Thursday, February 14, 2008

The House Between 2.4: "Estranged" Director Notes

“Estranged” is the action-packed finale to the two-parter that The House Between began with last week’s episode, “Reunited.” This episode continues the story of Dr. Sam Clark (me!) and his misconceived plan to capture an Outdweller in the house at the end of the universe. In some senses, the first four episodes of the second season come together in this show. Questions are answered, mysteries are solved, and story arcs resolved, or at least turned back down to “simmer” for a moment. The next two episodes “Populated” and “Distressed” are great standalones (with hints of the future...) that give the show time to breathe (while still ratcheting up tension). Then we’re off into a two-part descent into darkness, “Caged” and “Ruined” that caps off the second season and leads us right into the third year (going into production soon!).

You’d think that writing “Estranged,” the second part of a larger story (including “Reunited”) would be easy stuff. After all, the characters (including guest characters) and episode foundation were all set already. Yet I found this a particularly difficult episode to conclude, as I recall, because so many “dangling” elements had to be tied together and there was just so much I wanted to accomplish. I can’t vouch for this, but I seem to remember my original script for “Estranged” was over fifty pages. Fortunately, my stalwart producer, Joseph Maddrey, stepped in and took over the rewrite. He streamlined the episode, pulled everything together, and cut the script down to a still-lengthy 42 pages. I don’t know what I would have done without Joe's help. I would have loved to see the cast’s face when they saw a 50 page script…to be completed in a day!!!

In terms of precedent, “Estranged” is the latest “action” episode of The House Between. As longtime watchers know, one of my missions crafting this low-budget show was to prove just how elastic and flexible a format the show offers. We’ve done horror shows (“Visited”), cerebral science fiction (“Settled”), comedies (“Mirrored”), fiery character drama (“Reunited”), and even Die Hard in a Kitchen with “Positioned.” What we attempted here, in this story, was a hell of a lot frankly, in terms of scope. One thing I don’t lack is ambition. The other thing I don’t lack is faith in my cast and crew to pull off the impossible on next to nothing. Which they did here. Kudos.

Anyway, there is one scene in “Estranged” I’m particularly fond of, and which took me three days to cut: a slow-motion, Sam Peckinpah battle in the foyer between humans and Outdwellers. In the original script, there was blood splattering the walls, severed limbs hitting the floor, and other grotesqueries but again, Joe (wisely) reminded me that this was a rented location. We couldn’t exactly be throwing gallons of stage blood on the stairs or walls. So I scaled back a little. Now there is just one severed limb, and no blood. There is, in one instance, an exploding Outdweller (don’t ask…).

I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but Mateo composed a great “fight background” piece for the Peckinpah-esque battle, something with a heavy John Carpenter/Escape from New York vibe. It’s very cool. And it's the perfect finishing touch on the battle royale.

So far as shooting, I found “Estranged” the most difficult and stressful day of either THB shoot. I was ostensibly directing the episode (though Joe, Rick and Rob Floyd all collaborated on a LOT of shots) as well as acting in it, and I just about collapsed from the strain of it all. I felt in very low spirits at the end of the shooting day, because I felt that my performance as Sam – the delivery of the dialogue – was slowing the whole shoot down. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t learn the lines; it was that I couldn’t actually physically speak them. I couldn’t get my tongue to actually say all the words in the right order. I kept tripping over my own mouth. It was a weird experience. Tony Mercer often says to me, “you can write this shit, but you can’t say it,” (a remark coined by Harrison Ford in regards to the Star Wars script) and I always laughed it off. You know what? He’s right. It’s easy to write these lines; it’s pure hell to deliver them. Especially under the pressure and time constraints we face on the production (one episode a day, for eight days straight).

On paper, “Estranged” didn’t look that complex to shoot (okay, maybe it did...), but it was actually incredibly complex. We had several people in costume and under heavy make-up for much of the day (our Outdweller Brigade!), and we had guns, telemeters, Outdweller weapons, and other props to account for all the time from scene to scene. Boy was it difficult! Who’s got a gun? Who’s got the telemeters? Real headache-inducing territory.

Even with the complexities, so many exciting things happened making "Estranged" to balance the experience. Unfortunately, there are few I can actually talk about here, because revealing them would spoil the surprises of the episode. But let’s just say I had a great experience working with Rob Floyd (and he did some amazing make-up work in this episode), and I had the thrill of seeing some of my main characters go into “battle” with Outdwellers. We were all like kids playing cowboys and Indians all of the sudden, blowing away monsters and having a blast. Note to filmmakers: having guns on a set turns everyone into a ten year old kid. But it's great.

“Estranged” is also the only House Between episode that takes us “outside” the confines of the house at the end of the universe. This was for the “hypnosis” revelation featured in the episode (and you’ve seen flashes of that world in “Returned,” “Separated” and “Reunited”). I have to say, this was an utter and absolute kick to shoot. It was about two in the morning, Rob had the fog machine on full blast, we had more outdwellers roaming around (welcome to the neighborhood!), and then we had our cast come out, one at a time, and reckon – for the first time in series history – with the great outdoors. I remember Tony Mercer shouting "Muir!" at me during the experience, because he had to keep repeating a line that - even at 2:00 am - seemed absolutely ridiculous without any supporting context. I intend to post the scene's
raw footage on the net one day (kidding). Anyway, this footage really turned out beautiful, and for me, the hypnosis scene in “Estranged” (in which the collective amnesia of the denizens is finally explained…), is one of the best aspects of the episode, and likely the first half of the second season too.

As usual, Mateo contributed a number of great new compositions for “Estranged.” I’m particularly fond of one that I can’t name, because it gives away a plot point; but which is suitably discomforting and menacing. I love his “fight background” too; it gives new meaning to the word pulse-pounding. And I resurrect both Sam and Brick’s themes for this episode too; since those characters are still with us.

So in a nutshell that’s the story behind “Estranged” as I remember it. It was a day of great highs and great lows, to quote Spinal Tap, and yet watching it all assembled, it all works just fine. Joe Maddrey says it is our most “fun" episode of the season, with the characters rallying and working together and arming up. I think he’s right.

Let me know how you like it tomorrow!. Let’s get the comments going!

Also, a brief note about future season two episodes. Next week on Friday, we are showing a documentary “The House Between: The Story So Far” to bring viewers up to date on the series. As you may now, the show has been picking up several new fans and much new attention this season, and we thought that a little background detail on the program’s first season (and some of its mysteries) might prove a good thing at this juncture. We’ll be back with episode #5, “Populated” in two short weeks, and then run straight through “Ruined,” the season finale, without further interruption. Half a season down; half to go, and the best is yet to come...

Finally, just let me say that I wish we could do twenty episodes a year. I plan to sell my cast on that idea soon: Just come down to Monroe for twenty days to shoot the show. Sleeping on the floor of my living room isn’t that bad, is it? Living with fifteen people isn't so hard, right? Right?

3 comments:

  1. most fun episode of the season SO FAR....

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  2. joey_bishop_jr.11:54 PM

    As long as we get Nick Nolte bedtime stories every night, man, I'd do a tv season's worth!!!

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  3. Anonymous10:42 AM

    The documentary is a great idea. Just last week I had someone tell me they tuned in mid season for "Reunited". She said the writing's good enough so that she can make that jump and still grasp what's going on, but still... I bet there's lots of other viewers like her out there, and it can be hard to get caught up.

    Great job, thus far, everybody. "Estranged" was great!

    ~Alicia

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