Friday, February 01, 2008

The House Between 2.2: "Separated"

"Separated" is the second episode of The House Between's second season. In this shocking installment, Arlo (Jim Blanton) has fallen into the quantum stream and emerged in a version of the house at the end of the universe that is a dark reflection of the world he knows. Meanwhile, his friends - Astrid (Kim Breeding), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill (Tony Mercer) and Theresa (Alicia A Wood) - struggle to get Arlo back before time runs out, but Travis and Bill grow ever more argumentative. Produced for the Lulu Show LLC by Joseph Maddrey. Written and directed by John Kenneth Muir.

The House Between 2.2: "Separated"

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The House Between Director's Notes: "Separated"

Okay, honesty in blogging here. This episode of The House Between's second season, “Separated,” should actually be titled “Twisted.” It’s dark, sad and scary - a real emotional roller coaster ride. I also think it’s the best script I’ve ever written, and by far the strangest…and most dangerous.

“Separated” began with my good friend, Jim Blanton, who plays Arlo. At some point when we were developing the story arc for the second season of The House Between, I happened to post here on the blog an article about “Arena,” the short story by Frederic Brown that pits humans against aliens in some kind of arena/battle setting. It’s a story that virtually every science fiction TV series in history has done a variation on. The Outer Limits called it “Fun and Games.” On Star Trek it was actually “Arena.” On Space: 1999 it was “The Rules of Luton.” You can also find variations of the theme on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Blakes 7 and even Farscape. It's a durable story that can be adapted to virtually any franchise.

So Jim mentioned to me that it would be really fascinating to do a story in which Arlo has to – for some strange reason – do battle with an Outdweller to get back together to the others in the house. I loved the idea and then Jim had another great suggestion: he wanted to incorporate a small moment of homage to one of our favorite Carpenter flicks, Escape from New York. Particularly an incident between chase and fight interludes wherein the hero, Snake Plissken, stopped, pulled up a chair and paused for a moment of introspection before resuming the fight. I liked that idea too. I knew all along I wanted this to be a good Arlo story, and who better to provide some thoughts and insights than the actor who gives him life?

So the original meme on “Separated” was what I unofficially referred to in various communiqués with the cast and crew as “Arlo in Wonderland.” It was going to be a story of Arlo plunged between quantum realities. There would be one universe where he would encounter evil counterparts of his friends (like “Mirror, Mirror”), one where he was shrunken to tiny size, like The Incredible Shrinking Man, and one, finally, where he could get back home…if only he could get past an Outdweller.

But then, as I was writing, I went off on a tangent, and the rest of the script sort of wrote itself, in an odd way. I can’t really say precisely how it happened, but what I can establish for certain, my friends, is that this episode represents a fork in the road on The House Between.

For better or worse, I decided that instead of phantasmagoria and action, I was going to re-focus the entire season on stories that excavate the inner hearts of darkness of each of my beloved characters. And the core of “Separated” is still the same, but it is no longer the story of Arlo breezing through alternate realities. Instead, it’s the story of Arlo landing in one particularly dark and grim quantum reality and having to deal with life there, full-on.

You see, what’s always bothered me a little about alternate universe stories on Star Trek and its progeny is that the heroic characters, after immediately accepting their dilemma, put forward and execute intricate plans of escape to return to their universes For lack of a better word, they’re tourists. They gawk at the sights (look, a lesbianic Major Kira Nerys!), execute their plans, and leave, usually by the skin of their teeth.

I knew I didn’t want to make the same mistake. Instead, I wanted to make this a story not about alternate dimensions, but about Arlo himself. He’s a strange kid who never grew up with a real home or family, and so created “the house between” in the image of the only home he ever knew: his grandmother’s.

Suddenly, and in a very dramatic way, “Separated” became the story of Arlo's search for home, and how he countenances an unpleasant world. What he is willing to accept; and what he isn’t. It’s nothing that I had in mind originally…but that’s what "Separated" became.

The hook for “Separated” is a scientific paper I read which posits that all of us have identical twins somewhere else in this galaxy, and also in other quantum realities. So I began to obsess on the notion of Arlo landing in a universe not where the characters were traditional black hats, but where their lives had brought them to different points than “our” characters in the canon universe. Imagine pulling a single incident out of your life, and watching the present untangle without it, and you'll get an idea what I mean. Maybe you attended a different college; maybe you didn’t get divorced; maybe you chose chocolate instead of vanilla ice cream last night. How would these changes make you a different person? Are we, in the end, the results of the decisions we made (or didn’t make), and would we recognize ourselves if we chose differently?

