Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"21 Eyes," a History, Part 3

The original poster for "21 Eyes," originally known as "Replay."

With casting nearly completed, we turned our attention to the shoot itself.

I say nearly completed because as we talked with our stunt coordinator, Doug Crosby, we knew we had to get him in the movie.  Doug had more motion picture experience than the rest of the cast and crew combined.  When we happened upon him, he had recently gotten off the long and grueling shoot for "Gangs of New York."  He didn't want to work on another big Hollywood product again right away.  He wanted to work on a film that the people involved in really believed in, and he appreciated that we really believed in this film and that we wanted to do something unique.  As a result, he brought a great deal of enthusiasm to the production and, since we enjoyed his manner of speech and some of the ad-libs he threw in, we decided to make him one of the robbers.  It was an excellent decision.

Back to the production.

Most directors shoot the script.  The unique, nonlinear structure of "21 Eyes" made that impossible.  The film consists of two detectives watching a series of events from a variety of different angles.  Obviously, we weren't going to stage the events for each camera individually.  We were going to have to shoot a massive master scenes which were useable from all angles.  To do that, we had to generate a shooting script.  The original script was approximately 119 pages long.  The shooting script, which only dealt with what was seen on screen in the final movie was only 22 pages long.  The mighty David Butler planned a five day shoot -- with the understanding that there would be a few pickups later.

(One thing about the script length.  A few days before the shoot, I got a little paranoid.  I told Lee that, based on the length of the shooting script, our film might end up much shorter than we intended.  That it might not even be an acceptable feature length when we were done.  I wanted to act the whole thing out with him.  "What are we going to do if we find out it's too short, not shoot it?" he laughed.  "Let's just shoot the movie."  So we did.  And it was short, but, fortunately, not too short.)

Our biggest challenge was the workroom sequence.  I believe it ran twelve pages and it had to be filmed in a single take.  Most real films shoot about three script pages a day.  Those pages are further broken down into a series of small shots.  That makes it easier for everyone.  Who wants to remember twelve pages of dialogue and have to hit all their marks at just the right time?  The answer:  No one.  We couldn't shoot the workroom sequence like a film.  It had to be shot like a stage play.

To make matters worse, much worse in fact, we could only afford to shoot the sequence four times.  That's all the costume changes, squibs and pyrotechnics we had.  (Not to mention time.)  And, remember, the final take had to be perfect from all angles because there was no way we would be able to cheat and use different takes from different angles.  Additionally, since every corner of the room was visible at some time, there was no place for the director to stand and guide them.  The actors were going to be entirely on their own.

Lee and I knew we couldn't count on them all to remember all the right dialogue.  We didn't necessarily care about that.  The most important thing was that they hit their marks, i.e., their position in front of certain cameras when important clues were revealed.  It was asking a lot of the actors, and we had little to no time for rehearsal.

The walkthru was fine.  (How can you blow a walkthru?)  However, during the rehearsal it became clear to Lee that we couldn't do the entire sequence in one take.  We huddled together and he decided that we would shoot it in two parts.  The first part would be all of the pre-robbery activity through the arrival of the bandits.  We would cut after the main bad guy, Quinn, left to get the owner, Seth Collison, from his adjacent home.  Then we would shoot the more challenging part, with all of the gunplay, the next day starting with Quinn returning with Seth Collison.  Lee reasoned that our unseen detectives were always going to fast forward through the wait for Collison anyway.  So why shoot it in one take?  That was a good point.  The scene was broken into two parts.  And there was much rejoicing.  Except from me.  I'm always paranoid on the set about last minute changes.  That's why I'm usually best left at the craft services table with the bagels and power bars.

(Nowadays I mainly go to the set to get pictures with the actors for my FaceBook page, but that's another story.)

The first part of the sequence was relatively uneventful.  The actors played the scene on the first floor of the building and the rest of us were watching them on six different monitors on the second floor which showed what was being seen by each different camera.  (I don't think we had a monitor hooked up to the camera over the desk where the finger is chopped off.  We already knew we were going to have to fake that one angle for that gag.)  After each take, Lee would head downstairs and give the actors some direction.  I would go outside and eat a bagel.  Then there would be another take.  We got it.  Perfect, no, but plenty good enough.

Then came the big scene with the pistols, machine guns and a severed finger.  We only had four takes.  One of them had to be good or we'd have no movie.  The first take was a disaster.  Completely unusable.  Human errors.  Equipment errors.  Squibs misfired.  People weren't in the right place.  Yuck.  The second take wasn't much better.  There was a huddle upstairs.  What if we never got the squibs right?  David assured us that he would be able to add the blood via special effects in post-production.  And he did.

