(note: Here's a link to TNT's official website for FALLING SKIES):
IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE EPISODE - THERE ARE SPOILERS CONTAINED HERIN!
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!!
Last night was the second airing of FALLING SKIES and the 3rd hour of the show. I directed this episode as well – so I have a lot to say about it.
My first impression as a director is always when I read the script for the first time. I'd read a number of outlines and knew what was coming, at least structurally - but a script really comes alive when the dialogue is in and the nuance of character finally makes itself known... I loved the script. I felt like it moved the characters along and developed their individual stories and the big mythology as well. It also had a number of action scenes that would be complex and exciting to design and direct.
The episode begins on the roof of a building where our heroes are looking have finally found Ben, Tom’s son. He’s harnessed and a slave to the aliens.
Fred Golan wrote the episode – but Graham Yost as writer/executive producer was overseeing the script at the point it hit production. In the script was written “rooftop” – Graham wanted to open on a rooftop, I wanted to open on a rooftop. I knew it would be more graphic and compelling. But, once you’ve been in the TV business as a director and producer long enough, you know some of the issues that are going to come your way. Inevitably “rooftop” will be challenged – and someone, usually the line producer will say – “Can’t we film this on ground level?”
He’ll be right too. Moving an entire shooting crew up onto a rooftop is one of the slowest most time-intensive things you can do. The “co-executive producer” aspect of my job requires me to be financially responsible. The “director” aspect of my job requires me to make the best episode possible. Sadly, for me, these aspects are always at war within me – it’s quite torturous, really.
For me - directing in TV is like coaching a football game – Typically we shoot and we budget for 12 work hours a day. 6 hours before lunch and 6 hours after lunch. The minute the company is "in" the morning the clock starts tickingl. At that point (in my mind) the game is 0-0 and everyone feels relaxed. But you have to get on the scoreboard as fast as possible. (Side note – every once in a while, I meet regular people who work regular 8-hour-a-day jobs and they can’t believe that a 12 hour work day is the norm. When they hear that they look at me like I’m some kind of bizarre masochist - But that’s what we do – not counting lunch, of course, which takes it to 13 hours. But if you get behind the eight ball a 15 or 16-hour workday is unpleasant, but certainly not unprecedented.)
Anyway – my line producer, John Ryan, predictably, STRONGLY discouraged me from going up on the roof. It was four stories up, and the only way to get all our heavy equipment up was a tiny elevator that could hold one person at a time, and some rickety steel stairs on the outside of the building. We’d have to haul any real equipment up with a crane. Now, as I said a minute ago - I knew Mr. Ryan was right. The roof was irresponsible. So I needed something to motivate me... I bet Mr. Ryan $50 Canadian dollars we could do it and still make the day. (Now once upon a time, like when SMALLVILLE first started, $50CAD was about $38USD – but now $50CAD is about $54 USD – so we’re talking real money!)
My Director of Photography, Chris Faloona and my production designer, Rob Gray all wanted to go on the roof – they agreed the visual scope was a much better way to open the episode. And, truthfully, after this opening the episode goes into a number of dialogue-heavy expositional scenes. They were all good - but more contained. I felt I would have one chance to grab the viewers up font. So my boys and I, in prep, we went up there to that irresponsible roof and laid out a game plan. We designed every shot and we designed a shooting sequence that would be most efficient. The trick is always the sun – if it’s cloudy but not rainy you can shoot all day in any direction. But it’s not as pretty. If it’s sunny – it’s pretty but you have to shoot in backlight to go fast – front light is ugly and slows you down because the director of photography will have to bring out big silks to partially block the light and make it look cloudy! (ikes!)
Anyway, the work that was scheduled for this 12-hour day was the opening rooftop scene and the scene where Tom and Mike see Rick and the plan falls apart and then they blow up the mech and then they grab Rick and throw him in the pickup and then Hal and Karen shoot at the mech and then Tom gets blasted and then dragged to the pickup and then they drive off leaving Hal and Karen behind and then they get stopped by the mech who leaps off the roof – is a much bigger and more complex scene and arguably more important scene – but, as I said, I felt the rooftop opened the show and was important to grab the viewer. So I figured I had 4 hours for the rooftop and 8 for the rest of the days work. For me to win this football game – that was the timeline I’d have to hit!
(one side note: In the scene mentioned above, when Tom and Rick grab Rick and run him to the truck - watch how close the truck bed comes to our actors as it slides around. The stunt driver was very good and Noah and Martin Roach, after a few takes, began to really trust him. The two actors are running full speed ahead towards a truck speeding right at them... then the truck slides around and stops with the bed RIGHT in front of them... In the take we used they never break stride - they just throw Rick right in the back. It actually looks kind of simple on film but it was a VERY intense moment!!!!)
So, anyway -- I negotiated with the John, the line producer, to have some of the camera and grip crew get a one hour pre-call to get the equipment up on the roof. I also talked to Noah and the cast and said we wouldn’t do a traditional rehearsal… We’d get them through makeup and then get them on the roof and start shooting right away. Now – there’s a risk to this. Rehearsal’s are important because if anything in the script isn’t working, or if an actor has an issue with something, or is some other thing you counted on isn’t working – you want to find out about it ASAP. Rehearsals happen before you build up your camera positions and lighting and if there’s an f’up after you’ve got all your equipment in place it takes WAY more time. But – in this case, I felt the risk was worth it. The scene was actually pretty static and laid out well – I didn’t think the cast would have any issues.
