On the set of 'Jayhawkers'

Lawrence resident makes silver screen debut

Monday, September 24, 2012


Grant Fitch

Wilt Chamberlain (Justin Wesley), center, and his date (Sara Kennedy) are told they must move to the balcony by a movie theater usher (Aubry Peters) in a scene from “Jayhawkers.”


Grant Fitch

Chancellor Franklin Murphy (Jay Karnes), left, meets with Wilt Chamberlain (Justin Wesley) in “Jayhawkers.”


Grant Fitch

Coach Dick Harp (Blake Robbins), center, gives a pre-game speech to the team in “Jayhawkers.”

Oh thank you, thank you. I never expected to win an Oscar in just my first movie. I want to thank the members of the Academy, but there are so many other people to thank.

Turns out, I was ready for my close-up.

I was lucky enough to be cast in a minor, minor, minor part for the upcoming film “Jayhawkers.” My character is “Theater Manager,” and the only instruction I was given before I arrived on the set was “Your character is trying to deter people from entering a theater.”

As simple as those directions sound, I’ve rarely been able to deter people from doing anything. My kids have run roughshod over my directions for years. Hell, half the time I can’t even deter myself from doing things I shouldn’t.

But I was willing to say any lines and do anything the director told me to do in order to accomplish my character’s one goal: deter people from entering a theater.

First I want to thank my parents, who always gave me their spare change so that I could walk for miles and miles to see the Saturday matinee. I hope my brother and sister forgive me for ignoring them while I followed my muse into the cinema.

I was to arrive on set in my audition costume: slicked-down hair, short-sleeve white shirt and a bow tie.

My first panic session of the day began in front of the mirror while trying to tie my bow tie. I was able to tie it for the audition only by watching YouTube videos. Their instructions worked relatively well then; they were no help this time. During 20 minutes of inept practice, I accomplished only three things: 1) strangling myself, 2) inventing several knots previously unknown to mankind and 3) not tying my bow tie.

I left for the set, Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, with the untied bow tie draped unceremoniously around my neck. That’s when the first miracle happened: my wife called. She met me at the school and tied it for me. With bow properly tied, I reported to the set on time.

They filmed some scenes that morning and were setting up for the afternoon shots, including mine. Central’s auditorium was transformed into a 1955 movie theater. A fog machine put a haze in the air. Extras in period dress were seated around the central point of action. An actor playing an usher was dressed in full maroon-suit-and-gold-buttons bellhop uniform. Wilt Chamberlain was due anytime.

Justin Wesley, the Kansas University basketball team sophomore who plays The Big Dipper, had a tight schedule that day and was only available for 90 minutes, so all the logistics revolved around that window.

It was time to rehearse.

I want to thank the director of “Jayhawkers” for envisioning my potential and casting me in such a pivotal role. Really, if you think about it, mine was the THE pivotal role. Without those three lines of dialogue, the movie just falls apart.

Director Kevin Willmott was improvising the scene, the blocking, the dialogue, as he went along. I get the feeling he’s a jazz fan because he was improvising on set the way a jazz musician would on stage.

He knew what the scene was supposed to look like, he knew the script. But he was constantly experimenting, changing, adding and listening. When it was time for the other members of the crew — cameramen, lighting techs, assistant directors, sound mixers, grips, gaffes, make-up and art directors — to take their solos, he stood back and watched and listened.

Then with all the solos finished, it was time for the melody to come back together and for the first assistant director to yell “action.”

In my scene, Wilt is told by the theater usher that he and his date, a white girl, will need to sit in the balcony. Seeing all the empty seats, Wilt encourages black families in the balcony to come downstairs. As those families come down the aisle, I’m supposed to deter them.

Kevin diagramed the action, gave our characters their backstory and motivation, and had us rehearse several times. With each run, he added a line of dialogue, made a minor change to the placement of a character, told a few extras to add some reaction to the events unfolding in front of them, and had Justin unfurl all 6-foot-9-inches of him from a tiny theater seat over and over and over again. To add to his already imposing height, they had him sit and stand on boxes to match Wilt’s 7-foot-1-inch frame.

We did three takes, with each having a subtle change. It was fascinating to be a part of and, for a lifelong movie fan, it was a glimpse backstage that I’ve always dreamed about.

That’s when the second miracle happened: the director and producer told me I did a good job.

I want to thank all the little people on the set. Even when I suggested sensible ways that they could do their jobs better, they still treated me with the respect accorded a star. Before the orchestra plays me off, I just want to say, again, thanks for recognizing my brilliance.

To say that my character was supposed to be surly is an understatement. To say that he was racist would be a stretch. I think he just didn’t like someone making trouble in his theater. His authority — both seating and moral — is being usurped by a young, impertinent, supremely self-confident black man.

After Wilt left, Kevin shot crowd reactions, transition shots, close-ups of extras, and then he thought of something for me to do. We blocked a scene where the theater manager looks at Wilt, now played by the empty chair where he used to sit, gives him a dirty look, walks up the aisle in disgust and frustration and “has a moment” with the usher. I was shot in profile, close-up, by a hand-held camera.

I’m hoping against hope that my scenes don’t end up on the cutting room floor.

At the end of the day, the producer and director thanked the actors, and a crew member passed out envelopes with the day’s pay. This was a profound surprise to me; I was ready to pay them for the privilege of being in the movie. In fact, I hoped they’d take credit cards.

When people talk about the “greatest day of their life,” they mention weddings, kids being born, graduations, promotions. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, those are all OK.

I WAS IN A MOVIE. Now that’s a great day.

— Phil Wilke is a writer and public radio fundraiser who lives in Lawrence.