Tuesday, February 20, 2007

DAY TWELVE

With news of yet another snowstorm approaching (this in a movie where the central plot device hinges on the idea that it HASN’T SNOWED IN THE TOWN AT CHRISTMAS FOR 30 YEARS!), we have once again changed the shooting schedule and moved back into the studio. This of course has caused yet another round of grumbling from certain crewmembers, but I’ve decided to simply ignore the nonsense and carry on with my actors to make the movie.
This is easier said than done, mind you, as the Child Labor Laws dictate exactly how many hours we can work our Kid actors, so we’ve been forced to hire a pair of twin “look a likes” for our Dennis in order to do certain shots without him.

In theory this should work, but needless to say we have problems right off the bat this morning when it turns out that thanks to another in an endless series of miscommunications – apparently the cold yesterday took a toll on my First Assistant Director after all -- our Twins haven’t been called in for the day. So we move across the studio from one set to another, losing a valuable hour of shooting time, and begin doing a series of shots of Mr. Wilson using RJ’s photo double. He’s a lovely guy and while, as I’ve previously noted, he bears a closer resemblance to Dr. Shivago than Robert Wagner, he’s up for anything.

Unfortunately not even he can help us with the next delay. Mr. Wilson’s monogrammed handkerchiefs, part of his daily preparation “ritual”, are missing and it turns out they haven’t been picked up from the store in Montreal where we’ve ordered them, half an hour’s drive from the studio. A car is dispatched and while we wait I start to plan for the next scene.

My DP Kim and I begin hunting around the studio for the “upstairs hallway” set, where our Dennis The Menace is supposed to accidentally destroy a potted plant and several feet of a rare Persian carpet. When we ask about it, we are proudly led to a small closet just off the fake “foyer” of the fake house – which is NOT the location for the scene as written. Upon closer examination, we discover that apparently two pages of the script were inadvertently photocopied together misleading the entire Art Department into building us the wrong set.

I consider my options, including sticking my finger in one of the open electrical boxes and ending it all, when suddenly the handkerchiefs arrive! Telling the Art Department to “build a damned hallway and be quick about it!” I run across the studio to the original set to finish off Mr. Wilson’s scene. The sheepish looks from the prop department tells me something is still wrong; it seems the monogrammed “W” has been placed on the hankies upside down, so we now have 45 handkerchiefs custom made for Mr. “Milson”.
Just then, the Twins arrive. I leave the hanky debacle to the wardrobe department to sort out and run back across the studio to the bedroom set where we’d originally tried to start the day. I set up a shot where our Fake Dennis, wearing PJ’s, leaps from his bed and runs out the door. It should be pretty simple really but as the camera and electrical department start to work, the studio suddenly erupts with the sound of hammers, saws and drills. Not the most musical of sounds at the best of times, but in this enclosed, echoing space it is positively Michael Bolton-esque.

I race back across the studio to discover the noise is coming from my On Set Art Department as they desperately try to slap something together for our “upstairs hallway” scene. I know they’re doing their best, and the cheap flats and mismatched corner joints certainly aren’t their fault, but it appears that there isn’t enough “wall” for the entire set, so I am forced to shoot the entire scene from one tiny spot on the floor, not daring to turn the camera even an inch either way for fear of seeing the rough two by four structure barely holding the whole hideous mess together.

My First Assistant Director foolishly mentions this out loud, chastising my camera operators for shooting “off the set” and, for the first time in our five films together I see my normally Zen-like Director of Photography lose his temper, threatening to insert an entire HD Camera into a certain very private orifice of said First AD.

A hush falls over the set. Nobody knows what to say.
Suddenly, the uncomfortable silence is broken by the sound of a five-year-old boy crying his eyes out on the other side of the studio. I head off in search of the source of these mournful sobs and discover that our Fake Dennis is in tears because the shot we’ve set up requires him to take his socks off. It turns out he’s terrified of letting anybody see his bare feet. He’s not even in pre-school yet and he already has a foot fetish.

All of this happens before lunch.
AFTER lunch, some of our more vocal crew folks decide it’s time to hold a “meeting” in order to discuss the “problems” we have been having. I wrongly assume the “problems” to be discussed will include why nothing ever shows up on time and when it does it’s usually wrong, but of course that’s not even on the agenda. Instead, one of our more self-righteous stage-hands – his union rule book clenched so tightly in his paw that he’s bleeding from the fingertips – insists that the crew is being disrespected because we don’t take a vote every time the wind changes.

