Mystic Vacation or the Making of a 48-Hour Movie

Memoir of a goat

“Over the river, and through the woods,
To Grandmother’s house we go”

The official song of The Mystic River Watershed Association
(after the original by Lydia Maria Child, 1844)

“Believe me, it’s worth it!”

The required dialog line for Boston’s 48-hour films, 2013


I’ve been typecast as a goat. Not exactly a farm goat next door, mind you. It was the ancient Greek goat called Faun, yet a goat nevertheless. In my upcoming role I would be a goat again in a play written with me as a goat in mind. This time, I would be a talking goat-academic, putting non-caprine professors to shame with his prowess. (See that Goat Saga here.) My life in art seemed to be herded on a goatpath. I was even thinking of taking a page from the great chess champion Gary Kasparov and also writing a book called “My Great Predecessors.” His predecessors were previous chess champions. In my case, those would be other performers cast as a goat. Sadly, I could only think of one, though truly great predecessor – my landsman Vaslav Nijinsky, the dancer in Diaghilev’s production of Debussy’s The Afternoon of a Faun.  But Nijinsky has been written about so much that I had to drop the idea. And then an email came.

It came as a follow-up to the just wound-down acting class performance of Waiting for Godot, where I was NOT cast as a goat. But only because there is no goat in Beckett’s classic play. They only talk about goatherds there. Thus, I was drafted as an understudy, a character in search of a role, which never materialized. In the email, a guy named Brad invited the Godot cast to participate in something called The 48 Hour Film Project – on his team. It seemed that I had nothing to lose except for 48 hours and my goat reputation. I bit the lure, sent him my goat video, and was conditionally hired, subject to the availability of a suitable role, hopefully, not a goat.

Another Boston Marathon

I should dispel a possible misconception right away. A 48-hour movie is not a movie that runs for 48 hours. Even Christian Marclay’s famous The Clock runs for only 24. Rather it’s a movie that’s made in 48 hours and made completely from scratch. To make sure there is not much pre-scratching, the rules of this worldwide project include delivering several requirements to all participants simultaneously. The requirements are: a specific character, a prop, and a dialog line to be used in the film. Each team also draws a genre for itself from a bag.  Hence, all the teams, or their ambassadors, need to gather in one place for the synchronous start and the hard cutoff finish. And in Boston, where else could it be but near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

To be honest, it was only a 26-hour movie for me. As an actor, I had it easy. My job started at 6pm on Friday and ended at 8pm on Saturday. It’s the production crew that took it on the chin and was not done until 7pm on Sunday – in time not to be left Hors Compétition (they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of that sure victory, but I am getting ahead of myself here). I started my job on Friday, only because I volunteered to go to Lir Irish Pub on Boylston Street to pick up our instructions and pass them immediately to the headquarters, to save precious scratching time. “It’s a social event,” said Brad dismissively, when I asked what was happening at the kick-off. And so it was, except from time to time business had to be transacted. I turned in the team agreement signed by the leader and picked up a wristband – a regalia of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the team. Meaning, they would not kick me out of the basement, where the 48H-ers thronged, should it become too crowded for the fire department. Other teams were much more sociable and showed up in full strength. No wonder: most of them were in their 20s and 30s. I found a big letter B – designating the showing time for movies of our group at the Kendall Square Cinema next week. It’s easy to socialize at such an event: just say hi, and you are in. In fact, maybe too much in. The people at the table I bumped into were all from one group (Collie Woods) and were the typical young age for this crowd. “I am just an actor,” I said, “from the ‘Tango’ team, and I usually play goats.” (Did I really mean that I was an actor?) That was met with a roar of approval, although one girl somehow could not believe the goat part. They immediately started urging me to quit “Tango” and join them. Being an ambassador, hence a diplomat, I said I would surely join their team… next year, if I did not like it with “Tango.” I could not become a turncoat just like that, without having even tried the coat on.

The genre drawing bag came to our table. My new friends drew “Buddy Movie” – apparently just what they wanted. I pulled out “Vacation or Holiday Movie.” Brad had instructed me not to go for a second chance with a wildcard genre that contained such gems as “Film de femme” or “Found sources film,” but to stick to the basics, even if unexciting. The obligatory line of dialog was the same for everybody, and it was a beautiful line waiting for its Rick or Rhett: “Believe me, it’s worth it!” (As it happened, I was to become this ill-fated Rick). The prop was a “net” – with multi-entendre possibilities, and the character “Bonnie or Brian Higgins, inventor.”

