A Book Conservator Goes to Hollywood: or, Pretending to be an Actor Playing a Bookbinder

It is pretty unusual—once in a lifetime?— for any craftsman to appear in a Hollywood commercial. I had my chance last week. In many ways it was almost the stereotypical experience: a phone call out of the blue, sending a production company a couple of images of me and my work, a bunch of phone meetings, sending more pictures, then all of the sudden a limo was picking me up at 5:00 am to fly to Los Angles.

The first day was spent meeting the director, producers and wardrobe fitting.  My “costume” was chosen, which was surprisingly similar to the kind of clothes I usually wear.  Loose linen shirt and blue pants, though they did make me wear a kind of silly looking heavy duty leather apron.  Wardrobe went to do a few alterations and I was driven to look at the set.

The set really looked like a bindery, even though much of it was from other trades.  All the small details were wrong, but the overall feel was right.  The director of photography was there with a top of the line DSLR, so I left thinking this was going to be a small, intimate shoot.

The next day my driver picked me up and the scene had changed dramatically. The crew parking lot was filled with over 70 cars.  The caterer had 4 tents set up.  All of these people would be filming me for the next couple days, and I’d never acted before.  I was playing with the big boys.

As my make-up was being applied and my hair cut, I kept thinking that my experience in teaching should help me out, since I’m used to having people watch me work.  Or maybe I should think of this as extreme method acting: I’d practiced bookbinding for 23 years, and now was my chance to perform in front of the camera?

I saw the real camera for the first time; one of those monsters used for film shoots that three people ride on. We shot the various stages of book binding at different times.  Often I had to repeat an action three times, for a wide, medium and tight shot. The raw footage I saw looked amazing; the most professional, seductive looking images of bookbinding I’ve ever seen.

Seductive images of craft are great PR.  I still remember how appealing Bernard Middleton’s hands were on the cover of The Restoration of Leather Bindings.  Quite likely it was a reason I got into bookbinding in the first place. Could the less scientific, and more romantic side of conservation be emphasized a bit more for public appeal and possibly funding? Or does it land us back in the murky world of craft and restoration which conservation strives to differentiate itself from?

Film shoots are pure chaos.  As one crew member recommended “embrace the chaos”.  But the crews were remarkable in the way they worked together, thought creatively and spontaneously, and in the end got the job done.  It was great to get a glimpse at this world.

If you happen to find yourself being filmed using a sewing frame, which is a de-rigor shot, use pre-pierced the inner folios but not the outer one.  This way you can feel the hole on the inside with the tip of the needle, and burst out through an unpierced outer folio with frightening precision, without having to look inside the book. Smooth.

The most difficult thing for me was doing a familiar action differently or at a different speed—either to show it better on camera or because the director wanted it. I spend most of my time thinking about pragmatic realities—reattaching a board to fit the textblock exactly, mending paper fibers to realign or grinding a knife to exactly 13 degrees— so it was a bit difficult for me to get my head around the “prop” mentality, and how much the camera would see, and concentrate on the action, not the object. It was hard work to repeat an action over, and over, and over. “Show the leather more love when you touch it!” In the end I was left with much more respect for “real” actors; it is hard, skilled work.

And how quickly I become accustomed to being treated like a star!  By the end of the second day, it seemed natural to have a driver, someone yelling “talent on the set” and “talent stepping down” when I moved on the set, a hairstylist preening me every 30 minutes of so, food and water brought constantly the minute I sat.

I signed a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) so can’t go into any details until December.  Once the commercial is live, I will post links to it on this blog.

Now, back to reality. Finish sewing an endband, then edge paring, spokeshaving, and covering an appealing well used edition of Luther’s Commentarie on the Epistle of Saint Paul, London, 1616. I keep telling myself I’m glad to be back in the real world. But….

11 thoughts on “A Book Conservator Goes to Hollywood: or, Pretending to be an Actor Playing a Bookbinder

  1. Maria

    Alright! The Peach goes Hollywood…the students will love that. Can’t wait to have you at Winterthur. Until then. best! Maria

  2. Elaine Nishizu

    Hi Jeff,

    That would have been so much fun to watch! Did anyone take any stills for you with your camera phone? I hope they send you something before it goes on TV. I’m sorry to have missed you. Just got home last night.

    Elaine

  3. Rosemary Selinger

    Has to be a preview for the book Lies That Bind by Kate Carlisle where your tools are auctioned off amidst multiple murders at a Bay Area Book Arts event (fictional Book Center in SFO) a bibliophile murder mystery book series.

  4. Ervin Beck

    Your father alerted me to this entry while I was having chai at the Electric Brew. Those days must now seem like a dream in never-never land, but you deserve the attention. I’m looking forward to the televised ad to find out how bookbinding is related to the product advertised. Best wishes, Jeff

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