Friday, March 07, 2008

The House Between 2.6: "Distressed"

Ghosts migrate to the house at the end of the universe, and provide the key to a series of historical mysteries. The ghosts grow increasingly dangerous, possessing the living and injuring the denizens. Now it's up to Astrid (Kim Breeding), Theresa (Alicia A. Wood), Arlo (Jim Blanton) and Sgt. Brick (Craig Eckrich) to solve the mystery. What they find has repercussions for Travis (Lee Hansen). Written and directed by: John Kenneth Muir. Produced for the Lulu Show LLC by Joseph Maddrey.

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.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Sy Fy Portal Reviews The House Between 2.1: "Returned"

This week, journalist Marx Pyle at Sy Fy Portal reviews our second season premiere, "Returned." Here's a sample of the critique:

"Again, John Kenneth Muir’s writing is strong and bumps this low-budget series into a high quality show. This episode acts as a great starting point for the new season. It has introduced new mysteries that I feel confident will be answered by the end of the season, which is a refreshing change compared to many TV shows that seem to make it up as they go.

I picked on the camera work, lighting and sound in my review of season one. This time around, though, I can tell that JKM and his crew learned a lot from their experience making the first season. There is a big improvement in lighting, the framing is a great deal stronger and we get more close-ups, which really help the actors shine in their performances.

The acting is stronger this season. I can really tell that the actors have grown into their roles and have a deeper understanding of their characters..."

The Shat versus The Devil Bobblehead

My daily screening of The Twilight Zone has landed me at the second season entry entitled "Nick of Time." This is yet another Richard Matheson story, and one of my all-time favorite installments of the 1959-1964 Rod Serling series. There are flashier shows, there are scarier shows, but I really enjoy how ambiguous this story is.

"Nick of Time" is the story of Don S. Carter (William Shatner -- again!) and his new wife, Pam (Patricia Breslin). Their car has broken down on their honeymoon trip to New York, and the couple is forced to make a pit stop for repairs in the sleepy little town of Ridgeview, Ohio. It is there, in the Busy Bee Diner, that this couple will -- according to narrator Serling -- find "a gift most humans will never receive," the ability to "learn the future." Why? Well, because this town and this diner rests on "the outskirts" of The Twilight Zone.

Our central character Don is an interesting cat here and this is another classic Shatner performance. Don's the superstitious type, with a rabbits foot on his key chain right beside a four-leaf clover. He is given to expressing himself in phrases such as "keep your fingers crossed." "It's like you married an alcoholic" he admits to Pam in one of his more lucid moments, aware of how superstitious he really is.

But on now to Don's unusual nemesis. It's a rinky-dink napkin dispenser with a Devil Bobblehead perched on top. It's the "one cent" "Mystic Seer," a fortune telling-device that for one penny will read you your future. It does so by ejecting little cards that cryptically answer yes or no questions.

Sounds harmless enough, right? Not so fast...

First, the machine accurately predicts that Don will get the promotion he's been waiting for. Then it reports that the couple's car will not take four hours to be repaired, as was told the couple. Don grows ever more convinced that the "gizmo" is actually telling him his future. "Why was it so specific?" He asks Pam. "Every answer seems to fit," he insists. Pam isn't so sure.

And then things get really spooky. Don asks the machine if something will happen to the couple if they leave town. The answer: "if you move soon." He then asks, "should we stay here?" The answer: "that makes a good deal of sense." Finally, Bob interprets a message from the Devil Bobblehead to mean that he and Pam shouldn't leave the diner until after 3:00 pm that afternoon.

Pam objects and forces Don to leave the diner. At one minute to three, on the street outside, they are nearly run over by a speeding car...

Convinced and stubborn, Don returns to the diner and begins asking the Mystic Seer more questions, even though Pam begs him not to. "You made up all the details, and all that thing did is give back generalities," she tells him. He still won't leave. Not until his new wife tells him that the machine is running his life, and that she can't be married to a man who "believes more in luck and fortune" than in himself.

