Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Blood and Television

On a balmy summer night several months ago, I found myself parked down on lower Broadway at a very late hour bedside a very handsome man in the front seat of a plain brown sedan.

"Oops, I think I put it up there wrong."
"It was facing in the wrong direction."
"Uh oh."

We shared a quiet chuckle.

The handsome man and I were talking about a microphone I had painstakingly taped to the roof of the car. Still, it might have been a romantic moment, had he not been lying in a pool of his own blood.

We were filming the season opener of the television drama "Without A Trace," during which Detective Martin Fitzgerald, played by Eric Close, is shot by international gangsters. Or at least they seemed like international gangsters, based on their machine guns, their accents, their rather fashionable Eurotrashy black outfits and what I could glean from the handful of cutely miniaturized script pages that I received at the start of the shoot day. These pages, or "sides," are given to crew members so that we know what scenes are being shot that day and in what order and can plan accordingly. But I like to use them for my personal game of Let's try and reconstruct the plot! Who are these people? Why are they getting shot? Why is Comely Female Detective (Who Insists On Miking Herself) so upset? Love interest or just concerned comrade? In theory, one could go home and watch the show to find out this sort of stuff, but heck, it's a night shoot and I've got loads of time to kill. Although since we only shoot maybe six to ten pages a day and I'm only on this for three days, it's sort of a fruitless exercise:

"Hmm, he gets shot by the three guys on page 2. Then the guy who's injured is being asked by the detective guy who's crushing his leg about someone named Tibor. And then there's this whole thing about Valhalla, which they start to explain on page 37, but then it gets cut off and it goes to scene 40…"

The other thing that keeps me awake between 2 and 6 am (aside from the mini Snickers bars at craft service) is that watching a car crash is like, well, watching a car crash: no matter how many times you've done it, you still can't look away. I mean, people are actually smashing cars into other cars! This is exciting to us in New York City where we don't have monster truck rallies. And even if the people doing the smashing are obviously stunt men wearing bad rugs driving at half-speed, there's still suspense because you can only fuck it up so many times – you have only so many identical picture cars you can knock around before they get dented up and then there are only so many ways to film a car that's bashed in so that you don't see that it's bashed in, so basically, if you don't get the thing on the first, second or third take, you're screwed. Plus – bonus! – this combo was a shoot-out/car crash. Shoot-outs alone are not nearly as exciting. You often spend a lot of time doing them because you can repeat them as many times as you have wardrobe changes, blanks and squibs (the tiny explosives that are wired into clothing to burst open tiny bladders of fake blood when they receive a wireless signal. Yes, death by gunshot is a well-refined process in the movies and hmm, why would that be?). They take a long time to set up because the actor needs to change and clean up and get squibbed again each time. And then if you're sound, it's all ultimately futile because you know they're not going to use the sound of the blanks because they don't sound like real gunshots - or at the least the way gunshots in movies sound once they're laid in by a sound editor working in a little room on a computer with a file of sound effects, which is the way most of us think gunshots sound. Still, people firing guns and spurting blood in front of you holds your attention – at least, for the first 12 takes. Fight scenes, however, are just completely ridiculous. They begin with a fight coordinator who is usually from Jersey dragging in a big, blue gymnastics mat and going through the moves, inch by inch, with the parties involved. Then, when the whole thing finally takes place, nobody makes physical contact with anyone else or often even the floor, and it's hard to see how the carefully-timed leaping out of the way of fists is actually going to convince anyone – as it will, of course, thanks to camera angles, cutting and, again, post-production sound effects – BAM! KAPOW! – which will be added later. That's why fight scenes which have no dialogue are also boring for sound, whereas those that do are just full of anxiety, because you can't wire somebody who's doing a fight scene for fear of your equipment getting trashed or at the very least the extremely audible scratching and rustling sounds of people jumping around in their clothes, pretending to get hit and falling on the lavaliere.

This is why we'd put the mike in the car, so that Detective Fitzgerald could get shot, and Detective Taylor, in the passenger seat, could say, "Martin?!" and Martin could wheeze out what might possibly be his last breath (although of course it wouldn't be unless the actor had a problem with his contract, but then he'd probably disappear at the end of a season, not the beginning) – and we could get it all on a DVD-RAM disc that would then go to the post house in L.A. And we did all that, several times, along with the car crashes and the gunshots and the aftermath which included the arrival of Comely Female Detective and their boss, played by Anthony LaPaglia. But this was before that.

"I'm so tired," said Detective Fitzgerald. His lids were so heavy that for a moment I thought, Oh my God, he's really lost a lot of blood.
"Yeah. Night shoots are the worst," I said.

But I realized, as I applied more tape to the sun visor, that just then, I didn't mean it. I know I knock the film business a lot but there are still moments when it hits me that there's something incredible in the way it all comes together to make a different kind of reality – even when it's a violent reality that I don't particularly like. It actually doesn't ruin it, knowing how the "movie magic" happens. In fact, knowing the crazy things we do and how they actually work in the end somehow makes it more...magical.

So I had one of those moments as we sat in the quiet bubble of that car while 100 people swarmed around us, talking about the next shot, resetting the camera and lights and stands and making sure the dents and the broken glass were where they were supposed to be, trying to beat the dawn.


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