Friday, February 08, 2008

The House Between 2.3: "Reunited"

In "Reunited," the third episode of The House Between's second season, a pair of dangerous visitors (John Muir, Craig Eckrich) arrive in the house at the end of the universe with a a military strategy that jeopardizes the other denizens (Kim Breeding, Jim Blanton, Lee Hansen, Tony Mercer, Alicia A. Wood.) Written by John Kenneth Muir. Directed by Rick Coulter. Produced for the Lulu Show LLC by Joseph Maddrey.

"Reunited" (The House Between 2.3)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The House Between 2.3: "Reunited" Writer & Director Notes

This week on The House Between, we arrive at "Reunited," the third episode, and the first part of a (hopefully epic...) two-parter.

"Reunited" is one of the first stories I began developing after shooting Season One, when I understood that we would require a surly outsider, a catalyst to come in and speak some unpleasant truths to the characters, namely Astrid and Bill Clark. I decided that there's no one better equipped to deliver bad news than a family member (!) and thus I created a character I have kind of fallen in love with: Dr. Sam Clark, Bill's brother. Sam is -- well, you'll see what Sam is - but suffice it to say, he doesn't mince words, and it was great creating a new character to mix things up for the denizens at the end of the universe.

Importantly, this is also an episode that adds a regular character, Sgt. Brick, played by Craig Eckrich. Brick is also a character I adore: he was designed to be very different in temperament and communication skills from the other house between characters, and I like the fact that he brings in a whole new perspective; one which wasn't previously available to us.

In terms of science fiction genre history, the arrival of a mysterious "brother" to a protagonist has happened quite a bit, but I must admit, I was thinking explicitly of "The Bringers of Wonder" a 2-part Space:1999 Year Two episode. In that story, Tony Verdeschi's obnoxious brother, Guido Verdeschi showed up with his own agenda, and there was - of course - a mystery behind his arrival. Otherwise, let me just say that "Reunited" is to our first season's "Visited" as Aliens (1986) is to Alien (1979). You'll see what I mean when I watch.

Now, getting down to the nitty-gritty of the shoot: "Reunited" represented an unusual day and an unusual opportunity for me. I decided I would not direct the episode, but rather guest star as Sam Clark. How could I resist? This would be my opportunity to torture the other actors and say evil things to them. I really enjoyed that.

Actually, it was a long, tough slog acting in the show. I always knew my actors had it rough on this series, memorizing oodles of difficult and often-technical dialogue at literally a moment's notice. I just never realized how really tough it was. I understood it for the first time when I had a lengthy monologue about quantum realities and other esoteric subjects. I also remember getting up early in the morning, learning all my lines for my first several scenes, and then getting to the set and finding - to my dismay - that we were starting with a scene I had not rehearsed at all. D'oh! What misery! Fortunately, it was a scene with Kim Breeding, and acting with Kim brought out the best in me. Let's just say we play sparring partners in the episode, and I felt we had a real chemistry. It was an encouraging start. Then I got to the scenes with Tony as my fictional brother Bill, and felt a strong sense of corp d'esprit. Tony was very encouraging and told me many times that I was doing well. I felt the pressure momentarily drop away...

Those first scenes prepared me well for the group scenes with the rest of my beloved cast, and I felt that I didn't slow up the works too bad. Alicia, Jim and Lee were all encouraging when I goofed, and I was glad to be working with such talented individuals. These actors are great.

And I'll tell you what, Craig Eckrich didn't miss a beat as Sgt. Brick. He came in and nailed the role. His character is a real physical presence in The House Between, and you feel it strongly in this (and the other) episodes. I was too nervous myself to notice if he was equally nervous about his debut. I just noticed that he was quietly and efficiently stealing scenes with his understated wit. Craig is a person graced with a helpful and kind nature, and he never balked at doing takes over again, or the rigors of the shoot.

