12.15.97     

Making Cherry

A Real Life Ongoing Soap Opera and Instruction Manual About the Making of a Movie Called "Cherry"
Bug Alert:  Please report unseemly or awkward visuals.

 

Locations:
Production Office: Fittings, shotlisting.

Studio: Rehearsals.

Principals:
Wardrobe, Shalom, Joseph, Phil, Jon, Isaach. Oh, and everyone else, too.
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Ice, snow, water, steam...

The rainbow sign? Or fired this time?

The production meeting is held in Jon’s office, which is now the producer’s office, or the director’s if you prefer. This is the room Jon and Joseph and Kim work out of. It is a large room, with a big desk, a big table, a big couch, but with all these bodies it is very crowded.

For the meeting it is even more crowded. Joe Sevey sits in the middle of the couch, between Liz Gaffney and Phil Abraham.

"This is where I sat last time," he says. "Maybe I should move."

At the last full production meeting, back at the beginning of October, the decision to postpone production was announced. That is a scary moment on any movie, but on a picture with a finite and tight budget it usually means the entire crew is to be laid off. At the least. And people latch on to other jobs and are unable to sign on again when production resumes. If it resumes. Which means they’re off the picture they’ve grown attached to, and feel a part of.

Cypress was able to push the start date back because it had attracted an increased investment from one of its backers, which made it possible to afford the delay. And because it wanted Shalom for the lead and felt it was better to wait for her than to rush headlong into a production that may not have been ready.

The company was also able to offer enough to keep most everybody working during he interim, and rather than cost the production money it is everyone’s feeling that the lengthy preproduction has been a great advantage. In the end the economies of planning may offset most of the costs of the delay.

Most movies, much less low-budget movies, do not have the luxury of an extended preproduction period.

So the issue for Sevey, who everyone calls by his last name to differentiate him from Joseph Pierson, is one of superstition. If he sits in the same seat will there be more cataclysmic news?

"The reason we called you all here today," Joseph Pierson announces, "is because you’re all fired."

Everybody laughs and the meeting begins.

The real reason for the meeting is to discuss the film’s night exteriors. These are the scenes that take place after dark out of doors. For any production exteriors are considerably more difficult than interiors, because of the vagaries of the weather, and for Cherry the night exteriors are a particular problem because the film is shooting in January and February, the height of winter. There is also a desire to load the scenes with a special look, which makes the scenes more complicated to shoot.

Terry Reed’s original script had as a notable motif a wispy tumbleweed that would blow through the end of many of the exterior scenes. It was a striking image, but also a difficult one to pull off on a limited budget. I remember Jon saying then, when it was one of the first elements to be excised from the script, "if you can go only halfway on something like that it’s going to be worse than doing nothing at all."

The decision was to do nothing at all. But as the script developed and the story came into tighter focus the fairy tale aspect of the original pushed its way back in. It became clear that this wasn’t a realistic story, but rather it was a classic romantic comedy in which people acted according to the broad comedic principles of their characters, rather than for rational realistic reasons.

And no place was this stylization more important than in the story of the two kids who arrive, unbidden and unannounced, on Leila’s doorstep one cold winter night.

So the question becomes how to stylize the scenes on a limited budget for exteriors, and the answers aren’t really surprising: Steam, glistening surfaces and shimmering lights. Each comes with its own burdens, which are discussed at length at the meeting. What follows is a bit of a summary.

Wet downs

A wet down is when all the surfaces in the scene are sprayed with water just prior to shooting. The idea is to make them glisten and sparkle, to make them shine in a way that is perhaps glamorous, perhaps other worldly.

The problem is the temperature. As it gets close to the freezing mark, and why wouldn’t it in the middle of January, the fire department will not allow the production access to its fire hydrants. The concern is both for fire safety, the hydrants must work, and sidewalk safety, the runoff will turn into untenable ice.

Everyone agrees that this is too important to leave in the hands of fate. And Joe Sevey points out that no one will know what the answer is until the day of the shoot, when the police officer on duty will decide if it’s safe.

The fire department will tell us in advance if we can use the hydrants, he said, but even if we get water elsewhere, the officer on duty could keep us from spraying it.

But there is a solution: antifreeze.

Heather, the art department coordinator, has found a company that will provide a tank truck full of water. And they can lace it with antifreeze, which is costly, but it will be for only two days.

But what about clean up, the question is raised. Add cleanup costs on top of the antifreeze costs and the situation gets out of control.

The antifreeze is biodegradable, Heather reports, and non-toxic. There is no need to clean up after it.

Good, Jon declares. If the weather is warm the production will rely on hydrants. If not, the antifreeze will work.

There will be wet downs, it seems.

