Thursday, January 29, 2009

Director's Notes: THB 3.1 "Devoured"

“Devoured,” the sixteenth episode of The House Between and the first installment of the third season, is dedicated to my friend and mentor, the late Johnny Byrne.

As you may remember, Johnny served as the script editor during Space: 1999’s (1975 – 1977) landmark first season, and he penned such influential tales as “Mission of the Darians,” “Force of Life,” “Voyager’s Return,” “Another Time, Another Place” and “The Testament of Arkadia.”

Johnny was also a writer for Doctor Who in the eighties. His time lord tales include “The Keeper of Traken,” “Warriors of the Deep” and “Arc of Infinity.”) Johnny’s career was more than just sci-fi writing, however. He created the medical series Heartbeat, for instance, and co-authored the famous 1960s rock bible, Groupie (1969).

Johnny and I met at the Breakaway Convention in 1999 and became fast friends, a warm relationship which lasted through his untimely death in 2008. Over the years, we met again in Manhattan in 2000, and shared many telephone talks about our mutual careers, family and my Space:1999 book.

We even collaborated on a script called “Grimoire” in 2001. Always the gentleman, Johnny politely endured my independent film, “Annie Hell” and miraculously found something good to say about it; noting how much he enjoyed the dialogue “flights of fancy.” It was on the strength of my dialogue in “Annie Hell” that he suggested we work together…which wasan incredible moment in my career.

In some ways, Johnny is also the spiritual grandfather of The House Between due to a crucial morsel of advice he once offered me. It was back in 2000 when we were discussing our admiration and enthusiasm for The Blair Witch Project.

Discussing that low-budget phenomenon, Johnny told me that the filmmakers had learned well the key secret to creating good films and television; they had turned weakness into strength.

With virtually no resources to draw from (not even professional grade cameras...), the filmmakers had crafted a terrifying film within their minuscule means. It accommodated shaky camera-work, and a lack of budget for on-screen monsters (the titular witch not seen…only imagined). They had successfully transformed their weaknesses into strengths.

When creating the very premise for the House Between (a handful of characters trapped in an empty house), Johnny’s advice was at the forefront of my mind. At seven hundred dollars an episode, I couldn’t afford props, costumes, famous actors, constructed sets or much by way of special effects. Instead – thankfully – what I turned to was mood; and peoplecharacterization and narrative. The bells and whistles on the show would all be…individual ones.

I talked with Johnny about The House Between journey just before he passed away, and he was fascinated, supportive and enthusiastic about the series; which I appreciated. We even talked about whether or not he could write an episode for the third season, or at the very least, write a story outline for an episode.

He passed mere weeks after that chat. And as I prepared the third season days later, I knew I needed to dedicate a show to him. It was…and is…important to me.

And that program is “Devoured.”

The dedication is appropriate because “Devoured” makes use of some of Johnny’s favorite writing devices from Space: 1999, specifically the opening voice over narration that frames epic events in personal terms. It’s a technique Johnny drafted into service with great success on “Testament of Arkadia,” and which the series also utilized (to dramatic impact) in Christopher Penfold’s amazing “Dragon’s Domain.”

“Devoured” also features one of Johnny’s beloved sci-fi subjects: the eternal debate between mysticism and science (a debate you can see played out on Space:1999 in Byrne’s “The Troubled Spirit,” for one).

A line of dialogue in “Devoured” purposely also evokes the phrase “force of life,” which is also the title of my favorite Johnny Byrne 1999 installment. That’s pretty explicit.

Whenever I write a House Between story, I look for ways not only how to turn “weakness into strength,” but how to incorporate and blend various elements of the genre’s history to synthesize something new and dramatic.

In this regard, viewers will likely find further resonances of Space:1999’s “Dragon’s Domain,” particularly in the gruesome fate of a pair of soldiers named Hinman and Pyle.

Also, there’s a magnificent, creepy episode of The Outer Limits entitled “The Guests” that proved very important to me in the formation of “Devoured’s” visualizations. One particular image from that episode -- that of a traveler being pulled up a staircase by malevolent alien hypnosis – stuck with me as nightmare fodder. It provided a veritable well-spring of creativity here. A similar image appears –- again -- in “Dragon’s Domain,” a group of astronauts “mesmerized” to their gruesome doom.

This may surprise you, but I was also inspired by the finale of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. (Even though the film isn’t well-liked…) In particular, I enjoyed the cheeky, Shatner-esque scenario of “what does God need with a spaceship?”

What I appreciated there was the notion of human beings confronting something alien and extremely powerful without fear, or a sense of “by your leave.” Even though the Old Testament God-alien punished Starfleet’s finest with laser bolts every time our heroes stepped out of line. It was like a knuckle-slapping from cosmic Sunday school nuns.

