camera. Erm, we take that back. You have no idea. Because in Hollywood, when the look of a dish really matters — when the tension in a scene hinges on a close-up of a charred leg of lamb, or the fluffy peak of whipped cream — the crew calls in an expert: a food stylist, whose job it is to make food seem just as appealing, and in most cases more appealing, than it is in real life.

The sherbert deserves a nomination, at least. Photo: Vulture and Netflix

Food stylists work in tandem with prop masters, adjacent to the art and props departments. They tend to be specialists, brought in when the script calls for food in the foreground. “Prop masters have a team, and the team can handle scenes where, like, kids are eating hot dogs at a birthday party, or there happens to be a tray of lasagna on a table,” explains Susan Spungen, who’s done food on Julie and Julia and Eat, Pray, Love. But when it comes to the finer details of a dinner party or kitchen scene — involving “feature food,” as it’s called in the business — a food stylist is necessary.

As experts in everything from greasy-spoon breakfasts to inscrutable haute cuisine, food stylists have an advisory function on most TV and film sets, too. A screenwriter devising a scene in an upscale New York restaurant might not know whether one’s likely to serve ricotta agnolotti before a course of provimi veal with swiss chard. Much in the way action thrillers hire former cops and weapons experts to nail the details, movies that care about cooking and dining rely on food stylists to get the details just right. The level of detail in a given script, too, varies wildly; where one might specify a nice plate of cacio e pepe, another might simply say “they eat Italian.” It’s the food stylist’s job to determine with the filmmakers what kind of Italian will do.

One of the biggest changes in the field, over the last several decades, has been not aesthetic but dietary. The men and women actually performing these scenes, after all, often have to eat the stuff the food stylists make — and these days what people are and are not willing to eat can be a major headache, especially in trend-crazy Hollywood. “You can have three actors sharing a meal in a scene, and one doesn’t eat gluten, one doesn’t eat dairy, and one doesn’t eat rice,” says Reynolds. If an actor refuses to eat whatever the script calls for, the food stylist has to fake a passable version of it to fit their diet. “I’ve made more fake oysters than just about anything else,” says McSorley, “because actors never want to eat them.”

“It’s when the food itself seems to be performing,” says Melissa McSorley, food stylist on Crazy Ex-GirlfriendNocturnal Animals, and True Blood. To hear the pros describe it, food stylists are experts for hire, rung up when productions are in crisis. Food stylist Tamara Reynolds remembers being sought for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: “Someone says, ‘Oh my god, we need some cheesy lasagna!’ And a prop master says, ‘Oh, call Tamara.’” They might come on set for one day, maybe less; they might not get a call back after that. But it’s crucial work. “I’ve never felt like the low man on the totem pole,” Spungen explains. “I get to be pretty high up there. I’m part of the creative process.”

Food stylists on their most memorable work:

Mad Men, “Far Away Places” (2012), Howard Johnson’s sherbet

Melissa McSorley: When you’re working on something that’s set in the 1960s, your food needs to sell the fact that this is the 1960s. On Mad Men, there was a scene where they went to the Howard Johnson’s, and they had ice cream. But at the time, Howard Johnson’s ice cream had a very specific look, served in a conical shape, because they had these very specific ice-cream scoops that basically nobody else uses. It was an iconic shape, and anybody who grew up going to Howard Johnson’s is going to remember what the ice cream looked like — if I’m using a regular round ice-cream scoop, it’s just not going to fly. We needed to get that shape exactly right.

Our prop master was very diligent and was able to find two of these old scoops online, on eBay. Of course, they were rusted and falling apart, so we had to rebuild them and replate them to make them usable. The scoop looks like a cone and has a spinning knob on top like a nut that you would turn, and you would scoop the ice cream and turn it and it had two blades on the side to release the scoop. I had to very, very gingerly scoop the ice cream, to protect these old scoops. One of them fell apart during shooting, and we had to soften the ice cream a bit for the other.

