Thursday, February 28, 2008

The House Between Director Notes 2.5: "Populated"

Now for something completely different...

Tomorrow we resume The House Between's second season with an episode entitled "Populated." This is the first episode in the series that I did not write, though Jim Blanton came up with the story idea for "Separated."

As I recall, the idea for "Populated" came about during shooting of the first season, when my lighting co-director Robert Schweizer pitched a great idea on the set. It was simple but perfect:
what if the house kept bringing more people into the house because of some malfunction?

I loved this notion, and I told Bobby to go ahead and write the story, and that I would rewrite it as necessary after he was finished so as to make sure it fit in with the second season story arc. (For instance, Sgt. Brick was not in Season One, nor was he conceived until late in the game for
Season Two, so he had to be added to the script.) Also, if you've been watching the show, you understand that the tone of Season Two is somewhat different than Season One...there was no way Bobby could know that.

I absolutely loved Bobby's idea about the house bringing more people in, because it allowed us to raise some interesting ideas that I wanted to explore on the series, particularly in relation to the hot-button issue of immigration in America. I mean, if there are people suddenly appearing in the house at the end of the universe, are they welcome there? Would our six denizens (Astrid, Arlo, Travis, Bill, Theresa and Brick) feel that the house was theirs, and that these newcomers had no right or claim to be there? And, what would be the impact on the environment of the smart house with an influx of new people appearing all at once? Who would feel threatened by the newcomers? Who might welcome them?

Bobby's story notion is exactly why I love science fiction. As I was saying to Rick, our DP the other day, I believe good science fiction has a responsibility to be about two things simultaneously: "the story" itself (the sci-fi scenario) and the larger -- and hopefully meaningful -- metaphor (about our real life.)

The more I thought about Bobby's idea, the more I liked it. I realized his notion gave us room to discuss issues like security (if we don't know where these people came from, can we trust them?) and also issues of human dignity. Is it ever right to treat other people as "aliens?" Another issue: By turning our backs on those who show up in "our house", what wisdom and knowledge do we risk losing? Could it be the very knowledge that could, someday, save us as a people?

Now honestly I don't have an answer for these "big" questions, I'm just fascinated by them and by the dilemma our country finds itself in today. Believe it or not, I try not to be overtly preachy on The House Between if I can help it, but what I did want in "Populated" was a tale that would gaze intelligently at all sides of the issue, without adopting either a right-wing or left-wing philosophy. It just seemed like
the house at the end of the universe was the perfect place to put the idea under the microscope.

Bobby turned in his story, and to my delight, it was one that skewed towards his favorite two characters, Travis and Arlo. I say "delighted" because I knew that I wanted to position "Populated" fifth in the second season queue, after the two-parter "Reunited"/"Estranged" that focused primarily on Bill and Astrid. I always consider The House Between an ensemble show, so I enjoy stories that give each character something new and interesting to do, and I think Bobby found that with "Populated." I knew it was a different and challenging story to tell, but our fifth slot is always our "experimental" or "off-kilter" slot. Last year, the experiment was titled "Mirrored," and this year, it's called "Populated" I say the show is experimental because the threat is unique; the new characters are unlike any you've seen on the show before, and there's also a mysterious character in the show without an overtly obvious identity. I know who he is; what he represents. I wonder if the audience will?

Here are Bobby's thoughts on conceiving the episode (and appearing in it): "The idea for "Populated" first came up during the filming of season one. We were sitting on the floor of the parlor talking about possible future episodes and started going through the tropes of other television shows. We imagined an episode where new characters are introduced without reason just to add a new dynamic. Then I thought, well what if the House was just overrun by people? I imagined an episode, sort of like a "Trouble With Tribbles," in which twenty or thirty extras just litter the house and the "gang" has to figure out how to get rid of them. Since that was unfeasible, I scaled it back to only a few new residents. These residents needed a reason for coming to the House, though, which is why I started researching population sustainability issues. The work of Thomas Malthus, a turn of the 19th century philosopher, really inspired the trajectory of the episode. Without giving too much away, I wanted to raise issues about sustainability and food-supply, xenophobia, and the symbiotic relationship of the House and its residents. Dave was named for David Ricardo, a contemporary of Malthus who developed theories of labor economies. What's a script without really obscure references?

