The filmmakers explained to me that the point of this project is to make whatever happens on the set a part of the film; shooting without sound allows a degree of chaos that is normally anathema to the rigors of a set, where problems must be solved long before they arise. Here, everything is allowed. The idea is to marry the constant discovery of theater to the clock-is-always-running constraints of movie-making. Silence! is an ambitious experiment; a film about the creation of film, with one eye on history and the other on the future.
That said, I add the following disclaimer: Because this is Seattle, I know nearly everyone involved with the production. Not well, but enough to warrant mention (hence the first names). Also, many of the people involved in the production are regular contributors to The Stranger--Charles Mudede acts, Stacey Levine and Matthew Stadler wrote the dialogue, and Jamie Hook, soon to be our film editor, serves as executive producer and cinematographer. It's a small town, after all.
The first thing I see when I enter the Little Theatre is Michael Chick taking a pratfall worthy of Dick Van Dyke. He and Megan are dolled up in garish, Pola Negri eye makeup. Megan looks stunning in a low-cut red dress, while Michael darts around in a classic suit, no less dashing for his nervous energy. It occurs to me, as it did when I watched them rehearsing and performing in Zelda and Scott, that Michael and Megan both look eerily authentic as citizens of the early 20th--as opposed to 21st--century.
The scene: She sits reading "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." Michael enters jauntily, leading a dog on a leash, and she sticks out her leg to trip him. He tumbles out of frame, then sits up and shakes his fist broadly, the way tough guys shook their fists at Chaplin's Tramp. He rises, sits next to Megan, and shyly asks her out. The moment is comical and sweet. This is a rehearsal. Two cameras are running; the first (manned by Jamie Hook) is on the floor shooting the action. The second is in the back row, shooting the first camera shooting the action. They're almost ready to do it for real.
Michael's little dog Augie is getting jealous of the kitty, who has plopped down on top of the on-camera bathmat.
Gregg asks me if I want the back of my head on camera (seems they need more heads). I am on the set; therefore, I become part of the film.
Gregg: "Michael, deep breath. Megan, deep breath."
Michael breathes deeply.
Megan: "That's a tall order in this dress."
Action is called, the pratfall is repeated. "Cut." The rear camera keeps rolling. "Do it again, make it longer." They repeat the action (Michael exits, re- enters, etc.). Then, frantically, "Cut!" "Tail slate!" "Let's go!"
Suddenly, there are pieces of equipment, crew members, actors, and toddling babies underfoot.
Filming a movie about filming a movie within a movie. Writing about filming that movie. I have skulked around the backgrounds of movie sets my whole life, and have found no better place to be completely invisible and watch people doing their highly specialized work. In that way (and no other) is a movie set like a movie.
Michael: "What are you writing, there?"
Lunchtime, and everyone's got curry on their lips.
I ask Jamie how it's going.
Jamie: "I have to raise $1,000 a day. I've raised $500 today. I don't want to have to pull the plug tomorrow."
Someone: "Okay. We're ready on the set!"
Michael: "Megan, I don't know anything about this scene."
Gregg (exactly one second later): "I'm ready for actors!"
The director explains the scene. Every-one is distracted by the cuteness of a kitten, who's lapping at the bath water in the tub in the middle of the frame. They try to film it, but the kitty runs away, camera shy.
Gregg (to Jamie, whispering): "This is not a rehearsal, by the way."
Later. 3:30. Time is short. The room has to be cleared at 5:00; only one more full load of film; there's a hungry baby; a thousand things at once.
Gregg: "We need a better close-up of Megan looking at the menacing bathtub in both outfits."
What I love about movie sets: Language that under normal circumstances would be inscrutable is bluntly procedural; everyone understands.
Almost half an hour is spent trying to light, make-up, dress, reconcile the blocking for the close-up. Does she need to walk into the frame? Does she need to place the chair? Where should the bathtub be? Shouldn't the water be shaking more? Eye-lines, sightlines, clotheslines.
The camera battery dies. Another delay.
Michael Chick has injured his hand. "Are these carpals or tarsals?" he asks.
Me: "I think carpals are the ones that hang from the top of the cave and tarsals grow from the floor."
Oh wait, it's not the battery. The camera's motor jammed. Sounds serious. Maybe it's the magazine that holds the film. It's 4:05. 4:10. All out by 5:00.
Problem solved. It's the magazine. At 4:15 they get the shot in the first outfit; Megan runs to get changed. As she does, Gregg approaches Michael.
Gregg: "So, there's this thing we're going to try to do from 'In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.' Can you memorize this in the next 10 minutes?"
Moments later and the bath water is warbling on Megan's face. At 4:35, they get the second close-up and begin the rapid tear-down.
A month and a half later, I'm invited back to the Little Theatre to watch the first read-through of the script along with the edited silent film. It's May 16 and Silence! is still very much in-progress. How strange to be sitting in the theater, watching footage that I watched being shot in the theater, of a bunch of people filming a movie of a bunch of people filming a movie. When Charles Mudede appears onscreen, playing the critic who's invited to observe the making of the movie-movie, I get nervous. Even the self-reflexivity is self-reflexive. If I had a camera we might all implode.
The footage is beautiful: an old-fashioned silent film incorporating the stylistic advances of international cinema. The multiple layers of meta-mimesis--of actors, characters, and audience watching themselves being watched--when joined to Schwartz's sterling prose (and Stacey and Matthew's hilarious dialogue), take a shape that makes a funny, dreamlike sense, a dream punctuated by random cutaways and dance interludes, a dream about the delights and consequences of watching.
Many different ideas are discussed at the read-through: sound effects, music cues, narration, etc. It's nine days till the event. There are a thousand questions. I can't wait to see them pull it off. I'm lost in the project's possibilities.
Schwartz: "I am anonymous, and I have forgotten myself. It is always so when one goes to the movies; it is, as they say, a drug."