Thursday, January 24, 2008

The House Between 2.0 Director's Notes: "Returned"

Well, tomorrow is the big day, the launch of The House Between's second season. I re-watched the first episode last night just to make sure there were no glitches in the cut I am uploading this morning...if I can get Veoh to work. Kathryn viewed the finished show with me all the way through (she's seen scenes and earlier cuts) and told me that she got "sucked in" by the actors and the story. That's good. It's the same feedback I've heard from a few others.

"Returned" is the eighth episode of the series, the one that follows on the heels of the first season finale, "Departed?" Going back to my notes, it appears my first draft of "Returned" is dated 12/28/06, and I recall that it is the script that - from start to finish - actually took me the longest to write.

That makes sense, I suppose, since the script had to accomplish several things: in particular re-establishing the characters, relationships and central situation of the series. It then also had to push things off in a new direction for the season. Thus it was kind of a "pilot" episode all over again, both familiar and different at the same time. Given this criteria, "Returned" is "between" all right, between first season past and second season future, but watching it last night I felt confident that it also manages to tell an interesting story in and of itself.

I wrote a second draft on this story too, after I sent it to the cast and crew and got some feedback. It's amazing how you think everything is perfect and then someone else reads your work, comments on it, and you can't believe you missed some things. That's what happened here.

As you all know from reading this blog, I'm eternally inspired by the history of science fiction television and film, and watching "Returned" I catch some resonances of the form and other productions. In one character's dilemma, there's a bit of Return to Oz (1985), but then anyone writing about The House Between would have to note, I think, the multitudinous allusions to the Wizard of Oz saga in the show. There's a little taste of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I think, in the return of one character who comes back rather cold and distant, a little like a post-Kolinahr Spock.

In theme and meaning, I don't want to give too much away before anyone has seen the show, but I think it focuses on a few ideas I find fascinating. One is the question, "what is life?" The second is my comment on guns, I suppose. Overall, if I had to choose, I'd say that underlying this story is one overriding emotion: obsession. Every character, in some way, faces an obsession about something or someone.

As far as visualizations, DP Rick Coulter and I decided that for "Returned" we would repeat as many visuals as we could from "Arrived," the first episode of the first season. This was so audiences would get the idea that things were starting over again, not just in terms of what the characters were experiencing, but how things actually looked. Form echoing content and all.

Otherwise, for me, "Returned" was one of the worst days of shooting, though there are a few days, frankly, that could easily merit that title. We shot "Returned" second in the sequence of episodes and shot our second episode, "Separated" first, because of complexities involving the actors and costume changes. Bottom line, we didn't finish "Separated" the first day, which meant that on the day we were slated to do "Returned," we were starting on the episode late. Consequently, we didn't finish "Returned" until well after 1:00 am.

To save time on a day we knew we'd be racing against the clock anyway, producer Joe Maddrey and I made a controversial and difficult decision: we decided to shoot "Returned" totally out of sequence to hopefully make up lost hours. This meant doing all the scenes occurring in one room in the script, and then moving to another room and doing the same. Rinse and repeat. This isn't the way we usually do things on The House Between. This isn't the way I prefer to do things. I find that shooting sequentially helps the actors and me - the director - excavate the emotional content of scenes in a pretty significant way. Because of "Returned's" nature, however, we had to not only shoot sequences entirely out of script order, but shoot half-a-scene, move to another scene, and then come back to the same scene to film the opposite angle so as to feature an actor in heavy make-up. We shot one scene in the kitchen over three different time blocks.

It was difficult and stressful and weird. More to the point, it was disconcerting. I never felt that I had a good sense of "where" we were in the episode, and I know several actors complained to me that they felt the same way. And jeez, I wrote the script, so if I was disconcerted, I'm sure they were. By Day Three, we decided making time wasn't as important as sanity, and went back to shooting mostly in order (with some notable exceptions).

Oddly, when I started cutting "Returned" together, there was no trace of any problem related to our new shooting arrangement. There's always a problem with time when shooting The House Between, and we deal with that in our own ways, but I shit you not when I say that "Returned" is the best episode of the first eight.

