(originally published in in Bootleg issue #40, November 2008)
By Brian Tucker
Paul’s Place sits off highway 117 in Rocky Point, selling hot dogs since the doors opened in 1928. On the walls inside are pictures of the diner from decades past. For many years, on the light beige wall close to the front double door entrance hung a worn five-by-seven frame. It was a photo of Drew Barrymore and Art Carney sitting in the back of an ancient truck taken at a nearby house where scenes from Firestarter were filmed in 1983. Barrymore smiled heartily in her jean clothing and Carney appeared tired.
The frame used to hang among photos of local football players and other social events. Today the photo is long gone, perhaps to someone’s home or eBay. But just as the photo was a look to the past it also serves as a lesson that history can slip away.
Vernon Harrell is window to film history. He’s worked on numerous productions, including King Kong Lives, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Blue Velvet. Harrell stopped by Paul’s to talk about Blue Velvet and his opportunity to work on it.
His family has owned Harrell’s Department store in Burgaw for 105 years. It’s an ever changing, small town retail business. Harrell’s great grandfather started it with two of his sons. A general store at the time, they sold clothes, even coffins.
In the early eighties Dino De Laurentiis’ DEG studios was ramping up production which led to opportunities for locals to learn a new trade. Below, Harrell discusses his entry into the film business and working on Blue Velvet.
How did you get the job working on Blue Velvet?
Harrell: I was a kitchen manager and signed on for catering for Firestarter and hated it. Worst job I ever had. I never wanted to be in the movie business again and went back to restaurant work. I kept up with some of the guys I worked with on Firestarter and got the opportunity to do props on Blue Velvet.
I started out as prop truck driver. The property master, Tantar Leviseur was also the set decorator. He was running as hard as he could. So the assistant sort of took over, basically working the set all the time. I was there with him on the set and that’s how I got to work props on Blue Velvet.
What prepared you for working on props?
As far as getting into props there was nothing really other than basic creativity and the ability to drive a big truck. Also, I was very organized. We had an amazing truck. I’ve worked a lot of shows. That prop truck had more on it than any other truck I’ve ever seen. It was because David Lynch was a very creative person. He liked to do things and would have inspirations at the last minute. He would suddenly ask for a log with the word ‘Lumberton’ spelled out in small sticks. And we’d have to create this stuff there on the spot.
It was a lot of fun being on set because David was so creative. What appealed to me, he was not standoffish at all if you were there to work and a willing worker. David was very nice, very unusual, had an unusual way of looking at things. He’s a very creative person. We were filming at night and he saw a woman go by in a taxi. She had a purple wig on and he said ‘Stop that girl in that taxi!’ They stopped her and asked her if she’d like to be in the movie. She came back. He picked up a traffic cone and put it on someone’s head and said ‘you’re talking to this girl, and you’re a drunk and she’s here.’
He didn’t always see things the way everybody else did. Some of his tastes were a little unusual. One of the special effects make-up guys gave him a book of graphic photographs with post-mortem shots of traumatic deaths. He was enthralled. He poured over this book for days. And this was grisly stuff. Traumatic injuries. He just couldn’t get enough of it. Nice guy, different perspective.
How long before you were hands-on?
I was driving the whole time but I didn’t go on set for probably the first week. I hadn’t really worked on-set before. (It was) after the first week when it was obvious the property master wasn’t actually going to be on-set and the assistant was doing everything. Basically, somebody has to be on-set all the time in case something happens or a prop doesn’t work or they need something else. After the first week I was basically working the set.
Was it a laid back set?
It was. It was amazingly laid back. David would call down people for being too abrupt. David wanted things to be very low-key. He liked things to be quiet, not to be distracting to himself or the actors. That was his big thing.
How did actors handle the heavy-handed material?
It was kind of all over the board. Isabella Rossellini was very cool with it. The scene where she appeared naked began early in the evening. When we started filming it was early in the evening and moms, dads, kids, and grandma’s came and sat out on lawn furniture – have a picnic and watch the movie. It was still a circus at that point.
The night went on and it came time to shoot that scene. She personally went around to all these people and said they were going to shoot this scene where she’d be naked and if they had any problems with it they should go in the house and should really take the kids one way or another. We filmed the scene and some people were still there and freaked out and they called the cops. Once the cops got there, fortunately, they’d already got what they needed but the cops didn’t like being hassled about it and said if we ever did this again they’d shut us down.
Of all the actors in the show he seemed the most non-plussed by it. None of his characters are really that intensely dramatic, he’s mostly reserved. Even in Blue Velvet it took a lot, as far as his character is concerned, to really go over the line. To me, that’s the kind of person he is. He’s very reserved, he’s very quiet. It was interesting having him as juxtaposition on the show with Dennis Hopper. At the same time everybody got along well.
How about the other actors?
There were a couple of people who had recently rehabilitated their lives. Dennis Hopper was one and he was a little edgy about things. He had his mask and he was supposed to be huffing something. That was nothing. It was just a mask. But he also had to pop a pill. It was part of the scene. He was edgy. Evidently in the past somebody had dosed him without his knowledge. So he was concerned that this didn’t happen again. He insisted that the property master take one of those sugar pills in front of him to insure this was on the up and up. That was all there was to it. If he was going to eat that pill someone was going to do it first.
