My favorite travel story is a minor tale of showbiz derring-do that took place on a train from London to Glasgow. This anecdote might also serve as a succinct example of the qualities that mark the difference between a good producer and a great one.
In late July of 2013, we were filming Parks and Recreation in and around London. My character, Ron Swanson, was sent off by Leslie Knope on a treasure hunt to find his favorite Scotch distillery, Lagavulin, on the idyllic green isle of Islay. The mystery trip would ultimately end by boat, but first we needed sequences of me hoofing it across the moors, hitching rides with farmers, and perambulating past Stonehenge, all interspersed with assorted rail journeys.
Because it was just the one actor (me), the show chose to use a skeleton crew. In such situations, producers tend to play a bit fast and loose with the rules, so as to get the maximum production value for the minimum amount of budget expenditure. For example, you can shoot an actor getting on and off the same train at different stations, changing up the angles and the tone, so that at the end of one trip you can edit your pieces to appear as though they were shot on different trains. This is how we found ourselves shooting Ron Swanson as he repeatedly disembarked and then reboarded the train, providing the editor with perfectly juicy raw materials for a travel montage.
Now, stop and think about this: To shoot me stepping off the train, our shoulder-mounted cameraman first had to scramble off and set up his shot. Then I would get a furtive thumbs-up and begin the “scene,” stepping off and looking about with astonishing naturalism. If memory serves, I think I even heard gasps at the Carlisle station when I convincingly perused the schedule board. Then the cameraman would hustle back onto the train to shoot me boarding the car I had just exited.
The extremely fun part of all this was that we weren’t supposed to be doing it. We had procured permits to shoot at the Scotland locations to which we were traveling, but nobody had mentioned these train bits to the authorities.
‘Hang on, lads. What are you filming?’ asked the stentorian policeman in the vast station.
It was pretty mellow at first, but as we progressed north through the country-side, our little scenelets became more detailed, and thus more challenging.
“OK, this time, walk a couple steps and look around like you’re trying to find a guide.”
“Great, now this time walk into the station like you’re leaving, but then haul a** back to the train so we don’t leave you behind.” (This involved our producer, Doug “Catfish” Smith, holding the train doors open as I sprinted back aboard, giggling and exhilarated.)
Everything proceeded with the varying degrees of success one might expect from a bunch of 40-year-old teenaged men and women running around a stuffy British rail service shooting scenes and then tumbling back into our seats, laughing uncontrollably, as though we had just successfully executed a whoopee cushion under the Sunday school teacher’s bottom. It was perfectly good fun that is absolutely not recommended for a variety of reasons concerning safety and insurance liability and other grown-up annoyances.
The journey ended in Glasgow’s Central Station, which was indistinguishable from Hogwarts to an Illinoisan country lad like myself. Lofty and teeming with commuters, the station absolutely demanded that we cap off our train chapter with a shot there. Two cameras lined up shots in the blink of an eye, and here we were doing it, stealing golden footage of Ron looking around a foreign beehive of activity.
“Hang on, lads. Have you got a permit? What are you filming?” asked a stentorian policeman, flanked by two fellow officers in the vast, bustling station. They were looking with rather suspicious regard at our crew, complete with cameras, a sound man with a large, fuzzy microphone on a 10-foot boom, and several other people with professional-looking bags of equipment.
Our producer, Morgan Sackett, one of the nimblest cat burglars I have seen when it comes to the theft of filmed scenery, calmly said, “It’s a birthday video.”
“Ah,” said one officer to his mate, “’tis a birthday video.”
They nodded at one another, not entirely convinced, but when they turned back to us, we had vanished into the crowd. Showbiz!
Nick Offerman stars in the exclusive FX on Hulu limited series Devs, which premieres March 5.