It's weird, because I didn't feel good about it on the day of the shoot, but now watching it...I'm very happy. This has taught me that no matter how much I pontificate, I can never predict before the editing stage how an episode is actually going to turn out. I remember I had the happiest day on THB last year shooting our Outdweller show, "Visited" but my first cut wasn't - plainly speaking - very good. I had to re-think the whole show and go with some impressionistic editing and it ultimately turned out pretty good. But if you had asked me on the day we shot, I was sure I had directed a masterpiece. The opposite was true here: during shooting of "Returned" I had a sinking feeling the episode was slipping away from me. Watching the episode, it's - as Kathryn described it - tight.

So the editing process went well, except that a 39 page script ended up being over forty-four minutes long on screen. I sent a rough cut to my producer, Joe, and he immediately began to pinpoint moments that we could lose. Joe always suggests these edits with an eye towards pacing, suspense and coherence. I begged, pleaded, whined and made a valiant argument for every moment he wanted me to cut. He counter-argued forcefully and with faultless logic, and now those scenes are indeed gone with the wind. To Joe's credit, the episode plays better this way, at thirty-five minutes.

Joe also suggested to me that I go back and do some re-shoots and craft some additional "flash" sequences which push the story to a more sinister and menacing bent. Again, this turned out to be a very good call. My original take on the material was good, thoughtful and cerebral (like last year's "Settled") but the new sequences (in particular, a series of green screen shots and an Evil Dead-style montage...) succeeded in making the episode more intense, more mysterious, and more entertaining. It is fascinating how a few tweaks in one direction or another push a story down the road you hope it will go. As usual, this is an education for me: I'm constantly learning about what it takes to create a good film.

Mateo has scored some new pieces for "Returned," and there's one I particularly like, called "Hypnosis." It somehow manages to evoke the more chilling moments of 1960s Doctor Who or possibly Sapphire & Steel. It's nice to know that even after a year and an entirely new set of stories, we haven't fallen too far astray from my original notion of paying homage to that style of Brit sci-fi TV (with visual reference to Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond).

So that's the tale behind-the-scenes on "Returned." I will be opening up a "Returned" thread on The House Between discussion board tomorrow, when the episode goes up. I'd really love to hear from y'all about your thoughts on the show. Audience feedback is part of the learning experience too.


  1. Anonymous12:44 PM

    I can't wait!
    How early do you think it will be up? My schedule sucks and I'm in class at 8am and home from work around 7...

    can't wait. can't wait. can't wait.

  2. Hey anonymous,

    The episode should be up at veoh by soon after midnight tonight. It will be on the blog (hopefully) soon after 6:00 am, and then on the home page soon after.

    Watch it soon and watch it often!! (and please, join us at the discussion board to talk about it...)

    Love your enthusiasm!

  3. Anonymous1:03 PM

    I mentioned the premier to a co-worker yesterday...
    She said maybe with the writer's strike someone will want to pick up the show.

    Is that somewere you'd want to take the show, or would you rather keep it independently produced? Honestly.

  4. Hey anonymous!

    Well, I'm entertaining all offers. :)

    No, that's a good question. The truth is that there are pros and cons to each approach.

    It would be nice to have a real budget and the freedom to focus on the show full time, but on the other hand there's a freedom to do things I want to this way (independently).

    Definitely entertaining offers though...

  5. joey_bishop_jr.3:39 PM

    Brother, I just can't wait til we get to discuss your opinions on guns... I think that'll be a pretty lively debate!!!

  6. Hey Joey Bishop!


    My opinion about guns is relatively simple: I enjoy them in films and television but not so much in real life.

    Here's my bottom line: the only people I think who should own guns are people (besides law enforcement and the military, naturally...) who really, really know how to use them (and care for them) and are tested on them.

    I think gun owners should also have to pass a psychological competency test. Seriously. And like a driver's license, they should have to go back and be re-licensed every few years.

    And I never, EVER think loaded guns should be kept where children can have access them.

    And there's really no good reason that non-law enforcment and military people should own semi-automatic weapons.

    I guess I just wish guns could be set on "stun."

  7. joey_bishop_jr.11:53 PM

    I know it's been a while coming, but I have to say that I agree with a lot more of what you ssaid here than I ever thought I would!

    Naturally the part about keeping them away from children is a given. The competency issue is good on an initial level, but those things are very subjective...

    And as far as no one being allowed to have semi-auto weapons...why not? Is it a case of degree now? Or do "black rifles" just have that connotation that freaks you out?

    Man, I can't wait to debate this one with you in person!