Not so quiet on the set: 16 seconds of fame with Holy Ghost Tent Revival
By Sarah Hall
My newsroom phone is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. When I check my messages, I never know what I’m going to get.
Often it’s a complaint. Sometimes a news tip. Never, until recently, had it been someone asking me to play a part in a music video.
So it was surprising one morning when I got a cryptic message left by P.J. Leslie, bass player for the band Holy Ghost Tent Revival. Something about filming a music video, and there was a part for me. Not many details ó just enough to be intriguing. I called back, and was put in touch with the director, Gene Smith. I found out the setting would be a ’50s dance, that filming was in the old gym at Greensboro College, and they wanted me to play the part of a chaperone.
I imagine the casting meeting between director and band went something like, “Now where will we find a middle-aged woman willing to take off a full day of work on a Tuesday to be on a film set all afternoon and evening for no pay? Hey ó maybe Sarah Hall.”
Two weeks earlier, the band had released a new CD, for which I had written a glowing review. This was perhaps a test to see if my enthusiasm was sincere, or just music reviewer hyperbole.
They may have figured that since I showed up in a club in Asheville to interview them the day after their CD release, I was just as likely to drive to Greensboro for filming.
They were right. I’m always looking for interesting experiences, and I like to be helpful.
In one of my past lives, I was a college music professor. Most of my writing dealt with theoretical analysis and historical research. My earliest journalism efforts were reviews of symphony and chamber music concerts.
When I came to work full time for Salisbury Post, my three under-utilized music degrees made me the default person on staff to cover all things musical. As a music journalist, I have not only interviewed classical artists, I have been backstage with Jimmy Eat World and Rogue Wave, discussed visual art with Scott Avett, sat in a nightclub chatting with Chris Barron of Spin Doctors, and hung out with a heavy metal band.
Last summer at Bonnaroo, I tried to look casually important sharing the media trailer with guys from CNN, Rolling Stone and Spin.
“Life is strange,” I thought as I lay in my tent listening to Metallica performing, a half-mile away, as raindrops bounced off my tent. I drifted off to the strains of “Creeping Death” and awakened to the sounds of Disco Biscuits a few hours later when my tent flooded.
After years of writing about long-dead composers, I’ve found it enjoyable to interview living musicians,particularly indie rock bands.
I admire the musicians who defy convention, pursuing their art without giving in to music industry demands to make them more marketable.
The band Holy Ghost Tent Revival is one such group. They’ve grown their own sound, combining folk, swing, rock, funk and bluegrass thrash into an appealing mixture.
My interest in, and promotion of, indie bands has become a mild obsession and sometimes expensive hobby, especially when it involves traveling to performances.
My main concern about participating in HGTR’s filming was not the time it would take, but whether they would have a ’50s costume to fit me. I am an average-sized for a woman my age in the current decade. But I know that women were smaller back then.
The director’s letter said some costumes would be available, but for people to bring their own if possible. For some reason, I waited until 90 minutes before I needed to leave to search out a costume.
Adrenalin and intuition converged as I was drawn as if by a magnet to the Salvation Army Store. Looking frantically about, I spied a polka-dotted dress with a flared skirt. It might have come from Lucy Ricardo’s closet, or maybe Donna Reed’s.
And it appeared to be my size. I paid for it without trying it on, but I started to doubt my instincts when I was barely out of the parking lot.
So I stopped at the Meroney Theater, to look for another option in the Piedmont Players costume room. Everything was too small. As I prepared to leave, someone entered with a box of borrowed items. On top was a pair of lensless vintage women’s glasses, lovely etched designs on its horned rims. I slipped them in my purse and wrote “glasses” on the sign-out sheet.
Before heading for Greensboro, I stopped briefly at home and put on the polka-dot dress, which fit perfectly, and white socks and loafers. I put on the glasses as I entered the gym. One of the first people I encountered was set dresser Rachel Goodman from Charlotte, part of the professional film crew. She raved about my costume.
But the wardrobers said I needed to look dowdier, so a baggy sweater was added. I had little makeup because I wasn’t supposed to look good. My hair was already okay for the part, I was told.
(I hadn’t realized I had the hairdo of a 1950s schoolteacher.)
I knew little of the story line, only that I was supposed to be a killjoy dance chaperone. The script called for a hip young man teacher to stop me from breaking up one couple.
I had reported by 1:30 as requested. Unfortunately, much of the volunteer cast seemed in no hurry to arrive on time, or in some cases, even at all. I was glad I brought a book to read as I sat waiting for filming to commence.
A crew member attempted to herd those already costumed into a section of bleachers. She turned to me and said, “Since you’re, um, older than the others, do you think you could keep them in this area?
So not only was I playing the part of a teacher, I was expected to act like one in real life. I taught middle school for four years, so I drew upon my inner teacher. I tried to look authoritative, but discovered I was about as ineffective as I had been in my real teaching career. My weak protests, intended to keep my charges corralled, went unheeded as cast members drifted away.
About five hours later, I was shown where to stand on the gym sidelines. I asked a young man near me if he was the actor portraying the male chaperone. He said no, he was the guy who gets beat up in the parking lot.
“Ah,” I said, noting this small piece of the as of yet indiscernible plot.
I found a job for myself. I was stationed near a prop shoe-stand holding ’50s-era prop shoes. But the extras kept leaving their own shoes there, so I took it upon myself to move modern shoes out of camera range.
I was filmed assuming an expression of alarm then storming out of frame, as if going to break up a couple. Then more waiting around. The male teacher actor never showed. I was chaperoning this whole dance by myself.
I asked director Gene what I was supposed to do in the last scene, since we didn’t have the guy teacher to stop me gently, as if to say “let kids be kids.”
Gene said for me to just have a look of resignation like, “Oh well, I was young once.”
Guitarist Matt Martin, broke from the bandstand and ran over to me and said, “You know what would be really funny? If the teacher were to drink some of the spiked punch.” Then he ran back.
Another piece of the plot ó somebody spikes the punch.
During the 8:30 p.m. “lunch” I talked to art director David Blankenship. He grew up in Salisbury, attended N.C. School of the Arts, then went into the film industry. His credits include “The Rachael Ray Show,” “The View,” and “All My Children.”
Then I drifted back over to Gene the director, who was calmly eating spaghetti.
“Matt suggested that the teacher drink the spiked punch,” I told him.
“That’s great!” Gene said.
There was a flurry of activity as crew members obtained, sterilized and filled a punch cup. I was filmed taking sips and looking rather pleased.
It was discovered that an extra had apparently gotten bored and left, putting every scene in which he had appeared in jeopardy. For continuity’s sake, you can’t just have people in the background vanish. A massive manhunt was launched and the reluctant actor was captured and returned an hour later.
My last scene was shot by 11:45 p.m. I had spent more than 10 hours on the set, so when the video was released, I was glad to see I hadn’t ended up on the cutting room floor. I appear a total of 16 seconds.
A Charlotte screening party turned out to be a going-away party for Gene who was moving to Georgia (which seems to be getting ahead of North Carolina in the film industry).
Gene told me he has a friend who is Matt Damon’s personal wardrobist. Gene likes to run his stuff by this guy for advice and comments, so he showed him the video.
What was his favorite part? The teacher’s glasses.
To view the music video, go to www.myspace.com/hgtr, and click on the video for the song “Needing You.”
The mood and music in Rail Walk next week will be crazy ó crazy as a march hare, that is.... read more