Friday, May 11, 2007

THE HOUSE BETWEEN Ep. 7: Departed?

In the climactic, cliffhanging webisode of THE HOUSE BETWEEN's first season, the denizens in the house at the end of the universe access a dangerous user interface in hopes of finding a way to escape their predicament. While Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) attempts to interface with the house, the others learn why they've been in trapped in the mysterious structure. When a chance for escape presents itself, however, there's a series of surprises and shocks for Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill (Tony Mercer) and Theresa (Wood). Produced by Joseph Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC. Written and directed by John Kenneth Muir.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The House Between Episode # 7 ("Departed?") Director's Notes

"Departed?" the cliffhanger/season finale of The House Between bows tomorrow. I love the episode, and hope you will too. I think it's a fitting finale to the first series sortie. Today I'll be presenting my memories of the creation and shooting of the episode.

Firstly, I look back at the script and I see that unlike the other scripts, it has a series title on it that was ultimately rejected: "The Dwelling." I don't know if that was a good title or not. At the time I liked it because it not only described the house, but the mind state of the denizens. Some of the other rejected titles: "The House," "After Midnight," Permanent Midnight" and "Crazy People Stuck in a House." Okay, the last one wasn't a proposed title. Lee Hansen suggested titling the series "Fuck Lost!"

The origins for this script go back to some of my genre favorites, including Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Space:1999 episode "Ring Around the Moon" and their ilk; particularly in that one character in the play interfaces with another life form, returning to the others as a sort of intelligent "probe."

Other than that nod to genre history, I don't think there are a lot of familiar genre touches here (at least none that I can reveal.). We were too busy trying to bring a sense of closure to many of the season one mysteries and story arcs to pay homage to much of anything.. Yep, that's right - I said the magic word: closure. I'm not one of those people (like the writers of Lost or Battlestar Galactica), who believe you can just endlessly pile on mysteries, one-after-the-other until a distant cancellation. I'm much more in the Veronica Mars mode: I like to present several mysteries and bring them to a sense of closure after a season of episodes. Now that doesn't mean there aren't more show mysteries to come in the season ahead. I devised a three season story arc at the beginning of this project (to be culminated with a feature film...), and we're sticking to it. But each season has a different leitmotif and movement. We'll see how it all plays out.

What's "Departed?" about? In very simple terms, a door. If you saw the preview last week, you saw the door opening. However, I didn't want that to be the end point of the episode, but rather somewhere around the midpoint. We have five characters who regard that door differently, and that's part of what the episode is about. Who would want to walk through the open door? Who wouldn't? And if they didn't...what would be the reasons? Part of the reason I enjoy The House Between so much is the simplicity of the best stories: they're about people reacting to a mirror, a diary, a song, an open door, entrapment, that sort of thing.

As far as how the script climaxes, suffice it to say that you won't see the ending I wrote. The script was 32 pages, I think. And we closed down at page 27. Why? Well, let me just say that the "missing" end will play into the mystery of season two, and that several actors, crewmembers and friends told me that the original ending was so dark and disturbing that it would have sent viewers scurrying home in tears and anguish. The ending we have now is different, but I think quite beautiful. Mateo and Cesar have outdone themselves in terms of scoring the finale too. My favorite piece of music in the series arrives in the last few minutes of "Departed."

So far as shooting, "Departed" was a weird day. We were all acutely conscious that it was our last day together. And I think everyone was grappling with two contradictory feelings. One feeling was that this was the most fun ever and we never wanted it to end. The other feeling was that we were exhausted beyond imagination and couldn't wait for the experience to end. Just try holding those thoughts in your head simultaneously. I do know that I grew emotional (internally) as the day ended. When we were shooting the last shots, and I was filming, I got all choked up behind the camera as each character/actor finished the show and the day. I hated to see them go.

Another weird thing: several of us had minor nervous breakdowns that day. I broke into a fit of unstoppable laughter and giggles during a scene involving Tony Mercer, Lee Hansen and Jim Blanton on camera and Alicia A. Wood reacting off camera with Kim Breeding. I set up a simple, easy shot, but just something about the utter absurdity of the enterprise struck me as I peered through the viewfinder. Alicia was saying all this bizarre tech stuff, and there I was watching my buddies Tony, Lee and Jim reacting to it and it was weird. I had gotten used to them as their characters, but in that moment, I was suddenly conscious of their other identities too, and it just cracked me up: the notion that I had put my good friends through this crazy experience and here they were - exhausted - listening to weird techno-dialogue from a psychic from the future. I couldn't finish the scene. Every time we started, I broke down and cracked up. I finally had to go sit in the corner while my producer, Joe Maddrey filmed the scene.

