The taxi beeped once outside my house and off I went. With just enough time to empty the suitcase of cold weather clothes and replace with shorts and cotton blouses, I was on the road again. From the windy, chilly, dry prairies of northern NM to the green lushness of SW Georgia, I am in another small town, in another new hotel. The humidity is a welcome relief, already healing chapped skin and plumping hair follicles, though we’ll see how working in it feels on Monday. The air smells softer and heavier, people speak differently, and I’m reminded again of why this life suits me. I find an odd comfort in traveling as part of a movie crew, a temporary family, rolling into a new town, state, or country and having it feel both familiar and foreign simultaneously.
The wind has been blowing an average of 25 mph on the plains north of Las Vegas, NM, for months. Fine dust gets stirred up and trapped in eyes, food, camera lenses, and sweaters, turning them brown and gritty, never to feel truly clean again. On a good day the wind dies down at sunset and on a bad day it doesn’t.
We stand with our backs to it, like cattle, trying not to breathe too deeply, wrapped head to toe in scarves, hoods, and goggles, trying to emerge unscathed.
I look around at the crew and smile. What are we all doing out here? What other profession requires its workers to work through the night, outside, in snowstorms, wind, dust, and rainstorms, to get the job done regardless of personal and collective discomfort? Highway crews, farmers, maybe some others… But movie crews seem to have a particular love of misery, a masochistic, adrenaline induced need to see how bad it can get before it’s just not worth it.
But, in the end, it seems it is almost always worth it. If for no other reason than the bragging rights that go along with the toughest conditions you’ve had to endure. The movie in Russia where you were shooting on top of a train and temps dipped to minus 60. Or shooting in Morocco in dust storms that lasted for days in temps above 115. I’ve heard these stories and joined in with some of my own. For all of the misery that weather and difficult conditions bring, in the end it adds to the adventure and once you get through it, it leaves a great story to be told, and embellished, somewhere down the line.
I’ve been slightly obsessed with my hands for the past few weeks. Standing in the desert, in the sun, the wind and the snow, I try to take care of and nourish them, but at the moment they look like washer woman hands from days gone by.
As I look at them, I think about work and how my hands are such an integral part of how I make a living. From sewing to writing to buttoning buttons, they are the most taken for granted and used common denominator in everything I do.
As a child I thought I would be an actress, a linguist, or a teacher of some sort. But, instead of those more cerebral arts, I ended up using my hands. They are strong and capable, even when they are bleeding and dry from overuse, dryness, and lack of care. I am grateful for them and for the interesting jobs I have had which put them to use.
I woke a year older and started to think of birthdays past. Some feel like yesterday while I have no recollection of others.
Turning 4, I am at my grandmother’s house in Denver with my mom and my sister. There is a knock on the door and a man in a uniform delivers four red roses which, to my astonishment, are for me, from my dad.
Turning 5, I am on the swing set at recess with a friend, asking her if it feels different to play with me, now that I am a year older.
Turning 14, I am in London, with my British pen-pal, waiting in line for half price theater tickets in the rain.
Turning 18, I am in Germany, on a month long trip with my high school German class. It is Easter Sunday, I have the flu, and am sitting through a five hour long Wagner opera, wishing I was in bed.
Turning 22, I am depressed, realizing for the first time that the years will just keep coming and that it is up to me to make them good.
Turning 26, I am in a motel room, hitting a pinata with a sword. It was the first of several birthdays I would spend shooting a movie in Las Vegas, NM.
Turning 30, I am sad because a dear friend has recently passed away. But, I am also happy because he appears to me in a dream the night before my birthday and I know he and everything is ok.
Turning 31, I am on the set of “True Grit” and it is a rough day.
Turning 33, I am in Colby, a fake town in the desert, drinking a vodka tonic.
Turning 34, I wake to a beautiful day. It is a three day weekend and I have a few hours to get things done before the festivities begin. Before realizing that my birthday would fall on a Saturday, I was sure I would spend it standing in blowing dust on the set of yet another western, but instead I am home, clean, and well rested. I feel optimistic about the year ahead, happy that I seem to be evolving and retaining wisdom from lessons learned, becoming more and more comfortable in my own skin as the years pass.
