Category Archives: Film

notes on the back page of a script

Years and years ago, I shot a movie called The Day Lincoln Was Shot. It was from the book of the same name, and I played Robert Todd Lincoln.

Here’s a photo of me from the set, in costume:

Wil Wheaton as Robert Todd Lincoln in The Day Lincoln Was Shot

The movie was a lot of fun to work on. I got to work extensively with Lance Henriksen, who played Lincoln, Donna Murphy, who played Mary Todd Lincoln, and Greg Itzin, who played William H. Crook.

As you can see from the picture, I spent much of the film in proper Union Officer dress. It was an authentic uniform that was authentically hot as hell in the Virginia summer heat, but I was one of the few soldier-dressed cast members who didn’t get a cold during production, because I asked our historians what soldiers did in the summers of the war to keep comfortable, and did the same.*

So — spoiler alert — Abraham Lincoln is shot in the back of the head shortly after my character, Robert, comes back to Washington from the war to visit his family. One of the more memorable scenes for me is from late in the movie, when Lincoln lay dying in Petersen’s House. Robert spends some quiet time with his father, who is unconscious and slipping away. I had to remind myself, as an actor, that I was not with President Abraham Lincoln (Lance looked so much like him, it was eerie), but a young man who was watching his father, who he loved more than anyone on Earth, die.

It was a very emotional day of production. I had to call up profound anguish and despair over and over again, only to let it go to varying degrees when the scene was finished. When we wrapped that day in 1997, I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but it felt good. It was one of those rare moments where, as an actor, I was lucky enough to experience my version of leaving it all on the field.

While I was cleaning out the garage recently, I came across a page of the script upon which I’d written down some notes to keep myself focused. I scanned both sides of the page to share.

that penciled "mindy" was me showing someone on the set how this girl I liked in elementary school, Mindy P., wrote her name in 3rd grade. For a brief time, I signed my name "Willy" with the same crazy "Y". Because I wasn't already a big enough goober in 3rd grade, apparently.

And here’s the front of that page, which as it happens is the last page of the script:

The final page of the script from The Day Lincoln Was Shot

So you can see there are two main categories there: OBJECTS and PEOPLE. The Objects refer to this particular scene that we shot that day, when Robert goes through his father’s belongings. It needed to be intensely emotional, so each object — I think there were about a dozen — needed to be specific and meaningful to me in some way. (This is an example of how acting is a lot more than knowing your lines and hitting your mark). I don’t remember what each thing was, but I do recall a small pocket knife among all of them, that the director told me “was a father’s day gift you gave him when you were small.” I remember that when he said that during the take, it hit me right in the feels, and I collapsed into very real sobs, because I could just imagine what it would be like for me if I came across something I gave my father — that he carried with him — when he died. My dad was and is very much alive, but just thinking about that was too much for me to bear. I remember walking off the set when we printed that take, into a hallway, alone, where I just sat down and cried for a good long time. Sometimes the scene stays with you after you’re done. Sometimes, the scene follows you home.

The PEOPLE category is more general, and helped me make choices when I interacted with different characters in the White House. Some of them, Robert liked, and others he didn’t (the historical record is pretty vague on those matters) so I had to come up with specific reasons to define those relationships.

The final two bits are things I write in every script I ever have the privilege of performing: Keep it SIMPLE and The END is the BEGINNING. These are two things so vital to keeping performances honest and believable, you’d be surprised to learn how easy it is to forget them.

*Sit in the shade, and drink lukewarm liquids — usually tea — and let the linen underclothes wick away your sweat. It sounds gross, but it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as a Star Trek uniform on a hot summer day. Never take off your uniform, and never get out of the car, Groove.

it’s about looking back at those adventures, and remembering the people who had them with you

“I love Stand By Me,” the girl said. “I watch it all the time.” She put a picture of me and River, taken just after Gordie fires the gun behind the diner, on the table in front of me. I smiled at her as I slid it toward myself and spun it around.

