CRANFORD, NJ — Moviegoers who happened to visit Cranford Theater at approximately 4:15 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 21, stumbled upon an odd sight: a group of more than 20 people, young and old, carrying dirt-caked shovels, minnow buckets, oil lanterns and rusted pans. Most wore long-sleeved plaid shirts and wool hats. A few boasted fake beards. Even more mysterious was the item sitting on the wooden easel in the midst of the crowd: a giant black-and-white photograph of a steely gazed, bearded man wearing a wool vest and fur cap, a pickax resting on his left shoulder and a fur cape slung over his right.
Several passersby asked the obvious question: “What’s going on?”
Linda Brown, a smile on her face and a racoon hat on her head, was all too happy to explain: her son, Chad Preucil — the man in the photograph — had worked as the key set production assistant on the newly released film “The Call of the Wild,” and, though he would not be able to attend, the theater was holding an unofficial red carpet film premiere in his honor.
To commemorate the occasion, more than 20 of Preucil’s family members and close friends — including his twin sister, aunt, uncle and high school friends — came out dressed in the fashion of the film’s setting: the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s in Yukon, Canada. The theater had agreed to reserve front-row seats for the group, and offered the red carpet at the foot of the entrance for a photo op.
“You couldn’t do this in an AMC theater,” said Brown. “It was so nice to have the local flavor.”
“The Call of the Wild,” which hit theaters nationwide on Feb. 20, is based on Jack London’s novel of the same name and stars Harrison Ford, best known for his iconic roles as Indiana Jones and Han Solo.
For a long while, Preucil had thought he was going to be a video-game designer.
After graduating from Cranford High School in 2011, he set off to Ithaca College in New York. He took a year of computer science courses, studying coding languages such as Python, C++ and Java, before having an epiphany: “Ew, I hate this.”
Preucil changed tracks in his sophomore year, taking his academic counselors’ advice to try his hand at media production.
It was love at first study.
“Video game design, without the computer programming, is storytelling, when it comes down to it,” Preucil told LocalSource in a Feb. 22 phone interview. “Bringing words to life,” Preucil realized, is what he wanted to do for a living.
Preucil graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science degree in radio and television and a concentration in media production. Three weeks later he moved to Los Angeles, where he had no contacts and no job. Three years later, he was sipping whiskey with Harrison Ford.
“It was honestly the greatest experience of my life,” Preucil said, referring to the chaotic four months he’d spent working on the film in 2018.
He got involved the same way he got involved in many other Hollywood projects.
“In this business, it’s all about who you know and your work ethic,” said Preucil. “I would get a call from so-and-so saying, ‘I hear you bust your butt, so I want you to come work for me.’”
Preucil hadn’t rested after graduating college. Between 2015 and 2018, he worked as a production assistant for NBC, 20th Century Fox Television, IGN, ABC Studios, USA Network, CBS, HBO and Disney, helping to produce television shows and movies such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Behind Enemy Lines.” Through these projects, Preucil gradually built the social network that brought job offers straight to his phone. He eventually heard the call of the wild from an assistant director with whom he’d worked previously.
As the key set production assistant for “The Call of the Wild,” Preucil supervised all the production assistants on the film crew, delegating to them the tasks assigned by the assistant directors and ensuring that the sets were prepared as needed before a day’s filming began. Did the house have a bench? Was the family photograph positioned correctly? Was the snow on the ground?
“I made sure that everything we planned that should happen, actually happened,” said Preucil.
That was easier said than done, especially when it came time to “lock up”: ensure that no one made any unscripted sounds or unplanned movements while shooting a scene. Preucil and his team of production assistants needed to prevent anyone, whether a passing pedestrian or errant crew member, from wandering into a frame in which they didn’t belong. The larger the set, the harder the lockup, because “the amount of area that you can see in a frame is ridiculous,” according to Preucil.
“Sometimes I’d have to lock up a space the size of five football fields,” he said. “How the hell am I supposed to do that with six people?”
Even more challenging was ensuring the crew’s safety. Although “The Call of the Wild” is set in the icy tundras of Canada, most of it was actually filmed in the sizzling deserts of California. In anticipation of potential heat exhaustion and heatstroke, the film crew hired an entire hydration staff.
“The actors would be in wool clothes in 90-degree heat with ice on the ground,” Preucil recalled. The “snow,” made by blasting ice blocks dropped by trucks, would typically melt after 10 minutes, producing a “giant mud river.”
Such logistical and safety issues demanded Preucil’s perpetual attention.
“My head was on a swivel,” he said.
Despite the challenges, Preucil relished the experience.
“One of the reasons I love production is that you’re constantly in communication with everybody, trying to get the best out of everyone,” said Preucil.
The inherently chaotic nature of production doesn’t hurt either. If anything, it adds to the allure.
“I like to MacGyver things,” said Preucil with a chuckle, referring to the inventive 1980s television character.
When Preucil signed onto the project, he didn’t know that Harrison Ford, “one of the reasons I do what I do,” had been cast in the leading role. But for four months, Preucil worked directly with Ford, witnessing firsthand his process on and off the camera. Ford didn’t disappoint, striking Preucil with his humility and “general human greatness.”
“The experiences, the memories I gained from that set, it was awesome,” said Preucil. “Every day, personally, was the greatest day.”
Brown is proud and supportive of her son, even if his living in Los Angeles means she doesn’t get to see him often.
“You raise your children to have wings, and then when they fly far, you say, not that far!” she said with a laugh. “It is challenging. That’s the bittersweet part of this.”
But no matter the distance, there’s always video chat. After the group finished posing for photographs inside and outside Cranford Theater, everyone gathered around Brown as she made a FaceTime call to Preucil. He answered quickly.
Matthew Bergman, Preucil’s friend since first grade, raised the phone high in the air to give him a clear view of the crowd.
“Who knew this many people cared about you?” Bergman asked him, eliciting laughter from the group. Several people called out, “Hi, Chad!”
“You see your picture?” Bergman asked, prompting more laughter. He showed Preucil the blown-up black-and-white photograph. “I Instagrammed it.”
As everyone bid Chad farewell and began heading in to the screening, Brown shared one last present with her son.
“Chad, this is especially for you,” she said, activating her raccoon hat. It began to wag its tail and emit prerecorded raccoon sounds. Preucil hid his face in his hands.
“You didn’t know your mother was so stylish, did you?” she asked, as family members and friends howled with laughter. The hat was a prize acquired from a cross-country skiing trip to the Adirondacks several years back. Prior to the film premiere, she had spent an hour combing through her attic in search of it.
Reflecting on the call afterward, Preucil said that seeing his loved ones gathered to watch a film he’d helped make gave him butterflies.
“I had goosebumps. I was happy, excited, embarrassed, everything,” he said. “It was great seeing these smiling faces, 3,000 miles away. It was wild, no pun intended.”