There were others who had problems with alcohol. Some kept themselves straight and some didn’t. It was back when alcohol was rampant. On the prop truck we kept a full bar because the producer told us to. On more than one occasion I had to abandon the prop truck because the producer wanted to have a card game with friends. Suddenly the prop truck became the producer’s hang out. There were a couple of actors who were having problems, because they were trying to dry out.
How did Lynch’s creativity occur on-set?
The creative situations were, it was totally off the wall. We were filming at Roudabush’s, it used to be a floral shop. We were upstairs, when we got there no one had been in that apartment for thirty years. There was stuff up there like people had walked away, locked the door and never came back. Set dressers would have to go in and clean it up.
We were filming at night and someone found a dead snake in the gutter in front of Rouadbush’s. David heard about it, thought that was fascinating and asked that the snake be brought in. The next thing we knew, that was the ‘Candy-Coated Sandman’ shot, if you notice in the background Brad Dourif is dancing, he’s holding up something and dancing with it. You know, weird stuff like that happened throughout the show.
Unless you really pay attention, and even then, you don’t really know that’s a dead snake. It was Brad who decided he wanted to dance with a dead snake. Brad was a lot of fun, easy to get along with, very creative. As one of the bad guys he got to laugh a lot. He had a lot of fun.
Dennis Hopper would do things to get into character prior to scenes?
He didn’t do a lot on set. He would go be by himself. Before he would have an intense scene, the stuff with Isabella, he would go somewhere else for a while. My understanding he was a Method actor. That’s what he does. Laura Dern is also a Method actress. I was around when she was preparing for the scene where she reacted to Isabella coming into her home. She went into another room there in the house and was playing some really intense and dark music. It was serious, very moody. When she came out she was obviously was torqued up, she was intense. That’s what she had to be for the scene.
When intense scenes ended, did people console another?
To some extent. Although everybody there was professional actors, they had done this before. There were some times when there was a little concern – are you okay? But when the scene was over it was back to normal. Everything was okay.
And handling nudity?
It didn’t bother Isabella at all. I think it was Kyle, and I guess David too, that demanded the set be closed for that particular scene, the bedroom scene. Not that there was a lot of room in there anyway. All of the apartment was a set. The interiors and exteriors were shot at the Carolina Apartments. Everything inside the apartment was a set on the lot.
Do you recall a scene involving a white horse coming down stairs?
I’ve heard rumors about that but I never saw any horses or had any contact. But at the same time I wouldn’t put anything past David.
The Barbary Coast?
That was fun. Didn’t take much dressing – it’s already done. Yeah, the Barbarian, we only shot there one night. We actually used some of the regulars as background extras. We asked if they wanted to be in a movie. That was pretty easy.
There’s a foreign movie poster – depicting a pool table at the Barbary Coast. It’s a vile image. Do remember what that scene might be?
The scene there was about aftermath, about passing through. I remember creating that with a pool of blood on the floor. We didn’t actually film the assault. This was the aftermath. This was basically passing through this place that was obviously the biggest dive. There’s a dead guy lying there, or somebody beaten to crap laying on the pool table. So it was establishing the fact that the people who past through this place thought nothing of death and destruction.
Prostitute wrangling on Front Street? What was downtown like in 1985?
It was basically what you’d think of as a port town. It wasn’t close to the ports but was close enough. Sailors could easily come in and catch a cab there. There was a lot of topless bars and down and dirty dives. By that time it had cleaned up to some extent but it was still there. The Barbary Coast was as seedy as any bar in town. There were hookers on the corner.
I lived downtown during that time period in my late twenties, the corner of 4th and Dock. It was not unusual to see ladies of the evening walking up to the door with a guy and thirty minutes later walking back alone. They had to clear the streets and the girls were upset because this was their prime time. Most of our shooting was at night. That’s what made it easier, to lock off streets at night. The high speed stuff they were doing was on Front Street. We’d lock off Front Street and drive fifty miles an hour.
What did you take away from working on the film?
It was all odd to me because it was the first time I worked props. The whole situation seemed weird. It wasn’t until I worked other movies that I realized how weird that movie was, how unusual the situation was. People being approachable, essentially allowing themselves to be swept up within a creative situation. Which is what David wanted. He wanted people that were open to experimental stuff and to go with the flow. They had a script obviously but at the same time he didn’t mind changing the script or allowing people, once they got the script covered, to do more takes on other things.
Did that happen frequently?
The amount of film we rolled on that show was phenomenal. I don’t know what the final total was but the cameraman said they rolled an amazing amount of film. There was a lot of stuff that ended up on the floor. He could do that because he was working for Dino who had no problem with money and David had paid his dues because he made Dune. He had carte blanche.
And yet it was relatively low-budget.
It wasn’t a really expensive show, as far as special effects. It was straightforward stuff and the biggest expense was the actors. He got an incredible amount of value for what he was looking for. Everyone had fun, it was a great show for that.
