Monday, April 30, 2007

Episode 20: Five Years Gone

OK guys, this to me, is one of the most exciting episodes we’ve made so far. It’s true that its existence is reliant upon the rest of the season. It could not exist separately from the rest of the episodes, and maybe, viewed on it’s own, it will make no sense. But then, let’s face it – that’s how ALL of HEROES is. If you haven’t been watching all year, this is a tough show to jump into the middle of.

This one takes us 5 years into the future, courtesy of Hiro’s time leap. There we view a cautionary tale of what the future could be if our Heroes fail in their mission. I loved this idea when I first heard it. (I think Jeph Loeb first laid it out for me.) It reminded me of X-Men 141-142 “Days of Future Past” (which I bought off the rack as a kid and still own.) I know all the comic geeks in the writer’s room - Loeb, Alexander, Joe Pokaski (who wrote the episode) and Aron Coleite used that as a touchstone. The prep and shooting were hard. There were many, many conversations about tone -- How dark? How sci-fi? What was the look in this future for wardrobe, hairstyles, architecture, etc.? (The writer’s had pre-thought out some of this. By setting the story only 5 years in the future we weren’t obligated to create any wildly futuristic looks.) Another concern was tone of performance. It’s a lot of fun for the cast to create a new version of their character both in terms of performance and look. But there are also opportunities to, without discipline, run off the rails. I know that, ahead of time, I went down to set to speak to as many of the cast as I could about what they were thinking and what we were thinking. The shooting, for me, felt arduous. I think I was just overly nervous about it. Our director, Paul Edwards, had things well in hand – but I made more set visits to anxiously oversee things more than I had been lately. The shoot was quite drawn out too. Episode 21 came and went and we were well into the prep of episode 22 before this one was finished. This is because we had several internal actor conflicts. Masi was very heavy in both 20 and 21 and we had to delay a couple of episode 20’s days for it. We also had some late breaking trouble with one of our locations and had to delay shooting for that as well. It’s all a big juggling act on this show. Anyway, despite my early anxieties, by the time episode 20 finished I had, kind of, lost track of it. 21 had it’s own problems and then came 22 which I was directing and which was very big.

It was a weekend after shooting on 22 had started when I got the director’s cut. I had a mild trepidation, but also vague neutrality. We all watch dallies, and we may get advanced looks at a scene or two – if there are any questions about something. But the director’s cut of an episode is the first time the producers see it all put together. Whenever possible I like to be alone when I’m seeing a first version, and I think it’s important to watch it all the way through, without stopping, in order to get a full and true impression of it. It’s a mixed bag, watching these. The show is still usually in an early stage of it’s development. There are no visual effects, temporary sound effects and temporary music have been added. Usually they are sporadic and frequently not-quite-right. Usually it is several minutes over the final length. A few are great. A few are God-awful. Most are OK and, over the years, you train yourself to see past the first cut and into the ultimate potential. (By the way I’m not spared this experience when I direct. Seeing the first version of my own episodes is an, often, unsettling time for me.) Anyway… All this is prelude to say, that as this episode unspooled before me – I had the rare experience of true excitement. I felt that this was going to end up a great and very special hour of television.

You may have your own opinion that is quite different from mine. Maybe you'll think it was just OK. Maybe you'll think it stunk. But I love this episode, I think it’s cool, and I am very proud to have participated in it.

Speaking of the director, Paul Edwards is back, directing his second HEROES. Paul directed episode 8 “Seven Minutes to Midnight.” Sadly that was one of the ones I spaced on and never wrote a blog about (back before I was fully committed like I am now :) ) Anyway, we all felt like episode 8 was great and that Paul had contributed well to it. So we brought him back. Paul was a camera operator for years and years before he recently began directing. As you can see if you iMdb him he has a lot of credits as an operator including a number of movies for Tony Scott. Paul has a very intense personality. He never sits down on set. His mind and his mouth are going a hundred miles an hour. And sometimes you want to suggest that there are delightful decaffeinated beverages available as well. But his film rocks and both his shows have turned out excellently.



One scene I was particularly happy with the way Paul concieved of it and shot it, is the one where Peter and Niki are in her dressing room in Vegas just before Peter leaves. He had a very limited space to work with, and the scene plays deceptively simply. But but the way Paul used mirrors and the way he blocked the actors to and from camera was very clean, and really enhanced the progression of the emotions in this scene.

The whole cast did great in this episode, but there are a few I’d like to single out: First, I really think Milo did an awesome job in this episode. His scar-faced character is a much stronger and much more bitter man than the innocent Peter of today. He’s a completely different character in some ways, and yet you can feel the logical extension of how he got from A to B. Milo’s performance helps us fill in all the gaps in between. I think Milo’s work in this episode is masterful and subtle at the same time. At the end of the day, his character, across the whole season has had the biggest arc and Milo has made it specific and real. I’m sure when the DVD comes out and we can watch the shows in quick succession we’ll see his progress more clearly… But, IMHO (as you posters say) he has been in strong command the whole time – much more so than I realized in the early going.

