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Fire on the set

It’s equal parts exciting and boring to watch a movie in the making

PROVO — The art of making movies is equal parts frenzy and tedium. When it is your time to go — whether you are in front of or in back of the cameras, you go full out. When it's not your time, there is little to do.

"It looks like organized confusion out there," says Jonathan Zimmerman, a first assistant director for the TV movie "Firestarter: Rekindled," which is filming on this day along Center Street in Provo. "And that is exactly what it is. These people are highly experienced, and everyone works very hard. A tremendous amount of work gets done in a short time."

To outsiders looking on, it can seem like nothing more than chaos. Watch for a while, however, and you see there is both rhythm and reason to all the madness. You see a pattern, an ebb and flow to the action. And you realize that swirling around the central storyline are myriad subplots that actually have little to do with what will eventually grace the screen.

Beyond the glamour and the glory of the movie, you see intertwining vignettes that create their own saga: the pursuit of dreams, the quest for excellence, the rewards of perseverance, the joys of creativity, the shared goals that create a unique camaraderie.

In the past, you have watched the screen credits roll by at the end of movies with hardly a second thought. But on the set, you see the importance of those jobs — how impossible it would be to make movies without them. You see how each person fits into the whole, adding and strengthening and supporting in anonymous ways.

Spend a day on the set, and you see the repetitive nature of the work; you find a tempo driven not by a clock but by a desire to "get it right." You learn that 12- to 14-hour days are common. You hear how, to get the atmosphere and setting this story requires, filming often goes on all night.

And you even begin to wonder why people would do this, why they would subject themselves to such a strange form of employment — until, at last, you realize the secret of it all. After the frenzy is over and the tedium is forgotten, the art remains. And that's what it is all about.

"Firestarter: Rekindled" is a sequel to a 1984 movie based on a Stephen King novel, about a young girl who, because of drug experiments her parents participated in, has the ability to start fires with her mind. Eight-year-old Charlie and her father are pursued by an evil cadre that want to harness her powers for their own ends, but they ultimately fail.

Now, Charlie, played by Marguerite Moreau, is a woman of 23, but she still has this awful power and is looking for a cure. She runs into Vincent, played by Danny Nucci, who inadvertently brings her back in contact with the people who can hurt her. Malcolm McDowell has the role of the evil Dr. Rainbird (played in the film by George C. Scott); Dennis Hopper also stars.

"Firestarter: Rekindled" will be a four-hour, two-part TV movie, scheduled to be shown on the cable Sci Fi Channel in December. The filming was done in various Utah locations — Salt Lake City, Ogden, Payson, Coalville. On this day in Provo — day eight of 43 for the cast and crew — action centers on meetings between Charlie and Vincent. Provo is subbing for the fictional town of Millington.

Moreau, a graduate of Vassar College, is excited about her role. "I really like the material. I see Charlie as an ordinary girl living under extraordinary circumstances, through no choice of her own." And, there's a universal theme of being different and trying to fit in. "Yes, Charlie has otherworldly powers, but she wants what everyone wants — love, security, to have a good life."

Moreau enjoys working in Utah. The only other time she was here, she was just driving through. "We saw a five-hour sunset that took my breath away. This location is awesome." And she enjoys good rapport with Nucci. "Danny always makes me laugh. The scenes are so fun to act."

Nucci, who has such movies as "Titanic" and "Crimson Tide," and the television shows "Snoops" and "Some of My Best Friends" on his resume, has been acting since he was 14. And he appreciates the combination of luck and skill involved. "What else am I going to do," he asks, only partly in jest, "serve cheeseburgers?"

Nucci dreams the dream of all actors — to be the main reason why people go to see a particular movie. But he also understands the realities. "I know I've got a ways to go." Still, the dream is what makes him willing to work 10- to 14-hour days. "But the crew works longer. And they do the true work. Without them, we'd have nothing."

Such comments have made him popular on the set, and he returns the feeling. "The kindness and love we receive on this set is unparalleled." He breaks into a few bars of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" as he wanders off.

This day's shoot will involve only a few scenes, what production assistant Jon Jensen calls "subsidiary love story stuff" — Charlie and Vincent meeting for lunch, the two sitting on a park bench outside, Vincent arriving in town, Charlie walking down the street, Charlie sitting at a bus stop. Fairly simple, compared to some days on the schedule. Yet, even this will require the energy and talents of everyone involved.

On this day, the crew call is set for noon; it will be after midnight before the day's work is finished.

"Firestarter: Rekindled" is being produced by Little Guns Inc., in connection with Traveler's Rest. It is the pet project of executive producer Tom Thayer, who was an executive at Universal Pictures when the first movie was made.

Thayer said he was always intrigued by the story and always felt more could be done with it. "But I didn't want to simply re-visit what had been done." A friend suggested a sequel. "The book is wonderful. You have this notion of an innocent girl burdened by a curse. Everyone she loved was dead because of the curse." She's a compelling character, he says, and you can't help but wonder what happens to her later in life.

