Thursday, January 12, 2017

Harmony on Spring Hill - Chapter 12 Excerpts

After dancing all night and sleeping for a few hours, Harmony had to go to the studio and dance all day. On the drive to the studio, she wondered if she would have enough energy to get the scene. If she was too tired in the first few takes, she would be useless by the afternoon. That would only make it undeniable to everyone how unprofessional she was to go out all night right before her big scene.

“Charlie Sheen showed up to every movie set high as a balloon,” Livia said.

Livia was trying to make her feel better, but knowing that overpaid movie stars can be irresponsible took nothing away from how unprofessional her actions were.

At the studio, her dressing room was an actual dressing room. Since they were using a dance studio rather than someone's house, Savta and Harmony had dressing rooms instead of bedrooms. Savta was already in hair and makeup before Harmony arrived. They met out on the floor after Harmony was properly decorated.

Daniyel was looking through a camera lens and talking to Elior when Harmony walked out. She was nervous, but pretending not to be. The walk out of the dressing room was possibly her best acting performance of the entire movie. She had already spent a few days in front of Daniyel's camera, but Maria is mostly incidental in those scenes. Today was her big chance to show Savta who she was. She was more nervous about the dancing than the acting, which surprised her. Dancing is what she had always done. Acting was little more than a hobby.

“That's why you were more nervous,” Livia told her. “If you screw up the acting, it's no big deal. You don't really consider yourself an actress. But if you screw up the dancing, that's what you do. That's your career.”

She thought she would be worried about the pirouettes, but she was more concerned about how little sleep she had the night before. She should have been worried about both.

When Daniyel and Elior were ready, they set up for the first shot. She knew what they were doing because she was at the rehearsal a week earlier. She already knew her positions and where the camera would be at all times. Savta knew what they were doing because she was a professional and always knew what she was doing.

Daniyel wanted to start with the dialogue and then go into the dancing. Harmony could not decide if that was a good idea or not. She liked the idea of resting a little before she had to be at her physical peak, but playing an emotional scene is not the best way to rest. On the other hand, if they shot the dancing first, she might have been too spent to shoot the dialogue afterward. Daniyel's feeling was that if the dancing took all day, he could let Savta go home as long as he already had all of her dialogue. He was more concerned with Savta than whatever Harmony did the night before. As any good director would be.

In the scene, Maria and Savta talk about how Maria's career is less important than Arus staying in Jerusalem with his family. Savta is a retired dancer, so she knows how important dancing is to Maria, but she wants to dismiss Maria's talent and abilities. Calling yourself a dancer does not make you a great dancer.

Savta points out that she was a great dancer. Her grand jeté was the farthest. Her brisé was the highest. Her arabesque was legendary. When she says that she could do seven pirouettes without warming up, Maria takes a few steps back and nimbly does eight in her street clothes.

Maria's flawless execution shows Savta that she is more action than talk. They have a brief conversation after the pirouettes and the audience sees that Savta has come around. In a later scene, Savta tells the rest of the family that Maria needs to be in the United States for her dancing career and that Arus needs to be with his wife. No one is happy about it, but Savta is the head of the family. Everyone will follow her lead.

Shooting the dialogue with Savta was fun for Harmony. They had already done a few scenes together and she loved spending whatever time with Savta she could. Her character is trying to convince Savta's character that she is worthy of her respect. In a sense, that was exactly what she was doing. Most of the emotion is on Savta's end. Savta had to show the audience how her character gradually changes her mind. That sounds easy enough, but to make it look convincing on screen, actors have to know where in the scene each shot fits. In many ways, acting on stage is simpler. You basically perform in a straight line. In a movie, each shot can be from a different time and place.

Watching how subtly Savta transitioned was an acting master class. Since they shot all the dialogue first, Savta had to go from no in one shot to yes in the next. The dancing that changed her mind would be edited in between.

They shot the dialogue exactly as they blocked it a few days earlier. The conversation starts with Savta and Maria standing face to face, almost as equals. There is a vigorous height difference, but Savta has enough presence that being shorter than everyone else never matters. In the next shot, Savta sits down and Maria stays standing. As Maria takes a more dominant position in the dialogue, she is also physically over Savta.

The following shot is after the pirouettes, but Daniyel wanted it to look the same as the earlier shots, so they filmed it without taking a break and repositioning the lights and sound equipment. That only made it easier for Harmony. The camera moves down to Savta, making Maria appear even taller. She is now towering over Savta, physically and figuratively. Even without any dialogue, it would be obvious how the characters change places in this scene. Daniyel planned the scene long before Savta was cast or he knew that Harmony existed. It is a pivotal moment in both the story and Savta's character development. He never doubted Savta's ability to make it work. Casting Harmony was always a risk.

They got each shot in relatively few takes. There were a few technical problems, and Harmony tore a line or two, but they were finished shooting all of the dialogue in only a few hours. Savta was finished for the day since she was not in the one dance shot. She apologized for not being able to stick around, but she had her big Shabbat dinner. Harmony was actually relieved that Savta would not be there. She wanted the fewest people possible to witness her mistakes.

Daniyel insisted that they not take a break. The sooner he got the shot, the sooner everyone else could go home for Shabbat. Harmony would get a short break while they set up the shot, but she had to use that time to warm up rather than rest. Maria goes into it without warming up, but Harmony had exercises to do.

