II. ON THE EDGE

(PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY)

Week 3

Monday, June 20

Everyone’s had a good Sunday, and we’re all rarin’ to go now as we finally leave the living room set and move into the kitchen. Marvin quickly allays our fears about shooting in the cramped kitchen; by lunch he’s gotten in a number of shots already, all of which look wonderful on our monitor, not at all cramped or forced.

Tom has spent the morning blocking the fight, and now it’s the actors’ turn to rehearse it. Stunt coordinator Gary Davis gives John and Richard a crash course (pun intended) in how to throw a "movie" punch, and then he pads John up in preparation for being hurled about by Richard. We start shooting take after take of punches, grabs and throws, and after an hour or so you really find yourself wincing.

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The fight

We’re not only concerned about John, who seems to be getting the worst of it, but also Richard, who has to snap his head back for so many simulated punches he must be giving himself whiplash; however, both actors are not only uncomplaining, but obviously enjoying themselves. The mood on the set is the best today I’ve yet seen it – the crew spontaneously applauds a number of the takes, and everyone wants to ham it up for my camera (which I, of course, take full advantage of).

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Happy actors ham it up: Richard threatens me with a scrub brush, while John gives me his best goofy grin (and ignores the instructions of the stuntman behind him)

Even the ever-tricky effects are performing today on cue; the bubbling tube in the kitchen, with which we’ve had a lot of problems trying to get the pump to work, is functioning perfectly today. If every day was like today, I’d never think about becoming a novelist again.

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The best part, though, comes with the final shots, which show Mr. Crabneck’s back being burned by Miriam’s giant cooker-tube. We start by gluing the huge burned-back appliance (which looks like a huge pizza, earning Richard the nickname today of "Pizza Man") onto a t-shirt, which Richard dons. Over the t-shirt goes his regular shirt, which is torn open and shredded around the edges to reveal the appliance. Lastly comes a jacket, already specially torn and singed by Johnny L., and when it’s all put together it’s truly disgusting. We place Richard on the set, get the steam generator going to pump steam through the giant cooker, and "A-B smoke" is applied to Richard’s back with syringes, causing it to smoke as well. Lastly, the green strobes inside the cooker tube are activated and placed over Richard’s back, Tom calls for "Action!", and Mr. Crabneck shrieks and thrashes in apparent ecstasy as the cooker tube flashes and smokes, then swings away to reveal his hideously-marked back. The scene is so effective that the second Tom yells "Cut!", the whole crew applauds and whistles. Tom himself is giggling like a 12-year old who’s just gotten away with something naughty, while Pipps looks a bit like she wonders what she’s gotten herself into.

That night we see the two days worth of dailies of the cops, and for the first time I admit to some disappointment over the footage. Although Bobcat’s coverage is extensive (and his wonderful performance and ad-libs merit it), Donovan Scott, equally funny, hasn’t been covered as well, and even Juliette’s coverage seems light. Also missing is a clear shot of Henry’s foot covering Crabneck’s finger – the one we have is nearly indecipherable. Fortunately, that’s the kind of insert we can pick up any time, and the sequence will probably cut together better than it plays in separate shots.

Tuesday, June 21

The happy mood prevails again today, as we move into the second day of the kitchen fight scene.

Ed, Mike Stuart and I take a break in the morning to visit Hollywood Optical Systems to discuss our opticals (down to four shots now). We run the live-action footage on a moviola, and the experts agree that the footage will do fine. They also give Ed more advice on how to proceed with the paintings, and also let us carry out some old models which we may be able to transform into foreground miniatures for our matte shots.

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That afternoon, we hit the part of the fight sequence wherein Mr. Crabneck grabs Billy and tries to twist his head off, and I notice some interesting things happening with our performers: They’re acting past Tom’s calls for "Cut!" now! Richard continues to growl and wrestle over Matt, who ends every take with a huge grin on his face. My other favorite acting anecdote of the day comes when we’re shooting a close-up of Billy reacting to Mr. Crabneck’s back burning. We’ve shot three takes when Matt’s mother, Inez, mentions to me that Matt makes a very funny "gross" face, and it might fit in here. I mention this to Tom, who suggests it to Matt. Sure enough, take #4 is the one – Matt’s adorable "yuck" expression earns him a big hand from the spectators.