So I got to thinking. What if our THB heroes had to face a monster of great power, but also had to take the hits…in order to beat it at its own game? What if the strategy became not avoidance of getting shot…but rather intentionally getting shot? That conceit informs a battle in “Devoured.”

In terms of concrete storyline, “Devoured” had another mission. I couldn’t just dramatize a fresh story here, I had to satisfactorily wrap up all the dangling plot-lines left by the cliffhanging, go-for-broke second season finale, “Ruined.”

At the same time, I also had to introduce a new location and make certain that it would prove interesting; and lead our characters into new, valuable terrain. Not an easy task, I must say.

And did I mention that at least two of the characters get major re-thinks and appearance upgrades in "Devoured" too? Just as Bill and Theresa got re-thinks and appearance upgrades in "Returned" last year?

Anyway, for a good long while, I was certain I’d written myself into a corner with “Ruined." That there was no rational, believable way out of that doomsday scenario.

And that’s when another inspiration hit. I realized I was thinking exactly like Bill Clark (our resident scientist); that the very thing holding me back was my own inability to “believe” in the only possible solution to the narrative.

Considering that, I therefore made Bill’s inability to believe in Theresa’s philosophy one of the central motifs of “Devoured.” I could then contrast Bill’s lack of belief -- lack of faith -- with Arlo’s unfettered sense of imagination…and, specifically what he did (and what he created) with that sense of imagination.

These ideas take root through the reminder of the season, and help lead the characters to their ultimate destinations.

“Devoured” features some big revelations. About Travis, mostly. What information he shares with us in “Devoured” offers a path to re-interpreting the entire series, and I always love those moments on The House Between. One piece of new information puts every event in a new context.

“Devoured” also sets up some important season three plot points (look out for some brief mentions of a technology called “the Loop” and beings called “Discarnates,” plus Arlo’s off-hand observation that some things in the Dark Place seeming….familiar.)

So that's the story as a writer. As a director? What do I remember of shooting “Devoured?”

Well, my DP, Rick Coulter (a cherished friend), and I got into a mini-brawl shooting a scene one night. We were vehemently arguing over whether or not one of my proposed shots “crossed” the (invisible) shooting line.

I insisted it didn’t.

He insisted it did.

So we argued.

For a good long while….as cast and crew watched anxiously on the sidelines. Actually, this happened at the end of a long day, and as soon as the scene was over, I called it a day. Rick and I made up (but didn’t kiss…) the next morning, and everything was fine. We worked happily together throughout the rest of the shoot and are still planning future projects in collaboration. He's still a communist bastard though. Kidding...

Otherwise…we didn’t make our day! I’m not a hundred-percent certain about this, but I suspect that this is the first time in THB history we didn’t finish an episode in the time slotted. In fact, we weren’t even close to finishing.

This meant that every night hence…after shooting other episodes during the daytime….Kim, Alicia, Jim and Craig had to hang around, change costumes, and try like hell to finish “Devoured.”

This meant that those four performers were up past 2:00 am every ensuing night of the shoot. It was painful, to say the least. And made more so by the fact that on Friday night – the last opportunity to get the show in the can -- all of Downtown Monroe came alive. A number of very loud drunks kept interrupting our shoot. I wanted to scream. I probably did scream.

I recall that this year I never got more than four hours of sleep a night during shooting. The night we finished “Devoured” was the worst, though. We finished “Devoured” at 3:00 am and then I had to rewrite a script for the next morning. I finally went to bed sometime after 4:00 am, and was up again at 6:00 am, printing out that script.

“Devoured” really starting coming together, however, once I began assembling footage. The addition of Mateo Latosa’s beautiful score was a real boost too. On the editing front, producer Joe Maddrey had me remove a whopping NINE minutes from the beginning of “Devoured," a cut I was reluctant to make until Kathryn explicitly reinforced the advice.

On the latter front, Mateo composed some lovely work here, including an elegiac piece that opens “Devoured” and which captures the post-"Ruined" mood beautifully. There’s also a great, scary bit of music that follows Arlo as he explores ‘The Dark Place.”

So there you have it…the story of The House Between’s sixteenth episode, “Devoured.”

“Devoured” is available for download and streaming beginning tomorrow morning. So let me know what you think...

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:01 AM

    I can't wait!! gah!

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  2. I must admit that I spent most of the day refreshing the Veoh feed waiting to watch the episode before disappointedly realizing that it was Thursday and not Friday. Do you know of any ways to speed up time?

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  3. "Devoured" is playing NOW at Google Video!

    :)
    JKM

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  4. Anonymous11:19 AM

    for your DVD release- you can put extended scenes and show us the deleted NINE minutes :)

    ReplyDelete