Into the Vortex
Looking back on the months we spent on the production phase of the Two-Man Performance (TMP), I can say without reservation those months presented me with the most delightful, but at the same time, the most vexatious of experiences in my life. The two actors, the one-man tech crew and I embarked on the project with the enthusiasm of children ripping open Christmas presents. As we approached the shooting of each Stave, our boyish enthusiasm collided with the icy realities of adapting a complex storyline to a video TMP presentation shot on a shoe string budget.
Once we started we realized the production phase would become a series of problem solving exercises. Catalogued, the exercises would read like passages from My Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14661a.htm). Kempis, of course, five centuries ago devoted his writings to overcoming obstacles blocking a person’s journey toward a spiritual life. Had he written about the obstacles facing us during the production phase, he would have composed homilies about making do with what you have, about seeking the help of others, and about never losing sight of a stated goal. Encountering an obstacle? Meditate, i.e. concentrate on the solution. Necessity will illuminate the way. Necessity did indeed dictate how we had to solve production difficulties. (https://vimeo.com/87847085)
Stave One: Each of the fives Staves in Dickens’ novella possessed different challenges, some more taxing to solve than others. In Stave One, the adaptation for the earlier segments was relatively straightforward. They involved monologues by Charles Dickens as he introduced the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Stuart Varnam-Atkin and I shot the narration sequences for the entire story in one session during a summer when James House and Steve Gardner were in different parts of the world.
During the shooting of the Scrooge-Cratchit, Scrooge-Nephew Fred and Scrooge-Portly Gentleman sequences, we were able to complete them with relative ease. However, there were times when one of the actors could not show up for the shooting, so I had to feed lines to the actor who responded in character in front of the camera. (This made for added complications in post production.)
The first major problem to beset us came during the Marley Ghost sequence: How to create a 19th century house and a door with an exceptionally large knocker that transforms into Marley’s face. The solution: We made do with what we could find. James House had an old front door to his house stored in his son-in-law’s art studio. We decided the door bore some resemblance to the one to Scrooge’s 19th century house in London. At least it would give that impression. “Besides, how many people know what a door to a 19th century house in London looks like?” I remarked, thankful for small favors.
The second major problem arose during the shooting of the Scrooge-Marley dialogue. How did we solve that problem? Take a look at the video clip and watch https://vimeo.com/87847085.
Stave Two: The action in this stave basically takes place in Scrooge’s mind. Long before Sigmund Freud formulated his psychoanalytical theories that guided practitioners to probe into the unconscious mind, Dickens had the Spirit of Christmas Past penetrate into Scrooge’s suppressed memories. Some memories included the forgotten happiness and the joys he experienced as an apprentice at Fezziwig’s place of business; other memories evoked the sorrow of a broken heart when he was a young man standing at the crossroads of his life. He had to make a choice: Should he marry Belle, the love of his life, and face a life of uncertainty and even poverty, or pursue a course leading toward security at the expense of other people’s happiness and lives.
In my mind, the Ghost of Christmas Past could have been Freud psychoanalyzing Scrooge by guiding him back into his past. To assure Scrooge that he had nothing to fear from his past, the Ghost tells Scrooge, “These are but shadows of the things that have been. They have no consciousness of us.”
I decided to make use of the talents of Carla Hernandez, a photographer based in Tokyo, to shoot in rapid fire a series of stills. I used the hundreds of stills instead of video clips in the Fezziwig sequence and wove them together to give them a jerky effect reminiscent of a silent movie slapstick comedy. For the Belle-Scrooge sequence, I altered the technique in order to achieve the mournful mood pervading the scene when Belle breaks off her engagement to Scrooge. (https://vimeo.com/87850615)
Stave Three: This particular stave proved to become especially nettlesome. We had the problem of how to present Tiny Tim, of where to get a goose, of how to shoot the Twenty Question sequence. We came up with the solutions for the first two problems (https://vimeo.com/87851272), which left us with the problem of how to shoot the Twenty Question sequence. Of course the obvious solution was to shoot the actors in different costumes. Time consuming, indeed. The actors needed time to change into different costumes before sitting in front of the camera to deliver one line. Though taking up most of the afternoon, the shooting came to a successful conclusion, leaving me with three hours of video tape to sort through later in post.
Stave Four: We began production with the shooting of the scene of the three men discussing Scrooge’s death. Magnificent! Brilliant! Masterful! Yes, yes. I admit. We were as critically unbiased as a mother singing the praises of her two-year-old child’s progress in nursery school. Still, we were happy with the edited version.
Wow! Our exuberance pushed us out into deeper waters. We were ready to take on the task of reproducing a graveyard on the steps leading into a large auditorium size classroom at Meiji University. I had traveled to Yokohama for second unit footage of the grave sites at the Foreign Cemetery. (http://www.yfgc-japan.com/history_e.html). My first thought was to superimpose the photos and videos over shots of Scrooge. But Steve Gardner came up with a more practical idea: Building gravestones and crosses from styrofoam and blanketing the steps and classroom entrance with black sheets.
