In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Part of the magic of film and television is how the world on the screen makes a story come to life—cars explode, guns fire, and a stapler really does get molded into Jell-O and stuck into Dwight Schrute’s desk drawer. Writing about television necessitates taking a long look at writing, directing, and acting—but distractingly bad props, or particularly good ones, can break or make a scene. Chris Call is the property master for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which starts its second season this Sunday, and has previously worked on Alias and Body Of Proof. He sat down with us to talk about the harried life of a prop master for a show that derives so much humor for sight gags—and entertained us with a digression about this one time he worked as a cat wrangler for Dario Argento. Because someone has to make the magic happen, and the devil’s in the details—whether that’s getting a cat to walk across a room or a gun to fire in a car.
The A.V. Club: How would you describe your job?
Chris Call: Essentially, my job as the prop master is to provide all the props—basically anything an actor holds or carries. On a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, everything is a gag—and a lot of them are sight gags—so there’s a lot of different props that come up. If I was doing a show like Parenthood, it would be your standard everyday things that people have, like a cup of coffee or their dinner. Comedy—I’ve discovered especially—is filled with props.
And on [Brooklyn Nine-Nine], it seems to be even more so. It’s such an ever-changing beast—comedy—because jokes change all the time. The actors get on set and they run the lines and, organically, things just change. Especially somebody like Andy Samberg, who is so quick on his feet and is such a great improviser—as are a lot of people on the show. We’re constantly getting requests and calls like: “Hey, we want to do a Fruit Roll-Up taco.” [Laughs.] So we’re like, “Okay, sure. No problem.”
Coming from a format of one-hour dramas, which is what I’ve mostly done in the TV world, [in comedy] things change constantly. You don’t get scripts until later because they’re constantly tweaking them until the very last minute. And from season one to season two, I learned a huge lesson about prepping too soon. Normally on a one-hour drama, you have eight days to prep on an episode; by the time you get scripts and get through all your meetings and the directors and writers tell you what they want, you really only have three to four days. So you have to make decisions very quickly, and take action decisively—because these are things that they conjure up in their heads, but it’s your job to take that idea and turn it into a reality. In the real world, people don’t work on the time frame that we work on. You know, shipping is seven to 10 days, and processing is three to four weeks, and it’s like: “No, no, no. You don’t understand; I need this tomorrow.”
AVC: What’s your typical process for your current job at Brooklyn Nine-Nine?
CC: When I get a script, I’ll go through it and look at the things that are the most challenging—things that have to be manufactured, things that you would never think you’re going to find—and then start the ball rolling on that, get feelers out, finding out where to get it. Because then you also have to present them with choices—it’s not like you pick what you want. You have to give them a range of choices of whatever it may be. For example, we’re doing this silent rave that’s coming up [in season two] and we have to pick out the headphones—so, what are the headphones going to look like? Are they all in uniform? Do they have the same headphones? Are they different? What colors? And what styles? And that’s with any prop that we have. If I could pick whatever I want and put it in front of the camera, that’d be awesome, but of course everybody had a vision of what that is. And that’s that other challenge. You have so many other players involved. You have the creator of the show, you have the writer of the episode, you have the director of the episode. And everybody has to weigh in on what it is and what it looks like and what it’s going to be at the end of the day.
So normally what will happen is they give us a script and we’ll have a concept meeting. And in that concept meeting, we’ll talk about the episode; what it is and what it’s going to be about. And this is for everybody. Wardrobes, sets, props, special effects, everybody. They give us an overview of what it is they’re thinking about for that episode. And from there we’ll have a props/art department meeting where we’ll sit down and talk specifically about the props and the sets in that episode. After that is when I kick it into high gear and start finding things.
Now, I can sum up in one word the savior of my being on a show like this and it’s called Amazon. [Laughs.] Because you can literally find anything on Amazon overnight. Again, for me, it’s been about learning how to use it, because I’ll go on Amazon and find a bunch of things, I’ll pick them all and I’ll print out pictures to show them and they’ll pick something and they’ll be like, “Okay, great,” and then I’ll go back to Amazon and it’s like a five to seven day turnaround and I have to find things that I can get overnight or with two-day delivery. The biggest challenge is getting everything in no time. If I had more time to get things, it would be infinitely easier.