She wanted to tell Daniyel that she needed to take a nap, but she did not want to tell Daniyel that she was out all night at a dance club. One of the reasons this scene was scheduled for today was so most of the cast and crew had their Shabbat. After the dialogue was finished, they kept a minimal crew for the dance shot. It was almost like shooting a sensitive sex scene. Daniyel only had who he needed on set. From the crew's point of view, this was the easiest part of the day. Everything was on Harmony. Since Shabbat meant nothing to her, Daniyel did not have to worry about how quickly she wanted to get home. Shooting this scene on this day made the most sense. No one predicted that she would get almost no sleep the night before.

When Daniyel and Elior were ready to go, Harmony was as ready as she was going to be. In the high waisted skirt and monks that she wore all morning, she got into position and copied Mikhail Baryshnikov as best she could.

In
White Nights, Baryshnikov goes rond de jambe into his preparation without tendu. He puts his closing arm directly behind him for momentum but keeps his shoulders square. He uses his closing arm to sling and corkscrew up. His arms graduate in during the first few turns and do not even go into position until his sixth pirouette. His working leg never goes into a proper passé, but he gets a very high half toe out of his supporting leg. To lift after the tenth turn, he extends his arms to soften his landing. It is a work of art.

Harmony copied Baryshnikov's arm movements on the first take and fell out of the third pirouette. No one was expecting that. She pushed off too hard and could not control it. In trying to turn as much as she could, she forgot that quality was infinitely more important than quantity.

For the second take, she got into a solid position, but her head spots were entirely too forceful and she had to stop at the sixth turn. Daniyel could not tell how much she ruined it, but he knew that she did not do enough pirouettes. He was not examining her every move. He was simply counting each turn.

She asked for a short break to warm up some more and Daniyel reluctantly agreed. He wanted to finish as quickly as possible, but he was not a dancer and knew that he was going to have to defer to her experience in this case. He was a smart enough director to know that pushing her to finish faster would only make everything take longer.

While warming up, she mostly worked on her calves and arches. She had already run through the barre positions when they were setting up the lights. Purely as practice, she did a few casual pirouettes. Daniyel was watching her and counted each turn.

“That is perfect,” he practically shouted.

It was far from perfect, but she had apparently hit enough turns to make Daniyel happy.

“Do that in front of the camera,” he continued.

In attempting to copy Baryshnikov, she missed the point. Daniyel merely wanted her to do as many pirouettes as she could without it looking like proper ballet. He did not care where her arms and legs were in relation to what Baryshnikov had done. That was solely a reference point.

For the next take, she got into position and used a combination of Baryshnikov's technique and what felt natural to her. When she landed, there was dead silence in the studio. She was frozen while waiting for Daniyel. Maria was not supposed to do anything after the pirouettes. The next shot was dialogue that they had already filmed.

Elior had to remind Daniyel that the camera was still rolling. After Daniyel cut the shot, he walked over to Harmony.

“Do you know how many spins you made?” he asked her.

She did not. She was not counting. She simply did what felt right in that moment. She was concentrating more on the landing than anything else.

“You made fifteen spins,” he continued, smiling from ear to ear. “It was amazing. Better than Baryshnikov.”

Harmony would be the first to admit that she was not better than Baryshnikov by any stretch of the imagination. Baryshnikov at 68 was a better dancer than Harmony at 25, and possibly a better dancer than she will ever be. Daniyel, not a dancer, was going by quantity. He was sufficiently impressed.

But doing fifteen pirouettes led to a problem with continuity. In the earlier dialogue, Savta had already said that she could do seven. Maria was supposed to do eight to show that she was just as good now as Savta was in her prime. Fifteen is far more than seven. Daniyel liked the higher number, but he did not want Maria to be overwhelmingly stronger than Savta.

There were two solutions. Savta could come back for a reshoot and say fourteen instead of seven. But that would have to be another day. This was Shabbat and Daniyel was not about to call Savta at home and interrupt her holiday. The other solution was shooting another take where Harmony only did eight pirouettes.

Daniyel wanted to keep the fifteen, but they did another take just to be safe. Since Harmony was not as worried about emulating Baryshnikov as she had been earlier, she hit eight turns in one take and they got the shot that no one really wanted. Daniyel told her that he preferred to reshoot the dialogue, but he had no idea when that was going to happen. The schedule was pretty tight as it was and there was almost no room for any reshoots. Savta was busy and Harmony could not stay in the country indefinitely. The eight pirouettes were a backup, but Daniyel admitted that he might have to use that shot.

“Why not dub it in later,” she suggested. “You don't have to reshoot anything. Savta just records the word fourteen over her seven.”

Daniyel looked at her like she was an American taking a shortcut.

“We cannot do that,” he stated.

“Why not?” she asked. “Is there a close up on her lips when she says seven?”

“It is a long shot with the both of you,” Daniyel answered.

“Then who's going to notice?” she asked. “Both words are two syllables. Only lip readers and people really watching her mouth are going to see it. No one else will ever notice.”

Daniyel briefly consulted Elior and they were in agreement. Such a thing would be inauthentic and an insult to their audience, most of whom speak Hebrew and would never notice replacing the word “politics” with “Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame”. But Harmony could respect their decision. Their audience might never notice such clumsy dubbing, but they would always know. They were from a realist school of filmmaking. Fixing it in post was not their mantra.

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