Ice cream is one of the biggest things I normally fake, because it melts too easily. But in this case they wanted to see it melt on screen, so we used the real stuff. People always assume my fake ice cream is mashed potatoes, but mashed potatoes don’t take color very well. Mine is made of butter, powdered sugar, a little bit of meringue powder, and whatever coloring and flavoring needs to go in.

Maniac (2018), futuristic food cubes

Tamara Reynolds: We’re working more and more with Pinterest, finding inspiration. It makes my life easier and more difficult at the same time. For Maniac, me and the prop master were searching Pinterest using certain parameters — ‘80s food, futuristic food, Japanese food. And we both found the same photo separately, a picture of these vegetables that are cubed. They looked so cool. They were cubed in a way that you could tell what meats and vegetables they were, but you could see the inside parts too. It was incredible.

Well, the director loved it — and then we had to actually do it. I had never cried doing food-styling before, but I cried when trying to do this. It was so, so hard. It was so frustrating. The thing about a photo is, you don’t know what they’ve done: It could be photoshopped. We think whoever made the picture must have either froze the food and cut it with a band saw, or hired the best sushi chef in history. The edges were so tight and so geometric, and the amount of food waste was insane — you’d cut open a pepper but only use two little bits of it because the rest wasn’t correct. It was impossible to replicate.

We did four different versions. We froze it. We did it raw. We did it cooked. We tried everything — it was like the puzzle that would not let me sleep. The director was unhappy with all of them. In the end, one of the prop kids, he was super diligent, and he took it home on the weekend and did it all with an X-Acto knife. It was insane.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), Cliff Booth’s mac and cheese

Chris Oliver: People liked the mac and cheese? That’s so weird. I haven’t seen the movie yet. The mac and cheese was my daughter Evan’s vegan recipe. They were concerned that Brad had to eat so much and they didn’t want him to get sick or, worse, his mouth to turn orange. For the T-bone steak he feeds his dog, my team and I went through 12 giant steaks to give them enough for retakes.

It was great working with Quentin — I filled in for my friend and worked with him on Pulp Fiction, that whole diner scene. On Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it took three days to film the scene with the fried chicken. Leo took a bite out of more than 60 freshly cooked chicken legs. The big flambé we made with a red-hot pan and gasoline, Quentin kept wanting the flame bigger and bigger and bigger, so we’d get it super hot and we’d throw the gasoline on to give it that effect. We did a million things. I’ll have to see what they ended up doing with it.

Water for Elephants (2011), Robert Pattinson’s lion food

Chris Oliver: I’ve done lots of memorable food. I did Friends and Seinfeld — the Soup Nazi, top of the muffin, when they did the turkey on his head. Tons of stuff like that. But the littlest thing can turn into a nightmare in this job, and not always what you’d expect.

In Water for Elephants, there’s a wonderful scene where Robert Pattison has to feed the lions, and he feeds them a bucket of slime. We had real lions for that. We made this big fake bucket of slime stuff, but the lion just wasn’t going to have it. The lion simply was not fooled. It’s like, are you kidding me? So I had to go get livers and bones and all this stuff. Stuff the lion would actually eat. On top of that, we had the PETA people out there. They were making sure the flies and the larva we were adding to the bucket were being treated properly. Honestly. I was covered in guts in front of a real lion, and these people were worried about the safety of the flies. I mean, really?

But we got the shot. And that was not digital. That was freaking real.

Labor Day (2013), a pie

Susan Spungen: When the producers reached out to me about doing Labor Day, I hadn’t read the book it was based on, but I was familiar with it and I knew who Joyce Maynard was. She is a big pie person, apparently. It wasn’t a great movie, and not a lot of people saw it, but I loved the scene in the end. My job was to make the piece [of pie] look bad, which was really hard. When your job is usually to make things look good, it’s really hard to make them look bad, on purpose. There was a scene in Julie and Julia where there’s supposed to be a beef bourguignon that got left on the stove overnight and looked burnt and horrible, for example — it’s a typical movie thing, having something look awful, for the drama of the scene. But it’s hard for me to make something look really awful.

