Directing “Suckers”

Posted by Blieden on November 9, 2010 in Behind the scenes, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Pre-tapes | Short Link

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It’s 1:40am and I’m home, about to watch “Suckers” on my DVR. I’ve watched this piece, mind you, more than hundred times in the past two weeks. I’ve watched this piece so many more than one hundred times that I am ashamed to admit I’ll sit here again when I’ve finished typing and watch it again. Watching the DVR version, the one that went out over the air, truly is different than watching it at the office. It’s the context.

I’m proud of our show for making this. Talk shows do not often attempt to produce lush vampire musicals. That we did is a mark of how far we have evolved in less than two years.

The very first thing I shot for Fallon was on my 3rd day, which was Feb. 5th 2009. The entire conference room had been filled with suits for Jimmy to try on. The conference room table, which normally seats 12, was covered in shirts and ties like they were a spread from 2nd Avenue Deli. So I filmed Jimmy trying on suits, making light of the situation, and being adorably self conscious about all the resources being put at his disposal, manifest on this day as an entire conference room filled with clothes. It was a moment of transformation, and the “trying on” metaphor couldn’t have been more hamfisted or cornball, except for the fact that it was not a metaphor. It was simply what was happening.

I cut together a tiny documentary and Gavin Purcell watched it said it was too earnest. What I had to unlearn then, for my first year on Late Night, was my instinct to probe, to be “real”. I would have to be more silly. The period before Fallon was a difficult one for me on a personal level. I was struggling to make/finance a documentary about batteries, and my beloved Erin had major surgery on her boobs because she has the cancer gene.

Looking back, I think sillyness saved me, and knowing now what I know about Late Night, I know that sillyness set us apart.

18 months later Gavin and I are on a plane coming back to NY from the Emmys, back from the unabashed emotionalism of “Born To Run”. By this point we have established the serialized short form series which is now one of the pillars of our format. We’ve wrapped up “Late,” “7th Floor West”, and with the Emmy’s I think we’re now done with “6B”. No one knows what our next series would be, so I asked Gavin if we could ever do a dramatic series, like…could we get away with it? He said he thought we could.

Many things have changed since Feb. of 2009. Erin is super healthy and she has new boobs which are awesome. The battery documentary is on the back burner for now. As for Late Night we have learned that we do not want to make fun of the shows we parody, but when we tackle a genre we will try to do it well or better than the original. That is a brash thing to claim, that we have tried to outdo “Lost”, and “Glee” for example. It is not realistic either, but we do certainly try, and the effort itself seems to be the key to our formula. In short, we have become more earnest, but not by looking inward as I used to do, but by looking outward. By taking on the conventions of the tv shows, movies, and music that we love most. Our roll-ins are “aspirational” to borrow a term from some advertising executives I overheard once on a job.

Then October came and Mike Shoemaker wrote a very serious vampire script. Jimmy quickly came up with the name “Suckers.”

“This has no laughs” Shoemaker kept saying, like someone talking to a group going to Coachella for the first time and saying “It’s REALLY fucking hot.” It was like he was trying to inure us to the idea that we were going to do something strenuous, knowing that it would still have moments of sillyness, just as Coachella, I’m sure, has moments where you aren’t completely overwhelmed by the heat.

As we began pre-production I was totally a pig in shit. There was going to be romance, danger, special effects, and we had to cast a beautiful but dangerous female lead with a voice like an angel. Luckily we’re in New York where singing actresses tend to congregate. You will swoon for Kate Simses who was our unanimous choice to play Angelique. She has the most remarkable face and even in her audition I could not help myself from filming inappropriately, lingeringly extreme closeups.

Also there’s the new cameras. After 19 months of campaigning, I finally got Late Night to buy some much needed cinema gear, including two Canon XF305’s and a 5D. I also enlisted Ellen Waggett, our production designer, to build me a gorgeous, bespoke set of 6 x 6 muslin frames. The frames are a constant joy and they follow me to every single setup. They make all actors beautiful.

The original song “Never Die” that Amy Miles wrote for “Suckers” is sublime, and I hope I did not debase her creation by filming it like a Winger video.

But for all the actresses and the cameras, the real accomplishment of Suckers is the tone. We had one giant, in-depth conversation about tone which began the first day we all saw the script. We talked about tone when Eric Justian started his team designing the wardrobe. We talked more about tone when Ellen built custom sconces for the studio 6B hallway scenes. Visual FX artists Ed Hawkins and Joel Knutson, editor Chris Tartaro, and production coordinator Chad Wollett and I talked about tone for 3 nights straight standing on the roof of 30 Rock trying to design Jimmy’s big jump sequence. It was only one shot, but it could not be funny in a its-so-bad-that-it’s-actually-funny way. We had to succeed, and I had little more than magazine articles from Cinefex and the DVD extras from “District 9” to go on. Tartaro and I talked about tone with composer John MacDonald, using words like “warm,” “mystery” and “romantic but not romantic like Titanic”. Shoemaker, Gavin, Miles, Jimmy and I were talking about tone a few hours ago as we were finalizing the edit and delivering the finished piece to the control room.

I think you will agree that “Suckers” strikes a most unique tone for a talk show roll-in. It is a balance of tone which I am super pleased with.

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