Wednesday, May 10, 2017

My craziest rehearsal

It was back in 1999 when I was directing the Al Franken sitcom LATELINE in New York. We filmed at the Kaufman-Astoria studios in Queens. Other tenants included THE BILL COSBY SHOW and SESAME STREET (Yes, how ironic is that?). The month was November so it was quite cold.

The Kaufman-Astoria studios took up a city block. But across the street were typical retail businesses – dry cleaners, Greek restaurant, liquor store, etc. It’s not like Southern California where the Warner Brothers lot is sprawled out over many acres.

Our filming schedule was this: We shot the show on Tuesday nights before a live studio audience. Wednesday we had a table reading of the new script. Thursday and Friday we rehearsed on the stage. On Monday the camera crews came in and we did all the camera blocking. That brought us again to Tuesday (shoot day).

In LA, after a Tuesday filming, crews arrive in the middle of the night, strike any swing sets, bring in the new sets for the upcoming week, and begin dressing and painting them. By Wednesday at noon the stage is ready for actors to rehearse.

Not in New York.

In New York, crews swap out the sets on Wednesday. I asked the producer if they had crews who could do that in the middle of the night and he said, “Yes, but you don’t want ‘em.”

So to accommodate that I would hold table readings on Wednesday and just send the actors home. I had a terrific cast so two days of rehearsal was more than sufficient.

But one week the script called for a guest actress who had a very pivotal role. One lady really stood out in casting but had a conflict. She was not available that Thursday. Our choices were to go with someone else or rehearse on Wednesday that week instead. I opted for the latter. I just thought this actress was way too special to let get away.

So we hired Allison Janney.

All sound stages have what is known as an “elephant door.” That’s the door that is essentially a wall. You need a door that size to move fully erected sets in and out. In Hollywood studios, those doors open to the interior of the lot. Here it opened to the city street.

So picture the scene. I’m rehearsing the actors. There’s all the hammering and banging as crews are dismantling sets and wheeling them loudly across the stage. Since the giant elephant door is open it’s now 35 degrees. We’re all wearing parkas and gloves.  We can see our breath. And since the open stage door was on a city street curious bystanders were free to just saunter in to see what was what. At one point I turned around and there were eleven strangers standing behind me just watching.

At that point I just wrapped for the day. I figured, end this before someone in my cast gets frostbite, someone in my cast gets laryngitis from yelling over the jackhammers, or I start getting directing notes from bystanders.

The show came off great and Allison Janney was amazing. I’d like to think that episode caught the attention of NBC and maybe paved the way for her to get THE WEST WING. Or star Al Franken said, “This is too crazy.  I should get into something else more sane... like politics." 

12 comments :

Peter said...

Talking of politics, my money's on an impeachment some time towards the end of the year. The stench of cover-up is toooo strong. Get ready for Watergate II: Electric Boogaloo!

Anonymous said...

Thinking that public outrage over malfeasance will provide anyone with real leverage in American politics in 2017, well God bless you Peter but I think that's--unfortunate as it may be--a naive outlook.

Sean

Roseann said...

And that in a nutshell tells you what it's like to shoot in NYC. Just imagine leaving the comfort of that studio and putting all your equipment/costumes/props into tractor trailers and then with a few campers used as dressing rooms moving from borough to borough /street to NYC street. Shooting all day (or night) out in the cold or rain or snow. Trucks with equipment blocks away, and if anything falls to the 'ground' it is recovered covered in NYC black dirt/grease. It never fails. When California filmmakers come to NYC there is a pretty steep learning curve.

Alex Bryant said...

Who the fuck is Allison Janney?

VP81955 said...

Many of you classic Hollywood buffs probably know this, and I'm sure Ken does too, but for those who don't, the Kaufman-Astoria Studio is the old East Coast lot of Paramount, built in the 1920s. It was set up during the silent era and was converted into soundstages, as Paramount -- perhaps the most urbane of Hollywood studios at this time -- planned to utilize much of the New York-based talent it recruited without them having to leave still-lucrative Broadway. For a few years, that plan worked until the Depression hit the industry hard in 1931 and Paramount consolidated its operations, sending its creative people west.

Nevertheless, quite a few notable films were shot there, including Ernst Lubitsch's 1931 Maurice Chevalier masterpiece "The Smiling Lieutenant" (that's the movie where Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins sing the saucy, outrageous "Jazz Up Your Lingerie"!). Ginger Rogers' film career began there, and the lady in my avatar even filmed one (Carole Lombard's lone movie shot in NYC) -- 1930's "Fast and Loose" with Hopkins and Frank Morgan.

When the place was revived in the 1980s, it also became home for Infinity Broadcasting and for many years hosted WFAN radio, the pioneering sports-talk station (taking over legendary WNBC's 660 AM signal in 1988, and Infinity's other radio properties.

Great pic of Allison Janney, BTW.

Peter said...

P.S.

Allison Janney's legs - wow!

LouOCNY said...

VP81955:

Actually THE biggest Paramount films shot at Astoria, were the two adaptations of the Marx Brothers' Broadway hits, COCOANUTS and ANIMAL CRACKERS. In fact, COCOANUTS was filmed while the Marxes were still playing in ANIMAL CRACKERS on Broadway - there's a point in COCOANUTS where Groucho calls the Margaret Dumont character 'Mrs. Rittenhouse', her character in ANIMAL CRACKERS, instead of her COCOANUTS character name, Mrs. Potter!

thirteen said...

What I got from this is that you tore up your planned schedule (in the face of terrible inconvenience) in order to accommodate the needs of a then-unknown actress you thought was terrific, instead of just going ahead and hiring someone else for the sake of convenience. That's awesome. If I were in the business, I'd really, really want to work for you.

Bill Jones said...

This prompts a Friday question for Ken: have you ever been involved in anything that shot in Canada, where supposedly it's much cheaper to produce something but make it still look like the US? (I know that Vancouver and Toronto often "stand in" for LA, NYC, etc.) Is anything materially different, or could you be on a Hollywood sound stage if you didn't know it? What is the general feeling in the industry about shooting in Canada? Negative, because those are jobs that could go to US crews, or positive, because anything that results in more shows getting produced is a good thing for everyone?

Joe said...

Hi Ken. Here's a Friday question for you. I recently watched the "Cheers" pilot for the first times in years and was surprised to see that Norm was a hardcore alcoholic. He seemed like he really wanted to go home, but couldn't pass up another drink (and another and another), he passed out at the bar, Coach had to help him out and drive him home, and even then he suggested they stop somewhere for a drink. Obviously, as the series played out he was just a guy who loved hanging out at the bar and, while he loved beer, he could drink all night and it had no effect on him. Did the Charles brothers realize a guy with a serious problem wouldn't be funny or did the network suggest the change?

Barry Traylor said...

What a great story. Thanks for sharing this, Allison Janney just happens to be one of my favorite actors.

VP81955 said...

Thanks for the addition, Lou. However, you must admit that "Rittenhouse" sounds more Marxian than "Potter." (I'm certain George S. Kaufman did.)