Some people lingered, but I shot upstairs and onto the street to catch some fresh air and better cell phone reception. As I was passing urgent intelligence to the headquarters, I felt a presence behind my left shoulder. When I was done, a stocky gentleman with an Indian accent asked me to elaborate on what he had just heard. Not in a rush anymore, I shared my freshly acquired wisdom. He listened to my explanation of 48HMP rules with rapt attention. He might like to participate next year, I ventured. No, he said, he was waiting for his team leader who had not come yet. He better scramble downstairs to find any chance for salvage, I advised, but in truth, the Waiting for Godot maxim was as relevant as ever for him: “Nothing to be done.”

Copley Square was only a few steps away and I could not ignore it. A few flowers covered the spot on the sidewalk where one of the Boston Marathon bombs had gone off three weeks earlier. A street musician plucking his guitar sat on a bench next to that strange blue telescoping viewing platform, the iconic image of which behind the smoke of the explosion had circled the world. The wide yellow band across the pavement with the words: “FINISH 117th Boston Marathon” had not been removed. A whole section in the middle of the square had been fenced off for a shrine. Flowers, ribbons, posters (“Istanbul stands with Boston”), flags, sneakers, t-shirts (“NY hearts Boston”).  The four pictures of the fallen were in the center. I read an inscription at the back of the memorial to Lu Lingzi, the BU graduate student. In Mandarin, it said roughly: “Departed but remembered” (因为离去 我们和识), applicable to the others as well.

Back home, the first update from Brad came at 10:30 pm. It gave the main theme – a hiking and boating vacation on the Mystic River and Alewife Brook. Non-crew people could relax until 8am next morning.

Will it come out like Chaplin?

The next update actually arrived at 5:42am (!). It found me fast asleep and had to wait for the designated wake up time. It seemed to have everything figured out: several “hood” girls were told to come dressed “slightly trashy” (they did). Boston Casting, which had invited me to try out for the role of a Russian mafia pimp several days earlier, was more direct: for the mafia-themed film they requested that “young girls dress like a prostitute” (I did not get the pimp part and lost a chance to act opposite Denzel Washington). This time I was cast as a “European” tourist (hooray, not a goat!). The only question was about my boating experience, which would presumably be put to the test in the treacherous two-feet deep Mystic River (kayaking by the Arctic Circle a zillion years ago was enough to assuage Brad’s fears).

Although the genre was defined only as “vacation movie,” somehow nobody was thinking about making it a drama, much less a tragedy. It became a comedy by default. And with comedy comes tragic self-torture. Exhibit A – the “net.” What did the 48H powers-that-be mean by that, and where could we get something like a net in short order? Bonnie, the writer/imagineer, latched onto the idea of a fishnet, but not just the coarse implement used by the local “Captains Courageous” exalted by Kipling and rapidly going extinct. She had in mind something very different and presumably much easier to get – fishnet stockings. There were just two problems with stockings: how to employ them, i.e. who to put them on and how (Bonnie had some ideas); but before that, where one could get a pair real quick. Even going to the far end of Cambridge to a costume store was problematic given our ticking clock, so the “net” issue was kicked down the road for now (she solved it brilliantly later – see Bonnie’s Bass Net).

Of course the main technique to make something into a comedy was obvious: bring in the clowns. We already had a clown costume. Now they had to coax somebody to don it and not shy away from the camera. Charlie Chaplin had done it and the Tango crew was not afraid to be like Chaplin. While the clown force was being assembled and scheduled, the scenes with the “locals” of the Mystic Valley tourist Mecca were getting ready for shooting.

In the Hood

We were in this gentrifying artsifying hood near Tufts University where some local “hoodies” were still to be found. But we brought our own. One of the girls, Nataly, was indeed wearing a hoodie. The other, Ani, had something on her head that looked like a cross between a baseball hat and a uniform cap of the Austro-Hungarian Army from WWI. The third, Corina, was supposed to be a newcomer from a very different hood. Fishnet stockings would have completed her getup just fine, had she been asked to provide a “net” in advance.

