Tuesday, October 28, 2008
By popular demand, here are Julianna Margulies and Steven Strait going at it in a car, parked in the Orchard Beach parking lot just outside of City Island. Something screws up halfway into the scene (seems like a sound problem) which breaks the so-called "mood" and causes Julianna to crack up.
In answer to a couple of comments concerning how actors feel about doing love scenes, I think I can safely answer that they all hate it, find it degrading and embarrassing but have never (in my experience) put up a fuss: it's all part of the game and the best way to do it is quickly and professionally. Most actors who I've done stuff like this with like to plan it out very carefully (I think the clinical nature of doing so makes them feel better about the intimacy that they're faking) and then like to do it quickly, usually with somewhat fewer crew personnel around than usual. Both Julianna and Steven were totally professional about this whole scene--though after one take that I let run on a bit longer than usual, Julianna said (after I called cut) "Jesus, Raymond!"
I've never been involved with two actors who don't like each other who are forced to do one of these scenes, but I do recall a story about Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon during the shooting of "Wuthering Heights". She angered Lord O. by complaining to the director that his kisses were "too wet" and that afterward he would shower her with spittle. Oliver responded by yelling, "What's a little spit between actors, you silly c%#t!" This is the general rule with most actors and I think it applies to sex/make-out scenes as well: part of the game is to be unafraid, human and get in each others faces. An actor who shies away from any sort of contact is looked down upon by his/her fellow thespians. It's the blood they draw in their particular sport--and touching, yelling, spitting, roughing each other up and (when called for) kissing is a sign of commitment and professionalism.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Yes, dear readers, I've heard you loud and clear. The make out session is on its way. But first...
I thought, while I had your attention, I'd attempt to interest a few of the newer readers of this modest blog who joined us once production commenced on "City Island" to the blog's original intention--the celebration of my twin obsessions, old movies and jazz, as purveyed clip by clip on the wondrous thing known as youtube. (Jesus that's a long sentance. Anyone still reading?) The vehicle for this would not be un-"City Island" related, however; I've found a quite amusing montage that a youtuber named Nicoley132 built revolving around the pre-code era and, among other things, people making out in old movies.
Briefly, the Production Code was established circa 1933 in order to rid movies of salacious behavior and improve the country's low impression of Hollywood's notoriously low morals. But before the code anything went, short of pornography. Sex was much more open in the late silent and early sound era than it ever was again until the late 1960's. Violence had an edge that wasn't matched until decades later as well. And gay characters were part of the movie landscape as well--albeit in a comic way of course, but still they were there, in a refreshingly open way.
I bring this up because of the curious form of self-censorship that filmmakers now practice. Since the collapse of the Production Code (a gradual process that began with the use of the word "virgin" in Otto Preminger's "The Moon Is Blue" in 1953) and the installation of the bizarre group known as the MPAA (they're the ones that assign movies a rating), the burden has shifted to the filmmaker to decide what is appropriate to include in his or her movie. When making a movie like "City Island", for instance, we are conscious of attempting to appeal to a wider more family-driven audience--which leads to the assumption that the rating we wish to acheive would be a PG-13. But what exactly constitutes the standard of this rating? The MPAA will never tell you. From past history, though, it can be assumed that only a modicum of foul language will be tolerated. For some reason, the characters in my movie exclaim "Shit!" quite a bit. Wlll this be a problem? Perhaps. It goes without saying that "Fuck" gets you an "R". I wonder why? Is the sexual connotation of F*#$ worse than the excretionary connotation of S*?
Then there's sex, which the MPAA seems much more concerned about than violence. A good make out session is probably OK. But what happens when hands start reaching for parts of the human anatomy? Generally the theory is to avoid this if you want to stay in the land of PG-13. There was an interesting documentary made a few years ago about the people who actually comprise the membership of the MPAA and how the power to rate movies has fallen into the hands of this strange cabal. When you see who they are, you begin to understand why violence in movies is more tolerable than sex. Let's just say that Obama's brilliantly true comment (which he was forced to back away from) about bitter people clinging to guns and religion comes to mind when putting a face on the MPAA. It's a game without a playbook and the filmmaker is never sure of where the chips will fall. Alternate versions of scenes are frequently shot for language reasons. Sometimes an appeal can be made to the MPAA and they will suggest changes that might alter the rating. Other times they are implacable and silent; nothing will move them to reconsider the rating they've bestowed.