All of this takes place on the set, in the rather colorful patois of the French Canadian tongue, so none of us who actually make decisions on this film can understand what the hell’s going on. I take our Dennis off set and keep him occupied playing video games so he doesn’t get soured on the film business before his seventh birthday. I am told later on that our oft-mentioned Hot As A Pistol Key Grip has delivered an impassioned speech IN FAVOR of the production, telling his compatriots that the Americans are essentially “guests” in the Montreal film industry and that they – the crew – have a responsibility to be good hosts. This gives me yet another reason to admire HAAPKG. Well, this and his great butt.
After much teeth gnashing on the other side of the studio, and the rather red-faced discovery by the rabble rousers that, in fact, the union agreement they signed barely gives them the right to a bathroom break, filming recommences for the afternoon.

But by now I’ve already decided I just want to finish the day in one piece, go back to the Soviet Whore Inn and get drunk. We quickly set up for the next scene, where Dennis inadvertently launches a Thigh-Master (yes, as in Suzanne Somers Thigh Master!) through the air and it smashes through the lovely framed portrait of Mr and Mrs. Wilson hanging on the wall.

Need I tell you, gentle reader, that when I look at the wall in question there is no framed portrait of the Wilsons? There are, however, half a dozen incredibly expensive pieces of Art on loan from a local museum and, while impressive if one is interested in obscure Canadian oil painters (and gosh, who ISN’T?), it doesn’t really help my scene. When I threaten to have the Thigh Master pierce one of these valuable canvasses, my Production Designer visibly pales – tough to do for a lady whose natural skin tone can best be described as transparent – and a framed picture of the Wilsons is quickly found. Unfortunately it’s not much bigger than a wallet sized print, stuck into a cheap frame, rather deflating the comedy impact of Dennis’ destructive wake and, with time running out, I make a quick decision.

Grabbing a nearby hammer, I take a broad swing and smash a hole through the set wall. I grab the Thigh Master, jam it into the gaping cavity, and we roll the cameras. With a bit of judicious editing, it will look as if the thing has flown across the room and stuck itself into the wall.

Problem solved.

A general murmur floats among the crew now; they’re afraid that after twelve days of putting up with all manner of foolishness with a relatively calm demeanor, I have now in fact cracked.
This may be true. But at least we got the shot.

Monday, February 19, 2007

DAY ELEVEN

What the HELL were we thinking, making a movie up here in the winter?

First, let it be known that I was born in northern Ontario, Canada, which is kind of like Outer Siberia - except instead of Russians we had White Trash - so you’d think I would be used to the cold. But THIS is ridiculous.

As we pulled up to the location today, back on the same neighborhood street where the locals can’t WAIT to be rid of us, I was surprised to see that there was virtually nobody on the street. The trucks were parked along the sidewalk, the set was decorated – well, as decorated as a set can be with the twelve dollars and fifty three cents our Art Department seems to have left out of their already tight budget – and yet there was nobody in sight.
The moment I stepped out of the car, I realized exactly why. In spite of the sunny skies, the temperature had plummeted to minus eight hundred degrees (I may be off a bit here, the thermometer in the car was frozen solid…) and with each breath you could literally feel your lungs collapse like a couple of wet paper bags. All I really wanted to do was go back to the hotel and crawl into my Russian Hooker Approved Bed and wait out the subzero conditions, but suddenly the truck doors opened and my crew - dressed like they’re heading out to conquer Mt. Everest – trundle out onto the street. Oddly, they don’t seem fazed by the cold. These are the same people, mind you, who take our constant schedule changes as personally as if we’ve shot their dogs, but the fact that their eyeballs are freezing in their sockets doesn’t seem to bother them. And so, in spite of the fact that I haven’t been able to feel anything below my knees since I set foot on the sidewalk, we bang off a sequence of shots showing the Dennis the Menace’s “neighbors” decorating their homes for Christmas.

In my mind, this was going to be a magical, exciting sequence, with lots of laughter and fun as we watch everybody get ready for the Holiday Season. In reality, with the limitations of our location AND having to point my camera away from anything resembling snow (see earlier Blog entries for why….), the scene becomes a series of close-ups of cardboard boxes sitting on muddy patches of dead grass as the hands of our Extras pull out strings of cheap lights and Thrift Store garland.

