The ALASKAN who stares down a brown bear while everyone flees

Boom operator gets nice and close to the action

Posted: Friday, April 02, 2010

It's winter. There is a brown bear standing in front of me, and someone is whispering into my ear to get the hell out of there. What a crappy way to start work, looking down the snout of an ornery grizzly bear clacking his jaw and looking anxious. All I can think about is how much can an 800-pound bear eat? Probably two of me with a side of the guy who just ran like a banshee. Bastard. I'm not really scared but I can't help thinking I should have just stayed in Juneau. Stuff like this only happens to Alaskans in the minds of people who don't live in Alaska, like people who live in Los Angeles. The very same people I was surrounded by 30 seconds ago, until they all ran away. Now it's just me and my new friend.

I love Juneau. I love it. I've spent most of my life there. When I'm not in town I'm out trying to find someplace better, and I haven't yet. The problem is that as much as I love being there I can't stay there. So every once in a while I take off and go somewhere else. I found that being in the exact opposite of Juneau is one of the more fun adventures. What could be the antithesis of Juneau more than Los Angeles? Maybe Tokyo? But that is just Japan's version of Los Angeles. Maybe outer space, but this is non-fiction. So anyway, I quit my legislative duties, jumped on a plane, and now I'm putting my college degree back to work for me. Sitting in the semi-smogless sunshine of Glendale, Calif., I wait. I check out some museums, see Sean Penn and Josh Brolin at a gig my buddy plays (all 5'2" of them trolling the parking lot looking for young women to scream OMG), wait some more, check out Disneyland, watch Avatar in 3D, and still I'm waiting. Even Hollywood is feeling the crappy economy; movies are not being made. So I drink my troubles away at the skuzziest bar I can find in Glendale (closest thing they've got to the Alaskan). When I hear about the female brawl just minutes after I leave, I know I've found the right spot. Blah, blah, blah I'm killing time and the adventure is in slow gear. You get the point.

Now it's right at this time that I get the CALL. Work. Money. No more ramen. "I'll take it," I say. Film life for the poor is so damn awesome. Food, food, food, dessert is how I describe working on a real film set. I'm tired of eating dented cans of soup and stretching a pack of cheap lunchmeat into an unrealistic two-week nibble fest. I'm ready for Hollywood catering. As soon as you get to the set in the morning, there's food. You don't want cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, or fruit? Well then, step up to the grill truck and order anything you want. That only lasts until work actually starts. Once the bosses step on set then it all changes. The grill is gone and all that breakfast delish is bye bye. Now it's Crafty's turn. The craft service team is a cavity's best friend. They bring in more snacks and candy than a whole class of third graders could eat in a no-holds-barred-anything-goes-just-don't-die-from-candy day. It's pretty good, but it's just something to occupy your hands until lunchtime. Lunch is where you put away childish things and bring your big boy pants to the table. Have you ever seen the original Willy Wonka? I'm talking about the scene where all the kids run into the room made of candy and chocolate and Gene Wilder sings, "If you want to view paradise...." Well imagine that mystical place shaped for a carnivore. I once had fish, pork, chicken, beef, a salad, a roll, some fruit and a little plate of pudding stacked in front of me. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I felt like I was declaring war on Mother Earth, taking on every species of plant and animal.

So long story short, I said yes and didn't wait for the details. The gig is booked and I'm going over the equipment with my boss. I'm a boom operator in the sound department so it is my job to get as close as possible to the action and make sure there is perfectly clear audio to go along with the picture. My boss informs me that the day's shoot is an hour outside of L.A. in the mountains. It involves a man in a tree and a grizzly bear trying to claw at him. Someone thought that would be oh so funny for a basketball commercial. Great, I'm supposed to get in nice and close so I can get the sounds of a pissed-off bear loud and clear? With all that talk of food I'm suddenly picturing myself as a human smorgasbord. But whatever, I'm just being dramatic. He's a Hollywood-trained bear who has done this his whole life. He's a professional.

The day of the shoot everything is going according to plan. We are far removed from the concrete sprawl of the city and it actually feels a little homey in mountains walking on two inches of snow. Crafty is set up with a nice array of licorice, nuts, Gatorade, along with other things I'll have to investigate later. The Grill made me an amazing breakfast burrito with extra avocado and I'm standing with the rest of the film crew while the bear trainers go over the safety issues. Don't run and all the stuff you've heard before. I'm good.

Now, the way most films work is that you start wide shots and move closer and closer. So I'm just coasting at the beginning. I'm over fifty feet away. There are plenty of people closer than me so the bear would have to be in some sort of post-marathon eating contest to still have an appetite by the time he made it to me. Still, I'm good. As we shoot, it becomes clear that the bear is not into acting today. A real prima donna is the running joke we've got going. All the while I'm taking care of business, getting my microphone in the action. Once all the wide and medium shots are taken care of we move in for the bear's close-up. Yay for me. Once the shot is set up and the camera is in place the bear, whose name is Blue, is released from his cage and walks up to his mark. The trainer is in front of him slowly handing out cuts of salmon. He gets to his spot and sits down. The camera starts rolling. He's not responding. Cut! Do it again. Nope, still not working. This goes on for a while with the same results. Nothing.

