EPISODE 303: "BADLANDS"
WARNING - THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS BLOG - IF SPOILERS FEEL LIKE A SPIKE THROUGH YOUR HEAD - THEN ABANDON THIS BLOG NOW!!!!
Head writer, Remi Aubachon told me weeks before the season was started that episode 3 of the season was going to be a “bottle show." I’ve talked in this blog before about what a bottle show is – basically it’s an episode designed to be under budget in order to make up for the excesses of the over budget ones (like the season 3 premiere and second episode.)
To be under budget on this show, ideally we would shoot in 7 days and not 8 (which is our norm) and we would have no, or at least limited, action and visual effects. Some of our bottle shows have been our best episodes, IMHO, because without the effects and action to lean on the writing has to step up… And I certainly think that’s the case with “BADLANDS."
Director David Solomon was someone I’d never worked with before, but the folks at DreamWorks had, and they had nothing but the highest praise for him. He is a former editor, who became a director long ago… Among his many credits he was the producer director on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER - which made my assistant, the impossible-to-replace Ashley Shields Muir quite happy as she is quite the Buffy fan. He has also done a number of ONCE UPON A TIME episodes - which I directed one of as well – and the guys over there are big fans of his. So, while it’s always unnerving for me to work with people I have never worked with before, I had a degree of comfort going into it.
The writer is John Wirth. John is an old friend of mine. We worked together in the mid 1990’s on the CBS series NASH BRIDGES, starring Don Johnson. That was my first-ever producer/director job – and it was a wild and wooly ride.
A number of people from that series went on to do quite well – Carlton Cuse was the creator and showrunner, and he famously teamed up with another young writer from NASH BRIDGES Damon Lindelof to run LOST. Shawn Ryan who created THE SHIELD and LAST RESORT was also a novice writer on NASH. And John Wirth, went on to executive-produce and run shows like, THE CAPE, TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICHLES , and THE DISTRICT as well as many others. I'm not sure why NASH was such a breeding ground for success - Maybe because Carlton was such a good mentor, maybe because the show was so crazy challenging that it raised everybody's game - probably a bit of both.
Our NASH BRIDGES bond has kept John and I in touch over the years – and during the shooting of this episode John, Carlton Cuse and I actually got together for a rare NASH BRIDGES reunion dinner one night – as Carlton was up in Vancouver filming on his latest series BATES MOTEL… Much laughter and reminiscing ensued…
But enough prelude. Let’s talk about the episode.
As I described last week, FALLING SKIES took over the Ajitan studios in Vancouver. Ajitan has a small sound stage, where, this year we built the “Pope’s Nest” bar set. It also has a small (about 1 ½ city blocks long) urban-street-exterior set. We made arrangements with the studio the largely reorganize and, in some cases even level, portions of their street set in order to create the above-ground portion of Charleston. I think, when John and the other writers conceived the story of this episode, they were trying to be responsible, setting the entire tale in Charleston. The only problem was that much of it was written in the perimeter, called, in the screenplay, “The Badlands.” Well, the badlands, as described didn’t exist in what we’d built. They were supposedly an series of outposts that the 2nd Mass stood watch in, in the leveled, scorched-earth, outside the city walls. They needed to be surrounded on all sides by rubble and collapse – not by buildings we’d just established in the first two episodes.
So, Production Designer Rob Gray and the art department – who had only just finished completion of the main city set, in a grueling 6 week time frame – now had to create a new series of small sets which we built on the blacktop parking lot where we usually parked the shooting crew. This was about 100 yards from the main set. The sets were mostly rubble and beams and twisted metal – which sounds easy to make, but which is really an engineering nightmare. The goal was, that as you face into the sets, the rubble behind would block the view of the Charleston exterior, and as you faced away – we would add big blue screens (sometimes 100 feet wide and 30 feet tall), where we would add matte paintings of distant destruction.
