Thursday, November 18, 2010

Barry Poltermann on “The Life of Reilly”

What was your filmmaking background before making The Life of Reilly?

BARRY: I made an indie horror film in 1992 called Aswang, was a commercial director and edited American Movie. Here are some bio links:

Where did the idea come from to turn the show into a movie?

BARRY: In short, we were looking for something fun to do for our company Holiday Party in 2001 and a friend mentioned that Charles Nelson Reilly was doing a one-man show in town (LA). I called to book tickets, but the show had already moved on. So I set up a GOOGLE alert (probably a Yahoo alert back then) to track the show, because I thought it sounded interesting (in a campy, funny way). But as time went on and I kept getting these news alerts, all the reviews were of the "no... seriously... this show is amazing. And yes, it IS that Charles Nelson Reilly, but it's not what you expect" variety. I became kind of obsessed with seeing the show, but it never worked out.

Years later (2004) a friend of mine was attempting to get a movie off the ground that was an Evil Knevil musical. This brought to mind Charles' show, so I told him about it as a movie idea with the pitch "it will be the Stop Making Sense of comedy performances... we will do for Charles Nelson Reilly what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash!" and he said it was "genius" and he wanted to produce it. This was Bob Fagan (who eventually produced the film).

The next day I asked my assistant (Adrian Selkowitz) to track down CNR. He had me meeting with him for lunch within a couple of days, and then we went back to his house after lunch and watched hours and hours of raw VHS video shot over the years with Charles' doing the show. I loved it... I especially loved how unruly it was. Lots of work for an editor (which is my forte) as he never did the same show twice. It wouldn't just be filming a show, but helping to construct a narrative in editorial.... which I love to do.

What was the physical process like (number of cameras, film/video format, pre-production process)?

BARRY: We did a prep day/rehearsal shooting with two cameras, then two shows with four cameras (it was supposed to be three, but CNR got sick for the Friday performance).
We also did some pickup shots on Sunday morning (4 camera) to fill in gaps. These were mainly things that we'd seen Charles do in previous shows that he was no longer doing but we thought would help us in developing the narrative... like talking more about his Mother towards the end, and his students who died from AIDS. He didn't do these things live for us on either of the two nights, but we had seen them on tape previously and asked him to bring them back for the film.

How did you shape the story in the editing and what was that process like?

BARRY: We had outlined 'the story' and scripted it prior to the shooting. We did this by looking at ten or so hours of raw video tape of him doing the show in previous years and the pre-editing this into a video 'script' of sorts. We then transcribed this edit and it was the template for what we wanted to shoot.

Any scenes that CNR didn't do during the shoot that WERE included in this overall edit we had him re-create on Sunday. So the final version is really somewhat different than what he had performed ever before... but it included all stuff that he had performed at SOME point or another throughout the previous three years or so.

Once we had the footage shot we began a LONG process of cutting. It really took a surprisingly long time to get it to work as a story instead of just a concert/performance film. There were so many options. Yes, we had the 'script' to follow, but CNR surprised us by doing stuff we had never seen before (some of it he made up on the spot) and it was GOOD. So that threw us off. Then other things we really liked didn't work as well as it had in previous taped versions... who knows why. The whims of theater and audiences, I guess.

The other thing was that our 'script' was two hours long when cut together, so we had to trim the hell out of it to get it down to under 90 minutes. We tested the cut longer and people got very restless. Something about live theater (where it isn't boring at al to hear CNR go on for three hours or more) and a film, where audience expectations are more ADD and they really got restless after 90 minutes.

But the main obstacle was that CNR never hit marks and seldom told the same story or did the same scene in the same spot from night to night, so we had to cut together the show in such a way not to reveal that from one shot to the next he was in a completely different space. This is one of the reasons we ultimately shot hand held and did a dreamy/hand held, shallow focus kind of look. We had to mask the fact that he was stage left in the wide shot and then stage right in the close up! Quite a challenge, but I feel it really ads to the surreal/mental landscape quality of the film and hopefully sets it apart from other stage shows on film.

How did Charles react to the finished film?

BARRY: He loved it. He saw the first cut at my house one night and we drank Manhattan's and talked for hours afterwards. He truly loved it. He did wish it were longer and asked for some things to be put back, but generally he eventually agreed that it worked better for film audiences at this length. In fact, he eventually even suggested some cuts and re-arrangements. He also suggested the title slides (and even wrote some) and other ideas.

We got a fax with his notes the day after the shoot, but they were really positive. When he saw the final version we were told by Patrick that he watched it over and over, studying it and showing it to friends. He could be cantankerous at times but was really a pleasure to deal with on the edit.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

BARRY: Throwing out our storyboards and shooting hand held was the smartest. We were really worried that this 'look' would seem out of step with the material, but in the end, given how unplanned the show is from a blocking sense, there would have been no way to cut the multiple nights together -- we had to get a little surreal. If we'd kept with our initial 'boarded' plan the film never would have cut and we would have ended up with a mess. And I really like the final look... it is unique and dreamy and messy in a way that seems to match CNR's monologue and the man himself.

The dumbest? Hmmm. Probably assuming that the theater crew would do what we wanted them to do without more political tact on my part. I think the confrontations we had stemmed from my assumption that we were paying the theater crew to stage the show so we could film it, and so they would take orders from our film DP without question.

In the end it worked great, and I loved the theater crew... especially David Mingrino. But in the beginning they were very protective of the show and CNR's legacy... to the point of really pushing back on our lighting and staging requests. This back and forth really resulted in some nice results though... in the end it was a better film for it. But the next time I shoot a stage play, I will definitely spend more time bringing the film DP and the stage manager and director into the planning prior to shoot.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?

BARRY: You learn with every film, and with this one it was really how different the film experience was from the theater experience. The music, the lighting, the pacing... all of these things are VERY different in the finished film from the original stage show. When we did test screenings, the further we went away from the theater experience and made it more focused/cinematic, the more people liked it.

And I also really like the fact that the film doesn't just seem like a series of anecdotes, but is an overall story, of a hero, forging ahead through a difficult life.

From every project I seem to learn the same thing... it is all about STORY.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have always loved Charles Nelson Reilly from "The Match Game". When Radar filled in, he tried to impersonate CNR and he really did a good job!! Wish I could have seen a live preformance, I know it would have been wonderful.