We were filming in an abandoned house, a big empty house, in the woods in Massachusetts. Josh Brolin has kidnapped Kate Winslet, and at one point they bake a pie together. They wanted the pie to look really, really, really super messy. I couldn’t make it messy enough — they kept saying, “it looks too good!” They wanted it to look completely slapped together. They had crazy expectations of the food. A pie can only look so messy, you know what I mean? Most people would not make such a messy pie, period. There was tons of repetition, and we did the same thing over and over again, so eventually we got the method down, with the raw pie and the dough. By the time we made the finished pie — we did that later in L.A. in a studio instead of on location — we had gotten very good at it.

Location Scout

4 Good Days in the Life of a Location Scout

“Everywhere we go, we are visitors.”

A location manager is constantly putting out fires before anyone even smells the smoke. “If I’ve done my job properly, I’ll have an answer to everyone’s questions,” says Morgan Patterson (Top Gun: MaverickFord v Ferrari, Star Trek: Picard). “Crew and neighborhood included.”

How does a location scout gain access to several naval bases for Top Gun: Maverick shoots? Photo: Paramount Pictures and Vulture

A good way of describing the job: It’s a bridge between a film or TV production and the world that they’re entering. A scout does everything from suggesting a shooting location based on a script to managing the practicalities of transforming a corner of the real world into a set. In short: permits. “Once we find the locations, we then are responsible for all of the logistics that are needed to facilitate a 150-person crew to film at all the locations,” Mark Logan (Goodwill Hunting, John Q, Fringe) says. “So we start in a creative phase, and as the production moves forward, we then become the point person for making it happen — camera positions on rooftops, helicopters landing on downtown streets, all the way down to where the toilets are parked. Parking is the bane of our existence.”

As Andrew Poppoon (The Affair, Flight of the Conchords, It’s Complicated) says, “Everywhere we go, we are visitors.” Sometimes it’s easy to be a visitor, but it can also be a downright dangerous job. “I’ve been called everything you can be called in every different language living in New York for 12 years.” Location management is yet another one of those Hollywood professions that’s arguably at its most effective when no one notices it. When a production can come into a neighborhood and get exactly what it needs without upsetting any of the locals — or getting disrupted by them. “If we’re on set and we don’t get called on the walkie, then it’s a good day for us,” Poppoon says.

Here are four examples of days, both good and bad, in the life of a scout:

Top Gun: Maverick (2020), naval base access

Morgan Patterson: One of the most challenging tasks I have ever undertaken was on the set of Top Gun: Maverick. We shot on several naval bases, and wouldn’t you know it? You have to be in the Navy to have access to the bases! One of my many jobs was to compile a list of over 1,000 names to hand over to the Navy in order for them to give the crew civilian access to their bases on a daily basis. The amount of time and paperwork to get it done was astounding, and not surprisingly, there were several people who didn’t get cleared. There is no one person I could call to push a name through to get that person onto the base. It took 24 to 48 hours on the short end. Mostly, it was a 7- to 14-day turnaround. I completely understood, as it’s a matter of national security, and the fact that civilians would be working in and around highly classified areas of our Navy. It was the best!

John Q (2002), a fake hospital and a real pregnancy

Mark Logan: [For John Q] we built a huge hospital emergency façade opposite an existing hospital’s emergency entrance. We were filming in the middle of the night and suddenly a police escort drove right into the middle of the scene followed by a car, and out poured an anxious husband and a very pregnant wife who suddenly were standing in front of Denzel Washington and Robert Duvall. The distraught couple staggered past them and we managed to help them across the street in the nick of time. Healthy baby ensued.

