By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist
Rarely -- not often, but rarely -- this isn't the greatest gig in the world. Yes, I actually get paid to write just three columns a week. Yes, I work mostly out of my own house. Yes, I covered a championship fight in Vegas and spent nine days in New Orleans for the Super Bowl. Yes, I've successfully completed a three-step handshake with Stuart Scott, called John Buccigross "Booch" and shadowboxed in the ESPN newsroom with an overmatched Brian Kenny.
"Season on the Brink" goes behind the scenes of Indiana's 1985-86 season.
But it's not all peaches and cream, folks. Last December, my bosses sent me to visit the set of "Season on the Brink," (8 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN and ESPN2) the upcoming movie about Bobby Knight ... which was being filmed in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
That's right, Winnipeg.
After completing the requisite number of weeks in therapy, I'm here to answer all your questions:
Q: Winnipeg? Winnipeg???? Why film the movie in Winnipeg?
Good question. Apparently, it's cheaper to make movies in Canada, especially when you're avoiding more expensive locations like Toronto or Montreal. And Winnipeg resembles Bloomington, Ind., just enough that it made the most sense for a quickie shoot.
(Let's just say Winnipeg was available. There isn't anything going on there. I mean, zippo.
There's a reason they haven't filmed a TV series about detectives like "The Streets of Winnipeg" or "Winnipeg Vice" -- take Hartford circa 1978, make it about 30 degrees colder, and you'd have Winnipeg.)
Q: Is this movie going to be any good? What's it about?
I haven't seen a finished cut of the movie, but I read the script and watched a full day of filming. The script seemed OK. It's a straight-forward treatment of the '86 season -- as described in detail by John Feinstein's superb book -- which has the same problems that most TV movies have: Too much ground to cover, not enough time to explore the fringe characters, clichéd dialogue, plots moving along too abruptly and so on. Given that it was the first ESPN-produced movie, they probably weren't expecting anything beyond a cost-effective, watchable, semi-absorbing sports movie that could be carried by one visible star (in this case, the bankable Brian Dennehy as Knight).
Other than Brian Dennehy, center, there aren't a lot of recognizable faces in the "Brink" cast.
As for the scenes I watched in person, if you're looking for inexperienced actors reciting lines of dialogue like this ...
"You gonna study tonight?"
"Sure, I'll study what's on the tube."
... then "Brink" is the movie for you. From what I witnessed, the Unintentional Comedy Rating for "Brink" could be off the charts. Either way, it's going to be intriguing, especially with Dennehy and a competent director (Bob Mandel who did "FX") involved. Whether the finished product will be described as "Entertaining & Absorbing," "Perversely Enjoyable" or "As Gripping As a Two-Hour Car Crash" remains to be seen. At the very least, I'm guessing it will keep our attention for two hours.
Q: Does Dennehy pull off Bobby Knight?
Nope. He's basically playing Brian Dennehy, only he's wearing a red sweater and a white wig and dropping more F-bombs than usual. Not that this is a bad thing. I'm not sure anyone could have pulled off Knight, especially on a short shoot like this.
Q: What was Dennehy like off-camera?
Very professional, very charismatic. You could glimpse that side in the interview we did (which ran on Page 2 in January
), but that was just a straight-forward transcript -- it didn't capture the businesslike vibe Dennehy exudes when he ambles onto the set, or the way it feels like a genuine movie shoot when he's around. It was fascinating to watch them prepare the lighting for his scenes, and after everything was set and everybody was in place, suddenly a confident Dennehy would come bounding in, like a closer coming out of the bullpen. I can't even imagine what it's like to visit a movie set when De Niro or Pacino are involved.
Q: Did anyone else in the movie stand out?
The guy playing Delray Brooks (Al Thompson) possessed the most star potential out of any of them -- he had visible roles in two high-profile movies last winter ("A Walk to Remember" and "The Royal Tenenbaums") and seems headed in the right direction. Plus he grew an old-school '80s afro for the part, so you have to hand it to him there.
As for the guy playing Steve Alford (James Lafferty), he seemed a little stiff, but he did nail Alford's hairdo (the old middle part!). Everyone else was pretty generic. Let's just say you won't be putting this cast of teenagers alongside the casts of "School Ties" and "Dead Poets Society" in 10 years.
The movie's basketball sequences are pretty lively.
Q: How did they handle the basketball scenes? What was the buzz about them?
