On November 29th, on his highly acclaimed – and deservedly so – blog bykenlevine.com, Ken mentioned, in the course of a post about location shooting – wherein productions eschew the artificial confines of the soundstage to film scenes, or at least the exteriors of scenes, at actual locations, hence the name “location shooting” – I’m sorry, can anyone remember how this sentence started? It’s really a long way back.
In the course of his post, Ken mentioned that, for one of the series I created, Family Man, wherein, after Executive Producing The Cosby Show, I was invited by the then president of NBC to create a half-hour comedy about my own family – and here comes the verb – I instructed our set designer to reproduce an as close to a precise replica of my actual living room as possible, to serve as the onstage living room set for the series.
This was not hubris. Or maybe it was, but I had a rationalization that made it feel like it wasn’t hubris, so I was covered, or at least I felt covered. Man, I’m talky today, aren’t I? Do you think it’s because I just drank coffee?
I decided that, if, in the series, I was going to re-create a sitcomical more-or-less replica of my family – “more or less”, because I added one child, a son I don’t have, to represent “Earl as a boy” – restrict the show to stories that actually happened to me, either as an adult or as “Little Earl” – bring in some of my kids’ favorite playthings, stuffed animals and floating bath toys to decorate the various “rooms” of the “house”, invite my stepdaughter Rachel, then age 11, to the set, to make sure that her “bedroom” looked “right” to her, consistent with that commitment to accuracy, would be a living room – or, more precisely, a downstairs “Floor Plan” that looked exactly like our house.
I was trying to keep it real.
To make this happen, the set designer came over and took Polaroids, capturing our house’s interior layout and architectural design – which is called “Craftsman Bungalow”, though our version compares with the classic Pasadena “Craftsman”, “The Gamble House” (built for Gamble of “Proctor and Gamble”) like the main house of a mansion compares to the accommodations for housing “The Help.”
The set designer went the extra mile of taking a wide-angle lens and photographing the view, as seen through our back windows facing the ocean. This photo was later massively blown up, to be used as the “external backing” for the set. The “view out the back window” was exactly our view.
(Normally, set “backings” are generic. You call up some company, and they send you a “neighborhood.” Your show’s characters open their front door, and there it is. Sometimes, they even paint in a dog, whose intermittent barking is later inserted in post-production.)
To supplement these replifications, there was a subsequent shooting, at which a crew came out, set up a camera across the street, and shot footage of the front exterior of our house. These shots would be appropriately inserted at the beginnings of scenes, introducing action taking place inside the house.
(Normally, again, house exteriors are generic. If you toured the grounds of Studio Center – and you were old enough – you would encounter entire fake residential streets, on which you would instantly recognize the exteriors for My Three Sons and many other memorable sitcoms of the past.)
The production required exterior day shots and night shots, to be used for “Interior House - Day” and “Interior House - Night.” (In an early script for Best of the West, I once introduced a scene with “Interior Saloon – Dusk.” During production, our venerable Director of Photography, who had worked on Hitchcock movies, quietly sidled up to me and said, “On situation comedies, you’ve got ‘Day’ and you’ve got ‘Night’. That’s it.”)
Here’s this weird thing that I was unaware of until this film shooting took place. When they shoot exteriors of a house, the first thing they do is to come into your house and turn on all of your lights. I have no idea why they do that. I guess, “The lights are on” indicates, “They’re home.” But all lights on? I would never have all my lights on at the same time. In rooms nobody is in, are you kidding me? Do we have stock in the Electric Company?
Anyone living under my roof who left all the lights in the house on would immediately be drummed out of the family. Or at the very least be demoted to a lesser relative.
Yet that’s what the film crew insisted upon. I was seriously disappointed. A show whose basic intention was to be as true to life as possible, and every light in my house was on? Say goodbye “verisimilitude”, hello “science fiction.”
For some reason, maybe because he was required to be in some shots – entering and exiting the house –Family Man’s star Richard Libertini was on hand, and we invited him to dinner. As the crew filmed the house’s exterior as night fell, my family plus Mr. Libertini were gathered around the dining room table, Dr. M rising intermittently to bring things in from the kitchen, and others getting up to take an additional slice of pizza. Suddenly, there’s a knock on our front door. It’s the leader of the film crew carrying a complaint. What was the complaint?
“We’re seeing movement in the house.”
That was the complaint. The film crew was seeing movement inside a house where all the lights were on because the people were at home. That’s normal, isn’t it? I mean, if there are people in the house, why wouldn’t there be movement?
My logic was irrelevant.
“It’s ruining the shot.”
And there you have it. To satisfy the filming, every light in the house needed to be blazing. And if anyone wanted to move, they were required to crouch down, below the “sight lines” of the camera, so as not to be detected.
After that experience, though inquiries have occasionally been made, we decided we would never again use our house as a location.
It is simply not worth it.
Even if they paid us, the money would all go out in electricity bills.
Besides, Family Man was over twenty years ago.
With the passage of time, it is no longer that easy to crouch.