I’ll start this section by saying my set builder Brian Clarke is a mensch. Not just a mensch, but the kind of wonderful human being that so selflessly gave to the enabling of my dreams that I will never forget him or what he did.
We needed a cockpit built. Nothing fancy, just enough to look good from a couple camera angles with enough detail to distract a viewer that they don’t notice the whole thing is made out of plywood and cardboard.
We had a phone call with Brian and my other set mensch, Michael Schrecker. Michael said it would take two months of nights and weekends to construct the set. Brian coughed or something and said he could do it in a week on sandwich money. Michael and I were, uh, shocked. I mean, what do you say to that? Aside from fuck yes, you’re a god.
So I said fuck yes and after a quick trip to home depot we set up in my garage. I would give Brian some meal money and go to work. I’d come home with beer and he’d be that much closer to having it done. It was incredible. Brian is, admittedly, living in the past and is an enthusiastic collector of 50’s and 60’s B-movie sci-fi nostalgia. His house is a tiny museum of kitsch collectables filled with oblong sea-foam dining tables and multi-tiered sauce coffee tables. Not to mention the man has two, fucking TWO, life-size production quality Robby the Robot’s from the original Lost in Space television show.
Design by committee almost always feeds to mediocrity; that’s why movies have the singular vision of a Director. One of the most difficult tasks of a Director is accurately and clearly conveying the style and feel of that vision to a crew so that they can operate without the need of constant supervision. The benefit, though, of having a creative crew is that often they can make decisions that surprise you, things you might not have considered without their input. It’s why Directors often don’t edit their own films, because you want people to be able to surprise you, to give you ideas and new Directions.
Brian exemplified this, as the modern robot cockpit I had in mind wasn’t nearly as grand as the atomic-style cold-war rigging he put together, complete with an analogue reel-to-reel tape deck behind the pilot head in full view of the camera. I laughed when I saw it, mostly because I realized how bad my idea was compared to his. I loved it.
Now here’s another couple conundrums.
In the movie the cockpit rests in the head of the Robot and in the fights becomes damaged. I didn’t want to fake the rocking of the cockpit as even children think that looks cheesy, so we put the cockpit up on cinderblocks and used a couple large 2x4s as levers to motivate it back and forth as well as shake it. I wanted something in the cockpit to move aside from Isaac to really convey the sense of motion, so Brian contributed his father’s WWII era dog tags that dangle from the ceiling. Why Isaac hung his dog-tags there wasn’t important. It felt right, not to mention I felt as though we could use the help of the greatest generation in pulling this off.
The second challenge was the filming space. I had already been searching for soundstages that might work for our monster battle, and most had cheaper, smaller soundstages in auxiliary that could serve for the tiny space we needed to film. The problem was that we were using flammables to create sparks during the heavy action. I wanted that shit spraying everywhere, no half-assing it. Lots of sparks, lots of smoke, all that drama.
The thing about that is, you can’t lie to people that you’re burning shit when you’re in their building. It’s a good way to screw up your shoot day if halfway through your shot list they call the cops on you. A real demoralizer that one is. So, nobody we talked to was comfortable with any fire, no matter how innocuous, and the bigger sound stages that would do it were so expensive that I would have had to cut corners in another area of the film. I was unwilling to do that.
Suddenly I found myself doing that crazy thing they talk about when they say “lie, cheat and steal, just get the shot.”
I decided we would save our troubles and just shoot it where we made it, in my garage. To make the sparks we got some old-fashioned A-grade illegal sparklers in Chinatown. We built a series of grating into the ceiling of the cockpit so we could prop up a series of kinoflos with color filters so that we could get interesting lighting patterns around the cockpit that would also exaggerate the movement when we shook it. When big hits happened, we would wave the lit sparklers over the grating or rub them on it like a grater to get all kinds of crazy fire action going. I was amazed when we tested our dollar store effects and saw how great it looked.