16 Blocks (2006): A Chinatown shoot

Andrew Poppoon: There’s a movie called 16 Blocks with Mos Def and Bruce Willis. The majority filmed in Toronto, and then 17 days straight of filming in New York. We were in Chinatown filming. The street was very, very tight. One lane, but there’s a bunch of shops. That day we had 300 extras, a bunch of cars, crane, stuff like that. We were the sixth production in like six months to come through and shut it down. So the locals were, rightfully so, not too receptive to another production shutting down their street. We showed up and the entire block had their music blaring and they were banging pots and pans. We eventually did get it squared away. We had translators that we started sending out to talk to people. Our location manager met with the head of the neighborhood there. It took a while and we were talking to everyone and compensating them. So, I’m there running the set and there’s a driving scene where the car is going to come around the corner and we have about 30 seconds to go before the camera saw the main set. They yell action and one individual comes back out and is banging pots and pans again and playing music. I ran over there real quick and I’m trying to talk to this person and this person kept saying “I don’t understand English,” and playing music. All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye I see someone dancing, and it’s Bruce Willis. I didn’t realize it had been like two minutes and they had called cut. It confused the person who was playing the music. And the funny thing was that two days later in the Chinatown newspaper there’s a picture of me, the person, and Bruce Willis dancing.

An unnamed production: Roughly two dozen three-to-four-foot-tall horses

Tom Lounsbury: On one of the first projects I was location manager, I was working in rural Illinois outside of Champaign. The director was looking for a farmhouse with “character” that wouldn’t have any neighbors in sight. We were looking at the surrounding area on Google Maps satellite view where there was a house just outside of the town we were working in that seemed to have a few structures on the property, which the director thought would be perfect. So I drove out to the remote farmhouse, which resembled more of a trailer, surrounded by different sheds of varying degrees of upkeep. When I got out of the car, there were a couple of chicken-wire fences keeping me from the front door of the house about 50 feet away. I began to move the first gate and the moment after I heard a woman shout from the house, ‘Hey! What the fuck are you fucking doing at my gate? What the hell are you doing here? Get away from that!’ I put the gate back and stood on the outside of it shouting back sorrys and explaining what brought me to her home. After a minute or two of me apologizing profusely and her cursing me up and down, she eventually calmed and approached. She didn’t apologize for her aggression, which made a certain amount of sense when she explained that her farm was strictly a miniature-horse breeding farm. Only when she brought it to my attention did I notice the two dozen or so three- to four-foot-tall horses on her farm, some in barns and some casually grazing on the acre of fenced-in land. She told me that there were folks always trying to sneak onto her property and steal her miniature horses, which she bred almost exclusively for herself but had given a few away to close friends. We talked for a bit longer about her trade, and by the end, she politely declined to be involved in the film.

Cinematography Team

Stefan Czapsky’s Greatest On-Set Memory

Tim Burton's longtime collaborator recalls that time a monkey punched Danny DeVito.

Julio Macat, a veteran cinematographer with studio credits from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to Pitch Perfect under his belt, describes his job as “facilitating” the vision of the director. “Our job is to translate what’s on the page to the screen in the visual sense.” Stefan Czapsky, a longtime collaborator of Tim Burton’s, concedes the same. If “the director of the film is the boss — in the hierarchy of authority, you work for them.” But it’s “a collaborative job,” he continues. “You talk with a director about how best to shoot the story. You’re looking to be able to be yourself and speak openly, and you hope that what you’ve said is helpful so that your director goes with it.” Guillermo del Toro’s regular right-hand man Guillermo Navarro suggests that these professional bonds can vary in intimacy: “There are many instances where this relationship is fluid or confused. There’s no strict border between director and cinematographer; the divide is defined individually in each pair.”

Danny DeVito as the Penguin on the set of Batman Returns. Photo: Warner Bros.

The director and cinematographer have to agree on the three main parts of photography: composition, mood, and movement. And once an aesthetic has been jointly agreed upon, the cinematographer — also referred to as the director of photography — has to relay the stylistic decisions to a squadron of camera operators, focus-pullers, gaffers, key grips, and assistants, who then get to work bringing what’s been imagined to life. The size and responsibilities of that team vary with the scale of the operation; on smaller indie jobs, a cinematographer may set their own lights or personally operate the camera during each take. Macat, for one, relishes the opportunity to work with his hands. “Whenever I can operate the camera myself, I do. It’s the best job on a film set, this white-gloved person who comes in and executes the shot set up for them. It’s fun and immersive.”

