Saturday, May 19, 2007

Before he became a star...

Aloha, from Hawaii, my base for the next week. It's nice here. Who knew??

I saw an episode of WINGS on the flight over here. Who would have thought that the one cast member from that show who would go on to become a big movie star would be Thomas Hayden Church? An Oscar nom and now in SPIDERMAN 3. And meanwhile, my pick, Tim Daly just got shot on THE SOPRANOS.

Thomas (or Tommy as we called him back then. Now it might be Mr. Church but I'm guessing it's still Tommy) was the featured cast member in the first episode of WINGS I directed. Actually, it was the first episode of any show I directed. I've now done over 50 but you never forget your first. I've been in therapy ever since.

It was an episode in 1995 called “Portrait of a Con Artist as a Young Man” (written by Jeff Richman & Joyce Gittlin). The premise was that addled mechanic Lowell (Tommy) makes these large twisted pieces of metal that a museum director considers art. Comedy ensues (despite my efforts). Tommy is a gifted comedian but he never reads a line the same way twice. (Maybe for Sam Raimi but not me) Nor does he move the same way twice. Forget matching problems, I had no idea what the star of the show was going to say or do the entire week. Kind of hard to interject the patented “Levine Touch” when that’s the case.

The rest of the cast was nice (and by that I mean “tolerant”). I had been a consultant and writer on the show since the pilot so we knew each other very well. But there comes a point in the run of a series where the cast feels they’ve got their characters down, they no longer need to rehearse that long, and well…they want to go home. This usually happens around season four. (On one show I directed it happened episode four). We were in season six. The cast didn’t want to just go home, they left their engines running. So we’d do a scene once. They’d walk through it. I’d be ready to say let’s go again and they would say, “We got it, let’s move on”. I, the director, the floor general, the man in control of the stage, would be thinking “you have WHAT?” My first scene was in the airport terminal. Casey (Amy Yasbech) was celebrating her birthday. All of the other characters came in, one at a time, from different directions with presents. And they all gathered around a table where a birthday cake was perched. Nine characters, all stacked up, each with props, torn wrapping everywhere, delivering lines to each other in every possible combination. Time taken to rehearse that scene: a half an hour. “We got it. Let’s move on.” I had visions of adding little bits of comic business, working out any rough spots, fine tuning the pace so the script just crackled. No. By noon we had a runthrough. One of the cast members had to buy something at Adrays before going out to hit a bucket of balls so we had to move it along. Needless to say it was ragged. I didn’t win any points with the producers when cast members would come up to me and ask “I forget. Am I in this scene?”

The next two days were more of the same. But now the Oscar nominee got bored saying the same lines over and over (i.e. twice) so he started changing them…which is a nice way of saying KILLING them. My mantra became, “Please say the lines as written”.

Day four was camera blocking. First scene up, the party. Nine characters, ten pages. And you can plan your camera assignments in advance but if one assignment changes, let’s say Camera B can get a better single of Tim Daly than Camera C as you had envisioned, then the rest of your roadmap goes right out the window. That happened to me the second line of the show. Little wonder I was taking FOREVER to do this. The cast was getting antsy. The first AD kept pointing to his watch. Every crew member I spotted was rolling his eyes. The camera coordinator started giving me suggestions to speed up the process. Then the DP started giving me suggestions. But often they were opposing suggestions, thus confusing me more. The camera coordinator told the DP to butt out, it was none of his business. The DP took exception with that. They almost came to blows. Yeah, I really ruled that stage with an iron hand. I think it took ten hours to complete camera blocking.

Tomorrow: the hard part

15 comments:

la guy said...

Sounds like a real nightmare... I'll bet you were tempted to rip the "What I Really Want To Do Is Direct" bumper sticker off your car.

Did you direct an episode that you had written? (I'm just wondering if they would have been more inclined to read the lines as written if director was also the author.)

