Homicide: Life on the
Best Damn Set on Television
Set Visit - November 12, 1998
Part 1

by Susan M. Garrett

"Bones of Contention" aired
January 15th, NBC, 10:00 PM (EST)

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I - The Auction

Sometimes, you get lucky and you're in the right place at the right time.

I attended the Lights, Camera, Auction charity auction in Toronto in October. It's run by The Motion Picture Charitable Alliance--they collect props, scripts, and other items donated by television and movie companies and auction them off for charity. The group was formed by Jon Cassar (director "Forever Knight," and "La Femme Nikita"), Nigel Bennett ("Forever Knight"), and John Kapelos ("Forever Knight") and this year's chosen charities were Covenant House New York and the White Ribbon Campaign: Men Working to End Men's Violence Against Women.

You see the "Forever Knight" connection. That's why I was there; I wrote the second "Forever Knight" novel and I've been a fan of the series for a while.

The "Forever Knight" connection is also part of the reason why Clark Johnson was there; Clark was a guest star in the "Forever Knight" episode "Can't Run, Can't Hide," directed by Jon Cassar. Clark brought along a few items from "Homicide: Life on the Street" to donate to the auction--a cap, a copy of the 100th episode, the pilot episode script, a crew jacket . . . .

And a set visit, which included a walk-on role as a 'dead body.'

I bid. I won. I was going to Baltimore.

Clark was great at the auction--he gave me the contact information, told me to call soon, and told me to hope that they got me on set sooner rather than later, because being a body in January was rough (the concrete gets really cold in Baltimore in January in the morning, there could be snow, and it could take up to two hours to get all the shots you need).

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II - Arrival at the Scene of the Crime

setmap

As soon as I returned home, I called to set up the set visit--Thursday, November 12th, 1998. Maybe I should have taken notice how close it was to Friday the 13th?

Our day started at 4:30 AM--my friend Sharon and I were driving down to Baltimore from Hanover, PA. We planned to make the trip in two hours. There were a few nervous moments, but we arrived at the Baltimore set at 6:45 AM. Our directions had said there were two blue doors, that we should enter the blue door without glass in it. We found the blue door. It said "Casting."

We entered. That ramp looked familiar--BOY did that ramp look familiar. We traveled up and up and up and very soon felt like Alice in Wonderland--we could hear people, but we couldn't see them. We tried to go out the way we'd come in, but the door was locked.

Then we found Chris. I think he was an electrician--we didn't catch the last name (sorry, Chris)--but he said he knew who we were, that my name was listed on the call sheet, which he showed us. He also offered us a tour around the set, but we really had to check in and let them know we were there (what effort it took to turn THAT down). He saved us and got us out of the building, leading us next door to the Production Staff office. We were assigned to production assistant Chris Barber.

Chris led us outside. The center of the building is a garage of sorts, with that great brick arch rising over it. Catering was set up with breakfast and Chris told us to help ourselves--to be honest, I was too excited to eat anything.

Television production makes Cecil B. DeMille's cast of thousand epics look like a one-man show; there had to be 50 people milling around--cast, crew, staff, extras, tech people--you name it and they were there. Clark came up to us dressed in the traditional Meldrick trench coat and the brown hat. He checked out my jacket (I was wearing my FK crew jacket) and told me that I'd have to go to wardrobe for something more generic. He said he'd catch up with us later.

Chris escorted us to wardrobe, which turned out to be a large trailer in that parking area, beneath the building. Shanna Gold, the set costumer, set me up with a green winter jacket and a gray and green scarf (remember that for later!) which she said would be perfect for a wintry morning in January. Of course, it was early November, but in TV time we were airing in January. Then it was back out to the front of the building to watch the scene.

Chris led us over to a little cart--I believe it was manned by Dave Thompson. It contains three monitors, two of which are video monitors and one of which is a film monitor. Unlike many series, "Homicide" uses a shoulder camera instead of a steady or stationary camera to do most of the filming. The video cart, called 'video city,' allows the director to track what is being filmed. The video and film are simultaneous, so when the video is used for playback, they can see exactly what's been shot on film without having to develop the film. Lee Bigelow is in charge of the script--I believe she was keeping track of what lines were omitted or changed during filming so the post-production script would be accurate and items could be matched for continuity later. Susan Ingram was in charge of the film cartridges. She had a little cart where the camera is kept during rehearsal and set-up and where the used and unused film cartridges were stored and marked as they went into or came out of the camera.

We were introduced to Miles Perman, the 2nd AD (assistant director). He gave Sharon and I headsets that were hooked up to the sound system. Bruce Litecky was the sound man and he was in charge of another cart--they handled sound with a wireless boom mike and wireless mikes attached to the actors. With those headsets over our ears, we kept scanning between the action 15 feet down the street (on the 'precinct steps') and the video city cart. There were also small handsets through which the director and AD could watch the scene as it progressed--kind of like 'live-action' Gameboys.

