This one comes from reader Orrin Konheim:
When watching the cameo-filled fight scene of Anchorman 2, my mind immediately went to how much fun it would be to be passing by the set that day. What movie scene would you have wanted to be on set for?
I like film sets a lot—the slow, boring, nuts-and-bolts behind-the-scenes stuff. (It helps that visiting active sets combines three of my favorite things: cameras, vegetable spreads, and watching people while not being expected to do anything myself.) As someone who thinks and writes about movies for a living, I’ve learned something from every production I’ve hung around, big, small, and in-between. Every movie is the product of a particular creative environment, and directing style is, in part, a question of maintaining and managing environments: relaxed, focused, high-pressure—whatever is going to work best. And, of course, that makes me curious about the kinds of creative environments we’ve lost, like the madly productive silent era—the days of hand-cranked cameras, rough scene outlines, and sloppy accounting. If we’re talking something more recent, I’d love to see a Johnnie To set in action, before his recent switch to digital; to see something like the opening shot of Breaking News come together would be a treat.
Oh man, there are so many. I had a hard time deciding whether I’d want to be there for something big and spectacular (like a Blues Brothers car chase) or something more intimate, so I’m gonna go with something insanely intense but also small-scale: the bowling alley finale of There Will Be Blood. I imagine it took days to shoot these six minutes, which contain some of the most masterful acting of Daniel Day-Lewis’s masterful career: He stalks around Paul Dano, bullying him, pointing at him, belittling him. “You’re just the afterbirth, Eli, that slithered out on your mother’s filth,” he hisses. Dano’s pitiful begging—he holds his own with one of the greatest performers in film—only seems to push Day-Lewis further into a froth, and he starts hurling bowling balls at the kid. (One shot in particular always struck me: when one ball hits a bucket of water, which explodes, and its contents hit the camera.) And then, of course, there’s the ultimate end, with Dano lying dead in a bloody pool and Day-Lewis finally resigned after an angry, awful, financially successful life. My only concern about sitting in on this scene would be that Daniel Plainview would rise out of Daniel Day-Lewis and brain me with a bowling pin, too.
Mine’s not so much a scene as it is a location. I’d want to have been on the set of the fictional Mayflower Kennel Dog Show, the setting for Christopher Guest’s Best In Show. Guest’s “scripts” are famously threadbare, so watching his regular players create charming characters out of broad stereotypes would be worth the visit alone. Of course, the film is about a dog show, so there would be just as many adorable canines as improvisors running around. I’d love to witness the neurotic breakdowns of Parker Posey’s brace-faced Meg and cuddle with Hubert the bloodhound, but the absolute greatest joy would be watching Fred Willard do the best work of his career. As color commentator Buck Laughlin, Willard completely improvised a continuous stream of clueless and absurd observations of the dog show’s mundane proceedings. I think it’s great when actors “break,” so seeing Willard’s co-commentator (played by Jim Piddock) struggle to keep it together after every off-the-wall remark would be the highlight of my set visit.
I can’t decide if this would actually be enjoyable or miserable, but for the sake of being able to share the story as one of my own, I would have liked to be on the set of Cruel Intentions when Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) dumps Annette (Reese Witherspoon). The melodramatic scene includes a slap to the face from Annette, which was apparently an unscripted move from Witherspoon that resulted in Phillippe throwing up off-screen once the director yelled cut. The two actors were engaged in real life and only three months away from getting married. Seeing a scene that intense and teeming with real emotion seems interesting and makes me think I would be witnessing one of Witherspoon’s growing moments on her way to future acclaim. I also wonder how the aftermath was handled between the couple. Plus, bumping into Sarah Michelle Gellar, Selma Blair, and Joshua Jackson pre-2000s would probably be neat.
In an age of green screens and motion capture, nothing on a movie screen is so dazzling that I can’t dismiss it with a shrug by saying, “It’s all fake.” So the one thing that never fails to impress me is good old-fashioned stunt work. And I could see the craft at its absolute pinnacle on the set of Police Story 3 (released in the U.S. as Supercop). Jackie Chan is famous for his near-suicidal devotion to doing his own stunts, but he met his match in Michelle Yeoh. A former Miss Malaysia, Yeoh could have chosen a very cushy life for herself, but instead pursued a career as an action star and preferred to perform her own physical feats. Here, she matches Chan stunt for stunt, culminating in a gonzo high-speed chase in which Chan dangles from a helicopter, Yeoh fights on the top of a moving truck, and then—in a stunt even Chan thought was too dangerous—Yeoh jumps a motorcycle onto the roof of a speeding train. Seeing that chase sequence in person would be thrilling, but the real excitement would come from seeing the craft behind every death-defying move.
