Of Bugs and Brains. Deep End Dining On the Set of CSI:NY. Studio City, CA.
EXT. CBS STUDIO CENTER LOT – NIGHT
A small band of tuxedoed and evening gowned couples walks in a tight cluster trying to keep warm on a frosty "Manhattan" January evening. From the way they are dressed it looks like they are either going to opening night of the opera at The Met or a $10,000 a plate fundraiser at the Guggenheim. However, their destination is much more pragmatic at the moment.
EXT. / INT. STAGE 10 – NIGHT
An inviting glow comes from a doorway that is connected to a massive structure. On the side of the structure looms a mural sized number ten. The painted "10" has film spool perforations flanking it on both sides. This is Stage 10. This is where craft service is presently located. And craft service is where they'll find hot coffee and soup.
Two of the men, LARRY and EDDIE, 30s, fall behind the group and wander around Stage 10. They follow the lines of cable along the perimeter of the soundstage. Larry stops suddenly.
I think I found craft service.
Great! I need coffee bad.
I think I found craft service.
Great! I need coffee bad.
The two men stand at the opening of the "kitchen" and stare, jaws agape. They can't believe their eyes.
Eddie, why does the bowl move?
Eddie, why does the bowl move?
The bowl Larry refers to is filled up to its midpoint with hundreds of live MEALWORMS, weaving and writhing over, under and between one another. This is when Eddie realizes he is at the right place, the set for CSI:NY.
Eddie getting touched up in the Hair/Make-Up trailer.
As is typical for a day in television or film production, things were running a bit behind schedule. The bug eating scene was supposed to be the first one shot after the company move from Stage 10 to Stage 12. This wasn't the case, however. The director decided to shoot his stars first and bump us to the end of the night thus saving the best scene for last, in my opinion.
We moved from Stage 10 to Stage 12 because Stage 12 was where the "Waldorf Astoria Ballroom" set resided. (Stage 10 was where the "kitchen" scene took place.) In order not to mix us up with the common background players (extras), the Assistant Directors (ADs) christened us "the bug eaters". Now there was nothing else to do but "hurry up and wait" which is a strange and necessary Hollywood skill, but me and my bug eating compadres decided it would be better if we "hurry up and ate" instead. Since I was still nursing a cold, I opted for the potato leek soup which coated my throat and soothed it far more effectively and deliciously than any lozenge or tussin could have. There were also freshly roasted hot dogs spinning in the weenie oven, calling to me. I decided to have one, figuring that anything used to make this hot dog couldn't be any worse than what I would be voluntarily swallowing tonight. The 1st AD came by and saw me dressing my dog. He playfully busted me, "Eddie, look at you eating already. Do me favor and save some room for the bugs, will ya!" I laughed and cleverly came back with, "Oh, you!" and wolfed down the wiener.
One of the extras made the mistake of stopping the food stylist Jean and asking her if she had anymore soup at craft service. Jean snapped back, "I am NOT craft service!" As you can probably guess, a film set is extremely hierarchical, even though Hollywood itself would like to see itself as the opposite. In Hollywood, craft service is typically at the low end of the totem pole while the food stylist is way up there. Here's a pointer: if you are trying to guess a person's position it's better to start high than low. A good starting point is around Executive Producer or Director. I still remember fondly when Hugh Grant on the set of Nine Months asked me if I was the AD when I introduced myself and an actress friend to him. I was no AD. I was a pee-on. But even Hugh Grant himself knew that bit of showbiz protocol. You will either flatter or be correct with your guess. Everybody wins.
Jean the food stylist is really a very sweet and generous person. She gave me lots of invaluable advice when I was playing technical advisor for CSI:NY. She was simply having a really, really long and probably frustrating day trying to be at two places at once while running back and forth between two soundstages. So as Jean huffed away from that embarrassed extra I wrapped my arm around her and proclaimed, "Jean is NOT craft service! She is so much more. How are you, Jean? Running around with your head cut off, I'm guessing." Lucky for me and my smart mouth, she needed a hug. I gave her a hug. Most of her tension seemed to melt away. Then a mischievous smile spread across her face and she asked, "Do you want to see what you're going to eat?" "Abso-buggin'-lutely!" I spat.