The episode is #12, "Bones of Contention," which is scheduled for broadcast January 29th. Thursday the 12th was day six of a seven day shoot to complete the episode. Everyone in the cast and crew is given a call sheet--this lists everything about the next day's shoot, from who has to be where and when, to how many hours of daylight are available for filming, to 'life's little instructions' (today's call sheet contained 151. Get acquainted with a good lawyer, accountant and plumber, 152. Fly Old Glory on the Fourth of July, and 153. Stand at attention and put your hand over your heart when singing the national anthem), and to props, transportation required, how many people catering should prepare food for breakfast (75) and lunch (65). Everyone also receives a small packet of pages (8 1/2 X 11 sheets cut in half) which are called 'sides.' This contains a photocopy reduction of the call sheet, the shooting schedule for the day (which lists the order in which the scenes are to be filmed, cast required, location, extras, props, vehicles, and set dressing), and photocopy reduced pages of dialogue to be covered that day. This gives the cast a cheat sheet in case they lose a line and allows the tech people to follow along for continuity.

The first scene filmed that morning was scene 17, "Lewis meets Munch." There were a couple of other guests there that day, the most prominent of us being Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Lanham, Sr., who was appearing in that scene as himself. The commissioner is retiring and in the middle of the scene he greets Lewis and Munch as they come up the steps into the precinct.

Richard Belzer arrived on the set--he was wearing a fabulous black coat, I think it was leather. Really, really nice coat. Clark showed up a few minutes later (in THE coat and THE hat) and checked with us to make certain we were being cared for, then off he went for rehearsal.

The headsets allowed up to hear everything as they did the initial setup. Richard Belzer was standing on the police steps. When someone asked him if he could go higher, he said, "If I get any higher, I'm going to jail." Clark Johnson was whistling "The Merry Old Land of Oz" from the "Wizard of Oz" and also gave us a rendition of another song with which I wasn't familiar.

There were certain calls we got used to during the day: "speed" indicates that the sound recording is rolling; "rehearsal" means no camera, the main cast are walked through their paces and their lines and they do the major blocking (who moves where and how); "camera rehearsal" means the camera is turned on and the rehearsed scene is viewed by the director (Brad Anderson) and cameraman (D.P. Alex Zakrzewski); "quiet" is called during rehearsal and during filming; "camera" and "shooting" seemed interchangeable throughout the day as people were warned that shooting was about to happen; "background" meant that people in the background would start moving; "action" is the signal for the main cast to being their work. Occasionally, we'd also get a "stop traffic" or "start traffic" during the exterior shots.

Working out the shot meant starting Clark closer to the stairs or further down the street, having the police commissioner come out of the building at a certain spot, etc. Once they got the shot the way they wanted it, cameras began to roll. The actors said their lines and walked through the scene. Then the director called cut and they did it again. And again. And again.

You'd be amazed at how many times the actors did that scene--first for a general shot which kept both of the main cast (Clark and Richard) in the shot, and Commissioner Lanham. Then they filmed close-ups, doing the scene once with the camera focused on Clark, doing the scene again with the camera focused on Richard. The scene is shot again from the front, and then again from the back (causing cries of "tuck in" which meant 'duck back into the parking area so you won't show up on camera'). During this, you have production people holding up traffic flow at either side of the street, which has to be released between takes, not to mention construction on a building across the street, garbage trucks, school buses . . . it seemed like everyone in Baltimore was driving near the wharf between 7 and 8 that morning.

That's the regular shots--then they have to run another take if a line gets flubbed or missed, if something shows up in the take that's not supposed to be there (like a crew member or a ladder), if a siren goes off, or a seagull comes screaming through.

It took an hour to film a scene that was less than a minute long and that was considered 'fast.' It turned out that we were only beginning to learn the ropes.

Clark stopped by and told us that we'd probably be in that scene, but as it turned out, no one really seemed to know what to do with us. We were left to our own devices and hung out for a bit, gawking with another group of visitors (the real owner of Falsone's 'car' and some of her friends, who were invited to watch the filming). Clark dropped by to tell us that he was done filming until later that night (he had to come back for a location shoot at 6:00 PM), but that he was going to change into civilian clothes and come out and hang with us for a bit. The gentleman from transportation shepherded us along with the car owner and friends and before we knew it, we were watching them doing the setup for a scene with Jon Seda and Callie Thorne and Falsone's car.

I'll mention Jon Seda later on a bit more, but from the first I was impressed with his energy. He was incredibly nice to us and kept making jokes with the woman who owned the car, occasionally ducking out of sight and announcing that someone had scratched it or that the transmission had blown or something. The call sheet says the car was a cavalier, but it was a lot sportier than that--AND a lot smaller. Bruce (the sound mixer) installed sound equipment in the trunk, the camera man and someone else were in the back seat, and Callie and Jon sat up front. They had a bad moment when they realized the car had security on, but the owner called out that they beeper was on the keychain. Jon had a lot of fun turning that security and lock beeper on and off later.

