Wednesday, April 11, 2007

DAY SIXTEEN

While I’ve come to accept weather delays on this picture – hell, I’ve even learned to enjoy them as they’ve given me a chance to go inside someplace and try to regain the feeling in my usually-frozen feet – I certainly didn’t expect to have to wait for the sun when we were shooting inside a damned shopping mall…But that’s just how we spent the better part of an hour this morning as we were filming Dennis and his Mom’s arrival for her first day as a Christmas Present Wrapper (in order to make enough money to pay the damages to Mr. Wilson’s house AND buy Christmas presents – ah, just see the movie, you’ll understand…). Shunted to an unused corner of the place, we find our cameras aimed out the doors onto a 7 30 am Montreal winter sky – which is to say, pitch black. And who shops before the sun comes up anyway? So we wait…

In the script it says that when Dennis arrives in the mall he looks around in “awe” at all the incredible “Christmas” displays. Now I’m sure when people see this movie, I’m going to be criticized for not achieving the sense of “wonder” we all recall from our childhoods upon visiting the Christmas Time Mall. Well let me tell you, it’s a little difficult to create magic in an almost-abandoned shopping crypt which probably even in its heyday was a low end discount bargain catering to retirees and Eastern Bloc refugees for whom anything more than a roll of toilet paper was considered a luxury purchase. With little more than a few fake Christmas trees and some ratty tinsel at my disposal, I would challenge Spielberg himself to deck these halls. And that’s not including the addition of 25 of our grimmer extras into the equation; they’re supposed to be Happy Holiday Shoppers but I swear I haven’t seen so many corpses shamble around a shopping center since Dawn of the Dead.

We press on with some judicious camera placement and it seems for a while as if the fact that we’re shooting inside for a change is buoying everybody’s spirits. But then the paychecks arrive.

All hell breaks loose when they’re not as big as everybody was expecting – it turns out that a clerical error early in the production had resulted in a five cent per hour salary decrease for many of the crew and, instead of coming to our Los Angeles Producer to correct it, another Producer decided to simply try to negotiate it away. Bad move.

This resulted in a great deal of grumbling which, in spite of a promise to make things right, quite effectively managed to reduce set morale from mildly depressed to downright suicidal. But we’ve got a movie to make, so we move on to the next set which is Santa’s Grotto in the middle of the mall, a magical wonderland where the wee tots visit the Jolly Old Elf himself and whisper their wishes into his ear.

Well, that was the idea anyway.

When we arrive on this set we discover that it, like so many others, hasn’t been dressed yet. The inflatable candy canes, the Christmas trees, the gaily-wrapped boxes – everything we’d planned to have collapse around our Santa (Godfrey again!) due to Dennis’ mischief has gone AWOL. Our beleaguered Production Designer suddenly appears, beyond frazzled now, and wrangles her team together to create something for us as we wait…and wait…. The time ticks away, my precious shooting minutes vanishing like that missing five cents.

The crew continues to steam…even after production springs for ice cream cones from the local Laura Secord Candy Shoppe. (She was a legendary Canadian confectioner who apparently saved troops during one or another of the World Wars by lobbing what must have been particularly hefty truffles at the enemy…or something like that. It's practically your Civic Duty as a Canuck to eat this stuff and the truth is it tastes like slightly used wax.)

The only bright spot in the latter part of this day was the arrival of Michael Lerner, playing the manager of the mall – Mr. Souse, pronounced “Sue-Zay”, in homage to the genius of WC Fields. I’ve been a fan of Michael’s since he played the insane studio boss in “Barton Fink” and his appearance here, a personal favor to the producer, makes it feel like a real movie.
As usual we run out of time and I’m forced to shoot Dennis’ scenes first, so little Max can get home and get some sleep. This plays havoc with the other actors’ camera angles but they’re all pros and they know what I’m going through so things carry on without a hitch. Except for the last shot, which we have to do over again when I realize after several takes that we have no EXTRAS in our shots of the mall. When I confront my First AD about this, he looks at me blankly as if I must be insane to want “shoppers”, grim or otherwise, walking around the mall. I have lost my patience with all of this so instead of trying to explain it to him again, I just tell him to bring me the extras. Now.

