Alouette, Gentille Alouette

The film industry is a weird self-referencing place. Hollywood has always loved to film itself filming itself filming itself watching itself, and for some weird reason, America has somehow loved it, too. We lap up stories of young actors or writers trying to make it in Hollywood, and absolutely adore shows like Entourage that only a very select few can relate to. Most films, music videos or commercials are up in their own heads, focusing on heady ideals or outside-the-box concepts like “wouldn’t it be weird if, instead of cars acting like people, we had people acting like cars?” (Copyright me, just now.) Point is, working in the Los Angeles film industry forces you to look at a lot of faked, self-referencing inside joke wink-wink kind of products. We love a sketch with a CAA joke or Betty White reference, whether we have any idea what the hell they mean or not. We’ve grown accustomed to the product that is so far removed from the raw story, it may as well be a Southwestern Buffalo Ranch Bacon Cheddar Chicken Sandwich to an actual chicken.

And yet, people want to see “something real.” At first, we demanded better special effects and more anatomically-correct gore. And we’ve progressed to demand something not only realistic but something REALLY real. We want to see realistically (less) beautiful people, we want to see realistically (more) petty arguments. Jersey Shore is going into it’s 6th season and they are, in fact, making a Paranormal Activity 3. America is coming to like their steak, so to speak, quite rare.

I, lucky me, worked on a shoot recently that let me encounter, albeit accidentally, something real. This is my attempt to describe it.

I won’t go heavily into details, but the idea was to show a chef making a meal from scratch: picking the veggies, building the fire, cooking on a spit and on flat rocks, really roughing it. The morning of the shoot, the powers that be decided to add a rather… fresh chicken to the night’s menu.

The shot of the chef chasing the chicken around the coop was very fun and silly, carrying the thing out with the wings still flapping got scattered chuckles, but a very odd feeling settled over the crew when we realized what we were about to do. Cameras wouldn’t be filming the action, but we’d film the chef’s face going through with the fatal chop. The chicken was old, the farm gave us permission, and offered to do it themselves. Nothing was wrong or illegal about it (the chicken had tried to kill the others and had to go soon anyway), but it gave us all a very strong feeling, like we were jumping off a cliff into a lake, or we had snuck out on a school night. As if we were asking who was a virgin, we all slowly admitted we had never seen an animal die in real life, let alone caused it to die. We nervously looked at each other, then the ground, assured that we were definitely in foreign territory.

Our farm hand, Mud (his real name) held the chicken on the chopping block. People held back by at least ten feet, but half the crew held up cameras, the rest scrambled for a view. It was inescapable. You had to see it. You had to know.

Very suddenly, everyone stopped talking. It was at least five minutes before we needed to be quiet for the shot, but we all dropped to a whisper, and some of us didn’t speak at all.

Like a collective hesitation before a leap, we all looked nervously to each other. We all had an uncontrollable urge to laugh, but no one could. We’d smile and shake our heads, then go quiet and walk away for a moment. We’d mumble something like,

“Can’t believe we can actually do this”

“Is this really ok”

“Weird, dude”

“So when are we going to do it”

About 30 seconds before the shot, a crew member moved the silk (a large white sheet used to bounce light on a subject) closer to the chef (and thus, the chicken) and it occurred to me how horribly wrong this was going to go, but I didn’t say a word. I didn’t even mention that the axe wasn’t going to be sharp enough, or that one usually just wrings a chicken’s neck. I was transfixed, caught in the headlights of a bullet train, just waiting to see what happened.

Honestly, we all were.

And it went horribly. The axe was dull. Chickens move long after they’re dead, and the chef handled it very poorly.

But what happened was very, very true.

Not true in the sense of “that happens in real life,” but true in the sense of real, weak, emotional people dealing with something very intense. We saw something go from blinking and breathing to a hunk of meat. In movies, we see people blown to bits and every year studios strive to make it more “realistic.” But the real thing, sans music, sans beautiful actors, sans smooth camera moves, is ugly and awkward. The whole thing felt like some first sexual encounter, a painful-to-watch writhing, squirming sloppy mess that went on so long that our nerves had to be hardened to finish the thing. Squeamishness doesn’t fly on the border between alive and dead, and the longer you wait, the uglier the gray area gets.

In the hours following, nobody wanted to talk about “the chicken shot.” We knew we’d gone somewhere forbidden. The “Non-Disclosure Agreement” we’re having everyone sign proves it. It’s the grownup pinky swear not to tell. And while it’s something you feel like you have to tell (like you had to watch), it’s something you almost don’t want to. It was an oddly hallowed moment, something very personal.

Lucky me, I got to pluck the chicken after. As Mud explained, one must boil the the chicken briefly, then the feathers just come out if you pull. Though it smacked heavily of biology class, it was fascinating to see how the feathers fit in the skin, how the legs bend and move. I was all proud of myself, moving the spine where it broke, feeling in touch with this raw thing. Then of course, I turn the chicken over, look at the wing and think to myself, “hey I recognize this part! It’s what’s in buffalo wings!”

After that shoot, I guess I still prefer the Buffalo Wings version of reality. It’s just easier to swallow.