Here’s a good example: We have a scene in an upcoming episode where Holt has a watch and they have a challenge—I don’t want to give away the storyline because they’ll thrash me. But inevitably, I had to have 10 matching watches for the show. This came down on Thursday with what they wanted, and this played Monday or this past Monday. So I went in to [showrunner] Dan Goor and showed him the choice of watches which I could get shipped overnight in large quantity. And that weren’t too expensive as well, because I also have a budget to work with! So he picked a watch and I immediately called a manufacturer. They were standing by, they got it all packaged up and shipped out for overnight delivery for Friday. I was thrilled! Like, we did it. Then an hour and a half later, we had a production meeting and he said, “That watch again, what was it?” I said it was a gold watch with a gold face and he said, “And what is Holt’s normal watch, again?” And I said: “Well, like I said before, his is a silver watch with a white face,” and he was like, “Yeah, I think we need to do that.”
AVC: Oh no.
CC: I looked at my watch and everybody in the room broke out laughing because they knew what had just gone down. And he was like, “What?” and I said, “It’s already been ordered, Dan. It’ll be here tomorrow, because it’s playing on Monday.” And he was like: “Oh, okay. I guess we’ll go with the gold.” Which, of course, is code for: “Hey, if you can make it happen…” so I immediately walked out of the meeting and had to call in that person and say, “Listen, I need to change this watch…” I needed to find out if they had a silver watch with a white face, I’m sending a picture of a match, I needed it shipped out for a Saturday delivery. And they made it happen. On Saturday morning, the UPS truck showed up with my 10 watches. And that’s how it is every day.
AVC: I would never have guessed that the top-level producers would have that attention to detail.
CC: And, again, from show to show, it changes. Even on this show, there are some props that are just passive props, but [often] the props are prominent because they either help tell the story or are part of the story or they’re always on-camera with the actors. Most of the time, they have a very specific idea of what they want the prop to be and sometimes they have no idea what they want the prop to be until they see it. The challenge is trying to decipher what they want and showing them different choices of things. Some are better than others, but others are horrible at it. And they’re never happy. So that’s kind of the big challenge.
AVC: How do you get the guns to look like they’re firing?
CC: We actually use real guns that come from a prop house. They’ve modified the guns to only accept blanks, so bullets can’t go down the barrel even if you tried to fire bullets out of the barrel. I mean, that’s a lot different now than it used to be. But what we do is we fire blanks, which is essentially the bullet without the slug. So you take the casing and you put the gun powder in it and they crick the end of it instead of putting a slug in it. So you can fire the gun all you want. It’ll fire, it’ll chamber, it’ll shoot fire out of the end of the barrel, but it doesn’t shoot projectile.
Then, on the receiving end, effects puts squibs on bodies or on walls or furniture or whatever, and they time it, and you fire the gun and special effects fires the squib so it looks like people are shot. That’s another thing changing with the digital world, because there is a lot of danger involved with firing blanks—there is still gun powder firing out of that barrel at a high velocity, so you have to make sure there’s a standard 20 between what you’re shooting at. So effects, they add the gun fire in post-production—that way you don’t have to fire anything—or there’s another prop called “non-guns” that are modeled after these regular guns like a Glock or a Beretta or whatever, but they fire light. They have little lighted modules that you put in the end of the barrel, and you pull the trigger, and it just flashes light. The problem with those guns, of course, is they’re not mechanical like a regular semiautomatic gun—where you fire it and the bullet flies back and the casing ejects—these guns don’t do that. But they’re great if you have to do a gun fire inside a car with somebody.
AVC: How many props are you looking at for one episode?
CC: On a show like this, it’s anywhere between eight and 12 specific props. And there’s usually two or three or four really big, challenging things.