Below see a nice montage of pre-code revelry, set to the great Sinatra recording of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes". Normally I eschew these homemade youtube montages--preferring to post proper chunks of movies and performances, but this person did a nice job of cutting picture to the record. And they had the taste to pick Sinatra. And tune in Monday for the real thing...
Thursday, October 23, 2008
I'm back with a longish clip that I don't believe has been posted before. This is the climax of the movie, a family argument played out at night in the middle of the street. The scene itself runs considerably longer than this clip, so no spoilers are possible.
The page count of the scene was eleven pages. On a normal day we would shoot an average of four pages of script--which is considered quite a bit if you're a fifty million dollar movie, but if your shooting a 28 day schedule is just about right.(Do the math--28 times 4 equals 112 which is roughly the page count of my script). This eleven page scene, however, was shot all in one night--a considerable feat of energy for the actors as well as the crew. Why? Because it just seemed to be one of those unstoppable scenes, a huge verbal slugfest, that would be better caught in one long go than in breaking it up over a series of nights. I knew it was a risk scheduling it for only one night--by committing to the idea we effectively were cut off from the possibility of letting it spill over into another night--but I felt that the high level of professionalism of the actors (to say nothing of the crew) would make it possible to get the whole thing done. Also, I had two camera's running through each take, thereby cutting in half the amount of time it would take to pick up the necessary coverage.
However the downside was considerable: the scene takes place at night and we were shooting in the dead of summer. Night fell late--around eight thirty PM. And the sun rose at five AM. That means we only had an eight and a half hour workday--a normal shooting day for us was twelve, sometimes thirteen hours. And the street had to be lit--which chewed up the first two hours of the night (our call was, I believe, 7PM). Also, the scene was so long that we had to rehearse and shoot it in segments--i.e., lets take the first four pages and rehearse and stage it, then the next four, then the next four. Then lets shoot out each side of each segment facing in the same direction (so our cameraman didn't have to turn all the lights around more than once) and then spin around in the middle of the night and do all three sections of the scene again facing the other way. It was close to three AM when we turned around and we were fighting daylight to finish the coverage of the scene. Somehow we made it, though the last couple of takes had a distinctly blue light--the usually lovely arrival of morning in this case spelling doom. Nonetheless, the scene got completed and is pretty damn good if I say so myself.
A couple of interesting things in the below clip. It's from the early part of the scene and was shot early in the evening--so we were all still fresh and still finding our way. Note the two clappers--one for this camera and the second, in the background, for the B camera. Then note how halfway through the scene, the cameraman pans away abruptly, seeing the set, on-lookers etc. and appears to be in the process of complete collapse. Then he finds his angle again. What was going on here? I suspect that we were experimenting with re-positioning the camera during the performance--since we had a second camera filming as well we were "covered" for the material during A camera's repositioning. Ultimately, the angle he returns to is the original one and I believe we abandoned the re-po experiment in place of good old-fashioned standard coverage (note that whole scene was shot hand-held as well).
Oh. Does anybody have any interest in seeing two of the stars of the movie engaged in a heavy make out session? If so, say so. Otherwise...
Monday, October 20, 2008
Today's thrilling clip provides a view of your writer-director friend Raymond De Felitta (yes, we are officially in the dregs of the clip bin) acting confused. I stand somewhere outside the prison (this was that unpleasant day) staring at absolutely nothing as my a.d. Eric calls for sound to roll and patiently waits for me to say "action". But I don't. Instead I stare ahead weirdly, scratch my neck, fold my arms and in general act about as focused and authoritative as a goldfish. Was I unaware that we were rolling? Could I truly have been this out to lunch? Or perhaps there was some problem off screen that I was perfectly well aware of and so I simply was not yelling action and was instead patiently waiting for the problem to resolve itself. Unlikely. I think I was just spacing out.
So as not to make this entry entirely about my own ineptitude (and in honor of the generous--neverending is more like it--season that professional baseball allows itself), I'm adding a little 8mm footage of the once great New York Yankees, shot at Yankee stadium some time in the mid to late 1950's. This footage came courtesy of some people who live on the block that we shot on in City Island. I asked if they had any home movies of the neighborhood for possible use in the movie and they generously provided us with a pile of old footage. Among this footage was this nugget of Yankeedom. Can you identify the players? I can't...
