Sunday, May 20, 2007

First directing assignment, part 2

Part 1 is the previous post.

Show day. We rehearsed all afternoon, had a dress rehearsal at about 3:00 that lasted an hour. Then we were free until the filming began at 7:00. At 6:30 the audience was let in. At 6:35 I’m handed pages, the rewrite following the dress rehearsal. They had written a BRAND NEW SCENE. What the fuck?!! We couldn’t rehearse on the stage, the audience was now there. I ran backstage, gathered the actors and walked them through it. Then I went to the camera operators, told them there was a new scene, gave them assignments off the top of my head, said just do the best you can and after the audience goes home I’ll block and shoot it properly. All the while I’m sweating through my suit.

Filming begins. It starts with a thirty second pause then Tim Daly calling out, “Say ‘action’, Kenny!” Helen (Crystal Bernard) brings the birthday cake with lit candles to the table for Casey. It slips out of her hands and she drops it. Cut! Fire marshals run out to the set. It’s a twenty minute delay. Then Tommy decides to really improvise. I go out into the stage and tell him nicely to do the line as written. Take two. He does another line. I repeat my request. Take three. Yet a third line. I go out to the Oscar nominee and tell him I will punch his fucking face in if he doesn’t say the line as written. He does the line right. No one can say I’m not an “actor’s director”.

Eventually we get to the new scene. I’m at the quad split, watching all four cameras. Huddled around me are the producers, studio executives, and network people. I call “action”, the scene begins, the cameras start moving and fishing and on the monitors it is utter chaos. People out of focus, shots of the wall, a close up of a nose. (like the last reel of AFTER THE FOX) And to make matters worse two cameras collide into each other. Now the network guy must be thinking this director is INSANE.

We finish the show. I spend the next two weeks in a fetal position. I get a call from the producers. They edited the show together (a Herculean task since nothing matched) and discovered it was short. So they wrote a new scene to be filmed after they get done filming this week’s show. That means I start rehearsing and blocking at around midnight. You can imagine the happy cast I had.

And the scene is a dream sequence…with effects. And props that need to be smashed. But there are only two breakaway props so we only have two chances to get it. The first take the actor smashed it at the wrong time – blaming of course, ME. Mercifully, we got the shot the next take, I finally yell “Wrap!” at about 2:00, and drive home muttering to myself that Steven Spielberg had it EASY directing RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC.

To this day I thank the cast and the producers for their patience. Especially Crystal Bernard who called me at home to say what a great job she thought I had done. Likewise for Tony Shalhoub taking me aside, giving me a pep talk. That meant a lot.

Over the years I’ve gotten a lot a better, I’ve gotten a LOT faster but 70% of what I know about directing I learned from that first assignment. And 60% of it was what not to do.


RAC said...


I've heard you can use a squirt bottle on actors to keep them from eating the furniture.

For the crew, I'd recommend more of a carrot approach and give them scotch. BTW, may I be on your crew?

I hope you're having one helluva good time on your vacation. Bring us back an authentic dashboard hula girl.


Chris said...

Oh Lord, that was mortifying. I've never felt sorry for a Hollywood millionaire before.

Anonymous said...

So -- has experience as a director influenced your writing any?

I'm sure, for instance, that you never hand in any new pages at the last minute...

D. McEwan said...

I understand they have yet another new scene for that episode just done. Would you mind ... ?

On JAWS, I'm sure Spielberg had the same problems with the shark: always changing it's blocking, and never eating an actor the same way twice.

Ah, the movie-within-the-movie in AFTER THE FOX. As I recall, after it screens in the courtroom, film critics leap to their feet, applauding and yelling, "GENIUS!"

Anonymous said...

Hey it's Shalhoub .
Tony may not be an Oscar nominee but you should at least spell his last name right :)

Gail Renard said...

Oh how I love it when an actor changes a line and makes it worse. Of course if they improve things, I take the credit. To quote the late, great Jimmy Durante (no, I'm not that old): "Everybody wants to get in on the act!"

John said...

Raiders of the lost story arc, huh?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

In my experience, the only times an actor made a line better, he also made it cruder/more understandable/more obvious. Which can be a good thing, because writers can get caught up with themselves and try to be smart at the expense of the character. But never have I heard an actor improvise a line that was more insightful or smarter than the one we came up with.

Anonymous said...

When I read that two cameras collided, I laughed, coughed and wheezed so loudly, I woke up the rest of the house this Sunday morning. Jeez, that reads funny... Great story.

Mary Stella said...

OMG -- I would have crumbled like overfried bacon. Thank goodness you not only survived, but had the guts to do it again.

Wayne from Maine said...

Tony Shalhoub, Grad of the University of Maine. Very funny Man in his own right

Michael Zand said...

I started out as an actor in this business and ended up as a writer producer. So when it comes to actors changing lines, I think I have a
decent perspective.

When I was an actor, those writer hacks had no clue about the true depth and soul of my character. My changes to their hackneyed dialogue not only improved my part but actually saved the whole project. (bearing in mind, that for most of my acting career, I was a day player)

And when I was a writer, it was those fucking actors ruining the nuance and genius of my perfectly crafted jewels of dialogue by dropping a comma.

