INT. BANQUET HALL, METRO, DETROIT, 2015–DAY
I’m sitting next to the camera as we film one of the opening scenes of The Pickle Recipe.
Usually I sit at the monitor so I can take in the whole frame as we roll, and from there I’m constantly running back and forth to whisper a word or two to my actors or fellow crew members. But we’ve hit a rough patch, and I need to be close at hand.
One of the women in the scene, Connie, has never acted a day in her life. She was plucked off of the street by our co-writer and producer Sheldon Cohn while we were scouting a police station in Hamtramck, Michigan. Sheldon loved Connie’s look and attitude. She reminds me of my Sicilian grandmother on my father’s side.
We had Connie come in and audition for the three-line part multiple times. We didn’t want to take chances with any of the roles, no matter how small.
But nailing a reading for four people in a room and a small video camera is a world away from hot movie lights and a Red Epic camera staring down at you along with 35 crew members watching your every move. Couple that with the fact that you’re delivering lines to Academy Award-nominee David Paymer, and it’s no wonder Connie’s insanely nervous, overwhelmed and stuck in her head.
I can empathize.
FLASHBACK: EXT. SHAKEY’S PIZZA PARKING LOT SOMEWHERE IN THE SAN FERNANDO VALLEY, 1987–NIGHT
I’m sitting in the back of a 1973 Cadillac. The car has just screeched into a parking spot. An “unconscious” Heather Graham is sprawled across my lap as Corey Haim and Corey Feldman exit the front of the car.
We’re on the set of the 1988 teen comedy License to Drive.
My character, Charles, is supposed to get out of the car and start yelling at Haim’s character, Les, for driving like a maniac and nearly killing us.
My heart is racing, I’m sweating my ass off. I get out of the car, slam the door and start screaming at Les.
“Cut!” The energy dissipates. First-time director Greg Beeman walks up to me and utters the dreaded words no actor wants to hear: “Less is more.”
I nod my head and get back into the car. I have no fucking idea what to do with that information. Corey Feldman turns to me, and in a gentle voice says, “Just be real, man.” I know he’s trying to help, but I just want to strangle him.
I’ve been a child actor for five years appearing in countless commercials and on Broadway stages, but nothing has really prepared me for this.
I’m co-starring in my first feature film with “The Coreys” of Lucas, The Lost Boys, The Goonies and Stand By Me at the height of their fame. These guys are so calm, so confident and I’m a basket case.
The camera starts rolling. Calm down, Michael, just breathe and calm down…
INT. BANQUET HALL, METRO-DETROIT, 2015
I kneel down next to Connie and ask her to say her lines just to me. She does so. I ask her to repeat it, again and again. She’s starting to loosen up. I can feel her getting out of her own way.
I then ask her to do the same thing but now with her scene partners. Just say the lines and do the actions but at half speed. She’s easing into it. I have them continue repeating the small scene.
I walk over to my cinematographer, Geoff George, and whisper to him to roll. I look to my production sound mixer, Mark Haygen; he nods. I don’t say, “Action.” I just let Connie and the experienced actors continue to repeat the scene. I see the real Connie coming out and it’s beautiful to watch. Everyone is silently rooting for her.
Three more times and I say, “Tail sticks.”
INT. DETROIT APARTMENT, 2015–NIGHT
It’s rabbi time. We’re about to shoot the scene where our lead character, Joey, played by comedian/actor Jon Dore, is going to teach his Irish-American buddy, Ted (played by Eric Edelstein), how to be a rabbi, in order to help Joey steal his grandma’s secret pickle recipe. It’s Judaism 101, given to a clueless gentile.
We’re about 10 days in and Jon and I are in a great groove. When I give Jon direction, I get about five words out. He nods and says, “Got it.” And the great thing is, I know he does. It’s incredibly comforting.
Eric arrived on set an hour ago and flew in the day before from L.A. We’ve spoken on the phone a few times but this is the first time we’ve met in person. Eric asks how I feel about improv. I tell him the set mantra: We get the script first, and then, time willing, we play. He digs.
We rehearse the scene for camera. It’s obvious these two have instant comedic chemistry.