Friday, October 17, 2008
Here's a clip shot late one night on 10th Avenue in New York's "Hell's Kitchen" district--so named for its past history as a slum
environment but now home to numerous high rises, lofts, theaters, restaurants that won't seat you, etc. In it, Andy Garcia and Emily Mortimer begin a scene and promptly stop as the camera fails to be in the right place. Emily is a tad upset and voices her disapproval by saying, quite rightly, that she was told to step wide of her mark--and now she's being blamed for not hitting her mark. As I recall, this was the night that we had a strange, out of control Police Officer (the film commission assigns an officer to every shoot) yelling at us about what time we had to stop. His deeply unpleasant manner (this wasn't our first encounter with him) rattled everyone. I believe a letter was eventually written, by our producers, to the NYPD suggesting that in terms of public relations between film crews shooting in New York and the Police, this particular officer might be better deployed on some other duty--like wandering the projects in the Bronx looking for crack dealers.
By the way, to those who wrote asking me what "picture lock" means: it means reaching a final, FINAL, edited version of the film that will not change any further. Locking picture enables the composer to have accurate timings of scenes, the sound editors to begin building the tracks etc. We'll lock picture next week, making our editing period a nice, tidy eight week process.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
I've been deep in edit hell, trying to achieve picture lock by late this week (we won't make it). Thus the paucity of posts. But
more clips will be back tomorrow. In the meantime...
Pause with me a moment to remember the work of Neal Hefti, who passed away last weekend at the age of 86. Hefti was a jazz giant--a composer/arranger who wrote two of the most played jazz tunes of the past fifty years, "Lil Darlin'" and "Cute" as well as two of the most beloved (and listened too) TV themes of the past fifty years. Both "Batman" and "The Odd Couple" are, as shows and cultural artifacts, inseperable from Hefti's irresistable themes.
Hefti began his career in big bands, writing for Woody Herman, Count Basie and eventually arranged one of my favorite Sinatra albums, "Sinatra and Swingin' Brass". He also composed music for movies--my favorite being "Lord Love A Duck". Click here for a quite comprehensive Wikipedia bio of the man. And look below at two clips--one of Lionel Hampton playing (and singing "Cute") and the other a staple of my childhood; the marvelous opening credit sequence of "The Odd Couple". The "Odd Couple Theme" goes, for me, far beyond period kitsch a la "Batman" (or for that matter "Brady Bunch", "My Three Sons" and other still beloved tv themes). To me, the piece captures a mournfulness inherent but largely unexplored in Neil Simon's original play--the very premise that two men who've been abandoned by their wives are unable to live either within or without a partnership. Hefti's theme song goes deeper, somehow, than Simon's non-stop jokefest or, for that matter, the tv series. When I hear it (and I've been listening to it over and over for the past couple of days) I think of the seventies, the era when marriages imploded overnight...of full ashtrays and drinks in which the ice has melted...of the lost patterns of living that afflict those caught in domestic disarray. Pretty heavy for a tv show theme...but somehow Hefti caught it all and that's why, I think, it remains as memorable and beloved as it does.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Yes, it's come to this. Clips of the crew wandering around the set. As I begin to run low with these precious clips, I have to find new ways to make even the least fascinating material relatively interesting. And so I come to the subject of burning film--those strange moments when the camera is left rolling for unknown reasons when a take is not even close to being contemplated. These tidbits are actually not entirely worthless as they show in action what I was describing the other day--that leisurely disorganized vibe that permeates every movie set (in between explosions of temper, of course) which make every day civilians wonder how the hell a movie ever gets finished.
The first clip is outside an office building on Lexington Avenue and 57th St. and features cameo appearences by, among others, my producer, our hair stylist, several pa's, a member of the art department and, at the very end, two members of the camera crew--who presumably were responsible for having turned the camera on at this point and presumably forgot it was rolling.
Next is a nice shot featuring Julianna Marguiles waiting patiently on the stairs as more non-work goes on. This clip also features my cinematographer Vanja Cernjul. He's the one standing there acting like a cinematographer.