Clark approached Sharon and I--it seems like every time we saw him he hugged us and I wasn't about to complain (my nose reached the middle of his coat lapels, so that may give you some idea of his height, since I'm 5'5"). He handed me a copy of the shooting script, with the corrected pages for that day, and had signed it. Then he asked if he could buy us a coffee at the place across the street (can't remember the name, but they go there for coffee and go to Koopers to eat--NOBODY eats at the "Waterfront" except the tourists). He spotted Jon and Callie in the car and told me that I should get them to sign the script.

I hate to be pushy and I really hate to disturb people while they're working, so I told Clark that I didn't want to bother them, but he walked me over to the car, then knocked on the window. It took Callie a minute to find the power window controls, but Clark slipped the script inside and said, "Sign this for Susan, okay?" which they did, which was very kind of them. I noted that there wasn't a lot of room left in the car for the script--they were way crowded in there. Just the right mood for a script page of romantic banter.

Sharon and I surrendered our headsets to the other set visitors and headed across the street to the coffee shop with Clark. We sat down at a table and Richard Belzer joined us. Clark said they were great friends. Richard Belzer was very subdued, but he recognized Toms River when I mentioned it (our Little League won the World Series for the US for the first time in 7 years). They were both kind enough to sign photos we'd brought with us and Richard Belzer signed the script Clark gave me.

We chatted for a while--Clark was interested in what we did for a living. I asked if he knew there was a shrine to him on the internet. Startled, he asked me what it was and I explained they had some pictures, info on his career, that kind of stuff-he was weirded out by the concept. We talked about some of the stuff I'd read lately on the HLotS newsgroup and mailing list. I told him there were a bunch of people longing for the good old days of the first three seasons and he said that it was difficult to hang onto that kind of angst for seven years--that it only goes so far.

I also mentioned the Commissioner's ad-libs--Clark says he's guilty of that a lot. He introduced us to scriptwriter Eric Overmyer (who came in for a cup of coffee) and the producer.

My 'auction purchase' was to include a part as a dead body. One problem--we got the one script for the year with no body, just bones. Clark said he initially thought we were going to be in the scene with him and Richard on the steps and I said that it was okay if I didn't get a part--it was just fun to watch. But Clark, prince that he is, insisted and left us in the coffee shop for a moment.

Clark came back with Xan, who brought us a couple of releases, which basically allowed us to appear on camera as extras (it's a union thing). Sharon was going to get to be an extra, too, which was a fun surprise! She was wearing a leather jacket so they decided that she didn't have to go to wardrobe--she was presentable as is. He then took a photo with us (the one photo that didn't turn out!) and left us in Xan's hands.

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III - Girls on Film

We headed back out across the cobblestone street (the cobblestones, by the way, aren't cobblestones--they're stones that were used as ballast in the tall ships in the great days of shipping, which were unloaded for cargo and then used for paving) to the set, where they were now setting up to film the 'getting out of Falsone's car' scene.

The street is an actual thoroughfare and we saw everything from school buses to cars, to commuters, to dump trucks, to real police cars pass by. My heart went out for the guys who had to start and stop traffic for filming--drivers aren't always willing to be inconvenienced because you need to get this scene in less than three takes.

We watched for a bit as they did close up work with Jon Seda and Callie Thorne around the car and then Xan grabbed us and led us away. Our 'extra' parts were as pedestrians--we were supposed to walk down the street, behind Jon and Callie, then pass them as they went up the steps into the station--the same steps we'd watched Clark Johnson and Richard Belzer film on that morning. Xan positioned us, then told us that we should start walking when we heard "background," we shouldn't look at Jon or Callie, just look like we were walking, pretend talking, whatever.

Sharon and I waited nervously, while they set everything up. Then we heard our cue.

We're from the NYC area. In NYC, you walk fast or you get trampled. The cast and crew were filming in Baltimore and were used to a slower 'walk and talk' speed.

We not only caught up with Jon and Callie, we bumped right into them and couldn't pass them because the bicycle cops were on my right and in our way. Xan was waving frantically but in an attempt not to look at anyone, I didn't see him.

The director yelled 'cut.' Sharon and I were so embarrassed. Callie didn't seem too happy, but Jon Seda was a doll. He climbed to the top of the precinct steps and said, "Hey, it's okay. When you mess up, you're supposed to dance." Which he did. Right there. On the steps.

I really appreciated that because I was mortified. My first ever film shot and I blew it. ARGH!!

But, they didn't make us go away or tell us to forget it. Xan escorted us even further down the street--I think we went into another zip code--and we started off again, at a much slower pace this time.

There's so much going on when you're filming, but as extras you can't/don't notice any of it. I was conscious of only two things--"background" and "cut." Our second time we managed to make it past Jon and Callie, the bicycle cops, and the well-dressed civilians. There were at least six other extras in that scene in addition to us; it was a pretty crowded stretch of sidewalk. Because we couldn't concentrate on the actors, I wasn't listening to what they said--all I know was that I was walking and trying to look at buildings and sky and cars and straight ahead and pretend there weren't 40+ people in front of me.

We actually got the shot in three or four takes. Sharon and I ducked into the main offices for a rest stop while they did some set filming and when we emerged we were ushered into the main police entrance. We thought we were done . . . but there was more to come!

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