Thursday, March 13, 2008

Flexing my WINGS

Channel surfing recently I came upon the first episode of television I ever directed – a WINGS. It was also one of my toughest. Complicated crowd scenes, a stunt, dream sequence, a difficult actor, and that was nothing compared to the “new scene”.

For a neophyte multi-camera director, camera blocking is a nightmare. The show is performed like a play in front of a live audience. Four cameras are going simultaneously, recording all the action. You have to make sure everything is covered, you have all your close ups and reactions. This requires methodical instructions to each cameraman for every little move or change in the scene. You must also anticipate action, like having a camera already in place for a character’s entrance. It’s a complicated maddening process when you’re new and don’t know shit.

I’ve now directed 50 episodes. I can camera block a show now in about 4 or 5 hours. Back then it took 12 – and I was jamming! Jimmy Burrows can do it in like eleven minutes.

So getting back to my WINGS. On show night we had our standard dress rehearsal at 3. The actors broke for dinner and make-up at 5. The writers went back to the room to do their customary polish – a new line here or there.

At 6:30 the audience began filing in. At 6:35 I received the revised pages. And to my horror discovered…they added a whole new scene!! I can’t rehearse it or block it because the audience has already arrived. I came very close to wetting myself.

What I decided to do was go backstage, gather the actors in the scene, and roughly block it out in the wardrobe room. Then I went to the cameramen and told them basically what was going to happen and asked them to just get what they could. After the show when the audience had left I’d go back and stage and block it properly.

So the filming began. I was sitting in front of the quad split – a bank of four monitors that show what each camera is shooting. Next to me was the NBC executive assigned to the show.

Things were moving along. There was a big mishap in the first scene when Crystal Bernard accidentally flipped a whole birthday cake over but we had another one and the clip was shown for years on blooper shows so I’ve made some royalties.

And then we came to the “new scene”. It basically played well for the audience but you should have seen the quad split. Cameras were swishing around, only getting the top of heads, framing shots in bizarre positions, weird tilts, missing the actors completely, changing sizes on the fly. It was utter madness. Not having been briefed, the NBC exec almost flew out of his chair. When the scene was over he was so apoplectic he couldn’t speak. Sensing this, I decided to have a little fun.

I called out, “Okay, moving on. I got what I need. I’m happy.” As the cameras rolled to their next scene marks the NBC guy almost had a heart attack. I told him I was going for something stylistic and when it was all put together it would look great. What’s the point of directing if you can’t leave your mark? The show runners and writing staff picked up on what I was doing and all chimed in their support. For the rest of the show this network guy just paced.

He was very relieved when we finally let him in on the joke. So relieved that he didn’t even bother to stick around for the re-blocking and shooting of the scene. I think his exact words were, “Anything’s gotta be better than that crap you shot before”.

What director wouldn’t be over-the-moon THRILLED with that vote of confidence?

27 comments:

charity said...

Next to me was the NBC executive assigned to the show.

i knew something good was coming when i read that line.

god, i love these insights, ken. there isn't a show you worked on in one way or the other that i haven't had on my favorites list for a long, long time.

David said...

Difficult actor? Dish, man, dish.

m. said...

I concur:

"Dish, man, dish."

Anonymous said...

C'mon, who was the difficult actor?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

David, m.,and anon:

I'm guessin' Ken might have to go to "Church" to confess that one...

velvet goldmine said...

Barefoot Billy: Hope you're right. The MTM stories are hard enough. I don't want to deal with thoughts of a sour Steven Weber.

A. Buck Short said...

I too really appreciate these insights, as well as that show. My life has been so much like this they told me I’d never get to direct a sitcom unless it starred Richard Mulligan.

Now I’m not saying based on incomplete information, but isn’t THC the active ingredient in cannabis? And I don’t care even if it was Crystal Bernard, I’m deeply honored that she was apparently born like less than 15 miles away from me in Garland and got progressively cuter as sequntial buttons as she aged.

But think about it, you hardly give yourself enough credit, Ken. “Wings” may have been the only thing that kept Crystal from a lifetime of touring with Up With People. Damn! Now I can’t get that damned signature song out of my head again. Avoid them wherever you go. [Note to self, the only thing more unnerving than Up with People is an Up with People callback.]

Just please don’t tell me it was Rebecca Schull. Even in a ditzy role, there’s always something about her that just seems smart. I love that woman, but of the entire cast, she’s the only one I still can’t see in anything without thinking of “Wings.”

A. Buck Short said...

Sorry this is OT, Ken, but one more thing I can't seem to shake.
Is it just me or does this Spitzer guy look a little like Bill Cowher might if he'd only freshen up a bit?

andrew said...

hi ken

a question.