And like, again, if we’re doing a scene in a restaurant, I have to manage all of the food in the restaurant. If we’re in a bar, I have to do all the glassware and all the drinks and all of that. They don’t really care about that. When I say I’m responsible for the food, I don’t necessarily have to make the food, I just have to make sure it’s getting done.
Not that I haven’t made the food before; I did a movie years ago called The Spitfire Grill and we shot in Vermont and everything was shot in a diner and me and my two assistants ran a diner. Every morning we’d go in and fire up all the grills and basically make all the food. We did it with all the actors and they all worked there so it was kind of like our restaurant. So that was fun. Because there are budget constraints, we can’t always hire a food staff, but that’s normally what we do.
Like Chef, there was a ton of food in that movie—it’s a total foodie movie and they brought in a full-time food stylist who helped design and prepare and deliver all that food. And if we’re doing a restaurant scene and there are two people sitting at a table—if they’re in the middle of dinner—I will normally have a food stylist come in because if the actors are eating the food, I want to make sure it’s fresh and hot. But all the background stuff, we’ll handle that. Sometimes if we’re in a working restaurant, we’ll ask the restaurant itself if they want to make the food for us. That way they get a little extra income. But a lot of times we’ll go into buildings that aren’t restaurants and make them restaurants, in which case we have to bring in everything. So we will handle that. But if it’s something that the actors are involved in and eating, I’ll bring a food stylist in for safety’s sake.
But I will tell you, most of the time, if you watch for it in any film or television show—if it’s very specific in the script what they’re eating—actors don’t like to eat. [Laughs.] So you don’t give them much, because they’ll pick at the food. And they have to deliver lines, and you don’t want to do it with a mouth full of food.
AVC: How did you come into this line of work?
CC: I didn’t really think I was going to be doing what I was doing. I started getting hired as a production assistant making $250 a week or something like that and I literally started from the bottom up. I mean, I started doing commercials and because I had an aptitude toward art. So then I started becoming an art department production assistant and then, finally, I got hired to be what’s called a lead man, which is basically the head set dresser on this Horton Foote movie that filmed in Waxahachie, Texas. And I actually moved to Pittsburgh in the mean time because it had a burgeoning film industry at the time because of George Romero.
AVC: It did?
CC: It did! Because all the Dawn Of The Dead, Day Of The Dead movies were filmed there and then, again, back in the early days before unions spread across the country, it used to be New York and Los Angeles and that was it. So production companies, to try and beat the costs of union labor, decided that Pittsburgh could play as New York very easily and it looked a lot like New York in a lot of ways, so we started getting all of this work coming into Pittsburgh playing as New York.
It was very interesting, living in Pittsburgh. Because you might have had a desire or a specific focus of what you wanted to do, but when a movie came into town, you took a job doing whatever you could find. So I was a location scout, or a location manager for some movies that came through there. I was a cat wrangler once. It was very ridiculous. And then I was a scenic painter on Silence Of The Lambs.
AVC: So I have to ask about the cat wrangling. What does that entail, and how many cats were there?
CC: Oh my God, it was so horrible. In fact, I have the movie on DVD and I have yet been able to watch it after 25 years because it was such a horrible experience.
Dario Argento, who is this Italian horror film icon, came into town to do a dual production with George Romero of Edgar Allan Poe shorts. George Romero did one and Dario Argento did another and the one that Dario Argento did was called “The Black Cat.”
I came into the production office to look for a job and she said, “Well, all of our art department positions are filled. We do have one position we’re trying to fill. A cat wrangler.” And I said, “Cat wrangler? I’m no trainer.” And she said, “No, no, no, we’re not looking for a trainer, we’re just looking for somebody who can help us acquire the cats that we need and then manage them on set.” I was 26 or 27 years old and had no idea what I was getting myself into. So I said, “Sure, I can do that.”
