Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here. By now, you've probably read Harry Lime's excellent coverage of his first day on the FAIL SAFE set, the second for Harry and myself. Despite what he says, we always planned to take him along to Warner Bros. with us. Why, just the day before, I planted a post-hypnotic suggestion in the mind of FAIL SAFE's coordinating producer, Amy Cohen, and made sure she called in a pass for the three of us at the Hollywood Way gate. When the guards there saw Harry, Lime, and myself pull up, they immediately drew their guns, frantically checking the photos they had hanging in the guard booth. I convinced them to at least check the guest list before opening fire, and they were dumbfounded when they located our names. One of them started whining about some bonus Lorenzo had promised for whoever brought in Harry's pelt, but they had no choice: they had to wave us through.
Once we were inside, we joined Amy in the studio commissary. We had a chance there to talk to several of the key crew members on METAL GOD, a film that Clooney's company is producing for Warner that stars Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston. They were on lunch, a perfect opportunity for us to slip in amidst their ranks and infiltrate the set. We were told that would be impossible, though, as it was a closed set that day for the most important of reasons --
Yes, Jennifer Aniston and Mark Wahlberg were engaged in some serious fake nooky on one of the soundstages, and we were stuck looking at people sitting around and talking about the end of the world. Hmmmm… something didn't seem karmically fair about that one.
As we pondered our fate, George Clooney came in and joined us for a while, launching directly into a story, already laughing. Seems that he, Don Cheadle, and Grant Heslov were all stuck in the front end of the plane while Frears worked out some shots. Forgetting that their mics were live to several soundstages worth of people, Clooney, Cheadle, and Heslov proceeded to run through filthy song parodies, actionable celebrity impersonations, and various other general lewdness of intense comic magnitude. As they left the soundstage after a few hours of this, a stage manager passed them and smiled at George. "Hey, Clooney… heard the changes this morning. I think we're going to get letters." Clooney was still red-faced when he joined us. He sat for a few minutes (a much-longer-than-intended few minutes, it seemed), meaning to only check in before running to Disney for a looping session. I couldn't tell if he was going for O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU or for THE PERFECT STORM. Both of them end with Biblical amounts of water and Clooney having to shout through the rain, which made our conversation vague and confusing.
No worries, though. We also got a chance to chat about KILROY, the HBO series that he was set to produce. Doesn't look like it's going to happen now, but I still love the premise. It was to be a LARRY SANDERS-like show about a guy who is a struggling actor in Los Angeles. Each week, he'd work towards his goal, sometimes getting roles, sometimes not. The kicker was that George really wanted the guy to start getting roles on other shows, even if they were background. He wanted you to start to experience that weird sort of stutter of just watching some show like LAW AND ORDER and all of the sudden… there he is. He's one of the guys in the courtroom that week. And on the HBO show, you'd see him getting that job, shooting that show. George says they just didn't nail the tone of the show, and that he considers it a valuable learning experience as a producer. Guess that's something to take from it, at least.
About that time, he realized he was still there and had to sprint to make his looping session. That freed Amy up to take us over to the FAIL SAFE stages again. We started out this time watching Richard Dreyfuss and Noah Wylie work, playing The President and his translator respectively. They were on the bunker set, and it's an amazing little piece of claustrophobic design. The entire ceiling of the room gradually moves in over the course of the piece, getting lower, an effect that should really screw with the audience watching. As we watched, Richard tried to choreograph a simple scene in which he rises, crosses to an adjoining bathroom, and washes his hands while waiting on a phone call. As they ran through the scene, they kept catching the camera crew in the bathroom mirror. It was obviously one of those things that never came up in the building of the sets. There are certain walls of the bunker that pull out as wild walls, but the bathroom itself was only approachable from one angle. It was only needed for the one scene, and now it seemed like it wasn't possible to shoot that one scene. As the unseen Frears (secured away in the astonishing digital truck we never were able to sneak Lime into) worked to figure the shot out, Dreyfuss and Wylie began to talk. I couldn't help myself, especially after hearing George's story about being broadcast all over the studio. I walked over to the monitor to hear what Dreyfuss was saying. He began, "Kazan… right after he folded and named names…" I glanced over at the Harrys (Knowles and Lime) and saw that they had heard as well. Sounded good, whatever it was. Before Dreyfuss could continue, though, someone somewhere did the thoughtful, respectful thing… they cut the mic feed. All of the sudden, we could see them, but we couldn't hear them. DAMN! DAMN THE COURTESY!!
An older gentleman walked into the stage, walked over to where we were, and for a moment, I thought it was costar Norman Lloyd, someone I always respected for his work on shows like LA LAW and especially ST. ELSEWHERE. As he got closer and took a seat beside Harry, though, I realized that it wasn't Lloyd at all. He introduced himself around as Al Buckles, and I immediately felt a different kind of respect flood over me. Buckles is the show's technical advisor. He's a career military man, the exact kind of guy who would have been in the center of these events if they actually had happened in 1964. He and Harry slipped into conversation, and I decided to take Lime around and show him some of the other sets.
