Brian Matuszak column: Where were you when Iron Will came to town?So did I tell you I once appeared in a movie?
So did I tell you I once appeared in a movie?
It wasn’t one of those college student films with hand-held, barf-inducing camera work and microphones placed in Istanbul. And it wasn’t one of those viral YouTube sensations, featuring wacky mayors just begging to be sued for copyright infringement as well as the pain and suffering from unsuspecting viewers who naively thought they were going to be watching “dancing” but instead had their eyeballs explode.
No, I was in a real, honest-to-goodness Hollywood movie. Of course, so was half the population of Duluth. It was “Iron Will” and it told the story of forbidden love between a man, his dog, and the sled they both shared. Our community recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of this movie filming around here, and so I thought I’d share my personal story about the three magically boring days I spent appearing in a movie with Kevin Spacey. (Fun fact: between Kevin Spacey and me, we have won two Academy Awards!)
It was the winter of 1993 and Duluth was buzzing with the anticipation that can only be provided by Charles Haid coming to your town. We all knew him from his role as Officer Andy Renko in “Hill Street Blues,” but soon we’d come to know him as The Cranky Director of Iron Will.
Actually, that’s not fair. I didn’t have enough interaction with Mr. Haid to know if he was cranky ALL the time. I watched him only from afar as he yelled at the cast and crew for three days at the Greysolon Plaza. He might have been charming and sweet for the rest of the shoot, and if that’s the case, then you should definitely write a column about that. But this one’s mine.
Local casting director Riki McManus had called me and said they were looking for someone to play the pivotal role of The Spotlight Operator for the big ballroom scene in Iron Will, so she asked if I knew how to operate a spotlight. Wanting to be a part of the Hollywood scene, I immediately did what professional actors do: I lied through my teeth. “Absolutely,” I declared. “Sign me up!”
I got permission to skip a few days of my real job at KDAL Radio, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be back.
I mean, once those big-time Disney muckety-mucks got a load of my talent, I was sure to be offered a multi-picture deal with back-end points and syndicated residuals and lots of other motion picture jargon. Yes, no more writing Sonju ads for me! Hello, Hollywood! Where the Stars Are!
My first two days were spent in an itchy costume, sitting in a back room at Greysolon Plaza that was stuffed full of local folks. We spent 16 hours back there and we didn’t do anything that resembled acting in a movie, unless Iron Will turned out to be a movie about playing cards and wolfing down free doughnuts from the catering table.
Finally, on the third day, a production assistant came in looking for the person who was playing the critical role of The Spotlight Operator. Finally! My big break! I autographed
a few cribbage boards for the little people, then headed out to meet my destiny.
Turns out the part must have been for a Psychic Spotlight Operator because I was quickly abandoned in the middle of the huge ballroom and left on my own to figure out where to go, who to talk to, and what my lines were.
However, I have to honestly say that it was pretty cool to be on the set of a real Hollywood movie. While I wandered around, I was able to watch a few shots and the process really is amazing. You don’t realize how much choreography goes into a big crowd shot like the one Mr. Haid was setting up and shooting that day. There was intricate camera movement to figure out, each one of the extras had to have something specific to do because they never knew when they would be onscreen, and the star (and nicest guy to ever be in a Duluth movie), Mackenzie Astin, had to precisely make his way through that crowd of extras, hitting certain marks on the floor while at the same time acting like an awestruck teenager about to embark on The Adventure Of A Lifetime.
I watched a few takes and was completely fascinated by it all. Finally, my reverie was broken by a second production assistant who was in search of The Spotlight Operator, and he quickly hustled me over to meet the director.
Actually, I didn’t “meet” Charles Haid; I was “meat” to Charles Haid. He didn’t say a word to acknowledge my existence, just scowled as he looked me up and down, then turned and walked away. A few seconds later, YET ANOTHER production assistant (what, were they breeding these guys behind the NorShor?) came up to me, grinning from ear to ear like he was granting me the biggest favor in the world.
“Guess what? You get to leave!”
“I’ve been fired, haven’t I?”
“Yup, you can FIRE on out of here! Thanks for coming!”
And that was it. Luckily, I had managed to weasel my way into a scene earlier that same day where they needed a whole bunch of men to sing a World War I drinking song so I am in the final movie. Sure, my image lasts only a fraction of a second longer than the Starland Vocal Band’s musical career, but that’s why the freeze-frame button was invented.
Since I was kept longer on that third day, the production company had to pay me an hour and a half of overtime, which amounted to a whopping $7.32. I was in the hospital for minor surgery at the time, so my wife Sue went to their offices before they left town and collected it for me.
Then, because I am such a petty person, I never cashed the check and threw all their Hollywood bookkeeping off. That’s how I roll.
When the movie premiered in Duluth in 1994, Sue was able to score us some free tickets, so I brought that uncashed check with me and showed it to Mackenzie Astin. After I told him my story, he autographed it for me: “To Brian, thanks for the hour and a half of HARD work!”
I had it framed. Mackenzie Astin rules.
Brian Matuszak is the co-founder of Renegade Comedy Theatre, founder of Rubber Chicken Theater, and also gawked at Sam Shepard and the “Far North” crew while they shot a scene for that movie outside Grandma’s in Canal Park in 1987. He didn’t go bother the “You’ll Like My Mother” crew at Glensheen, though, because he was 8.