I immediately started putting out these ads looking for black cats. I did this radio spot where they interviewed me and I asked for anybody with a black cat. And the next thing I know, I had the SPCA calling me. It threw up a red flag for them because I was looking for black cats—because apparently, they had a lot of people looking for black cats for cultish reasons. I tried to explain to them that this is what we do, but they were not amused at all.
Anyway. I get a couple of cats together and I get this one cat—his name is Reggie—who was perfect. And I saw this other cat that Reggie hated so whenever we had to do scenes where Reggie was mad, I could bring this other cat out to make him mad.
I was very enthusiastic and I go and get this cat training book and I bought this clicker and I trained Reggie. I’d click it and he’d go from the ground to the radiator in my office and then he’d jump down. And I was like, “Wow, this is so cool.” So I brought Dario Argento in and I said, “Dario, I want to show you this,” and, by the way, he only speaks Italian, so there’s this huge language barrier. But I go, “Look. Watch.” So I click it and he jumps and I click it again and the cat jumps on and he’s like, “Bellisimo. That’s fantastico,” and he’s all happy.
So the first day of shooting, we’re in a bar. They want the cat to jump up on the bar and then walk down the bar and then walk down the backside of it. I’m down at the back of the bar with Reggie and they say, “Okay and action” and I kind of give Reggie a little push. He jumps up on the bar and takes a look around the room and sees all of these people and all of these things he’s never seen before, and he takes off.
I go and I find Reggie and I get him and I bring him back and the first thing he says to me is, “They want to talk to you.” And there’s Dario Argento and these three Italian producers, and Dario is out there and his arms are flailing everywhere. And the translator says, “Dario says that’s not the same cat you showed him.”
And that’s how it was for the whole show. The other thing is, whenever you do any filming with animals, the American Humane Association is involved. They come out, they read the script, and whatever is happening on that day, they’re there when you’re filming to make sure nothing happens to the animals. I’ve had them come out because I had a cockroach on set. You’re not allowed to kill a cockroach on camera. You can’t kill or harm or do anything to any living creature. It is absurd. I had a scene where a guy is playing drums in his crappy apartment and he sees a cockroach and he hits it with his drum stick, so I had to find a rubber cockroach and I glued these bristles from a paint brush on his head so they looked like antennas and then I sliced them long ways across the back and I stuck a kidney bean inside between it so when you hit it, it splattered. It was great.
But yeah, the AHA, they read the script and they’re like, “We need to know how you’re going to do the scene here where it says the cat is strapped to a board and they put electrodes on the cat and he starts screaming in pain. How are you going to do that?” [Laughs.]
AVC: I’m so glad you don’t do this anymore.
CC: God, no.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that when you worked on Alias, there was a phrase in the screenplays that was a joke meant for you—that basically, you had to create something to make it work.
CC: A “small, black device.” But only later on. When I started that show, nothing got done without [creator and showrunner] J.J. Abrams being fully involved in every way. With every show I’ve done, you sort of have to get to know the producer or the director or whoever it is, and get the sense of what their style is, what they want and don’t like. It took me all of the first season and part of the second season to get to a point where J.J. and I had a rapport that was easy, where he would tell me what he wanted and I would know what he wanted.
So for the first season of Alias, I would do things and he would say: “No, that’s too flashy. I don’t want a lot of blinky lights, I don’t want it to look hokey—I want it to look like it’s real and organic even though we’re creating something that doesn’t exist.” Like, again, a fax machine from the 1500s doesn’t exist, so the challenge is how do you make it look like it’s real, but still not hokey. I loved building all that Rambaldi stuff—and I created a style for Rambaldi, where anytime a Rambaldi artifact came up, I had to make sure it was true to the style of Rambaldi, and it didn’t look different, and it was all from the same guy.
My manufacturer—who at the time was a company called Neotech—had a couple of brilliant artists there who would, then, turn my design into an actual prop. They actually built it, because something like that, I didn’t really have a shop where I could build things myself. I would be there every day with them and they’d take it to step one with me and I’d say, “Yes, that’s right,” and we’d work together on getting it done. They were really, in my opinion, the geniuses behind it because it was really—it’s easy to conceptualize something. Making it real and practical, that’s the real artistry, in my book.
