Like Fight Club, the first rule of this movie was not to talk about the movie. So when Bad Grandpa came to North Carolina, it was as an unnamed entity in order to fly under the radar.
Because the film was to be a hidden-camera comedy, it was crucial to keep the public in the dark during the shoot. The film's star is Johnny Knoxville of Jackass notoriety, and in Bad Grandpa he plays the cranky septuagenarian Irving Zisman, swaddled in laboriously applied old age makeup. Bad Grandpa is a collection of gags strung out along a cross-country road trip taken by Zisman with Billy, his 9-year-old grandson (Jackson Nicoll). The Zisman character is a spin-off from the Jackass oeuvre, where the old man's crass manners and unapologetic actions confront people in the most morally objectionable scenarios.
I'm not a full-time film crew person, but I landed a job as a production assistant in the employ of Dickhouse Productions. Because of my penchant for skateboarding and punk rock, I was placed in the art department where I was told I would "fit in."
The job surfaced last fall, when director Jeff Tremaine told me he was going to be shooting a movie in North Carolina. I've known Tremaine since junior high. Over the years, I have contributed to publications he has helmed, most notably Big Brother, a skateboard magazine that was the birthplace of the Jackass idea. Tremaine explained that the hidden camera laws were pretty lax in my home state, then added that the film industry had tax incentives for production companies who wanted to film in North Carolina. So it was a no-brainer for him to shoot here.
I reported to J.P. Blackmon, the art director. "We are the first in and the last out," he told me. This would explain why my crew call time the next day was 6 a.m.
My co-workers were a fine crew, a workhard, play-hard group fueled by nicotine and caffeine. Most of the crew have been together since Jackass the television series, while others joined more recently on Dickhouse-produced shows such as Nitro Circus and Loiter Squad. The camaraderie allows everyone to pitch in to get the job done. The most popular items at craft services (aka "crafty") were Red Bull, soda, gummy vitamins and packets of Emergen-C. And when a long day led to a longer night, Pedialyte (the professional drinker's hangover cure) could be found in the cooler.
Much of my job involved shopping for supplies. I was provided with $500 in petty cash (also known as a "float") and sent off to Home Depot. Or Lowe's. I would become intimate with the aisles of these stores over the course of making the film.
Sometimes the request was an obvious necessity: "We need caution tape." Other times not so much, like wasting hours trying to find a stethoscope from a medical supplies company before realizing, in a fit of frustration, that I merely had to go to Walgreens.
Nothing was what it seemed on this movie. Portable toilets became camera hides, production trucks were covered with fake business names, and cargo vans that shuttled the crew around appeared to belong to a local church group. And the director's control room? It was a retirement home minibus outfitted with camera monitors and microphones.
The camera hides were an elemental part of the process and pretty much dictated how the art department would spend its days. Hammering, sawing, drilling, nailing and painting, making the wood appear to be a fake chimney, a trash receptacle at a public park or an armoire to be tucked in the corner of a room. GoPro, that little box of a digital camera, revolutionizes a movie like this: It can be placed anywhere almost unnoticed and is virtually impossible to destroy.
The production crew was like an octopus: tentacles operating mostly autonomously that came together as one when the camera rolled. The head of this beast was Tremaine, accompanied by executive producers Trip Taylor and Derek Freda and first assistant director Joe Osbourne. Then you had wardrobe, makeup, the camera crew, sound, stunts, transportation, the production office and art department.
The walkie-talkie and its earpiece were another crucial part of the process, for it was the only way to communicate across departments. There was lots of chatter; some days, I felt like a soldier gathering intel for a military ops mission: Suddenly, there's a crackle and Osbourne relays, "Art department, we need a RESET!" And then I am off.
On the morning of shoot days, Osbourne and Taylor would debrief the crew, always ending with the caveat: Don't say anything to anybody, don't tell anybody what we are doing, absolutely no social media. We are to be as stealthy as possible.
The irony of all this is that the film's star was spotted in town almost as soon as he landed. But while Knoxville sightings would populate the shoot, the old-man gag seemed to remain under cover.
Once, standing behind a dumpster by Finch's on Peace Street, I ran across the parking lot to place orange cones on parking spaces. We needed to save the spots for a gag where Knoxville gets out of the car and then it rolls away into some trashcans. (And yes, those trashcans were props courtesy of the art department.) Even though I was a lowly PA, that day I was a crucial part of the shoot. If somebody parked in the space allotted for Knoxville's car, the whole scene would be screwed.
But everybody there was a vital cog; everybody wore many hats. The release PAs—the people who get passersby to sign off on their likeness being used in a film—also functioned as crafty, toting around coolers and snacks for those of us out in the field. At night, after shooting wrapped, a couple dozen crew members would gather at the local bars, taking over corn hole courts, commandeering karaoke or tackling Tuesday night trivia at a sports bar.
It's somewhat hard to believe at times that juvenile locker room humor, the dick jokes and body fluids, have kept this crew in business for more than 15 years. I've always felt there was a Dadaesque vibe to their world—absurdity for absurdity's sake and all that.
So there I was, standing by a golf course water hazard on an unseasonably chilly day in late March in Raleigh, watching Knoxville reel in a large fish with a prominently wriggling penis, and I thought, "This is fucking absurd."
You've been warned.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Clowns to the left, jokers to the right."