We reshoot the damn shot and wrap for the day. It’s a weekend, finally, and with the crew ready to quit over what presumably are about two thousand nickels, I can’t wait to get out of this soggy place and into a dry martini.

DAY FIFTEEN

This was one of the days I’d been looking forward to. Finally, we were shooting in a location owned by somebody who actually WANTED us here!

Taylor’s Department store is one of the oldest established retailers in the city of Montreal, and when we first scouted the place I was delighted to discover that it hadn’t changed structurally in decades, which makes it perfect for the “small town America” aesthetic of our Dennis the Menace movie. Of course I didn’t get my hopes up too high; after several weeks of disastrous location debacles, it seemed likely that I’d end up shooting the big “Kids Take Mr Wilson Shopping” sequence in the back of a 7-11.

However to my utter delight Mr. Taylor, the latest in the long line of titular family owners, welcomed us with open arms and couldn’t have been more accommodating. If only the local residents had been as civil…

Once we sorted out the usual difficulties I’ve come to expect on this production – trucks parked in the wrong place; a ten minute drive from the location to the makeup wagon; constantly shifting weather patterns turning scenes from day into night and back into day again, sometimes during the same shot! – things moved along relatively smoothly.

That is until our Unit Manager had a melt down on the street and started shouting at the First AD in French, but with enough force that even I could understand he was raving about not having enough help to control the crowds who were gathering to watch us film. It seems that in his never-ending attempt to save every single dime, our Production Manager hadn’t brought in enough Production Assistants to keep the crowds under control, and we were therefore treated to the delightful spectacle of watching Robert Wagner get physically shoved out of a shot by a passing shopper on her way to the discount underwear rack.

RJ, ever the gentleman, merely turned to the woman, smiled politely and said “excuse me” before marching over to me and enquiring in a strained but still ever-so-patient tone why there were bargain hunters in his close up?

Enlisting the help of everybody from makeup to the transport department, we managed to keep the endless parade of humanity down to a saunter long enough to finish the scene, but not before my First AD seemed to simply lose interest in the entire enterprise. It was as if he suddenly realized that in spite of his best efforts, things were just always going to go wrong and he couldn’t stop it. Normally this would slow things down a bit, but in fact it actually galvanized me into action when I realized that we were in danger of not getting our day.

Thus began what seemed like a hundred mile marathon as I ran from inside the department store, where one camera pointed out to the wee kiddies looking in, and then outside to another camera aimed across their faces glowing in the light of the Christmas toy filled window and then back inside again to watch the first shot again. Barking commands to the kids, lines of dialog were recited again and again until they were right, reactions were repeated until they were real and honest; at one moment I silently wished I’d told my DP to do a “zoom” shot, narrowing in on our Dennis’ angelic face and, miracle of miracles, it happened, one of those great and unexplained psychic events on a film set which remind me of how lucky I am to have Kim Miles in my life.

The late hour and the cold weather began to wear on the kids and they all got a little punch drunk. The “giggles” broke out and I had to get a bit stern with them, which resulted in our Bully bursting into tears yet again because he thought I was mad at him. I hugged him and told him I certainly wasn’t and finally we finished the scene.

But not quite the day.

Back into the store we went, this time to do some quick shots of the kids dragging Mr. Wilson through the store to do his Christmas shopping. Once again I was blindsided by the clock as my First AD, apparently back from whatever mental theme park he’d run off to, came to tell me that our Max had to be wrapped in ten minutes.

Which is why, should you happen to see the movie, you’ll notice Dennis the Menace doesn’t do much “menacing” through this scene. However, RJ’s reactions and the other kids’ performances – including a delightful bit involving Joey and a very large brassiere – ended the night on a high note.

I would be remiss however if I didn’t mention the gracious Mr. Taylor and his entire staff who helped us so much during this ridiculous day, including keeping the store open after hours so those of us working 16 hour days could get in some last minute Christmas Shopping! If you ever find yourself in Montreal and in need of some very old fashioned customer service – something in very short supply in Canada I must admit – I highly recommend googling them for the location.