It was quite a project and Rob and his team – after much of the usual debate about how to proceed, which happens in pre-production, they ended up with only a few days to build the whole thing. They gathered scrap steel and wood and brought in truckloads of broken-up concrete. Rob even found the shell of a burned up helicopter - I'm not sure from where. Meanwhile, Grace Gilroy and the production team had to figure out where to relocate the parking for our 120-man shooting and prepping crew. (Some of the behind-the-scenes work is quite mundane, but it drives us nonetheless!)
The things that I loved upon first reading of this script was the way the characters moved forward despite a simple and contained setup. I think John brilliantly put every character under a lot of strain and pressure – the pressure of boredom and long hours waiting and the pressure of an impending battle.
There were a number of things explored in this script that we hadn’t explored before. Pope and his relationship to his team of “Berserkers,” hadn’t really been delved into. Matt Mason’s story evolved, as he moves away from the moral-center of the Mason family. And the politics of Charleston are explored – both in terms of Gloria Rueben’s character, Marina, evolving and Tom’s role as President changing dramatically when the idea that the real President of the USA may still be alive.
There are three actors who play Pope’s “Berserkers.” Ryan Robbins, whose character, “Tector,” was flushed out quite well in last year’s episode DEATH MARCH. “Lyle” is played by former stuntman, now actor, the irrepressible Brad Kelly who I’ve talked about in these pages quite a bit. And the last member of the gang is “Crazy Lee” played by Luciana Carro. It’s worth clicking on her link to see that in real life, Luciana is a beautiful young woman who usually plays much more glamorous parts.
When the part of “Crazy Lee” was written in season two we had a hard time casting it. The part, although small, was very colorful. She was meant to be a rough, tough, snarling, but somehow sexy (or at least horny) biker chick. We read a number of rough, tough, women and actual biker girls for the role – some of whom were quite colorful. But no one was right. I was really committed to the idea that this small character would be realistically rough around the edges and not glamorous. When Remi proposed Luciana, who he'd worked with on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA - I resisted. She read on tape in Los Angeles, and her reading was quite good. But she was so damn pretty – and I really wanted to avoid the stereotype of a hot sexy biker chick. I wanted what I thought would be a more realistic post-apocalyptic character. In my mind, if she was going to run with Pope and his gang she would have to be pretty gnarly. But as the audition process waned on and time became short, it became obvious that Luciana was the best choice… So, “Okay,” I thought to myself, “We’ll just have to mess her up.”
My first encounter with Luciana was over the phone, just after she’d landed the role. She was very excited to have just gotten the part - and, although I wasn't there to burst her bubble, I think I did. I couldn’t see her, but I could feel her shocked expression as I described to her how we were going to portray her character – dirty, rough and gnarly. I could tell by the timber of her voice that she was in shock. But she went along, cheerfully, with what I was saying.
On her first day on set, in the makeup trailer, I think that sense of shock remained. We were covering her with dirt, ratting up her hair, staining her teeth, and putting her in less-than-form-fitting biker clothes. As she sat in the makeup chair that day, she was being a good sport – but I think she was still in shock.
But – as soon as Luciana hit the set on her first day – I saw a transformation overcome her. First off, it was probably comforting that EVERY person on set was smeared with dirt and has makeup bruises and scratches. But soon enough, she really got into this character. Her body language and the way she carried herself changed, becoming rogher and less feminine. She began to explore a raspy, grating voice. In general, she threw herself into it, and I’m quite sure that “Crazy Lee” is like no role she’s done before.
Well, tonight was the night that for Crazy Lee, like many before her on our show, it was game over. The real genesis of why we killed her, came from Steven Spielberg. He has nothing against Crazy Lee, but he wanted us to show Pope’s vulnerable side – he wanted to show an emotional side to Pope that the audience hadn’t seen and that he (and we) knew Collin Cunningham could deliver.
