II. ON THE EDGE

(PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY)

Week 1

Monday, June 6

This is it. Wish I could go through the day without smelling Hjalmer's pipe smoke everywhere and feeling my throat tighten up about every fifteen seconds.

I arrive at the stage about 11 a.m., when they're just about to go with the first shot (Tom, of course, says he waited until I was there). The set looks unbelievable - there are funny planters with potting mix made of pasta sprayed green, books on a shelf with titles like Pipe Dreams and Stories for Men, and a bar with working tubes. And as for the aquarium creature, I don't have to lie to exclaim about its virtues. The addition of gelatin poured over the whole mass has blended colors into pastels that are really quite pretty. Later, Pippa does express to me her reservations, but I manage to assuage them by pointing out to her that, by the time we see it in the film, we will already have seen a mother put a leech on her little boy's face and slice up living animals for lunch.

Finally the sound man calls, "Speed", an assistant cameramn holds up the slate marking the scene while another calls "Rolling", Tom calls for "Action!", John Glover and Richard Portnow step through the front door of the Hollowhead home - and filming has begun on Life on the Edge.

It proceeds slowly for a while, but begins picking up the pace. There are a few minor mishaps - a picture that keeps falling, the front door not closing smoothly - but overall the sluggish speed today is due to everyone getting into the swing of things.

I find I am fascinated by the video monitor they've set up primarily for Tom to view scenes as they're being filmed (no playback, though).1 When a scene is actually being shot, the black-and-white image on the monitor actually flickers with the shutter, and I begin to get a sense of how wonderful this thing will look on film (due in no small part to Marvin Rush's intricate moves and exquisite lighting).

And the actors! Everyone keeps remarking on how different Richard Portnow's Crabneck is from the crass, loud, obese bully envisioned in the script, but I for one prefer Portnow's version, since it seems both more unusual and more insidious to me.

Finally the first show with the aquarium creature comes, and I crawl into the tiny hole (maybe 2 feet by 2 feet) that they've cut for me in the back of the set, wriggle to my feet, and find myself in a dark, stuffy tube with the wall about 8 inches from my face in any direction. I have to really stretch to fit my hand in the eyeball and poke it out, the tube is dripping with slimy gelatin which penetrates the coveralls they've given me to wear, and I can't see out of it. We manage to coordinate the eye's movement by giving me cues according to lines the actors speak (which I can just barely make out), and, surprisingly enough, we get it in just three takes.

Shooting wraps at 7 p.m., and a tense meeting follows in which the entire crew, including producers and writers, are informed that, unless we are directly involved in a shot, we must stay off the set, since we're getting in the way and are already four shots behind schedule. Neil also tells us we're already considerably over budget, and some concern is expressed privately over Tom's quiet demeanor today. I myself expected this; Tom himself admits to being a "slow study", and today was an input-gathering day for him. I know when his output starts, it's gonna overload everyone's meters.

When I leave Ren-Mar, I go to the Burman studio to dip components of Oliver's edge corsage in rubber latex, then it's home for a beautiful, full night of sleep.

Tuesday, June 7

I wake up feeling refreshed and with a better handle on things.

The first shot is scheduled for 8:30, but when I arrive at 8:40, they've already gotten the master shot for almost an entire page.

As predicted, Tom is cookin' now, over the hump of the first day. The shots to start to move in rapid succession, and I spend a large part of my day cooped up in that cramped little tube, feeling the muscles in my right hand die as I manipulate the aquarium creature's eye take after take.

Everyone's really in the spirit today. Apologies are made for tense words exchanged yesterday, the actors are getting better and better (as well as being hilarious between takes), and most of the crew are proudly wearing the glow-in-the-dark Life on the Edge t-shirts that Neil had made up and distributed yesterday.

After lunch, the anticipation builds to a fever point over the first dailies, which will be viewed tonight after the day's shooting wraps.

At 5:00 p.m., Matt Shakman's first day is finished, and as Matt departs Tom tells me how delighted he is with the way the script is shaping up; the scenes between father and son ("Do you remember what we said about fighting?") are taking on a real poignancy, and yet they don't distract from the slightly manic flow at all, even add to it in a strange way.

