WARNING – SPOILERS ARE CONTAINED HERIN!
Tonight’s episode was written by Jesse Alexander and was directed by Adam Kane. Both of these gents have been workhorses for us. Jesse is a most formidable presence in the writer’s room – driving the scripts and stories forward. And he has written several key episodes for us. Adam, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, was the director of photography of the pilot. We gave him his first episodic break as a director last year with “.07%." This is his third episode for us.
Tonight’s episode weaves past, present and future together in the way that only we can. Adam and Peter finally leave the Montreal warehouse and begin working together… But for good or for bad? Sylar implements the next phase of his plan, which has unfortunate results for one twin. Suresh has a breakthrough, and then a setback. Claire contemplates life without father, unaware that dear old HRG is trapped in the basement of Primatech.
This episode is a penultimate episode of our “pod” of eleven. Episode 11 will be (and always was designed to be the end of a chapter.) Season one, as we all know, had a 23 chapter “VOLUME." But Tim Kring had come into this season specifically wanting to design smaller volumes. We knew well in advance how many episodes we’d run before our first break of re-runs and pre-emptions. After the eleventh episode on December 3rd, we knew we’d take a break. This year, Tim wanted to resolve the story more completely at this first break than we had last year, and begin VOLUME 3 in the Spring. Well before the writers strike was a serious issue, we had always planned on ending VOLUME 2 next week. It is true that, on the eve of the strike, as it was becoming an inevitability, Tim did some quick rewrites on episode 11, so that it would be even more resolved and complete if, God forbid, the strike goes on so long that there is no more of season 2 than the first eleven. If that happens 11 will be a de-facto season finale and can function as such. But if the strike is resolved relatively soon, we will most certainly come back and present VOLUME 3. But, this particular blog is about episode 10 not epsiode 11, and so...
One of the things that, sadly, has to happen from time to time on this show, is that an actor has to be called into Tim’s office and be told that the sand has run out of their character’s hourglass. All of us face this moment in our own lives. And on HEROES, as in life, Sylar, or a stray bullet, or a virus, or some other unexpected twist of fate comes inevitably to take us all. Telling an actor that they're off the show is one of the jobs that Tim likes least of all. But running two TV shows builds broad shoulders. It’s just one of those things that you have to do. Some take it well, some with sadness, and some rage against the dying of the light. This week, Shalim Ortiz got the call.
Shalim is a great guy. He has been truly thrilled to be on the show - more so than almost anyone. His nephews in the Dominican Republic have watched faithfully since the first airing, and, to hear him tell it, they literally flipped out when they heard he got the gig. He is a joy on set. He’s always prepared. He’s a great scene partner for the other actors. And he’s an all-around good egg. After he got the news, Shalim made a point of thanking all of the producers for the opportunity, and telling us what a great experience it was. And then Sylar stabbed him to death.
This episode was an unusual experience for me. We had a crazy production schedule this season. We were doing, what are called, “double-ups” – which means that we were, literally shooting two episodes at the same time. This wasn’t (as has been surmised) because of the impending strike. It was because we (and NBC) wanted us to make a lot of episodes, with very few breaks for reruns and pre-emptions. It was a brutal experiment, which had us literally writing, then prepping and then shooting two episodes at the same time. What that meant for me, specifically, was that while I was prepping and shooting my last episode, Adam was shooting this one. I was pretty out of touch with it, certainly more so than I like. Not that anything went wrong, it's just that I had the unusual experience that the first time I really saw ANY of it was when I saw the first directors cut. I had read the script, and briefly chatted with Adam and Jesse a couple of times to give a handful of notes – but otherwise I was removed from the process.
Then, because Allan Arkush (who is usually a little more post-production intensive than me) was shooting episode 11, I got into the editing room a little more than usual on this one.
Editing is an amazing experience. The old cliché is that it’s really the last rewrite of the script. That’s true, but what’s interesting is how much you can do with, essentially fixed elements. At the writing stage anything is possible. The writer can, literally, write anything they want to – and the (awe-inspiring) challenge is to create something from nothing. The production experience, which for me is usually the directing experience, is to realize the script while introducing the factors of time, money and other people. But still, you can put onto film almost anything you can imagine as long as you have enough time, money, and you can convince the right people (various studio execs, producers, writers and actors all have to be convinced, at some point, to do what to stuff they sometimes don't want to do.) But in the editing room, the film is now finite. Well, almost, you can usually go back and shoot a few inserts (which are generally close ups of inanimate objects, which don’t involve cast members – i.e. a comic book hitting the floor, a hand turning a key, etc.) You can also write new lines of dialogue or narration – as long as they’re off-screen. But, by and large, the film is done being shot and it’s all in the re-arranging of it. But what's amazing is how much can be done and how extreme the different choices are that can be made in post.