(Producer) Fred Caruso could be tough if he needed to be but at the same time he was a real approachable guy. There were times he had to tell people the money wasn’t there for things. But, he said this is what it is and that was it. He would have card games in the prop truck and that was the type of the atmosphere that it was. We were working hard but just because we’re into a thirteenth hour doesn’t mean we can’t have fun at it.
How long did the film shoot?
Relatively quick shooting, the prep was longer. The props had about a month to prep. Set dressers had quite a bit of time. It was a local crew and they had to rehab some places. Shooting it went quickly because we shot long hours.
How was shooting the Beaumont House location?
The Beaumont house was full of chotchkes, glass figurines. It was so full you couldn’t possibly imagine. Everything was breakable. Everything was one of a kind and completely irreplaceable to this little old lady who owned the house. It was surprising to the guys on the crew that the locations guy would get this sort of location because you know something’s going to be broken. But everything was well taken care of and after it was all over she was amazingly happy. She was sweet. I’m sure that’s why the location guy got her because she was really easy, nice to deal with.
You worked with the actors in terms of props.
Laura was very young. Kyle was too. They were easy and that’s the whole thing on that show. Nobody on that show, they didn’t have enough experience that they’d demand things or they had enough experience that it wasn’t that important. They could work with whatever they were given. Some things they had personal contact with, it had to match them.
Like the guns or the gas mask for Dennis Hopper. That was specific. You never saw it, but he had this thing on his belt. We had it all rigged up so that it he could turn little things. Turned out it never fit into the action but he wanted it that way to help him get into character. That was a specific prop he wanted to work. But everyone was really easygoing. People hung out, read, played cards, chatted. For intense shots actors would go off by themselves to keep in character.
How was Lynch with actors?
Everyone was confident in what they were doing and that all stems from David. He knew what he wanted, how he wanted it to look and the type of characters he wanted his actors to play. It allowed them a huge range and he was open to their input to make the characters whatever they wanted. It was a good mix, saying what he wanted and the actors having the chance to make it their own.
And you worked closely with David Lynch?
We had a lot of contact during and after the show. After the main shooting, I was working second unit. He was easygoing, very creative, and would come up with things at the last minute – ‘I want a row of pine trees over here as stretching as far as the eye can see’, that sort of stuff. If it called for holding up the action because this is what he wanted, he was willing to stop for thirty minutes to get the stuff together.
He’d be creative at the last second but at the same time he didn’t expect miracles. He was very appreciative of what people would do for him. It was funny, because sometimes he was almost surprised because he’d ask for stuff and he would get it. He was like, oh, you really got that for me that quickly. He was creative but knew there were limitations.
You worked throughout production, after principal filming completed.
When I went off to second unit I had no idea what to expect. When I showed up I had some tools and some paints. So, David started asking me if I had such and such. I’d go see if I had it or could get it as they were wrapping up first unit. He was willing to work with me regarding what I had or didn’t.
What did you do on second unit?
The giant ear, the bugs – things that didn’t have actors involved. We easily spent half a day on the bugs (the opening scene with insects fighting) because sometimes they were too active or not enough. It had to be just right. We had a telescope on the camera so it would touch the grass then go down into the bugs.
The whole shot had to be set up just right so we could part the grass and then there would be the bugs. When we first started using them the lights heated the bugs up and they all would scatter. So we had to cool them down. Once they cool they don’t move. So we had to find the right temperature, get them in there before the camera rolled so they’d be moving but not too fast.
How big was the ear?
Around four feet. The camera had to go into the ear.
What were some of the more odd locations?
They were all kind of odd in some way or another. The whole thing with Roudabush’s being an abandoned apartment. So many of the locations were shot at night. At four o’clock in the morning nothing seems normal. It wasn’t so much the locations as what we did at the locations. The location on Blue Clay Road where the timber yard is, and the scene where the joyride ended up. It’s a timber yard in the middle of nowhere. But it was the end of the joyride with Backseat Bonnie dancing on the roof. That whole thing of Brad Dourif making out with Bonnie.
She was a local right?
The actress who played her worked at the Dixie Grill and a Laundromat. Someone walked into a Laundromat on Market Street and found the actress who played Bonnie. She was asked to be in a movie and she asked how much and what she had to.
What did you have to make for Blue Velvet?
A moderate amount of stuff. Most of it was found objects but the specialized stuff like Dennis Hopper’s mask, it did have to be made. Then there were last minute items.
Much was made of profanity in reviews back in 1986.
Profanity was is in the script. Dennis came up with a fair amount of it on his own.
What do you remember about Isabella Rossellini?
David was married at the time of the production and not long after, within a year after the production, maybe a year and half or so, Isabella came to me to see if I had any of the blue velvet material. Or knew where the blue velvet was because she wanted to make a garment for a child out of it. So, I split my take (of material) with her.
Were there instances of things on screen but not in the script?
The work light used by Dean Stockwell was not in the script. The song was. It was last minute. There were a number of them but they don’t stick out in my mind. Most of them were like that (quick) or not special. You didn’t have to go too far a work light. David would come up with some flash and go, ‘Wouldn’t it be great? If we had one of these, right here, right now.’ He was very patient, very easy to work with. A nice guy.