Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Zany adventures in directing

My favorite part of directing multi-camera shows (shot before a live studio audience, or at least semi-conscious) is the early rehearsal process. You work under controlled conditions – a closed sound stage, all your sets are right there, you’re just getting the script on its feet and you really get to play with the actors. They’re still holding scripts, it’s a very loose creative atmosphere. And since the stage is closed, the actors feel free to experiment, knowing that no one other than select crew members will be watching. They don’t have to wear make up, they don’t have to hit marks, they don’t have to actually do the fire stunt until show night.

And then there was LATELINE.

LATELINE was an NBC sitcom in the late ‘90s that starred now-Senator Al Franken. It was set in a late night news show, a la NIGHTLINE. The show was filmed in New York. I directed a bunch of episodes. One in particular had the craziest first rehearsal day ever.

Some background: Multi-camera shows are usually produced on a five-day schedule. Three days to rehearse, one to assign camera positions, and one to shoot. They’re either on a Monday through Friday schedule, or Wednesday to Tuesday. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, which I have discussed elsewhere in this blog but don’t want to bother looking up right now. For LATELINE, we began rehearsing on Wednesday and shot the show the following Tuesday night. This meant that we’d finish a show one night and be right back at it with a new script the next day.

In LA, when a show wraps on Tuesday night, crews come in in the middle of the night, strike the swing sets and set up the new swing sets for the next episode. We arrive on stage Wednesday morning and voila!  It’s all done. Elves do it while we sleep for all I know.

In NY the crew comes in to strike the old sets and slide in the new on Wednesday afternoon. I said to the line producer, “Is this a union thing? You can’t have crews in the middle of the night? And the producer said pointedly, “Oh you can get crews. You just don’t want ‘em.” I took his word for it.

So I would have a table reading on Wednesday (where the cast would all just read the script aloud around a table), then I sent them home for the day. We began rehearsing on Thursday.

However, this one week, we had the chance to get Allison Janney to be a guest star. This was before WEST WING, by the way. But she was so funny in the audition that we knew we had a prize. The only hitch was she had a previous commitment for that Thursday that she couldn’t break. Our choices were to cast someone else or work around her schedule. It was a no-brainer.

So I planned on just rehearsing on Wednesday and ignoring the construction crew.  Yeah... right.

One other thing I should note: we filmed at the Kaufman-Astoria studios in Queens – a large building that took up a city block. But it was just surrounded by local businesses. Greek restaurants, Laundromats, furniture stores, etc.

And it was late November.

So we begin rehearsing at about 1:00. A half-hour later the crew arrives. They begin dismantling the sets. Saws and drills and hammers and banging. You couldn’t hear yourself think.

Then it was time to replace the sets. Now they open the huge stage door. All stages have them. But in Hollywood the stages open out to the lot. Here it opened to the street. So pedestrians would stroll by, be curious, and just wander onto the stage. We suddenly had an audience of twenty strangers.

And once the big door was open, there was nothing to shield us from the Nor’easter that blew through.  The temperature plunged to 30 degrees to go along with the stiff wind. We all had to rehearse in parkas. (Crew guys still wore T-shirts. I don’t understand that.)

And in addition to the hammers and buzzsaws, we now had honking horns, sirens, boom boxes, guys yelling, "Ay, I'm walkin' heah!", and the other enchanting sounds of the city.

Needless to say, we did not get a lot done. That night I went out and got a few stiff drinks. I think Al looked up the qualifications for how you become a U.S. Senator.

Final thought: Of all the LATELINE episodes I directed, that one came out the best. Which is the only reason why I am not a member of Congress today.

Update: Thanks to reader Brian Phillips for the heads-up, here's a very brief clip from the show.

22 comments:

That Neil Guy said...

Why aren't you out directing shows now? Is it an intentional stepping away from that world...?

Bobbie R. said...

I remember Lateline, wanting to like it but not really warming to it. The one thing I think I remember was the weird production logo at the end. It had a picture of Al Franken and someone who looked like Barbra Streisand but maybe was a guy? Someone in drag? Was it this show? I remember thinking it was odd because I don't think it was another actor on the show, and why would you do that?

Zack Bennett said...

Very interesting that you posted a blog about directing. I just happened to see a Frasier episode two days ago that you directed. Great episode. It's the one where Roz learns that the grandparents of her baby have huge noses.

Screenshot: https://sphotos-b.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/615392_10100781584141295_286670799_o.jpg

Charles H. Bryan said...

I watched a few episodes of MR. SUNSHINE (with Matthew Perry) because Allison Janney delivered some very funny performances. She was alone in that.