The utterly fantastic thing about this is that about two hours later, I guess, Jim Blanton had a virtually identical breakdown. It was a scene involving everybody, at the front door of the house, and for whatever personal reason, something just struck Jim as unbearably funny, and he lost it. After his giggling fit, we were able to re-start.

Reflecting on the experience of "Departed?" I think I've suppressed most of my emotions and feelings about the day of the shoot. Truthfully, I don't remember that much of it. I think that's because I had just experienced one of the best weeks of my life, with people I had grown to not just admire but actively love, and here it was - ending. I could see the "end" on the horizon, and I hated it. I had fallen in love not just with Kim, Alicia, Tony, Jim, and Lee, but the characters they played. Each had officially become "voices in my head." There was a magical chemistry there that I'll never ever forget, and will always cherish. To hear my "BIG FIVE" as I call 'em, speaking my dialogue, acting their hearts was truly astonishing and touching thing. I must also note, I had fallen in love with my crew too: from the ever-dependable and supportive Joe, to the strong but silent Rick, my camera man, to my awesome make-up artist and fight arranger, Rob (and his fantastic wife and our outstanding script assistant, Phyllis), to my always-impressive lighting team, Bobby and Kevin

So I wish I had more to tell, but it was so hard to say goodbye to my stars and my characters, that I think I just closed down a few memory circuits for that day. I remember cracking up. I remember Jim cracking up. I remember Lee having a tough time with one dialogue scene. I recall scurrying about doing re-shoots, and going up on the roof as a thunderstorm rolled in. But not much else.

Well, these are the last directors notes for The House Between: Season One. The gang returns here Friday, May 25th to shoot the seven episodes of Season Two. I can't wait to see everybody again, and I have to admit, I'm terribly excited about seeing not just my real life friends, but Astrid, Bill, Theresa, Arlo and Travis too - back in action. I've missed 'em something awful.

New House Between episodes will begin airing in 2008, but in the meantime, I hope you decide to re-watch the series after learning some of the revelations in "Departed." I'll also be writing here about the DVD release. And if you want more THB, don't forget to check out our discussion board here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

McFarland New Releases!

Well, McFarland has a bundle of book treats for us this month. There's a book that gazes at the golden age of Sid and Marty Krofft productions by scholar Hal Erickson (and which I'm reading right now...), and also a re-issue of the best book about the Godzilla films ever released. Then there's David Deal's study of 1970s made-for-tv horrors like Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Add to that a history of female action heroes (like Ripley in the Alien saga). Very cool stuff.

Here's the lowdown:

Universal-International Westerns, 1947–1963

From 1947 through 1963, the merged studios of Universal and International produced mostly highly entertaining westerns that ranged from classics like Winchester ’73 to forgettable films better left unmade. Entries on the 114 Universal-International westerns of the period are collected here. While other films may have contained western elements, only films that truly fit the genre are included.Films are arranged alphabetically by title, and each entry includes release date, alternate title, cast, credits, songs, location of filming, source if the film was an adaptation, running time, plot synopsis, commentary from the author and from the actors and directors, and representative excerpts from contemporary reviews. Also included are tag lines used in the original advertising for each film. An introduction to the book provides details on the Universal-International merger and a history of the studios’ productions.

Television Fright Films of the 1970s

If the made-for-television movie has long been regarded as a poor stepchild of the film industry, then telefilm horror has been the most uncelebrated offspring of all. Considered unworthy of critical attention, scary movies made for television have received little notice over the years. Yet millions of fans grew up watching them—especially during the 1970s—and remember them fondly.This exhaustive survey addresses the lack of critical attention by evaluating such films on their own merits. Covering nearly 150 made-for-TV fright movies from the 1970s, the book includes credits, a plot synopsis, and critical commentary for each. From the well-remembered Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to the better-forgotten Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, it’s a trustworthy and entertaining guide to the golden age of the televised horror movie.

Sid and Marty Krofft

H.R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Land of the Lost: For a generation of children growing up in the late sixties and early seventies, these were some of the most memorable shows on Saturday morning television. At a time when television cartoons had lost some of their luster, two puppeteers named Sid and Marty Krofft put together a series of shows that captivated children.Using colorful sets and mysterious lands full of characters that had boundless energy, the Kroffts created a new form of children’s television, rooted in the medium’s earliest shows but nevertheless original in its concept. This work first provides a history of the Kroffts’ pretelevision career, then offers discussions of their 11 Saturday morning shows. Complete cast and credit information is enhanced by interviews with many of the actors and actresses, behind-the-scenes information, print reviews of the series, and plot listings of the individual episodes. The H.R. Pufnstuf feature film, the brothers’ other television work, and their short-lived indoor theme park are also detailed.

Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation
Paring a novel into a two-hour film is an arduous task for even the best screenwriters and directors. Often the resulting movies are far removed from the novel, sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptations have consistently been among the best Hollywood has to offer.Kubrick’s film adaptations of three novels—Lolita, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket—are analyzed in this work. The primary focus is on the alterations in the characters and narrative structure, with additional attention to style, scope, pace, mood and meaning. Kubrick’s adaptations simplify, impose a new visuality, reduce violence, and render the moral slant more conventional.

A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla® Series

Though sometimes dismissed by critics, particularly in the United States, the Godzilla movies are some of the best-loved but least understood films in the world. The modifications made by American distributors—adding unsuitable footage, making changes in the musical score, even altering the plot—take away from the subtlety that makes the movies so popular in Japan. Then there are the dubbed voices—a matter of ridicule for American audiences and critics alike.This work is a thorough and critical account of the Godzilla movies focusing on how differences in American and Japanese culture, as well as differences in their respective film industries, underlie the discrepancies in the Japanese and American versions of the film. For each film, there are exhaustive filmographic data for both the Japanese and American versions, including plot synopses, cast, credits, and detailed production notes. The various political and social subtexts of the movies are also thoroughly covered.

Super Bitches and Action Babes

With actress Pam Grier’s breakthrough in Coffy and Foxy Brown, women entered action, science fiction, war, westerns and martial arts films—genres that had previously been considered the domain of male protagonists. This ground-breaking cinema, however, was—and still is—viewed with ambivalence. While women were cast in new and exciting roles, they did not always arrive with their femininity intact, often functioning both as a sexualized spectacle and as a new female hero rather than female character. This volume contains an in-depth critical analysis and study of the female hero in popular film from 1970 to 2005. It examines five female archetypes: the dominatrix, the Amazon, the daughter, the mother and the rape-avenger. The entrance of the female hero into films written by, produced by and made for men is viewed through the lens of feminism and post-feminism arguments. Analyzed works include films with actors Michelle Yeoh and Meiko Kaji, the Alien films, the Lara Croft franchise, Charlie’s Angels, and television productions such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Alias.

Library Journal likes The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia

Well, the first review on my new book, The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia has come in.

Library Journal calls it a "witty, riff-filled romp" through rock film history. The review notes that the book is "unabashedly (and quite refreshingly subjective)," as well as "idiosyncratic" and opines that the format allows for the author to "display his deep knowledge and affection for the subject."

Rock and roll, baby!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Muir Article in Filmfaxplus!

Hey readers! FilmfaxPlus continues its detailed coverage of the classic 1970s Saturday morning dinosaur adventure Land of the Lost this month! Ross Plesset did an inteview with stop-motion artists Gene Warren and Wah Chang, and I interviewed Mike Westmore, creator of the Sleestaks and Pakuni, and series production designer Herman Zimmerman. Both of these incredible talents moved on to Star Trek in the the last twenty years, but they still talk about Land of the Lost with great enthusiasm. The issue is on sale now, so check it out!

Monday, May 07, 2007

The House Between: Composer's Notes!

(Here's a special treat: composers Cesar Gallegos and Mateo Latosa have submitted a a piece on scoring my online series, The House Between! Thanks guys for sending this in!)

Production Diary: Scoring “The House Between”

By César Gallegos/Mateo Latosa

Our discussions with the director, John Kenneth Muir, during the pre-production phase gave us a good idea of what he was looking for in terms of a score. The overall tone of THB was described to us as mysterious, apprehensive, mournful, and strange.

John was very clear that despite the series’ science fiction trappings, that he didn’t want an electronic (spacey) score. Rather he wanted the instrumentation to feature traditional acoustic instrumentation and for the series to be scored as a drama.

We understood his sentiments, though we knew that this would prove, for the most part, impossible given the limitations we faced. However, we also knew that an electronically created score using samples of acoustic instruments would provide us with a workable alternative.

Ironically, during our first recording session, in which we laid down seven “demo” tracks (including "Ominous," "Sad Chords," "After the Death," "Waiting," Introspection," and "Wistful Thinking") —to give John a sense of our style and approach to scoring the series—the piece he liked most was the one we had been convinced he’d reject ("Sad Chords") because of its use of undisguised electronics. In fact, this piece became the very first one he used (in Trailer #1). As well, the other pieces recorded during this initial session were used on the rest of the trailers and throughout the series.

Character Themes
In most scores, themes will be written for each of the major characters and often for particular locations as well. The score to THB is no exception. Sometimes a generic cue was chosen by the director as a particular character’s theme, for example Astrid’s theme ("Introspection"). Other times, we’d compose a theme based on our perception of the character (Arlo). The rest of the character themes were written to fit the needs of the director. John would send us an email with a description of what feelings a theme should evoke, and we’d get to work.