“That’s awesome,” I said. “I’m very proud of it.”

I uncapped my pen and asked, “Who is this for?”

“It’s for me,” she said. She couldn’t have been more than 20. Younger than Stand By Me. Younger than Star Trek. Younger than both of my sons. I don’t often feel old, but at that moment, I did.

“…and what’s your name?”

“Jessica.”

“Okay, Jessica,” I said. I dedicated the picture to her, signed my name across Gordie’s t-shirt, and gave it back to her. “Have a great weekend, and thanks for your support of my work.”

She smiled and walked away. While I waited for the next person to come up I took a drink of my water. I was feeling a little sick to my stomach. It was Saturday afternoon, and I would succumb to the flu in about 5 hours.

The next person wanted me to sign something from Big Bang Theory. “Can you write ‘Game over, Moonpie’ on it?”

“I’d love to,” I said.

“I love it when you’re on that show!”

“So do I. I’m really lucky that I get to keep going back.”

He asked me about Jim. Everyone wants to know what he’s really like. “He’s amazing. He’s kind and brilliant and generous and one of the most talented comedic performers I’ve ever known. I’ve learned a lot from working with him. No, he’s nothing like Sheldon.”

I coughed and sanitized my hands for the nth time that day.

A family came up, and asked me to sign their Stand By Me DVD. They’d just showed the movie to their young son for the first time.

“What did you think of it?” I asked him.

“It was good until the end,” he said. I felt his parents tense up, like maybe he was insulting me or something, but I asked him to elaborate. “Because it was a great adventure but then it was all about Chris dying and I just didn’t like that.”

I nodded. “You know, one of the reasons Stand By Me has been so important to so many people for almost thirty years is that it’s different when you watch it at different ages.”

I looked to make sure he was following me. He was, so I continued. “When you’re young, like I was when I made it, it’s about going on an adventure with your friends and finding out who you really are, like what’s important to you when your parents aren’t around. But when you’re a little older, it’s about looking back at those adventures, and remembering the people who you had them with. I bet you’ll like it for different reasons if you watch it again when you’re older.”

“Okay,” he said, in that way kids say “okay” when they don’t want to listen to grown-ups talk about stuff anymore. I smiled and opened up the DVD to take the paper insert out of it.

I can’t remember their names, but I wrote it to them, above Gordie’s head on the left side of the cover. Then I signed my name, and had to choke back an unexpected burst of tears.

I’ve signed tens of thousands of pictures and things over the last 30ish years. Most of those pictures are from projects where I’ve been part of an ensemble cast, like Stand By Me, Star Trek, or Toy Soldiers. When we sign these things, we usually sign near ourselves and leave space for everyone else to sign over themselves. (I can always tell who was first o some pieces, because their signature tends to be huge and across the middle, and the rest of us sort of crowd into smaller and smaller spaces.)

I’ve signed thousands of Stand By Me DVDs over the years, and I’ve signed even more pictures of me and River behind the diner after Gordie shoots the gun. It wasn’t until I had this DVD in my hand, and the thought of remembering people you had adventures with in my head, that I realized I will never have to leave room for River to sign his name on any of them.

He left us twenty years ago. We’re quantum entangled for the rest of my life because of work we did together portraying a friendship that has managed to matter in multiple ways to multiple generations. I don’t think of him as often as some would expect, but when I do, I remember the sixteen or seventeen year-old kid who had his whole life ahead of him, instead of the 23 year-old I hadn’t talked to in five years because our lives were so different.

I blinked hard a couple of times and hoped the nice family in front of me didn’t notice the cloud that had passed over me. I gave them back their DVD, and thanked them for waiting in my line.

They thanked me and walked away. I watched them go, and turned back to see a picture of Wesley Crusher being put in front of me.

A Moment With Wil – Episode 17

I couple of years ago, I got this idea to make these really stupid short videos where I did stupid things and then thanked the viewer for spending that moment with me.