By this time, Thayer had left Universal, but knowing he could probably get the television and sequel rights, which the studio still had, he began pursuing it. "No one was interested. Not in the title. Not in the pedigree."

But one thing Thayer has learned in Hollywood is tenacity. "You can't give up. Someone will eventually see what you see."

It took four years. And this is what he would like people to know: "Executives come and go. You could shoot the telephone book and find somebody to watch it. So, if you believe strongly enough, you have to hang in there."

Thayer is excited about how it is all coming together. "It's been a wonderful project. We have a great director, a great producer, a great crew."

His role is kind of like that of a parent getting his child ready to go off to school, he says. "Now I turn it over to the director and others who know better than I what to do."

As executive producer, he grins, "I have the easiest job on the set. I think they try to limit me to one suggestion every two hours."

Director Robert Iscove started out as a dancer at Juilliard. He choreographed "Peter Pan" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."

The transition to directing movies was a natural one, he says; in many ways it is choreography as much as anything else. Recent projects have included the romantic teen comedy "She's All That" and the made-for-TV "Cinderella" musical with Whitney Houston. "I like to keep as diverse as I can," he says.

Iscove likes working in Utah. Among other things, "it's close enough to L.A. that I can get back to see the kids."

His job on the set is simple, he says. "The director just pays attention to every detail." With that, he gets help from assistant director (known as "the A.D.") Jerram Schwartz.

Schwartz, an affable man with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, also has a simple-sounding assignment: "I get to make sure we hold to the schedule and I run the set." He, in turn, gets help from First A.D. Zimmerman and from the Second A.D. Kathleen Roll. They all wear headsets and communicate back and forth, to keep things running smoothly, which, of course, is more complicated than it sounds.

This is Schwartz's third time filming in Utah. What does he like about being here? "It's not Canada," he jokes. "And I like the crews here."

The nature of modern moviemaking is this: The producer and director may be based in L.A. The stars may come from L.A. But most of the rest of the crew works on a freelance basis and can come from all over. On this set, some are based in L.A. and other places. But many are from Utah.

What that means, says Jensen, who wants to be a writer but in the meantime has to pay bills, "is that you can be doing anything for anyone — or nothing for nobody."

Work as a freelancer can be a lot of fun, adds camera operator Eric Fletcher, who has come in from St. Louis for this project. "But sometimes it hits you — when you check into a hotel for a 54-day stay."

By 2 p.m., some two hours after the crew has reported to the set, they are ready to start filming. There have been rehearsals, visits from the hair and makeup people, producer-director discussions, careful checks of location and equipment.

"Are you surprised at how long it takes?" asks producer Jeff Morton. "I'm always amazed."

The scene is a meeting between Charlie and Vincent in the restaurant, which, in this case, is the Einstein Bagel s+hop on Center Street, chosen for its quaint appeal. But a lot of the attention is directed to the extras, college students who are also eating in the restaurant.

"Nick, you're going too fast," says Schwartz. "Annette, slow down a bit. Nick, when you go out the door, head up the street. OK, let's try it one more time."

After the main scene is shot comes what is called coverage — over-the-shoulder shots of Charlie and Vincent, close-ups of him, close-ups of her, reaction shots. And every detail in the background must be just the same. Nick and Annette must be in just the same position as they were in the main shot. Light must be just right. Sound must be the same.

This one scene will involve some 20 different shots that will be edited into a seamless whole. And each shot can involve several different takes.

It begins with the stand-ins. Juan Olmo and Dawn Kalana were chosen for their resemblance to Moreau and Nucci. "We portray the actors before they portray their roles," says Kalana. They take their positions so camera angles, lighting and everything else can be checked. Then the actors come in, and filming starts.

"Sometimes we do it in two or three takes, sometimes it takes 10 or 12," says Morton. "We go until all the physical and emotional aspects come together just right. It really is visual choreography."

Before every take, there is the standard clapboard shot, now with electronic timing devices built it, which not only mark the scene but also help with coordinating the sound.

And from the set come all the sounds, the jargon, the clichs that have been so associated with moviemaking: "Quiet on the set." "We're rolling, rolling, rolling." "Cut." "That's a wrap." You've heard them before; now they make sense.

You know that movies are not shot in sequence; that scenes are arranged according to convenience rather than chronology. But you might not have considered what this means to people such as wardrobe and makeup coordinators. When scenes that were shot days apart are edited together, hair must look exactly the same. Clothes must not only match but also be in the same condition.

"With a show like this, where there's so much destruction going on, I have to make sure the state of destruction of the clothes stays in the right order," says Carla Summers. The secret, she says, is to take Polaroid pictures of every scene.

"Back in the trailer I have three 4-foot walls covered with a breakdown of every scene and what every actor is wearing." Moreau, for example, has more than 15 different outfits, and as many as five or six versions of some outfits. "When the crew wraps at night, I go home and wash everything so it can be ready for the next day," she says.

Makeup artist Gina Homan's goal is this: to maintain a fresh look after 14 hours of filming. "Keeping a fresh look in hot, tight quarters isn't always easy," says Homan, who got started in film at Brigham Young University. She now freelances all over the country. "I like the creativity; doing something different for every show."

