Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The day NBC thought I went insane

Just because I was directing my very first episode didn’t mean I couldn’t take time out to punk NBC.

My first episode was WINGS. There was a steep learning curve to be sure, especially in terms of the technical aspects of the job. WINGS was a multi-camera show so it was shot like a play in front of a studio audience. As the actors move about the set performing a scene I had four cameras all in motion, capturing the action from different angles. At any one moment I would have some assigned for close ups, or two-shots, or wide masters. And if someone in the cast crossed from point A to point B that would necessitate a change in all four cameras.

As a result, every moment, every movement is carefully choreographed. Add to that my inexperience. I had a crew of a hundred people waiting around for me to assign them shot for shot.  No pressure there.

To assist me, I had a “quad split.” This is a bank of four monitors displaying what each camera was showing. I would stare at the quad split and after each blocking move I would assign everyone’s new camera mark. This can be time consuming and tricky even when you do know what you’re doing (which I of course did not). I can camera block a half-hour sitcom in four or five hours these days. For WINGS I think it took me twelve. Maybe thirteen. I lost all sense of time and the use of my limbs after maybe nine hours. 

The routine for filming day is that the cast and crew assembles at noon. I have three hours to fine tune the shots and rehearse with the cast. A dress rehearsal follows at 3:00 with full cameras. The producers give final performance notes to the actors then generally go back to the room to tweak four or five jokes or make little trims. Everyone eats, the cast gets into hair and makeup and costumes, the studio audience is let in at 6:30 and at 7:00 it’s showtime.

On this particular episode I get the new pages after the dress rehearsal. And I almost plotz.

They’ve added a new scene.

It’s now 6:30 and the audience is already streaming in. No time to block the scene, much less camera block it. The set is in full view of the audience.

I go backstage, round up the actors who will be in this scene, and say, “Okay, after the audience leaves we’ll block and shoot this correctly, but now, for their sake, just go out there, move wherever you want to move, but don’t worry about it. We’ll do it once then come back to it later tonight.” They were fine with that.

I went to the camera operators, gave them a rough idea of where people might be moving and said, just get what you get. We probably won’t use any of it anyway.

I also told my plan to the showrunners, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angel.

So we’re filming the show. Huddled around the quad split are me, my script supervisor (also in on the plan), the showrunners, and the executive from NBC assigned to cover the show.

We get to that new scene. I say "Action!" The actors glide around the set, and the audience enjoys it. Meanwhile, what’s on the quad split is utter chaos – cameras swishing around looking for actors, people being out of focus, actors heads cropped off, moments where none of the four cameras have the actor who is speaking, etc.

Out of the corner of my eye I see that the NBC exec is completely gobsmacked. I realize I never told him what we were doing. So I decided to have some fun.

When the scene was over I yelled, “Cut!” then turned to Peter, David, and David and said, “I got what I needed. You guys good?” They instantly picked up on what I was doing and said, “Yes, we’re fine.” I yelled “Moving on!” and the cameras and crew rolled into position for the next scene.

The NBC exec was in a panic. “Whoa, whoa!” he said. “Don’t worry,” I said, cutting him off. “This is by design. I’m doing something stylistic here. It’ll look really cool when it’s cut together.” He then turned to the three showrunners who confirmed they were on board with this.

For the rest of the night the NBC exec was scratching his head. I’m sure he was thinking, “What am I going to say to my bosses when the rough cut comes in and there’s this bizarre Felliniesque scene in the middle of a WINGS episode?”

Once the audience left and we were about to do pick ups I spilled the beans so he wouldn’t have to stay an extra two hours while we re-shot stuff and did that scene for real. I had known him for ten years and he took the prank in good spirits. But curiously, every other NBC show I ever directed I noticed that the network exec watched me like a hawk.

I never saw the gag reel that year. I’d be shocked if that scene wasn’t in it.  I'm only sorry I don't have a copy.  How great to have that start off my demo reel! 


MikeK.Pa. said...

WINGS is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. The only misstep, in my eyes, was the addition of Budd to replace Lowell as the mechanic. The producers realized it was a miscast and cut their losses. For me, WINGS is one of those series (JUST SHOOT ME is another) that I could see the same episode again and again and I'd still laugh at the same lines. Great writing, unique characters and a terrific cast. The casting of guest stars was always on the mark as well.

Scott Cason said...

When it comes to network execs, you get your shots in when you can! That was brilliant. Do you remember which episode of Wings that was, Ken?

Bobby Pitt said...

Someone has posted a bunch of Wings gag reels on YouTube, it might be in there.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

That was brilliant Ken.

By Ken Levine said...

I think the episode is called something like "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man." Something like that. From one of WINGS' middle seasons.

Igor said...

Ken, I hate punking shows. I felt the same about Letterman's bits when he'd punk people in drive-thru lines at fast-food places, or on the street (through surrogates he'd direct via an earpiece).

For me, that stuff is/was as if "the agony of defeat" scene in Wide World of Sports opener had been set up by a guy at ABC screwing with the ski ramp.

But what you did to the NBC guy, brilliant. Fair to him, and brilliant by you, especially on-the-fly.

Igor said...

... And yet, I love the Allen Funt bit when he closed Delaware, telling drivers it was full and so they'd have to wait until someone left.

Oat Willie said...

I loved "Wings" in the 90s and watched it constantly, nevertheless: "Tonight on Wings!...ah who cares."

Johnny Walker said...

Ken's episode was "Portrait of the Con Artist as a Young Man". It was episode 20 of season six and had some great moments.

I guess I get why WINGS was never revered like Frasier or Cheers, but I have to admit that it's really grown on me. I watch it every night as I fall asleep. It does deserve more recognition. Even when things got weaker in season 8, the cast really brought all they could to it and managed to still make it work. Also, I love Amy Yasbeck.

Johnny Walker said...

Also also: Poor Budd. For a show that kept such a strict internal logic and chronology, it was sad when Budd just disappeared without ever being mentioned again.

Why don't writers think to throw in a line to give the audience some closure in situations like that, I wonder?

VP81955 said...

A Friday question, more film than TV-related: Is there any specific procedure for advertising credits ("From the creator of..."). This piqued my interest a few months ago when a billboard for "Paddington" in front of the Grove on 3rd Street noted it was "from the producer of 'Harry Potter'" -- huh? Producer? And is that meant to establish a connection ("Hey, they're both family movies!")? Of course, most of the time that person is not named, even when they're a director of note such as Christopher Nolan (he wasn't named in the "from the director of..." on billboards for "Interstellar"). Which leads to my next point...

...who or what determines how said rule is broken? I'm noting in ads for "Spy," the new Melissa McCarthy vehicle (and while I'm really not a fan of hers, I hope for her sake the film is less generic than its title) that Paul Feig gets credit as a writer and director. He has prior name recognition, of course, but more than Nolan? I don't think so. Must be one condition of the advertising agreement.

Unknown said...

As a new reader, thank you. Anything (ANYTHING) that could and did screw up NBC back in those days is still greatly appreciated.

chuckcd said...

Loved Wings!
The only thing I ever directed was a live Jumbotron show at Angel stadium and even
though it is a fairly simple show, I was sweating bullets! Good thing I had a great TD.