I mention all this to show you what’s going on in my head as we shoot. Yes, the main focus is on getting the perfect angles and the perfect performance and all the perfect pieces needed to tell the story – but the clock is always TICK…TICK…TICKING in my head and all the extraneous technical stuff is always on my mind. To do this job well is a very Zen art – if you focus on the timeline and technical stuff too much, you will sacrifice performance and “coolness.” But if you only focus on performance and “coolness” – the time will slip away from you and you won’t make the day!
UP ON THE ROOF:
Notice that two moments we didn't get to were (a) the shot where Tom sees the skitter reflected in the puddle as it leaps at him. This is a cool idea - but a luxury. In the back of my mind I knew that if time got short we'd drop that. We also didn't get to (b) The shot over Tom as the skitter drags itself away in pain. I tried to shoot this shot - but the prosthetic skitter was too unwieldy and slow and I was too far behind schedule. I shot a backplate for this shot with the hopes that maybe, down the road, we could do it with a CGI skitter. But in post production that shot was super-expensive - so it's another one I had to let go.
Briefly - I wanted to say that - unlike the tunnel scene - when we went to shoot the scene of Rick being de-harnessed by Anne and Dr. Harris - I really didn't have the scene worked out. I knew the goal of the scene and how everything would work - but until I got into rehearsal and saw how the actors would interact with the harness and each other I couldn't fully plan it. So I shot from the hip more in this sequence - knowing key moments I had to hit.
I'm very happy with the opening shot which begins under the table seeing Rick's face, and then the camera rises and does a slow half circle around the room. It's all done in one shot and the pace is slow - with the intention of building anxiety. I wanted the scene to begin slowly and with few cuts so that the pace could get faster and faster and more intense as it went.
This was also one of my first times working one-on-one with Moon. I love how grounded she is - calm and positive both on set and off. She is vey focused and down for anything. She never complains - she likes being challenged. In general it was great to work with her - she is a real trooper no matter what.
The final moments:
The final few minutes of the episode are very satisfying to me - and less flashy than the previously discussed scenes. I thought I'd briefly described what was happening…
Throughout the episode we’ve sensed that something has been brewing between Tom and Dr. Harris. In the final moments we see them finally have a confrontation and learn the truth of what happened on the day Tom’s wife died. Graham Yost oversaw a big dialogue pass on this scene – and the way it unfolds is quite compelling. The scene builds very slowly and then finally Tom reveals the truth he’s been holding back. Harris’s character – ducks it for a second and then, finally, under pressure, admits he betrayed Tom’s wife on that fateful day. But he arrogantly justifies it because of his knowledge and skill. Tom’s anger erupts and he hits Harris. And then, Harris twists the knife and makes Tom feel guilty because he let his wife go out on “his” day to forage.
The dialogue was strong and the twists and turns were intense. As a director, my job, I felt, was to try to stage the scene in a way that supported the drama and allowed the actors to make the most of it. And then get out of the way. Sometimes I do a lot of performance direction, moulding nuance and line readings - but not in this case. The two actors were old friends and they were very dialed in for this scene. Part of the skill of my job is to know when NOT to do anything. The main thing I did is make clear to the actors what the camera was seeing, and how I saw the scene unfolding rhythmically. Otherwise I laid back and watched.
There are two key moments, for me, in how I staged the scene.
The first thing I did is that I had Tom pass past Harris and go to the cage to see the skitter. In this position Tom’s is in the foreground facing away from Harris who is in the background. This allowed Noah to have private reactions that could not be seen by his acting partner. Also, his vocal quality is calm but his facial expression is tense. This blocking allowed that. Also, Chris Faloona, the D.P, put a hard bottom light on Tom in the foreground and soft even light on Harris in the background. This separated their emotions even more – with Tom intense and Harris, at this point, unaware of Tom’s emotions.
Then, from the moment Tom turns to confront Harris, until the moment Tom hits his enemy – I staged all in one continuous shot. I did this, first and foremost, to let the actors act. There is something real and raw when a scene is unbroken by editing. Also, I wanted to stage the scene to underscore Harris’ discomfort. I have him, at first squirm away backwards from Tom. But Tom closes in on him – steady throughout. Harris, then, pushes past Tom and into the foreground for another face-to-camera/face-to-camera moment. Here I played Steven Weber with the “private moment” in foreground as he makes decision to go ahead and confess.
After this scene – Tom is broken. He returns to his children for comfort. It’s worth noting that, at one point this little scene was omitted for schedule reasons. The day was just jammed with too much work – and I felt the story would survive without that scene. When Noah learned it was cut – he was very disappointed. He argued that the moment was very important. And I could tell by his passion that he was going to do something strong with it.
So, I put the scene back in, and kept it to a simple one-shot moment. Tom approaches in silhouette and then slides down the wall. As he slides, the camera drops with him to reveal his kids. He looks at them with such longing – remembering what he has even as he feels the pain of what he’s lost. I love that moment in the show and I am very glad Noah fought for it. As I got to know Noah, throughout this series, I gained immense respect for him. his work is simple, but deep. He prepares very thoroughly and is aware, and working, every nuance of every scene.
The moment where Noah pins the picture of Ben on the wall speaks for itself. My work is quite simple – but the sweet picture of Ben, before he was harnessed, intercuts with Noah’s quiet but tortured expression, combined with Noah Sorota’s heart-wrenching score… I get choked up quite often by that scene.
Okay, wow – that was a lot of writing. Back next week with more and for now – a few more pictures!!!