“Why not,” I thought, not entirely convinced.
Steve went to work and painstakingly carved out the tombstones and crosses. I smirked when I saw the finished products. “They look like, well, like styrofoam tombstones and crosses.”
Steve brushed aside my ungainly remark with the wave of a styrofoam cross over my head. “I guarantee you. When we shoot this graveyard scene, these props’ll stand out as ghostly as anything found in horror films!”
On the day of the shooting, Steve spread the black sheets over the steps and placed the crosses and gravestones over them. Next he lit the set, using cardboard boxes as ‘barns’ for the lights. Finally, he positioned James House behind one of the gravestones. James squatted down on one of the steps and complained. “A bit narrow here.”
As we were shooting take after take, one of the cardboard flaps began smoking. “Shouldn’t we turn off the light?” I suggested to Steve. He shook his head emphatically. “The smoke will look like mist rising out of the grave.” Nervously, I continued directing James, while he vigorously waved the smoke away from the nostrils of his nose.
The result was startling. The styrofoam crosses and gravestones, as Steve predicted, cast an eerie light. Exactly the effect I had in mind. Amazing what you can do with simple props, lighting, postproduction editing and the accidental slow burning of a cardboard flap.
The shooting for Stave IV went like clockwork. Every scene worked out – sometimes with methodic planning and sometimes with the chaotic convergence of ideas moments before I cried: “Action!” (https://vimeo.com/87851687)
Stave Five: In this stave, for the first time, we shot outside. The first sequence took place on a bridge near my apartment in Tokyo. We were a little nervous because we did not have permits from the city to shoot on a public bridge over the Kanda River. So in the early morning on May 24, 2009, we stole away as inconspicuously as we could only our way. Just how conspicuously with two men dressed in 19th century costumes and two other men carrying tripods, cameras and sound equipment is a matter of conjecture.
We reached the bridge and set up for shooting. And we shot the sequence with surprisingly few interruptions — people walking over the bridge, vans speeding across, and curious schoolchildren wondering what was going on. But we managed to complete the shooting and later the two actors did the after-recording of the dialogue.
The second sequence in which Scrooge leans out the window of his house to ask the boy on the street below what day it was by far proved the most challenging. (https://vimeo.com/87851890)
In post, I spent two months alone editing that particular segment. (But that is another story.)
The Final Shots
The final day of shooting of A Christmas Carol took place in the kitchen of my apartment on June 28, a rainy Sunday morning and afternoon. Steve Gardner set up the lights and positioned the chair in front of the blue screen rectangle. Meanwhile James House got into Scrooge’s costume. Imagine my relief! The final shots! Then!
James House walked onto the set. “I cannot find Scrooge’s glasses!” His face, ashen and his mood, dispirited. “Without them, we can’t shoot. There is no way around them. They’re an integral part of Scrooge’s character.”
Stuart was not present for the final day. We finished his scenes after the shooting on the bridge. Afterwards he packed his costume and props to take back with him. He told James that he had packed Scrooge’s glasses with James’ costumes. However, James was unable to find the glasses.
“What are we going to do?” he said, his face lined with worried wrinkles.
No matter how dynamic the acting; no matter how creative the editing, we could not work around the glasses. In desperation James and I walked to the ¥99 Shop in the neighbourhood to look for a reasonable facsimile. A quick sweep of the store resulted in disappointment. The store did not even carry reading glasses. We walked back to the apartment where Steve sat with growing impatience in the kitchen.
I called Stuart and asked him if he had taken the glasses home by mistake.
“No, I wrapped them in a cloth and put them inside the vest pocket. Did you look there?”
At the precise moment I hung up, James came bursting into the kitchen holding up the glasses. “I found them. They were . . . “
“I know,” I said.
After that heart stopping episode, we began shooting the final incomplete Scrooge scenes from different staves. Steve handled the camera and lighting tasks, James sat in front of the blue screen and emoted, and I assumed the role of director. The shooting went smoothly. In the final shot James had to mime the action of Scrooge covering the candle flame of the Spirit of Christmas Past. After four takes, I shouted, “Cut. That’s a wrap.”
Later, the three of us sat at the kitchen table and ate the sandwiches and soup I had prepared. We joked and laughed and reflected on the time it took to complete the production phase.
“We spent as much time as shooting as William Wyler did with Ben Hur,” I said.
“But we completed everything under budget,” James remarked, as though slipping back into the Scrooge character.
“It’s not over yet,” Steve interjected, ever the realist. “You’ve got to edit the footage.”
“Oh, yes, “ I replied, a little dishearten. “The editing.” (To be concluded)