I’ve made 17 of them (this is not just a clever title), but never did anything with them other than show a few of them at various w00tstocks.

I think I’ll start uploading some of them to my YouTube channel, because they’re mildly amusing to me. To get us started, here’s the most recent one I made:

Thank you for spending this moment with me.

Answering a FAQ: “Why do you play so many evil characters lately?”

Every actor has a particular type they can play well, for some reason or another. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with who we are in real life, but it's just what we do well.

Example: Travolta is amazing as the Lovable Loser. When he's in Welcome Back Kotter and Saturday Night Fever in the 70s, he is the biggest star in the world, because people can identify with him in a way they may not be consciously aware of.

Then, in the early 80s, the industry decides to make him The Leading Man. They put him in films like Perfect and Urban Cowboy, and his career tanks. Nobody can connect to those characters, because it's not the right type for him to play. He does those talking baby movies for awhile, and then he explodes back to the top of the A list when he plays a junkie hitman in Pulp Fiction. He's back to being the Lovable Loser, and audiences go crazy for him, because that's the type he's meant to play.

You can do this with just about every actor if you look hard enough and spend enough time on it. It's all about Jungian Archetypes and Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces.

So why do I play evil characters? When I was a kid, I played the sensitive, awkward kid full of self doubt who really wanted you to like him*. When I was in my 20s, I kept getting auditions for those roles and never booking them, because it's just not the type I'm meant to play. When Kim Evey cast me as a douchey agent in Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show, and Felicia wrote me into The Guild as douchey Fawkes, things started to turn around. I realized that I'd found my type, and I started looking for those roles.

It turns out that my type is the Villain You Love To Hate, so that's who I am in The Guild, Leverage, Eureka, and Big Bang Theory. I don't think it's a coincidence that, once I started playing these types of characters, my acting career began to come back to life, and I will be grateful for the rest of my life to Kim and Felicia for taking a chance on me.

I really don't know why this is my type, but whenever I try to figure it out, I start to feel like Lenny with the rabbit, and I really don't want to break something that's working out pretty well for me right now.

I do know this, though: the whole point of being an actor is to portray characters who are different from who you really are. The most important thing in the entire universe to me is kindness, so it's really fun to play characters who are antithetical to my personal ideals. Exactly why I seem to be so good at doing that, though? I'm not going behind that particular barn.

 

*Incidentally, that's pretty much who I've been in my real life since I can remember.

Where’s Carl?

Earlier this year, Chandler Riggs and I were both at the Supanova convention in Australia.

This is a short film we made together while we were there.

Fun fact: you can follow Chandler on Twitter; he's a really awesome person.

On the set of Stand By Me

This picture was originally posted on Tumblr by thefactory-:

image from i.imgur.com

You know that montage when we’re walking back home, near the end of the movie, and we go by in silhouette during sunset? It’s what they used as inspiration for the poster.

This picture was taken when we filmed that little bit. That thing we’re sitting on is called a Chapman Crane, and it’s a really neat piece of film equipment that allows for those big, beautiful, dramatic, sweeping panoramic shots you see in movies.

It’s a little dangerous, though, because there are weights and things on the end of that arm to perfectly counterbalance the weight of the camera and whoever is sitting next to it. More than once in film history, someone has stepped off the crane before it’s been rebalanced, and, finding itself a hundred or more pounds heavier at one end than the other, the crane has turned into a very dangerous catapult. 

The way I remember it, we kept asking Rob Reiner if we could sit on it when the shot was over, because the idea of sitting up in the sky next to the camera was so awesome, and he eventually said yes, because he was like that.

We were so excited to sit on this thing, and so excited to ride it up as high as it would go — it seemed like a hundred feet, but I’m sure it was more like thirty — but we had to wear seatbelts, promise to sit still and not step off the thing until it was balanced. I don't remember what everyting looked like from up there, but I do remember someone deciding to give the slate to River (who, of course, has his serious face on, like he always did) because it was a fantastic publicity photo opportunity.