When I first saw the episode, it was working well, but it felt it was a little slow (it was running about 6 minutes longer than the final running time.) And there were things in the way it was presented that made it feel, to me, a little choppy and a bit emotionally distanced from the characters. Some of this is because of Adam Kane’s strengths. He shoots a lot of interesting shots, and (unlike many directors) he shoots many options for different parts of the scene. Most directors will shoot one shot which is specifically designed as the opening shot of a scene. Then, ideally, they design one shot as the ending, and they have a lot of general coverage in the middle. Adam will always have two or three shots which could, quite legitimately, open a scene, close a scene and be used in the middle. It’s a tough gig directing episodes. Unlike in features, the director rarely gets to finish the show. They deliver their cut to the producers and move on. The producers complete the work. But I know, from having directed a lot of episodes, that if you don’t show the producers what they’ve got available, they may never go look for it. So one of the obligations of the directors first cut, is to make sure that ALL the cool shots are used, however briefly, for the producer’s viewing. Later, this will be thinned out, but if you don’t show what’s there it can never be used. Yes, in the ideal world, one wants to take the time in the cutting room reviewing all the choices that exist. But in reality, especially when we get to this stage of the season when the post schedules are tight – if it’s working, many times, there’s no chance to review. Besides, you’ve hired excellent editors and directors and you trust that they’ve shown you is the best stuff. This doesn’t mean we never review takes and shots. We do. A lot. But usually, if a scene is working, you move on, concentrating on what doesn’t work first.
The other thing is that there seemed to be, in the first cut, a lot more exposition than usual, about the nature of the virus – it’s causes and it’s cures. I know that there was lot of discussion about this. I know that the network and studio were concerned about clarity and specificity in this area and that they gave a lot of notes about it. I know Jesse Alexander worked hard to service these concerns, but that he was always concerned that we ended up over-explaining. Frequently, in storytelling, if you try too hard to explain and clarify a difficult point, it ends up exacerbating the weaknesses of the storyline, rather than bolstering its strengths.
Film making is an always fascinating experience. It is one where the emotional experience the viewer has is what ends up mattering more than anything else. Logic and plot are necessary, but ultimately are cold emotionally. A brilliant visual design and a stylistic presentation are great, but they are cold emotionally. It is character and situation that are hot, and that drive the audience’s emotional experience. One of things I’ve been so happy about, since I came to this show, is that this viewpoint is shared by Tim Kring, and Dennis Hammer and Allan Arkush. We all chase emotion primarily, not style or plot.
So the process of this episode, from the first cut, was one of thinning and simplifying. A lot of the shots were dropped and we simplified the shot presentation in favor of performance.
I know Jesse was happy that we ended up dropping a lot of the explanation about the origin and nature of the virus. The scene at Primatech in 1977, for instance, originally was a lot more complex and we played more of the (newly introduced) characters of Young Kaito and Victoria Pratt. In the end, we culled out a lot of their dialogue and concentrated in Hiro who was watching from the doorway.
We also ended up re-arranging the scene order quite a bit from the original scripted version. This is actually very common on HEROES. The nature of the numerous characters and storylines makes the order that they’re presented in highly flexible. Generally, the scripts take the various storylines and distribute then evenly throughout the episode. There will be one Claire scene per act, one Peter scene, etc. In the editing room, again, we try to react emotionally, asking ourselves “Do I want to stay with this story?” “Have I been away from this story for too long?” And so on.
Here’s some examples of how the scripted order changes in the editing room on HEROES. Interestingly the scripted opening of the episode was the Maya/Sylar picnic scene. The scene where Peter finds himself in the future was second. The Sylar scene was good, but not an especially dramatic opening. And we didn't come back to that storyline until late in Act 2, so it felt like we were away from that story for too long. Additionally, the way Adam shot the future stuff was so compelling, with Peter watching in slow motion while Caitlin and his future self struggled in real time, it felt like it should be the opening. Also the original first act was very long. So all of these factors caused us to move the Sylar/Maya scene to the top of the next act.
That’s just one example, but it’s how we work through the whole episode.
Two other quick things. Kudos to the VFX guys at Stargate for the scene where Suresh is in the cab at the end of the show. This doesn't look like a visual effects sequence, I know... and that's to their credit. The taxi was actually sitting static on a green screen stage - and all the moving New York backgrounds were dropped in as visual effects. I think they're particularly good.
Another scene worth talking about is the one where Sylar stabs Alejandro. The first presentation I saw was an elaborate montage of stabbing and jump cutting and contrapunal sound effects like heart beats and ticking clocks. It was EXTREMELY violent, and worthy of Martin Scorsese. But it was obviously never going to fly on TV. I took a pass cutting down to, what I thought, was a bare minimum. Tim Kring and Dennis Hammer thought it was still WAY too much and went through it again and thinned it more. By now I was sure it couldn't get any shorter. THEN we showed it to NBC's standards and practices department. I think I ended up having twelve conversations with them, in which we cut and recut and recut and shaved frames and more frames and more frames. I knew the ultra-violent blood fest that Adam Kane directed wouldn't fly, but I'm not sure what we have left in there even makes sense. Oh well.
Next week, we close the book on VOLUME TWO
Until then, pictures:
SENDHIL ON SET
MILO AND KATIE CARR CHILLIN’ IN “THE FUTURE”
ADAM LINES UP A SHOT (DOWNTOWN L.A. STANDS IN FOR FUTURE N.Y.C.)
ADAM LINES UP A SHOT IN NEW ORLEANS APARTMENT SET
ADAM GOES OVER NOTES WITH DANA DAVIS
DANA DAVIS ON SET
DIIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY CHARLIE LIEBERMAN (HE MAKES IT SOOO PRETTY)
FIRST ASSISTANT DIRECTOR ANNE BERGER – SHE MAKES THE TRAINS RUN ON TIME
AN ART DEPARTMENT SIGN FOR OUR NEW ORLEANS STREET
JESSE ALEXANDER WRITING ON SET (ACTUALLY I THINK HE’S WORKING ON HIS MYSPACE PAGE!)
ADAM KANE AT THE MONITORS