There's an old saying: Men plan; God laughs. There is no pursuit in which this proves to be more true than in filmmaking. In a house located out in the Howard Beach section of Queens, we had built three different apartment sets: Michael's living room and bedroom, Lila's room, and Sherry's room. In light of my total inexperience as a director, Roy had scheduled all the scenes that take place in these sets for the first four days of shooting, the thinking being that we would be hunkered down at one location, shooting only interiors, making these the easiest scenes to shoot, thus giving me some time to get my feet wet and build up my confidence.
That was Roy's plan to avoid problems and overcome my shortcomings. Mine was to be as prepared as I could be, to have rehearsed our actors thoroughly enough so that when we came to filming, there would be little more for me to do than block the movements and call "action"—that the actors would be familiar with each other and somewhat in tune to each other's rhythms, and that major questions about the script and the characters would have already been asked and answered. But, in reading the previous chapters, you've seen how God laughed at my plan when we lost The Name and No-Name just prior to the start of production. And when my plan fell apart, it undermined Roy's as well, since now what should have been the easiest part of the shoot became one of the toughest, for me and the actors.
TUESDAY 7/24. First day of shooting. Tried to rehearse Jimmy and Barbara at the school.1 Bob2 loses my car keys (fuck!), then forgets to take the contracts Roy wanted him to bring. Jimmy's hair is bleached blond (fuck!) and must be dyed darker before we can start filming. Denise3 is supposed to meet us in the lobby at noon. 12:15 comes, and she still isn't there. I go upstairs and find her with a student on the fifth floor. What the fuck! I drag her down and after going to Jimmy's car to check his clothes, we head over to a hair salon called Dramatics. Jimmy gets the dye job, Denise returns to SVA, and we head off in Jimmy's car to Howard Beach. The air conditioning isn't working too well, and it is literally the hottest day of the year. (This is not an exaggeration; the temperature was just under 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As if I weren't sweating enough already . . . ) By the time we get to the house, I'm already drained and aggravated, and we haven't even shot a second of footage yet. Our makeup guy, Terry Matlin, comes to me and says Denise has called and said something about sending someone out to a thrift store or something to get Jimmy a pair of black pants. I nix that. We begin after lunch as I'd planned. But I've also learned that I can only shoot until 8:00 p.m., rather than 10:00 p.m., which is what had been indicated to me earlier.
1 The School of Visual Arts.
2 Bob McMurdo, a friend who was helping us out.
3 Denise LaBelle, head of our art department.
The set looks great, but the coffee table is the size of a mausoleum slab. And it's much closer and much hotter down there than I'd anticipated. Barbara's gotten very quiet. I can't tell if she's just trying to stay in character all the time (Lila's supposed to be depressed and upset in the scene we're filming) or if she's personally distressed. We get the first part of the scene in, then set up to shoot the lengthy exchange on Michael's couch, which ends on the two of them locked in their first romantic embrace. My notion is to get this all in one long take, gradually pushing in to a tight two-shot for the kiss. I thought this approach, by letting the two of them get into a rhythm without breaking it up, would make the actors happy. But it gradually becomes clear to me that this isn't going to be the case. Barbara's told me she's going to get emotional, but it's not happening for her the way I think she'd like it to, and I can see her getting more and more frustrated after each take. (For this, we have The Name & No-Name to thank. We'd, felt comfortable scheduling such a crucial and emotional scene at the very beginning of the shoot because we knew we were going to rehearse the actors for a week prior to the commencement of filming. But in light of the last-minute recasting, we couldn't have picked a more difficult scene to kick things off with.) I'm dying inside, because I don't have any idea how to help her. Another kind of director might try abusing her like Kubrick did Shelly Duvall on The Shining to get her appropriately tearful and distraught, but I simply don't have it in me. Even if
it worked, and later on I told her, "You realize I was only trying to create the effect I needed," and she replied that she understood, it would haunt me that some little part of her would never forgive me. On a purely practical level, it might not work and end up having the opposite effect, driving her even deeper into herself and shutting her down completely. All I feel I can do is to be as supportive and nurturing and calming as I can be. I continually reassure her and tell her how wonderful I think she is, and that she's just going to keep getting better and better.