At the end of the day, we discuss Grandpa’s room, which has barely been started on one end of the stage. The staircase Johnny found at a demolition site has been hauled in and set up in place to lead to a door already located in the top of a fuse box room on the stage, and Grandpa’s chair has been placed on the floor beneath. Marvin, who has already planned out a spectacular shot to open Grandpa’s scene, tells us the staircase will have to be moved to accomodate his shot, and there’s still a lot of work left to be done on Grandpa’s room – a problem since our schedule originally called for it to be finished tomorrow and shot Friday. Although Grandpa’s room has been pushed back two days now, there’s still some concern over completing the set in time.

There’s another scheduling concern, too – we’re already behind on the fight scene, and only halfway through it.

Talk begins circulating about extending the shooting schedule.

Wednesday, June 22

Today may be Wednesday to some, but to us it’s "Tentacle Day"...

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With the possible exception of the aquarium creature, the tentacle is the first major creature effect to work, and there’s a lot of anticipation in the air. Andrew Jones has accompanied the tentacles over from the Burman Studio to act as chief "tentacle wrangler", ably assisted by Mike, property master Eric Roemheld and myself. The first tentacle shot will be of the mechanical one sliding out of its hole to start wrapping around Crabneck’s neck while he strangles Billy. The mechanical tentacle consists of a foam rubber tentacle, 8 feet long, enclosing half-a-dozen cables, each of which controls a different motion. The cables are attached to three handles, and it takes three people to operate the whole thing – Andrew slides it in and out of the hole in the back of the set, while Eric and I operate the cables – and a fourth person, Mike, to assure the proper opening of the tube door on the other side by turning the bolt with a pair of pliers. We get Richard in place, grease the inside of the tube and the tentacle itself with lubricating jelly, set up a monitor so we can see what we’re doing (an advantage I’ve never had in the aquarium), and we’re ready. Tom calls "Action!", Richard and Matt begin struggling, Matt hits the tube opening, we get our cue – and the tentacle slides right out and starts wrapping around Richard’s neck as if it was born for the role (which it was). Right on the first take! And it remains the best take, although on our second one the tentacle "caresses" Richard’s face in a way that would make a porn movie queen blush.

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Next up is the tentacle wrapping all the way around Crabneck, for which we remove the mechanical tentacle and substitute an identical one made of gelatin. This one is likewise greased liberally, then wrapped around Richard’s throat several times, as we plan to shoot this in reverse – we’ll pull the tentacle away from Richard, then hopefully when run backwards it will give the illusion of winding about him. We spend a few minutes talking about mistakes commonly made in films when they’ve shot something in reverse, choreograph the scene with Richard, and shoot it. Marvin has brought in his own VCR today, which has the ability to play scenes in reverse, and by hooking it into our video tap we get our own instant playback. We see the scene first in regular forward motion, then hold our breath as Marvin hits reverse play – and damned if it isn’t perfect on the first take! Again, this first take proves to be the best; although Richard choreographs his actions even better on subsequent takes, the tentacle is either too fast or too slow in wrapping around him.

Now for tentacle shot #3: The same gelatin tentacle is wrapped around Richard’s neck, he struggles with it and pulls forward, snapping it. And yet once more, it performs perfectly on the first take, less well in later ones (when we have to tack the sections back together with glue). That’s a wrap on the tentacle, and we move on.

Grandpa’s room looks great today; I’m amazed at what the art boys have wrought overnight. They’ve extended the staircase per Marvin’s instructions, and the only thing that remains to be done on the rest of the set is painting.

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While Grandpa’s room actually will be done on schedule, the same cannot be said of the fight sequence. Tom confides to me that we are now 3 days behind schedule, most of that because of the fight, and so the obvious happens: We start cutting. First to go, of course, are the new pages I had added just before shooting started; in this sequence, that means the scene in which the fight is interrupted by the appearance of the lost reamer (to have been Barney Burman again). So far, virtually every one of the new scenes I wrote has been cut, and no one wants to answer when I ask, what if the film’s too short now again?

