“They want me to look all bummy,” a guy in a hat tells the liquor store proprietor, by way of explaining the big shopping bag he’s holding, given to him by Ant-Man‘s production crew. The bag contains a dirty stuffed animal, some newspapers, an old little league trophy, and I can’t see what else. Minutes earlier, I’d heard an assistant director or production manager-type person give the crew (probably 50 people) a run down on what they’d be shooting that day. Adding excitedly, “and we’ll be using real homeless people as extras!”
So it was that for one day, the natural spectacle of San Francisco’s Tenderloin and the artificial, man-made spectacle of the Marvel universe joined forces. The idea that the crew saw a guy walking around looking shiftless and thought, “Ooh, great, but not quite ‘homeless’ enough. Can we give him a bag full of random trash?” seems somewhat emblematic of the whole experience.
NOTE: Since I know how sensitive some people are about spoilers, I can assure you at the outset here that unless you consider Ant-Man having at least one scene take place in a city a spoiler, there will be no spoilers. I will put anything even mildly spoilery (and I imagine these will be incredibly mild) on the following page.
It’s unclear whether the guy was actually homeless – he looked a lot more put together than most people in this neighborhood – or whether the Colt .45 he was buying was part of the costume or just something to do at 9 am on this fine Tuesday. In either case, he seemed to be enjoying this distraction as much as the rest of us.
I’d like to say I heard Ant-Man was going to be shooting and snuck down to the set like a real journalist, but the truth is, I just happened to be riding my bike downtown and ran smack into the biggest movie set I’ve ever seen. They had five square blocks blocked off in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin, a third world-esque collection of drug treatment centers and residence hotels that somehow still exists less than a mile from the headquarters of big tech companies making San Francisco’s real estate the most preposterously expensive in the country (ask us about our gentrification! wait, on second thought, don’t. oh god please don’t).
I was also caught by surprise that they’d already begun photography on Ant-Man. It was less than four months ago when Edgar Wright dropped out as director, after working on the movie for eight or nine years, at which point the script was given what sounds like a total rewrite. They were still talking rewrites in early June when new director Peyton Reed jumped onboard, and now here it is August, and they’re already shooting the thing. The timeline seems… rushed. Especially for something requiring this level of logistic planning.
There were two massive cranes holding up giant metal rigs hanging over the street at about the level of the building line, with guide wires dangling down to the street. One rig shaped like a square to hold big, diffusion tarps to soften the sunlight, one just a long beam with a hose running through it to create fake rain. There was another small crane attached to a truck holding the camera, and peach pickers everywhere holding up lights.
The production crew’s badges and the official shooting notices said “Bigfoot,” which was obviously a cover, but what wasn’t cleared up with a little cursory Googling was strongly hinted at by the signs reading “Pym Particle Productions” on all the trucks (get it?? because Ant-Man‘s name is Hank Pym!), and ultimately confirmed by the AD directly referencing Ant-Man during his production crew pow-wow (a few more specifics about that on the following page*).
The neighborhood turned out to be both useful backdrop and an interesting culture clash. There’s perhaps no place in the world better for watching interestingly crazy or drug-addled street people, and as I was standing on the corner watching two well-groomed, 20-something production assistants walk towards the set with their free breakfast croissants from craft services, an agitated woman (not much older than them, but looking like she’d lived some hard years) wearing pink bike shorts, an orange vest, and some sort of dog-shaped beanie on her head burst out the door of one of the residence hotels. She looked around her street twitchily, annoyed that her block had become a movie set as far as the eye could see and quickly resigned herself to what she was about to do – pull her pink shorts down to her knees and squat to pee right there on the sidewalk, the ears of her doggie hat gently blowing in the breeze. The pee came out with impressive force, producing a wooshing sound that could be heard over the noise of all the trucks and generators. The PAs kept walking, chuckling in amazement and trying not to make eye contact. Welcome to the Tenderloin, guys.
