Sunday, December 30, 2012

Party Like It's 1999 - Part 3 - Present Laughter

The making of 1999 was a great experience, but, like any film, not without it's challenges, one of which was that it was sometimes too good of an experience.

It can be a generalization to say that the atmosphere on the sets of comedies are more fun than on the sets of other genres, but not one without basis. The personality of the director certainly affects the mood on set, as does the collective personality of the crew.

The people who really count, though, are the ones in front of the camera, the actors. The greatest director in the world with the most talented DP and the best script is not going to make a good movie with bad actors. This doesn't mean the actors have to be big stars (although we had our share in that department), or long-term veterans (which surely Steven Wright and Buck Henry were). They just have to be talented, at least enough of them do.

Crews are aware of the needs of actors. You aren't going to be telling jokes and making light right before doing a scene where a father discovers his dead child. No, comedies allow for a little more room for levity, but sometimes, as an 1st AD, that is something you have to be careful of as well.

There are many hazards of being a 1st AD, one of which is that Murphy's Law, which rules on set anyway, will play tricks on you. I have no chronic illness that causes me to spend most of my day coughing, but for some reason, every AD will tell you that coughs have a habit of cruelly rising in your throat a second or two after you call "roll sound." The need to cough often seems directly proportional to the length of the scene, the longer and more quiet the scene, the more you need to cough.

1999 was, in many ways, a comedy of manners, updated from the Noel Coward era (more on the Coward comparison in the next post) to the dawn of a new era, the turn of the millennium. It wasn't the slapstick humor of Lucky Stiffs, a comedy I had done earlier. The main protagonists, played by Dan and Jennifer, were targets of the humor exactly because their characters were so serious.

Steven Wright, whose stand-up routine is all about his droll persona, brought a dry humor that started way before the camera rolled and lasted past cut, enough so that you would be accustomed to it and it didn't crack you up, but kept a smile on your face.

Matt McGrath, another fine actor who went on to a successful movie and TV career, had a character who was constantly sent into panic by his annoying father, played by Buck Henry. The scenes between the two were among the many that made it difficult to keep a straight face.

Then, there was Margaret Devine.

Margaret is certainly not as well known as many of the other young actors who were on that shoot. She had a nice role as one of the AA members in the Richard Lewis vehicle Drunks, and played Hugh Grant's assistant in Mickey Blue Eyes. She had a rather child-like voice, not unlike Kristin Chenoweth, and her Nick Davis seemed to find the perfect moments to have her inject herself in the proceedings. At the first words out of her mouth, I would immediately find myself consciously stifling laughter. I was certain that Margaret would be my undoing, that one day I would just burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter that would end with the cast and crew staring at me as I ruined an otherwise perfect take.

Luckily, that never happened.

Other supporting cast had a similar effect, if to a lesser degree, including Allyson Downey's well-dressed lady and  Sandrine Holt's unabashed lesbian.

There were certainly serious scenes, even if, as with all comedies of manners, when seen objectively by the audience, they may be funny. One of these was a scene where Dan's character contemplates suicide. Dan's character had what we today would refer to as "first world problems," an existential angst that hardly seemed to warrant such drastic measures. For the actor, the scene could only be played with absolute seriousness, and we had a closed set for the scene. It was a very difficult scene for Dan, but one which he delivered very well.

Nick was more than the director and writer; he played a character who was videotaping the party, and he would often encourage improv. As an AD, it meant not letting the crew relax at the end of what they thought to be the end of a take, and to be aware of what Nick and the DP, Howard, were thinking and when they were done with a take.

I have spoken before of the natural tension that can develop between a DP and an AD, and that certainly was one of the challenges for me on this shoot. Howard was not a prima donna, and he was talented, but he had already been through one AD, and I got the sense that as he had been there from the beginning and I had not, he was determined to make sure that he controlled how things ran on set. With all the jumping around we did within the house, and the scheduling challenges of keeping a large ensemble, I tried to keep a tighter rein on the schedule than Howard would have preferred. He also had an annoying habit of suggesting that he wanted to change the order of scenes mid-day, even though the order had been clear from the call sheet from the previous night.

In thinking back on it, it was more of a nuisance than a real problem. We always found a way to make it work, and there was so much right with the project that neither of us wanted to get in the way of it. Howard had a strong background as a gaffer, his crew was fast, and I can't say that we were waiting on him very often.

Until I started to write this series on the movie, I hadn't seen the film since the crew screening. I remember my first impression was that the final product was not as funny as the either my experience on set or in dailies. Then again, I was so close to it at the time that maybe my expectations were for something different. In the next and final post on this movie, I will review it with the perspective I now have, as well as offer some final thoughts.

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