Filming Only in America

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It all started in an office in New York, where the cast gathered on a Friday morning for a complete read through with Rob Maidment and me. Though I had been writing textbooks in American English for fifteen years, video and dialogue is more testing and we were apprehensive. Rob spoke to the cast, introduced me, and told them that I had the weekend to modify the script (which is why I was there ahead of time), so any “British-isms” should be noted and eradicated here and now, and would then be corrected, but once we started filming on the Monday, there’d be no long discussions on language. Read throughs are odd in that some people read flat and save it for the performance, others audition for Hamlet. The flat style prevails. That’s where we met Edward Norton (fresh from college) and we were immediately impressed by Ed’s comments, and also David Slavin’s comments. David had worked on major US ELT video projects before and was surprised (and pleased) at how natural we wanted the delivery.

I was there for only the first week’s filming of two … it was a rare time when I didn’t watch every scene of an ELT video. Karen and I had spent a week in New York complete with kids planning scripts a few months before. We eliminated most tourist things, after standing in line going up the spiral steps to the Statue of Liberty gave us both back and knee problems that lasted weeks. Kids are a great mask for location research. You can stand your kids in places and take pictures and no one blinks. For example, we needed to research Bristol Airport as a possible location for “Dennis Cook’s Trip” in Grapevine Two. We didn’t want to go through the long rigmarole of asking permission as we also researched Bournemouth and Southampton Airports. But if you start walking around an airport taking pictures of check in desks, and lines going into security and so on, you will find yourself talking to a police officer in black holding a sub-machine gun. But if you have a bag and small kids, no one looks twice.

Filming was based on the legendary Gramercy Park Hotel, which is where Bob Dylan and The Band stayed more often than they did at the Chelsea Hotel. The Gramercy Park was popular with both film crews and rock bands because it’s in a cul de sac, meaning safe and easy loading and unloading of equipment, a rarity for New York. We shared the bar the first week with the Henry Rollins Band and a basketball team. The hotel has been rebuilt inside since. I can understand why. I had to try three rooms before I found one where the crack in the basin was narrow enough to hold enough water to shave with.

The whole cast was great. I’d seen Nick Giangiulio in my favourite film abut the early 60s, The Wanderers, which we talked about. Dani Klein was a great comedian (she was doing stand-up, like Steve Steen and Jim Sweeney in our Grapevine videos). I still remember some lines on set which had everyone laughing (and which are unrepeatable). There are anecdotes about Ed Norton in the main ONLY IN AMERICA page. At the time, he was also doing some folk singing, and had a guitar on set. Acting prevailed.

The camera and sound crew, and the director were British, the rest of the crew were American. There was a difference in styles of working which were fascinating. When Nick wore his white suit as Tony Vidal, he took off his trousers about ten times in the day and they were pressed on an ironing board right behind camera. I never saw that in the UK.

The first couple of days were unusually polite and subdued for a film set. I was talking to Nick, and mentioned it. He said the American crew felt they couldn’t swear as usual on set because we were British. I knew the British crew were restraining their language for the same reason. We discussed it and decided the Brits should swear first. The American crew said, ‘What? You cuss too?’ and everyone relaxed. It was helped by filming at the house in Elizabeth, New Jersey for “The Websters” where there was a baseball hoop in the back yard. A lunchtime basketball game of England v USA ensued, and broke the ice, mainly due to amazement that the English won. I take no credit. I was only watching.

Another American filming custom (or more likely obligation) was hiring an off-duty police officer for filming in the street in Westhampton on Long Island (for “Strange Encounter.”) We had to drive the car along the main street and stop. The officer held up the traffic. On the third take, a waiting motorist sounded his horn, and our police officer shouted “We’re filming here! Anyone who sounds a horn gets a ticket!’ He also spent the day advising our actor who was playing a policeman on how to carry himself. In Westhampton we’d rented a dance studio for the location changing rooms etc. It was called something like “Diego’s Dirty Dancing Academy” and we all bought T-shirts.

This was the first cover design, which was rejected. It was felt that this scene from “Strange Encounter” didn’t demonstrate “comedy”. It was a great picture though, and adorns my own copy.

We filmed Strange Encounter there and I recall a conversation with David and Amy which wouldn’t have happened with British actors. I was doing read throughs with them, and they were worried about the car. We’d rented a vintage blue late 50s / early 60s Cadillac convertible. In the script we’d specified a convertible (so the actors could be seen and filmed) and the location manager had thought a vintage Caddy might be fun. The characters David and Amy were playing were uptight yuppies, and they said the car didn’t match. These people would have driven a European car, a BMW, a Mercedes or a SAAB. They were right, though we had specified “only American cars” as we could have filmed BMWs and SAABs in England. David said, ‘OK, you tell me the back story where the Caddy fits …’. I said, ‘Right, they’re visiting his ancient and very wealthy grandmother at her cottage in Westhampton for the weekend. She bought that Caddy new, has the chauffeur polish it twice a week, and takes great pride in lending it to her favourite grandson when he visits. After all, she rarely drives herself now and likes to have the engine turned over. So they leave the BMW at her cottage and take the Caddy …’  David stopped me, ‘So why is Amy driving, not me?’ I said, ‘He has a drink problem. She won’t let him.’ David immediately said, ‘You win. I can live with the Caddy now. Just as long as they haven’t driven it from New York.’

David and Amy in the Cadillac.

Providing and discussing back story with the actors was fun and happened a lot. It’s just what American acting schools focus on. With Jim, Steve and Cathryn on Grapevine, a similar process was happening, but it was done differently. When we were rehearsing scenes, they’d just continue making up more dialogue in character (always filthy and funny dialogue). They’d do the same after the director called “cut.” This impromptu improvisation served the same process of getting themselves further into character. I don’t think they’d have asked me about the Cadillac at all, but would no doubt have thought of some hilarious reason themselves (in character) for its presence.

It was OUP’s most expensive video to that date, and I recall a fraught day when Rob Maidment (producer & director) had to phone Oxford for an increased budget halfway through. To OUP’s everlasting credit, the budget was raised. There were sound pedagogic reasons. The crew told us two stories about “other” ELT publishers they had worked for, who ran short of money while filming videos and simply stopped where they’d got to (and released the incomplete video to the unsuspecting public). I never saw that sort of thing happen at Oxford either with books or videos, though on another project a rival publisher simply said “No more illustrations” when the budget was reached.

We all wanted to do a follow-up, and Karen and I plotted out scripts and wrote three or four in full. One got heavily adapted for English Channel, the others sit in a large file of unused video scripts. My first thought was to go west and do a second in California, as too many American ESL books and videos are centred around New York and Washington, but familiarity with crew, location managers etc (and the existence of office space at OUP) would have made New York the only possibility. Slow initial sales stopped that, though it went on after a slow start to become our biggest seller in videos (though A Weekend Away and A Week By The Sea sold far more Activity Books).

We also refined our Activity Books and added a number of new activities in Only in America Activity Book, which was easily our best Activity Book to that point. The result is that the English Channel Activity Books followed the pattern of Only in America, not the pattern of Grapevine.

I always thought it a great shame that it never picked up European sales in quantity. I think it’s a major opportunity for schools to expand the students’ exposure to accents, by using (say) a British English coursebook, spiced up with an American English video, or vice-versa. One school in Japan told me they used American Streamline with British teachers, and Streamline English (British) with American teachers so that students got both varities.

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