Friday, March 16, 2007

THE HOUSE BETWEEN, Ep. #3: Positioned

In the third episode of THE HOUSE BETWEEN, a new sci-fi drama, tempers boil over when manipulative Travis (Lee Hansen) seizes the kitchen, thereby sending the unstable, obsessive Arlo (Jim Blanton) into a tailspin. All of them captives in a strange house "at the end of the universe" with limited supplies, it's now up to saner heads, namely the psychic Theresa (Alicia A. Wood), scientist Bill (Tony Mercer) and Astrid (Kim Breeding), to resolve the situation with a minimum of bloodshed. Produced by Joe Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC. Written/directed by John Kenneth Muir. Copyright the Lulu Show LLC, 2007

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The House Between Episode # 3 ("Positioned") Director's Notes

Well, episode three of The House Between premieres tomorrow, Friday - here on the blog, on Veoh and at In preparation for the premiere of "Positioned," I thought I'd share some of my memories of writing and shooting this episode.

First of all, "Positioned" is my tribute to the action genre as it once was, and - as the dialogue describes it - the story is basically "Die Hard in a Kitchen." On next-to-no budget. A couple of years I proposed a film reference book called Die Hard in a Book, which studied all the variations of the Die Hard scenario, such as Under Siege, Speed, Passenger 57, and the like. There were no takers, alas, but while preparing for the book, I catalogued all the common "conventions" of the Die Hard action sub-genre. When writing "Positioned" I incorporated many of those commonalities. I'm sure you'll recognize a few standards.

Yet the action genre without a meaningful context carries no interest for me as a storyteller or viewer, so "Positioned" also furthers and deepens my central metaphor for The House Between, which is - simply stated - The House = Earth. There's no escape from either (at least not today...), and those of us who dwell here, though vastly different in color, creed and beliefs, must learn how to get along and share the limited resources, whether they be oil, water or food. That's the idea underlying this installment, but with each character representing a nation on Earth, in a sense; each having their unique way of handling the crisis. Theresa, Travis, Bill, Astrid and Arlo each take very, very different approaches to problem resolution based on their personalities, ideologies and personal histories.

To me, that's the core of "Positioned" even more than the action veneer.

This is an opportune time for me to go on at length about the catalyst or "loki" (mischief) character in this episode, the one-and-only Travis Crabtree. Travis gets a lot of funny quips in The House Between, basically serving as my Cordelia/Anya or Spike. But Travis is also - at times - quite the physical menace. I must proclaim here that Lee Hansen, who plays Travis, is nothing like his acerbic, aggressive character except that he shares a razor sharp intellect and wit. Actually, Lee Hansen is the funniest human being I've ever met. And also, he's one of the sweetest and most gentle souls you could ever hope to encounter. I suspect that sometimes during shooting he found it distasteful playing someone who would often commit such despicable acts. Because above everything else, Lee is an exceptionally nice human being. Still, I admire Lee as the great actor he is because he really threw himself into the part, and in particular, makes this episode work on all thrusters. Travis is the engine that makes "Positioned" go; and if Lee had not committed to the material 100%, I don't think the show would really work. Lee isn't just adept with the barbs, either...he's quite the physical presence. Again, that's absolutely necessary for Travis. If you're ever in a room with Lee Hansen, his charisma wins you over in about three seconds flat...and I think that quality translates well to the screen. Even when Travis is being really, really bad, he's compelling.

Jim Blanton's Arlo also has amazing scene in this episode. I'll never forget shooting his "revelatory" sequence (set on a staircase...). It was in the middle of a long day, and Tony and Jim had been rehearsing together for some time on the front porch (I think...) while Alicia, Lee and Kim continued shooting other sequences. Jim and Tony had a long scene (pages and pages and pages...) filled with a lot of difficult dialogue - almost all of it Arlo's. Then, it was time for the scene, and Jim nailed it the first time. We did it a second time, just for safety's sake, and he was equally brilliant the second time around. I have such respect for what Jim brings to Arlo, in some ways the most difficult character to get a handle on. He understands Arlo's child-like core, and really brings that aspect to the forefront of his performance. After the scene, I remember thinking that Tony was great reacting to Arlo in the scene, and he told me his reaction was "real,"...that he just listened to Jim tell his story, and got lost in that world. It was a great moment for both of them. Very genuine and very true. Arlo's staircase scene is one of my favorite in the entire run of episodes.

Other things I recall about this episode: This is the first time during the week that d.p. Rick Coulter and I unplugged our cameras from their tripods, and began swooping around the house for increased intensity. It's not as herky-jerky as your average Battlestar Galactica episode, but the untethered look I think works well for the episode and supports the content. Instead of remaining relatively static and resorting to zooms or cuts to close-ups, you'll see in this episode, the camera races right up to character's faces. It's a little exaggerated...but it's part and parcel of the action genre.

