Thursday, January 04, 2007


The weather has forced us to change our schedule yet again. We’ve abandoned our original plan of finishing all the exteriors first and have moved into the studio much earlier than we’d planned causing our production designer Paola to FREAK OUT in her own very quiet, slow burning way.

She’s a very talented woman – she’s the designer for one of those TV reality shows where pseudo-celebrity interior decorators show up at some white trash family’s hovel and laugh at the mismatched sofa/chair set and horrid art work and then, with nothing but a glue gun and some plasterboard, turn the joint into the lobby of a W Hotel - but I am learning as we go along in this adventure that, like many artistic types, she is not to be trifled with.

In this instance, I was somewhat dismayed to discover that a set built to resemble a typical 6 year old boy’s bedroom has been constructed without what is known as a “fly” wall – that is to say, a wall which literally can “fly” away to allow camera and crew access to every angle. Instead, this set, while admittedly very well designed and built, has all the ease of entry of Fort Knox. I confront Paola with the problem and she very quietly says to me “we discussed this” which I have learned is Paola-speak for “don’t screw with me, baldy, I’m under-budgeted, understaffed and exhausted”.

But after she has her morning coffee, things suddenly seem to get much better and faster than you can say Extreme Home Makeover the offending extra wall vanishes! We begin shooting, but the delay has cost us considerably and the tension on set is palpable. I need all the help I can get, but my First Assistant Director is sulking because I yelled at him to STOP STANDING SO CLOSE TO ME ALL THE TIME, so things are moving even slower than usual. My Second Assistant Director is running around frantically trying to do several jobs at once and I’m worried that she’s going to quit – however with the low wages they're paying on this movie, the theory is you can't quit, you have to be sold.

Compounding the problem, my Third AD continues to be of little or no use. It’s not from lack of trying – god knows, he’s doing the best he can – but some folks just aren’t cut out for set life. On the other hand, a Production Assistant shows up out of the blue, a young woman with nothing but energy and enthusiasm as well as an unerring instinct for what needs to be done, and promptly takes up the slack on set. She handles the kids brilliantly and when I ask about her I discover that she has only been hired temporarily while we are in the studio.

Trust me, I am not letting this girl off our set until we wrap.

Speaking of trapped on set, somehow RJ Wagner has been brought to the studio about EIGHT HOURS too early which means, between his early call and our production delays, he is sitting around doing nothing for the better part of the day.

But he and his personal makeup artist Lon have obviously fought this kind of battle before. They graciously bide their time, regaling me with the first of many incredible stories of old Hollywood. When RJ tells me he delivered one of the eulogies at Frank Sinatra’s funeral (Sinatra is one of my idols, fyi dear reader) and Lon mentions he did Frank’s makeup on the last TV show he ever did, well….I suddenly have tears in my eyes. These guys are the real deal; a piece of history and elegance which we, in our trashy Britney/Lindsay/Oprah era, will never see again. It makes one long for the golden era of show business.

I, meanwhile, am stuck with a filthy dog.

Dennis the Menace traditionally has a large, floppy sheepdog named Ruff at his side all the time. My production manager has found such a dog, but while one normally hires “movie dogs” from reputable trainers, we have once again tried to save money by bringing in an “amateur” dog. In this case, amateur apparently means “unwashed” and “unbrushed”. The stench coming off this mangy hound makes everybody gag, but the dog’s owner seems completely unaware of the problem. Hardly a surprise, as the owner bears a striking resemblance to the dog, right down to the matted hair…and the smell.

But the dog, to his credit, does his best and gives me lots of great expressions for the film. We won’t be having him back, however – at 500 bucks a day, we can only afford good ol’ Ruff for a few scenes.

We finish the day by shoving RJ into a closet with our “Christmas Angel”, played by a very funny, very talented guy named Godfrey, best known for a series of soft drink ads a few years ago. Godfrey’s wings, made of actual feathers, keep getting stuck up RJ’s nose as he tries to deliver his dialog and the crew, exhausted after 12 hours of non-stop problems, convulse in laughter.

But somehow RJ manages to give a completely believable and moving performance as our Mr. Wilson/Scrooge realizes what he’s done to the Christmas spirit of our young Dennis. It’s a heartbreaking moment and the crew falls silent with appreciation for the man’s professionalism.

They don’t make actors like this anymore.

We call wrap and everybody heads home for the night.

As I’m leaving I see one of our Montreal producers having a serious conversation with our Third AD. On the way out the door, the Third comes to me, shakes my hand and says “see you at the wrap party” – in other words, he’s been fired.

Ouch. I know I’m responsible for this and it doesn’t make me feel good. He’s a nice guy and might become a very good casting director for all I know, but with our schedule we don’t have time for on-the job-training.

I will probably have an extra martini when I get home. Everybody thinks being the director is the best job on set and usually it is. But tonight, it feels like the worst.


Our movie is set in an unnamed mid western American town, where - as various characters mention throughout the script - they haven’t had snow at Christmas “for thirty years: This is an important plot point, as eventually Dennis the Menace, by acting selflessly, makes magic happen and “voila” (as they say here in Montreal), snow appears on Christmas Day.

But since the better part of the movie happens BEFORE Christmas Day, that means we have to have CLEAR DRY GROUND and no SNOW in the air. We have no snow. That much is true. However, freezing rain….well, that’s another matter entirely.
To be specific, it’s actually subzero temperature sleet mixed with pellets of solid ice. My camera, grip and electric team have valiantly pulled on their cold weather gear, bundling up in layer upon layer of gore-tex and fleece in a desperate bid to stay warm and dry. But no amount of high tech survival clothing will protect us from the most dangerous side effect of this horrible weather – falling wood.

It appears that this neighborhood is famous not just for the cranky rich and idly tasteless who live along its sidewalks, but also for the huge trees growing virtually untended up and down the streets which, when burdened with a thick coating of ice, crack at will and send gigantic limbs of frozen wood plunging down onto unsuspecting passersby below.

So now not only do we have scheduling problems, actor problems and weather problems, we also have to avoid decapitation by murderous maple branches.

Of course it’s on THIS day, the most disastrous we’ve had to date, that Robert Wagner finally arrives. And suddenly, everything just seems a little bit…better. The sheer charm of the man is almost overwhelming. Even in his mid seventies, while perhaps no longer the young male ingénue of Hollywood, he is strikingly handsome and completely elegant. Seated on a cheap fold out sofa bed in the mobile dressing room we’ve rented for him, the ice storm wailing away outside, his very presence made it seem as though we weren’t stuck in the middle of some suburban Montreal parking lot, but rather exchanging clever “bon mots” while sipping cocktails on a yacht in Nice.

And while there’s nothing I would rather have done than listen to his incredible and thrilling stories of Hollywood, then and now, the movie beckoned. So out into the ghastly weather we ventured, my idol and I, to set up the next shot.

If you ever find yourself directing a movie star, here’s a hint: DO NOT strap him or her to a paramedic gurney during an ice storm and wheel him around the front yard of a house in Montreal pretending to suffer the effects of food poisoning, the result of some cookies made by Dennis the Menace. Hardly a great way to start a relationship.

But RJ (he ACTUALLY told me to call him this!! For real!) was a trouper through all of this, emitting nothing more than an “oi” when the flimsy screen we erected above him as protection blew away with the first gale force wind.

When I asked him later how he managed to maintain his composure, give a terrific performance AND deliver a very funny adlib line all while in danger of frostbite he gave me one of those dazzling old school Show Biz smiles and said: “I learned how to do it in Star School.”

This is going to be great.