Jean brought me into the food prep area and pointed out a rogues' gallery of delicacies as if rattling off the FBI's Most Wanted List. She showed me the plate of baluts with half of the duck fetus poking out from each of them. She also proudly pointed out the battered and deep fried "tarantula" which was secretly a Marzipan molded creation with the added ingenious touch of using black pipe cleaner as the hairy arachnid's hind legs, all of which was edible except for its hind legs. Then there was the tray of delectable looking canapés. If this were just about any other kitchen, then these bit-sized delights would've been irresistible. Of course, we weren't in just any kitchen. And upon closer examination the canapés were topped with everything from stinkbugs to crickets – the cricket canapés being the only fully edible ones. Duly noted.
Another totally edible, though not necessarily palatable, appetizer was the lamb's brain on toast. Although real, this item looked fake precisely because it was so real. The various lobes of the brain were well defined and appeared like a gag toy. It was akin to something you might leave on your desk for a cheap laugh or something you would stab your pencils into.
I noticed the woman in chef whites working busily on the cricket canapés and asked if she was Chef Eid from Typhoon. She confirmed my notion. I then began gushing on and on about how great she is and how I met her before when I visited the restaurant last Halloween and how much I respect her for having bugs on the menu and how I know Brian the owner. She politely nodded, smiled, whispered a thank you and continued garnishing the antennal snacks.
Chef Eid of Typhoon in Santa Monica and cricket canapés.
Finally Jean whisked me over to the piece de resistance, the grand marshal's float, the hero prop of the night, this was the gigantic, tropical themed centerpiece skillfully adorned with menacing locusts, scary centipedes, deadly scorpions and hulking water bugs. Every tier of the centerpiece was stocked copiously with insects that seemed to be supersized or exposed to unhealthy levels gamma radiation. Crowning the entire creature feature, thank goodness, was a very delicious looking pineapple.
The Centerpiece. Detail on locust.
"My bug eaters! Bug eaters! I need you all to follow me to set!" the stage production assistant (PA) wheezed loudly, his jeans barely holding on to his wiry frame. We followed the pair of sagging jeans with the walkie-talkie hanging from his right rear pocket making one side even droopier, the occasional "What's your ETA?" blaring from his butt.
Stage 12, in addition to being home to the Waldorf's ballroom set, was also where one of the detectives has an office. Never having been to the Waldorf Astoria's ballroom, I didn't have any reference to determine how accurate the CSI:NY's version was. It looked very old money New York as far as I could tell. Taking advantage of my technical advisor status I freely stepped onto the set while the director, 1st AD and director of photography (DP) were busy blocking the scene. As the strategizing took place, the centerpiece was carefully transported onto the set. For whatever reason I didn't notice the stench when I viewed the centerpiece in the kitchen, but when it was hoisted onto the table on set, there came emanating the very vile and distinct funk of bug infestation. I was half expecting a cascade of cockroaches to come streaming out of the display. I noticed a grip grimacing and fanning away the fumes, maybe even mumbling, "I don't get paid enough for this crap."
All the camera and actor blocking was finally established and now it was time to run a couple of rehearsals before camera was ready to roll. In this scene, Detective Danny Messer (Carmine Giovinazzo), Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Sheldon Hawkes (Hill Harper) and Detective Kaila Maka (featured guest star, Kelly Hu) question a suspect at the $10,000 a plate banquet of exotic cuisine attended by the well-heeled and gastronomically bold of Manhattan. The "bug eaters" and a handful of babe extras with exceptional cleavages were placed near cameras and the principal actors. We "bug eaters" were given props of skewered bugs. I wielded a half-eaten tarantula on a stick. The regular extras weren't sure whether they should be envious of us "bug eaters" or to feel pity for us. One of the "bug eaters", Shane, toyed with some of the extras and insinuated at the exorbitant amount of money we were getting for eating bugs on camera. Not sure whether to believe him or not, an extra asked me if this was true and how much we were getting paid. I coyly answered, "Mad money." Shane concurred, "I might just have to buy another house." "Nuh uh, shut up!" the extra replied, "For real?"