This wasn't like "Blue Chips," where they encouraged the players to freelance in a pickup format. Most of the specific plays corresponded to things that were happening in the script; all other basketball footage was choreographed by Dan Becker, an assistant coach for the University of Manitoba's men's hoops team. Becker was probably the happiest guy on the set -- they called him at the last minute, out of nowhere, and he ended up landing a consulting gig and
a speaking part as one of Knight's assistants.
As for the buzz, supposedly the basketball sequences are pretty lively. They lucked out, because Lafferty's jumper was a dead ringer for Alford's jumper, so between that and Lafferty's haircut, they're in good shape on that front. And they used enough extras for the crowd (as many as 600 to 700 on some days) that the game scenes should feel authentic enough. At least it won't be the caliber of something like "Teen Wolf" or "The Hank Gathers Story."
Q: Which scenes did you witness while you were visiting the set?
The afternoon shoot was located at a Veteran's Hall in downtown Winnipeg -- Norwood Legion Hall, Branch No. 43 -- which was converted into a pizza parlor for cinematic purposes (throwing the local BINGO scene into chaos for one night). They filmed two scenes, both involving the four main Indiana players (Steve Alford, Daryl Thomas, Andre Harris and Delray Brooks) eating pizza and talking about the coach. For the nighttime shoot, they switched to an art store across the street, where a refurbished store room doubled as the back room of Smitty's (Knight's favorite restaurant, and the scene of numerous postgame dinners).
And I think that tells you more about this movie than anything: While I was there, they filmed seven scenes in one day. This was like a Reverse Kubrick pace.
Q: What was it like being on a movie set? What things did you notice?
In order ...
It's astonishing how many people you need to make a movie. For instance, during the pizza parlor scenes, there were about 60 extras (mostly locals dressed in Indiana garb) in the background, as well as another 15-20 crew members frantically barking out orders, shuffling scripts, checking lighting and sound, testing cameras and adjusting props. Plus you had the director and producers, and the stars, and the people making extra pizzas, and the set managers, and the people cooking food for lunch ... the list goes on and on. It's endless.
The director and producers seemed the calmest out of anyone (maybe because they have the most power?). The ADs (assistant directors) seemed the most tense (because they have to monitor all the nitty-gritty things, like, "Was that soda on the table during that last take?" and "Did that extra move too soon?"). The extras seemed the happiest (they all have a "Hey, I'm in a movie!" glow about them). The people with boring jobs just seemed bored (like the person in charge of turning on the smoke machine before every take).
It's funny how serious everyone takes a movie shoot. Every time Mandel said, "Action!", all the crew members/bystanders looked down to the ground and turned into motionless mutes, like they just met the Blair Witch or something. And every take looked the same -- extras walking the same way, actors saying their lines the same way, crew members barking the same instructions afterward -- it was like watching the movie "Groundhog Day."
The one tidbit that fascinated me: They filmed the pizza parlor scenes with one main camera, so they had to film each scene multiple ways -- a master shot of the group, a background shot, isolation shots of each actor saying his lines and close-up shots of certain actors reacting to someone else's lines -- then edit all the footage together. For some reason, seeing this totally affected the way I watch movies now. Every time I see a scene, I'm always thinking, "Well, they're doing different takes with the same camera," or "Looks like they're filming this all at once." Try this the next time you watch a movie ... it totally alters the way you're watching it.
During one scene, the poor actors had to keep eating pizza for multiple takes. As an added wrinkle, the pizza looked like cardboard and tasted like holy hell. There was legitimate "Someone might stand up and lose his lunch" potential. According to executive producer Stanley Brooks, this actually happens from time to time. As if people in Hollywood weren't already making themselves throw up enough.
Q: What's the dumbest -- yet useful -- thing you learned on the set?
The Gaffer heads the lighting department and deals with every electrical issue. The Key Grip handles lighting and deals with reflections and light-shaping. And the Best Boys work under the Gaffer and the Key Grip. Didn't you always want to know these things?
Q: Who has the coolest job on a movie set?
The executive producers. Their work is pretty much done by the time the shooting starts -- they've already handled the budget, dealt with the studio, picked a director, weighed in on all the casting/crew decisions, visited potential set locations and everything else. So they stick around, like the owner of a good restaurant, in case any potential monkey wrenches arise during the filming.
But here's the catch: Screw-ups rarely happen with a good crew, capable producers and a competent director, and the executive producers don't want to seem like they're meddling, either. In other words, they really don't have much to do. During my day on the "Brink" set, Brooks spent most of his time schmoozing and making cell phone calls. I'm telling you, it's a phenomenal job.