We watched a stage manager sit in the Pentagon conference room set, reading lines to Richard Dreyfuss on another stage, and we watched Dreyfuss on a monitor as he played his scene back. He broke up pretty hard when, in the middle of one of the tensest scenes in the piece, the stage manager got so into his reading of the lines that he yelled at Dreyfuss, "What is this?!" The stage manager even seemed to surprise himself with his vehemence.
We watched as crews booted up each of the monitors in the Omaha War Room set. It's wild to stand in something so clearly ripped out of 1964 and look up at giant screens with a Windows interface running on them.
We talked to people like Debbie Williams, one of the stage managers, who explained to us the majority of the crew for FAIL SAFE is made up of the same crew that gypsies around all year to the big live televised events -- The Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys… that sort of thing. Makes sense. Makes just as much sense as it does to use camera crews that were primarily drawn from an Internet webcam background, people that had actual experience with the digital camera equipment. John Alonzo may be in his 70s, and he may have been responsible for classic cinematography like that of CHINATOWN, but he's spent the last few years learning all about new formats like digital and hi-def. It's exciting, seeing all these crews and artists from these disciplines, all working together to pull off this impossible thing.
We ran into the real Norman Lloyd, and he was charming, telling stories about stage work he'd done in New York. He was early for his call and wandered back to his trailer to relax. We ran into Jamie Cromwell, who seemed intent on grabbing a bite to eat, something I never disturb someone during. We ran into Hank Azaria, to whom Lime confessed, "My wife loves you." Azaria thanked him. "No, really... I think she loves you more than she loves me," Lime continued. Azaria offered his condolences and suggested that perhaps they should swap sometime. As Lime tried to wrap his head around the offer, Azaria drifted away, and so did we.
We stood in the bedroom that opens the film, the bedroom of Harvey Keitel's character, Blackie. This is where he has the dream of destruction that wakes him, panicked, sweating. This is the set that he's going to have to sprint out of, changing clothes as he goes, only to hop in a golf cart, race to another soundstage, hop out, run inside and take his place in the Omaha War Room for another scene just seven minutes later.
Speaking of seven minutes, that's about the length of time, each of the commercial breaks on this show should take. There's only four of them, though, so that's not bad. They'll all be live breaks, with Walter Cronkite hosting the show in and out of commercial. How cool and classy is that? It's almost as hip as the choice to completely forgo all score on this thing. That's right… no music for the entire two hours. There was no way to incorporate it that wouldn't take away from the immediacy that Frears is striving for.
When we finally regrouped with Knowles, he appeared to still be talking with Al Buckles, and it was odd seeing them together, chatting, seeming to bond. Buckles is the very model of an establishment figure, a lifelong military man who is trusted with the highest level of national security. Knowles, on the other hand, is a damn filthy spy, a hippie kid with long hair and a wild beard. He's the exact opposite of establishment. But they established some connection across all that difference, and they seemed to be having a great conversation. Maybe things like that really are possible.
When we left the FAIL SAFE sets, we bumped into Noah Wylie outside on a smoke break. The sun was out and it felt like an average sunny summer day. When we walked up to Noah to say hello, we were both squinting against the bright daylight. We chatted with him for a few minutes, and he struck me as being very much like his John Carter character on ER… sharp, serious, with a slight wry detached quality. Knowles finally piped in, asking Noah what Kazan story Dreyfuss had told inside. Wylie thought for a moment, then seemed to really warm up. "Oh, yeah… good story, actually…"
Just then, Amy Cohen rolled up in her golf cart, driving like a crazy person. She crashed headlong into us, interrupting Noah as he bolted for cover. The impact tossed Lime, Knowles, and myself into the cart, and we held on for dear life as Amy roared down one of the corridors between stages. She was doing an easy 90 mph as she pointed out Malpaso's bungalow, the most coveted spot on the Warner lot. It's a great set of offices, one I've been in a few times. I understand the envy everyone else feels. His building's almost as cool as the Moriarty Labs. We saw where Jon Peters' company is housed, right next to Clooney's company offices. Before we could check the names on other doors, we were whipped around another corner, and Amy jumped the cart, using a small ramp to launch us into the actual stage where ER is shot, skidding to a halt and spilling us directly into Trauma One.
