Before I forget, the quote of the day has nothing to
do with filmmaking, per say. It's from David Remnick's story in this week's New Yorker,
and it reminded me of something Terry Reed said to me about Leila.
That is, she's a virgin as an externalization of her internal state. That
isn't Clinton's problem, of course, but the the congruency is instructive, I think.
Anyway, to get to the matter at hand, I didnt intend to write
about Marilyn again quite so soon.
You may recall last weeks story, "Marilyn is a Dog," in which the mocha
dog with wavy hair and an ever-wagging tail was being shot both in and out of a scene in
which Leila leaves her house to go to Uncle Ernest and Mammys. If you didnt
read it click here
but then come back, because Marilyn
figures in todays story, too.
Actually, the big deal on this day is the steadicam, which is a gyroscopic gizmo on
which a camera rests that enables a man (or woman) to walk and yet still hold the big old
35 mm camera steady. If memory serves the first Hollywood movie to feature the steadicam
(which should probably be capitalized and most certainly is trademarked and patented) was
Hal Ashbys Bound for Glory, the Woody Guthrie story.
That year the Steadicam (yes, thats better) won an Academy Award for technical
achievement, which was demonstrated in the film by a lengthy walking shot through a dust
bowl migrants camp. I think its safe to say that the Steadicam has proven to be a
breakthrough technology that has significantly changed the way movies look.
The famous walk from the street to ringside at the Copa in Scorceses Good
Fellas is a Steadicam shot. So is the opening of De Palmas Bonfire of the
Vanities, which is impressive in service of a less successful film. Boogie Nights,
which strikes me less as a movie than as an elaborate tribute to the wonders of camera
movement, features the Steadicam throughout. And the awesome final shot of
Antonionis The Passenger is an elaborate bit of Steadicam bravura, all seven
minutes of it.
The Steadicam is a remarkable device, and as such is a costly "toy," as those
in production call it. Which isnt to denigrate its usefulness, but is rather to
indicate that it can be looked upon as a luxury. In a big budget picture you might just
use the Steadicam whenever you want, the way you would a dolly or even a bit of blue gel.
On a low-budget picture, however, youre more likely to schedule one day of Steadicam
shooting and jam all your setups in as best you can.
Thats the fiscally responsible thing to do. On Cherry Monday was that day.
In the scene they were shooting in the afternoon Leila (played by Shalom Harlow) is to wake up at her house. This is the first
scene in the movie that isnt a flashback. She exits the bathroom and she asks her
dog, Paxil (played by Marilyn), if she wants to go to the park. Paxil barks, which we
assume means yes.
Leila takes a towel and wraps her hair, picks up a Post-It with the word
"brunch" written on it and heads off to the kitchen. There she picks up a bottle
of vitamins, pulls a carton of milk from the fridge, and hits the play button on her
As the answering machine spews her messages, she pours her milk, takes her vitamins,
rifles through her mail and, when Paxil shows up on the stool at the counter across from
her, she pats her head. She then heads off back to the bedroom to dress.
The Steadicam is to start in the bedroom with a medium shot of the doorway into the
bathroom, with Paxil sitting on the bed. Then, as Leila makes her way through the
apartment to the kitchen, it will lead her forward. It isnt the most complicated of
choreographies, but it is complex enough to present the standard difficulties and then
some. And what everybody knows is that Marilyn, no matter how marvelously she performs,
will be the key to getting out quickly, or slowly.
Phil and Shannon
First, the scene is blocked for camera, with Shannon, Shaloms stand-in, walking
through the movements, and a stuffed version of Paxil sitting on the bed.
Then Marilyn is brought down to rehearse. She sits on the bed and Barbara,
Marilyns handler, gives her a treat, then disappears into the bathroom nearby.
"Speak," Barbara whispers and Marilyn barks. Now Barbara leads Marilyn
through the apartment into the kitchen and directs her to the platform leading up to the
stool the dog should end up on. Iin the first run through Marilyn is a little energetic
and ends all the way up on the counter itself. Barbara shows her where she should
finish and gives her another treat: a small piece of chicken.