The hottest-button issue in the industry currently concerns the schism between shooting on physical filmstrips and recording using digital video. Thirty-five millimeter film offers a gorgeous, lived-in look that tape can only imitate, though the logistics of workflow grow more complicated. “On film, you have to call cut more, whereas you can keep rolling and rolling when shooting on digital,” explains Sundance award winner Amy Vincent. “I love to shoot film, there’s nothing like it. It’s an indescribable sensation. There’s an alchemy to photochemistry that gives a cinematographer a feeling of power, as if you have a secret knowledge nobody else does.”

Czapsky knows the feeling well. “When it comes out even better than it looked in your imagination, there’s a rush you get. I’ve heard jazz musicians feel the same thing. You get off on it.” What’s the biggest rush he’s ever experienced?:

“On Batman Returns, in the Penguin’s lair. It was all pre-digital. I think there’s something like 120 visual-effects shots in the entire thing. We used stages at Warner Bros. mostly, but this set required water and tall ceilings and space enough for a half-million-gallon pool, so we went to Universal. Oh, and the whole thing had to be refrigerated because it was filled with real penguins. My job was to light this space, and I’ve never been a big planner. I don’t make diagrams. In this case, we couldn’t hang lights because they’d be in the shot. [Burton] wanted 360-degree shots getting the high ceilings. So we had to install lights in the pool, and deal with the safety issues of running electricity through water. The sheer scale was like nothing I’d ever done before. It was a studio operation.

“Funny story: While we were on that set, the Penguin’s supposed to receive an [RSVP note from Batman], and a monkey had been trained to hand it to him. It was a formerly dangerous monkey, and even sitting on your shoulder, it could rip your face off. It was all a matter of familiarizing him with Danny DeVito. We’re rolling, and the monkey’s not handing him the note, so Danny reaches for it, which was not the blocking during training. The monkey freaks out, shrieks, and attacks Danny right in his balls. Luckily, he had enough padding as the Penguin that he wasn’t hurt, so he just takes his umbrella and starts beating on the monkey to get off him. It was just a protection instinct, the monkey didn’t get hurt, but it was a great take.”

On-set Animal Trainer

From Hollywood to Broadway, How One Trainer Literally Teaches Old Dogs New Tricks

"At 20, I became a world-famous animal trainer."

Bill Berloni owes his career in animal training to Little Orphan Annie. He had just graduated high school and was trying to make it as an actor when he took an internship at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Goodspeed was working on what would be the world premiere of Annie, and a proper animal trainer for Annie’s dog, Sandy, wasn’t in the budget. Enter Berloni, who, in exchange for a bit part in one of the company’s other musicals, became an overnight dog trainer. “I went to the pound, found the original Sandy, trained him as I had my own pets, and a year later the show opened on Broadway,” Berloni told Vulture. “At 20, I became a world-famous animal trainer.” That was in 1977. He’s been in the business ever since, training, with Dorothy, his wife and business partner, animals for stages and screens, big and small. Vulture caught up with Berloni to find out what exactly being an animal trainer is all about, from selecting the right rescues to traveling across the country to Seattle to borrow a family’s pseudo-wolf for a Broadway play. (The dog went straight for Berloni’s face!)

Bill Berloni and his dog, Bowdie. Photo: Vulture and William Berloni/Instagram

How are you doing today, Bill?
Pretty good. I went into the city, did a dog shoot, and then after that had a rat audition.

What does a rat audition entail?
An HBO show wants a rat for one of their characters, and I went to make sure that the rats are friendly.

Where do you begin when you’re training a new animal or you’re working with an animal for the first time? 
All the animals I’ve ever trained in the last 40 years have been rescues. It starts with getting a part, going to the shelter, finding the right dog or cat, rehabilitating it, and preparing it for the role. I [also] screen other trainers who train humanely, and then represent them and their animals on [film] sets. I have 30 dogs, but they don’t always get the job.

