III. OVER THE EDGE
Monday, August 1
After a frenzied weekend of cutting, Tom and Carl presented the 89-minute version of Life on the Edge today, complete with Jean-Michel Jarre score over the edge walk.
The decision was unanimous: It's a hit.
Seeing the film for the first time on an actual screen - as we do today, in a small screening room at our lab - makes me appreciate it all that much more. Plus, with the cuts, the pace is terrific - it moves so fast that I don't even realize this is not exactly the way the script was written (although, ironically enough, it is actually much closer now to the original script Tom and I wrote, as large chunks of improvisation and Stanley Mieses' material are gone).
Aside from the obviously-splendid job Carl Kress has done, this cut reveals another hitherto-unsuspected talent in Tom: Editing. This was one of the few areas of directing I ever worried about in connection with Tom; having been a make-up man, his post-production experience was extremely limited. But today I think he's proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to all assembled that he is one hell of a director.
After the screening, we have a production meeting to discuss the new opening sequence. Tom, Johnny, Mike, Steve Johnson and I prepare a schedule, work roster, and budget to present to Linden tomorrow. If they approve (they'd better, because there's no way to do it for less), we start Wednesday, and have two weeks, maybe three, to construct and film a complicated, lengthy effects sequence.
Oh well. Life on the edge.
Tuesday, August 2
The producers must be pleased with the new cut. They approve our budget for the new opening with no arguments…for a change.
Wednesday, August 3
Today the new cut is screened for a larger audience, including sound designers, publicists, composer and even Marvin is there.
Disappointingly, reaction is mixed, although most of the complaints center around the beginning - none of these people were informed that the film doesn't have one yet! Marvin is very pleased with his work, and likes the film, but sound designers Mangini and Pospisil are anything but pleased. Apparently they'd never realized (for some reason beyond my understanding) quite the scope of this job, and when presented with it in the form of a screening, they opt for the simplest solution.
They back out.
Afterwards, at Linden's offices in Westwood, I walk in on a meeting in which Pippa, Joe, Neil and Randy are not only asking one of the publicists for an opinion, but also what he'd change.
No one has asked me what I'd change.
Tom is upset after the screening, both because of the presence of a new editor Linden has brought in, and because he believes he was not given all the time he was promised to prepare this cut. In fact, Tom fears that some of Linden's actions may indicate a desire on their part to replace him.
Concerned, I call Joe that evening. He assures me that although a new editor, Bob Lambert, has been hired to act as a consultant, Carl is still the editor and Tom still the director - "as long as he's willing to cooperate" with Linden. Joe also assures me that the editorial suggestions made by the publicist today were taken with a grain of salt, and that they only wanted to hear a fresh voice.
By the time I'm off the phone at 11:30 from all the various parties, I feel like a pingpong ball. Although peace reigns for the moment, I'm no longer sure who to believe - or trust.
And I thought principal photography would be the hard part.
Thurday, August 4 - Saturday, August 6
I leave for San Diego for three days with John, Mike and Ed, for our first promotion. Paul Sammon has booked us into the world's largest comic book convention, the San Diego ComicCon, to present a slide show and panel discussion on Life on the Edge. Paul has also had the first Life on the Edge buttons printed up (which feature Ed's logo) as giveaways.
The presentation, which is given Friday afternoon at 2 p.m., is a resounding success. Although we didn't make the printed schedule because we came in so late, we still get a good turnout of 150 or so, and the response is exactly what I'd hoped for: A little stunned at first, the audience slowly loosens up and begins asking questions about how we sold the project, the production design, and even commenting on admiring us for making something truly original.
I'll be a happy puppy if the movie gets that kind of response upon release.
Sunday, August 7
I spend much of today assisting Tom with more temp tracking. He is hard at work on another cut of the film; he's listened to the comments from the last screening, filtered out what was feasible and could be used, and is trying to have a new cut ready by Thursday. Among the changes he's already made: The tone of the edge walk, he's decided, will be neither whimsical nor dreamy, but out-and-out spooky, so he's deleting a number of slow-motion shots; he's adding back in footage when Cindy and Bud rehearse their song (including cutting to mom grimacing in the kitchen); and he's considering putting the older Billy's narration throughout the entire film. We pick some more more temp tracks - indeed, he does go for the scariest piece I play him for the edge walk sequence, the main title from Dawn of the Dead - and I go home to see if I can dig up some temporary sound effects by audio-taping off a videotape, to provide noises for the chicken and the aquarium creature.
Monday, August 8
I spend the day with Matt Shakman, who wanted to celebrate his 13th birthday at the Burman Studio; Tom, after having a very successful and inspiring morning meeting with our editorial consultant Bob Lambert, spends the afternoon giving Matt lessons on sculpting and moldmaking.
That evening, we begin work on the model for the new opening…well, sort of. We've gathered our crew - Mike, Johnny, Steve Johnson, Andrew and Eric Roemheld - and a lot of parts, which the guys proceed to stare balefully at. We really have no idea of what to do, and only two weeks to do it in.