I drive Barbara home after we wrap, and I can tell she's upset with herself. I tell her today was just a fucked-up day, starting late, only meeting Jimmy this morning, the heat, et cetera. Tomorrow we'll have a normal day, we'll start early, we won't be so rushed, she and Jimmy will feel much more connected after getting through this first day. Maybe she believes it. Me, I just want to drive the car head on into a cement wall.
WEDNESDAY 7/25. I get to the set by ten. It is, once again, very hot outside. I find the basement not too bad though. Warm, but not as oppressive as the previous day. (It will get like that again later, but at least until we break for lunch at four it's much more bearable.) We start shooting before noon, and we cook through everything we need to get before the lunch break. We get scene #011 (Michael on the phone), we film the entire Miranda scene (Roseanne Petsako is simply wonderful, quietly cheerful and willing, she knows her lines, never screws up, and she and Jimmy seem to play well off each other), then go for close-ups on the scene Barbara and Jimmy had so much trouble with the previous day, for which we never got a good master. I don't know what's happened, but Barbara is completely transformed from what she was like yesterday. She tells me she's fine, she's feeling good, she's ready to go. My sense is that Jimmy has really helped us out with her, talked to her, bonded with her in some way. He nails his close-ups without a problem, then we turn the camera and put it on Barbara. Jimmy touches her hand, looks her in the eyes, and whispers a few words to her, I quietly utter "action," and her eyes are welling with tears, her expression full of emotion. We get three takes with her that are all marvelous, and my heart soars. She looks and sounds as wonderful on camera now as I thought she would when we cast her. It means I'll have to completely change my concept of the scene (keeping them both in one long shot that gradually gets tighter into the kiss that concludes it) and cut back and forth between them on the close-ups, but at least I've got a scene now.
After lunch, we start on Michael's bedroom scenes. It's even tighter in there, but I've brought a small fan and keep directing it toward the actors in between takes. Barbara is simply beautiful, while Jimmy is having difficulty with the lines. Keeps wanting to change them, or not say them. At one point he says, "This isn't me," and I, of course, respond
that he's right, it isn't him—it's Michael. I get a little frustrated with him, he appears to get pissed and closed off, but then he nails the lines on a couple of takes and we can move on. Between setups, I search the house and finally find him upstairs in the bathroom. I ask him if he's pissed at me, but he says no, he's just upset about what's going on in his personal life, and I believe him. The next setup, a two-shot of Jimmy and Barbara sitting side by side on the bed, keeps getting interrupted by jets taking off from JFK and noises from upstairs. I get very frustrated, but I think we have one or two takes we can use, and move on. We get a really lovely shot of Barbara sitting on the edge of the bed, her entire back exposed, head bowed. I boarded it this way, and my DP, James Carman, has captured just the feeling I was hoping to get. I'm once again thrilled.
We go for the last setup, get the fg/bg (foreground/background) two-shot with little trouble, but then the close-up on Jimmy reentering the room takes seven or eight takes because of focus problems. (We threw in an ad-lib here, having found a pig mask hanging over the door in the makeup room. Had the idea it would add a little something to the scene if Michael reentered the bedroom holding the mask over his face. Then, when Lila tells him it was Frankie on the phone, he lowers the mask and asks worriedly if he knew it was her. And that's how we shot it.) We wrap at 9:40, having not only gotten everything we needed, but more than I could have hoped in terms of images and performances. A total shift from yesterday. I also learn via a telephone call from Roy that we are this close to getting Joan Jett for Sherry. I'll find out for sure tomorrow.
THURSDAY 7/26. There were weather and traffic problems everywhere this morning, and so everyone was late getting to the set, me included. I try to talk with Barbara, but she's distant with me for no reason I can ascertain. I believe she'll be wonderful when things are cut together (as indeed she is: provocative, sexy, vulnerable—everything I could have hoped for and more), but the variety of her moods these first three days, the way she withdraws behind a kind of invisible wall, has me a bit on edge. She's an emotional person, and therefore an emotional actress (it's why we cast her), and I've got to figure she's saving her emotions for the work, hiding them away so they won't be wasted.