Rain

One of the scenes in Cherry takes place in Central Park here in New York, in the rain. Well, the idea is for it to take place in the rain. But if there is a problem with opening the hydrants in the rain, there is more of a problem with spraying water on children in the freezing cold.

The options are a rain bar, which let’s loose a single plane of falling droplets, which is fine for a close up but not heavy enough for a wider shot, or water towers, which are positioned on the edges of the frame and send up a broader spray.

How tight is the shot, Phil asks.

Tight, Jon says.

How tight?

Well, we start with the whole statue and then move in.

Phil smiles. There is tight, and there is tight. This isn’t tight enough to use the rain bar.

But what if it’s freezing, someone asks.

We have the antifreeze.

I don’t know, someone else says, whether actors will consent to having the antifreeze raining down on them.

In the freezing cold.

Everyone laughs. Of course they won’t.

There is talk about mixing oil in with the water (I imagine canola oil), to keep it from freezing. No one thinks the actors will go along with this either, but they have before. At least it’s another—albeit disgusting—option.

Well, if it isn’t rain, do we go with wind?

We blow some leaves through the scene...

If there isn’t a tree with a leaf on it, where did the leaves come from?

They fell off the trees, Sherri says. More laughter.

Okay, so rain is the first option, and if we can’t then we’ll go to wind.

And if it snows, Jon asks?

Snow

The problem is that there might be snow, or there might not. Some years there is a lot of snow and it sticks around for months. Other years there is almost no snow. And yet other years the snow comes and then melts right away.

And there’s no way to tell what’s going to happen. Because of El Nino the general feeling is the winter will be warm and dry, that’s what the meteorologists say will likely happen, but for the production, developing contingencies is the whole deal.

It is agreed that every exterior scene has to be set up to accommodate snow, and since there is no budget for actually making snow, once there are snow scenes, later scenes will need to be changed to remain consistent.

No one wants snow. At least no one says it, though a winter without snow is a sad thing. Sadder is the unbearably complex flow chart that will be necessary to deal with all the things that can go wrong with the snow.

Steam

Heather reports that there are two steam devices. One is a big stove pipe, available from Con Edison (the local utility), that goes on a manhole and would be the obvious source of steam in a scene. The other is a flat steam generator that looks, if you don’t look too closely, like a manhole itself.

It isn’t photographable, Phil says. Not in close up.

The scene in question calls for Gary the Clown to appear on Leila’s street. Joseph and Jon would like it if he appears out of a puff of steam. Like the wet, glistening street, the steam is to give a patina to the picture that says "Fairy Tale."

The only problem, it is decided, is the wind. If it’s too blowy the steam will go away. But otherwise, pending the "tech scout" (when the department heads, at least, visit the locations together and make sure they have all the technical equipment they will need scheduled, and that there will be a place to plug it in), they should have no problems with the steam.

Though Eddy points out that steam is different than smoke, and nobody argues.

Lights

Phil would like to have many strands of white lights hang in the trees in the backgrounds of the exteriors in the Hoboken shots. They will be pretty and give the pictures depth. Sherry doesn’t have lights budgeted, and fears that the labor to string the lights in the trees might be prohibitive.

To do up a tree like they do at the Tavern on the Green, a landmark NY restaurant in Central Park that is known more for the lights in the trees outside than for its food, takes a whole day, she says.

But we don’t want them like that, Jon says. That’s too much.

Of course, she says, but how many trees are we talking about?

Sevey heads to his office and fetches the panoramic photos he has taken of every location. He and Phil and Sherri gather round and count the trees. There are ten that Phil would like strung.

But who’s going to control the lights, Sherri asks. I don’t think I have someone in my department available to be plugging and unplugging them all night.

Phil suggests running an extension cord into each of the houses nearby. There is a collective guffaw provoked by his genial trust that people on the block will let the movie makers keep an extension cord (plugged into a tree full of lights, at the least) run through their window from three in the afternoon until three in the morning, or thereabouts. When they’ll need to get inside to unplug it.

I can guarantee you, Sevey says, that will cost far more than running a cable all the way up the block. Joseph. agrees heartily.

There is also the issue of Christmas lights, and their terrible tendency to be wired serially. If one blows does the whole strand go down? And does that mean each tree should be wired with redundant strands? Or should more expensive lights, wired in parallel, be used?

Or is the whole thing too big a pain, and should they forget wiring the trees altogether?

If I had a Condor, Phil says, I could get the same depth down the block as with the Christmas lights. I’d really like a Condor. (A Condor is a type of cherry-picker, used to put lights up high in the sky.)

A decision on the lights is put off until more information can be gathered.

 Peter Kreutzer

Friday 

  Tomorrow

(c) 1997 Peter M. Kreutzer