You mentioned that all four cameras are recording simultaneously. What does that mean? are you capturing the same action from different angles? does it mean that when you edit the episode later on, you have the luxury of choosing and picking a shot from another camera which may have captured a better performance?

charity said...

velvet goldmine - steven weber seems like a great guy; go over to huffpost and read his columns. seems to have his head on straight as to what is truly important in life in regard to his career and as to the general scheme of things.

i loved "studio 60," me and about 10 others apparently, and steven's role as the network boss was a gem. indeed, i loved each role/actor/writing/directing on the show and was pretty annoyed when it was cancelled.

perhaps nbc should have renamed it "law and order: unit studio 60"...

Ken Levine said...

I don't want to reveal who the difficult party was but all I'll say is that the actors you think are real dreams on that show, are. Weber in particular. GREAT guy and super talented. Beyond that I'll leave the speculation to you.

And yes, all four cameras are recording the same action from different angles and the scene is edited together later. So when you see a show and there are close ups and long shots and two-shots those were all painstakingly pre-planned before the scene was shot.

Tim W. said...

Hilarious story. One question, though, who on earth is the other woman in the picture (not Crystal Bernard)? I watched the show for most of the earlier years, but I don't recognize her one iota.

velvet goldmine said...

Charity, thanks for the great tip about HuffPo. And I'm a fellow Studio 60 fan, so up your count accordingly, if it makes you feel better.

Thanks as well to both you and Ken for relieving my mind about SW. I don't know why I care -- it's not like I'm going to come across him "in real life" and have our perfect wedding jeopardized by his difficult personality.

(This reminds me of being a teenager during "The Thorn Birds" and being devastated by the rumor that Richard Chamberlin was guy. Because....otherwise we would be perfect for each other?)

R.A. Porter said...

"Anything’s gotta be better than that crap you shot before."

Huh. I didn't know my father had ever worked as an NBC exec. Or that he talked like that to anyone but me.

Ken Levine said...

That's Farah Forke who was on the show as Alex for a couple of seasons.

She is a total doll. A few years after she left WINGS she had a recurring role on LOIS & CLARK. Her character was killed in the show and my daughter Annie, who was very young at the time, was incredibly upset. I called Farah and she got on the phone with Annie and told her it was all make believe and that she was just fine. Annie was hugely relieved and I was hugely grateful.

Paul Duca said...

If people would look through Ken's archives, they would find he has told the story of this episode from the perspective of working with the actors, including Mr. Church.

jbryant said...

Wow, I haven't thought of Farrah Forke in a good while. Anyone besides me remember "Dweebs," her CBS sitcom with Peter Scolari and Stephen Tobolowsky? It lasted about half a season in 1995. I only saw a couple, but remember kinda liking it.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you've covered it before, but how did you get the chance to direct? How did you learn to direct--in any medium?

Also, how about some Gary Owens stories in the future?

Tim W. said...

Thanks for your answer about Farah Forke. Weird. I'm usually pretty good at remembering people from shows. Maybe I wasn't watching show during her time.

I also like the story about getting Farah to talk to Annie. Speaking of which, I watched Frida with my two daughters and they were heartbroken when they thought Salma Hayek died at the end. Could you just get her to phone me so we could clear things up with my daughters? Thanks!

A. Buck Short said...

As Levine's blog goes, so goes the nation. The Michigan Democrats just scheduled a "Do-Over" Primary for June 3. Hey maybe they'll change the name of the state to Mulligan.

John said...

Given the level of comedy on some of today's network shows, I think Ken's on-the-fly camera blocking technique would actually be an improvement.

Don't know what they'd do to add visual humor to the shows using the single-camera format, though.

Ben said...

Ken-

Thanks for sharing these stories,
I just bought WINGS Seasons 4 and 5 and it has been fun reading your stories while I am watching the series.

Dave said...

This morning TV Land ran a "Wings" ep you directed, Ken, featuring Helen and a birthday cake in the first scene. However, there was no dream sequence to be seen. Cut for syndication?

KEN LEVINE said...

They cut the dream sequence? I'm not surprised because it was only added when the show was put together and came in short.

But it had something to do with Rebecca and Tony smashing guitars. I can't remember the scene. I can remember it was after midnight when we shot it and they didn't provide us with enough breakaway guitars so had only two takes to pull it off. We needed both of them.

KEN LEVINE said...

They cut the dream sequence? I'm not surprised because it was only added when the show was put together and came in short.

But it had something to do with Rebecca and Tony smashing guitars. I can't remember the scene. I can remember it was after midnight when we shot it and they didn't provide us with enough breakaway guitars so had only two takes to pull it off. We needed both of them.

Farrah Forke said...

Ken

Just read what you wrote about me 3 years ago. "She's a doll". Goodness, thank you. A random friend from facebook sent me this link. I hope this letter finds you well and, ya gotta know...you have made my , not day, or week, but maybe month, or even bigger than that. Working with you was one of the best parts of my career. Once again, thank you, Farrah

DMac said...

Ken, your description of Farrah Forke as a “Total Doll” is very accurate. When I stumbled upon your blog, I just had to forward it on to Farrah. Not only does she possess pure natural beauty & great talent, she is one of the sweetest, most sincere people I have ever known .