AVC: So how functional does any of this stuff on screen have to be?
CC: [Chuckles.] Well, that’s the other joke. I mean, I did a crew T-shirt once for Alias, for the prop department. The caption was “Alias: It runs on batteries!” Because all of this stuff, including all of the sets—you look at a set and you’re like, “Oh, my God, that’s fantastic,” and you walk outside and you see it’s a one-wall flat put up with drywall screws. You hang a curtain and the curtains are hung up with wire and a nail because it just needs to look good and be functional for as long as it takes to shoot the scene. The same thing goes for props. The props—if they have functionality, they have to work. And you have to have backups for things and, in the case of Alias, make sure you have enough batteries, because these things had to run on batteries.
Now, again, what’s changed over the years now with CGI and post-production effects becoming much more affordable, I don’t have to make these things as practical anymore because it’s so much easier for them to put a blinking light in post-production and they can put it wherever they want, however they want. Matador was a show where we had a lot of gadgets and it was interesting—this time I was able to design props that were designed to have CGI elements built into it.
AVC: I would assume that you have to do some research on how these things look in order to make them believable.
CC: Absolutely, that’s a large part of our prep, too. We’ll get a script or an outline or something and that usually is the first thing we do if it has anything to do with something official or something that exists in the world. We do the research to find out what it’s supposed to be, what it’s supposed to look like. But having said that—production will want to know how this thing is done and what the proper way is, but that doesn’t always work with filming. They’ll take artistic license with things all the time. So we’ll do the research, but it doesn’t always come off that way.
Part of it for me being an artist—and, again, that’s one of the things that made my rapport with J.J. Abrams so easy—is that I didn’t create anything that didn’t have some functionality to it, or didn’t have some backstory to it, or plausibility. Because that’s a pet peeve of mine. I need to, in my mind, know how the thing works even if you don’t know it on camera.
AVC: Do you have a favorite prop that you’ve created?
CC: I guess my favorite one was the Rambaldi clock. That thing was amazing because we built that little stained glass disc—that came up, like, five episodes after we introduced that clock—that slipped into the clock, and it lit the candles. The whole backstory to the whole Rambaldi thing was so fascinating to me. I just loved being part of creating that.
AVC: It sounds like there are pieces of your work that cross over into set dressing and if you had a food stylist that might crossover into that. And then there’s the special effects component, too.
CC: It’s collaboration, you know? Every show is different because there are different personalities in every show, and different players that some are more involved than others. I’ve been on shows where I’ve done everything; I’ve done the graphics, I’ve done a lot of what would be considered effects. But on other shows, those different department heads want to be a part of it, too. So we all have to collaborate together.
For instance, in the episode we’re filming right now, Jake flies one of those quadcopters and there’s a scene where it has to fly across the room and crash into somebody. We hired—it turned out to be our stunt coordinator’s son who was the quadcopter pilot and he came in and flew the actual quadcopter. But the part where the quadcopter crashes into somebody—we couldn’t do that practically, because it was dangerous. So I had to go out and buy another quadcopter, a used one that was kind of in disrepair, and I brought it into our special effects guys and they were able to crack it open and put lights in it so it lit up and make the blades so they spun freely without a motor. And they put it on a wire and we used it to crash into the guy and made it look like it was actually running, but it wasn’t.
It’s a process. Everybody reads the same script and what happens, eventually, is I’ll start getting calls from people or they’ll get calls from me, saying the costume department said, “Yeah, I see that Andy has to pull pair of magic rings out of his jacket. Can you tell me how big the rings are so I can make sure there’s a pocket big enough for it?” Otherwise, on the day of shooting, you’ll be like, “Here are the rings,” but it doesn’t fit into wardrobe. You have to think of all of these things in advance.
We’re all seasoned professionals on this show, and we all have to know what to do and we’re all cross-referencing each other all the time. It’s a big organism that all works together—because otherwise, it doesn’t.