Purposed Music
Scoring a film or a television show presents the composer, simultaneously, with an inspiration for creativity and limitations on it. Each cue has a purpose to fulfill. It has to underscore the emotional or physical beats of a scene. As well, cues often have pre-determined lengths, which limits our ability to fully develop and resolve musical themes.

Often we had to turn away from musical directions that beckoned… Nevertheless, it became a challenge to think economically, to push ourselves to get each cue to work to work its magic quickly.

Throughout the process we kept reminding each other that, indeed, less is more. Layering on instrument after instrument would only detract from a cue’s ability to fulfill its purpose—concisely—often in only seconds. As well, a score must walk the tightrope between underscoring what is on the screen without, at the same time, drawing too much attention to itself and overpowering the images.

The Process
Similar to the Japanese practice of composing music for “Image” albums, where a preliminary score is produced to storyboard images and discussions with the director, prior to filming we started work on scoring THB with only our conversations with John as a guide. The two alternate (rejected) main title themes were written during this time.

The next step, upon receipt of rough cuts of the first three episodes, was to record a number of demo tracks (as discussed above). These demos were tracked on the pre-launch trailers and one of them was used as the Main Title for Episode #1: Arrived ("Wistful Thinking").

Subsequently, John would send us detailed notes for the cues he wanted for the episodes with specific times and a breakdown of the onscreen emotional and physical beats. We were literally composing to email! Normally, a composer would have a “click-track” to work to, which allows the composer to see the scene he is scoring and note to a fraction of a second the emotional and physical beats so as to allow him to tailor his cues precisely. Must be nice.

Despite this, every episode of THB has its own score. Considering that the original plan had been to utilize library music for the series, this gave THB (we hope) a distinctive and unique musical flavor.

One interesting thing is the way in which the filmed sequences and the score affected each other. When a sequence was filmed and edited into its final form, we would receive precise instructions as to the length of the needed cue and the physical beats to be underscored. But when we got ahead of the editing process and scored an as-yet-unedited sequence, John would occasionally edit the sequence to fit the music. Though not unheard of, this is not standard practice. Most films are scored after the final cut. In a sense, the director allowed the internal logic and structure of the music to guide him editing choice.

Equipment and Instrumentation
The score was recorded at Mardelante Studio using the following equipment and instrumentation: Sony VAIO VGC-RA826G, Toshiba AE35-S159, Mexican Fender Stratocaster with Roland MIDI Pickup (w/ Ernie Ball Super Slinky Strings, a Fender medium-gauge pick, and a jar of capers), a Ceremonial Mexica prepared Conch Shell from Cancun, Mexico, Alesis S4 Quadrasynth, Yamaha Portable Grand DGX-505, Roland GR-33 Guitar Synthesizer, Roland ED UA-100G Audio/MIDI Processing Unit, Jose Ramirez Classical Cutaway Guitar, PG Music Power Tracks Pro-Audio Version 8.0 Sequencing/Mixing Software, Finale Notebook, Samson R11 Microphone, and Windows Media Player Version 10.0 and one human voice. The recording itself is a mixture of analog and digital elements.

Despite having two composers scoring the series, we worked as a single unit, bouncing ideas off one another, taking turns at the performance and engineering tasks. The word “compromise” never entered our minds—to be quite frank—we’d work out the melodies, chord sequences, keys, patches, and overlays with a spirit of experimentation and openness, each suggestion taking the pieces in new directions. There isn’t a single cue in THB that doesn’t have creative input from both of us.

In the creation of each piece, rather than just composing music that will “fit”, it was more like scoring for the emotion we wanted to portray. Once we “felt” the emotion we needed to underscore—then the music flowed. Composition was an intuitive process separate from theoretical considerations. This made the music “work”. It was encoding emotions into sound using the tools available. There was a joy in doing it. Certainly, we’d show up with chord sequence sketches and melodic notation. But that was just the starting point. We’d talk over each scene, throw out ideas, experiment, play music, turn the process on its head and then go to lunch. Creating the music for THB was a social experience. We felt no monetary pressure…or in other words that pressure was equivalent to our budget. This fact, combined with John’s immediate and positive feedback allowed us the freedom to try new things and methods without worry. It was a very satisfying experience. Like a sanctuary from the everyday world.

Final Thoughts
We are grateful to John for asking us to score THB and as much as we are glad to have finished (whew!), we are happy with the work we’ve produced. We’d been looking for a creative project on which to collaborate for years and are proud to have contributed our small bit of sonic atmosphere to The House Between.

We’d like to thank our families for their patience and encouragement, especially Debee and Tonalli. Also, we’d like to thank our friends for musical and technical advice: Bill Latham, Phil Merkel, John and Kathryn Muir. Finally, we’d like to thank the actors for bringing life to John’s characters and for making them “resonate”. From a composer’s perspective, that is very important indeed!