Other than dogs, what sorts of animals do you work with?
I don’t do wild animals; I only work with domesticated animals. I have a series of horse people and raptor people I’ll work with. Farmers who specialize in goats, or sheep, or cows. A call will come in, like somebody looking to cast a rat for an HBO show. I’ll ask what color and provide pictures. They pick the one they want and I’ll do a “go see” to prove that the animal that they’ve chosen exists and can do the behaviors. If it passes that step, you’re booked to shoot the day.

The Greatest Showman is among your credits. What was that job like? 
Before I even accepted the job, I said to them, “I have to ask you, are you using circus animals?” And they said, “No, all the animals are CGI.”

Why was it important to you to make sure that there were going to be no circus animals involved in the shoot?
When I was starting to do research 40 years ago about how you train those animals … I find that the methods used to train wild animals are very harsh and inhumane. Domesticated animals have been bred and sort of reprogrammed to deal with man. I’m so happy CGI has come along.

Okay, so what animals did they need from you? 
The call went out for a dog to replicate Queen Victoria’s King Charles Spaniel. The scene calls for the dog being able to bark at Tom Thumb. The exact look was the hardest thing to find. We found a breeder who lives in Manhattan and loves doing movie work. She agreed to let us take one of her boys, who looked like that dog, and train it. So we took Skipper home and we worked with him and taught him how to bark. Four months later we show up to the set.

During those months with Skipper, how did you two prepare?
Step one is getting the dog to like you. Whether it’s a rescue or you’re borrowing someone’s pet, there’s a transition period. It all starts with basic obedience training, which is teaching your dog how to listen. People think that to teach dogs means you train them to do things. Well, I know how to do a lot of things, that doesn’t necessarily mean I wanna do them for people unless I like them. Our training method is one of positive reinforcement. Once they realize that (a) you’re nice and (b) there’s some fun to be had doing it, then you can start teaching them whatever the behaviors are that you want for the show or film.

In this case, how to bark. 
There’s a couple reasons why dogs bark: to defend, to get attention. So we’ll line up three or four dogs who know how to bark, make them speak, and sit the other dog next to them. That dog will sort of look in amazement, like, Why are they getting cookies? Then they’ll sort of bark out of frustration. You capture that moment, put a command to it, and then you’ve got the behavior. So that’s what we did. Taught Skipper how to sit and stay, and then taught him how to bark on a hand signal.

Are there precautions taken when teaching an animal to do something that, under normal circumstances, you would never want that animal to do? 
The first thing I educate directors to is that dogs don’t act. They don’t act happy; they don’t act sad; they don’t act angry. They’re in real time.

What about the aggressive stuff? 
You always get these calls for biting dogs. There’s a type of attack-dog training that is actually very humane, in which the animal has been taught to bite for fun. I’m fortunate enough that the woman who trains dogs for the New York City Police Department lives in Connecticut, her name is Meredith Vallillo. She’s got all these brilliant shepherds that are the sweetest dogs you can imagine. So whenever we get an aggression-type shot you know I’ll call Meredith.

What is the most challenging project you’ve ever trained an animal for, on stage or screen?
A couple years ago, there was a production of The Crucible on Broadway directed by Ivo van Hove. About two months before the show was gonna start rehearsals, the producers called me and said, “Bill, our director wants a wolf to walk across the stage.”

Oh, is that all? 
Wolves and wolf-hybrids are illegal to own. So my wife and I did some research and we found a rare breed of dog called a Tamaskan. About 25 years ago, a bunch of people got together to start breeding dogs to look like wolves. That’s the sole purpose of a Tamaskan. The dogs are actually used in Game of Thrones as the direwolves. Dorothy and I started calling some breeders — there was one person in Romania and there was one person in Seattle, Washington, who’d loan us their dog. I went out to Seattle and met this family’s pet Tamaskan, Luchta. They said he was really friendly, but I came into their home and Luchta, an 85-pound dog, sort of went for my face.