After living in San Francisco for five years it finally dawned on me why there’s so much human sh*t and piss on the street: buildings like these, where there are probably between four and 10 people sharing the same bathroom. I’ve resorted to peeing in a bottle before, and I only have one roommate (similar to the way girl roommates’ periods synchronize, my roommate and I have a special bond where I always have to poop at the exact time he’s taking a jack shower). It seems so obvious now, I can’t believe it never occurred to me before.
It was cool to see half a block covered in fake rain (to be later augmented with CG rain effects, according to the AD), and also handy for distinguishing which people were extras and which people were just walking by. (The extras had umbrellas and rain jackets).
Every ten minutes or so, a new crazy (or drug-addled or just pissed off) person would wander through the block screaming his or her head off about… something. It was never quite clear. The crew mostly just ignored them until they passed, avoiding eye contact and carrying on with their business, much like city residents do. I’m sure there’s a more compassionate response, but that seems like more of a commitment than most could manage.
Standing around gawking, it was impossible not to get chatted up by anyone passing by wondering just what the hell all this fuss was about. One older man with a grey beard and some of the worst teeth I’ve ever seen sticking out between discolored gums asked me something in a wheezy, slurring voice. I had to ask him to repeat it about three times before I finally figured out what he was saying. “What are they filming?” (pretty obvious question, in retrospect).
“Ant-Man,” I answered.
At this, with no elaboration, the man started laughing as if this was the funniest answer in the history of the world, moving his hand from my shoulder onto his knees in order to catch his breath from laughter. I guess if you remove everything you know about Disney and Marvel and the current atmosphere of the movie business, blocking off five city blocks filled with cranes and trucks and rain for something called “Ant-Man” is pretty funny. Also, I’m pretty sure he was drunk.
The strangest thing I saw all day was what was basically a holding pen for homeless or homeless-looking extras:
Adding to the slightly surreal quality was the fact that this corral was less than a block away from a services building, where a demographically similar group people was lining up naturally, in almost the same way (only without the tents, releases, and food). It was like having a prop police station next door to a real one.
Despite the fact that the set had hundreds of people working on it and had attracted hundreds more to drop everything to gawk at it, for the most part it wasn’t the most fascinating place in the world. It was initially fun to watch the cars and buses and bicycles drive through the shot for a block and a half until someone would yell “Cut!” into a bullhorn, and then the cars would all stop and back up to where they started, making it all feel very Truman Show. (The most boneheadedly obvious analogy to use about film set in the world, but it’s simply the best way to describe it).
At least three times someone leaned on a dummy parking meter thinking it was a real parking meter and knocked it over, popping open the head and sending the parts shooting all over the side walk. The AD had said they’d be getting a shot of Paul Rudd going into an apartment at some point that day, and I wanted to stick around for that, for obvious reasons, but I didn’t know when exactly that would be, and since the shoot was scheduled to last from 7 am until 10 pm, I wasn’t about to hang around the whole time waiting to find out. At one point I thought I saw Rudd up the street, but when I got closer I realized it was just his stand-in.
“This is, like, simultaneously the most exciting and the most boring thing in the world,” I overheard a fellow gawker near me tell her friend, which pretty much summed up the whole experience.
I worked on plenty of sets before my writing days (though like I said, never this big), but it’s impossible not to be re-impressed anew every time, struck again by the surrealness of it. The idea that you can lead a small army, turn traffic in reverse, make it rain during a drought, and keep strangers willingly corralled into a pen like zoo animals, and all for a shot that will probably make up less than five seconds of screen time, all because someone somewhere had an idea… well, it’s pretty cool.
(I put some more pictures on the next page – separated for easy loading – and the promised ever-so-spoilery stuff on page three).
*What he actually said was that they’d be shooting a scene to which a CG Ant-Man would be added later, of Ant-Man jumping out the window of this apartment where Ant-Man lives. Here’s his building, I didn’t see them do anything to the sign (though they could always alter it digitally later):
The scene, as it was decribed, involved Ant-Man jumping out the window of that building and onto the roof of this car. Apologies if I have ruined the movie for you.
Oh, and here’s a giraffe in a trash can, which was specifically placed there by the crew, and thus may or may not be important. Probably the lynchpin of the entire plot.