Friday, December 20, 2013

Ask DanielleTBD: About Those Set Visits...

"Report from the Set" is one of my most favorite columns ever because in them I can provide a behind-the-scenes look at how some of my favorite television shows get made. I never get too technical because this isn't film school, but I still really enjoy calling attention to the little things many take for granted or otherwise never even think about: things like the vibe on set or whether a director shouts his notes across the soundstage or gets up after each take to calmly discuss whatever needs tweaking with whoever needs to tweak it. I don't get to contribute original entries to this column nearly as much as I'd like because far too often when I visit sets I am shuttled into one quiet corner to sit and wait patiently for my interviews rather than observing the actual working environment. Other times the things I observe are too spoilery or otherwise off the record (cough: industry gossip) to share here anyway. I always wonder if people want more of those columns like I do, and then I decided to open Twitter to another "Ask DanielleTBD" and the very first question that came my way was one that fit inside that category. Charles Dulaney (you Communies definitely know him!) asked me what was the funniest set I have ever visited. I asked him to clarify if he meant funniest because of subject matter (i.e. cast who brought the most jokes to my experience) or funniest as in most surreal or otherwise odd experience. He asked me to consider both. And so I have.

Charles (and anyone else who cares), I'm not trying to play to my audience, so to speak, but I really think one of the funniest experiences I've had (fitting both parameters) has been on the set of Community. I visited the set three times in the last four years, twice do take part in roundtable style interviews with a handful of other media people and one on my own with an exclusive look at their holiday musical episode in season three. Now, when you get a group of people together, no matter how small the group, the comedian in many of these comedy players comes out. They see an audience, and they want to perform. They know they're there to answer questions about the show, but they can't give away too many spoilers, so they tend to lean towards answering in a colorful way to keep you entertained and to avoid having to say stupid things like "I don't know, you'll just have to watch and see!" which is the bane of any interviewer's existence. Seriously, try printing that; the internet will eat you alive.

Joel McHale is also notorious for being a bit of a heckler. If he gets the sense that you (or someone at your table, in this group scenario) doesn't actually watch the show, he will call it out and keep returning to it throughout the course of the interview. One time I watched him make up three episodes worth of story lines when a reporter who didn't seem to even realize they weren't a brand new show asked him what his favorite episodes were. He asked her what hers were and she stammered but couldn't really answer, so he seized the opportunity. Being an actual fan of the show as well as someone who would research to properly do the job if I wasn't already a fan, I had a field day just watching him think so quickly on his feet. It was like a Community-centric stand up act.

The first time I visited the set in early season two I was able to wander around Greendale's cafeteria, library, and student lounge a bit, taking in the crazy signage, and part of the fun and yes insanity comes from those details. But honestly the funniest moments do come from the personalities you run into on set-- whether it's Danny Pudi doing voices for your FlipCam or listening to Donald Glover talk about the perils of Twitter handles with the crew (Remember @donglover?) or having Chevy Chase stop mid-interview to lean over to Gillian Jacobs for help with an answer (for the record, I simply asked him what he had shot earlier that day).

Being on set alone for "Regional Holiday Music" was a trip in and of itself, though, because they had a few short days to pack in choreography, song recording, and their regular scenes. I hadn't been allowed to read the script before I showed up on set, so I was only able to fill in the context for what I was seeing as the day went on and I talked with more and more cast members. I knew the basics from NBC's summary of the episode, but it was definitely surreal for the first thing I walked into that day to be the study group taking the stage to sing and dance a holiday tune. Chase's spot was filled by his stand-in/body double unless it was a close-up shot on him; Jacobs was dressed in a unitard; Taran Killam was peppier than I had ever seen him; and they all were talking about regionals and singing. 

You expect outside of the box from this show, and sure, the scenes you watch always give you that feeling (the most recent time I visited the set was when John Hodgeman was trying to convince the group Greendale wasn't real), but it's still jarring to see it in non-linear bits and pieces. Over the course of the day I also watched Alison Brie learn shorthand for one of her dance numbers, watched the crew toss cash into a bucket because at the end of the day there would be a raffle where one of them would win the whole thing, listened over a radio as one crew member freaked that he gave a cast member pain pills without knowing said cast member had already taken a bunch of pain meds (dancing is hard, you guys!), and experienced one of Nathan Fillion's now-usual drop bys to visit his friends on the show.

But I'll say this, and probably not just because it's fresh on my mind, a recent trip to the Alibi Room over at Shameless is coming a close second in the funny/odd category-- not because of the stories I heard when my camera was rolling but because of the ones that were shared when it was off. Hollywood is a small town (as evidenced by Fillion popping over to Community so often, probably), and you never know what you may learn about people you only kind of sort of know. Sometimes it will change the way you think about them-- and their shows.

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