Also, Adrian Pasdar kicks ass. He had in his head to subtlely play Sylar the whole time, but only to let it slip in the moments before he kills Claire. I know that he got together with Zach Quinto ahead of time and had Zach read the scenes for him. And on the day of the scene where Nathan/Sylar kills Claire – he had Zach do a pass at the blocking of the scene so he could study his mannerisms. If you watch the show a second time you’ll see how it is a slightly different performance than the usual Nathan.

And finally, Masi. Masi had the most technically challenging role – as he frequently switched back and forth between Hiro and “Future” Hiro several times a day. In the long scene where Hiro and Ando confront “Future” Hiro, we used a motion-control camera, a device that perfectly replicates dolly and pan/tilt moves so that Hiro and “Future” Hiro can be in the same frame at the same time. But for Masi, it meant that he had to play “Future” Hiro first and then do a pass as Hiro later, where he had to hit his marks and space out his dialogue perfectly to fit into the take that he had already done. Luckily Masi has a very mathematical mind and he was able to do this relatively easily.

A couple of other points of interest. We had to find an oval office set for Nathan’s scenes as president in the future. The set we used was the one built for WEST WING. I always assumed we’d just go to Warner Brother’s studios for the day, but it turned out that the set had been dissembled. So we had to drive it over and rebuild it. A complicated endeavor.

Also, I think Ruth Ammon and the art department did a beautiful job with the ground zero set, particularly the eternal flame portion of it. The VFX crew at Stargate deserve a nod as well because they did great set extensions. But the best part was that because we built the set in the parking lot outside our offices - it provided a surprise opportunity for Tim Kring, Allan Arkush, Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale (the famous comic-book artist who creates all of Isaac’s work) and I to all be together. We are almost never in the same place at the same time!





Next week – the saga continues!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Episode 19: .07%

Whew! We’re finally back on the air. It feels like it’s been forever to me… How about for you guys? Well, the good news is, I really think we’ve got 5 good episodes to end the year with. The first one was on last night!

I’d also like to apologize for not adding to the blog the last couple of weeks. I was shooting episode 22 and several scenes from other episodes as well. It got crazy hectic towards the end there. Also, it felt like I’d hit the major points that many of you asked about… Hope you can forgive me.

It’s strange right now... We’ve actually finished production of the whole season. We had our wrap party and everything. We’re still cutting and scoring and doing visual effects and sound work on the remaining episodes, but the workload has dropped by 85%. The shooting crew and the actors are all gone. Other than the post production crew and a few accountants adding up the damage, it’s kind of a ghost town… feels weird.

Speaking of the wrap party… That was crazy fun! Because our crew is so huge, and because there was so much press – it was paaaacked! There were several hundred people there. Greg Grunberg’s band played. Greg was on drums, James Denton (DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES) played guitar, and Hugh Laurie (HOUSE) was on keyboards! Tim Kring got on stage with a guitar and jammed. Wendy and Lisa (our composers) took the stage at one point along with Sheila E. on drums and they ROCKED THE HOUSE! Jack Coleman, (HRG himself) got up there and sang his lungs out. Even Noah Gray-Cabey got on stage on keyboards and blew the roof off the place...


But the highlight of the evening was Hayden Panettiere graduating! See, when you’re a school age kid and you work as an actor in TV and films, you still have to go to school. The studio hires a teacher and, literally, between takes, the kids on our show have to do algebra, history and science. Can you imagine, between all the crying, confessing and being covered in blood, Hayden (and also Noah Gray-Cabey) had to do homework!?!? Well, since Hayden’s been acting since a couple of months after she left the womb, I have to assume she’s spent most of her school days in a motor home on a set. I don’t know this for sure. Maybe somewhere along the line she attended a regular school, but not this year.

I remember, towards the end of shooting Hayden running up to me, excited, yelling, “I just graduated high school!” Her teacher was talking to Allan Arkush and I about how it was a little sad she wouldn’t get to really graduate and (I think) Hayden’s Mom and teacher came up with the idea that, at the wrap party we’d put her in a cap and gown and make her walk a few steps to “Pomp and Circumstance.” And that’s exactly what happened. Art department whipped up a diploma and Tim Kring (as our HEROES principal) presented it to her. It was very sweet. Immediately afterwards Hayden got on the mike and blasted out a version of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” They say Hayden had learned the song, like, ten minutes before… But let me say, she fully kicked ass!






All right, enough about the wrap party, on to episode 19!

