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Shooting Man in the Chair in LA

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The Motion Picture and Television Fund home on a 50-acre campus in Woodland Hills, California, is where many moviemaking veterans from grips to producers spend their final years. Ironically, the place was recently itself the location setting for the shooting of a theatrical feature, Man in the Chair.But the entertainment industry’s state-of-the-art retirement facility was not just a make-do backdrop. The plot of the fictional film, conceived and scripted by Michael Schroeder who also directs, centers on a resident of the home, Flash, a curmudgeonly gaffer who is the last survivor of the making of Citizen Kane. Nicknamed Flash by director Orson Welles, because his job on the movie was to flash the arc light, he encounters a high-school student who entreats him to help make his first film, which eventually winds up being a documentary about the plight of the aged in today’s society.Screen and stage star Christopher Plummer plays Flash, an up-and-coming 18-year-old Michael Angarano, who was the lead in last summer’s Disney hit, Sky High, plays the teenager transformed into a filmmaker through his chance encounter with the irascible Flash.Given such starpower casting, Man in the Chair is surprisingly budgeted at only $2 million. Attracted by the screenplay’s subject matter, most of the cast and crew have agreed to work for well below scale. “Because of their response to the script, many people are working for a weekly rate that’s usually their daily rate, and we’ve gotten great deals from Panavision and other equipment suppliers,” notes Schroeder.The Motion Picture home has gone out of its way to make the shoot possible, while the crew has worked hard to keep from disrupting the routine of the place. “This is the Shangri-la of nursing homes, and of course they were very protective of their environment and didn’t want it invaded or exploited or misinterpreted,” says the director. “But they perceived that they are being depicted as the best around, and will come up smelling like a rose.” Meanwhile, many of the residents are “so excited that the movie is being made here and about them.” A few even have small roles, like Jack Adelman, the prop master for The Wizard of Oz, who appears in a couple of scenes scooting around the grounds on his moped.Schroeder first came up with the idea nearly 20 years ago while working as an assistant director on a film that starred comedian Jonathan Winters who would occasionally visit the motion picture home and talk about those who lived there. “I realized you could crew a whole picture with the people in the home, and thought that could be the basis for a film,” says Schroeder. “I went on and directed a lot of action movies and the idea kept percolating, evolving into a story about ageism in this country and ageism in Hollywood.“To get Christopher Plummer, we went right through the front door, sending it to his agent at International Creative Management, and Plummer, once he read the screenplay, jumped on the opportunity to do it,” the director recalls.“It’s a wonderful role for me,” the constantly-in-demand actor, presently appearing in Syriana and The New World, told Below the Line during a break in the shooting. “It’s such a touching part, and something I don’t usually get to play on the screen, which is an old bum gaffer,” chuckled Plummer, who turned 76 in December. He was also getting a kick out of the scene he had just done with Angarano, that also included Abby Singer, 89, the former head of production at MTV who teaches production at the American Film Institute. His one line was, “This shot and one more.” For some reason, the “Abby Singer shot” has become the universally used term on film shoots all over the globe to designate the penultimate shot before the wrap. “It’s such a perfect in-joke,” laughed Plummer, “we’ve got Abby Singer, calling for an ‘Abby Singer shot.’”The film is filled with such inside references. One scene takes place in a bar that is called the Grip Lounge, a somewhat seedy hangout for crew. “There are no above-the-line wankers allowed here—no producers, writers, those kinds of creeps,” Flash tells his young friend Cameron whom he’s brought along. “The whole movie is about below-the-line people,” says Schroeder.Besides concessions made by participants, also helping to get the film made were tax breaks included in legislation passed one year ago by Congress to encourage domestic filmmaking, amid a rising runaway production trend. The film’s financing has come from private investors in Idaho, where Schroeder hails from, who were attracted by the substantial write-offs available these days to backers of films with budgets under $15 million.“We’re trying to show it’s possible to shoot all union here, and be competitive with places like Canada, Prague and South Africa,” says Randy Turrow, one of producer’s on Man in the Chair, and the film’s unit production manager. Turrow is also chairman of the mentor committee at the Director’s Guild of America, whose purpose is to upgrade skills of production managers and assistant directors. He is also active in the ongoing program by the DGA, which led the long fight to get the production incentives bill to Congress, to educate members on how the new tax credits work. “We want to make Hollywood’s production managers and ADs the smartest production people on sets in the world.”Man in the Chair has been a magnet for a diverse crew, ranging from versatile cinematographer Dana Gonzales, who was the A-camera operator and director of photography for the second unit on Crash, to Turrow’s assistant UPM, Tom Joyner who, in a long career, was first AD for director Steven Spielberg on Jaws, and production manager on The Blues Brothers.Besides the Motion Picture and Television home, the 25-day shoot, nearing completion, has filmed at the Beverly Theater near LA’s Farmer’s Market, the Sepulveda Dam, Hollywood Blvd., a bowling alley in Eagle Rock, and Coldwater Canyon for a car chase.For Schroeder, who was once pigeonholed as an action-movie director with films to his credit like Cyborg 2, known mainly as the debut vehicle for Angelina Jolie, the chance to finally direct Man In the Chair fulfills a long-held desire, which also required some personal sacrifices. “It took me eight years to get back in the chair,” Schroeder observes. “I sold my house, my Rover, my Mercedes, and I holed up in an apartment near the Miracle Mile and I worked to turn out a good script, and, fortuitously, with the federal government handing out a tax credit last year for making movies, it’s now really happening.”The story is about Cameron Kincaid, a rebellious and troubled 17-year old from a broken home who is a film fanatic with ambitions to be a famous director like Steven Spielberg. One night he goes to see A Touch of Evil in a theater and is struck by an elderly moviegoer making loud, but seemingly insightful remarks. As Flash heads home on the bus, Cameron follows him on his bicycle and winds up at the Motion Picture Home.The two tentatively bond and Cameron cajoles Flash into helping him make a film for a student competition which will get him into film school if he wins, so he can become a director. But the gruff former gaffer dismisses his jejune ideas about making a film about a skateboarder who wants to build a motorcycle from a vacuum cleaner. To get a better script, they visit a destitute screenwriter friend of Flash’s, living in a slum. Cameron is so moved, he decides to make a documentary on society’s neglect of the elderly. And with the help of Flash and his friends he finishes a film that wins the prize. The experience makes Flash less embittered; he’s regained his dignity. And though he’s always feared dying,
he passes away tranquilly. Cameron and his friend paint a star with Flash’s name on Hollywood Blvd. Says Schroeder: “There’s a line in Man in the Chair: ‘We never lose our gifts, just the opportunity to open them.’ The film is about giving people another chance to reopen those gifts.”

Written by Jack Egan

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