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.