Working on location. It’s not a vacation, it’s longer than a normal business trip, it feels almost like living somewhere, but it is definitely temporary. Every once in a while you luck out and end up somewhere really cool, somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, on a show that is mellow enough to actually let you have the time to enjoy and explore your new surroundings. But, more often, you end up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and are glad that the show is a crazy one and that you don’t have too much time to sit in your motel room wondering what’s happening back in your other life.
I’ve been lucky enough to end up in some great cities and to have come away feeling that I really know them. But, much more frequently than being sent to Austin, New Orleans, or New York, I find myself in places such as Wilmington (Ohio), Las Vegas (New Mexico), and Shreveport (Louisiana) and am forced to figure out ways to continue living some semblance of my life, while away.
I used to find myself counting down the days, putting my “real life” on hold, and waiting until the job was over to return to it. But, slowly it became apparent that it was all my real life and the quicker I realized it the better it would be. Waiting caused me to miss out on things I may have enjoyed in my new town and to place my life in between jobs on a pedestal, only to realize that while I’d been away, things kept moving along without me and I had to find my new/old place in the current layout.
In addition to a suitcase of clothing and shoes, I started packing a bag of things that make me happy no matter where I wake…Vintage Earl Grey, coconut oil, my yoga mat, books, my ipod, a wine opener, my linens and pillow, and a candle. Upon arriving in my new town, I take a few hours to “move in”, rearranging furniture if I need to, until it feels like somewhere I can live for a bit. It took me a few years to figure out little ways to keep my life running while out of cell range, or the state, for months on end, and I realized, with some planning, it is possible. I’m dependent on timers to water my plants, the postal service’s premium forwarding service to send me my mail, and an expandable file folder which serves as my office while away. For most of last year, while on location with “The Lone Ranger”, a cardboard girl scout cookie box served as my medicine cabinet, full of the supplements and vitamins that kept me going for ten months.
There is a camaraderie among people working on location that is a relief when in a strange place. It’s easy to tag along with a group to dinner or find somewhere to meet on Saturday nights. It’s a strange, gypsy life we have all adopted and though it has its good and bad, most of us keep coming back for more. It was only after I started to look at all of it as my “real life”, that I began to enjoy it, seeing it as an adventure, and trying to find the good in wherever I landed. Trusting that home would still be there when I returned.
It’s been almost four months since my last movie ended and tomorrow my next begins. Because it will be another Western, I’m dusting off the boots, packing jeans, flannel shirts, and straw hats, preparing for three months of wind, sun, and dust.
When I chose to base myself full time in New Mexico, instead of LA, I resigned myself to the fact that I would spend most of my days outdoors, working in the elements, rather than on a soundstage. When I do end up on the occasional stage movie, I am amazed at how much easier it is than what I am used to, if for no other reason it involves pavement, which makes rolling a wardrobe rack exponentially easier. But, alas, I end up working on Westerns the vast majority of the time. They are beautiful, dirty, and everything about working on them is more difficult than any other type of movie. The locations are in places where no roads, cell towers, or power lines are visible, thereby making them hard to get to and hard to work from. The cast and crew are at the mercy of the weather and the light, which makes the completion of a day’s work a real feat.
I know many costumers who avoid Westerns like the plague and I understand why. I spend my days dealing with leather, wool, fur, fake blood, and dirt when I could be dealing with the cute, latest styles if I was working on a clean, romantic comedy somewhere. Chaps, corsets, and detachable collars are just a few of the clothing items I have become an expert on and each makes me so happy that our styles have evolved. Many of the costumes I set in actor’s trailers weigh more than a small child and when people ask me if I work out, I laugh. No, I work on Westerns and lug wet wool through the dirt.
But, I also get to be around really interesting costumes, horses, to see beautiful sunrises and sunsets almost every day, and to get a really great tan. On my last day of freedom for the next few months, I am dusting off the boots, finding the dust goggles, and packing the bandanas. And it all seems so normal.