Hold For Sound: Part 1

“Hold For Sound” is an excerpt from my first book, Down and Out in California.

A contact from film school recommends me for production sound for a small piece. I debate it before accepting it, after all, I’ve promised I’d never work in Hollywood again. In the end I decide it’s an exception. I’m fresh out of work and still not back to zero on my credit cards, with only a month’s rent to spare. It’s not a full documentary, it’s just five days of work. It’s to prove to the studio, either the BBC or National Geographic, that this is a story worth telling. I will be paid five hundred dollars, plus expenses, which include driving to San Diego and using my car for the duration of the shoot.

Production sound on documentaries is exciting because it involves being up close and personal with a real life story, rather than executing on someone’s vision of make believe. I’m sold on the story behind this one, a framed OG, Lucas Porter. He was a San Diego man in prison for twelve years for killing a police officer. He was almost certainly wrongly accused, because he is African American, and a gang member. The director, Micah calls me to ask if I want to be a part of the production and tells me he was framed two times by the DA.

It sounds a little dangerous so I decide to take it.

I get my oil changed and fix my mirrors yet again in preparation for the trip to San Diego. I can’t have a mirror hanging off a car by a cable or affixed with duct tape on the car I’m using for this gig, how will that look? Los Angeles is so full of posts and pillars with which to knock mirrors off. 

The job provides the motivation and guarantee of funds that I need to get the work done. I can measure the frequency of use of my vehicle in whatever occupation I have currently by the percentage of time the side mirrors are disabled.

The work is delayed, Micah is stuck in New York because of a coming snow-storm, so the trip is postponed. This ends up causing the whole schedule to be changed, and stress for everyone involved. I remember living in upstate New York, I remember weather, but I still have the frustrated lack of understanding displayed by the rest of the Southern Californians whose appointments this shifts.

Later in the week I get in the car and drive to San Diego.

It’s a pleasant drive, just about three hours from Los Angeles. Since I get to expense for it, I take the toll road. It’s a straighter shot from LA to SD. I’ve spent some time in San Diego, Tommy Boom-Boom is from here. I’m heading into the southern end of Bay Park, with small, new, nice homes situated close to one another. I arrive to meet Micah at the address he’s given me, a pleasant suburban home with a mowed lawn and a modern, white, California design with oversized windows. It’s a comfortable size for the couple that lives there, Rebecca the producer/lawyer and her husband Jake, also a lawyer. It’s well-furnished and designed, with neat, simple rooms and all the necessities. It smells good, but not artificially scented. It’s clean.

When I arrive Micah is on the phone, speaking as directors do, arranging and organizing   interviews with gang members, attorneys, and police. He is a tall man with dark hair and light skin, and tweed jackets with elbow patches when he isn’t shooting, and camera vests and turtlenecks when he is. I’d have guessed him to be in his early forties, but I later find out that he is forty-seven. He’s from London, with a smooth accent and a pleasant, subservient demeanor that charms people into giving him things. After a while it gets on my nerves, because he is never authentic.

Underneath that persona he’s much more knowledgeable and researched, like the Columbo of documentary directors. He’s done successful work for Nat Geo and the BBC before.

He hangs up the phone and we drive to the Fishmarket, near Seaport Village. He says nice things about my car and driving, which assuages my insecurity – I’ve been hired for my sound recording skills, not my driving skills. We meet Lucas Porter and Cathy, his sister, and the producer of the documentary, Rebecca, who is also a public defender. It’s an interesting dinner. Lucas and Cathy are good, Bible-loving black folk. Lucas is medium height, but wide and muscular, and his face and arms and all skin showing is covered in scars and keloids. Rebecca is a fireball, full of energy and a fun person’s attention to have. Micah is polite. He agrees with things. I can tell he himself does not have high opinions of religion, but tonight he does. We say grace. They eat fish. I eat salad.

We return to home base and test the equipment. It’s easy. I have a boom mic and a lavalier kit with four mics, exactly what I asked for. I set everything up how I like it, with the cable wrapped around the boom pole just so. I am pleased when I hear back the tests we record. The expectations of quality are lower on documentary, and I’m not used to that – which means that my recording is above average.

Micah likes it already, and likes how fast he saw me set up.

I don’t sleep well. I am cold and I only smoke weed in the car on the way up, and my body is in withdrawal from it. I know it will be a long five days.

We are up early the next day. Micah and I head to the Food4Less in the neighborhood where Lucas Porter works as a landscaping foreman. There aren’t many grocery stores in this neighborhood and they’re proud to have the Food4Less. I’m aware the lack of grocery stores is due to government zoning set under pressure from the fast food lobby. I don’t talk about that.

Cathy, his sister, who also works at the construction site, is cleaning the parking lot. They show us around, on camera. The boss here employs ex-cons who want to get their lives back on track. They are grateful for the work. The boss smiles and tells us what great workers they are.

The whole thing seems staged, yet in that “too stereotypical to be true” way – where I’m not quite sure that it is fake, but sure it’s not entirely real.

Knowing Lucas is punctuated by a roller coaster of doubt. I begin to see that there is no conclusive evidence. Did he or didn’t he? Am I a racist? To what extent is gang affiliation a problem? Innocent or guilty, or somewhere in that grey area in between?

