Set Visit: The Dilemma

“What do you do?” asks Matt, the young bartender at the Cedar Hotel on Rush Street.

When I tell him, he says, “Oh, you’re here for Transformers 3? They’ve been filming in the city,” while he opens another 312 for me.

“No, it’s for the new Ron Howard.” I say, “It’s got Vince Vaughn…Kevin James.” Then I take a fox-like approach to my second duck taco.

“Oh, they’re funny guys, that’s cool. What’s it called?”

As of this writing, it’s The Dilemma (and still is if this paragraph hasn’t since been edited). Up until two days before I left for the set visit, it was What You Don’t Know, changed because of its similarity to James L. Brooks’ latest, How Do You Know, which will premiere first. Sometime before that, it was Cheaters. Whatever title ends up on the marquee in January, this is most definitely not the film that’s left Styrofoam debris and charred cars all over the fine city of Chicago but something a lot funnier.

It’s August 4th, leaving one week left to shoot. Then it’s to the editing bay, where Howard and his assistant editor Carolyn Calvert will pick and choose from both the scripted takes and the improvised “free takes” that Vaughn led from late May on.

This last week will be the last days that Vaughn, James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, their director, and the several dozen crew members have on set. (Queen Latifah and Channing Tatum are already in the can.)

At 10 a.m., we are bussed a few blocks past Harpo Productions to the set. But before we are allowed to enter the building where they’re filming today, it’s to the extras holding room, where we wait a half-hour to interview Howard. From the moment he enters the room, orange beard and trademark director’s hat (Lake Geneva today) on, to the moment he exits nearly 40 minutes later, he speaks with and carries that sweet Ron Howard aw shucks vibe he’s been owning since he was a kid.

“The characters are great, the scenes are funny, but the situations ring true and they lend themselves to a kind of cinematic urgency and visual approach that is different than what you’d do in a straight-ahead character comedy.”

After our interview, we’re ushered to an abandoned warehouse, doubling today as the garage of B & V, the company owned by James and Vaughn’s characters, Isaac Backman and Ronny Valentine. It’s lined with billiards and foosball and ping pong tables, a pinball machine and cars too sharp and polished to stare directly at. It’s a workspace decorated to hang out in and relax after a hard days work.

We are shown to a separate room, used as a location earlier in production. In it are shelves and cabinets of model cars, trophies and car magazines. Installed in front of us are four monitors, flickering every foot of film that cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s two Super 35 cameras capture.

The command of “Rolling!” starts somewhere around Howard and echoes around the brick interior of the garage, the final edict hurled at us.


Without a headset, the scene’s dialogue (around three pages worth) is inaudible.

“Great, cut cut cut.”

And then playback of the take, which everyone near a monitor can hear. The point of this scene, in Howard’s words: “[It’s] a threshold moment where Vince has to decide how much of this secret he’s just discovered he wants to tell…Both guys know that something’s bothering the other one, no one really knows what and this is a scene where they’re both fishing around.”

After playback, the stars exit and the stand-ins enter the frame for lighting and blocking. “Vaughn” is tall and strapped in by black sideburns, while “James” is round and missing hair in some of the wrong places. But you couldn’t mistake either for their respective Hollywood counterparts.

This procedure of rehearsing, shooting, blocking and mocking the stand-ins is rehashed over a dozen times throughout the day.

“Still awake?” Howard asks us during a setup he need not be entirely present for. “I haven’t been able to fall asleep.” He checks the monitors. “Although George Lucas fell asleep on American Graffiti. People kept nudging him and nudging him until--” And then Howard amusingly (and we assume closely) imitates an alarmed Lucas leaping awake from the prodding fingers of his crew. (It’s impossible to duplicate in text, but maybe you hadn’t heard that one before.)

“Quiet, please!” again echoes.

“Two in a row, no cutting!” shouts Howard. Five-hundred and twenty feet later, it’s “Cut!” After blocking, it’s take two of scene 27E.

James’ round eyes scan for guidance. “Anything different? Are we looking forward this time?”

Vaughn, with a manic mixture of eagerness and exhaustion: “Let’s try forward...” Forward works, and it’s on to 27F, marked on the clapper just below “Untitled Cheating Project”.

With headphones, we can hear what some of the crew had been laughing about for the past couple hours: Vaughn’s character has a hives outbreak brought on by stress and it burns when he pees. From Vaughn’s rapid display of animation that he’s made a trademark of his characters, James bursts into a fit of laughter, which lends to hisses and a ruined take. But there’s no cut.

“Do it again...” advises James.

“Still rolling!” shouts an unseen crewman.

James remains disappointed about his flub, hissing like a slit Hot Rod tire, while Vaughn, professionally says, “Can we go, please?” He, an alumni of Chicago’s Improv Olympic, may be worried that his ideas during the great improvised “free takes” may have left his head amidst James’ snickers. And if they leave then, how does he expect to get them back?

They clearly work well together and sitting next to each other, Vaughn and James resemble any fine comedy team: one is tall, the other round; one sparks laughter verbally, the other physically. They joke with a friendly game of ass-kissing: (“[Vince is] the best at what he does…This man was a savant on making the script better.”) and (“Kevin reminded me of one of my favorites, which was John Candy.”).

Towards the final hours of the production day, Jennifer Connelly (in four-inch heels, but still a good 6” shorter than her on-screen hubby) and Winona Ryder (short, too button-like for James) enter the set. Connelly bids us a comforting “Hello” that causes one of us, first time seeing such a creature as tall and sexy as this, to spill his notebook on the floor. With new eye candy (and stand-ins!), it’s a fresh start for the journalists--and Vaughn, evidently, who trumpets, “Let’s do this thing!” before one of the takes with the ladies.

Soon, though, it’s time to interview Connelly, and so we’re again taken off the set. Adjacent to the pinball machine and next to the foosball table, Vaughn and James partake in a buddy-buddy ping pong match. With the white celluloid ball bouncing at an even pace and their inner-office scraps apparently forgotten, the duo shows that a handful of filmed flubs don’t exemplify the chemistry that they really have.

Source: JoBlo.com



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