And the shoot started. The two “locals” kept gossiping about the “new girl.” The new girl kept using the side mirror of a parked car for the same purpose Snow White’s evil stepmother ogled her magic mirror. Take, after take, after take.  In the meantime, reality locals showed up randomly on the other side of the street. One lady passer-by, dressed in all black complete with a Don Basilio hat from The Barber of Seville, was even slimmer than Corina – clearly a gentrifier. Another, in a white t-shirt, was standing in front of a fairy-tale hut with gypsum lions by the entrance, talking on her cell phone, not hurrying anywhere. Her t-shirt would fit twice the number of our “local girls” huddled together. It was a diverse hood out there.

The café society

This was an active travel vacation movie, not a beach relaxation one, and soon off we went to explore the local dining scene. By the side of a Dunkin’ Donuts, Jenny and her “European” husband Boris (that would be Susanna and yours truly), were sitting at an outdoor table enjoying the bright Medford sun, a Dunkin’ Donuts muffin, and an animated conversation with a guidebook of the island of Kauai in hand. I could have also said people watching, but that would not be true. Mystic VacationPassing cars watching would be more like it. Luckily, it was not possible to procure a fiberglass canoe or kayak. It would have been much less stable leaning against the wall next to our table than the inflatable boat the producers managed to find. That rubber boat was an object of nagging concern for Bonnie. She had visions of that boat being punctured during the tough passage ahead of us (we signed a liability release, that I did not read, which presumably would have put the blame for any fatal accident during the shooting squarely on the deceased, but you never know what would stand in a court of law these days).

An hour of living dangerously

The relaxing part did not last long. Now we had to carry the boat across the street on the way to (or from?) our water adventure. This is when hitting the road with a rubber boat seemed like a blessing – it was much lighter than the alternatives. Yet this dry-land crossing was not envisioned to be that simple. Obstacles had to be overcome (read your Stanislavsky), and the “locals” were to help us in our quest. But first, we had to attempt to cross the road on our own and show that it was not possible. This did not sit well with local drivers. Seeing us on the edge of the pavement, they either sped up making the feat dangerous indeed, or they were over-courteous and stopped.

Presumably, the next step would be for several “locals” to appear out of nowhere and stop the traffic for us. Of course Corina could surely stop the traffic without lifting a finger or any part of her body, for that matter, as long as she was not completely out of the line of sight for the drivers. Her “slightly trashy” outfit was the kind that the Russian Mafioso Slavi would surely appreciate. She also had bling enough to satisfy the most fastidious Gypsy. But that was an overkill. Still several takes were done with the tourist couple reaching the middle of the road and “locals” swarming from all four directions to give us plenty of hand.

Bring in the clowns

Among those giving a hand was a clown. But this was a stand-in clown, not the guy who was later to deliver a manifesto on behalf of all the local clown population. He was willing to put on a clown costume on the street, and act out a silly scene, but he wanted to get out of it quickly and was earnestly afraid that a picture I took of him would end up on Facebook (it would not, I promised – but Picasa was fair game at the time). Being in a movie watched by hundreds at the Kendall Square Cinema (and probably a few more on YouTube later) somehow did not worry him as much.  Nor was he placated when all the “local” girls from the cast surrounded him and started cooing in sincere delight “How cute” he was in his motley clown outfit. Apparently, the main goal of the arts – getting babes or sublimating about getting babes – was not high on his agenda.

He dutifully swarmed with others in the middle of the dangerous roadway (neither the legal release, nor even Corina could guarantee total safety), then exchanged hugs and high-fives with Boris and Jenny, and Nataly and Ani, and Corina on reaching the other side of the street. His mission over, he must have been relieved. Yet when the crossing and swarming part was cut from the final version, he was disappointed that “the best scene” was gone (it was included in the Production extras on the DVD).

Still, the seductive power of clowns was undeniable. One acquaintance who saw the DVD, while giving lip-service to superstar Boris, could not stop talking about the red nose and long bangs of the talking clown. But this was a different clown. This pensive and dreamy local was performed by Frank, who appeared later, sans the red nose, as a ranger.