Trying to learn all my lines, I was relieved that I had handed over the episode to my dear friend and trusted DP, Rick Coulter. Rick is a mellow dude and he doesn't like pressure. I don't think his blood pressure ever goes up...seriously. He's taken some weird lumps in his life recently, and yet he is the most centered person I've ever met. It's amazing. Rick takes everything in stride and never misses a beat. He brought that laconic, easy-going persona to the director's chair, and did absolutely wonderful work. Occasionally, when I was sitting with Kathryn in the parlor learning my lines, I'd see Rick tromp by, his eyes as crazed and hyperactive as I'd ever seen them. You could just see his brain going a mile a minute, working all the angles. I was nervous a little about letting go of the show's reigns, but I didn't need to be. Rick did a fantastic job and brought his stellar "eye" to the house at the end of the universe.

I asked Rick to contribute a few thoughts to these notes, since I'm not the director of "Reunited", and here's what he had to say about the experience:

Since John was in front of the camera for episode #3, he asked if I would step up and direct “Reunited.” I use that label “director” loosely in that I feel the whole process was much more collaborative, aligning more with my socially democratic or “open-source” sensibilities. Bobby Schweizer and I shot the episode in a way very similar to the way John and I have shot all the previous episodes. Bobby and Kevin Flanagan, the other lighting specialist, would set up the lights and then we would set up the cameras. I tried to be extra conservative with my shots to ensure maximum coverage. Bobby and I switched off being camera A and B and I felt we successfully captured the look and feel of the other episodes, including some exceptional shots captured by Bobby.

I am also thankful that the “jack of all trades”, Joe Maddrey was there in his producer, assistant director, and script supervisor roles. And by this point, making things much easier for me, all the actors were very comfortable in their roles and basically knew how they wanted to interact with each other in the scenes. Rob, Phyllis and the rest of the crew were also right there making the entire day run much smoother then it would have without their presence.

My only attempts to deviate from our standard setup included one shot at the beginning of the party scene where the camera follows a mingling Astrid around the living room, and then later a heavily lit interrogation scene where each actor delivers their lines looking directly into the camera. The party scene may give John a little problem in editing, but I hope he will be able to loop the low murmurs in the background throughout the scene. I also envisioned jazz music playing in the background for the duration of the scene but I’m not sure that will make it into final cut.

With the interrogation scene I thought it would be cool and more time efficient to just have the actors sit down and read their lines into the camera instead of them all interacting. John’s script lent itself to being interpreted in this way.

My only concerns for this episode include a lengthy monologue delivered in the parlor. In this room it is very hard to include various types of shots, but Bobby and I picked up a number of reaction cutaways and John has collected some other footage that should make the scene more visually interesting after editing.

Overall the experience working with John and the entire crew and cast on THB has been a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing the rest of season 2.

Watching "Reunited" all cut together, Rick did outstanding work, and I've already asked him to direct an episode again in season three. What I like about Rick is that he does a little bit more with depth of field than I tend to. He crafted some interesting shots where he "brackets" characters in the foreground, and you also see characters moving in the background. I also enjoyed his roving camera approach, which gets resurrected dramatically in an upcoming show, "Caged."

The last few hours of shooting "Reunited" were really fun for me, because I was done acting (whew!) and we had the chance, under Rob Floyd's exquisite leadership, to stage a series of Outdweller attacks and stunts. I know the make-up was murder on those inside the suits, but it was cool (and a little frightening) to fill those familiar rooms with hordes of rampaging monsters.

Another joy of "Reunited" is Mateo Latosa's contributions to the score. He composed and performed a great theme for Brick, and an even more terrific one for Sam Clark. I've never had my own theme song before(!), and I really love the composition. It's my favorite musical addition to the episode, one that really expresses the essence of the character. There's also an upsetting piece called "Ambushing Arlo" and another one involving Brick and Astrid.

Thematically, I call "Reunited" my statement on the Iraq War. Basically, this installment covers every aspect of what's happened in America since 2001; the slippery slope to torture, the consolidation of government powers at the expense of civil liberties, collateral damage in the rush to war, and the extensive sloganization of the military effort ("we're fighting them here so we don't have to fight them there," etc.) I agree with Barack Obama: I'm not against all wars. I'm just against dumb ones. And I guess that's truly the underpinning of this episode. Lesson of the day: don't fight dumb wars if you can help it.

Let us know if you dig "Reunited." It bows tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Barry Morse: To Everything That Was...