Most of the art department is missing today, and it turns out they're already at the cannery location, cleaning it and dressing it. I pity the person assinged to clean out the enormous pile of rotted fish remains right in the front.

Photography wraps, and the department heads adjourn for a short meeting. Everyone feels that we're nearly up to speed now, except Marvin. He's castigating himself violently as a failure on the show, until we realize he mistakenly thinks we're 5 pages behind, not the 1½ that we actually are. Matt Hinkley, our supremely competent and ever-calm first assistant director, digs out the figures for us: On the first day, we accomplished only 11 camera set-ups, but today it rose to 18. Marvin, however, is used to shooting 23 to 25 per day (about average for television production), and points out that we'll have to do even more than that at the cannery location, where we have over 50 shots to get in two days.

Which brings us to the topic of how to accomplish what needs to be done at the location. We start discussing the second unit we'd been planning to use there Friday and Saturday, and someone suggests we send them down Wednesday night to shoot the opening pipe sequence, which is a complex shot. This is agreed upon, and Tom immediately nominated his second unit director - me. He states that I know how the shot should go, and what he wants, and everyone agrees. Tomorrow night, then, it's off to the cannery to begin my directing career.

Finally the big moment of the day arrives - the dailies. A screening room not far from Ren-Mar has been arranged for us, and by 8:30 we're all there, sipping wine, eating cheese and crackers, and watching the first footage from Life on the Edge.

It turns out the sound transfer is not too good (low rumbling noises, which Neil notes to have corrected at the lab), the print is washed out and not color-corrected…and it's still fabulous. We all laugh as if we've never seen this stuff before, and applaud when it's over. The feeling in the room is funny, too - everyone, for some oddly superstitious reason, is afraid to say what they intuit, that we may have something special on our hands. I also begin to sense some interesting undercurrents in the film that Tom and I never deliberately intended, but which I know will be read into the film when it's released. Nancy Mette's Miriam is so quintessentially pure and innocent and 50's, and Richard Portnow's Crabneck so insidious, lecherous, that I see critics reading into this some kind of statement on the erosion of innocence by corruption from the 50's to the 60's.

A final note on the dailies: Today is the only day the actors will be allowed to see the dailies. Apparently this is a common practice, the idea being to instill faith in your performers in the look of the film in that first week, but not risk having them alter their performances because of something they see in later dailies.

Afterwards, I return to the Burman studio, where I complete the basic components of Oliver's corsage, then it's home to get my usual few hours of sleep before our - gulp - 7 a.m. call.

Wednesday, June 8

We start in at 7, and I’m ready for my close-up – it’s insert shots of the aquarium creature first up. I crawl into my cramped little tube, and tentacles covered in glycerine are draped in the holes over my head, so that they keep slapping it. Then the eye itself is slathered in glycerine, and suddenly I’m engulfed in wet, sticky stuff – it’s in my hair, my eyes, my clothes. I try to ignore it as Tom calls "Action!", and starts shouting directions – "move the eye up, pan it left, drop it down fast, slide the tentacles through". Even though the insert finishes quickly, I’m in and out of my slimy little den all day, as most of the shots are aimed in that direction. And Tom has taken one of my suggestions for a shot: Mr. Crabneck pauses to exchange a glare with the aquarium creature, which shrinks back in return. Considering that I can operate only via outside verbal cues, it’s amazing that we get it right in only a few takes.

At 4:30, John Chavez and I head out for the cannery. It’s already starting to look like a United Umbilical pumping station – massive company logos have been painted at strategic points, tubes have been added and dressed, and lights have been hung. Ed and Mike are still at work on the area where we’ll be shooting tonight, adding a large vat, pipes rigged to drip, etc. Because we’re outside, we have to wait until nightfall to light and shoot, and it’s midnight before we’re ready for the first shot. By then effects man Kevin McCarthy and his crew have rigged a thick, bubbling liquid in the vat, a chugging engine, seeping pipes and bursts of steam. Although I had always hoped the opening sequence could be done as one continuous shot (which would be about 45 seconds long), we’ll have to break this into two shots because of the requirements of the camera dolly.