I’m glad someone took this picture, because it reminded me of a joyful moment that I haven’t thought of in over a quarter century.

If Robocop was a bad 80s sit-com

I am easily amused, so earlier today, when my brain said, "You know what would be funny? If there was a Robocop sit-com, where he was always screwing up. Every time he did something, the other officers would put their hands on their hips, cock their heads to one side, and do this sing-songy "Robocop!" catchphrase. Then he'd just shoot everyone."

I mentioned this to Twitter. A few people quickly replied with funny ideas of their own… then I got excited and made a thing:

 

INT POLICE HEADQUARTERS — DAY.

Robocop comes toward camera, doing that weird marching walk thing. He stops in front of a vending machine, and precisely turns to face it.

FLASH TO:

ROBOCOP POV

Through Robocop’s HUD, we see the nutritional information of the various items in the machine as he scans them. A can of soda has a mouse in it, a chocolate bar has traces of cocaine, a bag of chips is actually a bag of fingernails. All that skips by so fast, though, the audience doesn’t really notice it consciously. A crosshairs appears on the HUD and selects a bag of OIL-FLAVORED MICROCHIPS. They’re actual chips, with a cartoony, smiling Robocop drawing on the front. He’s giving a thumbs.

BACK TO SCENE.

Robocop puts a crumpled dollar into the machine, which spits it out. He does this three or four times.

ROBOCOP

Dead or alive, those chips are coming with me.

(Laugh track)

ROBOCOP

Accept my money.

You have ten seconds to comply.

He tries to put the money into the machine. The machine spits it back out.

ROBOCOP

I have ordered you to accept my money.

You have seven seconds to comply.

He tries to put the money into the machine. The machine spits it back out. It falls to the floor.

(Laugh track)

ROBOCOP

You have attempted to assault

a police officer with his own money. 

You are under arrest.

 

An older, grizzled SERGEANT comes out of his office down the hall.

SERGEANT

Robocop, what the hell are you doing?

ROBOCOP

Making an arrest, sir.

The Sergeant rolls his eyes and shakes his head.

SERGEANT

Would you mind tellin’ me how you’re going

to arrest a vending machine?

(Laugh track)

ROBOCOP

By. The. Book.

 (Laugh track)

SERGEANT

Robocop, you crazy. Let me help you.

The Sergeant picks up the dollar bill off the floor. ROBOCOP pulls his gun in a flash! He points it at the sergeant!

ROBOCOP

You are tampering with evidence.

You are under arrest.

 

SERGEANT

You can’t arrest me, Robocop! I’m your boss!

 

ROBOCOP

You. Are. Under. Arrest.

 

SERGEANT

Robocop, I ain’t got time for this. I retire in two days!

(Laugh Track)

ROBOCOP

Arrest. Arrest.

Arrrrrest. Arrrrrreeessst.

 

SERGEANT

(sighs)

Aw, dammit. You’re stuck in a loop. I’d better reset you.

The Sergeant makes a move toward Robocop.

(Audience: Ooohhhhhh!)

The Sergeant puts his hand on Robocop's shoulder. Robocop snaps out of it.

ROBOCOP 

Assault on an officer.

Use of deadly force is authorized.

Robocop shoots about a thousand bullets into the Sergeant, blowing him across the hallway where hits the wall and slides to the floor, leaving streaks of blood behind.

SERGEANT

(gasping, dying, yet somehow still alive)

Dammit… Robocop… I had…

two days… until… retirement.

The Sergeant dies.

 

ROBOCOP

Thank you for your cooperation.

I am not arresting you any more.

(Laugh track, cheers.)

Dozens of officers rush into hallway, stopping short of the grisly scene. They look at Robocop, incredulous. Robocop turns back to the vending machine.

ROBOCOP

Your move, dirtbag.

Suddenly, the bag of chips drops from the vending machine for some reason, startling Robocop. He whirls toward it and destroys it in a hail of epic gunfire.

POLICE OFFICERS

(sing song, in unison)

Robocop!

