Water for Elephants: A Rube’s-Eye View (PART 5)

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Cody Wood, an extra on Rob’s upcoming film, ‘Water For Elephants’ and a wonderful writer, is sharing his on-set experience with the fans. Here is the 5th installment…

The end of April was filled with excitement and very little rain. The sun grew stronger and I looked forward to a summer spent with friends and family. Even better, I was performing six days per week as the on-stage fiddle player for Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story in a 1,200 seat theater.

On Friday April 23rd, 2010 I woke up, as usual, to a warm sunny day. It had been one week since our opening show for Buddy Holly at La Mirada Theater for the Performing Arts. The commute often took two hours but I was still looking forward to curtain call. I set my cup of coffee on the desk and opened up my violin case. I didn’t need to practice for the evenings’ performance – I needed to practice for an audition scheduled just two hours before my show. Two online blogs (which I now know as http://waterforelephantsfilm.com/ and http://filmwaterforelephants.wordpress.com/) shared some important and intimidating information about the project. I was told earlier in the week that I would be auditioning for the director. What I had not been told was that the director was Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend).

So far all I had done to prepare was print out the violin part to “Entrance of the Gladiators” by Julius Fucik. I didn’t know any circus music and figured this was a good bet. After reading through the piece several times, I had most of the primary melodies in my fingers but the chromaticism in several parts was still giving me trouble. I set aside the “Gladiators” for a moment and rehashed a classical piece I had learned years earlier just in case I needed to show anything more technical. After a couple hours I had three pieces prepared for the audition: “Entrance of the Gladiators”, “Bach Partita No. 3 in E Major”, and “Le” Fiddle Solo I played in Buddy Holly.

The afternoon came quickly and I packed my gear for the evening: violin, music stand, sheet music, water bottle, and protein bar. I mapped out the audition location and loaded the car. Traffic was like a thick marsh with no way around. Inch by inch I pushed through but the clock had no mercy. Deep within the Valley I found the location and was in a state of panic. “I’m late, I’m f#&$ing late to see Francis Lawrence!” I yanked my violin out of the car and slammed the door. “Suite 12_ ….? Damn! What was it!?” I came around the corner of a building and heard trumpets and trombones blaring. Loud chatter led me around another corner where I found a circus. Literally.

Clowns, stilt-walkers, jugglers, trumpeters, midgets, and coochie girls mulled around the sleek business campus. At the first table I passed three fat clowns playing a game of poker. I looked ahead and saw a line of twenty people in front of a small table — must be the check-in. I walked quickly but then realized the auditions were not running on time. They never do.

I stood in line next to an older gentleman who was also carrying a violin case. The check-in took over twenty-minutes so each shared the major highlights from our violin careers. He was currently running a private violin studio, performing in a community orchestra, and had been a professional violinist for a long-time. “Wow,” I thought. “I bet he’s really good.” I chuckled to myself. I love competing.

After completing the check-in process I took out my violin and tuned. The circus was still in full swing around the audition entrance and it was difficult to hear myself play. I walked around the building and warmed my hands up. I felt ready but was still undecided on what to perform. “Fiddle players! Please line-up!” I navigated back through the crowd and avoided exposing my violin as I passed a clown juggling sharp knives.

One of the casting assistants lined up the fiddlers outside the door. From a city of millions I was one of five gentlemen competing for the role. Each of us were given a number and told to remember it. Inside there would be numbers on the floor that would coincide with the numbers we were given. I took a deep breath. I exhaled and I made an audible noise. One of the men turned around. “Nervous?” I smiled but didn’t answer. Keep him guessing.

The doors swung open. A group of young women in dance attire pranced from the room as only dancers can. “Come on in!” someone called from the room. It was large and deep with wood floors and tall windows. In the middle of the room papers were spread on the floor in an arc. Each had a number. 4. I stood. Directly in front of the arc was the casting table. Francis Lawrence had a pleasant expression and looked like he genuinely enjoyed the auditioning process. To his left there was a cameraman and around him stood several others with tablets and pens.