I just learned that actor and gentleman Barry Morse passed away this weekend. The breadth of Morse's multi-decade career on stage, screen and TV speaks to his giant talent. As you may know, Morse played the original "dogged" pursuer on The Fugitive (1964-1968), Lt. Gerard. And, of course, he memorably portrayed Professor Victor Bergman, oracle of Moonbase Alpha on the first year of Space:1999 (1975). It is in that iconic role that I first encountered Mr. Morse and his work; and even now I marvel at the humanity, gentleness and intelligence he brought to that futuristic and sometimes austere (but beloved...) series.

I had the good fortune to share time with Mr. Morse at two Space:1999 conventions at the turn of the century, and on both occasions I admired his wit, charm and good nature. He was unfailingly honest with fans about his opinion of the series, and didn't just tell people what they wanted to hear. Yet he always delivered his verdicts with charm, humor and courage. In a word, he was...amazing.

Upon hearing this sad news, I couldn't help but to remember that great moment in "Black Sun" when Victor and John Koenig - staring at the precipice of the eternal abyss - share a last toast on the steps of Main Mission; just two friends facing mortality. "To everything that might have been..." says Koenig, raising his glass.

"To everything that was," replies Victor.


Let's toast Barry Morse -- a man who lived life well, and who brought joy to millions across the globe. His performances will live on, and like Moonbase Alpha's sojourn, his odyssey "shall know no end..."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

TRADING CARD CLOSE-UP # 11: Batman: The Movie (1966)

One of the best and nicest things about having this blog (and a public e-mail) is getting in touch with other toy collectors from across the country and the globe. Recently, a great fellow named Jeff Locklear contacted me and sent me a whole gaggle of scans from his toy and trading card collection. So first off, I want to thank Jeff for sharing these images with all of us, and secondly, I now want to present some trading cards from the first Batman movie of the modern age. No, it wasn't directed by Tim Burton...

In 1966, at the height of "Batmania," Batman: The Movie played in theaters nationwide and pitted Adam West's Batman against The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) and The Penguin (Burgess Meredith).

As I recall, the plot had something to do with these four criminal masterminds capturing the Security Council of the United Nations and then dehydrating them (!) with some sort of futuristic ray gun. The finale, which as a kid growing up in the 1970s I absolutely loved, was a sustained fistfight (ZAMM! POW! ZOINK!) with Batman and Robin (Burt Ward) on one side, and the costumed freaks and their minions on the other. The battle was set on the deck of a submarine, as all fistfights should be, I think.

I know comic-book fans today don't like the 1960s series or movie because it was campy and silly, but I'll be honest: this is the Batman that I grew up with. When I was young, I didn't detect how silly it all was; it was and adventurous. The movie was also neat if for no other reason than it featured a whole slew of new Bat technology including a bat-copter, a bat-cycle and a bat-boat. No CGI either. The vehicles - whether on sky, sea or land, were all real and had to be constructed. As I've noted here before, I really groove on the retro-1960s futurism, and Batman: The Movie offers plenty of examples, from the Bat Cave (replete with Atomic Pile) to the Batmobile itself.

I'm tempted to make some kind of "Holy Trading Cards, Batman" joke but I think I'll refrain. Anyway, enjoy the pics. And just think, for the sum of just 5 cents, a pack of these could be all yours back in the day...

Monday, February 04, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock's Movie Babies

The master of suspense, the late Alfred Hitchcock, still casts a long shadow across the Hollywood thriller and horror genres. Several filmmakers over the last quarter century have been dubbed "the new Hitchcock" by over-eager reviewers hoping to pass the torch. Some modern directors may even merit the comparison (my personal favorites: De Palma, Carpenter, Franklin and Fincher). It's funny how these things go in cycles, but in two 2007 films, Vacancy and Disturbia, one can witness the deliberate unearthing once more of the Hitchcock timeless aesthetic. In terms of the former (Vacancy), the experiment is rather successful. In terms of the latter (Disturbia), a bit less so. But both are decent films.