Also, if you watch closely, you'll notice that the lighting this week is more garish and bright than it has been in previous installments. As if the intensity of the events are impacting the very environs of the house. Also, my lighting directors Bobby and Kevin came up with the brilliant notion of utilizing the ceiling fan in one room as - in essence - a strobe light. Those shots work beautifully, and again contribute to the more wild, "big" nature of "Positioned."

I started my "Positioned" day by walking into the house and finding my able stunt choreographer, Rob Floyd, putting all five actors through their paces for the climactic fight scene. I strode into the middle of one rehearsal, and it was amazing to watch the actors hitting their marks and getting everything right on every beat. It really was like a dance. Rob orchestrated the whole thing with his typical enthusiasm, demonstrated some difficult fmoves himself and did a fantastic job with the sequence.

As I remember all these things, I suddenly recall the biggest problem with this episode. Basically, "Positioned" was designed to take place on two sides of one (kitchen...) door, as characters "positioned" and jockeyed for superiority. So imagine my surprise when I got to our location, script in hand, and realized that there was no kitchen door. Many of the doors in the house had been taken off their hinges and completely removed from the premises. Suddenly, the very foundation of the episode was in trouble. The fix was easy: Travis now takes the living room (where there IS a door...) AND the kitchen, but still, this issue gave me a few hours of heartburn.

I also recall that there was a scene which we didn't shoot in this script. About half-way through, Travis and Astrid are having their parlay in the kitchen, and to assert his dominance over her, Travis demands that Astrid take her shirt off...and cook and serve him dinner in her bra. I think the general consensus, brought forward by my mindful producer, Joe Maddrey, was that this was a little over the top and exploitative, even for Travis.

Finally, the character of Bill went through some interesting growth in this episode. I had originally envisioned the character as an analytical fellow, a kind of cold fish scientist. Tony plays the role with such passion and intensity and realism, however, that there's nothing remote about him. In the original script for "Positioned," Bill often stood back and analyzed the situation, remarking about the cleverness of Travis's "die hard in a kitchen" maneuver. Meanwhile, it was the women - Theresa and Astrid - who attempted to resolve the crisis. This didn't exactly sit well with Tony.

Joe had already told me he had reservations about the characterization on the page while vetting the script before shooting, and Tony came to me during shooting and - without ego - asked me a simple and direct question. "Do you want the audience to like Bill?" And then he added. "Because right now...I don't like him." Of course, I did want Bill to be likable, and thanks to Tony and Joe, I understood - on set - we needed to do everything we could to beef Bill up a little bit for this installment Tony worked closely with the other actors to tweak some of his that Bill didn't come off as so uninvolved, or worse...cowardly.

Finally, the day we shot "Positioned," I had a migraine headache all friggin' day. In no small part due, I'm certain, to the fact that we had been up the previous night shooting till 2:00 am.

Hope you enjoy the show!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: The Wicker Man (2006)

From my review of The Wicker Man (1971), in Horror Films of the 1970s:

"One of the most cleverly crafted films to come out of the 1970s, The Wicker Man is a stinging indictment of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, but as usual, the best mysteries are those which end with a total, yet logical surprise. The Wicker Man satisfies that requirement and so much more as it reaches its terrifying apex.

It is not difficult to view The Wicker Man as a culture clash. An outsider, a prim and proper Christian policeman named Howe arrives in Summerisle, an island with its own customs. Yet, oddly, the values of the outsider are not, in this situation, lauded above those of the natives.

Instead, Howe is shown to be a hypocrite as director Robin Hardy spells out a well-defined Christianity vs. Paganism debate. His point seems to be, correctly, that there are absurdities and contradictions in all religions, so it is useless and wasteful to bother debating which is better or superior.

Yet Sgt. Howe is unable to see past his faith to determine the fallacies of his own chosen belief system. He is an arrogant Christian who arrives in a culture he knows nothing about, and then rapidly determines that it is inferior because Christianity has not taken hold there. When Howe brazenly deposits a makeshift crucifix upon Rowan's tomb, he is imposing his own belief system on someone that has already thoughtfully developed a different set of beliefs. What right does he have to supersede that decision simply because he values Christianity? What arrogance!"

I don't know if you get the gist of the entire review, since that's just an excerpt, but the value I find in the original Hardy film arises from: 1.) the total arrogance of the protagonist...a Persian flaw that allows him to be tricked into a situation not of his selection (meaning his untimely death...), and 2.) the fact that the film features an effective surprise ending that is totally in synch with all the preceding plot points.