Strangely, as a director, I'm frequently told that I'm "shooting too much film". Since I always warn the producers at the outset that I believe film stock is there to be shot--and that they'll be happy later to have more material rather than less--it puzzles me that they continue to under-budget my film spends. Truthfully, I wont be happy and truly satisfied as a director until I pass the "one-million mark"--on any number of movies this happens during the shooting and is always an excuse for a Champagne celebration for the whole crew. On City Island I exposed a mere two-hundred thousand feet of film--not so bad really but enough to prompt a few stern lectures. My usual response is: we're here once, on this set, with these actors, having gone through all the trouble that it takes to get here. Why not shoot a little extra film?
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Sorry for the unexpected hiatus--I returned home to LA after sixteen weeks in New York this past weekend and found myself far more exhausted than I expected to be. The past four months of filmmaking have been essentially riding a wild bull--starting with our prep period in late May/early June, our shoot beginning a scant five weeks later in mid July, and jumping right into the editing after our pre Labor Day weekend wrap. We've screened the movie a few times now for invited guests to get a feeling of how it plays with audiences. It's quite amazing (and sobering) what you learn from sitting in a room watching your movie with a group...somehow things that you thought were perfectly timed are horrifically slow, and things that long ago you gave up on as hopeless seem to work wonderfully well. Robert Altman was a big believer in screening cuts of his films for invited audiences--rather than ask for specific comments, however, he would simply tell his guests: "Don't worry about telling me anything special. You watch the movie, I'll watch you..."
Below are two clips, both of which show-in their own ways--how completely absurd making a film truly is. The first is a simple, beautiful shot of a bus pulling out of a terminal and crossing the George Washington Bridge. Fairly straight forward sounding, right? I've said it before and I'll say it again. "NOTHING IN FILMMAKING IS SIMPLE!" Just getting a bus to use was a major problem--the New Jersey Transit busses were, for some odd reason, off limits to us. An independent bus line was finally found who would play ball with us--but we needed TWO busses and this somehow was a problem. (Why did we need two? Who knows? In movies you always need two of everything. So why should busses be any different?) Even shooting this shot was filled with drama--the Port Authority gave us a very short window in which to make the shot, maybe ninety minutes or so to get our equipment and two busses upstairs and ready to go. By the way, once you get on the George Washington Bridge, you're New Jersey bound, so kiss that bus (and a second take) goodbye. Come to think of it, that's why we had two busses--to send the second one out for a safety take once we'd lost the first one to the wilds of Jersey.
The second clip is of...a movie set. Our movie played the role of another movie--no spoilers so I can't tell you how it fits into the story. But we used our own crew to play the part of...a movie crew. The Assistant Director who tells Andy Garcia tht they need another take is, in fact, me. The guy standing around at the end (playing the second A.D. is, in fact our first AD, Eric Henriquez. The general air of confusion and hysteria captured in this scene is all to accurate. But as Sidney Lumet says in his book "Making Movies", "We really do know what we're doing...it only looks like we don't."
Thursday, October 2, 2008
Forgive the shameless self-promotion (to say nothing of the unattractive need to point out positive things about myself), but click here to read an excellent review of my last film, a documentary soon to be released on DVD called "Tis Autumn; The Search For Jackie Paris". The film is rolling out theatrically around the USA and Canada on the art-house circuit and this review is from Winnipeg. The man who wrote it is a genius. You have to think that of someone who calls your film "one of the finest music documentaries ever made"...
Now back to City Island for a moment. My property master, Dan Fisher, sent me a blog entry he'd written over the summer which never got posted. It has to do with a part of the story which I always referred to as "The Denise Thing"--a sub-plot that was quite bizarre and relatively controversial, which I'd regularly been asked to drop from the script but which I think is an important element of the movie. Without any "spoilers" being an issue, I can tell you that the BBW community (big beautiful women) and the FA movement (fat acceptance) are a part of this sub-plot. For a few years now, I've been interested in this world and its very open, very loving suggestion that we all accept how each other look--and that fat people don't have to go through this life being ashamed of or made fun of because of how they look. Size acceptance is all about the celebration of being a large person and women, it seems to me, have been the backbone of the movement. So I created a BBW advocate named Denise as a character and worked her into the story--she's played by one of the loveliest people I've ever met, Carrie Baker Reynolds. Alas, the two clips I have of Carrie are short and perhaps have been posted before, but I include them both below--Ezra Miller is in both. By the way, if the size-acceptance movement is something you're curious about, click here for the original plus-size movement magazine, Dimensions.