Jimmy is a borderline basket case today, emotionally. Clearly, he's having a hard time with what's going on in his personal life. He's increasingly recalcitrant as the day wears on, more and more openly unpleasant between takes, and though I laugh as if I know he's just joking, I'm sure he isn't. We're using a dolly move to shoot the master of the argument-before-the-massage scene, and after watching an early take on the monitor, I suggest a change in the blocking. We'd rehearsed it with Lila opening and putting her massage table together all through the scene, and actually setting it upright. But looking at it as we film a take, I see it's clumsy, and leaves too much of a distance for the actors to bridge at the end when the tension has been alleviated. So I tell Barbara to stop putting the table together at an earlier point and to leave it on its side, so that Jimmy can just kneel down in front of her and play out the conciliatory conclusion of the scene over the wall, so to speak. Carman moves the shot gradually in to a tighter two-shot for that, and it works terrifically. For a moment, I actually feel like a director: I saw something, suggested an adjustment, then watched it actually make the scene better. We shoot Jimmy's close-up, and save Barbara's for the end of the day—not something I want to do, but, time-wise, we have no choice. In my head, I'm thinking, I don't care if her close-up comes out very well or not, anyway, because the master is so damn good—both technically as a shot as well as in the performances—I'm already certain that's what I'm going to use in the film. But one is supposed to get coverage, just in case, so I'm getting it.
We do the massage scene next. This is our big comic scene, the only real physical comedy in the script, and I've been looking forward to shooting it. Part of that came from my belief the actors would be
looking forward to it too, that they'd have fun doing it. Boy, was I wrong. The whole thing becomes an ordeal, a real battle to get what I think the scene should be. Jimmy doesn't want to say some of the lines, and worse, doesn't want to play the scene as big as I believe it needs to be played, has to be played. Barbara is very withdrawn. The room is oppressively hot, and neither Jimmy nor Barbara seem to be able to remember all the lines, so that with each take, one or the other or both miss one or two lines, or more. However, I'm covering the action from different angles and close-ups, so even though I never get a single take where both of them get all their lines correctly, with all the takes combined I do get all the lines. Our editor, Gary Cooper, will just have to cobble the scene together from a lot of different takes, rather than me picking favorites. (In the actors' defense, we never had the opportunity to really rehearse the scene, and work out the physical stuff in more detail. That's my failure, but there just wasn't time with Jimmy coming on in the eleventh hour. I let them both down on this, I guess, but it was such a battle just getting up and running with The Name and No-Name screwing us over as they did at the last minute.) To make matters worse, on one of the takes where Lila is supposed to be sliding her hand along Michael's spine, but then slips on the oil and clocks him on the back of the head, Barbara really does clock Jimmy on the back of the head and knocks him loopy. He gets very unpleasant from this point on, but the poor guy is in pain, and dizzy, and just trying to get through the scene. Barbara feels guilty at having injured him, then injures herself while punching him in the thigh. Her hand turns red and swells a bit. They both go off between setups to get iced and pop Tylenols. I'm sick in my gut at my incompetence, at not having prepared them properly, at completely misjudging what filming the scene would be like, thinking it would be fun. Now I've caused them both physical damage, and will have to bring them back for more.