So along comes the 2006 Americanized remake of The Wicker Man. I had a few choice thoughts when I first heard of the enterprise. First, Neil LaBute is the director, and he is the artist responsible for two absolutely scathing and brilliant essays about man's inability to connect to his fellow man, In The Company of Men (1995), and one of my all-time favorite movies, Your Friends and Neighbors (1997). I don't believe that another contemporary director has so ably captured the amoral American nineties on celluloid. Now, on first blush and considering this impressive track record, LaBute seems a good choice to helm the material featured in Anthony Shaffer's screenplay, The Wicker Man. LaBute is an able craftsman, a solid writer, and his indie films universally possess an active intellect.

My second thought on hearing of the planned remake is that as much as I dislike re-makes or "re-imaginations" this is not actually a bad time or context in which to re-make The Wicker Man, a film about arrogant Christian authority-figures, especially seeing as there's one occupying the Oval Office today. George W. Bush's defiant, unilateral, evangelical "spread democracy at all costs" approach (based, he believes, on Christ's blessing...) has led our country into folly and bloodshed in Iraq. There, we keep stubbornly attempting to impose a Western-style democracy on people who already possess their own ideologies, thank you very much. Bush - Holy Warrior of the 21st Century - invaded Iraq without even knowing the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni....literally on a wing and a prayer. I guess all he needed to know was that "God" was behind him on the endeavor...

So, can you see how a new The Wicker Man could truly be relevant and meaningful in 2006? On a national scale, we've been tricked into a conflagration by imposing our own values where they don't belong.

Still, even if handled beautifully by a talented artist and with a relevant cultural Zeitgeist firmly in place, a remake of The Wicker Man could not succeed on the same grounds as the original did because the tale's ending would never again serve as a shock or surprise. Everyone who's viewed the original knows how the story ends; how - indeed - the story MUST end if the material is to be honored. Still, I suppose I felt that losing the element of surprise would be a forgivable sin. After all, how many people outside of horror nuts had even watched the first film? A new, mainstream horror film would bring the story - a valuable one - to a wider audience than the British progenitor.

Then I read with trepidation that Nicolas Cage was cast in the lead role (a part originally played by self-confident, stiff-upper-lippy Edward Woodward), and - ahem - I'm not a big Cage fan. He's a little over-the-top for my taste, and I cringe when I consider his performances in films such as Con-Air or Face-Off. Sorry. Simply put, I have a Nicolas Cage rule. If he's in a movie...I don't see it in the theater. And if I break that rule, as in the case of Bringing out the Dead (a Scorsese film!) I usually regret it.

And then I read the reviews of the new film, and saw that the new Wicker Man was derided far and wide as "camp" by virtually every critic. It's like they were all writing from the same playbook. It made me wonder if they had bothered to actually watch it; and furthermore, if they had ever seen the original.

But my beefwith the remake is neither Cage's performance, nor the tone of the film...which I didn't really find campy; truth be told. Those elements that critics (mis)identified as camp - the bear costume, etc. - they were all in the original film too. It's part and parcel of the story: pagan rituals, etcetera. No, what I objected to, and strenuously so, was more substantive than those criticisms. It bothered me that the lead character had been altered so dramatically so as to be unrecognizable, and ultimately not useful to the telling of this particular story.

Whereas Woodward played an arrogant, dogmatic, self-satisfied man of faith, Cage plays instead a down-on-his-luck police officer who is coming out of a trauma caused by a roadside accident he witnessed close-up. If Cage's character has any particular religion he holds dear, the film makes no point of it. His "beliefs" never even come up in the remake of The Wicker Man. They're immaterial, and thus the story is rendered meaningless.

And that's a gigantic problem, because as my review of the original film makes clear, this material should be about a culture/religious clash. About a man who is so stubbornly convinced of the primacy of his faith that he bumbles into another faith unknowingly...and pays the ultimate price for his ignorance. With that all-important context removed from the film, LaBute's remake is empty. Hollow.

And also gone from the re-mix, I add with ennui, is all the sex and titillation. In the original film, Edward Woodward found an island of pagan rituals where little kids danced around giant phallic symbols, and the islanders made love out in plain sight...much to prissy Howe's chagrin. Who can forget Britt Ekland's sexy and alluring dance around the hotel room, beckoning the engaged Woodward to an illicit tryst? Damn...that was an amazing scene.

And you'll find not even a weak PG-13 resonance of it in LaBute's gutless tepid, conservative remake. It's true that he turns the "pagan" island into a matriarchy, with Ellen Burstyn taking over the Christopher Lee role, but merely because he's made the film about sex roles, that doesn't mean it's about sex. Or sexy in the slightest.

