It was day 14 of 20 and we were preparing to film the scene in which detectives survey the crime scene where Maria lies on the bed, murdered. The day was hot, with temperature in the mid-90s and inside the house was very uncomfortable with so many people in such a small space.
The camera was set up in the hallway, looking in toward the bed where Maria lay. We did a first run-through with the detectives walking in and standing over the body. In the dialog, one detective chides the other for his garish shirt. The conversation progresses, alternating between serious investigatory remarks and gentle joking among the cops.
I was in the kitchen, which is adjacent to the bedroom, listening and watching the monitor. When the run-through finished, the detectives re-entered the kitchen to prepare for the next take of the same scene. (They enter the bedroom from the kitchen in the scene.)
All of a sudden Roger burst into the kitchen and said, in front of cast and crew there, “Alright, we can’t do it this way. We can’t have the detectives being disrespectful to the body that way. They can’t joke among themselves when she is lying there dead. We are taking out all the jokes.” He was very upset.
I asked him what on earth was going on. He explained that one of the camera operators (a woman) was crying and was deeply disturbed by the jocular dialog in the face of the sadness of the scene.
I said softly, trying to make the discussion just between us, that the script had been read by him and everyone else. The dialog had not be changed, so they should all have been on board with it. I said that whoever was having a meltdown was probably doing so in response to unrelated stress and that she needed to be told to behave more professionally. I ended by noting that he had agreed to direct the script as written. I said we were not going to change the story or the scene just because someone was getting emotional over it.
Roger didn’t back down. He said loudly, “I just can’t shoot it that way. I won’t do it.”
I was trying hard not to explode. I wanted to go in and yell at whoever had lost a grip on their emotions. And I wanted to scream at Roger, “Do your damned job!” But I put a lid on my own reactions and looked at Chad Halbrook, our lead actor, for help. Chad immediately read me.
Chad stepped in front of Roger and said that joking is how people handle bad situations. It is totally normal, he said, for cops to joke among themselves in the face of a murder scene because it is a coping mechanism. He ended by firmly saying, “We have to film it the way it is written.” He was getting through to Roger, who was calming down.
Roger replied that we could change the script a bit to make it less offensive. Both Chad and I took turns explaining that it wasn’t offensive, that the cops made no remarks about the body, the girl, or her death. They merely chided one another with meaningless prattle.
Finally Roger agreed and we returned to filming. It was remarkable to me that no one in the cast or crew seemed affected by the to-do. I was very grateful for that.
After that incident, I vowed that if I ever did another movie, I would have the cast and crew sign a statement that they’d read and understood the script, and that they would in no way object to its being filmed as written.
A dead body is not just a still body, it has a certain color. Not colorlessness, color. If you have seen one, depending on the length of time since death, it has a progression of losing (in the case of a Caucasian) pink and taking on grey. And there is almost an artificiality about it, as if the body never really lived. You can almost imagine that someone took away the carcass that used to be living and replaced it with a less-than-adequate substitute that is somehow not quite right. Without the life of the person that once inhabited it, the body loses more than the life it held; it loses its realism.
So often movies do not capture the appearance of death, particularly in the case of murders. The film may portray a body that is bloody, but that blood appears applied rather than shed; the body may be still, but not obviously absent spirit; it may be laid out, but lacks the seeming obscenity that accompanies one who is splayed ignominiously after having been felled.
I wanted the death of the young girl in the movie to be portrayed in a way that would capture the horror, sadness, and unfairness of murder. So many things had to come together just right to make that happen. The actress had to be willing to act, purely act. In other words, she had to abandon any attempt to “look good” and allow herself to be what she was to be….murdered. Director Roger Lindley had to arrange for her to be laid out on the bed in a convincing manner. The male on-looking actors had to be totally professional, because one simple jocular remark could have marred the seriousness with which the scene was laid out and played, and thus how it would appear on screen. And the camera work had to be exceptional, with the angle capturing the scene without being prurient or grotesque.
When I first viewed the takes of the death scene, I was silent and sad. It was that good. I stared for a long time, considering how much time should be on the body, and then on the action around the body. The balance needed to be struck with enough time on her to show that the scene was ever so serious, yet also sufficiently on the investigators to keep the action moving and the dialog relevant. It took a lot of thought and time, but in the end, it felt right.
But it had to wait until coloring to make the scene whole. By that I mean that the “dead” body was still pink, still alive.
When Colorist Justin Warren and I got to the death scene, we spent a lot of time analyzing it. I was the one who knew what hue of grey we were after for the body, so we worked until we got that. But we also needed to subdue the other colors in the room as well as the lighting. It had to inter-mesh.
In the end, we achieved a color correction for the scene that I think goes very well with the somberness of murder, with the loss of a young life. The effect on the viewer is subtle, but that is the way it should be. No one should know that the mood is being set; it should just happen.
But all of that effort at making sure that death is properly conveyed almost went for naught. It was during the final sound design review, after the coloring had been completed, when Johnny Marshall, our Sound Designer, said, “Hey, are you going to fix the heart throb?”
“What heart throb?” I asked. I felt that odd mix of adrenaline you get when you are at fault, coupled with a high level of anxiety over whether a serious mess can be righted. I guess the best description is that I was overcome with dread. Here we were, finished with editing, special effects, coloring, and in the final run-through of sound and there was a big problem.
“You know, Maria De La Cruz. When she is lying there dead, you can see the blood pulsing in her neck.”
Shit. My editor hadn’t seen it. My colorist hadn’t seen it. But most importantly, I hadn’t seen it. I am well aware of where the buck stops.
I went back to Justin even though we’d finished coloring. “Hey, let’s fix the heart throb.” And he did.
But the event really unnerved me. If I had missed that, what other obvious things had I missed? It is okay if I saw something and chose not to fix it, or couldn’t fix it. But the throb was in a scene for which I had pulled out all of the stops on the amount of time and level of attention I’d been willing to devote to getting it right.
But, thanks to all those who put so much into making that scene, I think it came off very well. And, thanks to Johnny, it wasn’t blown by having one stupid mistake, a heart throb.