But seriously though, my sympathies really lie with the writer. Many actors are narcissists. It's kind of a requirement of the lifestyle and the job. They can't see beyond their part or the particular scene they're in and lose track of the big picture.

When I was working on Silk Stalkings, the lead actor, Rob Estes, a real poodle, great looking but dumb as doorknob, kept punctuating his lines with these cutsey verbal tics. Like for example, "Got (beat, beat) TO GO. Or "What (beat, beat)THE HECK."
He thought he was being charming and spontaneous. But like the guy from "Memento," he didn't remember that he was doing it EVERY SCENE. It became the whole show. It took five episodes and threats from the studio and the network for him to move on to another bit of genius. Imagine sitting in your darkened office trying to craft a scene for that. Other than that and pulling the boom mike to his ass and farting in it, he was a joy to work with.

D. McEwan said...

I can only assume you never worked with the late Tom Poston. I watched the taping of a MURPHY BROWN episode where Tom was the guest star. He ad-libbed new lines in every scene, and every one of his new lines ended up in the finished show because they were fucking hilarious! It was always take 2 they used though, because when he would ad-lib a great line, Candice would fall over laughing, so they had to re-shoot the bit, but always, always they said "Keep the line. That was great."

Of course Joe Regalbuto (sp?) directed the episode, and he's an actor.

But remember, it was MURPHY BROWN; the script was excellent to begin with.

However, Poston was a great comic actor, with an improv background. Rob Estes he was not.

Ger Apeldoorn said...


I just watched the Becker episode with Tom Poston again today, so I can imagine what it must have been like to be there. I used to watch Murphy Brown religeously, so I will probably have seen that show too. There are of course many actors who can improvise terrific lines. All of whom will have been trained in the great american improv tradition (although I doubt if the reverse is true as well - that anyone trained in improv is a great ad-libber). But I work in Holland and we have no improv-schooling. Only theater schools and we get a totally different type of actor. We get either people who can 'live' the character and more often then not ruin a line by being overly serious. Or we get one-liner spouting stand-uppers who can never go into the character just that little bit. Of course there are natural talents on bioth sides, but comedy acting is a strange hybrid and not everyone can do it properly. The Brits seem to have it by nature. The Amerikcans have their Second City training. But we Europeans seem to have no middle way between serious and funny. That's why the french like the 'funny' comedians and why french directors seem such humorless idiots to you lot. There are many exceptions, but the general difference is there.

My remark about true performers dumbing down a joke, is based on my experiences with the stand-up types. They are masters in rephrasing a joke in such a way that everyone will get it. That's their training.

D. McEwan said...

I don't doubt for a second the truth of what you've written. I know, believe me, as a writer often for actors in the past, just how often actors' "Improvements" are just the opposite. I picked Tom Poston as a prime example of one of the few, the golden few, actors who truly do improve scripts when they ad-lib. But Poston was a master comedy actor (And his loss is a fresh wound), and when I saw him work live, he had over 40 years of experience.

And speaking as someone who has taught a lot of improv, including at Second City, Santa Monica back in 1990, I can say you are absolutely right that not all trained improvisers are good ad-libbers.

When I was teaching, we had another actor/teacher - who shall be nameless - who was ruthless in his training of actors about NOT going for the joke. You could always tell when improvisers had studied under him, because they were deeply self-indulgent, awesomely unfunny, and tremendously pompous about how getting a laugh was whoring for the audience, you know, those people who paid money to be amused.

I've never been a fan of stand-ups in sketches or scripted shows. Some, generally ones with acting backgrounds who are doing stand-up as a way in - Michael Keaton is a good example - are good, but usually they are just as you described.

I once found myself in an improv sketch with Sam Kineson. Sam was a good friend offstage, but being onstage with him in a sketch was Comedy Hell.

The Tom Poston MURPHY BROWN was from either the last or the penultimate season - Lily Tomlin was in the show, which was why I was there, to meet the Divine Lily. Tom plays Murphy's crotchety neighbor whom Murphy must get to sign off on some home improvements she wants to make. The show-tag shot of Poston sunbathing nude on his new sun deck was explosively funny. Keep an eye out for it. (The syndicated repeats of the show often cut that great final shot.)

Gail Renard said...

One of the best casts I ever had was when I wrote a BBC/ RTE comedy series which was shot in Dublin with an all Irish cast. The respect for the written word was everything you'd wish from a country that gave us Shaw and Yates doesn't tax writers or artists. I used to compare it to having a talent for playing the left-handed nose flute, and suddenly finding a world where that was revered. Bliss. One day on our way to location, my driver said he and his wife (!) had discussed my script over dinner the night before, and were fascinated how I'd handled a character. Hell... some productions I've had, the actors hadn't read the script! Let me paraphrase John Thaw, who died far too young, who used to say about changing dialogue in Inspector Morse: If the writer has spent six months agonising over a line, why should he change it in two minutes?

Gail Renard said...

Instant rewrite! I meant to say: John Thaw said that if the writer has spent six months agonising over a line, why should an actor change it in two minutes?