Again, what's gone here (the naked Ekland dance...) goes back to the central issue of religion. For Woodward's character to be a worthy sacrifice to the pagan gods, he had to be - in his own mind - a righteous man. Had he engaged in pre-marital sex with Ekland's native girl, he would have failed that test, and not been burned alive in the wicker man. Again, see how every element of the tale goes back to Woodward as a devout, arrogant man unable to see past his own nose and belief system?
Today, mainstream horror movies are apparently unable to marshal such big ideas...or truly, any ideas that might alienate some demographic or make a viewer think. I remember when all the Christian conservatives used to call out the Clinton Administration for the hated "political correctness," but what we have in our culture today is just as bad: religious correctness. It's just as sickening too. So all of that potentially agitating context (and it isn't subtext; it's text...) has been removed from The Wicker Man. Instead, Cage now visits the pagan island in search of a daughter he didn't know he had. So the story is "personal" and "immediate" and "familial," and wholly lacking in the intellectual firepower demonstrated by the original.

What leads Cage to his doom in this film is not his belief system, not his religious convictions...but his love of a woman who bore him a daughter. How dull and utterly bankrupt is that idea? How many times have we seen that before? Why replace the superior culture-clash/religious template with something so...lukewarm?

The artist who made Your Friends and Neighbors is also a man who can craft an intelligent film about the culture clash between an "alpha male" like Cage's character and a matriarchal society, but oddly, LaBute doesn't concentrate on that aspect of the tale much either. Instead, his film gets lost in odd subplots about bee keepers, Leelee Sobieski's ultimately irrelevant character, and other narrative dead-ends. This thing is a narrative mess from top to bottom. And what are we to make of the werid road-side accident featured in the film? How does it fit in? What does it mean?

Again, I don't object to the remake of The Wicker Man on the grounds that it is campy and over-the-top. I don't think you could make a film in the spirit of the original with the pagan festivals and funny costumes without somebody complaining about it being "camp." I object to the film because the core material has been lobotomized and rendered harmless for the masses.

It's even worse that a talented filmmaker is behind this disaster.

I closed my review of the disco-decade The Wicker Man with these thoughts: "The Wicker Man is not only a great and meaningful film, it is one of the ten best horror movies of the 1970s. It makes us look at our own religion and ask why it looks the way it does. It makes us question the things that organized religions want us to take for granted. It's a film about a man who is so cowed by his religion's dogma that he walks unwitting into a flame. That's a testament either to his faith, or his stupidity. You choose."

I stand by those words, and also by my assessment of the foolish remake. 2006's The Wicker Man is nothing more than a testament to one of the biggest problems dominating mainstream Hollywood today. Movie executives assume that we're all stupid, and easily offended, and that we can't understand movies featuring big, important ideas. I would rather see a movie I disagree a hundred percent with, than sit through a stupid movie. Apparently, I'm in the minority...

Consequently, we get unsurprising, unsatisfying duds like this movie.
The Wicker Man should have been - literally - incendiary, especially given everything that's happening in our world today.

Monday, March 12, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 55: Howdy Doody's 3-Ring Circus!

From the dawn of's Howdy Doody time! It's Howdy Doody time!

Yes indeed, I consider myself not merely a sci-fi TV historian but a student of television history in general. Hence this fascinating collectible from approximately 57 years ago, relating to the once-popular kid's show, Howdy Doody.

Now, for X'ers like myself, probably the only time they've ever been exposed to Howdy Doody was on an early episode of Happy Days from the 1970s; wherein Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) joined a Howdy Doody look-a-like contest in hopes of snapping a photograph o fthe clown Clarabell with no make-up.

For Generation Y'ers...hmmm. Do you know who Howdy Doody is? I don't's not something that's been re-run, and I don't think any episodes are available on DVD box sets...

Anyway, my wonderful mother-in-law gave me this collectible as a gift recently. It's labeled "made in the U.S.A." (not such a rarity in 1950...when this country still had a manufacturing base...), and copyrighted Harrett-Gilmar, Inc. It's also labeled "Another H-G" Toy and called on the box (as you can see..) a "Wiry Dan Electric Game."

Indeed, if you look closely at the playing board (see photo), with the clown's nose that lights up and all, this looks a LOT like an early model of that famous 1970s game, OPERATION. Only this is set at a circus...

Here's how you play (according to the instructions on the box): "Use coins or buttons for tokens or lift lower end of platform and remove silver tokens. Then replace platform. Choose for first and select a token. Start in upper left corner. First player spins arrow. When arrow stops, press arrowhead down on nearest silver circle and hold it down. Then touch wire to silver circles along the path in succession starting one space ahead of your position, until Clarabell's nose lights. Advance your token to silver circle that lit Clarabell's nose. If you stop on a spot by a message you must do what it says. The first player to go all through the circus and land on Howdy Doody's face by actual count, wins the game."

Some of the messages on the board include "scared by lions - lose 1 turn," "feed sugar to horse - gain 1 space," "water the elephant - gain 1 space" "squirted by Clarabell - lose 1 turn" and so on.

In all, this looks like it was a really fun game to play, and no doubt qualifies as one of the earliest TV toy tie-ins in history! Anyone out there have this as a kid? Or a parent who did? Go ahead, ask your folks who Howdy Doody is...