Don and Pam escape this trap, what Serling terms "the tyranny of fear and superstition," but in the episode's final shot, we see that another couple isn't so lucky. "Can we ask some more questions today?" They ask the machine. "Do you think we might leave Ridgeview today?"

"Is there any way out?"

So again, in the most wonderful and entertaining terms imaginable, The Twilight Zone has presented us with a morality play of sorts, one about human nature. Yet what's so enjoyable about "Nick of Time" is that we don't know whether Don is right (and the Devil machine is predicting the future), or if, in fact, he's merely superstitious and all the right answers are mere "coincidence" as Pam suggests. The ultimate point is, I suppose, what you choose to believe in: fear or hope. You can choose to believe that you are small and in danger; or you can take control of your life and face the hardships with strength - and with the ones you love.

Beyond a fortune telling device that may or may not be supernatural, there is no overt fantastical element in this installment of the Twilight Zone and yet it is oddly effective, and affecting despite this fact. Visually, it's assembled in clever fashion by director Richard Bare. The first shot of the episode is a wobbly view from a tow truck bed, looking down from a high angle at the car being towed, with Don and Pam inside. This is an important view, because it establishes right from the beginning of the episode that Don is not "driving" his life (nor his car). He's simply being pulled in one direction or another, towed by his fear and superstition.

Later, when the couple first enters the Busy Bee Diner with the Devil Bobblehead/Mystic Seer, the camera views Don and Pat from the far side of a lattice-work room separator/divider, a sort of visual frame-within-a-frame signifying entrapment or doom. This same camera set-up recurs at several important moments in the show. The first time, we view two other local residents in thrall to the Mystic Seer at the dining booth, also through this "entrapment" lens (the criss-cross frame of the lattice). Finally, when Pam encourages Don to summon his inner courage, the shot has changed to reflect their strength. The lattice wall is no longer between camera and character - a visual obstacle and blockade - but rather behind the characters. They have escaped the trap. They have moved literally past it.

I also get a kick out of the extreme (and I mean, EXTREME) close-up shots of the Devil Bobblehead, always jittering ever so slightly, but nonetheless playing his Satanic cards close to the vest. He's an interesting villain: inanimate and yet we "impose" some sense of fear or personality on the Devil trinket. If it were just a napkin dispenser, minus the Bobblehead, this episode wouldn't work nearly so well.

Shatner's performance is so good because - again, like "A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," he's playing a character suffering from a lack of confidence. That's funny, given that he's the guy who plays Captain Kirk, but I would argue that even there, in Star Trek, that's what makes the character work so well. Kirk is a human being, a leader of men, but he still second guesses himself ("Balance of Terror") or fears losing his job ("The Ultimate Computer"). Watching these early Shatner performances you get a sense at how deft the actor is in playing a likable yet vulnerable character. He doesn't quite reach the heights of hysteria in "Nick of Time" that he would achieve later in "A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," but the script calls for different things. I like Shatner in this kind of every man persona. To me, he represents the perfect 60s young male: a self-aware, intelligent, resourceful, JFK-type with just enough self doubt and neurosis to make him thoroughly disarming.

I find it fascinating that Shatner's two Twilight Zones and one Outer Limits ("Cold Hands, Warm Heart") all place the actor in the thick of a couple relationship in crisis. He's always playing a husband countenancing something terrible, and trying to convince his wife that he isn't insane. Gremlins on planes, Venusians on "Project Vulcan" or a fortune telling machine that may be the genuine article. Captain Kirk never got a mate in the original Star Trek that lasted more than an episode, but given these performances, I rather think that's rather a shame. But who needs a wife, when you have Doctor McCoy dispensing Romulan ale and home spun country doctor advice, right?

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Shat at 20,000 Feet

As I reported last week, I've been (in my spare time...hah!) screening episodes of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone with a special eye towards the photography and the camera set-ups (in anticipation of Season Three of The House Between). So, in the wee hours of this morning, not long after the bewitching hour, I watched The Twilight Zone's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner. It aired originally on October 11, 1963, and is one of the show's most legendary efforts. It's one of those stories that has become part of the American pop culture lexicon, and seems to have effortlessly survived the test and passage of time (and was even remade, in 1983's Twilight Zone: the Movie).