Fortunately, Ed will deliver sketches tomorrow, and we'll also raid the storage unit where the remains of Life on the Edge are currently housed. If that doesn't job some creativity, nothing will.
Tuesday, August 9
Ed's drawings arrive today, and it's what we needed, alright. He's given us fifteen pages of beautifully detailed panels, which the guys later divide evenly and use as blueprints.
During the day, Johnny and I go shopping, buying nearly a hundred dollars worth of PVC elbows, t-joints, p-pipes, etc. Then in the evening it's over to raid the storage house.
The storage warehouse is a strange, somewhat melancholy sight - here's the entire world of the Hollowheads broken down and condensed into one dilapidated, fairly small building in Hollywood. The Splat Spray launcher sits atop the whole mess like a once-favorite, now long-forgotten toy.
We start rummaging for pipes and tubes, cannibalizing from the kitchen, bathroom and Grandpa's stuff. We fill up Mike's truck and my car in a matter of minutes, then close the door again the wistful wreckage.
Wednesday, August 10
More shopping for pieces of twisted pipe and the models are ready to start taking shape.
I receive a call from Pippa in the late afternoon, asking me to start thinking about writing a new narration for the film. I assure her that Tom and I have already started to discuss this, and agreed to wait until we can sit down with a more finalized cut of the film. Then Pippa mentions something Tom and I haven't discussed, a new opening scene with John Glover on a phone from his 'office', calling Miriam at home. Including the opening, we now have two day of re-shoots before us.
Thursday, August 11
Tom screened the new cut of the film for Pippa this morning, and is now ready to start hammering down the final cut, working in tandem with Bob Lambert.
The model finally starts to look like something today. One of the 12 sections, in fact, is finished, mounted in its wooden frame and ready to be painted, and I start breathing a little easier. It's actually working.
Friday, August 12
Bari calls me at 8:30 this morning with the news:
Anne Ramsey has died.
After my initial shock and concern for Logan, her husband, it occurs to me that Life on the Edge was probably Anne's last film. A dubious distinction I would never have wanted - that my first film be anyone's last, especially not such a funny, warm, immensely talented woman. I also can't help but feel that Life has been, for me, bracketed by a pair of tragedies: The loss of my stepfather at the beginning, and now Annie at the end.
If there's any kind of cosmic balance, I'm beginning to think we're owed a pretty big success after this.1
Monday, August 15
After a full weekend of work, the models have taken enough of a shape to be seen and approved by Pippa, Joe and Neil. The only major question now is color scheme: Johnny has test-painted one in pastel blues, pinks and yellows, but it doesn't quite work. Tom suggests basic primaries - blue, red, yellow, plus green - and a lot of aging. Johnny and Mike agree to have one painted by Thursday for final inspection (final, since we shoot on Friday).
We officially switch editors today, Carl Kress replaced by Bob Lambert, who will oversee the final cut with Tom. Although Tom petitions to re-locate editing from 20th Century-Fox to the Burman Studio, this worries Linden, and they opt for, as they put it, 'neutral ground', an editing facility fortunately located nearby.
Tuesday, August 16 - Thursday, August 18
The new paint job and aging looks so good that we don't wait for Thursday to start applying it to all of the completed sections.
On Thursday, I spend much of the day digging through the storage unit for what we need in our re-shoots - John Glover's costume, Billy's bedspread, etc. - and I come up missing several items. However, they all turn up when I discreetly ask some of the guys on the crew ("Oh, Henry's i.d. badge?…No…well, okay, yeah - it's at home on my wall…").
Also on Thursday, we begin experimenting with some of the effects we want to see in the models. Effects man Tim Wiles has joined us again, and we begin blowing smoke through tubes, drilling hidden holes for water and steam seepage, inflating bladders, etc. To our delight, it all works, although the models won't have quite as much movement as we'd hoped for.
All along we'd expected the night before we started shooting to be an all-nighter, but surprisingly we're out by ten, and we've even built a set for John Glover to stand in front of tomorrow, although 'built' is perhaps misleading - it's actually one of the bathroom walls we dug out of storage, redressed and repainted.
Friday, August 19
When I arrive at the Burman Studio today, it's already been converted into a mini-soundstage. All of the huge, heavy work tables have been cleared out, the walls have been hung with black Duvetyne, and the lights have been set up on stands in their basic positions.
|Mike adds tubes, meters and a new paint job to one of the former bathroom walls, which then becomes the set for the new opening scene with John Glover|
We begin shooting at 2 p.m., when John Glover arrives. We're thankful to have his hardhat - his hair is cut so short we'd have been in serious trouble otherwise. It takes no more than forty minutes or so for John to get dressed, made up and get his new lines down, then the shot proceeds quickly and well. Tom gets more than just his director's two cents in by also blowing on the tube which operates the nipple in the earpiece of the phone. I call "Action!" for him, and it's definitely a word I could grow to like.