On the plus side, for the first time in the entire shoot, our Background Performers are actually ATTRACTIVE! Usually, our Extras look as if they’d been recruited from discount laundromats and seedy bowling alleys, with a promise of REALLY good crystal meth as payment, but today we have finally got some of the beautiful people I’ve seen all over Montreal!

Unfortunately, the scene requires them to be wearing scarves and hats and gloves and huge overcoats, so I don’t actually get to SEE how good looking they are. I considered having one particularly stunning young man decorate his house in a pair of shorts – I’m sure I could’ve justified it in the script somehow – but I was afraid that the more useful parts of his anatomy might’ve frozen off in this ridiculous cold.

We continue to shoot more of Scene 90 – faithful readers of this blog will recall this as the climactic “Big Bike Race” sequence – but instead of risking any more disastrous accidents – such as the moment when our “bully” rode over his own foot and burst into tears - we strap our actors to fake bicycles mounted on the back of the camera and wheel them along the street.

The boys do their best, but the cold is really getting to them, especially our Maxwell – Dennis the Menace himself – who is a Southern California native and hasn’t experienced anything this frigid outside of an Ice Cream Truck. Yet the kid is a trouper, focused and concentrated, delivering an incredible and moving performance. But when the cameras stop rolling, he folds up into a fetal position, wrapped in thermal blankets in a desperate attempt to stay warm. His Mom, who goes down in my books as being one of the unsung heroes of this movie, pours hot soup into him and he carries on, because – as he tells me between takes – “I’m cold Ron, but I’m having fun!”

Ah, the glamour of show business.

Have I mentioned the fact that every time we have to go to the bathroom we must hike four blocks to a freezing cold Porta-Potty?

Unlike a normal film shoot, none of the local residents would give us permission to use their facilities – even after we’d offered them money – so we are “borrowing” (and if by “borrow” you mean “use without permission”) some outdoor toilets set up by a local construction site. So the next time somebody says to you “I want to make movies for a living” you must slap them hard across the face and hand them an application to their local community college.

My First Assistant Director shivers through the entire day, and given my usual self-centeredness, it takes me until almost lunchtime to realize that he’s not wearing much more than a pair of jeans and a light jacket. It occurs to me that maybe one of the reasons things keep screwing up on this movie is that the guy who is supposed to be my Right Hand Man is suffering from hypothermia. But I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, so I hint to him that the extreme cold is hurting the production and perhaps we should think about rescheduling yet again, shooting interiors for awhile until the horrendous temperatures go up a bit.

But instead of taking this as a subtle hint to wear a sweater or something, it comes across as more of my “whining” and my previously-noted “Hot As A Pistol” Key Grip, assuming correctly that my Running Shoe/Thermal Sock ensemble isn’t working so well, shows up with an pair of his own insulated boots for me to wear. Although they look like something Gene Simmons might’ve worn during the heyday of KISS, I practically swoon from the idea of having something of his touching my skin, but as I’m the Director it wouldn’t be professional to admit that so I just say thank you and slip them on.

We continue shooting, rushing through a scene where Dennis and his pals inadvertently shove an entire Christmas tree through Mr. Wilson’s front window – the dialog in this scene is particularly overwritten, so I film it in a way that I can cut it out and rewrite it later – and as night falls we finish the day with our Christmas Angel, played by the very funny actor known as GODFREY (one word only, you know, like CHER or BOTULISM), plummeting out of the sky and landing in Dennis’ neighborhood in time to deliver the Christmas Spirit.

Well, that was the idea anyway. Unfortunately, when I ask the On Set Art Department to put the “shrub” in place for Godfrey’s landing, I am met with blank stares.

“Shrub?” they ask.

For a moment, I consider rescheduling this scene to another night – it’s been 11 hours in this hellish cold and frankly all I want to do is drive to the airport and go home – but we can’t afford to come back to this neighborhood again, so I tell the Art Department to “do something”.

Once again they rise to the occasion and, within ten minutes, we have a lovely shrubbery for our actor. Some fishing line attached to the branches for a bit of impromptu "puppetry" creates a perfect “thud” moment for our Angel’s arrival, and Godfrey – dressed in an immaculate, if chilly, white suit, makes his first official appearance in our movie.

It’s a wonderful moment, capturing the magic at the heart of this story, and when it shows up in the film, nobody is going to care about the fact that a certain tree in a certain Montreal neighborhood is going to look a little…sparse…this spring.

At least, I hope not.