Friday, January 25, 2008

The House Between 2.1: "RETURNED"

This is the first episode of the second season of the online science fiction drama, THE HOUSE BETWEEN. In "Returned" (written and directed by John Kenneth Muir), the former denizens at the mysterious house at the end of the universe - Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill T. Clark (Tony Mercer) and Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) - are returned to their imprisonment in the strange house, but with startling gaps in their memories. Where did they go when they left the house? How did they return? Why is the house in lockdown mode and failing to operate as before? Produced by Joseph Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC.

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.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK #47: The Prisoner (1967-68): "Arrival"

In the Valhalla of genre television there is nothing even remotely like The Prisoner, the late-1960s British allegory that focuses explicitly on the idea that "no man is just a number." 

With steadfast zeal and an almost radical sense of dedication and single-mindedness The Prisoner devotes itself to the ideals of individual freedom and liberty, and finds that contemporary Western society -- here represented by a hermetically-sealed Village -- doesn't measure up.

The Prisoner opens with a beautifully-photographed and symbolic montage that is seen in every one of the seventeen hour-long segments. 

Images of dark clouds form before our eyes as a thunderclap blares on the soundtrack. Next, we are gazing at an image of pure personal freedom: a solitary man driving a small sports car down a long, empty road, the wind blowing his hair. 

He appears confident and liberated, unfettered by anything or anyone. 

The driver then pulls into 1960s metropolitan London, enters a parking deck, and marches decisively through two doors marked with the legend "way out" visible in the frame. It's clear at this point that the man, Patrick McGoohan has a full-head of steam and -- in his quest for self-determination -- indeed seeks a "way out." We see him walk a long, narrow hall, his feet accelerating. A low-angle shot reveals him swinging open double doors with anger; the angle telling us he is powerful, menacing even, and about to establish his independence.

This man is next depicted in what appears to be a government office as he lectures his superior, and throws down a resignation letter in a white envelope. 

Two things about this portion of the opening montage feel ominous. First, there is no "live" sound (meaning no voice), so that even as this courageous man asserts his freedom of self-determination and free speech, the audience is denied the substance of his arguments. Literally, his individual voice is squelched. 

Secondly, the only sound we do hear is another series of menacing thunderclaps.

 Clearly, this is a portentous moment. All is not as the Man believes it is. He is expressing himself loudly, but to the audience this is futile...he is silenced. His words are drowned out.

The man, a government agent we presume, then leaves the office and returns to his apartment, where he begins to pack his bags. 

Here, The Prisoner's opening montage trenchantly inter-cuts between a free man who has asserted his will and the automatic mechanisms of a vast, overreaching, impersonal bureaucracy.

As the man plans his future his own way, the State initiates a contradictory strategy: a robotic machine stamps out his personal ID Card with a row of "XXXXXX", and then dumps it in a file cabinet marked "RESIGNED." 

A plan is set into motion.

In short order, our protagonist is then gassed by strangers (representatives of a government either foreign or domestic...) and rendered unconscious. He awakes some time later to find himself in a different locale, a strange little burg, "The Village;" a place that's a bizarre melange of Old World architectural-styles and modern conveniences. It's an odd combination of idyllic past (where almost everyone wears a hat and carries an umbrella) with the impersonal technological present (public telephones, information kiosks, etc.).

As the Prisoner soon learns, everything about this place is uncomfortably generic. There are labels everywhere, but the labels are so vague as to be virtually meaningless. There's "The Cafe," "The Restaurant" and so forth. When the Prisoner reads a map (which he gets at a "General Store"), it is equally useless, pinpointing landmarks such as ""The Mountains," "The Sea," and "The Beach."

On the map, the strange town is labeled not merely as the Village, but importantly as "Your Village," meaning it ostensibly belongs to the denizens; meaning it belongs to the Prisoner himself.

As "Arrival" continues, The Prisoner begins to explore his digs ("your home from home," a welcome card reads on a small table in his new apartment), and as he takes a taxi through the center of the town there are several point-of-view, first-person subjective shots of his ride.

This selection of angles is efficacious for a number of reasons. The first-person perspective puts us in the Prisoner's position, permitting the viewer to feel as though we are the ones trapped. 

However, it also affords us a continuous look at the Village, so that as viewers we immediately understand this is not some Hollywood set or constructed sound stage. 

One of the facets that I've always admired about The Prisoner is this powerful sense of place, of another world (and the Village is, in fact, a place called Portmeiron in North Wales.) The series would not be so effective if the Village seemed fake or like a set. This is the oddest "jail" you've ever seen, yet it feels real, not gimmicky or the product of special effects.

The taxi ride ends precisely where it started, and returning to where we started is a common theme on The Prisoner, taken right up through the climax of the ultimate episode. 

The Prisoner is then left to learn more about his odd new environs on foot. Loudspeakers in the public square pipe in generic music and make civic announcements. A disembodied voice makes selections for the denizens. "The flavor of the day is strawberry," is an example of one such proclamation, indicating that all the denizens - regardless of personal preference - will enjoy strawberry on this occasion. 

Welcome to the totalitarian village, where the State regulates every aspect of private, public and civic behavior. Even your ice cream will be chosen for you.

The Prisoner is invited to the building with the green dome to share breakfast with a man who identifies himself as # 2. 

Inside the traditional interior of #2's house is a bizarre inner sanctum reflective of some 1960s concepts of futurism. There are bowl-style rotating chairs, giant view screens (displaying strange floating globules...) and James Bond-ian low ceilings and interiors; ones where chairs rise suddenly from subterranean platforms.

It is here that # 2 and his diminutive manservant -- a silent dwarf -- seem to be aware of the Prisoner's meal preferences before he states them aloud. This is another indicator that Big Brother - the State - has been paying close attention. The State knows their new ward prefers lemon in his tea and two eggs with his bacon. 

