Thursday, March 17, 2011

When I Found the Big Bag of Oranges

So, you might be asking yourself, why is my blog called "The Big Bag of Oranges" anyway? Well, it's a strange story that involves college friends, cops, and the TV show "Benson." But I'm getting ahead of myself. Way back in 1993, I was a student at Auburn University Montgomery trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life. It had taken me 3 years of on-again/off-again enrollment to finally finish up the general courses. I had taken all the stuff everybody has to take when they go to college. I couldn't put it off any longer. I had to finally pick a major. I had no idea where to turn. None of the "careers" laid out in front of me seemed appealing. I hated math, so business and engineering were out. Blood makes me squeamish, so forget the medical field. I don't want to be a teacher, and I feel that if you don't want to teach, you shouldn't. Some people I know regard teaching as a "fallback" position. "If my career as a so-and-so doesn't work out, I'll just become a teacher." I think you would be doing your students an unforgivable disservice if you didn't feel passionately about teaching them. So, for me, that was also out.

About the only thing I was drawn to in college was when I performed in plays for the college's theatre department. I had signed up for an acting class my first semester because I though it would be an easy A and it might be a good place to meet girls. I didn't get lucky in that class, but I did find out about auditions for "Night of the Iguana" at Theatre AUM. Again, because of the potential to meet girls, I tried out. And, to my surprise, I got a part! I was cast as one of the Mexican houseboys (Paco or Pedro, I can't remember which). I had 8 lines, all in Spanish. The costume designer dyed my hair black and every night before the show I had to cover my body in brown makeup. I was the tallest, skinniest, and palest Mexican you've ever seen. And while the drunken, sweaty dialogue of Tennessee Williams didn't exactly set my heart on fire, being on stage did. When it comes right down to it, I'm a big showoff, so being in front of large groups of people has never bothered me. I felt at home on the stage, and for this particular show, I was part of the (minuscule) comic relief. It was a lot of fun dressing up in a silly costume every night and making the audience laugh. It became addictive. I started trying out for other shows every semester, playing bigger parts, working backstage, and hanging out with the theatre crowd. But it never occurred to me that being an actor could be a lucrative career. This was something I did for fun; a hobby more than anything, really. Sure, I might fancy myself as a bit of a comedian, but I'm not really an actor. And I wasn't really drawn to the technical side of theatre, either (I don't like to hang lights, make costumes, or wear all-black clothes all the time). But while I was there, I met a couple of guys who, like me, shared a passion for something that I hadn't even considered. And it was so obvious, it had been staring me right in the face the whole time: movies!

I love movies. I watch them at the movie theater, I rent them on video, I tape them off cable. I grew up watching them, reading about them, being sucked into them. But they existed in my mind as a fantasy realm, something unreal and intangible. I knew all about famous directors and studios and all that, but that was a universe that existed far beyond my own, in a distant and magical place called "Hollywood." I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, and even though I had grown up traveling all over the world, I never thought of Hollywood as a real place. Movies were just something "other people" did. Famous people. Not me. But, as it turns out, regular people do make movies. There's an entire industry filled with regular folk who just happen to have the coolest job in the world. And during my time at Theatre AUM, I met 3 other guys who shared the same desire as I to run off to Hollywood and live the dream: Art, Danny, and Garner.

We all met during the 1992 production of "Dracula," and we quickly realized we shared a love for movies. We all aspired to make it big in the movie business, and as luck would have it, we all wanted to to pursue different roles. Art saw himself as a director, Garner as a producer. Danny wanted to be an actor, while I wanted to be a screenwriter. We surmised that if we all worked together, we could take the film world by storm! Granted, our college-sized egos usually got the better of us, and despite the fact that all 4 of us worked at the same video store, none of us had any real idea how to make movies. We couldn't afford to buy real film, and professional video cameras in those days were several thousand dollars we didn't have. The best we could come up with was Art's VHS camcorder. And making a full length film was a bit ambitious for our first time out, so we decided to try our hand at making a parody of the TV show "Cops," figuring that the handheld, amateurish look of the show was right in our wheelhouse. As it turned out, Montgomery's Fox affiliate was airing their own locally produced version of "Cops" called "M.P.D." It was a no-brainer. The wheels turned and we all settled on the name for our show - "N.M.P.D. - Not the Montgomery Police Department." We spent the spring and summer of 1993 filming the exploits of 4 inept cops patrolling the streets of Montgomery, all while trying to find the perfect coffee and donuts. I played Detective Season, the wide-eyed, sci-fi geek who bumbled his way through each adventure. Art Douglas played Sgt. Douglas (go figure), the violent, ex-military type. Garner was Sgt. Manapua, the psychotic Vietnam vet with homicidal tendencies. Danny was Detective Juan O'Malley, an undercover druglord. Sure, it was kind of cheesy and rough-around-the-edges, but it was funny and a lot of fun to make. Some of the end results can be seen here:

