Tuesday, February 09, 2016

How they shot GREASE LIVE

Last week I posted an extraordinary video – a dance number from GREASE LIVE along with the control room. You heard associate director, Carrie Havel call out the shots. The timing and precision was amazing. Even if you’ve seen it, I invite you to watch it again. It will make today’s post even more meaningful.

I was able to get in touch with Carrie and interview her about that experience. There are so many truly gifted artists who work behind-the-scenes and it’s great to be able to shine the spotlight on one. So here we go…

Me: So have you recovered from GREASE LIVE?

Carrie: (laughs) A lot of friends asked which island I was going to? Actually I had to get up early and fly to New York the next day. I’m working on COMEDY KNOCKOUT for TruTV out here.

Me: Considering what you do, I could see you becoming an air traffic controller just to unwind and relax. Let’s talk about you first and then the role of the director (Alex Rudzinski). It sounded like you had your shots pre-set in order. But instead of just calling them out, you called out beats, numbers of bars, etc. Why?

C: This is a style that’s popular in Great Britain.

Me: And lots of British variety/reality shows came across the pond like DANCING WITH THE STARS, AMERICAN IDOL, AMERICA'S GOT TALENT (obviously not with those titles), and with them their directors.  But still, why that style?

C: Dance numbers require such precision and counting out the beats allows us to get that precise.

Me: Gotcha.  Okay, so the first step of the process?

C: I break down the music into all the beats and bars. Each measure of music is a bar. Standard time is 4-4, 4 beats to a bar. For the most part the music in GREASE was pretty standard. Usually I count each beat, but when we hold for like five bars I just count the bars. People who are used to it just know the cadence and it makes sense.

Me: Who taught you how to do that?

C: Kate Moran, who had been an associate director in England came over here to do DANCING WITH THE STARS and taught me. It’s not a very commonplace skill.

Me: I’m sure I could learn it in a hundred years. But that’s only because I’ve been a director and have a head start. When I block multi-camera sitcoms we have a camera blocking day. Stand-ins walk through the blocking and stop move by move allowing me to assign camera angles and the operators to frame and adjust. You can’t do that with a complicated dance number. You can’t ask a dancer to hold in mid-air while we frame up.

C: No. We shot a wide master. The camera crew didn’t even come on until January 21st. (the show aired January 31st). Then Alex went through it with the choreographer and stage director. “Here’s where we should highlight… here’s where we should push in”…etc. In order to accommodate his vision sometimes they had to move a certain moment more downstage right, that sort of thing. Everything had to work for the dance as well as the camera.

Alex then made out a shot list and each camera was given his assignment. The cameraman jotted them down on a card. Each shot had a number, description of the camera move and number of beats and bars… like “two bars and one beat.”

We then had only three days of full rehearsal. There was no time to commit anything to memory because it kept changing. That’s why you’ll hear A and B or we’ll go from shot 9 to 11.

Me: So you’ll add shots and call them A and B and drop shots, keeping the rest of the shots numbers in tact (as we writers do in scripts during production).

C: Alex is tweaking all the time. We shoot every pass. He’ll then say, “add two beats on shot 11.” You can’t memorize. You just have to feel the music and read the script.

Me: Are you watching the monitors at all during the broadcast?

C: No. My head is buried in the script. If you look up you lose your place. However, I sometimes catch what’s going on out of the corner of my eye. During dialogue scenes I can look up.

Me: What happens if you get lost and lose your place? God forbid you sneeze.

C: You try to get back on track. Usually I cue off the lyrics. But for “Hand Jive” there are 2 ½ minutes with no lyrics. If I was lost I’d have no way of just getting back in. But the Technical Director is a fail safe. He transfers all the shots to a beat shot. He could pick it back up.

Me: What happens if there’s a screw up?

C: If we were to lose a camera or lose the signal, at that point Alex would make changes on the fly and I would just continue to count beats. In the final sequence of “We Go Together” the timing was never going to be precise because of driving in the golf cart. So Alex called it on the fly. I kept counting, he went off book, and eventually we met up and were back on book.

Me: Talk about the first time you ever did a show like this.