Robocop turns to the camera and innocently shrugs.

FREEZE FRAME as the synth-tastic theme music plays.

(Audience cheers)

 

Insomniac Theater: The Rock-afire Explosion

Unless I'm working on a show that requires me to get up at a normal hour to get to the set, I usually sleep for about eight hours, starting at one in the morning. When we do the stupid goddamn Daylight Saving Time*, it's really hard for me to get to sleep before two in the morning, which annoys me, because I don't like sleeping until ten am. I'm not sure why, but if I get disturbed even the tiniest little bit in the first hour of sleep, I'm fucked and awake for at least two more hours. It's really frustrating when it happens, which is (thankfully) not very often.

This is why I seriously contemplated setting my cat on fire last night: as I was nearly in sleep's restful embrace, she decided that it was really important for her to jump up onto my bed, right next to my head, then spring up to the window over my bed, where she pushed herself behind the blinds and repeatedly hit them. So that's why I was awake until four-fucking-thirty this morning, watching movies on my iPad, which is really what this post is about (after two hundred words of bitching about stupid things).

I rewatched the final episode of Sherlock's first season (OMG IT IS SO AMAZING), because I'm sure they'll eventually get around to releasing season two in America… and then I watched a documentary called The Rock-afire Explosion, all about the animatronic band from Showbiz Pizza Place. It was a fascinating, bittersweet film that focused on the guy who invented the band, and a few of the people who loved his creation. Much of the film's focus is on this guy who bought a complete band and built his own Showbiz Pizza Place at his house. He's a little odd, I suppose, but comes across as gentle and kind, and sincere in his desire to recreate some of the happiest days of his youth.

I was impressed that the filmmakers did not choose to make a documentary that was a freakshow, or that made fun of its subjects, but instead told a sweet and sort of sad story of how one guy invented something in the 70s that touched the lives of a generation — and continues to affect some of them to this day. It's only 71 minutes long, so if you have the time to watch it, I highly recommend it.

*I really hate Daylight Saving Time. If I were boss of the universe, we'd have one time and just fucking stick to it? Among the many reasons I hate it? Even though it's only one hour, it fucking jetlags me for a week or more. I know, stupid, right? But that's what happens to me. Every year. Twice a year. It makes me want to buy a hammer for the express purpose of hitting the guy who invented Daylight Saving Time.

 

Because it will give me an excuse to buy and own and wear an ascot.

Last night, I was out having a drink with a friend of mine. Because we are both nerds and writers, our conversation steered into nerdy writer territory and stayed there.

It was unseasonably warm, so we sat on an outdoor patio — one of the few that isn't rendered useless to me by an army of smokers — and talked about the projects we're working on now, the projects we hope to work on in the future, and whether Pluto Nash is truly the worst movie ever made.

It will come as no surprise to some of you reading this that the discussion about worst movie ever made was inspired by some talk about The Phantom Menace.

"But, if you count things like budget, Pluto Nash is the greatest failure in history. It cost something like 180 million dollars to make, and it grossed close to 2." He said.

"Two dollars?" I asked, longing for the days when it was possible to see a movie for a dollar on a Wednesday afternoon.

"No," he said. "Two million."

(Note: Wikipedia says that it cost 100 million and grossed 7 million worldwide. It's not as bad as he thought, but it's still an epic fail. Also? His numbers were good enough for on-the-patio-in-March-having-a-drink math.)

"Goddamn," I said. "That is an epic fail."

"Did you see it?"

I gave him the same look I give people when they ask me questions like, "So, have you ever walked fifteen miles across broken glass in bare feet?" Or say things like, "How great was Ghost Rider!" or "RON PAUL RON PAUL RON PAUL!"

"No." I said, dryly. "See, Hollywood and I have this agreement where it puts things on its posters and trailers that let me know not to see a certain movie. It's sort of a secret code."

I took a sip of my drink and continued. "It's like, 'Tom Cruise stars in…' and I know it's saying to me, 'Hey, Wil, don't bother with this.'