Mystic River

I don’t like Sean Penn. In fact, I hate the guy. Regardless of his acting chops, he is a nincompoop prone to friend two-bit caudillos like Hugo Chávez. Even the fact that he is my link to a half-legitimate Kevin Bacon number (*) does not endear him to me (he was in a TV program with Poet-Laureate Robert Pinsky, with whom I participated in a videotaped poetry fest in New Haven). Penn himself connected to Bacon in the acclaimed Mystic River, and it was that river I was destined to get into this afternoon.

I had my reservations. Those who follow Oscar-caliber Hollywood fare know that severely misguided Sean Penn dumped the dead body of Tim Robbins into the river (both got Oscars for their effort), while Kevin Bacon tried but failed to straighten Penn in time to stop the murder. As the talking clown in our own film pointed out, the body might still be there. Indeed, it was never fished out. Now I had to navigate the river in a rubber dinghy for enough time to provide 15 seconds of happy boating frames for the final cut. That turned out to be an hour of heavy rowing back and forth, dodging dead branches, strategically placed concrete slabs, as well as possibly Tim Robbins or other similarly hapless former Medford residents. To complete the bliss, my “wife Jenny” was in the boat too, which left no room for my knees in this nano-sized vessel. After hitting them a few times with the oars, I downgraded Tim Robbins to the second place on the list of obstacles, right behind my own knees.

But the more awkward and pained I looked, the better it was for the movie, which was, remember, shaping up as a comedy. With a stupid smile frozen on my face, later called “beatific” by a chief film critic for The New York Times Manohla Dargis  (just kidding, of course), I followed Bonnie’s commands from the shore. They had to be translated into executable instructions by Susanna (Jenny), because unlike me she was sitting facing the direction in which we were going.

Isn’t that right, honey?

Back on dry land, being a leading movie star finally had its privileges. At a Whole Foods supermarket across the parking lot from the riverbank, cold salad bar was at our disposal courtesy of the production company. I picked a little of everything, including a couple of hard-boiled eggs. Starved Susanna wolfed down her catch right there on the parking lot. Having remembered that an idyllic picnic was still ahead, I held back a few morsels. The payoff was swift. In the next scene, we were filmed comfortably reclining on one of numerous pieces of rough old concrete right by the water, enjoying whatever was left of the boxed salad (nothing in Susanna’s case). I, on the other hand, lustily forked an egg ready to gobble it whole – a crowd-pleasing performance that did not require resorting to sophisticated past-experience techniques developed by Stanislavsky.

The high point of the day came with an interview the touring couple was to give to the local media. Boris and Jenny, standing side by side in front of a pile of construction trash next to a “trail closed” sign, explained how happy they were to have their vacation here. It was mostly improv, starting with the phrase “even out there in Europe everybody is talking about this place.” A natural spot to utter the required dialog line: “Believe me, it’s worth it!” I did the uttering. As it happened, the European rubes had just been sold a permit to hike that closed trail, a bluff called by a no-nonsense ranger played by the multi-talented Frank. Naturally, such a trifle did not lessen our enthusiasm, as we called each other “honey” and walked, arm in arm, into the sunset.


To friends who expected me to come to their place after my movie stint on Saturday evening to work on our next goat project, I had to explain that I did not know when the filming would end. “Hey,”  one of them said, “surely they are not going to do any shooting after dark.” “You never, know,” I tried to joke, “there may be a bedroom scene.” And when I drew “A vacation or holiday movie” genre for our Tango team, a bedroom scene was not exactly the first thing that came to mind. Boy, was I wrong! But “bedroom” could be applied to the location scouted by the indefatigable Frank only extremely loosely. There was no “bed.” Moreover, there was no “room.”  Instead there was a narrow passage between two ten-feet high gravel mounds. The view was properly ugly and the passage was aligned in the direction of the conveniently setting sun. These were the only things that counted.

