“Movie crews aren’t happy unless they’re complaining,” the assistant director was fond of quoting.
As shooting in Madison County’s Cathedral Caverns escalated in complexity, he had been brought in on “Secrets of the Phantom Caverns” to play bad cop to director Don Sharp’s good one. He enjoyed the role. If we voiced a complaint, we became accustomed to hearing, “There is no draft for show business, Pally. What? I came to your house; I put a gun to your head, and I forced you to work on this picture? You don’t wanna be here pal? There’s a line a block long waiting for this gig.”
We quickly learned he was accurate in his appraisal of complaining — it was, indeed, the very atmosphere of any film shoot. On “Secrets,” though, a veritable storm front of grousing arose. It seemed to us that no moment of creativity or productiveness was safe from devolution into chaos.
My pal Bill and I learned that one of the great joys of being a grip on this movie project is solving a problem that has never occurred before and likely will never occur again. To reflect light over a large area inside the cave, we had attached white tarps onto wooden frames, then floated them up near the ceiling of the cave with weather balloons.
They weren’t high enough for our director of photography, however, who demanded that the balloons be brought into contact with the cave’s ceiling. Bill and I howled, pointing out that cave surfaces are naturally abrasive, and latex balloons do not respond well to abrasion. But he pooh-poohed our local-yokel opinions and insisted that the balloons go against the ceiling. So we did as he demanded.
And as predicted, they burst, sending the frames and tarps plummeting to the cave floor.
We groused when our duties carried us within feet of an industrial-strength electrical transformer. We didn’t think a whole lot about it at first, but we started to realize that when we got within a couple of yards of the thing, the moist clay around us was pulsating with electricity. That got us thinking — how do you ground electrics when you are inside the ground? Nobody had an answer.
They advised us to wear gloves.
Still though, there came a time when the higher-ups had to admit we had a point. After lunch on a Saturday, we were advised to brace ourselves because we would be shooting all through the night, until morning. This would be the only night all of the Lemurian extras would be on set, and we would have to shoot all of the scenes involving them.
Around 10:00 that night, several of the Lemurian extras started complaining of headaches. This was no surprise to the on-set paramedic, who had been handing out handfuls of aspirin for hours. He had also been warning anyone who would listen of the consequences waiting if something wasn’t done about the gasoline generator that had been running all day in the cave.
His warnings were delivered in a rich Appalachian accent, though, and were therefore thoroughly ignored by the decision-makers.
When Lemurians started passing out, the powers that be chalked it up to lack of dedication to their craft. And anyway, there were plenty of spares. Eventually, though, the special effects man emerged from the low-lying area holding the generator. He was beet red and wild-eyed, breathing heavily through his mouth. Unlike the Huntsville Lemurians, he had been hired out of Los Angeles for the production and could not be easily replaced. Finally, the homegrown paramedic was taken seriously. Carbon monoxide was building up in the cave, and it was only a matter of time before we all became life-threateningly sick.
Given my low opinion of the producers, I can’t imagine they were especially moved by the prospect of supernumerary lives lost, but it may have crossed their minds, “Who’s going to dispose of all those bodies?”
The producers accordingly panicked, and the assistant director rode onto the set in a golf cart, warning us to flee for our lives.
By 3:00 a.m., we were safely at home, preparing to savor the Sunday off that we thought we weren’t going to get. On Monday, the producers appeared on the local morning shows, swearing up and down that neither they nor anybody else could possibly have seen any of this coming.
This was the low point for the “Secrets” production. It’s possible the producers took local opinions a tad more seriously after the incident, but we still witnessed wanton destruction of cave interiors, rampant theft of production property, routine violation of every single workplace safety regulation imaginable, and worthless checks and unpaid bills accounted as legitimate cost-cutting.
Almost 30 years later, my pal Bill was doing pretty well as a freelance videographer and was hired to work with one of the camera crews for the CBS program, “The Amazing Race.” The offer was good, and he received a hefty check from CBS. A few days after he deposited it, it was returned with the notation: “NOT HONORED. ACCOUNT CLOSED.”
Rather than flog a dead horse in pursuit of his money, Bill just thumbtacked the worthless check to his bulletin board — a nostalgic tribute to lessons learned — and secrets revealed — in the caverns of ‘83.