Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking Below the Line

The Beloved Spouse and I are working our way through The Sopranos again, finished Season 5 last night. At one point, Tony’s sitting in his office at The Bing and Corky mentions, “I have that tape dispenser.” I immediately looked around him and thought, “Someone dressed that set,” and all the minutiae that are involved.

The whole set dressing thing would not have occurred to me had I not read Below the Line, by John McFetridge and Scott Albert. It’s a pastiche of stories—some related, some not—of the goings-on at a Toronto movie set, where an American movie is being made. The book gets into the friction between the Canadian and American sides (the Americans make films in Canada because it’s cheaper, then look down on the Canadians; the Canadians are happy for the business, but frustrated because the American 800-pound gorilla makes it harder to get good Canadian films made), but mostly it’s about all the stuff that has to happen for a move to get made that the audience never sees. (“Below the Line,” in movie parlance.)

It’s a fun book to read—the scene where the transport captain takes the star to a hockey game is laugh out loud funny---and also educational, without hitting you over the head about it. It’s full of conversations about finding locations, the frustrations of being a Production Assistant, dressing sets, and half a dozen other things that have to occur for you to see even a piece of shit at the local multiplex. (The book is, unfortunately, out of print, and not available on Kindle. I found my copy at an online used bookstore.)

Back to The Sopranos. Once TBS points out the tape dispenser, I’m watching for everything. Tony slides down a snowy hill outside Johnny Sack’s yard to escape the feds, and I think “Location scout. MoGib.” Johnny Sack slips and falls in the snow. “Stunt man.” Watch some of the fine work turned in by people who were under the radar as actors when the show was made, and I'm thinking, "Casting Director."

I even caught a goof. Tony meets Johnny outside his house, a foot of snow on the ground. Johnny said to be there at 6:30 AM, he had a plane to catch, and I’m thinking “No way is there that much sunlight at 6:30 that time of year in New Jersey. (I think that’s Continuity, but I’m not sure.)

I love that kind of thing. Some people would ask how I can enjoy the movie, seeing all the wires and engines that make its illusion work. I say it’s the cost of being a writer and wondering how things work under the hood. When I was a musician, one of my best teachers told a class I was in that we had chosen to devote our lives to music, we no longer had the luxury of listening purely for enjoyment; we had to think, “How did he do that? Why was that choice made?” The same holds true for writers, I think. Certainly so far as writing technique goes, and for cinematic choices, as well, since it’s still storytelling. What I’m noticing now is just another level, and it’s fun.

Also, I’m just curious. I see anything, and I want to know how it works, why it’s made that way. This means I’m rarely bored, and sometimes frustrated. That has “writer” pasted all over it, too.

1 comment:

Charlieopera said...

John's book sounds interesting. A friend from back in the day was the stunt coordinator/stunt man for the Sopranos (Michael Russo). He was a crazy kid and was determined to go to Hollywood and make it. He sure did.

The one particularly bad staging thing I remember about a Sopranos episode was when Paulie was taking bets from inside the Bing.

No way, no how. Not unless he wanted to get caught and the Bing wanted to lose its liquor license. Also ... a skipper (i'm pretty sure he was by that episode) would very unlikely be working the phones anywhere ...