02 November 2009

A Visit to the Set of TV’s ‘Heroes’

Be it known: I don’t deserve some of the opportunities that come my way. I am so far behind in my viewing of the television series Heroes, it’s embarrassing, particularly because my friend Nate Goodman is director of photography and — as of tonight’s episode — a director, period, of the show. There are mitigating circumstances to defend my tardiness, but the bottom line is that there are hundreds of people who really ought to visit the set during a shoot. Nevertheless, I’m the one who got to do it.

What follows are a few notes on my experience. But first, a spoiler alert: I was able to make out almost nothing of the plot, and not even the title, of the episode that was being shot. However, fans of the show are a very knowledgeable, serious bunch, who have already published a web biography of Nate; and since they surely can extrapolate all kinds of juicy details from my account, they may not wish to read further. I promise not to take that personally.

Hayden Panettiere: Boy, does the camera love her!

At the studio where Heroes is shot, it is a truth universally assumed that any visitor knows already where he is going. I was told to look for Nate in a building, where I wandered lonely as a cloud, until I forced a woman to tell me that the set was in another building entirely, and that Nate was most likely there, not here. “Look for a carnival,” she said, but I saw only an old-time diner and a few storefronts, in the middle of what Gansevoort Street looked like, back before Manhattan’s Meat-packing District got cleaned up.

So I made my way to an alley in Tokyo, where crewmembers were eating a late lunch. Plenty of signs here, but of course I don’t read Japanese.

Believe it or not, I found parking near here.

At last a young woman pretty much shoved me down another alley, just beyond Gansevoort Street, where I found what must be the narrowest carnival ground on record. I had seen last week’s episode, which featured scenes at the carnival, and so I marveled at the way Nate, the camera crew and director, and all the set and lighting crew had made this tiny space seem so large. Well, it turns out that there’s a full set for the carnival, at a remote location. The alleyway carnival is used primarily for more intimate scenes, like the lunch (or was it dinner?) among carnival employees (and visitors?), which Nate and episode director Ron Underwood were shooting as I arrived.

“Shooting” actually entails a series of lengthy discussions between Nate and Ron Underwood (a go-to guy for this sort of television production, his other credits include the film City Slickers), with input from camera operators and other members of the crew. “What if we put the camera here?” “What if we shot over her shoulder?” “What if we moved this here?” “Can we get between these two tables?”

Really, this debate/negotiation/brainstorming moves efficiently and with relative swiftness: these guys know what they’re doing, and they do it every day. But for those of us who aren’t involved in the conversation, the novelty wears off fast. Between one take and the next, I nodded off.

Oliveri: “Thaïs! Du Barry! Garbo! All rolled into one.”

Watching a monitor during the shooting, I was struck by the camera’s glamourizing effect. Hayden Panettiere, who plays Claire, is a perfectly nice-looking young woman, and yet I walked right past her and focused instead on Dawn Oliveri, the knockout who plays Lydia the Tattooed Lady.* When Panettiere is photographed, however, she becomes arrestingly beautiful, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her image on the monitor.

I worked in television for a very (excessively?) long time, yet one seldom gets to witness such transformations in television news. This may have something to do with the business: ostensibly, television newspeople present reality, not artistry. And so Connie Chung really is exquisitely beautiful on-camera and off. Yet I’ve seen often enough the interview subjects, and even reporters, who aren’t telegenic at all, whose features go flat and whose expressions are warped or wiped out on camera, no matter how well-informed or flatteringly lit they may be. Some people are just lucky.

David H. Lawrence XVII

Claire and Lydia talked about something, but I couldn’t quite hear the dialogue (and it’s to be doubted I’d have understood it anyway). Eric Doyle, as played by David H. Lawrence XVII, took in every word the women said, and punctuated the scene with a bite of cake that chilled the blood of pretty much everyone who saw him. Doyle has the “puppet master” ability, and he’s a fan favorite.

Once these two scenes were finished, the actors were released, and we turned our attentions to some visual effects being supervised by Eric Grenaudier. These scenes kept most of the crew busy, while Underwood and two actors rehearsed another scene. None of this was terribly interesting to me, and so I went off to explore the rest of the studio: random bits and pieces of places I couldn’t identify, as well as a big Japanese office, a cut-away carnival trailer, and the uncanny Burnt Toast Café. All the furnishings had been pushed about, as if this were moving day, yet every bottle of ketchup was full and every slice of pie as fresh as this morning’s baking.

Knepper as Samuel Sullivan

At last the actors were ready to walk through the next scene for the benefit of the crew, who watched and decided on camera angles and such. Since the scene took place in the New York apartment of Emma Coolidge (played by Deanne Bray), I felt at first as if I were arriving at a party — about 30 of us crammed into the space. Almost immediately, I felt as if I were eavesdropping on a private conversation, between Emma and Samuel Sullivan (played by Robert Knepper). As the actors went through the scene, a crewmember followed after with bits of masking tape, so that they’d be able to hit the same marks each time they ran through the scene. Bray is deaf, and so an interpreter accompanied the rehearsal; she signed Samuel’s lines (and Underwood’s direction) and spoke Emma’s dialogue. Presumably, her work will be replaced with subtitles in the filmed and edited scene as it appears on television.

Deanna Bray as Emma

Here, as on the diner set, I was impressed with the attention to detail in the set decoration. Emma Coolidge’s diplomas are framed on the wall of her apartment, for Pete’s sake, though I can hardly believe the camera will ever linger over them.

I couldn’t linger, as it happened, so I never got to see how Nate shot the scene in Emma’s apartment.

While I stayed on the set, the tension between unreality (shifting walls) and reality (minute details) grew to seem less and less like Alice’s Wonderland, and more like a workplace. One must get used to the oddities, until they become almost normal, and then one simply goes about one’s job. Indeed, the cast and crew struck me as impeccably professional. That may disappoint some readers, who hoped for scandal. Sorry, folks — I saw only an easy camaraderie among everyone on the Heroes set, matched by an unswerving determination to make each scene as strong as possible.

So that’s what Nate does when he goes to work in the morning — or the afternoon — or the pre-dawn darkness. Show business isn’t very glamorous at all, and yet the set is a nice place to visit. Would I want to live there?

Depends on my ability.

At the Burnt Toast: Panettiere with Thomas Dekker (Zach)

*NOTE: That name — “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” — isn’t an accident. Heroes finds points of reference in every kind of culture.

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