Above, the crew prepares to shoot on a Chicago rooftop with that fabulous skyline.
At the Director’s Elbow series continues.
Working on the TV series Chicago Story was a complete eye opener for me. Now I would be prepping with Directors, and my 1st AD on an actual TV series script. The crew was huge. 150 people or more. And because of the airdate schedule, there will be 2 crews shooting simultaneously. The AD’s of both crews must share locations, and actors over an 11 day schedule for each episode. Meaning lots of coordination for AD’s. Unusual for TV, this would be a 90 minute show of Doctors, Lawyers and Cops working and living in Chicago.
The cast was something spectacular—Dennis Franz, John Mahoney, Craig T. Nelson, Kris Tabori to name a few. John Malkovich is a day player in this crowd. Seriously. Kim and I (Yup. Got her to Chicago. Another story for another day…) were going to local theater and seeing Steppenwolf shows in a storefront on benches. Joe Morton’s daughter, Amy Morton is well on her way to becoming an amazing theater actress. The 2 Tony nominations are yet to come, but by then she was in a little theater group we used to go see that included some guys named Gary Cole and Billy Peterson. They’re pretty good too. The town was exploding with acting talent.
We were also shooting in great Chicago locations and I was learning the town. The work was brutal, because my staff is just two PA’s (seems laughable compared to how shows staff now). Not even a category for 2nd 2nd AD’s or Additional 2nd AD’s yet…
I was responsible for all call sheets and production reports– that alone almost buried me, but somehow I was getting through it. Back then, not only is the Production staff tiny, but only one Key 2nd AD is hired so I was constantly shooting. Almost all TV shows now have 2– Key 2nd AD’s. So essentially, you have 2 AD teams. One is prepping and one is shooting. It’s a much more effective way to work.
But–I had to do my prep for the future episodes in the evenings or early in the am. The shoot hours are running 16 hours a day or more, so my sleep was suffering. But I was getting through it and getting the job done.
What soon becomes the best part of the job is working with the Director setting and executing the shots. It’s a different process for these Directors. They have to get through 8 pages of material a day, not shots of Detroit iron rolling down the street. I can see that keeping the actors and camera on track is a huge effort for the episodic Director.
And I am thrilled to be working at the Director’s elbow. I learned something from all the Directors I worked with on that show. The best was the guy who did the last episode, Rod Holcomb. He was an up and coming Hollywood Director who really could rock the set. Learned good filmmaking from him. He knew how to set great, storytelling shots. Rod went on to have a sterling career. Pilot for ER among many other projects. We never did work together again, but did manage to get together for dinner not long ago. It is a mark of how much I learned from him that we could reconnect so easily.
Sadly the series was plagued by the same old devil– The stories and scripts were not good. Chicago Story was canceled after 13 episodes.
After we wrapped CS, I was able to get work on commercials and industrials and working on movie and TV shows on 2nd units. All the AD’s from Chicago Story were pretty much all the AD’s in Chicago, so I also managed to get work from my fellow AD buddies.
In early 1983, Kim and I worked on a last project with Joe Morton. A theatrical short funded by the insurance companies to show to kids in driver’s ed classes. A cautionary tale of teens, drinking and driving. It would be a 6 day schedule and we’d do it up in suburbia where it would be easy to shoot. Joe would cast it himself and we set up a session. In the meantime, Kim and I had gone to see a storefront production of some not great new play because a friend of ours was in it. Our friend sorta sucked, but the other actress is really good. We see her after the show and invite her to the auditions. What’s your name again? Elizabeth Perkins. Yup. Her.
Joe, of course cast Ms. Perkins and also Amy Morton as our lead teen. He would not have done so just because she was his daughter, trust me. In this cast is– D.W. Moffet, Holly Fulger, Elizabeth Perkins, Stephen Caffrey ( Gary Cole could not get out of a commitment so lucky Stephen got the part) and John Cameron Mitchell. Hegwig himself. Saying they all ended up doing pretty well is a bit of an understatement. (Just hit the IMDB with those names, for those who don’t know them). Joe always said casting is 90% of the job. The rest is easy.
We had a great shoot. Kim (who co-produced & was script super), and I would have the actors meet us at our brownstone apartment in Wrigleyville and drive them out to suburbia to the location. No town cars for them yet. It was also the first time I saw a Steadicam in use. Joe loved it and we made a very cool party sequence with it.
The script had been a bit bumpy, but Joe knew how to edit and work it. No one is supervising him on this as no one really did in his entire career. He is doing his last, best work.. About 40 minutes long (to be shown in class time), Joe even let Johnny Mitchell go wild with a little improv. With this cast and in the hands of Joe, we made a great little movie. Very sweet and—spoiler alert—Amy dies—very poignant.
It must have registered with the kids and the insurance guys, because my oldest daughter was shown the movie in class when she was 15. That meant the film was running for at least 17 years.
The only thing Kim and I did with Joe after that was have dinner with him and his lovely wife Jean. Joe had a great run. Directed more shows and films than he could count. Ate and drank and shot his way across the country in a simpler and easier time and I think he enjoyed every minute. Too bad Joe did not get a crack at one real theatrical movie. I would have liked to have seen that.
Polaroids of Joe Morton, the crew and me from 1980, wrapping up the shoot. Joe is the one in the yellow hard hat. We had Morton’s Marauders t-shirts made up with our motto– Cinema Verite’ on the back. On the far right in the center photo in the top row, is Scott Mann, my college filmmaking buddy. Scott was my only PA. The photos show only about half the crew– you can see we are into the wrap beer. That’s Gaffer Doug Wandrei in a fuzzy cu. The last photo is yours truly with our mechanic. I include it not because of my young, studly self but to show you my old, beat up Dodge van. I could fit a full size Fisher dolly in the middle, an entire camera package on and under the bed and coolers and a big water jug for craft service. Charged 125$ per week–plus gas AND mileage. That was good money back then!
Part 3 — Stevie Spielberg, Bo and Me…