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.

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