While I tend to agree with Mike and Ignatiy that some wildly impressive choreography would make for a great set visit, my desire to rubberneck as a great trick shot was pulled off is the first thing that came to mind. Therefore, I’d probably make a play to be there when Antonioni filmed the penultimate shot of The Passenger. One of cinema’s great magic tricks, it has rightly gone down in history as a stunner, and I remember rewinding over and over the first time I saw it trying to put together in my head just what the hell happened. Plus, Jack Nicholson would be there cracking wise—how can you pass that up?
I’m going to pick a scene that managed to marry the height of fantasy with a moment of real human shock: the chestburster sequence from Alien. As the story goes, the non-John Hurt actors in that iconic triumph of special effects were a little unclear on what exactly was going to happen once Hurt was loaded into the special apparatus that produced the chestbursting effect. And so their shocked reactions, first to the massive sprays of blood, and then to the emergence of Roger Dicken’s fascinatingly grotesque chestburster puppet, were largely unfeigned. (Veronica Cartwright’s horror at having her face unexpectedly splashed with blood, for instance, was completely genuine.) Given that Hurt’s artificial chest cavity was stuffed with decaying organs acquired from a butcher shop, the Nostromo set probably didn’t smell all that great that day. But it’d be worth the stink to be there when one of horror’s great predators burst onto the scene in all its phallic, toothed glory.
I’m going the “go big or go home” route; I’d like to bear witness to the first party scene in Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. You know the party I’m talking about: It’s Z-Man’s happening, the one that freaks him out. Not only is it just an incredible collection of the sorts of folks you’d apparently find at an L.A. party circa 1970, making it an amazing time-capsule moment, but I’d also be able to watch Russ Meyer at the helm of it all, doubtlessly demanding more girls with bigger bosoms. I don’t know if the film’s screenwriter was actually on set throughout the making of the film, but if so, I can only imagine how giddy young Roger Ebert would’ve been watching the proceedings. Frankly, I’m not even sure I could handle being in the presence of Edy Williams shaking her moneymaker and everything else—talk about your titillating gyrations—but, boy, I’d sure like to try.
I’m actually totally with question-poser Orrin, but for a different reason entirely. Though I’m sure it would have been fun to watch the star-packed chaos of either Anchorman fight scene unfold, I imagine that those scenes tend to be among the most tightly choreographed of a Will Ferrell/Adam McKay joint. What I’d really love to have seen is pretty much any improv-heavy dialogue scene in a Ferrell/McKay production. I know they always start with the scene as scripted, and that anything improv-heavy probably has plenty of takes that don’t really work; to me, the combination of those with the occasional inspired improvised run seems like it would make for fascinating viewing, as long as you have a high tolerance for watching bizarre variations on the same basic dialogue exchanges. Fortunately, I can claim such a tolerance, having watched multiple versions of all of the Ferrell/McKay comedies so far. Now that I’ve exhausted the alternate cuts, deleted scenes, and blooper reels, the next logical step is to hang back on set and watch the stuff that isn’t even deemed good enough for the Blu-ray extras.
A Robert Altman film set is my dream visit, so I’ll pick the cocktail party scene from The Player. It’s a nothing scene, really, where Tim Robbins’s murderer film executive drops by his lawyer Sydney Pollack’s spacious L.A. pad and ends up mingling with the likes of Harry Belafonte, Rod Steiger, and Jeff Goldblum (playing themselves), and many others. Like most Altman, the scene looks loose and unstructured because it was—for his Hollywood satire masterpiece, Altman invited some celebrities over, paid them scale, and set them loose while Robbins, Pollack, Cynthia Stevenson, and the rest of the cast wove through the scene in character and Altman, ever listening and watching, waited for inspiration to strike. I always imagine being on an Altman set would have been like being inside the act of creation itself.