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And then late in the afternoon, the official word on the schedule comes down: We’ve been extended one extra week. The art boys all breathe a sigh of relief.

The applause continues that night into dailies, where we see probably Marvin’s best work yet. The green strobe effect in the cooker is stunning, and Portnow’s performance is the roller coaster ride we’d always wanted. Apparently, Richard has not been entirely convinced that the gruesome make-up works, and Pippa promptly decides to dispense just once with the rule about allowing the actors in the dailies, so that Richard will feel more assured about what he’s – well, been forced to endure.

Thursday, June 23

A late call (9:30 a.m.) today after last night’s relatively late hours.

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Pippa has made an interesting observation which she suggests might be worth mentioning here: A number of our crewpeople have had trouble sleeping since we started filming the fight sequence! Although this is as much due to exhilaration as horror, I hope it bodes well as an indication of how this stuff will ultimately effect our audience.

Even with the late call, it’s some time before we really get underway, due to the amount of time required to apply Richard’s make-up, which now includes back, arm and face (later it will also include food splatterings). But when he’s done Tom, Marvin and crew begin flying through the shots, and by lunch they’re nearly ready to move out of the kitchen. They pick up the last few shots of Billy peeking out and Bud waking up next to the monstrous Crabneck, then we move back out into the living room again for the scene in which the exhausted Hollowheads are just catching their breath when Crabneck appears again and is attacked by Miriam this time.

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The Hollowheads have barely caught their breath at the dining table when Crabneck attacks again

The blocking and rehearsal on this sequence (maybe 1 ½ pages in length) take the better part of an hour, as the actors try to work out the best moves ("where do I throw the knife down?"). Then it’s another long span of time for lighting and setting focus, and by 5 p.m. we’re finally able to start shooting. It takes six takes of screaming, chair-flinging, strangling and stabbing before we get it. One interesting side-note to this sequence is the inclusion of our first "tubequake". Originally Tom had wanted the flow of the action throughout the film to be edge100.jpg - 20170 Bytesperiodically punctuated by massive shakings and brief brown-outs, similar to effect of living next to a train rail. However, in the hustle of production we’d somehow lost the idea – until now. This is not only late in the story to introduce the idea, but also we can’t really shake the set, we can only flicker the lights. We do takes both with and without, to cover ourselves.

The final shot of the day involves a close-up of Crabneck’s fingers being cut, for which the Burman Studio has prepared an unbelievably life-like fake hand, complete with tubes and syringes for pumping blood. The fingers have been pre-cut, and should fall away when hit even halfway-hard. Our problem, though, is that we can’t shoot the scene as originally intended; the artificial hand was designed to fit on the end of Richard’s arm, with the shot on him as we pursues Miriam, then reaches out, and her knife swings into frame, lopping the fingers off. However, the set behind where Richard would have to stand has been dismantled, rendering the shot impossible. Instead, we opt to focus on Miriam, have the hand enter the frame, and stay on her as she swings the knife. Someone is needed to dress in Crabneck’s shirt and coat and manipulate the hand (Richard has already left for the day), and as the only person still present whose hands are small enough to fit into the artificial hand, I am once again elected. I put on Richard’s clothes (cross-dressing at its finest), tubes are run up my arm and around my back, I scrunch my hand up into the tiny hollowed-out space in the hand (wondering how Richard Portnow would have fit any of his hand into it), and we start to rehearse. We soon realize we won’t be able to choreograph a camera move, so they stand me on an apple box next to the camera (to mirror Richard’s height), and away we go.

On the first take nothing happens.

We cut, do a quick touch-up on the hand while Nancy practices her swings, and go again.

This time one finger is cut off.

We cut. Andrew, Johnny and Tom work frantically to restore the one finger, and we try again.

This take works – sort of. It’ll either be the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen, or the dumbest. Nancy cuts both fingers successfully, but one hangs by a flap of skin for a split second before falling away.

Fortunately, the blood pumps never do work properly, because, as I forgot to mention previously, I happen to be wearing all white today.