As I’ve talked about it before, that one of my unhappy jobs on this show is to be the angel of death. Actors fear when I ask them to come privately into my office. And here, once again, it was my task to pull Luciana into my office and let her know that the end was near. She took it well, but later I heard, she got really sad. FALLING SKIES is a close-knit family and it’s a lot of fun on set. So leaving is hard.
Luckily for Luciana, John Wirth’s poignant script gave her a lot to play. The whole story of the pipe through the head (which I guess is based on some real-life story of a construction worker in Brazil – who SURVIVED!) was very interesting and unique. And the fact that Crazy Lee knew she was going to die for many hours before she did, gave her a lot to play with. My favorite of John’s dialogue is the stuff about Disneyland – and how Pope can’t go because he got into a fight with Goofy. Of course, in our world, Disneyland is no more – and I think both of the characters know it. It is a dialogue of farewell and friendship between two friends who can't speak more directly, because of the nature of their characters, who must maintain an exterior of strength. Very nice!
Another aspect of this script that I enjoyed, and that I’m enjoying this season is how Matt Mason’s character is evolving.
(By the way... Did any of you ever have a MAJOR MATT MASON, MAN ON THE MOON toy as a kid - like me? Check it out: http://www.dialbforblog.com/archives/167/. Matt Mason's name on our show has always bugged me because of this - but I'm not sure if anyone else knows about this toy.)
Remi's point of view was that, while Hal and Ben have been given much of Tom Mason's attention, even if it's in the form of conflict or worry - Matt has been largely ignored by Tom of late. Not for any malicious reasons, but because of Tom's overwhelming workload as both President and Alien Fighter. Because of this, Remi presumes that Matt would have a tendency to drift away from the moral center of all that is Mason-ness. And who better to enjoy taking in this wayward boy and lead him to the dark side, than Pope? I find this story quite interesting and, frankly, necessary because Maxim Knight is getting older and we, as filmmakers, have to address that he's no longer the wide-eyed little boy who's close-up is the first live action image in the whole of the Falling Skies Universe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5S09-gl3z2o
The question, going forward is - how much trouble will Matt get into? Or will Tom be able to pull him back?
Another aspect of this story, originally, was Tom Mason's ongoing political life. John Wirth and Remi really wanted to show the machinations of how the tedious and time consuming aspects of Presidency were wearing on Tom. The nature of re-building the United States and the world into a government that can oversee the people, very much interests many of us behind-the-scenes. There was a more elaborate storyline in early drafts of the script, that showed Tom's trevails around vetting a vice-presidential candidate. There were a number of scenes between Tom and Marina, and there were several small scenes with potential vice-presidents. I'm sad that some of this went away, because it developed the Tom/Marina relationship well. But, frankly, and despite John's strong dialogue and writing, those of us behind the scenes deemed that the storyline was a little tedious, when compared to spikes through-the-head and imminent alien invasions. The story was truncated down to it's bare bones before we ever shot any of it.
It was fun to watch Noah Wyle and Gloria Rueben work together. As you may or may not know, they acted together on the long-running series "ER". Gloria fell into step with our group quite instantly. She is professional and prepared. My quickly formed impression is that she was a true lady, in the classic sense of that word. And when it came time to do the long "oner" shots in our show (like the one in the first few minutes when they discuss politics and end beside Jeannie at the "Liberty Tree") she and Noah fell right into step. The long oner was a staple of early "ER" - and quite groundbreaking at it's time.
Finally I'd like to discuss the song sung at the Liberty Tree service at the end of the episode. Writer Robert Rodat who created FALLING SKIES, was literally obsessed with the song ONE VOICE, originally sung by the group "The Wailin' Jenny's". He felt it was very thematic to the vision he had for FALLING SKIES - the idea of many pulling together as one to survive.