After the show ended you sent Luchta back to his family?
I had him for a total of eight months. I drove him back and kissed him good-bye. They ended up being compensated for the use of their dog, and then he was much better trained and more socialized than he was before.

What do you think people would be surprised to learn about animal training?
There are no laws protecting animals on sets.

Really, none? I just assumed the “no animals were harmed” spiel meant some sort of laws were in place. 
The American Humane association is a third-party observer. And they’re paid by the producer to be there. They can say, “We don’t think you should do that; we’re not going to give you the seal,” but they don’t have any law-enforcement protection. They sign a nondisclosure agreement, so they can’t even call law enforcement if they witness something that’s been wrong. I love when the reps are there because then it’s not just me saying no, but the American Humane association’s probably only on 5 percent of the sets that are being shot on a day here in America. Trainers have to really self-police.

Stunt Performer

What Stunt People Dream About

"A pirate sword fight that turns into a fall off the ship into the ocean, and then we continue the fight in the water."

Ask a stunt person about the hardest cinematic sequence they’ve ever pulled off — be it on two wheels or in midair — and they’ll dutifully recount the choreography, the fear, the botched rehearsals and failed takes behind some of the most memorable movie action scenes. It’s their job, to perform such death-defying moves safely and with as much forethought as is celestially possible. And so they can almost be rote in describing the grueling details of their profession. How do you get a stunt person really talking? Ask them about the one stunt they haven’t yet performed — the one they’ve been dreaming about but haven’t yet had the opportunity or chutzpah to make real.

In short: a lot of car tricks. Photo: Vulture and Paramount Pictures

Here are six veteran stunt performers on what they fantasize about:

The Aquatic Fencer

“A pirate sword fight that turns into a fall off the ship into the ocean, and then we continue the fight in the water.” —PeiPei Alena Yuan (Star TrekLuciferLegion)

The Turducken

“I’ve done pretty much every stunt there is to do, like burns and car jumps. I suppose it would be pretty cool to jump a car out of an aircraft carrier, and then leave the car and parachute down. No, wait, a motorcycle stunt. You know, on a motorcycle, it would be even better, right? You’d ride out the back of an aircraft.” —Melissa Stubbs (InceptionSaltSuicide Squad

The Reverse Turducken

“One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was to have a guy run a motorcycle off a cliff and land on the outside of an airplane that’s cruising underneath the cliff. Like, he runs a motorcycle off a cliff at like 120 mph with people chasing him, and he flies off the cliff, and then you see him pop into a wingsuit and then land right in the back of the airplane as these people are watching him, hoping he’s going to die, and the airplane comes in and he lands right in the back of it.” —Jack Gill (The Dukes of HazzardGone in 60 SecondsThe Fate of the Furious)

The Speeding Ticket

“There are some things that I’d like to do if it would be record setting. Something like averaging 200 miles an hour for a certain distance on a public road. We would have to refuel while we’re doing it. Stuff like that that would make a big splash on the news.” —Paul Dallenbach (The WatcherFast & FuriousNeed for Speed)

The Traffic Stop

“I really like to do things in a sequence, like not just one car slide — a whole rhythm. Something that requires a couple of different beats in it, like do a fight scene that would end up in traffic, miss being hit, then pull a guy out of the car, hop in the car and take off, then throw a 180.” —David Barrett (John Wick: Chapter 3 - ParabellumThe Matrix ReloadedJurassic Park III)

The Lunch Break

“Oh, I would like to set some records on two wheels. I’d like to do the fastest and the longest distance. You know, pack a lunch and just get up there on two wheels, and just drive around until I set the record.” —James Smith (Transformers, The Man in the High Castle, Finding Steve McQueen)

What are the hardest sequences stunt people have ever pulled off? Read more here.

The Hardest, Oddest, Most Memorable Project I Ever Worked On