Friday, January 22, 2016

Lights, Camera, Action!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I come from a creative family. My mother is an artist, my dad makes incredibly detailed models and miniatures, my sister Barb is a professional face painter, my brother Patrick a gourmet cook, and you know what I do.  The younger generation is getting into the act: all of my children write, Barb's two youngest boys dance and act, respectively, and as for Patrick's son Robbie...well, he's three. He's showing signs of promise on the inflatable guitar, though!

To get back to the actor: my nephew Xavier Wolf isn't doing the middle school drama club. He's a professional member of the Screen Actors Guild who's appeared in ads, TV shows like Evil Kin and Veep, and movies such as Argo and Captain America Winter Soldier. Xavi's just like other boys his age - he's into Star Wars and video games, plays basketball and goes to Scout camp - except that several times a week he and his mom take the train to NYC for auditions and casting calls.

His most recent project may be (fingers crossed) his biggest role yet. He was tapped for a potential series called Holiday Shelter, a "dramady" about a widow with two teens opening her house to a homeless woman and her two young kids. The production company, Roughest Crew Pictures, pitched the series to Hulu, which gave them the green light for a pilot episode.

Dissolve screen to White Plains and Mount Vernon, NY, where Xavier, his mom, the cast and crew decamped to shot the pilot over a week's time. (You're thinking, what about school? Not to worry. In addition to an on-set tutor, Barb is home-schooling Xavi this year.)

Their days started early; Xavi had a 6am call which meant getting up at 5:15 every morning, which, knowing my sister, was a lot easier for him than for her. He was cast as the homeless woman (Jenn Gotzen)'s son, and I understand his seriously pitiable looks (mastered while trying to stretch out his bedtime) had star Alicia Minshew (All My Children) near tears.The fact they were filming outside in January certainly helped him connect to the unpleasantness of living in a car. (Brrr!)

Meanwhile, Barb, who is one of those amazing women who anticipates everything, got the nickname "Set Mom" for her endless stashes of band-aids and hand warmers, her willingness to pitch in with set dressing and - on one occasion - driving the cast and crew to the set in her minivan when the crew transport was stuck in traffic. I'm hoping she gets some sort of credit for actually cooking pancakes and bacon for the big breakfast scene! It turns out that TV, at least at the pilot stage, is a lot more like "let's all rent a barn and put on a show" than one might imagine.

Despite the 6am-to-8pm days of shooting, Barb says they had a lot of fun. Many of the cast and crew were housed at the same inn, which gave the evenings a bit of a group-on-a-holiday feel. The young actors and the grownups alike played board games and card games, and Xavi, who is the most outgoing kid you can imagine, would play with the other youngsters or listen to the crew explain their equipment between takes.

So what happens next? The film is in editing, and within the next couple of months, will be screened for the folks at Hulu. If it's a thumbs down (noooo!) Xavier will have gotten a great experience with seasoned professionals - and have a TV pilot to add to his demo reel. If the programming people like it, woo hoo! It'll go into production as an Hulu original series, and I'll get to stream my nephew any time I want to see him.

So, dear Readers, what do you like to see in a series? Do you stream, or broadcast? And if you have questions about what it's like to be a part of making television, my sister Barb will be popping in on the back blog to give you some answers.


  1. Wow . . . your nephew sounds like a great kid and it's wonderful that he's getting to do what he really wants to do. I hope the show gets picked up.
    Although I've seen Netflix and Hulu at my daughter's house, we haven't gotten into streaming.

  2. Like Joan, I've only watched Netflix and Hulu while visiting relatives. I gave up my TV connection a few years ago, and instead borrow DVDs of TV programs from the library. If I really like something, then I'll buy the program on DVD. Because most of the TV programs on DVD also have special features in which all the people involved in putting on a program explain how it all gets done, I've learned quite a bit about the kinds of talents/gifts that are used in producing a program. Despite all that the actors/crews/producers, etc, learn from each experience it must be heartbreaking when a program is not picked up or only has a short run.

  3. Can I just say your sister sounds like a saint, and Xavier sounds like a darling. Why am I not surprised? We'll all be rooting for a thumbs-up.

    I haven't watched a DVD in ages. It's either TV or streaming -- we have ROKU and some guilty pleasures I watch on my laptop (The Good Wife) the minute a new episode is out. A years ago we went to a real theatre to see a live-streamed London stage production of The Audience with Helen Mirren. Not quite like being there, but not quite like NOT, either. I loved it.

  4. what fun Julia! and congrats to Xavier and Barb. No matter what happens, this will be an experience they won't forget. All paws crossed the show gets picked up. Isn't it interesting how the presence of these new ways to watch TV has broken open possibilities? I guess that's happening in publishing too, though this sounds like more fun!!

  5. INCREDIBLY COOL! Ooops, caps lock, but this deserves it. What an adventure!

    We have Roku, too, and love it. And it accesses Acorn, and Netflix, which are fabulous. It's so much fun to scout for and find something new! There are so many choices in TV today, amazing, and it allows so many more creative people to get their work to the public. And proves how effective word of mouth is--cf Making a Murderer.

    DVD? No. Not in years. They have gone the way of the VHS tape. I'm sell not into watching on my laptop..hmmm. Maybe i'll try to stay away from it. But it does allow you a lot of freedom! (Especially like when I was just in Florida and the TV in my hotel room didn't work--I had my computer!)

    Is there anything the public can do to help. Julia?

  6. Hank, I think tweeting out #HolidayShelter to @hulu is a good way to show support!

    It's interesting to see how many of us are getting the bulk of our entertainment streaming. We haven't have cable TV at our house in years. Instead we have Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus, and the Smithie, who is living with us, has Netflix. Except for sports, we're covered for everything we want to see.

