The Christmas Carol Chronicles Part 2

Srooge and Portly Gentleman on Bridge

 

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)

The Challenges

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)

The Christmas Carol Chronicles


The Christmas Carol Chronicles

The Beginnings

I

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I’ve always enjoyed that story. As a little boy during the Christmas season during the early 1950s, I listened to the Hallmark Hall of Fame’s radio broadcast of Dickens’ tale. Having grown up before television became an intrusive family member, I spent some of my happiest childhood moments under the bedcovers with my ear pressed to the speaker of my radio. How many comedians, detectives, desperate criminals and spectral visitors have passed into the realm of my imagination through the medium of radio? You can imagine the delight I took when Scrooge was visited by his dead business partner Jacob Marley, forewarning him of the visitation of three spirits. Although I had heard Lionel Barrymore in the role of Scrooge more than once, I never tired of the story. The inevitable finale, when the voice of Tiny Tim declares: “God Bless Us, Everyone!” still infuses me even today with Christmas joy. Over more than the sixty years since that radio broadcast, I’ve seen numerous cinematic and theatrical presentations of Dickens’ Christmas tale

Nearly 30 years ago during the Christmas holidays, my older daughter and I  were waiting in line on a Tokyo backstreet to get into the small theater in the basement of a five-story building. When the doors opened, we pushed our way downstairs to get seats close to the stage. We wanted an unobstructed view of the two actors who would perform all the roles of A Christmas Carol.. I opened the theater program and read the thumbnail biographies of Michael Bannard and Stuart Varnam-Atkin — two Englishmen with long and intoxicating histories as actors, narrators and writers. Soon the houselights lowered and, keenly curious, I settled into my seat and watched one of my favourite Christmas plays.

On the set of Christmas Carol

On the set of Christmas Carol

On the bare stage adorned only with a lectern, Michael and Stuart had brought to life the setting and the characters with simple changes of costumes.

Twenty years later I watched another two-man performance of Dickens’ novella — this time James House worked with Stuart Varnam-Atkin. I was just as delighted with this performance as I was with the first one. I applauded, I laughed, and I wept as the two actors unfolded Scrooge’s transformation into an approachable little boy in an old man’s body.

“Nothing unusual about two actors playing all the roles,” Stuart Varnam-Atkin commented later over dinner as we discussed the possibility of adapting the performance into a video production. “Dickens, when he gave readings of the story took on the task of playing every role in addition to humming the background music. A one-man presentation to which audiences reportedly responded with wild enthusiasm.”

“Of course in Japan, Kabuki Actors play all of the roles, including the women,” James House added. “And look at the Takarazuka Theater Troupe. Since 1913, women in the all female troupe have been acting in both male and female roles.”
Soon we started talking about challenges of making a video adaptation. How could we capture the essence and the flavor of Dickens’ Christmas story without making it into a mockery? A challenge complicated by the realities posed by a limited budget. Actors and tech people would have to donate their time and talent.
“Not a particularly good time to quit our jobs,” we agreed. We were giddy with enthusiasm fuelled by copious glasses of wine.

Our first step was to write the script for the video adaptation.

II

The Morning After

Easier said than done! Produce, shoot and edit a video presentation of A Christmas Carol. Ha! As simple as a snap of the fingers. A walk in the park. Oh, Lord! The consumed bottles of Chardonnay Wine had heightened my delusions and morphed me into a high-powered producer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

February 2008

Stuart, James and I sat around the dinner table eating roast chicken, mashed potatoes and broccoli, which we washed down with liberal quantities of Chardonnay. Before dinner they gave the video script I had written a first reading. As they read, they made deletions and additions. At the dinner table we discussed our strategy for the production.
“Keep it simple!” Stuart insisted. “As simple as the stage production.”
“No need for expensive props or costumes,” James added with equal insistence. “We can make use of the ones we have collected over the years.”

In the script, I had indicated where I could employ high-tech special effects – that would have added at least two million yen ($20,000) to the proposed budget I had in mind.
“I want Marley’s ghost to appear particularly menacing,” I said, as I uncorked another bottle of wine. “And for the Cratchit Christmas dinner in Stave Three, how about if we cook an actual goose? And you know, when the Spirit of Christmas Present first appears, we can transform Scrooge’s dreary room into a room festooned with Christmas ornaments and a large Christmas tree.”
The ideas bubbled up out of my head faster than the white foam of a beer inelegantly poured into a mug. “Now you might be wondering, wherewill we get the money?”
Stuart shot me a sour expression, as if he were encountering a used car salesman. “The thought had crossed my mind!”
At that precise moment, James had just forked another load of mashed potatoes into his mouth. Still, however, he managed to squeeze a few wKermit Directing Jamesords through the tuberous mass. “Yes, who’s willing to put up the two million yen?”
A glob of mashed potato flew into his wineglass as I was refilling it.
“Very simple,” I replied and refilled my own wineglass. I was primed and waiting for that question. Over the prior few months I had approached people who had money to invest and explained the project. One promising lead came from an attorney friend who said he could raise two million yen within a blink of an eye. When I explained who I had spoken to and who I could approach for money, I looked expectantly across the table at Stuart and James.

The expressions on their faces resembled two people’s whose wine had miraculously turned into vinegar.
“Charles Dickens was not high-tech,” James pointed out. “When he gave a reading of A Christmas Carol, he performed all of the parts. He was Scrooge, he was Fred, he was the three spirits – everyone! All he needed to show to the audience was a simple change of costume. Bob Cratchit? He put on a hat and muffler. Marley’s ghost? Well, he might have wrapped chains around him. Background music for Fezziwig’s party? He hummed it and he used his fingers to demonstrate how the people danced.”
“What James is saying,” Stuart interjected, always ready to interpret what other people were thinking, “we want to keep the video production as close to the stage production as possible.”
“And as close to what Dickens might have been doing in his readings,” James said, reinforcing Stuart’s comment.
In other words, I thought, the production would never reach the big screens.

“Nothing wrong with the small screen,” Stuart said, reading my thoughts. People can watch it on their iPads.
“Keep it simple!” he repeated. “As simple as the stage production.”
James shoved his copy of the video script across the table between the bowel of Caesar salad and the half-empty bottle of Chardonnay. I groaned inwardly. Oh, Lord! Yet another rewrite.
“But what about the budget?” I said and served myself a generous splash of Chardonnay.
“A limited budget.” Stuart said and sliced the chicken breast on his plate into bite-size pieces.
“Zero?”
Well, we decided we needed a little cash to get the production rolling, so the three of us plus our tech person Steve Gardner each put in ¥40,000 (US$400 + -). We went from a zero budget to a shoestring budget, and our motto became — “It’s not what you have, but what you do with what you have!”

The Morning After
Hungover the following day, I started typing another script revision, this time with fewer, uh make that, no Star Wars’ effects. (To be continued)