Tonight’s episode was directed by Adam Kane. Adam, ostensibly, is a first time director. But he’s been a cinematographer for a long time and, most importantly, he was the cinematographer of the pilot of HEROES. I wasn’t around for the pilot, but Tim Kring and Dennis Hammer felt his contributions were so important, and because they knew he had ambitions to direct, back at the pilot stage they offered him an episode of the show, if and when it went to series.

Frankly, I was dubious about this. HEROES is not an easy show to direct. You have to juggle and balance numerous different storylines, tones, lots of cast, as well as frequent action and visual effects scenes. It’s easier to falter than to succeed. My opinion was, that no matter how wonderful a cinematographer you are, directing is another matter and that HEROES was no place for a first time director. Well, Dennis and Tim politely listened to my opinion and then informed me that the promise had already been made and that that was that.

Of course, once Adam began working, all my doubts were shattered. He’s a real “natural” as a director. Extremely focused, with a strong plan, accommodating to our numerous wishes and instructions, pleasant and fast on his feet. I think tonight’s episode is terrifically made with good performances and many many exciting camera angles.

Adam also had to deal with a bit of last minute budget cut compromises, and he dealt with these gracefully. Dealing with the budget on HEROES is a bit like playing a fish on a hook. We’re always letting out line and then reeling it back in. We look at the needs of the script, where we are in the season, whether it’s a sweeps show or a bookend show or not. Sometimes we’re just looking at whether we’ve recently been good or bad and whether we have to make up for it. Unfortunately for Adam and episode 19, we’d just come off a spending spree and needed to cut back. Like a suburban couple, looking over the credit card debt from last month’s drunken weekend in Vegas, we realized there’d be no eating out this month, and that the 60’ flat screen would have to wait.

Several significant cuts were made, literally a day before shooting. First, we had a really great location for, what we called, “the bowels of Prima-Tech”, HRG’s company. It was a place where they’d built and tested jets with a lot of cool rooms for cells and corridors. We brought those scenes back to the existing cell that we’d built on stage for Sylar, and to the halls and corridors that surrounded our sets. Also, originally, HRG, Matt and Ted were going to have their dialogue scene (“wait a second, your middle management”) on the run, while stealing a car. We moved that back to the diner set we owned. There were also more beats of action in the Sylar/Peter fight, including that Sylar was pushed out a window by Suresh and fell several stories to the pavement.

At the end of the day I think most of these compromises have no negative impact on the show. Adam and the art department dealt with all the changes quite well. The only one that continues to perturb me is how Sylar is taken out. The world’s most fearsome villain, immediately after taking care of Peter, who has about 14 powers, gets knocked out by a chalkboard?!? Oh well.


One thing that always gets confusing on HEROES, is when there’s one scene that ends an episode and begins the next. Because we have two directors, two cinematographers, two assistant directors and sometimes two completely different crews this can get confusing. This episode was REALLY confusing. Episode 18, if you remember, ended with Peter entering Suresh’s room to discover Suresh on the ceiling and Sylar behind him. Sylar TK’s him (i.e. “telekinetically throws” him) against the wall starts to cut open his skull and we end. This episode overlaps all that again and then continues on into the fight. We’re always running experiments on how to most efficiently shoot these kinds of scenes. On this one we ran the experiment of having Kevin Bray, last episodes’ director, and Adam standing side by side on the same set, each simultaneously shooting the pieces they needed. Long story short, we won’t run that experiment again. Both guys were great and got along, but they had different ideas about how to stage and shoot the scene and what angles were needed in each episode. Nobody was wrong, but it resulted in double work rather than half work.

As you can tell this is a complex scene. Sendhil was in a harness, hoisted up onto the ceiling. Sylar is thrown back, Peter is pinned to the wall feet off the ground. A special kudos to the VFX crew for the sequence where shards of glass are levitated and then thrown at Peter. The digital glass looked amazing. There were many discussions about this, because this is the kind of sequence that can be unclear. The moment where a big shard of digital glass slams into an invisible guy, who then becomes un-invisible revealing Peter, is a moment that troubled me. Making sure that this moment is both visually exciting and that the story is being clearly told is complicated.

I also continue to be excited about Malcolm McDowell in our show. He is one of the nicest guys ever. He is extremely pleasant and happy to be here. His work is awesome, and very subtle. And he tells great stories. There’s a lot of guys around who tell a lot of stories. But mostly they’re about “When I worked on ‘The A-Team’…’” or hilarity behind the scenes of “Simon and Simon.” Malcolm McDowell’s got stories about Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Helen Mirren. Way more entertaining! It was also fun to see that Linderman has a power to heal, and Claire’s grandma, Angela seems to have been involved since before this generation of Heroes… Hmmm, what DO the writers have in mind???

OK that’s it for now. My typing fingers are cramping up. Next week Episode 20 which, in my own behind-the-scenes-but-still-a-fanboy way, I think is one of the most mind blowing episodes of TV EVER! There, I said it…

See you then…