At this point I feel obligated to bring a few things to light. All around the inner set is an electrified fence - only it's not turned on. The idea is that Blue thinks it has a zap to it and won't be messing around. Yet, he's been getting close and what looks like testing it all day long. Right now it's February mind you. There is snow on the ground. Which means Blue was woken up from hibernation in order to make an NCAA March Madness commercial for a video-playing cell phone. He's cranky and half asleep. The trainers have been telling me this kind of scene would be easy to shoot in the summer when he actually wants to be awake. But right now he's not into it at all, hence the prima donna attitude. Also, in getting a trained brown bear to do tricks you start with little snacks and move up to fresh salmon. We've gone through cupcakes and meatballs. He's tired of salmon and doesn't really care that the European director is getting pissed that the bear won't stay on his mark and lift his paws real high into the air. It's just not happening.

All of this I've learned and am OK with. But as tension starts to escalate three more things become clear to me. One, I can smell lunch cooking and it's delicious. Two, a family down the way has come home with their kids. Why they're not in school at noon is anybody's guess. Why they decided to go sledding when we told them about the bear, I'm not sure. Three, when using a microphone outside in the wind it is commonplace to cover it with a shaggy overcoat. What this means is I'm holding a large pole with what looks like a dead raccoon on the end. Basically I've got a giant cat toy made for a bear who's tired and pissed. But we've almost got the shot. Blue is finely in his spot. He looks up. His paws are almost in a menacing pose, then ... a giggle, and another giggle. Soon there are echoes of child laughter all through the valley. The two kids had raced down a hill into Blue's line of sight and crashed, laughing as they tried to get up. No more movie. No amount of salmon can bring this grizzly bear back to attention. He starts clacking his jaw and that I-really-just-want-to-go-back-to-bed-for-a-couple-months exterior he had earlier is gone. At this point there is so much tension in the air it's like electricity connecting everyone on set, kind of like the faux protective fence posts. Only it's the opposite. Everyone is scaring everyone else. I can feel the camera crew members' hearts pounding, the producer's butt clenching, the make-up girl sweating, the crafty guy bringing fresh squeezed mango juice just trying to breath. It's an amazing moment in which I feel totally aware. I'm in awe of what everyone thinks is going to happen. These kids are about to be attacked by a grizzly bear. At this point the 2nd Assistant Director breaks; any bear safety information he might have retained earlier is out the window and he runs. Right. Past. Me. Blue swivels his head and begins to move in my direction.

I'm starting to get a little scared, but while I'm this close the only thing I'm thinking is he's not eight hundred pounds. He's a little bigger than your average sumo wrestler. Somewhere near Yokozuna's size. Yeah, he's about the size of a big sumo guy. So what, like four to five hundred pounds? That's way more realistic. I feel like an idiot for even saying eight hundred pounds out loud earlier. Then he hits the fake electric fence. This snaps me back to reality and now, in my headphones, I'm hearing my boss. He doesn't realize that his communication mic is on and everything he's saying is being whispered into my ears and my ears alone. So I'm face to face with a grizzly bear and in my head I hear, "Oh shit Dave get out of there, get out of there, don't come any closer, Dave get out of there." After a few seconds of having that devil-on-your-shoulder voice pump bad info into my head I start to back up and turn. Then I hear, "Dave don't move, oh man just don't move." I can't tell if I'm scared or just really frustrated with this whole scenario. And the kids are still laughing. This moment is beginning to stretch out into the eternal. Blue is drooling at me and it looks like he's flexing his shoulder muscles. The trainers are talking to him with incredible calm, respect and desperation in their voices. Like Blue is some drunk king too wasted to realize he's about to fall off a cliff, but if they raise their voices he'll order their heads off. It is getting to the point I can't stand it anymore. What is so damn funny that these kids won't shut up? Blue refuses to listen to anything else. He just stares at me and back to where the children are singing their own death hymn. I've had time to play this all out it my head enough times that I've come to the terms with the fact that everyone else is going to die. Hey, they ran, I didn't. Now I just need a ride home. Do I hitchhike? Do I- Thump! Squissshhhh! What a strange sound. One of the trainers throws a bunch of chunked salmon into his cage. Slowly and nonchalantly Blue makes his way back to his cage and that electric charge has left us all. You're my boy Blue.

My pulse quickly falls back to normal. We had lunch and finished out the shoot. I don't think much of it until later. My boss and I are back in the safety of greater Los Angeles enjoying the company of a few friends. We're laughing and having a good time when my boss breaks out the story of the day. Telling friends how I almost died standing face to face with a bear while other people ran away. "He couldn't have been farther than 6 feet from the beast," my boss says. "And then there was me, hiding behind my steel sound cart holding onto a mic telling Dave to stay calm and come no where near me." I am lucky to be alive, but I was also brave, he says with a drag of a cigarette. By the end of it I seemed pretty cool: an Alaskan staring down a brown bear while everyone flees. It might have been a crappy way to start work, but what an awesome way to start an adventure.


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