And I do. We labor through the remainder of the shots, and, despite everything, I think we've gotten enough to cut together a decent scene. I'd love to just say wrap it, but we've still got to get Lila's close-up from the scene we never finished shooting earlier in the day. Barbara is worried about matching the action of putting the table together and saying the lines the way she did in the master. We decide to push the shot in close so that the action is out of frame, with me figuring that in the latter portion of the scene, when she gets pretty still, we'd be able to use everything if we wanted to; with the more active first half, well, maybe we'd get lucky with a moment or two. But even if we didn't, I could still use it as long as I cut from Jimmy's close-up first, rather than from the master, because then there'd be no issue of matching action. In any case, all of this is beside the point, because I'm already reasonably certain of using the master shot in its entirety anyway. The infuriatingly linear and unfriendly continuity girl doesn't know this is what I'm thinking, and so blurts out in a disdainful way that half of what Barbara is about to do will be unusable, speaking to me as if speaking to a retarded child. I don't care so much about that, but Barbara hears it, and it's the last thing in the world I want—for my already troubled and exhausted actress to hear that half of what she's about to do is pointless. Especially when it's not really true. Every day now, I'm continually forced to waste precious time explaining to the continuity girl how I'm going to cover action that doesn't exactly match, and listen to her sigh and then roll her eyes, when she's the one who really doesn't understand. (She would be replaced not too long after this, much to my relief.) Now I've got to explain it to her and Barbara. I've got no time for this shit! Barbara slogs through the close-up listlessly, though there might be a usable moment or two near the latter portion of the scene, and we shut it down for the day. I find Jimmy alone in the other room, put my hand on his shoulder and lean down, and ask him if he's upset with me. He assures me he isn't, it's just everything coming down on him at once, his life, this part (which is a daunting one with or without any prep time), and once again, I take him at his word.
A little before we finished shooting, the word had come from Roy that Joan Jett had signed on the dotted line, but I was too tired and stressed out to be jubilant about it. The day has been so trying and joyless (with the exception of that one successful adjustment I made to the argument scene), all I can see is the downside: another actor I haven't met or rehearsed, whom I'm going to have to throw in front of a camera and pray she can hack it. The thing is, despite how all this sounds, it was actually a good day in terms of shooting, in that we got everything we needed, some of it quite good, and we are still right on schedule.
I decide to stay at the house, not wanting to risk being late and showing up frazzled and tired before we even begin. Denise and her assistant Ben Heyman are up on the top floor getting the set ready for the next day's shoot when I crawl down into the basement and stretch out across a small bed we used for Michael's bedroom the previous day. It's lumpy and uncomfortable, as if a dead body were stuffed inside it, but I'm too exhausted to care. The room is dark, and I'm lying there when it hits me: I've got to direct Joan Jett tomorrow.
FRIDAY 7/27. Morning of a beautiful day, weather wise. The first thing I do is, upon his arrival, I take Jimmy out back and ask him how his head is feeling. He says he's better, and looks it. I then tell him, "You know we've got Joan Jett coming in today. I'm not sure what we're going to be dealing with, but I just wanted to apologize in advance if I have to cater to her more than you. I don't want you to think I'm consciously neglecting you or anything." He instantly shakes this off and tells me not to worry about it. A little while later, I'm in the back seat of my car being interviewed by our two making-of documentarians when I spot a tiny, black-leather-and-boot-clad, short-cropped, dark-haired sparkplug of a woman striding past us along the sidewalk. "Joan! Joan!" I call out as I climb out of the car. I introduce myself as the director, then meet her long-time partner Kenny Laguna, an older, personable, redheaded guy, and another, younger, crew-cutted guy named Jon. I take Joan inside and introduce her to Jimmy and any other crew people who are nearby. Barbara's not due in till later. (A pleasant aside: Before Ms. Jett's arrival, I'd gone to one of our younger female crew members, who'd been one of my students at SVA, and openly lesbian, and told her I needed someone to stay close to Ms. Jett all day and bring her anything she might ask for or need. With that, I instantly became the bestest teacher she ever had.) My immediate sense is that Joan is very cool, very approachable, and ready and willing to jump in and get started. Some of my anxiety abates. We've got a tremendously busy day ahead of us if we're going to get everything I need to finish up at this location so that I can give the crew the entire weekend off and not drag them back in on Saturday. The truth is, I need the weekend off too. And I've got my heart set on staying on, if not ahead, of schedule. Fortunately, we're not shooting anything terribly emotional today, so it's already in my head to keep the takes to a minimum.