"'Adam Sandler does that wacky voice he does in every movie, and hilarity ensues!' is code for 'just stay home, save thirteen dollars, and punch yourself in the junk.'"

An ambulance sped up the street. I paused to appreciate the Doppler Effect.

"In trailers, it uses music. If I hear 'I Feel Good' or 'All Star' or 'Walking On Sunshine', It's Hollywood telling me to just avoid that movie entirely."

"So you don't see a lot of movies," he said.

"I do not," I said.

I took another sip of my drink. 

"But I have this idea to record a PSA for people who do enjoy going to the movies," I said.

"Wait. I have to pee," he said, and got up to go to the bathroom.

I checked Twitter, and saw that my beloved LA Kings had lost yet another game to a team they could have beaten.

"Dammit, Kings," I muttered to myself.

My friend came back.

"Okay, so remember those John Waters PSAs about smoking?"

"No."

"He's smoking a cigarette, and going on and on about how great it is, and then he tells the audience that they can't smoke. Because apparently that was a thing you had to tell people at one time. 'Hey, people in this potential firey death cage: don't light anything ON FIRE while you're here. Seriously. Thanks.'"

"I don't think I've seen that." He said.

"That's because you're younger than me," I said, and unconsciously rubbed my right hip.

"So I want to do one like that where I'm sitting in an opulent library, with rich mohagany shelves, and leather-bound books, and a roaring fireplace. I'm in a high-backed French chair, sipping a brandy and wearing an ascot."

"Of course you're wearing an ascot."

"Why wouldn't I be wearing an ascot?"

"That's what I'm saying. Any excuse to wear an ascot," he said.

"So that's the scene, and I'm sitting in it like this." I held an imaginary brandy snifter in my right hand, and straightened my back. "I turn to the camera and I go, 'Hello, theater-goers. I'm Wil Wheaton. I hope you're sitting comfortably, and having a delightful evening.' I take a sip of the brandy, and savor it.

"'The management of this fine movie house has invited me here to make a small and simple request of you before the film begins.' I take another sip of the brandy, and smile at the camera. 'Ah, that's delicious brandy.' My face changes slightly, and I get serious. 'While you're enjoying this movie, please, shut the fuck up.' I smile warmly."

My friend laughed and hit the table with an open palm.

"'Also, turn off your fucking cell phones. You're in a movie house, for fucks' sake. You're not in your fucking living room.' Oh, and I'm smiling through all of this, staying very classy–"

"Of course you are."

"'So, out of respect for everyone around you: the people who got babysitters, the people who are on first dates, the Forever Alones, the husbands and wives who are here with their partners not because they want to see this film, but because they want to get laid later tonight… out of respect for all of them, turn your fucking phone off, and keep your fucking mouth shut for the duration of the picture.' I toast the audience with my brandy and say, 'Thank you ever so much. Enjoy the film, and have a lovely evening.'"

I leaned back in my chair and took a long drink.

"So that's my idea," I said.

"You should totally do that," he said.

"Because it will give me an excuse to buy and own and wear an ascot," I said. I thought for a second and added, "Oh, and maybe it will make going out to the movies something I enjoy, rather than endure.

"But, really, it's all about the ascot."

"Any excuse to wear an ascot."

We ordered another round, and talked about Aliens.

JCCC2: in which I “sing” Karaoke on a boat.

So this is a thing that happened.

It has everything Karaoke should traditionally have: not-very-good singing, not-very-good dancing, fucking up of lyrics, and the obligatory small glass of magic juice* responsible for the entire thing.

Enjoy… if you dare:

On our performer mailing list, John Hodgman kept saying that he was going to turn this into a Murder Cruise… none of us believed him, but I can see that he was successful, because I just murdered that poor song. Well played, Hodgman. Well played indeed, sir.

Very special thinks to KatyHaile for sharing my shame with the world, and preserving it for future generations.

*A type of "sauce" if you will.