FLASHBACK: INT. STAGE 19, PARAMOUNT STUDIOS, 1990–DAY
I’m on the set of the NBC sitcom Wings. I’m playing a recurring character named Kenny, a young pilot who looks like he’s 12.
The writers/producers of the show earned their chops on Cheers and Frasier. This is the funniest, most well-written dialogue I’ve ever had the pleasure of saying. Most of my scenes are with Steven Weber, and we play off each other with ease. Director Noam Pitlick guffaws off camera as Steve and I rehearse our scene. Every now and then he gives us a suggestion, but for the most part, he just lets us play.
INT. DETROIT APARTMENT, 2015—NIGHT
Jon and Eric are killing it as they improv throughout the scene. It takes everything the crew has to not bust out laughing and ruin the take. Occasionally, I give them a suggestion, but for the most part, I just let them play.
INT. SHIR SHALOM SYNAGOGUE, METRO-DETROIT, 2015—DAY
I’m experiencing what could be a top 10 nightmare for indie film directors. Due to a scheduling conflict with one of our leads, we have to shoot the 10-page ending of the movie on day three of principal photography.
During prep, we called this scene “the monster” 10 pages—seven speaking roles, 200 extras, all of it taking place in a large space with multiple camera moves.
Our hope was to keep this near the end of the schedule so our actors could develop their relationships over time. Also, you never want to throw the most difficult scene at everyone out of the gate.
Did I mention our lead actress Lynn Cohen (Magda from Sex and the City) is 82 years old? Lynn is the emotional heart of the film, and this scene is the be all and end all for her character. This scene makes or breaks the movie. Talk about pressure.
FLASHBACK: INT. PRODUCTION BUNGALOW, UNIVERSAL STUDIOS, 1993—DAY
I’m outside John Landis’ production offices on the Universal Studios Lot.
I’m here to do chemistry reads with a number of young actors who are up for the co-lead role of Gary in the new USA network television series, Weird Science, based on the 1985 John Hughes film. I’ve already been cast in the role of Wyatt, one half of the teen duo that creates a genie on their computer.
First up is John Asher. John and I have read together from day one of auditions and we went through five callbacks for producers and the network.
The casting director brings us into the roomful of producers. John and I read. It feels good. On the way out, John Landis turns to me and says, “Michael, stay. You already got the job.”
This is the first time I’ve been given the opportunity to sit in on the other side of the doors during casting. The producers discuss John’s performance. Most of them want him for the role. But Landis isn’t sure. Again, he turns my way: “Michael, what do you think?”
Oh shit… John Landis, director of Animal House, Trading Places, Coming to America, actually wants my opinion. I tell him I think Asher is the best actor for the job. We have great chemistry and I think he comes closest to recreating what Anthony Michael Hall did in the original movie.
Landis nods. Then says, “Michael, do you know why you were hired? It was because every time you came into read you were consistent. Every single time you nailed it. And when the pressure is on and the cameras are rolling and money is burning I know that I can depend on you to deliver.”
INT. SYNAGOGUE, METRO-DETROIT, 2015—DAY
We’re about to break for lunch on day four. My phenomenal 1st AD, Alejandro Ramia, was able to get me an extra half day to finish “the monster.”
Everyone is beat. It’s like we went 10 rounds in the ring.
I walk over to Lynn. She asks if we got it. I tell her we’re in great shape. She hit it out of the park and gave me everything I asked of her. When the pressure was on she delivered beautifully.
She then says, “It’s so wonderful to be directed by an actor. Thank you.”
No, Lynn, thank you.
The only thing the audience cares about are the moments we capture between “action” and “cut.” Over-prepare during pre-production (storyboards, shot lists, countless meetings with production heads) so that when the camera rolls, you are 100-percent focused on your actors and what’s happening in the scene. If you’re thinking about lights or lenses or making the day, the actors know it and it affects their performance. The director’s most important job is to be there for your actors so they know you have their backs. If they feel safe and comfortable in their space, they’ll give everything they’ve got.
That’s how I felt as an actor and it’s my truth as a director. MM
The Pickle Recipe opens in theaters on November 4, 2016, courtesy of Adopt Films.