The first half of the day goes very well. The storyboards I drew up have been turning out to be a big help, we know exactly what we need to get, and I'm trying very hard not to be self-indulgent or indecisive. I want to keep things moving, keep the crew jumping. Roy has indicated that they'll like this, that a crew works better and maintains a better attitude if they feel like things are cooking, that we're getting the shots and staying on schedule. So far, that's what we've been doing. The scene we're shooting with Joan and Jimmy is funny on the page, and with her in the role and Jimmy's natural comic ability, it seems to me we've got a very good chance of it being even funnier on the screen. I've story-boarded the sequence (which involves Michael being handcuffed to the headboard with a drunken, libidinous Sherry straddled over him) so that most of it is conveyed with subjective POV shots a la Silence of the Lambs, with the camera either looking straight down at Michael or straight up at Sherry. But what I realize as my DP lies down on his back and shoots Joan's part of it is that she can get much closer to the camera lens than I'd anticipated, so he can move with her. I crouch next to the bed and watch the monitor while reading out Jimmy's off screen lines, squeezing her leg to cue her on timing, and I can tell instantly it's going to be fucking hilarious, especially when she threatens to heave right into the camera. It's also one of those moments when I actually feel like a director, being right in there, and sensing it working.
Just before lunch, both pairs of handcuffs break. Joan had warned us the moment she saw them that they were not the good kind. I'm told we have no backups. How this could be so eludes me, given they're such a prominent prop in the script. On top of this, one pair is black and the other is silver, and so it's not just a question of replacing two pairs, but two pairs of different colors. We're just lucky it happened right before lunch and not an hour or two earlier, or I don't know what we would have done. I get a little frantic about it and Brian Gunther, our line producer, calmly tells me he's on it. An hour later, he comes up to me smiling with a new pair of black handcuffs. What about the silver, I ask. "You
needed a silver pair, too?" My look tells him all he needs to know. A second mad dash, and a number of silver pairs are procured. So, in the end, we lost no filming time because of the snafu, but it's still annoying to me that the art department didn't just have a few pairs as backup already on the set.
Where we do lose time is after lunch. At 5:00 p.m., the camera crew has the next setup prepared to go. Then I'm told that Barbara won't be ready for another half an hour. This stupefies me, since she's been at the location since 2:30. I want to rage out loud, but what good would it do? So I wait. And wait. The thought of the crew just sitting up there on the set doing nothing while the clock ticks gnaws at me, but I resist the increasingly urgent temptation to bust into the makeup room and tell them to hurry it up. Again, what good would it do? I know Terry's going as fast as he can, that it was the art department (again) not being on top of Barbara's wardrobe that's caused the delay. Denise is brilliant and, given the miniscule budget we've given her to work with, has done some marvelous things, especially in regard to set design. The main problem is, she's not with us full-time. Shortly before shooting was to begin, she informed us that her employers were not going to allow her the five-week leave of absence she'd requested, so she's still working there much of the time while trying to do her job for us. It's the worst possible situation, for her and us, and it leaves me torn between anger and sympathy, because as upset as I am that I feel we're being let down, I'm also left to wonder when the hell she sleeps. Every day, the actors come to me and ask me what they should be wearing, and in which scene. Suddenly I find myself trying to keep track of clothing continuity, along with all the other questions I'm constantly being peppered with. The other day, when we were getting set to shoot the scene in Lila's room, which takes place just after they've finished eating, Terry came to me in a frazzled state saying Denise (who wasn't on location) had called and instructed him to go out and get food for the half-eaten remnants of the meal that were to be left in the plates during the scene, that nothing in the refrigerator and cabinets chock-full of food right here in the house would do. He started to go off, saying he signed on to do makeup, now he's doing three jobs, et cetera. I praised him into submission, telling him he was doing a great job (which was the truth), that everybody liked him (also the truth), and that from now on any time he got such a command from Denise via a phone call he was to come to me first. I told him that when she's not physically present on location, as far as I'm concerned she doesn't exist. Therefore, the food in the house would do just fine. Go back and take care of the actors. He appeared relieved, thanked me, and went back to work.