We finally get the first take done, and discover it was nearly two minutes long. We get it down to just over a minute on the next take, and a minute even on number three. We finish part one by following drops dripping into a vat, and move on to the second part of the shot. We go away to let the lighting be completed and the effects rigged, and for some reason it takes even longer this time – we’re not ready for the first shot until nearly 1:30 in the morning. By then everyone is slowing down, and the effects machinery is sluggish as well – the steam generator keeps losing pressure, forcing long waits between takes. After four unsuccessful takes, we get it with lucky number five, and it’s a wrap.

I’m home just before 4 a.m., covered with dried glycerine and cannery filth, smelling like rotting tuna, but at least there’s no early time for me tomorrow, so I can sleep in and then take about a three-hour bath.

Thursday, June 9

I’m over to the stage about noon, just in time to come in on the latest catastrophe: The day before they are to shoot, we’ve suddenly discovered no one knows just who our extras are supposed to be. Joe Grace and I spend the next four hours doing nothing more than assembling the list of 12 plant workers and 5 reamers, setting their call times, contacting them with directions, etc. Our job is somewhat complicated by Tom’s sudden revelation of his image of the ream gang members as young Marine recruits, and the fact that Eduardo has already constructed reamer costumes that fit only size 30 waists. But we finally pull it together with an 11:45 a.m. call tomorrow.

I’m gone on family business for a few hours, and when I return I find they’re still shooting the same scene they were on at lunch six hours ago. Chuck Conner, our Oliver Digits, is not a professional actor, and has thus forced the other actors and Marvin to work harder to make his performance work. By 11:00 p.m., they’ve just wrapped the last shot, a spectacular almost-360° shot following Mr. Crabneck all about the living room.

The crews start loading up the trucks to transport all the camera and lighting equipment to the cannery, and we head off to see dailies.

Even more wonderful this time. The processing has been corrected, and the shots have a beautiful, rich look – and again we find ourselves in total hysteria, this time over Crabneck’s self-defense lessons (especially the painfully real, unaugmented thunks when Portnow hits the back of Matt Shakman’s head) and Crabneck’s scene with Cindy. I’m also pleased to say the inserts of the aquarium creature are delightful, and I’m congratulated on the fact that I give good eye.

Friday, June 10

I get in 6 hours of sleep before the phone calls about today’s schedule start. I run some errands for the effects team (including buying oysters to load a "squashable" edge fly with), and then it’s off to location.

The art department has finished now, and the whole place has been transformed. The first shot of the day is Barney Burman as the young reamer crawling out of a tube finding himself wearing Crabneck’s discarded, burnt clothes, muttering to himself, "Reamers, keepers..." The scene had been added after the page turn meeting in May, when some concern had been voiced over whether we gave away the ending (Mr. Crabneck in the chair with Grandpa) too easily; to try and throw the audience off, we decided to add the young reamer finding Crabneck’s clothes in the waste tube, implying that perhaps the Hollowheads had simply flushed Crabneck away. For our first location shot, it goes incredibly well – green lighting from the tubemouth with jagged flashes of violet in the background, steam and sludge in the tube, and steam jetting in from the side. We get it quickly and move on to the next set-up, always keeping in mind fifty set-ups in two days.

Marvin suggests that we call Carl Kress, our editor, and find out if he’s seen the footage we shot on Wednesday for the opening sequence. He has – and pronounces it all completely unusable, claiming that the speed with which we shot the tubes caused them to "strobe", or blur badly.

Panic sets in. We almost start setting up to do another version of the sequence, but decide instead to build a pipe section on stage, where we can take our time and do it right. Mike Stuart, a former modelmaker of considerable skill and experience, volunteers to construct the pipes in miniature, something he’d wanted to do from the start. Although Neil is initially upset over nearly $1,000 of useless film, he is also understanding, considering that virtually every film has its major gaffs, and ours have been pleasingly spare up ‘til now.

Then crisis #2 sets in: As we’re preparing for our second shot, someone says the dirty word "asbestos", and although we try to assure everyone that a limited exposure to asbestos is harmless, we still lose two hours of shooting time.