We produced about a dozen episodes (more or less) that ran on the local public access channel sporadically during the spring and summer of 1993. Despite the no-budget production values and amateurish execution, a few people besides our friends and families actually watched the damn thing. We amassed a small following around town (even sold a few N.M.P.D. t-shirts out of the trunk of Art's car. We were big time!). One of the episodes we filmed involved Garner's character being abducted by aliens (don't ask). In our lofty goals for our little show, we had always intended this to be a cliffhanger episode. Manapua would be whisked away by a UFO at the end, with the next episode revealing what happened to him inside the alien mothership. Unfortunately, my "epic" script for the conclusion proved to be too expensive to produce (i.e. we had no idea how to do it), so we scrapped the whole thing. Instead, I wrote a script where Manapua just shows up back at the police station. Everyone is shocked to see him. Someone asks, "Hey, Manapua, how did you get away from the aliens?" Manapua replies, "Well, it's a funny story..." and just as he is about to explain how he got away from the mothership, we cut to a fake news report about something irrelevant. The fake newscaster wraps up the fake news report and says, "We now return you to N.M.P.D., already in progress." We cut back to Manapua, who is finishing up his tale. He says, "...which is how I wound up at the condom factory. And that's when I found the big bag of oranges." Everyone nods in amazement. And... scene.

It was Garner who actually came up with the line about the oranges, but I thought it was a brilliant way to write around our limitations. A random non-sequiter about oranges and condoms seemed like a funny way of saying to the audience, "Hey, folks, we ain't got the money to do this, so we're just going to move on." I asked Garner how he came up with the line and he explained it was a reference to a random line he heard in re-run of "Benson" when he was a kid. In the episode dim-witted Governor Gatling was trying to recant some silly story to Benson, who was too busy to hear it. Benson tells the Governor to skip to the end. The Governor runs through the tale in his head, then says, "And you know what was in the bag? The oranges!" And... scene. Silly, random, and, at least to me, hysterical. From that point on, the line "That's when I found the big bag of oranges" followed my pen around everywhere I wrote. I tried to include it somewhere in every script or story I came up with. I got the idea from director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Coming to America). Landis includes the phrase "See you next wednesday" in all of his films. It's on billboards, on marquees, on posters, it's even in lines of dialogue. It's subtle and in the background, but it's there. It's a filmmaker signature, like Hitchcock's cameo in all of his own films (or Hal Needham's cameo in all of his own films). The Big Bag of Oranges is mine. It's nonsensical and whimsical and kind of bizarre, and that's why I like it.

And every time I hear it, I am reminded of the summer I spent with my friends making movies. The stuff we filmed was also nonsensical and whimsical and kind of bizarre, but it didn't matter. It also didn't matter that we had no idea what we doing. We were just doing it. We hadn't yet become jaded by the harsh realities of the film industry. We hadn't yet become distracted by the responsibilities of real life. We hadn't yet lost our sense of wonder. As time passes, I get more cynical about making movies. Years after N.M.P.D., when I moved to Los Angeles and had the opportunity to work on "real" movies, I was thrilled beyond belief. I got to watch people like Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese and John Sayles make films. I was an arm-length away from the greatest film school anyone could ever wish for. It was exhilarating, but at the same time, it was kind of sad. It was like I was watching how the magician did his tricks. Sure, the tricks were awesome, but it took some of the magic away. There was a thrill in ignorance that my friends and I shared back in 93. Acting on blind passion without a roadmap led to some pretty amazing destinations back in the day. It also led down some blind alleys, but the thrill of discovery was still there. That thrill is harder and harder to find these days. I know it's still there. I can feel it, buried deep in that part of my brain that remembers things like the lyrics to the theme to "Cannonball Run" or the name of the composer of the music to "Battle Beyond the Stars." That deep passion I have for movies never really goes away. It just takes a reminder every now and then to bring it back to the surface. So whenever I feel like giving up, I just go looking for the big bag of oranges.


thejenwestquest said...

This is an amazing post, and great story. Love you!

Arik said...


that's all.