Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The story behind the pies

“It’s a Wrap” was the season finale from year one of ALMOST PERFECT. (If you haven’t seen it yet, kids, it’s the previous post. At least check out the pie fight) But at the time we didn’t know if there would be a year two. So we tried to fashion an episode that could offer both promise and closure.

Figuring this might be our swan song, we started thinking about the wrap party and came upon the idea of all the characters thinking their fictional show had been cancelled and they could finally say the things about each other they had been holding in. And it seemed funny that after they burned every bridge, the show gets a reprieve and they now have to work together again. Talk about “awkward”. But how do you buy everything back? Had we painted ourselves into a corner?

We decided if something major could happen it might relieve the pressure. After people have a great time and laugh themselves silly they tend to be more forgiving. But what is that major event?

We pride ourselves on delivering literate /sophisticated comedy and that is why we immediately thought of a pie fight. What better way to let down your guard than when you’re covered in custard?

From there it was a matter of finding the specific issues between people. They had to be character oriented. What very relatable traits would piss off someone else and why? Once we determined all of those the writing went very quickly.

And then it came time to direct it. Gulp.

Staging crowd scenes are always difficult, but now there was this added little wrinkle – 700 tarts of chaos. I didn’t want the fight to just be a free-for-all so I went back and studied old Laurel & Hardy shorts and the finale of THE GREAT RACE. How do these fights escalate? Are there funny bits within the fight? How long should it go?

After studying Pie Fight 101 I choreographed the whole sequence using rice cakes for rehearsal. Lisa getting pelted all at once and Neil not participating were two of the bits I added.

The plan was to shoot this in front of the live audience. But just to cover my ass, I also shot it once the night before. It was pretty amazing to actually see it in action. And it gave me a chance to fine tune the sequence for the audience. When I finally yelled “cut!” the set was an utter gooey dripping mess, as were the fifty people in the scene. The actors were led off to separate holding pens and blasted with hoses. The set department needed all night to clean up the mess.

Incredibly, on show day the set was completely restored and everyone was back in costume. I shot the whole show and did all my pick ups right up to the fight. And then, with five cameras rolling, I yelled “Action!” and held my breath. The tarts went a’flyin’.

One of the many problems we had not anticipated was how slippery the floor became. And Kevin Kilner had to lift Nancy and carry her out. It’s a good thing he’s an athlete. Somehow he managed to do it and stay on his feet.

What you ultimately see is the combination of those two takes. Go back and look at it again. The first time did you notice that on several occasions things don’t match? Matthew Letscher is talking to Nancy Travis after the fight and from cut to cut the goop on his face is different. But in the confusion your eye doesn’t pick it up the first time.

A couple of final notes:

Chip Zien (Gary) is a seasoned Broadway performer. Not only can he sing but he can sing Sondheim. And not only can he sing Sondheim, he can sing Sondheim to Sondheim’s satisfaction. Chip was the Baker in the original cast of INTO THE WOODS.

Lisa in real life is a great dancer. She’s an even better physical comedienne. All of her klutziness was by design. Same with the bad singing.

The guy who tells the actor he’s been giving him tap water? That was our P.A., Brian Gewirtz. He went on to become the chief writer of WWF wrestling. The Rock owes his career to him.

The handsome, distinguished maitre’ d – that’s my dad, Cliff.

And I don’t want to tell you the girl who got the brunt of the pie fight because I don’t want to embarrass her… and she’s suffered enough.


Unknown said...

I think it's actually funnier if you don't know who it is and pick your personal favorite ;-)

Mobutu said...

No disrespect intended to either your judgment or the finer qualities of your colleague, Mr. Levine, but amongst wrestling faithful, Mr. Gewirtz has been widely criticized. Wrestling, being something of a unique beast, has often presented an insurmountable challenge for writers from other genres. Script too much... the performers come off even more wooden and unconvincing. Script too little... the writer gets blamed for not doing anything good. Gewirtz, rightly or wrongly, has been blasted by both fans and wrestling beat writers. At times, his tenure has been used as another demonstration of the intractability and hubris of wrestling management as regards refusing to admit mistakes and force-feeding unwanted, over-stylized content.

Personally?—I have no opinion. I come neither to praise Gewirtz nor to bury him. I just happen to know some people in the hemi/demi/semi-professional world of wrestling beat writing.

One thing I can tell you, with confidence, is that while Mr. Gewirtz surely has many uncredited or underappreciated talents, insofar as the wrestling world is concerned, his making the Rock's career is not one of them.

The truly "great" wrestling personalities are created via their "mic work," and almost to a man all the greats owe their memorable work to improvisation. They might make something akin to a high-school extemporaneous speech's outline the night before; they might write down one or two zingers. But mostly, they try to establish three or four points to hit ahead of time, then go out there and riff off the audience, feel their way to what is working and what doesn't. In a lot of ways, it's like stand-up comedy and stand-up drama. Scripted stuff comes off less naturally and usually less successfully.

Almost all of The Rock's signature phrases came from this sort of improvisation. In fact, his name, The Rock, came from an ad-lib. Previously, he was "Rocky Maivia," but he decided to wing a harder sounding name to fit the speech he was giving. Most of what made The Rock such a phenomenon with the audience was his ability to quip and riff at a faster pace than almost anyone else.

I don't mean to take anything away from your colleague. I only feel that, in this case, crediting Mr. Gewirtz for the work that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson improvised and created for himself lessens another performer.

Corinne said...

There was no way you could shoot this episode and not refer to The Great Race--the largest pie fight ever staged. It is such a fantastic comedy and one of my favorites. I loved Natalie Wood as Maggie; it's worth going back to watch her hurl pies while she's wearing a corset.

Anonymous said...

Sebastian- After watching the pie fight several times(very well choreographed btw), I think I figured out who the culprit is. However, Ken is probably right in not naming her, and leaving it to the imagination as in most things is probably for the best.

Mary Stella said...

700 tarts of chaos

Isn't that The Bachelor reunion show?

Moving on to a question for Friday, if you were hired to cast a new show and told to pick one performer from each of your previous shows, who would you add to the ensemble? (Keeping in mind that who you pick doesn't mean you think he/she was the best on a particular show, but rather that each would work well off each other in one cast.)

Tallulah Morehead said...

Let me get this straight; you referenced a Natalie Wood movie IN the piece, and yet posted no picture of Natalie Wood.

In the word of Claude Rains, "I'm shocked. SHOCKED!"


Anonymous said...

Is the pie soaked extra famous now? I have to look at the clip again.

I saw it when it originally aired. I distinctly remember the "Patty, please don't dance" line right before the singing. I also remember Lisa Edelstein expertly falling down a marble staircase in another episode. She must do physical comedy very well.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

It's very funny. I wish there were a traditional sitcom on the air right now half as good.

And Edelstein. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has choreographed MANY pie fights (albeit on a much smaller scale, and with very little budget... or help...), I can vouch for the fact that these things ALWAYS take longer than you think. And are ALWAYS messier than you think. (We often shoot outside for exactly the reason you described... Hoses afterwards!)

I only wish you had used real pies (a la The Great Race) or even fake pies a la The Three Stooges (usually pie crusts filled with shaving cream). Those tarts are a little too small for my pie-centric tastes.

GREAT blog though, very entertaining read!