Erin Lyons, who does hair, also uses the Polaroid trick. Hair might look frazzled in one scene and have to be perfect in the next one shot that day. She, too, has a particular challenge on this set. "Because of all the fire, we can't use hairspray. That's like tying your hands." She has to make do with silicone gels, she says.

All those pyrotechnics — and this shoot will have plenty — will be the work of special-effects technician John Cluff, who owns his own company, based in Magna. He has worked on everything from TV shows such as "Touched by an Angel" and "Promised Land" to such movies as "Independence Day" and the new "Planet of the Apes."

"I like the variety," he says. On this particular day, his work is fairly simple — wetting down the street during night scenes and using a light layer of smoke to create atmosphere.

But all the fire is his responsibility. "You're all nerves when there's fire on the set," he says. "So much can go wrong." So, he says, you make preparations. "Then you triple-check them. Then you check it all again."

"A fine madness," is how boom operator Tim Song Jones describes life on the set. His job, he says, "is to chase actors with a stick." It's a bit more complicated, however. He has to stay out of the picture, while making sure the mike is close enough to pick up the necessary sound. It's a constant battle, he says, to stay out of the way of the lights and camera.

Jones is one of many key specialists on the set. Gaffer Dennis Peterson takes care of lighting needs, which may involve making day look like night or night look like day. Key grip Todd Taylor makes sure the camera is able to move wherever it needs to move. Grip Alex Boynton provides light and camera support. It can be "total anarchy" at times, he says.

Set dresser Mark Woodbury makes sure everything on the set — from the color schemes to safety issues — works as it should. Ben Patrick is the production sound mixer; he makes sure all the sound and dialogue are recorded, with time codes so it can be synchronized to action.

Set electrician Rhett Fernsten must provide all the electrical needs. The filmmakers use their own generators, and each of their cables would run six or seven homes. "We require crystal sync with no fluctuation," he says (as if you should know what that means). Fernsten, who lives in Orem, got started in movies at the Osmond Studio.

Prop master Ian Roylance is in charge of making sure anything the actors handle or deal with is there when it is needed. That involves everything from food to weapons to cameras to backpacks to computers. Some things are rented; some are purchased. "If it has to happen, I make it happen," says Roylance, who lives in Springville. "Sometimes that's an incredible challenge. On this one, for example, we have all this computer stuff, programs that have to be built."

He usually gets a copy of the script early and begins work five to six weeks before filming starts. There's a lot of stress, he admits. "But you have to enjoy doing what you're doing — that's why you do it."

Script supervisor Suzanne Bingham also does a lot of coordinating. "I'm in charge of continuity. I have to make sure that everything matches. Every day is so random. That's why they have me to keep track." Bingham, who lives in Salt Lake City, has been doing this for 12 years. She has her own chair, so you know she's important.

In all, there are about 80 cast, crew members and extras on this set, which is pretty typical for a TV production, says Morton. A theatrical movie might have three times that many.

And despite all the craziness on the set, he says, "it's better than being in an office all day." You can't have a nine-to-five mentality; you have to be able to roll with the punches. "It's a strange business," he says. "You form intense relationships in a short time — and then you may never see those people again."

Around 4:30 p.m., shooting shifts outside to the park bench. One lane of traffic is blocked off, and the same six cars are driven around and around the block, trying to be in the same place for main scenes and coverage shots.

Around 6 p.m., cast and crew take a "lunch" break. Then shooting resumes for more outdoor and evening work.

Camera operator Eric Fletcher straps on a portable camera for some of the shots. "It only weights 85 pounds," he says. "I've been doing this for 15 years. I have muscles that show up on X-rays!" The movie is being shot with 35mm film and Panavision cameras, each one insured for a cool $1 million.

As a crowd of bystanders gathers to watch the filming, Schwartz makes time to chat with them. "Isn't this the most boring scene?" he asks and goes on to explain: "We'll be spending about 45 minutes for one scene — sitting at the bus stop. The 12 hours we do today will be about four or five minutes in the movie."

It would be easier if all these people would just go away, you think, but Schwartz never hints at that, continuing to be gracious and entertaining.

"We know we are a big disruption in the area," he says. "So we try to patronize local business when we can, buying food or snacks there."

Aaron Mullins and Danny Cornell have been assigned by the Provo City Police Department to spend the day on the set. Their job, says Cornell, "is to make sure everything goes according to what's been pre-approved by the city. We're here in the interest of public safety, too."

Most of their concern involves traffic and running interference. There has been one incident with an angry restaurant owner, which was quickly smoothed over. But, says Cornell, it has given him a new appreciation for movies; he will never watch them in the same way again. "Man, oh man, these guys put in long hours. You don't realize how much goes into it."

Hard work, long hours, repetition, tedium, frenzy — that's what life on the set is like for these modern-day itinerant workers. But there also is variety, a sense of accomplishment, a joy in the creative process.

"It's physically demanding," says electrician Fernsten, who could be speaking for them all, "but it gets into your blood. And then it's hard to do other things."


E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com