Kelly Hu (Det. Kaila Maka) and Eddie Lin (bug eater).
After a few takes, the principals were done with their scenes and were wrapped for the day. It was time for our close-ups. The "bug eaters" were blocked for camera. This was a looser scene since we had no lines and the director and DP went with handheld cameras for a faster and furiouser effect. I was given my mark (taped on the floor) and my female friend Devon was playing my date. Devon looked stunning in her gown and wrap. She looked even better clutching a cricket canapé with her cocktail napkin. The director suggested that I take a bite out of the fake tarantula when the camera swung my way. I wondered aloud if it would be better if I ate a real bug like the sizeable water bug instead of the fake tarantula. Wouldn't it play better? He agreed and thanked me for volunteering. The other "bug eaters" and extras jeered and cheered me. The rest of the "bug eaters" were assigned bugs or some kind of action. A couple of regular extras switched sides so they could have the privilege of putting an oversized cockroach into their mouths. I'm not certain whether they got a bump in their rate for it or not. We were now ready to roll cameras.
Deep End Diners in the role of "bug eaters". Say, "Fleas!"
The director called action and we all began pantomiming conversation. The bulk of the extras surrounded us and looked on in dismay and disgust. It was an elegantly perverse scene straight out of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. The camera moved towards me. Then I heard the director command, "Bite, Eddie, bite." At that I took an overly ambitious chomp out of my deep fried water bug. Consequently, I was bitchslapped by a taste that can only be described as something the Department of Health would shutter a restaurant for on the spot. It was that bad. Granted my pretend "$10,000 a plate", prepared by gourmet chefs, deep fried water bug had been sitting around a frigid soundstage for many hours before I bit into it, so it would be laughable for me to expect an amuse bouche from the Iron Chef water bug challenge. (And all Devon had to do, per the director, was to act grossed out - which, by the way, doesn't require Julliard training to pull off.) The hard part wasn't over, though. The director had not called "cut" yet. The cameras were still rolling. I really didn't want to swallow this bug. I was hoping we would've cut the scene by now so I could spit it out. That was my plan anyway.
Taking a bite out of crime on CSI:NY.
But instead of cutting, the cameras kept rolling and, still worse, the cameras were coming back to me! The director commanded, "Eddie, grab the brain!" So I reluctantly reached for a lamb's brain on toast from a passing waiter's platter. Now I had to without hesitation forcefeed myself this cold and crusty lamb's brain while still not swallowing the water bug and also figure out how to fit at least half of the brain along with half of the bread into my mouth, all of this without vomiting on the tuxedo furnished by the Wardrobe Department. The brain tasted awful. Not as bad as the water bug but still awful. It was like eating super soft wax flavored with meat juice. Luckily, once in my mouth, the brain oozed its way between the spaces not already occupied by the bug. The bread found a place under my other cheek. My mouth was so full I looked like an overgrown chipmunk at a wedding. I couldn't hold the bug and the brain much longer. I was praying for the camera to move away from me or the director to order "cut". Seconds seemed like minutes. I desperately wanted to unfold my cocktail napkin and vacate the contents of my mouth into it. The people around me became a blur including Devon. The only thing I was focused on was my cocktail napkin and the word "cut". Please say "cut!" Please say "cut!" I beg you! I'm about to spew an unholy combination of bug and brain onto your set!! Then before I knew, the camera moved from me, and a millisecond later the director yelled, "Cut!" I undid my napkin, but before I could spit into it, a kind stranger on the crew held out a receptacle for me to spit into. He held it under me patiently, almost lovingly like a girlfriend holding another girlfriend's hair back while she pukes her sixth kamikaze all over the nightclub's toilet. He held it there until I was done. He disappeared as quickly as he appeared. We were ready for another take. Someone from props handed me another water bug. The cameras once again clicked away. The slate marked the new take with a smack. The director called out, "ACTION!" Then the mysterious crew member returned. His receptacle empty, ready for more chewed up water bug and brain – just for me.
I felt like a star!
EPILOGUE: Washing the taste out with margaritas at Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks, CA.