The climax of the Denise sub-plot comes with a dinner table scene where she lays out a feast for her guests. It's a short scene but a necessary part of the larger puzzle and Dan Fisher had to buy and make a hell of a lot of food for it. Below is his account of the prep and shoot, titled "Dinner With Denise". Thanks Dan--my day just got a little longer.
DINNER AT DENISE'S:
Bill of fare for Sc. 139, Friday Aug.8:
Baby-back ribs smothered in sauce, encircled with mixed grill meat, swaddled in steaks (Weighs about 40 lb.)
Fried chicken cutlets on a bed of pepperoni, decorated with cherry tomatoes
Sliced boneless ham, garnished with bacon strips, salami slices, and pineapple chunks, drizzled with Cheez Wiz
Potatoes au gratin
Macaroni and cheese
3 dozen Pillsbury Pop N Fresh biscuits
Salami chunks drizzled with cheez wiz (appetizer portion)
Coconut encrusted marshmallows (Ezra's new favorite snack)
Dish of cold green bean salad
Bowl of red cherry tomatoes
Enormous Chocolate Death cake
Various cakes, pies, and muffins
Beverage choices: Milk, Coca-Cola, water
NOTES ON FOOD SCENES:
1. If you work with a writer/director of Italian heritage (Scorcese, Chase, De Felitta) expect lots of food scenes. Sex scenes, not so much.
2. I kept asking myself, "With all of this meat, what kind of vegetable does Denise eat?" Then the answer came to me, like Excalibur offered to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake: CREAMED CORN. Denise only eats vegetables with cream in them. Yes, note above the relish dish and cherry tomatoes, but for Denise, those are mere table decoration for the guests. She doesn't touch green food unless it's guacamole or lime jello.
3. The day before shooting the dinner scene, Raymond approached to let me know that the scripted dialogue for Denise -- announcing that she's making baby-back ribs with potatoes au gratin -- had been modified to become baby-back ribs with mixed grill, swaddled in steaks. Ordinarily, this type of day-before change would make me or any prop person groan. Changes in props mean you have more work to do, more of production's money to spend while you're worrying how to tell the line producer that it's just quite possible that you may go over budget on this job. (My six least favorite words from a director or actor on a film set: "You know what would be great....?") But when this fairly ordinary meal of ribs and potatoes morphed into the ridiculous -- ribs with mixed grill and steak? What is she, a professional boxer? -- that gave me free rein to leap into the Land Of Ridiculous Food, both feet forward. The next day, the day of the shoot, I left for work early so that I could shop at BJ's Wholesale on the way. Screw the budget, I thought, I want to enter the Pantheon -- "Tom Jones", "Babette's Feast", "Tampopo", "Big Night" -- where the audience sees the amassed food on the table and collectively gasps, "Holy s--t". As I prowled the aisles of BJ's, cart practically tipping from the amassed weight, I was honest-to-God laughing, I kid you not. Pre-cooked, microwaveable bacon? Sure. Cheez Wiz? Hell, yeah.
4. The secret to good food scenes is the same as the secret to good comedy: TIMING. One must constantly seek schedule updates from the Assistant Director and cook accordingly. Because remember, the food not only has to look good, it should be hot and palatable for as long as possible. After all, actors will be eating this stuff, not just once but over and over for the next two to ten hours, so all efforts should be made to make the experience pleasant, rather than vomit-inducing.
(A side note: Almost without fail, actors will dig hungrily and greedily into the food in the first few takes -- It's food! It's free! I can eat as much as I want! Cool! -- but by the third setup they will be picking at it like the proverbial birds. Be sure to have a spit bucket and/or paper towels handy.)
5. The enormous chocolate cake, seen not only in Sc. 139 but in the big finale as well, was from Zeppari's Bakery, of Pelham Bay, NY. Carmine, the owner, gave us an extremely fair price and really understood what I wanted and why I wanted it. I can't recommend Zeppari's highly enough. Oh yeah, and the cake was delicious.
Additional shout-outs to Artie's Steak and Seafood of City Island and to City Island Diner, for your help in all of "City Island"'s many food scenes.