9 am. Mist coming off the mountains. We’re in a valley down below the mountains, off Highway 421, a neighborhood of small homes and trailers, mowed lawns. It’s pretty down here, a view of the mountains, a bridge crossing a creek where two boys play, trying to catch fish they tell me. Little dogs run out from a front porch, clamoring at the chain-link fence. It’s too hot and humid for October, already feel the heat burning through the morning mist.
Headquarters for today is a Baptist church, an unlikely place for all us sinners, and in the parking lot sits a giant movie trailer filled with clothes—organized by character, hanging from racks. Today, the shoot will be at a nearby nursing home, a real nursing home that’s now partially transformed into a set.
Outside the side door, a sign says Beverly Nursing Home, what it’s called in The Evening Hour screenplay, in neat, precise letters which I realize are made from Styrofoam. Inside on a stand, a stack of fake brochures for Beverly Nursing Home, a dish of candy. I am standing in a blend of a real place, a set, and some physical version of the place I imagined, which others—the director, screenwriter, and art department—also imagined.
The first scene of the shoot: Cole walking up to the nursing home. Cole, in a long-sleeved shirt under a t-shirt, thick flannel coat, jeans, and boots, sweats in the humidity and 90 degree heat in October. He crouches down. One of the extras sits there, twiddling his thumbs, just like in my novel. “Squeeze my hands,” Cole says. With a headset on, I can hear the actor, and watch in two realms: the scene live and acted in front of me, and one the monitor—a scene in a film.
I haven’t stepped foot in a nursing home in years, not since my grandparents were still living. Now, I step inside with the others. It’s a typical nursing home, but now buzzing with New York and California people, mingling with the residents. “We’re their guests,” Elizabeth Palmore, the screenwriter, says, when the shoot pauses as one of the residents comes out of her room—an older woman with white hair, a pink bathroom, big eyeglasses—pushing her walker into the middle of the set, wanting to see what all the fuss is about.
In the lounge, the nursing home’s residents sit, watching the bustle around them—the film crew crowds in, and moves with speed and confidence, each with a job to do. Costume, hair, makeup crew; props; dialect coach; sound guys; lighting. Except for me—my job is done, and I’m just here to watch. An old man, an extra, keeps asking everyone if they’re an actor or not. An old woman comes by wearing socks, no shoes, looking for her pop money. One woman in scrubs works at the nursing home also serves as a liaison to the film, helping to direct the nursing home residents. Another younger, pretty woman in blue scrubs, earbuds in, sits waiting for her shot: this is the wonderful Ashley Shelton, who plays Ellen, the nurse who tries to be a friend to Cole.
Ellen is exactly how I pictured her. Pretty, with a kind face. Ellen and Cole meet in the hallway, and she tells Cole she’s sorry for not going to his granddaddy’s funeral. This happens in the novel, too, but it’s a different—a longer scene where they’re sitting down. Here, it’s a quick meeting in the hallway, and it’s perfect – you see it in Ellen’s eyes, she really is sorry, she cares about Cole. And, Cole, he likes her too, and thanks her, but he holds in his pain; he can’t reach out to her, or take her offer for kindness.
An old woman, an extra who pretends to sleep, asks Philip Ettinger (Cole) when the movie will come out. Maybe a year, he says. Someone else mentions this woman has the best job—she gets to just lay down as Phillip covers her with a blanket, over and over and over again.
Background actors fill out the scenes. A little girl and her mother stand in the hallway, an old man leans on his walker, and another old man in a wheelchair keeps looking at the camera, so they have to reshoot. The background actors have no lines in this scene. They are here for texture and to create a sense of reality.
Cole helps an old woman—a resident with bright eyes, hunched shoulders—down the hallway, as we all cram into the lounge: the crew, residents, extras. A daytime soap plays on TV. A resident never stops talking. Goddamn you, she says, and continues on to a different topic, without taking a breath. I’m inside the pages of my novel. One of the extras who is not a resident, a grandmotherly type with a head of white curly hair and wearing a church skirt and blouse, sits in a chair next to me, shakes her head with dismay. “Why, who’s talking,” she wants to know, embarrassed. “I feel sorry for them,” she says, about the residents. She’s crocheting a pink and white blanket. I tell her it was a good idea to bring that with her. There’s so much sitting around, she says, and tells me she hates to be still. She holds up the square. “I just might finish this for my granddaughter today.”
And, yes, there is a lot of standing around. Waiting. Walking from location to location. Waiting for the crew to set everything up. Rehearsing the scene. Shooting the scene, take after take. It’s a marathon of standing, watching. I’m happy to see several of the extras I recognize from the open casting call.
The big scene of the day, the last one, is between Ellen and Cole. They sit outside on a bench smoking. The cigarettes, made out of cocoa beans, burn like real ones. Flick the lighter, flick. Not working, so someone from props borrows a lighter from one from the line of extras and residents sitting on the porch of the nursing home—old men and women, smoking, watching.
The scene is powerful. The actors hit their marks perfectly, and in every single take, they carry the raw emotion in their voices, facial expressions, body language. It is both like the scene I wrote and something else entirely. Elizabeth explains it like this: I birthed the story first, and she rebirthed it as a script, and now the director, actors, director of photography, and the entire crew is giving The Evening Hour new life. We’re all trying to do something similar: create a story that makes people feel. And, look, here is our brilliant, beautiful child.
Donkeys bray from down the street, startling all of us and cutting through the quiet. The sun sets and a golden light falls across the sky, and here we are—dare I say it?—in the evening hour.