It was difficult to write the first draft of the episode as I didn't know any of the story arc of season 2, nor that there were new characters. The shooting script was a collaboration with John, and though it was quite a bit different than my original draft, I think it ended up being a very strong episode. As a writer, it was a real challenge to "think like John" because the personality and narrative of The House Between was established so strongly in the first season. Once I got a handle on that the words came more easily. The universe of the series provides a lot of opportunities for creative episodes and I was extremely appreciative that John gave me the opportunity to work with his brain-child.

It was fun to play Dave in the episode, as it was the first time I had appeared on camera without an Outdweller mask. It gave me some perspective on what it was to be an actor--I felt the pressure of memorizing lines (I can't imagine having more than a handful!) as well as the pressure that weighs oh-so-heavy once "action!" is yelled. It was fun to work with Kevin, Phyllis, and Katherine as "pod people." We had to quickly develop a unique group identity as well as individual personalities. We sort of ended up as inquisitive zombies, more interested in the workings of the world and people than eating brains. "Pod power!" I say."

In terms of shooting this episode, I'll be honest: this was my best day. It was so much fun. We had a guest star, Craig T. Adams (of Dr. Madblood fame!), and I really enjoyed working with him. He was a professional who came to the set absolutely prepared and who took direction well. Plus we had Bobby himself as well as Kevin Flanagan in highly-amusing speaking roles. Phyllis Floyd and Katherine Dorn appeared in non-speaking roles and also did wonderful. Also adding to my enjoyment, "Populated" wasn't a life-and-death-"I'm sleeping with your wife,"-and-you "caused the holocaust"-type of show, so-to-speak. The story is important, the story is serious, but after the epic two-parter of "Reunited"/"Estranged" I find "Populated" a welcome change of pace. The House Between must always (carefully) balance the epic and the intimate, and it's nice to get back to the intimate this week.

Also, Rob had most of the crew in make-up this day, and did a tremendous job with the creation of characters we affectionately termed "pod people," or in some cases, "poddies." Also, the central threat of the episode is an up-tick in heat inside the house at the end of the universe. The heat spikes up to 118 degrees in the house before the climax, and this turn of events required that Rob continually "spritz" (or douse...) the cast with water (as sweat...) between takes. I don't think I've ever been so happy torturing the cast as on this day. I loved seeing them sprayed continually in the face, on their necks, on their shirts, etc. with cold water. In one moment I recorded for the blooper reel, Kim and Alicia indulged a fantasy for me and began spritzing each other. Yowza. That's all I'm sayin'.

Also, allow me to relate another funny story about the shoot. There's a scene involving "muffins" in "Populated" (you'll see...). Well, we had a whole tray of muffins waiting in the refrigerator for the big moment, and were planning to use two. I was in the middle of a scene directing and Kim Breeding suddenly came charging into the room with a look of pure terror plastered on her face. "We have rats, John!" she exclaimed. "There are rats in the house!" I couldn't believe it, but stranger things have happened. My old house had bats in it once. So rats...anything is possible, to coin a phrase.

So I asked Kim why she thought we had rats in the house, and she took me to the refrigerator to show me the tray of muffins. Sure enough, the tops of two muffins had been mutilated and torn apart by what Kim assumed were little rat teeth or claws, I guess. I admit, I was horrified: the muffins looked quite abused and desecrated. It looked like some beast had gnawed them to bits.

Then Rick the DP walked by and said nonchalantly that no, it wasn't rats. It was him. He just got hungry, I guess. God knows what he was doing to those muffins, but if he's ever in your house, lock up your baked goods. He's a serial abuser of danish...

Another incident shooting "Populated" - a confrontation between Bill and Travis got so out-of-hand that there was property damage (later repaired at my expense...). Talk about your method actors. The final shot of the scene (before a dissolve) reveals the actual damage (now fixed).

Editing "Populated" was a difficult haul, not because we didn't have ample coverage; not because the episode wasn't "good," not because of performances or story or any of those things. Instead, it was difficult because - as I said above - the story was not The House Between norm, and we were trying to sell a "threat" (extreme heat...) which, besides producing sweat, isn't overtly visual and doesn't have a dramatic personality. Fortunately, my producer Joe Maddrey came up with some brilliant, utterly ingenious notes that helped tie everything together, and bring the story into sharp focus. Kathryn watched the final show with me tonight and said that - again - we hooked her.

So tune in tomorrow for "Populated," and let us know how you like it! Next week is "Distressed," my ghost story.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:25 PM

    loved your notes! Thanks John. Can't wait to see "Populated" tomorrow.


Star Blazers, Episode #6

In this episode of animated series,  Star Blazers  (1979), The Argo’s energy transmission unit fails upon the vessel’s departure from Jupite...