I am sad. There’s something heartbreaking about how broken they both seem, and how grateful they are to do something I would do anything not to have to do. The both love working outdoors with the plants, trees, and flowers – yet he works on a construction site, and she in a parking lot. She was a school secretary for twelve years, and then went to jail for three months for shoplifting before she got out and got this job. He on the other hand, twelve years for being wrongfully accused of murdering a police officer.

Twelve years. Twelve years. Twelve years. 

I’m wary while recording, one ear always out of the headphones. Sudden loud noises are common on construction sites and I’m worried I will lose my hearing. It’s difficult to get the conversation sometimes, but it’s nothing that can’t be repeated and it sounds staged anyway. Luckily the boss tells the crew to stop using nail guns while we’re recording, as I can’t get a word anyone is saying over them. We hold the construction crew of about forty people up for half an hour while Lucas walks around pantomiming different tasks that he’s had on the site. 

I feel as though the moment we leave the whole site goes back to something that we never caught on camera. I feel as though we are the honkies being entertained by an elaborate show that we’ve paid for. I feel like that through most of the shooting. I question my instinct and my assumptions about poor black neighborhoods. During film school I lived near USC in South Central Los Angeles for two years.

It taught me, mostly, to fear the police.

We have lunch with Lucas’s lawyer, Bill. He’s honest-seeming, 50ish, white hair and a beard. We discuss the case. I eat another salad. Micah and I return to Rebecca’s house and rest for a moment, before we’re back out to Lucas’s work. Micah has me wire everyone with a lavalier microphone. Then Micah, Cathy, and Lucas ride in their Cadillac while I follow. I don’t like that I have to drive alone, and that I’ve been reduced from sound person to mere transportation. I know Micah is shooting and I’m not happy about this. 

I attach the mics to them all, and test some levels before sending them off. When we watch back the dailies the sound is exquisite, except for that segment, which sounds too far away for how close the scene is. I couldn’t see through the camera so I couldn’t adjust. I’m a bit miffed, but don’t say anything.

We pick up Lucas Jr., who rides with me. He’s a sullen, young, teen with his ear pierced and a close shaven head.

He isn’t very talkative, despite my efforts to get him to open up. We ride back to Lucas’s place and then speak with his mother who was not all that excited about us filming Lucas, especially as she only finds out when he rides up with a camera pointed at him and then her, but she comes around due to Micah’s pleading and servitude. He tells her what a nice house she has. 

It is a small, colorful house in Lincoln Park, which reminds me of Compton in Los Angeles. The outside is painted yellow and the walls inside are a pale green. There are photos of the family and Martin Luther King on the walls, as well as a few crosses, one with Jesus hanging on it. There are ceramic easter eggs and other knickknacks on shelves around the house, and a faded purple shag rug. The paint is scuffed and there are holes in the walls, and the fake wooden doors are all chipped. There is a faint smell of mildew and I can hear the sound of muffled TV coming through two different closed doors. There are too many people living here.

There’s a photo of a young girl under a Christmas tree, and when she sees me looking at it because I don’t know where else to turn my eyes in our down time, Lucas’s mother eagerly tells me that it is her.

We pick up some shots of Lucas in his home. I record room tone there – a few minutes of silence to pick up the ambient background of the room, so that later when they cut between shots the sound editor can use that tone to smooth the transition. The room tone is punctuated with basketball bounces from the neighbors driveway, where two young men are playing a one-on-one game through a simple hoop with no net. I want to get some tone without the sound of ball bounces disturbing it, and know that if I tell Micah he would arrange this, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I already feel like an imposition.

Micah and I leave again, and drop the equipment at Rebecca’s house. We go back without the camera and take Lucas to eat at Bennigan’s. I have another salad. We then make our way to Dave + Buster’s, a family fun center more for adults than kids. Lucas is a regular at the arcade here. There are a lot of drunk people greeting him. We are here for a while and then off to a club situated on a side street right near the freeway, but I am wearing sneakers and they will not let us in. 

I am grateful. I’ve long wanted to go home.

Micah is as well, though he wants to be comfortable and on friendly terms with Lucas, it’s far past his bedtime. I also get that he’s way out of his element. I’m certainly more comfortable at an all African American club than his white British self. Lucas says that he is disappointed that he didn’t get to dance with me, and then turns to Micah and says “Or you!” and everyone chuckles.

I learn throughout the evening that Lucas is very wise. He says he knows his nephew, Cathy’s son, is gay, and that that’s just fine as long as he’s happy. Says it is a shame how black people can be so homophobic. He loves to proselytize. His favorite lines are “Keep it simple” and “Focus on the positive”. Whenever we are along with him the content sings. I feel there’s a whole story here and the documentary would be a fascinating way to tell it. It’s nice to be working on something that interests me and the expenses paid part of the deal really doesn’t hurt. At least I’m not spending any money this week.

We are back at the house for the night. I forget to bring in my sleeping bag and am freezing cold. I sleep fitfully.

(If you liked “Hold For Sound” please buy a copy of my first book, Down and Out in California, or support me on Patreon for a free copy)

Hold For Sound Part 2

Hold For Sound Part 3


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