In the first season there was an episode that ended with the 2nd Mass breaking bread and saying Grace. Originally, Robert pushed hard for that to be a scene in with Loudres, followed by Anne and then followed by others spontaneously sang this song. At that time, and being a new and very over-budget series, we couldn't afford the licensing rights and/or get it together. But in season 3 we had the chance. I think Remi and gang wrote the song into the episode without even telling Mr. Rodat about it - so he must've been quite happily surprised when he saw the episode.
Grace Gilroy, our producer in Vancouver organized the mechanics of getting it done - she had worked with the "Vancouver Children's Choir" before and she got the head of that splendid organization on the phone. We got him the music and a recording of the Wailing Jenny's version. It turns out to be a very complex piece with lots of difficult harmonies and key changes.
Just a few days later John Wirth and I sat in the studio as the young women of this choir group recorded an acapella version of the song. It took a lot of takes and overlays and re-do's - but several hours later we had a great version.
A few nights after that, the young ladies of the Vancouver's Children's Choir gathered on a chilly night to film the scene. Their music was blasted out on playback and they lip-synced to their recording (That's the usual way we do music in the film and TV business).
Okay that's it - next the behind the scenes pix I know you like so much.
Next week and episode I directed... Which included Moon Bloodgood's final days on set for the season!!!
Next week and episode I directed... Which included Moon Bloodgood's final days on set for the season!!!
WILL AND NOAH REST BETWEEN ACTION AND CUT
LUCIANA CONTEMPLATES LIFE AND (ON-SCREEN) DEATH BETWEEN TAKES
RYAN ROBBINS AS TECTOR THE SHARPSHOOTER
THE BESERKERS WITH THE YOUNGEST MASON
THIS IS THE BADLANDS THAT WE BUILT IN JUST A FEW DAYS
WRITER JOHN WIRTH
ON SET DURING CRAZY LEE'S DEATH SCENE - MAXIM WAS VERY FOCUSED
FOR EVERY EPISODE, BEFORE SHOOTING - THE CAST, PRODUCERS, WRITER AND DIRECTOR GATHER FOR A "TABLE READ" WHERE WE READ THE SCRIPT OUT LOUD - LUVIA PETERSON WHO PLAYS "THE SNIPER" WAS HERE FOR THE EXCITMENT
YASNA AND ANDRE WERE BACKGROUND PLAYERS IN TORONTO IN SEASON 1 - THEY CONTACTED ME AND ASKED IF THEY COULD COME OUT TO VANCOUVER (A CROSS CANADA MOVE!) FOR SEASON 3 - WITH LOYALTY LIKE THAT WHO WOULD SAY "NO"
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY NATE GOODMAN
COLLIN ON SET
NATE AND DIRECTOR DAVID SOLOMON
LUCIANA PREPARES TO SLIP THIS MORTAL COIL
MEGAN DANSO IN A CRASHED 'COPTER
CONNOR JESSUP ON GUARD DUTY
NEW GIRL GLORIA RUEBEN
MATT FREWER - WAR IS A SERIOUS BUSINESS
ME 'N LUCIANA
THE VANCOUVER CHILDREN'S CHOIR - FIRST THEY RECORDED THE SONG AND THEN THEY SANG TO PLAYBACK ON SONG ON SET THREE DAYS LATER
THE FINAL SCENE AT THE LIBERTY TREE
DREW AND SARAH AT THE LIBERTY TREE - THEIR RELATIONSHIP IS GOING THROUGH SOME (ON-SCREEN) CHANGES
LUCIANA GETTING HER TEETH GRITTY ON SET TO PLAY "CRAZY LEE"
PRODUCTION DESIGNER ROB GRAY & EXEC PRODUCER REMI AUBACHON ON THE SET AT POPE'S "NEST" (BESIDES THE SET ITSELF - ROB CREATED THE HUGE PAINTING BEHIND THE BAR )
COLLIN ON SET - EXTERIOR BLUE SCREENS WERE USED IN MULTIPLE PLACES TO EXTEND THE BADLANDS