“Thank you for coming in today,” Francis began. “Please tell us a little about yourself and your instrument and play a short segment of something.” He smiled and pointed his hand to the fiddler at square 1. “Hi, I’m __ and I’ve been playing for __ years. But I haven’t played in a while. Actually, I don’t really practice….” It was no surprise when his playing was poor. The man on square 2 began a bit differently. He looked like a vagabond in his late forties. His beard was unkempt and his hair looked like a birds nest but when he spoke he had confidence. “This is what I do.” “Ok,” I thought. “Here is a player.” He continued. “I play violin for movies and TV but I actually don’t know how to play the violin. I am just a great actor.” Francis sounded impressed. “Great, well show us what you can do!” He raised his violin, placed the bow just above the strings, and swayed back and forth like he was making beautiful music.

The man on square 3 was the violinist I had met. He told the casting team the same experiences he had mentioned to me and began to play. It was good but when you claim to have performed with professional orchestras there is an expectation that must be met. His tone was rich but he played a song so slow and simple that it sounded like a piece for young students. I pondered, “If I were a casting director right now, what would I be looking for? So far I’d be disappointed and want a flashy fiddle player.” I knew what I needed to do.

Fiddle is not my typical style of performance but the violin part I prepared for The Buddy Holly Story was the perfect audition showcase. The music was fast, fun, and sounded really hard. The man on square 3 finished and everyone looked at me. “Hi, I’m Cody Wood. I have been playing violin since I was 4 and I am currently performing as the Fiddler in the Buddy Holly Story in Orange County. Before anyone could respond I lifted my violin and shot my bow toward the strings. The first chord started with an authentic fiddle sounding crunch and echoed with full open resonance. My fingers flew up and down, left and right. It felt easy but I stayed intensely focused. With a final flurry I ripped my bow arm across the strings and up into the air! No applause. Silence. I took a long breath and stepped backward. Finally a response! “Thank you”, said Francis.

The man on square 5 played the same song as the man on square 3. What are the odds? We left single-file and packed away our instruments. I felt uneasy. What if my performance had not gone as well as I thought? What if it was rushed, out of tune, or inappropriate? Doubts filled my head. “Hey man, great job in there. You are really really good.” It was square 1. “Thank you,” I replied. “Good luck to you.” I checked my phone. 5:15pm?! I raced back to the car. The cycle never ends.

Thankfully, the traffic moved more smoothly on the way to the theater and I arrived 10-minutes early. My costume was pressed and hanging in my dressing room. I sat-down in relief knowing I was on-time and ready for the show. The dressing rooms filled up and the call for “Places!” came over the loudspeaker. I did one final uniform review: cowboy boots, jeans, leather belt, cream shirt, red-white-blue vest, red bow-tie, and cowboy hat. I plugged my violin into my mic-pack and walked out behind the curtain.

“Ladies and Gentlemen! I hope you enjoy, The Buddy Holly Story!” The curtain went up and the guitar cued the band. Three notes and I was in! I kicked my heels up and down and smiled at the other band members. We looked pretty funny but it was a blast. The singer cued my solo: “Play that fiddle boy!” I walked toward the front of the stage slinging notes like I was the Lone Ranger. With the same final flurry, I ripped my bow arm across the strings and up into the air! Applause! I tipped my head and re-joined the band. As we finished the opening song I thought, “Huh, what if I get cast in a movie for that little lick?”

I was tired when I got home around 11:30pm. I set my violin in the corner to rest for the evening. I pulled back my covers and sank into the pillow. I thought about the audition, the actors, and the project and began to drift… transported to a room where I could see a couple dancing. The pair was well dressed and swirled elegantly around the room. Around them I played a romantic ballad on the violin. I moved with the music and the two dancers. The room was sophisticated and dim chandeliers hung over our heads. Closer, farther, around and around. The two separated and I stepped in the middle. They looked at me. Robert and Reese smiled. I bowed and the dance began once more.

To Be Continued…

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