It's strange… ER's been on the air since '94. In that time, I've been a fairly avid watcher of the show. I go through waves with it, and there are times I've been rabid about seeing every week. As a result, when I stood in the hospital set, it was genuinely disconcerting. The geography is so familiar to me. I wandered through the whole place, opening cupboards, looking at charts. It's a magnificent set, a total environment. When you're on it, you're totally enveloped by it. I walked down to where Abe Benrubi used to stand when he was Jerry on the show. I checked the doctor's lounge out. I stood in the room where Kellie Martin and Noah Wylie were so viciously attacked on that startling recent episode. I could practically hear the noise and the sound of everyone rushing around. Being on that set with only the sound of Lime stealing things frantically and Knowles protesting, "But I don't watch TV! What is this? CHICAGO HOPE?!" was a bizarre, even surreal moment for me. It's even stranger to find those corners of the set where all of the sudden, it's like that TWILIGHT ZONE episode about the crews that build each minute separately, finishing just before we get there, and how they sometimes forgot to finish something or get each detail just right. You're looking one way and there's the door to the ambulance bay, complete with an ambulance and snow outside, and you turn the other way and there's the back of a flat. Crazy. Harry Lime kept trying to make calls from the fake phones to his great consternation. Finally, we made our way all the way back around to where Amy's cart was waiting. We were all a little scared to get back on, but she promised us that she'd drive much more rationally this time.
Tell it to the three pedestrians she mowed down en route to the next soundstage. Amy has the habit of turning around completely in her seat to face the people behind her as she drives. There are a number of golf-cart shaped holes in the various facades around the lot, all of which were no doubt left by her. This time, she actually parked outside the soundstage, and she led us in to where a group of guys was gathered around a Foosball table in the middle of what was obviously a very important tourney. I realized what we were looking at about the time it hit me… that's not just any Foosball table. That's Chandler and Joey's Foosball table. That would make this set…
Try to picture it. There's your humble narrator, the Evil Genius himself in all his decrepit glory, sprinting over to the couch in the middle of Central Perk, where Lime, Amy, and I took up residence for a moment. Lime and I had to put our feet up on the coffee table. I was surprised by what a beat up table it was, too. This thing is worn, the paint all but gone now. The whole set has that feel… it's very lived on.
Sitting there, I realized immediately that the cast of FRIENDS is very, very tiny. This set sort of resembles a dollhouse version of what you see on TV. Unlike ER, where the illusion was pretty all-inclusive, these sets felt like sets. There's a fair amount of forced perspective at work, dead ends around every corner, and no real space to move around. When I say the cast is tiny, I'm talking about seriously tiny. I'm talking about pick-them-up-and-put-them-in-your-pocket tiny. We're talking about swordfight-the-spider-with-the-needle tiny. It's the only explanation for the sets. Poking around, I found all sorts of mementos of the run of the show, like the big white dog sculpture that once dominated Joey and Chandler's living room. It's now in permanent residence in the spot where Monica and Chandler's balcony would be if it were actually in the right place. There was a new set being built, a restaurant kitchen, and as I moved through the soundstage, I couldn't help but hear people talking about Bruce Willis in his upcoming appearances on the show and Tom Selleck in his big return for the season finale. It was great, but Lime and I were ready to leave after being told that the female characters don't actually maintain working underwear drawers on set.
Actually, we got something even better upon leaving the stage. We were piled back onto Amy's cart, careening around the various stages, looking for more hell to raise. Once we got used to her jumping things and aiming for people, it was actually a pretty great ride. As we came around one corner, she was turned backwards, telling Lime and I that we were approaching the METAL GOD stage. That was evident, though, from the fact that Jennifer Aniston was emerging from the stage, wrapped in a robe. Amy managed to roll the cart, end over end, with us somehow landing right side up right by the spot Jennifer was standing. It was hard to tell who was most surprised.
She was very gracious as she shook our hands, and up close, she's incredibly lovely. She's as small as I'd figured on the soundstage, and there's a real warmth to her in person. It didn't hurt that she was telling us about how strange it is to spend the whole day "makin' looooooove," as she put it. She mentioned something about nudity and nipple rings at that point, and I think I may have blacked out. DAMN YOU, PITT! I guess being a Greek God has its perks.
Anyway, I came to about the time we reached the next stage, the giant tank stage where they shot the gimbel sequences for THE PERFECT STORM. This is the largest Warner soundstage, one of the largest in the world. I'm always amazed by spaces like this, massive caverns where movie magic is performed. To someone like me, this is church. Spending an afternoon like this, wandering from stage to stage, peeking around on sets… it's as wonderful as any way to spend time I can imagine. I tease our gracious hosts here, but I know that Harry and Lime and I appreciated every moment of it. I do have my regrets. I regret that I didn't stumble into that AI art office. I'm going to have to tunnel in there soon. I regret that Harry and I didn't stop by Lorenzo's office. I'm sure we would have been welcomed with open arms. Mainly, though, I regret that the visit finally did have to end.
Remember, kids… FAIL SAFE is this coming Sunday night on CBS. Yes, THE SOPRANOS is wrapping up its season, but let's be honest… HBO is showing the episode four times next week. Even if you don't have a VCR, you'll see the show. There's only going to be one FAIL SAFE. If you live on the East Coast, I envy you. If you're one of the lucky guests at the Warner lot on Sunday night, enjoy yourselves. No matter where you are, check this one out. It's going to be worth the time. Until then…