When Barbara is finally ready, she looks very sexy and terrific, and we're off to the races. The setup sequence we've planned will have us bouncing back and forth between two or three different scenes, so we constantly have to keep track of the clothes. We're really pushing it, and I'm never calling for more than one or two takes before moving on. I keep looking at my watch, calculating the ratio of shots left to the time we've got left. I want to finish. I want to do what I said I would do. I'm sweating profusely and I've got a knot in my stomach, which grows increasingly tighter the later it gets. The actors, God bless them, never cost me a moment's delay. I'm particularly impressed by and grateful to Joan, who pretty much hits it every time, which is something, given we've had utterly no prep or rehearsal time together. Sometimes you just get lucky, and with her, we certainly did. Fortunately, there are no big emotional moments to film, so I'm reasonably comfortable shooting as few takes as we are doing.
Then, with only an hour left, thinking I'm barely going to be able to get the remaining shots I want to get, I'm struck by a thunderbolt of sickening realization: I've missed getting a crucial, in fact indispensable, shot when I should have gotten it earlier. After Sherry passes out on Michael's stomach, he looks up at the ceiling and utters, "I'm in hell." In the script, we dissolve to a shot of him asleep, then he wakes upon hearing something off screen, lifts his head from the pillow, and looks up to see Lila in the doorway. We got the shot of Lila in the doorway, but when we had Jimmy cuffed to the bed I forgot to get the shot of him asleep and then waking up. And I've got to have it. I can't link the two scenes without it. I start beating the Wiffle ball, which I've been squeezing and rolling in my hand all week, against my forehead, incensed with myself for having pulled such a moronic gaffe. How could I have missed it? And what about the goddamn continuity girl, who's given me nothing but grief all week, yet uttered not a peep about this? The only way I can figure to get it is to shoot a two-setup scene we're about to do in just one, and abandon one of my more cinematic storyboard shots (of Sherry's face over the side of the bed when she's threatening to puke in the foreground, with Lila visible in the background) and cover the action in a much more rudimentary way. On a shot of Lila saying one line in the doorway, Carman tweaks the lighting for what seems to me, given our situation, an inordinate amount of time, until I utter in despair, "James, it's just one line. Please." Finally, we get it. Then we get the shot of Joan as Sherry hanging over the side of the bed holding the wastebasket beneath her face. Then Carman quickly sets up to get the shot of Michael waking. (Thank God I didn't send Jimmy home earlier when I thought I was finished with him.) We get that shot too. It's 9:45. We made it. Better a little overtime on the last day at a location then to bring the crew in and pay them for a whole day on Saturday for just a few shots. And now we can all take two days off. I feel like Mister Roberts, having gotten his crew a liberty. They deserve it. They've really been working their asses off.
I go downstairs and ask our sound man if the day was as action packed as I felt it was. I've never directed before, so I've got nothing to which I can make a comparison. "I'll tell you in a second," he says, and consults his clipboard. "We did twenty-two setups," he tells me. "Is that a lot?" I ask him. "Oh, yeah. Definitely." Thus I figure, in spite of the casting difficulties we've had, coupled with starting a day late and my inexperience, it was only in the last hour of the last day of the week that I abandoned trying to be creative and just covered the action. And we only missed getting one storyboarded shot I'd have like to have gotten. But we're on time, on schedule, and we've got what I think is a pretty substantial amount of good footage in the can. (I'll learn later from Roy that in this initial three-and-a-half-day shooting period, we filmed twenty-two pages of script. What's up with that number?) Not a bad week at all. Too bad there's still four more to go.
At 10:30, I'm told I can go, and Jimmy, Barbara, and I head off to Lenny's Clam Bar. Driving there, I lean my head out the window and start bellowing into the night like Jack Lemmon in The Out-of-Towners, "I got my week in, Howard Beach! How do you like that?! You're just a city! I'm a person, and persons are bigger than cities!" We sit outside at the restaurant, drink beer, eat baked clams and fried calamari and antipasto, and laugh our heads off like an air crew just returned from a deadly dangerous bombing mission. We made it back alive. This time.
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