(Of course, I ended up hanging out with Brooks for a solid hour; once I found out that he was a Red Sox fan who lives in Brentwood, it was all over. He told me he had produced more than 30 TV movies, and when I asked him, "How many 90210 stars have you worked with?", he quickly responded, "Two with Jennie Garth!" Sadly, he had never worked with Tiffani Amber-Theissen, but I quickly got over it. We ended up talking about Hollywood stuff from that point on. Very good times. It doesn't get much better than discussing Hollywood rumors/anecdotes/stories with someone who actually works in Hollywood. Just trust me.)
Q: Who was the goofiest guy on the set?
Dennehy's stand-in during the filming: Lionel Moore, a stocky guy with white hair and a red sweater who seemed wayyyyyyyy too happy to be there. I can't even describe how funny this guy was -- he was dressed like Brian Dennehy as Bobby Knight, but he was just kind of lingering around, waiting to do "stand-in things" and talking to anyone and everyone. He was like the mayor of the set. At one point during my visit, some of the actors wrapped their final scenes and were saying goodbye to everyone, and Moore was the first one over, like a father sending his kids off to college. The whole thing killed me. What's wrong with me? Why do things like this always crack me up?
(Note: During the shoot, I spent most of my time hanging out with Michael Mandt, the producer of ESPN's "Making of the Movie" doucmentary about "Brink," and he kept joking that when I started talking to Moore, it would mean I had officially run out of people to interview. So around 8 that night, I finally found myself talking to Moore ... and I was out of there in about five minutes. That was like a white flag.)
Q: What was the highlight of your visit?
All right, I've been waiting to tell this story for three months ...
Midway through the afternoon shoot, I was interviewing Becker (the hoops choreographer), when somebody wandered over to say hello. So I'm looking at this guy, and I'm looking at him, and dammit, he looked familiar as hell, but I couldn't put my finger on it, and it was driving me CRAZY, so I just ended up flat-out asking him if he was in the movie.
His face broke into a big smile: "Gary Hudson, nice to meet you!"
Seemed like a nice guy. I asked if he was appearing in the movie; it turned out he was playing one of Knight's assistants (Ron Felling). Nope. I still couldn't place him.
Screw it ... I had to ask.
"I'm sorry, you look really familiar," I told him. "What movie do I know you from?"
And Gary Hudson gives me this one: "You might remember me from 'Road House' ..."
Bammo! There it was! Immediately, I remembered that he played the original Double Deuce bouncer in "Road House" (indisputably one of the greatest Bad Movies of all-time) -- the evil guy with slicked-back hair who ended up getting fired by Patrick Swayze and defecting to the other side.
You know ... That Guy? It was a bonafide That Guy!!!!!! In the flesh!
About an hour later, I sat down with him for the longest interview Gary Hudson has probably ever given. Not only did we cover every possible "Road House" question
-- apparently Hudson and Swayze had a fight scene that was deleted from the final cut, Reason No. 434 why they need to release the "Road House" DVD -- but I found out he was one of the few actors who had worked with Swayze, Dolph Lundgren and Chuck Norris (sadly, no Van Damme or Seagal). We also went over his filmography, which included classics like "The Stepdaughter," "Virtual Conspiracy" and "Sexual Intent," leading to this exchange:
Dennehy says he's doing an "interpretation" of Bob Knight -- not an "imitation."
Me: "Did you ever make a film with Shannon Tweed?"
Then Gary told me that he even had a full-fledged nude scene with Tweed in that one (which also starred Telly Savalas, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Jan-Michael Vincent). At this point, I was pretty much speechless, and I wanted to ask him the question that pops in your mind whenever someone tells you something like, "Yeah, I filmed a soft-core sex scene with Shannon Tweed, and we were both completely naked," but I couldn't think of the right way to ask it. Gary knew where I was headed, so he jumped right in, chuckling, "I know what you're gonna ask ... no, I didn't get overexcited or anything."
According to Gary, it's difficult to get excited when you're lying in bed with somebody you barely know, completely naked, trying to pretend that you're turned on, while a director barks out instructions and a movie crew watches your every move. As he was telling me this, I couldn't spit out my predictable "Sounds like my prom night!" joke fast enough. I'm telling you, this was the most entertaining interview of my entire career. Nothing will top 15 minutes with Gary Hudson. He's officially my favorite That Guy.
And you know what? Spending time with him and Dennehy in the same day almost made up for the fact that ESPN sent me to Winnipeg.
Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.
Gary: " 'Indecent Behavior!' "