One problem solved.  But there was another problem:  Performance.

Lee and I had always imagined that the heist in the film would unfold in a cool, professional manner until the secretary turned the tables on the bad guys.  Unfortunately, bereft of the director's immediate influence, a weird group dynamic would always take over.  One person or another would begin to amp up their performance and the others would naturally rise up to that level.  With only four opportunities, Lee was unable to get exactly what he wanted.  Me, I'm just thankful that we got something we could use!  After the second take, I was beginning to feel my paranoia might be justified.  This is not to say that anyone was to blame.  It was just a complicated scene and the budget didn't allow enough rehearsal.

And this is where Doug Crosby came in handy.  Doug knew exactly what he was doing.  Since Lee couldn't be physically in the room, he instructed Doug to act as sort of an assistant director.  Whenever possible, Doug was to make sure that everyone was in position and that we saw what we needed to see and didn't see what we weren't supposed to see.  And he did.

Thanks, Doug!

Take Three begins.

Now, you should have seen us upstairs.  Lee, David and myself knew exactly what camera was most important at each moment of the action and our heads were swinging back and forth in unison between the six monitors, one of which was upside down for some reason.  We must've looked crazy.  Take Three started off well enough, but then the performance started amping up again.  Then Lee did something brilliant.  He yelled, "Cut," right before the gunplay started.  I don't know why no one thought of that before.  We had as many opportunities we needed as long as we stopped before the shooting started.

Lee went down and talked to the actors individually then we started again.   Everyone went through it, if not flawlessly, in an acceptable manner.  We used that take in the movie.

The relief was palatable.  Joy was unconfined.  There was dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor.  As Groucho might say.

After a meal break, the newly-energized cast and crew returned for the final take.  And it was great.  Actually much better than the take we used in the film.  Overall, the performances were much, much better.  So why didn't we use it?  Because of a small mistake.  In the script, when Quinn is shot, he drops the diamond to the floor, but in this take, the diamond hit the desk instead of the floor which threw off all the subsequent clues.  That one mistake meant we couldn't use the take.  Oh well.  We still had Take Three, or, should I say, Take Three and a Half.

Wanna see the multi-camera view of the heist?  Here it is:

After the stress of that scene, the rest of the shoot was a dream.  The shoot at Vince Peranio's house went very smoothly.  I remember two things in particular.  One was using a gun to guard the steps up to the bedroom where Rebecca Mader was doing her nude scene in front of a skeleton crew.  I doubt I would have shot anyone if they charged the stairs, but I did enjoy playing with the gun.  I mean, I'm no Phil Spector, but, hey, what's not to enjoy.  The cold power of the metal.  The teasing ease of the trigger.  I could fondle it all night, knowing that it gave me the power to.....

Uh, excuse me.  Back to the story.

The second thing I really enjoyed was the shooting of the behind the scenes video.  That was my job.  We couldn't shoot any footage during the day of the robbery scene because every camera at our disposal was already committed to the shoot.  Therefore, I had to shoot the video at the other locations.

 I needed interviews with all of the principal actors.  However, every time I approached Rebecca Mader, she'd say, "Not now, wait until I'm in my nightgown."  Needless to say, I was getting a bit worried.  My past experience with women taught me that when one of them said, "Wait until I'm in my nightgown," what she was really saying was, "Dream on, loser!"  I thought she was blowing me off, but, as soon as she finished shooting her scene in the nightgown, she shouted, "Sean, let's do the interview now."  And we did.

Did I tell you what a pleasure it was to work with Rebecca?  It was.  She later moved onto films like "The Devil Wore Prada," and became a regular on the television series "Lost."  I am so delighted for her.  It couldn't've happened to a nicer, more talented person.

And I knew her when.  If this film is ever remembered for anything, it will be because it was Rebecca Mader's first starring role in a feature.  (Mimic 3 was released first, but we shot first.)

What did I regret missing most during the shoot?  Nestor Serrano doing his Humphrey Bogart impression.  We quote a few lines from "The Maltese Falcon," and before one of the takes Nestor did a riff on Bogart that impressed everyone who heard it.  Sadly, I wasn't one of them.  I was, not unexpectedly, at the craft service table.

It was a great shoot.  Five days.

Who'd think the post production would take five months?  But that's another story you'll hear in Part 4.

"21 Eyes," a History, Part 4

(I know what you're thinking.  Isn't it a little self-indulgent writing blog after blog about a film no one has ever seen?  True, but isn't blogging inherently self-indulgent?)

Read about the making of my other features:

Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

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