Thursday, March 06, 2008

The House Between 2.6 Director Notes: "Distressed"

“Distressed,” airing tomorrow, is a bonus episode of sorts for The House Between. I had originally conceived seven episodes for the program's second season, and begun a concept called “Distressed” in case of a problem or in the unlikely event that we beat our crazy production schedule and had extra time. I didn’t really expect there to be a problem, or that the bonus episode would be required, or that we would have extra time. I'm just a guy who likes to be prepared.

However, on Day Six of our second season shoot, my dear Tony Mercer (who plays Bill) grew gravely and dramatically ill. He was suffering in massive amounts of pain and could not work. In point of fact, he should have probably gone to the hospital. The day after we finished our shoot, he did go to the hospital. The day after that, he was in surgery. Without going into any details, that’s how serious this was…

I should add, Tony was more than willing to work, but I assessed his situation and told him he needed to rest and recuperate. We still had another two days to go, and my fear was that if he stressed himself now…the entire end of the season would be compromised and we’d be left with no resolution, and no finale. The theory was that a day of rest would re-energize him, and we could hopefully finish the season as intended. Tony felt bad about this. He was more concerned for the show than his own health, but the ultimate decision was mine, and I think I made the right call. I didn’t want to have to send for the ambulance at the end of the universe.

But the problem was…what could we shoot without Tony? His character is present in spades in the last two climactic episodes, “Caged” and “Ruined,” so we could spend the morning shooting the scenes he wasn’t in for “Caged,” but after that? I couldn’t have the cast sitting around, with time running out and a rented and paid for “house at the end of the universe.” That didn’t make any sense. Also, if Tony didn’t get better, we needed to go out on a note that would draw viewers back for a third season. Otherwise, our last episode would be “Populated,” which was a terrific show, but it was smack dab in the middle of the arc and was pretty neatly resolved.

So I dispatched my producer Joe Maddrey and my dp Rick Coulter and cameraman Bobby Schweizer to begin shooting the Mercer-less scenes of “Caged,” while I sequestered myself in Astrid’s room at the house at the end of the universe and wrote, re-wrote and polished “Distressed.”

We began shooting the completed episode cold at 1:00 pm. I knew we risked being up all night to finish, but amazingly we completed the entire episode (32 pages) by 10:30 pm. Most episodes of The House Between take us sixteen-to-eighteen hours to shoot, but fate unexpectedly turned our way, and everybody worked really hard and shot the episode in half-the-normal time. We did it, literally, on a wing and a prayer.

And there were further hardships to tell you about. Jim Blanton, who plays Arlo, began to feel ill before noon the same day. By mid-afternoon, he had a fever of 104 degrees which just wouldn’t break. Jim acted the entire episode – and it featured a substantial part for Arlo – with that raging fever. By eight pm that night, Jim was caked in sweat. By nine that night, he could hardly stand-up…he had to literally be propped up for his scenes. By the time we finished shooting, I swear he had lost five pounds in a day. It was frightening because if you've seen Jim, you know he doesn't have five pounds to lose. I’ve talked to Jim recently about “Distressed” and he has no memory of shooting it; or what went on. That's probably a good thing...

But we got “Distressed” in the can, and by late in the evening, just as Jim was fading into a final delirium. Miraculously, Tony started feeling better and we were even able to work Bill into the episode for an important scene. I tell you -- it was crazy. The next day, Tony and Jim both returned to the set and – still not feeling well – went on to finish the season with the rest of the team.

I’m not finished, either. Rob Floyd, our special effects guru, had to create a new camera-worthy prop for “Distressed” with no warning and no time – a Ouija or spirit board – and he was under the weather too. He had developed a terrible allergy to something in the house at the end of the universe and his eyes were red and raw. But he came through, and did a fantastic job.

