Friday, March 14, 2008

The House Between 2.7: "caged"

Vitality - the household lar - unexpectedly faces an attack from outside, one that forces her to join with one of the human denizens at the house at the end of the universe. Written and produced by Joseph Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC. Directed by: John Kenneth Muir.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The House Between Director's Notes, Episode 2.7: "Caged"

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the original Star Trek episode, “By Any Other Name.” That in the process of crafting the story, accomplished author Jerome Bixby – in the words of the Great Bird of Galaxy (Gene Roddenberry) - had gotten caught up or rather bogged down in “the bigness of it all,” a cerebral approach which didn’t really work on the action-adventure space-faring 1960s classic series. I’ve always remembered that turn of phrase, “the bigness of it all,” and one of the primary reasons I enjoy and admire Space:1999 so deeply is because it regularly faces “the bigness of it all.” Man’s journey to the stars…countenancing a universe of endless possibilities…is there anything bigger?

This discussion brings us to “Caged,” the penultimate season two episode of The House Between. The story is written by Joseph Maddrey, our producer and a veteran TV writer. He's also the author of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. As we were planning the second season arc, I told Joe of my strong passion for last year’s “Settled,” a story that I felt was about the characters but which also had a cerebral, almost icy British sci-fi feel (like Space:1999 or Sapphire & Steel). And, Joe, to my delight then contributed a story in that mode; one that is simultaneously intimate and also concerned with “the bigness of it all.” But the bigness of it all in this context isn’t the universe or outer space, but rather the inner space these characters traverse and what it means to them emotionally; what it represents. "Caged" is about the meaning of life, or as one character says, the lens “through which to view the meaning of life.”

So “Caged” is a cerebral, meditative story and I like to (only half-jokingly) call it The House Between by way of Ingmar Bergman. As a writer, I have frequently utilized the series as a vehicle to express my social, political or moral interests. What I find endlessly fascinating about “Caged” is that Joe has taken the driver’s wheel and utilizes the series to express some unique philosophical component of his own persona; of how he views “the meaning of life.” And if you know Joe, you realize this means lots of brooding and much existential angst. Even story-wise, the episode "Caged" has a singularly interesting component: it all occurs in one very long, very sleepless night in the house at the end of the universe. It feels like an extended moment, a dark night of the soul or calm before the storm. Perhaps more than any show we've done yet, I feel like "Caged" puts the viewer inside that house with the characters. You get a feel of the "space" around the characters as never before.

To refresh a little, the end of the season finds character strife running higher even than usual. Bill is locked up in his room, working on his “damned” equations. He and Astrid aren’t speaking. After the events of “Distressed,” Astrid and Travis aren’t exactly on great terms either. And Bill and Travis? As we saw in “Populated,” they’re practically at each other’s throats. Now comes “Caged,” a story that leads us finally and irrevocably down a path with no turns. And no turning back.

Here are some of Joe’s thoughts on the creation of this episode, how he devised it, and what it means:

When you asked me if I'd write an episode for season two, we were working on the final edit of "Trashed." I was intrigued by something the character Sange said in that episode about "animals trapped in individual cages... but the cages were always changing... filled with isolation, alienation and bitterness." This, according to Sange, was the fate of the old world... and, with all of the in-fighting in The House Between, it seemed like it could well be the eventual fate of the smart house. To me, this series is ultimately about a group of very different people who have to work together to survive, so that's what I wanted "Caged" to be about.

In the first season episode "Settled," Astrid gets a glimpse of another dimension, but she's the only one who "sees" outside the walls of the house. I wondered why. In "Caged," everyone gets their own private glimpse into another reality. This has the ability to make them feel very isolated from each other. And in a way it makes Astrid feel isolated from herself....

The big question is WHY -- why is the house suddenly showing them these things? Coming at the end of a very violent season that has put a lot of stress on the smart house, it seemed to me that Vitality might be struggling, just as desperately as the human characters, to survive...

Our approach to shooting “Caged” was markedly different from the other season two episodes. This has been a season of experimentation to a high degree, with unconventional stories such as “Separated” and “Populated.” “Caged” follows in that ambitious tradition. Although there is still a lot of dialogue, the episode also reveals glimpses of characters in silence: in sleep, or in meditation, without the “noise” of the strife around them. To chart this “inner” world of the house at the end of the universe, our DP Rick Coulter mounted him his camera on a board as an ad-hoc steadicam and did lots of “roving’ POV shots. Thanks to lighting directors Kevin Flanagan and Bobby Schweizer, we also adopted a new, more low-key lighting scheme to showcase the notion of half-lit nighttime in the smart house. Joe’s meditative, contemplative script, coupled with the lighting and camera-work provides us a different, perhaps more lugubrious feel than ever before.

I believe too that the performances have adapted to fit the shift in material. Here, body language and expression are more important than ever, as we observe these characters in silence, alone…wanting. Again, this is something I’m glad we had the opportunity to do. I've often described The House Between as a conversation about the world that refuses to end. This episode hits like a train because a lot of that conversation is intermission in "Caged." It's kind of a shock.. Also, a personal note, if you will indulge me: watching this episode you get a true sense of just what an interesting group of “faces” we have assembled here. I enjoy that “Caged” grants the opportunity do things we haven’t seen these characters do before (like pray, or fix a midnight snack…) These quiet, simple and human touches, I suspect, make the characters that much more real, and in some cases, that much more heartbreaking.

One of the primary ideas informing the editing of “Caged” was that I wanted certain frames, and certain shots to evoke the feeling that you are looking a painting, at a work of art. Life unfolding in both motion and stillness. The faces of Astrid, Theresa, Bill, Arlo, Brick or Travis painted on a canvas created by Vitality…who makes a re-appearance here. I’m also happy about this episode because there is so much “inner space,” so much silence, that Mateo Latosa’s music gets a chance to be heard without the vicissitudes of constant dialogue. His compositions are another character in the house, and I’m glad we have an episode here that gives his efforts a moment in the sun. For this episode, he composed a particularly lovely and serene piece for Theresa, called “Cape Cod.”

So “Caged” leaves us at the cusp of our gut-wrenching, destructive, take-your-breath away season finale, “Ruined.” I hope you enjoy this installment of the show, and will be back to see how everything turns out next week. Please, comment away!