The term "Hitchcockian" is bandied about a lot in the movie reviews of the day, sometimes by critics who weren't even alive when Hitchcock was making films and more often by critics who have no idea what the term truly signifies. They think every thriller with a twist ending is "Hitchcockian." I disagree. For a film to appear legitimately Hitchcockian, I submit it must accomplish three important goals:

1. The film should concern a key Hitchockian obsession as an important component of the narrative. The mistaken identity (as in North by Northwest), sexual aberration (as in Psycho or Frenzy), and voyeurism (Rear Window) are three prime examples of the terrain Hitchcock charted during his career.

2. The film should be presented in a manner that Hitchcock himself would have approved of. This means that the film should be highly formalistic rather than realistic, expressing emotion, story, and suspense via the mise-en-scene and camera angles themselves. In other words, the camera should express, not merely record, what is happening to the characters and in the plot. For easy short-hand, I always call this facet "form reflecting content," but it's really the canny understanding and deployment of film grammar; Hitchcock's unmatched facility in crafting images that make us feel a certain way about the film and the people we are watching on the silver screen.

3. Finally, the film should also strongly feature gallows or black humor; a sense of wit about the proceedings. In Hitchcock's canon, death is sudden, terrifying and strangely funny. I'm always reminded of that terrific scene in Frenzy when - following a murder - the potato killer outsmarts himself by gets trapped himself in the back of the truck.

Given this set of principles, the 2007 thriller Vacancy, directed by the unfortunately-named Nimrod Antal, is clearly and boldly Hitchcockian. The story follows a bickering married couple, Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Luke Wilson) on a night-time trip through rural countryside in California. Their car breaks down, and before you can say "road-trip gone awry," they find themselves staying at a strange, filthy motel (replete with cockroaches), where a creepy little hotel manager, Mason (Frank Whaley) and two masked side-kicks produce snuff films with the hotel guests as the unwitting and unwilling stars. In terms of Hitchcockian narratives, the film echoes aspects of the Master's canon. The out-of-the-way motel clearly evokes the Bates Motel in Psycho, and both managers - Norman and Mason - are anti-social characters who hide desperate secrets.

Beyond that obvious connection, the idea of voyeurism runs throughout Vacancy. Amy and David discover that their "honeymoon suite" is packed with hidden cameras, and that Mason keeps an elaborate editing suite in his ratty little office. When the couple pops a tape in their room's VCR, it's a snuff film made by the killers, and so they're watching gruesome murders occurring in the very room where they are staying. Not only is Mason a voyeur (while the other men do the dirty work of killing, he videotapes with a digital video camera...), but David and Amy are voyeurs as well. They watch the snuff tapes and - in a delightful comment on attentive movie watching - learn how to escape the killers. It was here that Vacancy really got me; when David behaved not like an unaware character in a stupid horror film, but began to review the horrifying films and studying the tactics of his opponents. Something monstrous and brutal (the snuff films), became the key to his survival. This is, in fact my very argument for the validity of horror films: they have merit and worth, not, perhaps, as life survival guide, but certainly as social commentary and catharsis.

I have to admit, I'm most impressed with Vacancy because it succeeds on the second Hitchcockian principle I've expounded on here. This the most difficult of the three principles, and the rarest in Hollywood films. Since the home video revolution of the late 1980s, movies have (to their detriment) grown to appear more and more like TV shows. Filmmakers no longer make full use of the rectangular frame; they instead depend on the TV structure of master shot, two-shot, etcetera, just hoping everything is "covered" and they can fix mistakes in "post." The result: movies look an awful lot like cop shows and lawyer shows, and have for a good while. Much of the artistry of "film" (the understanding of film language) is missing in action.

Not so with Vacancy, which I confess surprised me. I was expecting a somewhat stupid, derivative horror film, but what I detected instead is that this particular director comprehends precisely how to utilize the frame, and how to cut, to reveal information about the characters and the stories in an appealing and illuminating visual fashion. For instance, early in the film, the estranged couple (in mourning over the death of their son), are seen from a camera mounted on the hood of the car. A director not so aware of imagery, would have shot this sequence in traditional fashion; depicting the bickerers in the same frame together. We would have gotten the point from that shot, of course, but it wouldn't have been nearly as artistic. Instead, Vacancy's Antal gives us opposing frames looking in through the windshield. Each frame features one person bisected by the outer wall of the car, and the speeding road on the opposite side of the frame. This means that when we're watching David, we're only watching him, and thus registering his isolation and distance from his wife, and vice-versa. In her shots, we're seeing the same thing: just her head and shoulders, and speeding road. Again, it sounds like a simple thing, but the staging visually cues us in to the separation between husband and wife. It's a literalization, perhaps of the idea that they've been down a long road, and that this road has separated them.