You all know the plot by now: a man named Robert Wilson (age 37), played by William Shatner, has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown caused by "over-stress" and "under confidence." The incident that spurred his six months in a sanitarium occurred on a plane in flight...

Now, apparently well again, Bob and his wife Ruth (Christine White) take a plane ride home, returning to the scene of the crime as it were, but this time the flight's trajectory is through "the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone," and an increasingly hysterical Robert Wilson is certain he sees a man - a gremlin - walking on the wing of the plane in flight. As the plane flies into a storm and is buffeted by turbulence, the pesky gremlin rips up the cowling plate on one of the engines, leaving Wilson no choice but to take matters into his own hands...

I'll be blunt: if there is a more pitch-perfect half-hour of horror television in the medium's history, I haven't seen it. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which I've watched probably a dozen times, loses none of its power (or terror...) on repeat viewing. In fact, only seconds after the episode begins, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck one by one and you get the shivers. In a word, this episode is riveting.

I watched with a close critical eye this time, attempting to determine the precise alchemy that makes the installment transcend weak special effects (a hairy fat gremlin with padded feet!) and its original 1960s context. I came up with three points, which I suppose are obvious, but which bear examination nonetheless.

1. Matheson's screenplay. Don't get me started on my Matheson worship, because I'll be here all day. He's an incredible writer who contributed many great Twilight Zones (including the one I looked at last week, "Death Ship.") But what he has done here is authentically worth excavating. In general, the feeling of "terror" is one that is best exploited on film and television when two concepts come together in perfect unison. Those concepts are: vulnerability and universality of human experience.

Allow me to explain. Psycho is scary, because of the infamous shower scene. Why? Well, because In the shower we are all naked and therefore vulnerable. Our sight is limited because there's a curtain occluding our view of the world. And our hearing is limited too by the sound of the pounding water. We can't hear footsteps approaching. perhaps more importantly, we have all taken showers: it's a universal experience we share. Ditto with the great white shark in Jaws. The water isn't our terrain, it's the shark's (making us vulnerable) and all of us (or most of us...) have gone swimming in the ocean (so the experience is universal and common.)

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" locates another situation in which we are vulnerable or out-of-control, a "routine" air flight and once more, this is an experience the vast majority of us has shared. I'll never forget my flight back from the the 1999 Los Angeles "Breakaway" Convention. We were eastern bound over the Rockies when the plane hit five minutes of intense, unyielding turbulence. Food trays turned over, the food cart careened down the aisle into a passenger, and for what felt like an eternity there was non-stop pounding and shaking all around. It was - truly - one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Kathryn was sitting to one side of me, a woman (a stranger...) was sitting on the other, and it got so bad that we all ended up holding hands for the duration of the event. After it was over, this woman told us a story about another flight she had been on; a night-flight bound for Georgia. During the journey there was a serious storm - lightning, thunder, the whole works - and in one minute the plane plunged 10,000 feet.

Matheson's screenplay captures the universal fears associated with flying in a way that not merely makes us feel vulnerable, but which we all can relate to. The sound of the engines revving up (a kind of harbinger for tension...), the no-smoking sign, the flight attendant, the emergency exit, the seat-belts...all the facets of "routine" flight experience are here, but tweaked for maximum terror. From the moment "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" begins, we are primed for anxiety because we relate -- boy do we relate -- to Robert Wilson's situation.

2. Richard Donner's direction. I admire Donner's work tremendously and on the Zone he directed one of my favorite episodes, "Come Wander with Me." His direction of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is enormously efficient and successful without being overtly flashy. For instance, he focuses a lot on insert shots. Of those "No Smoking" lights flashing, on the instructions for releasing the emergency exit, and so forth. In other words, if this is a war, Donner is showing us the details of the battle field, of the terrain. Again, we recognize these things, we relate.