By then, Anne and Logan Ramsey have arrived, and we immediately move on to their scenes. And yet even now we’re condemned to delays – the Ramseys are having a difficult time with the "tube talk" and blocking. By the time we wrap at 1 a.m., we’ve gotten only a third of the shots we needed to get today, and it’s time to start cutting.

Three views of Anne and Logan Ramsey and our young stars at the cannery

On the plus side for the day is the appearance of Joshua Miller as Joey. He and Matt make a wonderful team, especially with the snide smirks and rolling eyes Tom and Josh have come up with for Joey.

A last funny story for the day is when both little Matt and his mother ask me where I ever heard the term we use in the script to describe Bud’s instrument, "one-man chicken-choking band". I’m utterly mystified until Matt’s mom explains that it’s a euphemism for something boys tend to do alone in their rooms. Tom had slipped this in on me, leaving me in blissful ignorance until now.

I tell him I just found out, and get the best laugh out of him I’ve heard all day.

Saturday, June 11

The first shots today involve the ream gang. In addition to Barney Burman, the ream team also consists of Burman studio employees Adam Hill, Pedro Valdez, Andrew Jones (the last two had to shave off cherished mustaches), and a friend of Joe Grace’s, Ron Tsuruda. Playing the head reamer is Lee Arenberg, a talented young actor who we knew through Barney, who is part of a theater repertory company with Lee (we had also read Lee for Cop #2). The boys all look wonderfully whimsical in their silly outfits, and in the actual scenes Lee does such a fine job playing the bully that Barney almost doesn’t even need to act as the frightened young reamer (although he does, and very well, too).

The day proceeds well, the set-ups coming one after another in rapid succession. The Ramseys arrive, and we’re delighted to see that they seem at last to have gotten into the flow of the "tube talk". Their scenes are hilarious today, particularly the one in which Logan lets us hang him upside-down out of a smelly tank.

With the tensions of yesterday removed and everything flowing smoothly, it’s a good day to get to know some of my fellow Edgers better. Our craft service man, Lane Arndt, proves to be one of the more multi-talented crewmembers, providing us with not just coffee, snacks and vitamins, but wonderful impressions and jokes as well; he’s also an actor, singer and writer with several sitcom scripts in his portfolio. Joshua Miller is a fellow photographer (who, coincidentally, took his first photography class from our still photographer, Melissa Moseley), and he enjoys borrowing one of my cameras to snap off shots. And Matt Shakman is probably going to be wealthy beyond belief by the time he’s 25: He’s already got well-thought-out plans to go through Yale’s make-up major and open his own foam-appliance mail order business. Interestingly enough, neither of our young stars wants to pursue acting as an adult vocation – Josh wants to be a producer-director, and Matt wants to be a make-up effects man2. Both guys have their goals very definitely set before them, and make me think, sheesh, I sure wasn’t like that at 12 or 13.

About 9 p.m. they finally call for the shot that requires extras as the pumping station employees. I’ve called in four of my friends for this, and now, after spending all day yesterday and most of today waiting aimlessly, their moment has arrived. John Chavez also gets fitted up and, appropriately enough, is instructed by Tom to handle a control panel. The others receive their instructions, the camera rolls, and I watch on the monitor as the shot progresses beautifully.

As we begin to near our deadline of 12:30 a.m. (the time past which the kids can no longer work), we begin to realize we’re going to have to cut more shots. The Ramseys wrap, so that whole section is in the can; what remains to be shot (or cut) is a chase scene, involving the angered reamers pursuing the boys. Originally planned for 10 shots or so, Tom condenses it to basically four. We can only trust that it will make some sense when cut together. We leave regretting that we will never shoot in some of the more spectacular areas of the cannery, which had been dressed and painted with huge United Umbilical logos.

We wrap the cannery for good about 1:30 a.m. (after the kids were released, we did pick up a few more shots of the ream gang running by) and bid permanent farewell to the stench, filth and cold.


1. Remember, this was 1988 - this technology was still new then.
2. Joshua turned into an acclaimed full-fledged novelist, and Matt did get his Yale degree, but has gone into directing.

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