Secondly, Antal provides in his film an inordinate number of shots which literally "box in" the endangered couple, framing them inside smaller frames. We look at them inside the limited cage of a rear view or side mirror on multiple occasions during the first act. We watch them within the framed windows of an auto garage window, or within the frame of the motel room window in the honeymoon suite. We gaze at them through the squares of trap doors in the floor, and hatches in the ceiling. This frame-within-a-frame leitmotif provides the visual link to the narrative theme about voyeurism. The killers literally want to put Amy and David into a box (the TV set), and shot after shot reflects the limitation of their physical space, and what could be their ultimate destiny: just another "movie" for another unwitting soon-to-die couple to pop into the VCR.

From the Saul Bass-style opening credits (which intentionally remind one of Psycho) and the Hermannesque score to the obsessive-compulsive nature of squirrely Mason, who speaks in odd but literate cadences ("rules are rules") not entirely unlike Norman Bates, Vacancy seems to not merely understand but actually synthesize what the term "Hitchcockian" truly means. On the last principle, gallows humor, Vacancy also scores some serious points, proving jaunty in its sense of shock and surprise (what Hitchcock once termed "playing the audience like a piano.")

Watch, for instance, how much mileage Antal gets out of a simple scenario: someone unseen knocking on the door to the honeymoon suite. The opening act of Vacancy, with the couple countenancing the grotesque, filthy motel room ("I'm sleeping with my clothes on...") reveals not just a great if morbid sense of humor, it puts other recent horrors to shame because the simple scenario (someone's at the door...) requires no CGI special effects, no short-attention-span editing techniques, and no overt gore or violence. It's the art of the nuance, and the understated humor - the realistic reactions of the two leads to their situation - makes the scenario genuinely frightening. I hasten to add, this isn't post-modern humor, even in the discussion of "prozac-zoloft" cocktails, but merely sharp talk from a couple not getting along. It's funny, but not so funny that you don't believe it. Also, the death scenes (excepting the horrifying snuff film footage, which is blunt and gruesome...) evoke gasps, laughs and screams in the best tradition of Hitchcock.

Honestly ,I didn't expect to like Vacancy very much. But I did. It's actually a great horror movie if you appreciate the form for intellectual as well as visceral reasons; if you appreciate how a skilled director can suss suspense out of a basic scenario and provide a trenchant comment on contemporary culture (here, the media, voyeurism and what we require in this age of celebrity to entertain us). Best of all, Antal artfully tell his story via imagery, not merely words. If you like horror just for the gore, you could be disappointed, I guess, though honestly, in the age of PG-13 thrillers, this is the most "savage" horror film in a while, in part because you come to legitimately care about the characters. Just like Psycho, there's no wasted note, no mis-used time in Vacancy. It's a machine that rocks and rolls, and at 82 minutes, has no fat whatsoever.

What a blessing.

And then we come to Disturbia, directed by D.j. Caruso and starring Shia Labeouf as a kid named Kale Brecht. Kale has seen his life go badly off track after the horrifying death of his father in a car accident. Now Kale is angry at the world and in a fit of anger, "pops" his irritating high school Spanish teacher in the face. He is spared juvie, but Kale is placed under house arrest for the spell of one year. His mother takes away his I-Tunes, cuts the wire on his flat screen television, and takes away Kale's video games. Sadly, the kid has apparently never heard of this arcane thing called "reading," so instead Kale begins to obsessively spy on the neighbors, including a hottie named Ashley (Sarah Roemer) who's just moved into town, and a man named Robert Turner (David Morse), whom Kale comes to believe is a serial killer.

in Disturbia, Kale spends much of his time sitting in his bedroom, legs propped up (and he has one of those ankle monitors on...), looking through binoculars. So, I'm sure you guessed it, we're clearly into Rear Window territory here. In terms of Rear Window knockoffs, I didn't like Disturbia nearly as much as De Palma's Body Double (1984). That film was a perfect example of "you can't believe everything you see,"/"you can't trust your own eyes" whereas in Disturbia there are virtually no surprises once the premise is established. Turner is indeed a serial killer, just like Kale there you go. Chases and brawls and attacks and rescues predictably ensue.