C: It was a taped show. Fortunately, it went well and gave me the confidence that I could do this.

Me: You prefer live?

C: Oh yes. Live multi-cam is the most exciting. There’s not that adrenaline with taped shows.

Me: How’d you break in?

C: Kate Moran was doing AMERICA’S GOT TALENT and DANCING WITH THE STARS. Once DANCING WITH THE STARS went to twice a year I filled in.

Me: Watching on the west coast, GREASE LIVE seemed pretty smooth. Any craziness behind-the-scenes?

C: The east coast lost sound for twenty seconds. Fortunately, I could hear the music in the control room and the actors on stage could hear the music so we just kept going. We switched to a backup for that act.

Me: I imagine there’s a backup for everything. You probably taped an entire rehearsal just in case a meteor fell on the soundstage during the broadcast.

C: Absolutely.

Me: You staged this on the Warner Brothers lot. How about the outside number? Did the rain throw you?

C: No. We prepared for the rain. We had full umbrella rehearsals. What we couldn’t prepare for was the wind. At times it was 35 mph. When the wind started slapping at the sides of the tent, they had to take the sides off. If the winds didn’t die down they were not allowing anyone to be under the tent. We were ready to go to our backup. But 20 minutes before, the winds died down and we got the go-ahead. We shot as originally planned.

Me: I’m on my fourth Xanex just listening to this. How did you have the forethought to record the control room during the broadcast?

C: I will tape the control room video. I also teach and that is a great tool. Alex said, “Oh, you have a nice social media moment.”

Me: Well, congratulations. Of all the live TV musicals of late, GREASE LIVE was actually “good.” People sinerely “liked” it. They weren’t watching to see a trainwreck like PETER PAN. Or maybe they were but were pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be fantastic. Good call not casting Christopher Walken as Danny Zuko.

C: Having a live audience was really key. All of the others were done on big soundstages in New York.

Me: Performers definitely feed off the energy of a live audience, and stage musicals were designed to be performed before an audience. But I think Fox chose the perfect musical and the perfect production team. Again, congratulations.

C: Thanks so much.

 Fox will re-air GREASE LIVE on Easter Sunday. And you can see it on the Fox app and probably eighteen streaming services. Thanks to Carrie Havel. Wish she had done the Super Bowl halftime show.


Rick Wiedmayer said...

A Friday question.

What are the responsibilities of the various assistant directors and the producers during the filming of a show?

Roger Owen Green said...

People sinerely “liked” it.
Is this a word about sin. Not familiar.

Jeff Maxwell said...

Wow. Stunning. She's amazing.

Now that you know the process...M*A*S*H: The Live Musical?

Thomas Mossman said...

Friday Question:

Now that word has come down that The Good Wife is ending after this season, do you feel there are any dramas left on network TV worth watching?

Ken Keltner said...

Interesting interview.

Dave said...

Love this post.
Friday question. I always felt bad for Wayne Rogers on Mash. As a writer, show runner, how do you try to keep the second bananas relevent? Especially as a main star gets bigger and bigger.

D. McEwan said...

Wow. Fascinating. A job for adrenaline junkies who prefer to be safely seated inside rather than parasailing off of El Capitan.

D. McEwan said...

I should add that I had skipped watching it, just as I've intentionally never seen the movie of Grease. I did see Barry Bostwick play it onstage close on to 40 years ago, but now you've made me curious to see it, so I'll catch the Easter repeat. Thanks,

Andy Rose said...

Fascinating interview. Thanks Ken!

Blair Ivey said...

Your posts on 'How they shot Grease Live' were a couple of the more fascinating things I've read in a while. Seeing something done well is always a pleasure.

mmryan314 said...

In reading this Ken,what amazes me is the talent and dedication these young ( obviously young) people have in the entertainment world. When I read about these young people as an older generation female, I feel almost a resentment that my generation was tracked to "teaching" or "nursing". This young woman is remarkable an so talented. Wish I was 40 years younger.

RingMan said...

While I loved the production. I was stunned the producers and directors changed the class ring to a normal black onyx ring. Surely there were class rings available. Still a huge tradition in America especially in the south west and southeast.

Phil Clare said...