    Barb said she would drop in, but it may take her a little while. EVERYthing is closed in DC, she she's stuck at home with husband, two boys and three dogs. Hope she had a large bottle of wine set aside for the storm!

  7. Barb and Xavi here. Thanks Julia for the great story about your nephew! He had so much fun on set. Yes getting up at 5:15 is easier for kids than me. Luckily lots of set coffee to help get through the day. We are looking forward to 2 feet of snow and thankful it wasn't last week when we were shooting. That would have been rough. I have great admiration for the crew being outside for 8-10 hours at a time sometimes. If you have any questions for me or Xavi just post them. We are happy to answer. Now to get one of the Claire Ferguson novels turned into a movie for him to star in !

  8. What a cool experience. Best of luck to Xavi! (My teens would revolt if I got them up at 5:15 on a regular basis.)

    We have regular TV for sports, that's all. But between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the DVR, we haven't watched a show at it's regular broadcast time in quite a while. If only The Boy could get his fill of the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, and college sports via streaming, we would totally pull the cable plug. ESPN streams live events, but you can only see it if you are a cable subscriber.

  9. Can you talk a little about the script? And learning lines? And how much is written and how much is improvised? How long is a scene, and how many takes for each? Do you shoot in order?

    SO interesting!

  10. Big dreams + big effort = cool kid! Go Xavi!

  11. Hank Phillippi Ryan, Xavier has a great ability to memorize lines (math fact flash cards are another story LOL). He not only learns his lines but those of others. It's a natural thing he is able to do. A lot of times on set after they do the lines they are sometimes improvised or changed. Some sets then type up the changes on the script and a new script is issued (even though the new lines have already been said and taped). It really depends on the production.

    For the scenes, it's funny. They need different angles of everything. So someone knocking on the door you need a take from the street, a take from the side and a take from inside the door. Then you need to do each of those takes several times. So just 30 seconds of film can take a long time.

    Most productions don't shoot in order. This one shot a lot of the same room scenes at the same time. This makes it easier for the camera crew to set up their stuff and not have to spend a lot of time resetting up.

  12. Julia, what an exciting time your nephew is having! And, kudos to your sister Barb for her support and work in helping Xavi achieve his dreams. Of course, I know it's fun for your sister, too. When my kids did drama in high school, I loved it. I sure hope the series gets picked up by Hulu. It sounds like an excellent show.

    We have just started using our Netflix streaming more, and I want to go back and pick up Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime. I saw the first two episodes and was interested. Read the book years ago. My grown kids use Hulu, and I plan on now checking it out more.

  13. Oh that's gotta be so fun for Xavi. What an exciting time. I've always wondered what actors do during all the downtime -- there's quite a lot of it, isn't there? If you're not a star with your own trailer to retreat to -- what do you do?

  14. Julia, this is so terrific! Fingers crossed the show gets picked up and we get to see Xavi, too. Barb, how wonderful that he has the remembering lines gift--absolutely essential for a career as an actor, I would think. I marvel at my musician friends who can remember lyrics, too.

    We had both interior and exterior scenes from a movie filmed IN our house once. It was so interesting--and so incredibly disruptive. It was about 105 degrees outside and both upstairs and downstairs central air had to be turned off when the cameras were running. And the extras were camped all over the house, waiting for their little bits. Afterwards, the producer's check to us bounced, and he never returned our phone calls. Still, it was a fun experience.

    We have Roku and watch streaming, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube. But I still watch broadcast TV, mostly in the kitchen when I'm cooking and doing dishes. There are things on pubic television I like to see first run, and I have to admit I am addicted to The Voice.

  15. Xavi is a very cool kid, and I give great kudos to my sister and brother-in-law. Their older son was doing competitive dancing at a very high level, which meant his parents buying costumes, paying for lessons and driving him all over the Eastern seaboard, but when he decided he wanted to give it up to play soccer in middle school, they supported him completely.

    Xavier loves to pursue his acting career now, but if he gets to high school and says, "Nope," I know his parents will be fine with dropping acting, too.

  16. Gads. I'm in the dark ages. I thought I was doing good to have DirecTV. Which I added to to pick up Outlander last year. I keep meaning to try a trial of Netflix so I can see Longmire but haven't gotten around to it yet. So, what is Roku? And how does it get you Acorn (which sounds great) and other things? Will it be on TV? I can't read or watch streaming on a computer.
    As for Xavi, that is fabulous. I hope his future acting jobs have the fun and camaraderie of this one.

  17. Lisa Alber, being that he's a kid they normally have a tutor on set to help keep him busy when not working. Sometimes they have a special trailer set up just for "school" and sometimes it's just finding a corner of where you are hanging out. Xavi spent time doing work and playing with his Kindle and other kids. Older actors read, chat, work, or spend time in hair and make-up or rehearsing to get ready for the next scene.

  18. Deborah Crombie That's so cool that they used your house for the filming! We used a nice man's house while filming in Mount Vernon. I know it can be really intrusive but probably cool to see your house on screen :-) How awful the production check bounced !!! Glad you seem positive about the experience though. So you got to see how things work up close.


  19. Pat D Roku is part of Amazon Prime. It's a bit like Netflix. You can stream movies for free or for a small fee as well as TV shows and their own programming. You can watch it on your kindle as well. Outlander cool show !!! Thanks for your good wishes for Xavier, much appreciated.

  20. Sorry, I'm new to this ... the "unknown said...." is actually me, Barb (Xavier's Mom). Sorry.

  21. I hope the series gets picked up. Xavi sounds like a great kid (Barb, you must be proud).

    As for me, I'm a streamer. Currently Netflix, but looking into Prime.