The crew brought us two sleeping bags in hideous shades of maroon, and spread them side by side. Somehow, a stray piece of cardboard materialized under Susanna’s bag, but there was no such luxury for me. H.C.Andersen’s princess on the pea I was not. They helped us into our bags. At least we had personal bags in individualistic America, unlike the Chukcha culture, where whole families, including conjugal (and actively conjugating) couples had to fit into one bag. And then a learning experience began. I learned terminology never before encountered in my middle-upper age life. First we had to lie on our bellies and like lizards look up at the sun, now barely above the row of cars at the nearby parking lot. I remembered the standard eclipse warning not to look at the sun directly, and tried to divert my eyes, but that was hard to do. The camera was now right in our faces. Mystic VacationNext we had to adopt the “Shirley Temple” pose and smile blissfully. Looking at Susanna, who followed the command without missing a bit, I put my elbows on the gravel, separated from me by a thinnish layer of bag material, and leaned my cheeks on my fists. They let the camera roll for a while. The next command was to do “kissy-kissy.”  I was at a loss again, but rescued again by Susanna. It turned out to be another lizard move. One had to pucker up one’s lips and then move them in and out in quick succession, kind of like a reptilian catching a fly. And oh, yes, it had to be done with another person while touching each other’s lips.  And preferably synchronously. I did not grok the last point right away and faced the usual remedy of movie making – extra takes.

One might hope that we could now relax in our sleeping bags for a bit after a whole day of Herculean labors.  But in the twisted logic of movie production, it was time to shoot the very beginning of our mystic odyssey.

We had to get up, quickly stuff the sleeping bags into a pouch and run to the car to proceed to our final location of the day before it got completely dark. My friend was right after all – darkness was not our friend, Simon & Garfunkel notwithstanding. And it was already almost 8PM.

Trains, or WWAKD (What Would Anna Karenina Do)

I had four nice antique leather suitcases in the back of my station wagon (no rollers or other fancy stuff). They were our immigration luggage, not even from Russia, but from the Soviet Union of yore (i.e., at least 35 years old). Just right for a “European” hick Boris and his Jenny. But when we pulled into the parking lot of the West Medford Station, a train was already approaching, as if on schedule! No time to haul out all suitcases or choose the most spectacular ones. We had to grab a piece each and rush to the platform. Meanwhile, the real young “locals” were converging on the coming engine, ready to go “on the town,” dressed in finery that deserved to be filmed, but wasn’t. Frank had quickly positioned his gadgets on the other side of the tracks, hidden from us by the train. After all the available high heels clicked up the steps into the car, a jovial conductor waved us to come up as well, even motioning to help with our (empty) baggage. “Thanks, maybe next time,” I mumbled. We had to be ready for the soon coming “Victorian” shot of people arriving by train to embark on an exotic adventure. After the last car thundered by, I lifted my suitcase, embraced Jenny and walked with her into the unknown (in reverse movie time, of course).

I know very little about the goings on the next day, except one thing. On a 3-hour sleep the valiant crew cut what was necessary (or unnecessary – Michelangelo-style), added narration, music, credits, Bonnie Higgins (played naturally by Bonnie), and all the remaining je-ne-sais-quoi to stitch together a sure-fire winner. It was being delivered to Lir Irish Pub in the nick of time, when they realized that “Believe me, it’s worth it” clincher lay dying on the cutting floor. Through the miracle of celluloidless movie-making they immediately set in motion a fix-and-copy procedure. But as the last bits were racing to jump into place on the shiny disk surface, the flag on the game clock fell, and our movie was out of the official running (they still took if for the gala screening).

At this point you must be asking yourself “What would Anna Karenina do?” The answer is clear: she would go back to Medford Station and wait for the next train to solve all her troubles, even if it took sleeping in a ditch overnight. Not so the steadfast “Tango Pictures” veterans. After agonized soul-searching, they decided to remain alive. To my knowledge, they still are.

Folks, let me leave you with this thought: insist on the final director’s cut of “Mystic Vacation,” where the immortal commandment to “believe me” is firmly set in concrete.

P.S. In the aftermath, the movie had a huge social impact. After watching this short but powerful feature, Steve Wynn, a Las Vegas casino mogul, pledged to spend over $1 billion to further develop the fabulous Mystic River Valley:

The ecstatic locals welcomed their new Las-Vegan overlords and overwhelmingly approved the project.

P.P.S. A grand Las Vegas-style casino, Encore Boston Harbor, was indeed inaugurated in June 2019 (though Steve Wynn had to resign as the CEO due to accusations of sexual misconduct). The views from its high-rise tower are said to be stunning, and that includes the views of the Mystic River. The makers of this film were prophets ahead of their time, and the prophesy was uttered by my character!

* I have since acquired many legitimate links to Kevin Bacon, most prominently through Bill Murray by way of “Ghostbusters”