But going down the list of Hitchcockian principles, Disturbia clearly adheres to the master's favorite obsessions. Yep, it's voyeurism again, this time with a bored teenager indulging his burgeoning sexual interest by peeking at a would-be girlfriend in a bikini, doing yoga in her room, and so on. He also happens to catch sight of that killer, a character like Norman, who hides a sexual aberration in the plain sight of suburbia. Here, the voyeurism is achingly high-tech, an almost fetishistic focus on the technology of the 21st century (cell phone cameras, DV cameras, I-Tunes, etc.) and how it all can be marshaled to spy on others.

I'm going to skip to the third Hitchcockian principle now. Because Disturbia gets that right too. It does have a sense of humor about its story and characters. There's a wonderful scene that finds Kale spying on Robert Turner. Kale is laying flat on his chest in his yard, peeking through a slit in a wooden fence (voyeurism again...). Suddenly, on the opposite side of the fence, Robert begins talking. "What are you doing in my garden?" He asks playfully. He approaches, coming closer to the fence, still talking, and the audience is sure he has seen Kale, and is addressing him directly. How the scene plays out is somewhat different, and actually highly amusing. It is both tense and funny, and yes, Hitchcock would have approved.

Where Disturbia fails to be Hitchcockian is on the second principle, frankly. For me, this is the deal breaker. The film doesn't ascend to that higher level of artistry where the shots tell us about the characters and their predicament. In that sense, the visualization, save for an adrenalin-provoking "night vision" race through the killer's house, is pretty uninspired and routine.

Also, whereas Vacancy boasts the good sense to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible (again, 82 minutes...), Disturbia is 104 minutes, and takes unnecessary detours into blind narrative alleys. I mean, do we really care about the neighborhood kids who tease Kale? Do we really need to see his romance with Ashley blossom? These moments merely lessen the suspense; make the whole enterprise more diffuse.

Finally, Hitchcock always understood how to square the circle, bringing his films together in a way that there were no loose ends (unless he wanted you to ponder the loose ends; as in the conclusion of The Birds). But Disturbia makes goofy errors that leave the audience yelling at the screen. For instance, Kale's friend Ronnie (Yoo) disappears into the killer's house, and Kale breaks his house arrest to attempt to rescue him. He runs over, lunges into the house and searches for his friend. The police respond and arrest Kale, the wrong guy (mistaken identity -- another Hitchcockian obsession!). However, Kale just can't convince the cops that his friend is in danger. They drag him away, and we are left to wonder what has become of Ronnie. Well...why doesn't Kale simply ring Ronnie's cell phone, which he had on him in the house? The ringer on the phone would have proven conclusively where Ronnie was, and confirmed or shit-canned Kale's story. But this "tech smart" kid never even thinks of that, and that's a hole big enough to drive a mack truck through. On one hand, the movie asks us to believe the kid is a technical genius (we see him up fitting a DV camera at one point), and then on the other hand, the movie wants us to believe the kid would forget to use a cell phone. That's bad writing folks.

Still Disturbia isn't a bad movie, taken in toto. On the contrary it's exactly the kind of movie I thought Vacancy was going to be: an average-if-serviceable thriller with some enjoyable moments; a good diversion but nothing to write home about.

I just glanced at the IMDB, and users rate Disturbia higher than Vacancy, which only says to me that most film watchers today don't really understand or care about the aesthetic and legacy of Hitchcock. Disturbia, with its teen protagonists, sexy blond (who undresses a few times...) and other pandering nods to today's youth culture, somehow turns out to be more of a crowd-pleaser than the spare, visually-inspired Vacancy.

I have to wonder what Hitchcock would have thought of that...