Barbara and Marilyn with Jon and Joseph
grinding their teeth in the background
They reset and run through the scene again. Marilyn barks wonderfully, but has a hard
time making her way through the apartment. Unless Barbara leads her she stops and looks at
"If we clear the hall, Barbara," Jon says,
"would it help if you called to her from behind the camera? Then she could come to
Video Village, the name given the video assist monitor on a cart--around which Joseph and Jon and Janna
and everybody else who is able to fit gather to watch each take--is moved to the other end
of the hall, to give Barbara a clear path.
"Id like to do one more run through," she says, "and then
well be ready for camera."
"One run through and then were ready for Shalom," Elizabeth calls into
her walkie-talkie. Shalom is upstairs, waiting in a room full of space-heaters. As someone
says: "She has no body fat. She gets cold very quickly."
This time Barbara calls commands to Marilyn from the bathroom. The dog barks, then
waits. When Barbara walks down the hallway outside the apartment and appears in the
kitchen, instead of entering the bedroom, the dog looks confused. Until she sees her
friend, the one with the treats. Her head then cocks excitedly. Barbara calls her and she
leaps off the bed and runs into the kitchen. Although she is a bit hesitant going up the
platform and onto the stool, shed rather sniff around at Barbaras feet, she
does it fairly easily.
"Okay, lets get ready to take one," Elizabeth
Marilyn prepares for stunt work
Five minutes later the first shot is done. It goes well. Marilyn is a little late on
her bark, and it looks a little funny to have her sitting on the bed in the background as
Leila makes her way into the kitchen, only to later release and come running.
"If we tighten up," Jon says, "we can avoid that."
And it seems that Shalom, on this take, is just a bit slow reacting when Paxil does
come into view.
Thats the way it appears on the monitor, which is what is being seen through the
cameras lens. What isnt seen are Barbaras heroic, coaxing efforts to get
Marilyn to climb up the platform and onto the stool. But, everyone agrees, if it works on
screen it doesnt matter what happens offscreen.
Take 2 goes much the same way. The tighter frame avoids the oddness of Marilyn in the
background. Shaloms timing improves on Paxils arrival, and she seems genuinely
warm with her. And though Marilyn barks a little late, its better.
Joseph says: "Everything more or less worked."
Which encourages them to go for a third take, to get it perfect.
On Take 3 the Steadicam bumps into the door jamb, tilting wildly up to the ceiling and
then down to the floor. NG.
Take 4, Marilyn wont bark. Take 5 the same. They immediately reset and go for
take 6 right away. Again, no bark.
It isnt that Marilyn isnt barking, actually. Between takes shes
amazingly responsive. Her yelps and yips fill the air, causing nervous laughter amongst
everyone who would like to get through this and move on. Trying to get her dog to focus,
Barbara stands in the bathroom with Shalom, a bag of treats in her hand behind her back
and rehearses while the camera and lights are reset. And on cue Marilyn barks
The crew works energetically, too.
Whart it looks like on the street
One of the problems with shooting in the winter is the suns low trajectory across
the sky. It is a DPs maxim that God is the master gaffer, meaning there is no better
(or stronger) light than the Sun. Although the production has a host of lights sitting on
condors outside the apartments windows, trying to control and augment the
sunlight coming through those windows, the real sun is much stronger.
Which means that every ten minutes all the lights have to be adjusted, with new scrims
and reflectors and gels to balance. The artificial light helps, but it isnt doing
the whole job. It is a humbling sight to see these big men, the grips and gaffers and
camera crew, running up and down the stairs, making their way down the crowded hallway
through the throng of other people who are doing their own jobs. But they do it
assertively, energetically, carrying light stands and cables and junction boxes and
reflectors and bits of other technology, obvious and arcane, that lets the production do
its best to mimic the sun.
They do a good job.
For Take 7 the Joseph and Jon reframe the shot, so that it starts tight on Leila coming
out of the bathroom. As she says to Paxil, "Want to go to the park?" we
dont even see the dog, which will let the sound crew dub in the dogs bark
later, if it needs to.
The change works splendidly. In fact, it appears to give us, at this early point in the
movie, a better, closer look at Leila, one that leads into the survey of her apartment the
Steadicam was meant to focus on. It is the trademark shot, the one that defines
Leilas world, that gives us a first impression of her character, and if it works as
well as it appears it does, well, that will truly be something to bark about.