Maybe the show should have been titled “Cursed…”

Truly, everybody persevered on that dark day. The cast including Lee, Kim, Craig Jim and Alicia had to perform a script they had never read, never even laid eyes on. We were printing the scripts at 12:45 pm, and because of the alacrity at which we were moving, some of the actors didn’t even get their own copies of “Distressed.” But they all did a great job dealing with the challenges of the script. Watching the episode, I am blown away by all the performances, because the script calls for a different set of challenges than usual. “Distressed” features a side of Travis never before excavated; Astrid has a ton to do and is responsible, basically for "moving" the story; Theresa deals with a new challenge that had to believable and affecting; Brick has his biggest role to date; and Arlo had to contend with a weird situation too. It’s not like this was an easy or rote script where the actors could just glide or walk through familiar roles. It was a steep challenge in terms of schedule and concentration.

So that’s how “Distressed” got made. I’m glad we shot it, because it adds a piece of the puzzle in moving towards Season Three. If we had not had the opportunity to shoot it, this piece of the overall arc would not have fallen into place till much later and that would have certainly been problematic for the series. Now, I can’t imagine “Distressed” not being the queue, and truth be told, I think even negating all the hardship that went into it, it’s a strong addition to the second season roster. In particular, I have to compliment our lighting team, Bobby and Kevin for doing their finest work yet on the series. They did a lot with shadow and light in this stuff. It's just gorgeous (and I hope the contrast survives the Veoh compression process). Also, Rick's camera work was the best it's been. In terms of visuals, I love "Distressed."

In terms of storyline, “Distressed” deals with the paranormal, the ideas of ghosts (or “disembodied spirits”) moving into the zone of blackness around the house at the end of the universe. Psychometry, spirit boards, spirit possession, automatic writing and the like all play a part in the tale. I was thrilled to get these concepts into the show because I remember feeling during the preparation for the second season that perhaps we were beginning to rely too heavily on the science/quantum reality stuff, and not paying heed to my edict that the house at the end of the universe is a crossroads where imagination, science, religion and the paranormal all combine. Certainly we’ve seen science in “Separated” to explain alternate realities, and imagination played a critical role in Bobby Schweizer’s “Populated,” but I am happy that the mystical, the psychical, gets some expression in “Distressed.” Religion is a point of importance in the upcoming “Caged.”

The entrance point to “Distressed” is an historical mystery, and the episode is rife with them: from the lost colony at Roanoke to the Mary Celeste to the Bermuda Triangle. I have always been obsessed with these historical enigmas and was thrilled to get the chance to explore them a bit on The House Between. One of my old scripts, written in 1998 was for a feature film called Insula Temporis (Time Island or Island of Time), about a group of contemporary scientists discovering the trail of the Roanoke survivors. Eventually it leads them to a kind of temporal meridian, a place where all historical time periods intersects. It was my homage to The Fantastic Journey (1977), one of my favorite disco decade sci-fi shows. We started shooting that script in the summer of 1998, but my lead actress had a breakdown and we never finished it, so it was a pleasure to get to use some of my research and ideas from it on The House Between.

The genre-knowledgeable viewer will find brief touches (in one case, merely visual...) of Star Trek’s “Operation: Annihilate” and “Day of the Dove” in “Distressed,” as well as an allusion or two to The Fantastic Journey. Also, the Mary Celeste element is something I simply had to add, because I love British science fiction television of the 1960s-1970s, and the disappearance of that ship's crew is constantly being mentioned in some of my favorite programs. The Daleks were responsible for the missing crew in one Doctor Who serial. Space:1999 mentioned the "ghost ship" in "Guardian of Piri" and one Sapphire & Steel episode also made reference to it.

In terms of meaning and metaphor, this episode brings The House Between back to the territory of “Returned,” our season premiere, and in particular, the question: how do you define life? Here, question raised is: what makes life worth living? In particular, “Distressed” offers my answer about end-of-life issues.

The editing of “Distressed” was actually relatively trouble free, and producer Joe Maddrey had some good notes, but only relatively minor changes. He had been otherwise engaged for much of the shooting on this episode; desperately trying to schedule out the rest of the season’s shooting schedule, so this episode played as a kind of ‘fresh experience” for him. He’d never even gotten to read the script on set!

So that’s the long and complicated story behind the appropriately-titled “Distressed.” I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to your comments. Next week, we move into the first part of our season finale, “Caged.”

I'm happy with where the series is right now. All the story points -- all the bowling pins -- are now standing. In the next two weeks...we knock 'em down. All of 'em...

Stay tuned.

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