I notice something new in the dailies tonight which I’ve never really paid attention to before: The way the actors warm up between the start of the take and when Tom actually calls "Action!" It may be just that it’s particularly noticeable in these scenes – to gear themselves up for some of the shots in the fight scene, they do everything from dance to scream. It’s also fun to watch John Glover especially at the end of takes; when Tom yells "Cut!" on the strangle shots, Glover goes from choking, wide-eyed fear to a huge grin, instantly.

Looks like everybody is definitely enjoying this show.

Friday, June 24

The days starts off slowly, since Richard is in the heaviest make-up job of the entire show today – burned face, back, arm, and mutilated right hand. While we wait for Bari, Johnny and Andrew to complete the lengthy job, Marvin takes his crew to Grandpa’s room, where they begin laying down the complex lighting beneath Grandpa’s chair. Tom and I have an opportunity to talk while we’re waiting, and he confides that even the new five-week schedule isn’t gonna do it; in fact, he intends to ask for another week beyond that. It isn’t that our crew is slow or inexperienced, but rather that none of us really realized how truly ambitious this film was. I add that I think, too, that no one was prepared for how well the film would turn out, and the excitement generated has naturally translated to a desire to take the time to do everything right.

We have our first visiting journalist in today, a friend of mine who is a staff writer for American Cinematographer, and it’s fun to see how everyone on the crew "puffs up" at the idea of magazine coverage (especially from the most prestigious trade publication). For lunch, Joe, Pippa and I talk publicity with Ron, our writer, and I’m pleased to see them heeding his words and talking about loosening up a bit on the issue of secrecy vs. publicity. Ron agrees with me that a total publicity blank-out could kill us before we’ve even been born.

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The rest of the day is spent filming the scenes in which Bud and his chicken come home from the party, both "totally liquified". For the close-ups, I puppet the chicken by crouching down out of frame and crab-walking with Lightfield as he crosses the set. Later, I puppet the chicken again when Bud is seated, and dad pries the chicken away from him while Bud babbles on about "the secret". For the close-ups of Billy holding the chicken, Matt puppets it himself, and very finely, too.

In the dailies, the finger hanging from the flap of skin works well – almost too well, in fact, since it’s kind of sickening.

We love it.

Saturday, June 25

A long, hectic day. My major project for the day is to prepare a packet of press information to be ready by Monday morning at 9:30. Seems Joe has arranged for a video crew from the cable channel "Movietime" to come out and shoot us (since all other plans for a video documentary have fallen through, this is as good as we’ll get), and the first thing the "Movietime" crew will need is the printed production information. Our unpaid publicist, Ziggy, who has actually interviewed all the actors in order to write biographies of them for our eventual presskit, is out of town for the weekend, and so the task of preparing this emergency press info has fallen to me.

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It’s not to be that easy, though. I have visitors today (a cousin from Seattle and friend), but it’s the aquarium creature who becomes the real bane of today’s existence. Every time I start to get somewhere again on the production notes, I’m called back into the aquarium. The reason today is that we’re shooting the "morning after" scene, when the Hollowheads are all gathered together to enjoy Billy’s favorite dish, brackish pudding. Although the actors all look marvelous in Eduardo’s new costumes, for some reason they’re all having trouble with the lines in this scene. Maybe it’s because we don’t even start shooting the scene until about 8 p.m., and it’s Saturday night. In any case, I’m stuck inside that cramped, dripping little tube more than long enough to fully appreciate the lack of ventilation and noxious fumes building up from the decaying gelatin. By the time we wrap after 10 p.m., I’m covered with slime, bruised from being cramped up so long, and seeing purple. I stagger home, plotting to strike on Monday until they rig up some way to breathe in there.

The one funny moment I remember from tonight (I’ll admit that much of it is an oxygen-starved blur) is bumping into Nancy coming off the set in her huge skirt, and commenting that it may have been such clothing that’s held women back all this time – as soon as she gets into this outfit, she begins to feel strangely bubble-headed.

I can relate, and it has nothing to do with clothes.

Sunday, June 26

Although it’s a day off for me (whereas the poor art department never rests), I include mention of today mainly as a tip for any future filmmakers out there: Don’t plan anything on your day off. I partied until 9 p.m., typed the production notes until midnight, then realized my apartment looks like a well-developed mold culture.

And I didn’t even finish the notes.

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