I realize this is a weird digression, but this concept of "there but for the grace of God..." is actually something I’ve been haunted by for a long time. When I was going to college as a sophomore, driving from New Jersey to Virginia with my Mom and Dad, a strange incident happened. We were on the highway doing seventy when a heavy surfboard on the roof of the car in front of us broke free of restraints, glided through the air like a missile, and smashed into the front grille of the van we were driving. We were shocked by the collision, but unharmed.

Two days later, I met Kathryn, the love of my life, my beautiful wife, and the mother of my child.

What would have happened had I gone with my original plan, and not taken the van on that trip, but gone in the family car instead? A car where the windshield was lower; exactly where the grille was on the van?

Would we have been killed? Hurt? Would the path of my life that led to Kathryn and all the happiness I have known since, been irrevocably changed? Who would I be today (and would I be six feet under?) if just one little life choice was different?

So this notion underlies “Separated” too. We encounter a universe where, for several characters, things have taken bad turns. We still recognize Astrid, Bill, Travis and Theresa…but their experiences are different. And this has made them different too. "Separated" carries a lot of emotional weight. It's about being lost, it's about what fear and loss can to do a person, it's about the nature of religion when it is misused, and so forth. It's exactly the sort of story I want The House Between to tell.

We shot “Separated” on a Saturday, the first day of shooting the second season. Even though it’s the second episode in the queue, we wanted to shoot it first because it was the script that several of the actors had rehearsed together during readings arranged by our script assistant, Phyllis Floyd. It was a complex, long script, and it seemed like a good idea to get it out of the way.

On the day of photography, we shot the episode in a unique way. We did all of the alternate universe scenes first, and then – at the end of the day – came back to shoot the “canon” universe material.

This was distinctly strange because it was the cast & crew’s very first day assembled together after a long year apart. And the first thing we did was not re-establish the familiar (except for Jim, who played Arlo – our stranger in a strange land), but go off into this very odd, very gloomy territory. I remember being absolutely delighted with the quality of the performances and the lighting and the make-up, but I just kept thinking it was like we had all returned to a Bizarro version of The House Between.

I can’t compliment my cast enough on the acting in this episode. It’s pretty amazing to craft individual personalities and maintain them with integrity throughout a season, and then come back a year later and resurrect and improve on that work without skipping a beat. But it’s something else all together to look into these characters and be able to tweak them, and edge them in a different direction, without losing their essence or recognizability. I can't say anything else specifically, for fear of spoiling the show.

As far as incidents on the set, this is the day that Jim Blanton got punched in the jaw rehearsing a fight sequence. He was a trooper, and I think I was more upset about it than he was. He just took it in stride. But between being punched ("Separated"), frozen ("Returned") and sick with a 103 degree fever ("Distressed"), Jim had quite the week at the house at the end of the universe.

Editing "Separated" has been tough, honestly. My producer Joseph Maddrey gave me great notes, as always, and Rick Coulter (my DP) also watched an intermediate cut and provided feedback...that was exactly the opposite of Joe's. Because of my inability to reconcile these solid but contradictory opinions, I hid under my bed for a day. No, I actually took the unusual step of seeking yet ANOTHER opinion. I talked to Jim during the editing process to see how he felt, since he understands Arlo better than anyone. Usually I can decide these things for myself, weighing opinions and all, but not this time. I decided that Jim cast the deciding vote, and I think he made a good call.

And so heck - this episode is now 37 minutes long -- our longest yet!

I'm also really delighted with "Separated" because Mateo composed some fantastic music for the episode. He gave me a theme, entitled "Sympathy," which plays over a conversation between Jim and Theresa in the alternate universe. Without exaggeration, this is the most beautiful, heartbreaking piece he's yet composed (which is saying something). He also gave me amazing themes for alternate universe Astrid, alternate universe Bill, and something called "Outdweller Thoughts" which will give you the deep-down creeps. I must say, Mateo's new compositions really enhanced the show in a dramatic way.

So that's the journey we took bringing "Separated" to the (computer) screen. Hope you like it. Tune in tomorrow to see the results!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: 2007 Star Trek Ornaments!

It's Christmas in January! My mother-in-law in Richmond, Virginia, who always hunts Star Trek collectibles for me across the yard sales and flea markets of the state, was upset during the holidays because she couldn't find some of the gifts she had purchased for me.

Let me explain: she has two houses where she splits her time, four daughters, four son-and-laws and a whopping twelve grandchildren to buy gifts for, and understandably, it's hard to keep track of everything. And hey, it's cool -- because I found a package on my porch yesterday morning with...surprise, my Christmas presents inside. Nana came through again. Whoo-hoo.