Secondly, as is often appropriate for horror, Donner deploys "tight framing" for much of the episode. We're often in close-up mode on Shatner's expressive face (glistening with sweat...) or spying him through a visual "cage" of sorts, a frame-within-a-frame (the brackets of the window looking out upon the wing). The effect of the "large" close-ups of objects and of Shatner himself is what I sometimes term the fishbowl effect. It's like we're right there, in that tin can with Shatner. It's claustrophobic and terror inducing.

There's also some nice subliminal imagery in the episode. Rod Serling offers his trademark staccato narration in front of an airport gate. Emblazoned behind him in giant letters (all caps) - stretching across the frame - is a single word: TERMINAL. Now, of course, that word carries a double meaning in this situation, doesn't it? Not just an airport terminal...but the fear we all face when we board the plane and the doors slam shut for the last time. That we are, in fact...terminal.

And last but not least...

3. The Shat. Before he portrayed Captain Kirk, William Shatner was apparently known in Hollywood for having one of the best screams in the business. This episode of the Twilight Zone, and an episode of The Outer Limits ("Cold Hands, Warm Heart") seem to support that assertion. I know this sounds weird but I mean it as a compliment: few actors -- few men, especially -- of the 1960s better express hysteria. Some may insist that Shatner goes over the top with his wide-eyed performance, but I don't think so. The part called for hysteria, and he plays that emotion brilliantly.

John Lithgow played the same part in the 1983 Twilight Zone movie and didn't do as well, frankly. It wasn't his fault, so much as the change in the nature of the role, perhaps. Lithgow played a weirdo, someone who wasn't really likable and who - even before he saw the gremlin on the wing - seemed to be a nutcase. This choice in screenplay, direction in performance undercuts my first point in this post. If we can't relate to a character, we can't feel vulnerable for him. In the case of Shatner, and the TV series version, we have a character who - despite a mental health problem - is not that different from any of us. He's a man trying to hold on to his sanity, but a man who is likable and good. We relate to Shatner in a way we don't with Lithgow.

One aspect of Shatner's performance I love is the pride he brings to the character. At one point, the flight engineer comes back to the passenger section to talk to Wilson. Wilson desperately tells him the gremlin is monkeying with the engine on the wing, and the flight engineer begins to calmly explain that he knows. He says that the pilots are aware of the problem and are working on it, and that the flight crew needs Mr. Wilson to keep quiet, so as not to alarm the passengers.

This is where Shatner's performance is utterly brilliant. In one instant - literally in seconds - his face changes from one of terror and paranoia to one of relief and vindication, and then - not a second later - changes to something else entirely. He realizes the pilot is lying to him, that he is trying to "handle" Wilson. All of this gets reflected on Shatner's face in fast succession (in close-up), and we really identify with the guy. "Get out of here," he tells the pilot. "
I'll keep quiet. I'll see us crash first..."

Now I just have to figure how to do a variation of this story on The House Between. Arlo: "There's a gremlin on the door of my oven." Not quite the same thing, but I'll keep thinking about "A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet..."

New Voices in Horror interviews Muir!

Hey everybody, the web magazine New Voices in Horror (dedicated to exploring "new and old terrains in horror") posted an interview with me as their "surprise guest interview") recently. Go on over to the magazine and check out the article by David Byron. Here's a snippet:

....I should have asked this question first; What made you want to be a writer/journalist? My inspiration came from watching old Hammer films and reading the EC comics like Tales From The Crypt....

You know, I became infatuated with film and television at a young age. An episode of the series Space:1999 had an indelible impact on me in 1975, when I was six years old. The story was called "Dragon's Domain" and it was about this monster lurking on an abandoned spaceship. It had a glowing eye and dozens of tentacles, and it would hypnotize victims, sucking them into this gaping, orange maw. Then, the monster would digest them and spit-up their steaming bones. The episode ended with the series hero, Commander Koenig, planting an axe in the creature's eyeball...which then dripped runny blood.

The imagery in that episode was absolutely unforgettable to me, and even though it was on a science fiction show, I think "Dragon's Domain" cemented my love of horror.

By the time I was in sixth grade, I was telling everybody that one day I would be a movie critic. And there you go. Here I am!