Grocery stores at 3 a.m. are surreal places.
They do strange things to your mind. You obsess over ready-to-eat waffles; you wonder how you ever lived without fry cakes; you yearn for a spoonful of potato salad like you’ve never yearned for anything in your life.
You feel like the animals in the final scene of The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Starving and cornered, you stumble upon a cool, dry place—a grocery store—as if it’s a soft, fragrant spot beside a lazy river, replete with everything you need. And you just want to dance.
Or, switching metaphors, a grocery store after-hours is like a casino. You’re awake and alert well past the time your brain usually calls it a night. The lights are bright; the air is cool; there’s not a clock in sight; and you have no idea what time it is.
This was the Sin Bin set Friday night into Saturday morning. It was a night shoot—6 p.m. to 6 a.m.—inside Happy Foods, a grocery store in Chicago’s Edgebrook neighborhood. The actors (or talent as they’re called) working that night were Ben McKenzie, Gillian Jacobs, Brian Petsos, Chicago’s own Brad Morris (of Second City fame), Michael Seater, and Brenda Marie King.
My memory’s a little foggy from Friday, so I’m going to give you my raw notes from the set, with just a tiny bit of grammatical tinkering.
Imagine it’s 3 a.m. and you’re inside a grocery store and the place is crawling with people that have strange sounding titles—like gaffer, dolly grip, and best boy—and they’re all working really hard. There’s an expensive camera and several people—including one person who has two titles, cinematographer and director of photographer—arranging it on metal tracks or loading it onto a person who’s wearing a contraption that wouldn’t look out of place in a rehabilitation center.
Watching them do this is about a dozen or so wide-eyed people, who stand around, arms crossed, drinking free coffee and bottled water, looking past you for a celebrity. And then a celebrity or two or three emerges, and everyone stares, but no one looks. The celebrities stand around talking to people they know while people whisper to each other: “He looks so young,” or “She’s so adorable.”
A young man with an ear piece not unlike one belonging to a secret service agent finds the talent and whispers something into a walkie talkie and ushers them to the camera. And there’s the director. He gives the celebrity some direction, because, well, he’s the director.
Then someone shouts “last looks!” and a cadre of hip-looking young people with work belts tugging on their trousers dash over to the celebrities and begin strategically tidying articles of clothing, mussing and straightening hair and applying dabs of makeup.
Then the cadre is off as quickly as they were there and someone shouts “lock it down!” And for a moment the air is tense. Everyone hopes they turned the ringer on their cell phones off and that they’re not allergic to the nearest person’s sweater because a sneezing fit would attract enough dirty looks—hell, maybe even a stern admonishment from one of the A.D.s—that will make you look like a fool in front of the celebrities. And no one wants that.
Someone else yells, “We’re rolling,” and another person echoes it with “rolling, rolling!” A young woman with an electronic market board steps in front of the camera, slaps it down and hustles out of the way. Then the director yells action and the actors start saying lines that someone else wrote and that someone else is sitting in a classic director’s chair—which aren’t that comfortable actually—watching his words spoken with understated flair and drama by professional actors.
It’s magic, pure movie-making magic, and when the director yells “cut” you think about those ready-to-eat waffles and wonder if there’s still coffee left and how coffee will pair with the tub of Red Vines sitting next to the coffee pot.
From there, my notes devolve into manic chicken scratch even I can’t make out.
So, I leave you with this note about Happy Foods. My wife’s best friend’s mom occassionally has us over for a homemade dinner and when I ask her where she bought this delicious steak and these wonderful baked goods she says–everytime–that she picked them up at Happy Foods and then explains how moderately priced it all was.
Maybe that sounds like shameless shilling. And maybe it was; I didn’t have to write that. But it’s all true. If you like, I’ll bring you to dinner next time.