Anyway, as you can see from the photos, I found in the package three 2007 Star Trek keepsake ornaments from Hallmark, dated 2007 (and one stamped "limited quantity.") My favorite of the three is undoubtedly this amazing ornament from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Battery operated, you "press the button on the base of the ornament to activate the sights and sounds of an epic battle scene from one of the most action-packed Star Trek films ever."

I know this next comment will reveal my utterly geeky nature, but what the heck. I love this ornament in part because of the incredible detail. In particular, Sulu's helm panel and the navigation station are pinpoint accurate in terms of the layout and design of the controls. How do I know? Well, in The Wrath of Khan there's this sweeping pan across the same console on Reliant ("The override, where's the override!"), and when I was sick in high school for like a month (carbon monoxide poisoning from a malfunctioning furnace in our old house...) I watched The Wrath of Khan every day. Over and over. Obsessively. Sometimes I would freeze-frame shots, or watch them in slow motion. So yes, I remember the controls EXACTLY. And so does this ornament. Lovely.

Next up we have gorgeous Lt. Uhura, as played by Nichelle Nichols. Even in ornament form, the lieutenant looks mighty fine in a mini-skirt. She's got that funny little listening device in one ear, and again - the console (from the original series) is very accurately depicted here. Cool!

Finally, there's the three-nacelle Enterprise D from the future, and the final episode of Next Gen, "All Good Things." I also have a Playmates toy of this ship somewhere in storage, I think. This is a cool ornament but I have to admit it bugs me a little that this was supposed to be the design o the Enterprise twenty five-years after the series, but by the time of First Contact, when a new Enterprise was built, this design was scrapped and a totally new Enterprise designed instead. Still, it's a lovely piece to own, and you can "press the button on the bottom of the ornament to see the ship's deflector dish and engines illuminate."

I have so many of these ornaments, going back to 1992, that I need three trees on which to display them. So this was a very nice post-holiday surprise and three terrific ornaments. .

Monday, January 28, 2008

Kitty Litter

I'm putting the finishing touches on the second volume of my Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television and scooting it out the door to the publisher today. When I submitted the first volume in 2003, we were just beginning (thanks to Spider-Man) this current glut of genre films. Now, five years later we've seen a lot of good (Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, Hellboy, Superman Returns) and a whole ot of bad.

In 2008 we can expect a re-boot of a re-imagination, The Incredible Hulk, and an adaptation of Iron Man. Not to mention The Dark Knight.

And that brings me to my question for the day. Which is the lowest of the low? Which production represents the absolute nadir of superhero films of the 21st century so far? I'd certainly count the first Fantastic Four (2005) as one of the most disappointing, primarily because I always thought the comic-books were clever and intelligent, and the movie was mind-numbingly stupid. I also know that many folks would select Elektra (2005), but it's almost too modest in its badness to generate that much enmity, in my opinion. It's not a great film by any means, but it plays okay as a low-rent action flick, and it doesn't have super pretensions. So many superhero films feel overwrought and overthought, and this one at least avoids that trap. Elektra might not be very good, but it isn't suffocated with digital effects and watching it isn't an exhausting, overstimulating experience.

So I guess my pick is no surprise (especially since there's a photo at the top of the post...).

Catwoman (2004), is a picture-perfect recipe for genre disaster, the Titanic of bad superhero flicks. Here's how you make a steaming cat turd like this film: Take a beloved character with sixty years of established history...and then discard every last bit of it. Then, take a universe with rich locations and connections (the DC Comic Universe)...then discard that entirely too. Finally, just go right ahead and discard the central character (Selina Kyle) and make the film about a different catwoman (Patience Phillips) instead...but still be sure to call the film Catwoman (brand naming and all). Essentially, this would be like going to a Superman movie and finding out it is not about Kal-El, but Fal-El, his less-intelligent third cousin from Krypton, who also boasts super powers. I can hear the producers laughing all the way to the bank. "You thought I meant that Superman? No, no. Sorry, but enjoy this flick about this new guy now that you're in the theater..."

Then, just to put the icing on the cake...throw in as much lousy CGI as possible. You know, before I saw the film, I used to think there had to be worse ways to spend ninety minutes than ogling Halle Berry in a cat outfit. Now, I gotta say...there really aren't. Catwoman makes you pay a high price for the thrill of this modest voyeurism. It's too high a cost, even for me, a red-blooded American male. And that's saying something.

So what's your least favorite superhero flick of recent vintage?