I live on a VERY busy drag in San Francisco and the garage door was about as good at dampening the sound of endless traffic as was a sheet of paper. With a small mountain of clips, we rigged a series of apple boxes and hung over a dozen sound blankets to muffle the noise from the street. Even though it looked like a couch fort made by an idiot child, it almost completely dampened the street noise, much to everybody’s surprise.
That created a second problem: Ventilation. With the garage door barred with blankets, the smoke and heat from the sparklers had to be dissipated through a back window. While large, it wasn’t enough to clear the space between takes quickly, so waiting for the smoke to fade would cost us time. Somehow, one of my genius people magicked an enormous industrial fan that looked like it had been stolen from a much more expensive movie. That sucker pulled so much air you could feel it pull on your clothes from across the room.
With everything in place the night before, the next morning we set an early call time. It was going to be a long day.
Crew and camera are setting up downstairs. Ryder arrives and we get him into makeup, explaining that we’ll have three stages for different parts of the movie: sweaty but fine, burned a bit and haggard, and “just-fuck-my-shit-up” bloody action hero.
His costume is mostly from the party costume store a few blocks away. It’s an old flight suit zip-up one piece with a couple random military accessories and patches and a tied black bandana around his forehead for maximum Michael Biehn power. I got a flight suit with a high collar to minimize Ryder’s contact with an errant sparks.
With the crew still setting up, Ryder comes down stairs and we walk through the shot list. Ryder is doubtful when he sees the sparks. In fact, when he sees the jerry-rigged bargain basement set around him, I can see his eyes fade.
I crawl into the cockpit and have the grips light a test sparkler to show Ryder it’s safe. As I’m talking to him, one of the sparks slips down the back of my neck, causing me to grimace mid sentence like I got kicked under the table by a pair of heels. It’s not painful so much as an unnatural sensation. Ryder seems more discouraged by this joke of a movie. I see him put on a professional face, but inside I’m indignant to his lack of faith. I make a silent vow to wrest the performance of a lifetime from him like one wrestles an alligator for a tenderloin.
Setup is taking too long. Camera is moving lights back and forth. I look at my phone. It’s 11:30. Holy shit. Our first day was so efficient it has made us complacent. We are two hours behind. I look to my AD, Trisha, but she seems overwhelmed. Nicole, one of my best friends, has volunteered to stand in as a PA. She looks at me worried. Finally, Dan, the best Producer I could ask for and far better than I deserve, yells in his booming voice and people snap to attention.
I let that one get away from me. Note it, do better next time. Move on for now. We’re away and shooting and now it’s rolling. Everybody knows it’s going to be a longer day than we had hoped but the shots are looking good.
On the first day, despite all the rehearsal, Ryder had struggled with his lines and seemed to stumble a great deal with the character early in the day. He realized and sincerely apologized to me for his error in preparation, but it caused a lot of the crew and I worry that our main star might not be taking it as seriously as the rest of us. So it is with immense shame that I confess the following.
Ryder’s early takes were better than they had been on Day 1, but it was when that first spark made contact on skin that we really saw the range of his performance. Nothing like a little lit phosphorous to bring out the intensity you need for monster combat. It was a fantastic motivator to wake him up, and the crew noticed. Even during takes it was hard for everybody to hide the curling grins at the edge of their mouths and to Ryder’s credit, he never complained or mentioned it once. It was a long day of shooting in a hot, smokey room and he saddled up and rode that Robot to destiny without a single mumble. In the final edit I couldn’t even use his most intense takes. They were so crazy they fit better in a commercial for cocaine flavored Mountain Dew.
In the end Jim came in to do his last shots for the ending and we wrapped both actors to great applause. It was a 14 hour day, not something I like to ask of anybody, but we got all of our shots. Well, except for one important one. I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but you can’t miss shots, ever. We only realized it the next day, after everything had been broken down. Going forward it was clear I needed more support staff as I was getting too busy to oversee all the aspects. I had to find some ninja assassin assistants. Nicole who had just volunteered as a PA, happens to love ninja’ing shit and stepped up. For now though, anybody who had some steam left in them came with me to get drunk.