As soon as we finish with John, we move that set out and move in a section of Cindy's wall, for a shot of Spike rocking out during Cindy's montage. With Andrew again puppeting, we get the shot in the can and move on to the next set-up, a new close-up of Spike on Billy's bed, watching the Splat Spray debacle in progress (although we already have shot similar to this, Tom wants another from a different angle, to help expand the Splat Spray montage). We have some frames from the film to help us match the set, although Marvin sees the frames and goes pale - we'd forgotten about the complicated slat lighting from the original set for Billy's room. Marvin thinks quick, though, and duplicates the lighting perfectly in about 5 minutes with strips of masking tape strung between two 'C' stands.
Before we can get to the shot, Tom gets a call he's been waiting for - if he leaves now, Bill Murray has the time to see the movie, which will then decide him on whether or not to do our narration. Tom quickly fills me in on what he wants from the rest of the shots that day, and off he and Bari go.
We get the next shot of Spike easily, and move on to our last shot of the day, a close-up of Joey's hand removing a tick from Spike. Tom has constructed a special tick which should appear to wiggle when we pull it off, and I've the nails on my right hand and donned Josh Miller's jacket to double him. Again, we get the shot easily and we wrap by 6 p.m.
Saturday, August 20
Today's the big day for the models. We start at 7 a.m. with our first set-up, the switchboard with the operator's hand moving tubes about. Originally, Pippa wanted to play the mysterious hand, but since she isn't here I get stuck with bright-magenta press-apply nails (on my left - looks great with my short-clipped right). We panic for a second over costume, but I resolve it by suggesting I wear John Glover's work jacket.
After that, we start moving through the various model sections, although we start slowing down. Marvin is working with low light levels, lots of smoke and a snorkel lens on the camera, all of which combine to create a difficult filming situation. Plus, we have the effects to worry about - bladders suddenly pop, calcium pellets don't smoke on cue, etc. The shots look wonderful on the video monitor, though, and by nightfall we've shot half of the 12 models.
Marvin and Tom take time out between set-ups to talk to our interviewer from American Cinematographer, something I set up. I'm pleased to say that Ron Magid, a friend of mine who's doing the coverage for Cinematographer, tells me Marvin is one of the brightest and most articulate cinematographers he's ever interviewed, and he assures me our piece(s) in the prestigious trade journal will be top-notch.2
And I take time out to attend (with Bari) services for Anne Ramsey, which have pleasantly chosen to celebrate her life and achievements rather than her passing. The best moment comes when Danny DeVito, speaking to those assembled as Annie's director on Throw Momma From the Train, says, "You know, if Anne could look down from heaven and say one thing to me right now, I know it would be - " dramatic pause, then in a raspy imitation of Anne, " - so much for your sequels, fat boy!" Later on, I tailor this comment to Tom.
The last shot is done outside against the night sky – the three whistles firing off. Tom wants the first shot in the film to be the shrill firing of the whistles, something guaranteed to wake the audience up for what’s in store.
Sunday, August 21
We continue today with new shots of the Splat Spray game (which I spent a whole day on last week cleaning up – yuck). We never did get good close-ups of anything actually splatting, so we try something different this time: We lay the game flat, and Tom stands above it on a ladder, dropping first yellow paint pellets, then special blood-filled ticks.
It still doesn’t work.
Nothing splats with the power we want, and when the backboard lies flat, none of the splats run. We try some bizarre items to fire the splats (my favorite is a condom hooked over the edge of a tube), but it never looks right. We get what we can and move on.
We get down to only 800 feet of film left, and are faced with an interesting decision: We can either film the last two model sections, or we can try the shot we’ve talked about since principal photography – dropping a flexible, corrugated tube rapidly over the camera to give the illusion of travelling down the tube. We decide to go for the latter shot, so Mike Stuart quickly paints the chosen tube, Marvin dismounts his camera from the dolly and positions it on the floor looking up (professional filmmaking at its finest – we hold the camera in place with about fifteen sandbags). Mike climbs to the top of a storage rack above the camera, rigs a frame to guide the tube, and we use up our remaining 800 feet of film guiding the falling tube down over the long snorkel lens.
That’s the end of all photography on Life on the Edge, with the exception of opticals and titles.
Monday, August 22
At 2 p.m., we see the dailies from the weekend, and it’s good news/bad news.
The good news is how wonderful most of it is. The new stuff with Glover is fabulous (not bad for an instant set!), the dog shots all work, including my hand substituting for Joshua’s, and a number of the model shots are truly exquisite.
The bad news is how many of the shots are unusable. Due to low light levels, Marvin was working with virtually no depth of field, and a lot of the shots are soft on the focus. In several others, the plywood frames holding the models are visible, while several shots end on a highly-visible, very bright red Coke can.
Also, as suspected, the Splat Spray game shots are still not what we’d hoped for, although we can get some use out of them. What doesn’t work at all are the tube travelling shots – almost every shot ends with either a portrait of Mike Stuart or a bottle he tried to use to cover the end of the tube with, and the shadows of the hands guiding the tube down are plain as day in almost all of the shots.
Guess we shoulda gone for the two extra model shots.
1. Finally - proof positive there is no cosmic balance.
2. Ron was as good as his word, with not one but two great articles in the March 1989 issue of American Cinematographer, one covering Marvin's cinematography and the other Ed's production design. Thanks, Ron!
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