I really like Tim Daly and apparently was one of the few people who was watching Eyes. I think ABC only aired 5 of the 13 episodes, but when you've got shows like "National Bingo Night" on the horizon it's easy to see how they would have lost patience waiting for Eyes to find an audience.

Mahalo

Willy B. Good said...

Great story Ken as I can't believe they still show Wings on planes and that you went on to direct another 50 odd times after that experience and I shudder to think what 'the hard part' will be.

John said...

It's kind of interesting that the two comedy reliefs on "Wings" and "Cheers", Thomas Hayden Church and Woody Harrelson, ended up having the most significant movie careers, both based on a certain quirkiness of character that carried over from their TV shows to their early movie roles.

RAC said...

I'll have mai-tai…

…sorry, I heard "Hawaii" and lost all concentration.

BK said...

I've always like Thomas Hayden Church, being that he's from my state - Texas. He attented North Texas State University in Denton, TX. At a local restraunt called "Whataburger", there are posters of him and other stars who went to school there including Peter Weller (RoboCop) and Don Henley.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Great stuff, I love these behind the scenes looks. Maybe you can add these tom your list: why did Bob leave becker in the last season, did you ever work with his replacement, Lost's Jorge Garcia and was the Jimmy Petrille character on the Soprano's Matthew Weiner's tribute to Becker (and It's All Relative) writer Jayme Petrille?

tb said...

Maybe if you'd gone postal like that Huckabees dude, they would've fallen in line. And whatever happened to Woody Harrelson?

otto Schmidlap said...

BK,
Another NTSU alum here. Sorry to hear they changed the name to Univ of North Texas. I'm just glad the schools radio station hasn't changed their call letters to match

Wayne said...

YOUR in Hawaii and BLLLLOGGING!!!
HEHEHE HELLOOOO LAMEOOOOO

Julie Goes To Hollywood said...

The most important question: were you paid a residual to watch your Wings on a plane? If so, was it enough to cover the crap ass half sandwich?

JD said...

I'm sorry - maybe I missed something but before Sideways, wasn't Thomas Hayden Church about as in demand as the guy who played Roy? C-list at best? Oh well, now he is a movie star, I suppose. Good for him - he always made me laugh. The character of Lowell is a classic.

I also enjoyed your story on directing and look forward to the next installment. Enjoy Hawaii!

Anonymous said...

How is you could have gotten to day four without blowing your stack or saying a firm No, or a Sit the hell down, or a I'm the director not you, or two? Did you have a nervous breakdown like Brit Brit? Did you also shave your head bald right before you got a needless tattoo?

Directing is hard. Directing your co-workers is even harder. I was in the middle of a live one hour daytime talk show when a cameraman with an ego the size of NYC starting going rogue on me. I lost it. I screamed at him to do what I said and save that shit for when he becomes a director. I silenced the whole control booth. No one ever screwed around with me again. Hee.

Stacey

PS: Can I venture a guess as to the hardest part being the sequencing during the editing process? I loved sequence directing the best because I had a great memory back them (now it's all gone to shit, unfortunately). I was always asked to PA long variety shows and edit quirky shows that required tightly cut segments. I miss my tv days. *sigh*

D. McEwan said...

Now once rehearsed, I always gave the same readings and movements every time, a director's dream.

I read for a role on WINGS once. Didn't get it. Aren't you sorry now? (OK, it was an under-5 as a butler - BUT STILL!)(I still had teeth then.)

Tim Daly is no movie star, but he works steadily, and he has that Grey's Anatomy spin-off series in the fall, so he's not hurting for work.

I, on the other hand ...

Funny story.

Jeff said...

Thomas (Mr. Church) didn't hit my radar until the Wings episode where one of the brothers sunk Lowell's boat and he used it as emotional blackmail the rest of the show. ("You sunk my boaaaaat!").

That and the Car-B-Q episode killed.

Dwacon said...

Wasn't Nick Chinlund supposed to be Sandman?

And why does your blog have a 24-letter verification word?

My blog just asks for words like "cat" and "egg"

Hmm?