Nothing has gone unnoticed.

Before long, this "working breakfast" gets down to business. Number # 2 reveals that The Prisoner is being held at the Village (his Village, mind you), over a "question" of his resignation. He has had a "brilliant career," and "impeccable records" and is now a "valuable property" on the open market. It is Number # 2's job to check his motives and allegiances. Why did this man, this loyal man, resign his post?

The Prisoner informs Number # 2 of nothing, but then sees images from his entire life (his schooling, his youth, his morning bathroom routine...) displayed before him on a large screen. His society has been watching him all along, collecting data, gathering information. 

"One likes to know everything," asserts Number #2. 

He makes it sound harmless, but it isn't. Privacy is a myth. A government that believes it knows what is best for you needs to protect you at all times...and to do that, it needs to watch you at all times, doesn't it?

At this intrusion, the Prisoner responds with a comment that has become the mantra of this classic series: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own."

Bold words, and this Prisoner, who is designated uncooperative and aggressive by the Powers that Be for his refusal to comply with the State, refuses to bend. He is given a number (Six), and subsequently refuses that number. "I am not a number. I am a person," he insists.

"Everyone has a number," #2 counters. 

And he's right. Today (in America), we all do have numbers. They're called Social Security Numbers. They're called Driver's License Numbers. If you want to own a business, they are called Tax ID numbers, or Employee Identification Numbers. If your computer breaks down, the first thing you have to do is give a tech (in India) your model number and serial number. If the police want to find you for some reason, they will key off another number, your license plate number. If someone wants to contact you, they dial your telephone number. Want to access your bank account, well what's the account number? 

You get the picture. The numbering and filing (and thus categorizing) of people has increased exponentially since the time of The Prisoner and in that sense, this classic series certainly qualifies as prophetic.

The remainder of "Arrival" follows Number Six's attempts to escape the Village by air, by sea, by whatever means necessary. Blocking his path is a roaring, whistling, bouncing white balloon of colossal proportions. 

What is it? 

"That would be telling" is the only, cryptic answer.Those who disobey or attempt to escape are absorbed by this strange device. Number Six also learns that various denizens of the Village are agents, double agents or spies with their own agenda. He can trust no one.

In accordance with this realization, the episode (and all episodes of the series) end with a highly expressionistic and powerful image. 

As we gaze at a high-angle, long-distance shot of the spires and towers of the Village (a shining city on a hill?), we suddenly spy the Prisoner's determined face racing towards the camera, increasing in size and velocity as it hurtles at us. 

Just as it is about to break the fourth wall and smash into us, two grey doors -- barred jail doors -- slam shut on his face (with a reverberating clang), demonstrating his continued and eternal entrapment. 

And make no mistake, this represents our entrapment too, according to The Prisoner.

At the heart of "Arrival" and all the episodes of The Prisoner is the notion that modern Western Civilizations are making inappropriate intrusions into the private lives of citizenry.

The Village is a perfect example of a totalitarian state because of the methods it utilizes to control the people it "benevolently" safeguards. 

One such method is propaganda. For example, in "Arrival," Number Six visits the Labour Exchange and there are several placards hanging on the wall, ones decorated with Village slogans. 

Among them: "a still tongue makes a happy life," and my personal favorite, "Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself." 

Such slogans are a mind-numbing short-cut to thinking for ourselves.

Another way a totalitarian state controls its people is by the use of mass surveillance, again another tact demonstrated by the Village. There are whole control rooms filled with technicians watching the citizenry. 

In fact, even Number # 2 is being watched. There are bugs in the phones, in the lamps -- everywhere.With GPS technology, satellites in space and the NSA, there is no such thing as privacy in America anymore. We are the Village or soon will be, in a very real sense.  And again, this isn't about being a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative.

I also had to laugh at a moment in "Arrival" when a bald technician announced an "orange alert" since in this War on Terror Age, we have quickly grown accustomed to color coded alert systems just like this to tell us just how afraid we should be. Again - inciting fear and citing security are other ways a totalitarian state grasps and holds power.

But most importantly, a totalitarian state truly comes into power when the state begins to control religion and the media, blurring the separation between church and state and controlling the messages people receive. In The Prisoner, the Village runs its own newspaper, has its own health care system (which looks a lot like torture...), controls commerce and job creation (through the Labor Exchange) and yet claims to have democratic elections. Again, in the last eight years, we've seen government pushing propaganda as legitimate news reports ("this is Karen Ryan reporting..."), and the line between government and religion was crossed with "faith-based" initiatives. Again, The Prisoner has been proven positively prophetic in its depiction of a totalitarian state in which technology wipes out personal freedom and individual liberties (not to mention privacy).

Patrick McGoohan, star and executive producer of the series has gone on record saying (in a 1977 interview with Warner Troyer): 

"I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself...We're run by the Pentagon, we're run by Madison Avenue, we're run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don't revolt we'll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche… As long as we go out and buy stuff, we're at their mercy. We're at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed…We all live in a little Village… Your village may be different from other people's villages but we are all prisoners."
In explicitly discussing "progress," I believe McGoohan was pointing out the ways that so much new technology - especially in the hands of Big Government - can be corrupted or perverted to steal away the things we hold most precious; the freedom to do as we choose, when we choose, with whom we choose. Men like Number Six find this social contract unacceptable. Do you? If so, I highly recommend The Prisoner, an artistic series that is to science fiction television what Orwell's 1984 is to literature.

The Village's salute -"Be seeing you" - is not just a pleasant way of saying au revoir, it's an acknowledgment that your neighbor and "democratically elected" representative will - in fact, be seeing you. On monitors, in computer rooms, on spread sheets. You are being watched.