BTW, Ken, it looks like the ballot box at Seattle PI is smiling on you. Don't get your hopes up; it's really all about Ohio and Florida.

Corey O'Dell said...

What does "breal" mean? Is this an industry term or something of your own invention?

Brian Phillips said...

Here is a short clip of the show:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX0AgZUAqws

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

@ThatNeilGuy, I'm sure Ken will correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe he doesn't have anything to do with "Hollywood" any more, other than writing about it and attending bashes. His primary industry is baseball now, as I understand it. (As the blurb on the right says, "Ken is back with the Mariners, doing play-by-play.")

Friday question: I recently watched an episode of Cheers where Frasier became addicted to karaoke and Lilith put her fist in her mouth... While I can imagine the writers hearing about (or even directly listening to) Kelsey Grammer's singing voice, I can't quite imagine the scenario where they discovered that Bebe Newirth could put her whole hand in her mouth!

I've seen similar "unique talents" on display in other shows, and I've wondered how the writers learned about them... Is it something like a party-trick being revealed at the season wrap party? Or do the writers actively put out calls for any unusual talents that could be used in a script?

Anonymous said...

I thought that picture was of Justine Bateman at first. Julie

txutxi said...

I loved Lateline and was very sad when it was no longer broadcast . . . and now Al's my Senator!

txutxi in minnesota

Paul Duca said...

"Of all the LATELINE episodes I directed, that one came out the best. Which is the only reason why I am not a member of Congress today"


For which so many of us are thankful...

Breadbaker said...

For 21 seconds, some of which is static, that is one funny scene.

cadavra said...

Is not Megyn Price one of the most underrated comedy actresses at work today? She was wonderful on LATELINE and still is on RULES OF ENGAGEMENT. SHE should be doing features, not Katherine (blecch) Heigl.

D. McEwan said...

I remember Lateline quite well. I really enjoyed it. I believe I saw every episode broadcast. And wow, directing the mother of Jacob and the Smoke Monster. Scary.

Storm said...

@JohnnyW: I've known several chicks who could put their fist in their mouth. They are usually the kind of girl who *introduces* herself by saying "Hey, I can put my entire fist in my mouth. Wanna see?", especially when drunk.

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

ScottUSF said...

Friday question...what does it mean in Deadline|Hollywood when they mention a pilot/show has been sold "with Penalty"...penalty to who?

Tallulah Morehead said...

"ScottUSF said...
Friday question...what does it mean in Deadline|Hollywood when they mention a pilot/show has been sold "with Penalty"...penalty to who?"


The American viewing public.

J.J. said...

Rehearsal days on THE NANNY were always fun. They were when Drescher had other actors' lines that she considered "too funny" either reassigned to her or cut out altogether if reassignment was impossible. After all, she was the star. Shouldn't she get most of the laughs AND all the biggest ones? Daniel Davis made an art form out of underselling the hell out of his lines during rehearsals.

The Mutt said...

Wow! Nice gams!

D. McEwan said...

"J.J. said...
Rehearsal days on THE NANNY were always fun. They were when Drescher had other actors' lines that she considered 'too funny' either reassigned to her or cut out altogether if reassignment was impossible. After all, she was the star. Shouldn't she get most of the laughs AND all the biggest ones? Daniel Davis made an art form out of underselling the hell out of his lines during rehearsals."


One of my closest friends was a writer, then a producer, on The Nanny for five years, and what JJ has written here is literally true. No comic exaggeration, no hyperbole. Daniel Davis did indeed tank his gags at rehearsal so they'd still be his when taped. Once, when Fran insisted a laugh line be taken from a different character and assigned to her, the writer pointed out to her dour, glaring face that it made no sense whatever for Fran to say the line, that massive reworking would be required to even get the line to her, and it still would make no earthly sense. Fran waited until he was done, and then, in a Voice of Death, said: "So?"

For several years they used a hired, paid audience, folks she could order to laugh whether it was funny or not. She'd hated having audiences she couldn't fire.

You think Roseanne was a nightmare? Well, she was, so were Brett Butler and Cybil Shepherd, but Fran earns her place among major sit-com horrors.

cadavra said...

Doesn't "with penalty" mean that if the pilot fails to go to series, the creators and/or stars are paid a substantial sum of money because of this?

RCP said...

I sensed that Fran had a healthy ego, as she regularly descended the grand staircase wearing a designer outfit that displayed her (admittedly) fantastic figure - to the whistles and whoops of the "audience". But how does a nanny afford designer out-- never mind.