Mad Men, The Making of a Movie

May 25, 2012
Last weekend a particular episode of the AMC show, Mad Men, aired so I am now released from my nondisclosure agreement and I can tell of my experience on this television shoot. Some of what appears below was written during the shoot, some was written later.

Mad Men
November 30, 2011
Los Angeles

I will never again look at a TV show or movie the same way. It’s midnight in downtown Los Angeles, and I’m in the middle of a shoot for the American Movie Channel show, Mad Men. This is the first time I’ve witnessed anything like this and I am absolutely stunned and fascinated by how much work and how many people are involved, and how boring the whole process is. I arrived on site at a Los Angeles street corner by 12 noon and now it is after midnight, over twelve hours later, and I’m just now finishing. They tell me this 12 hour shoot will produce about 4 minutes of actual show time! And there must be a hundred and fifty people involved.

Two weeks ago an email arrived from a movie studio asking if I would consult for an episode of Mad Men that was to shoot in Los Angeles. I’d never heard of the show, but I replied anyway and there was an immediate response explaining the show’s needs and asking me to come the next day to meet the director and writers. They were shooting a scene from the early days of the Hare Krishna movement where their main character was visiting the first temple in New York City in the 1960s. My job was to ensure everything was authentic, that the actors wore the proper clothes and knew what to say, and that the set looked just right. The director and writers wanted to know the finest details of the Hare Krishna movement during the mid 1960s. It sounded intriguing, so I agreed. The next day I went to the studio in downtown Los Angeles and met with the director, the actors, the writers and even the creator of the program. I thought this was only to be a pilot episode, so it was a surprise to learn this was actually a production episode in the fifth season. In fact this program had received numerous Golden Globe awards. It was then I realized I was involved with something millions of people would see. In fact the creator himself, Matthew Weiner, had been a writer with the famous HBO series, The Sopranos.

Once I agreed to help, they had me sign a nondisclosure agreement and receive a stern lecture about privacy, not to even tell my spouse. I was also informed that paparazzi would be around during the shoot and not to speak with them at all. I’d be sued if I violated these conditions.

On the first day I sat in a large room with all the producers, directors, writers, and advertisers. It was a surprise to learn the advertisers were there to screen the script so they could decide whether they wanted to change their sponsorship of this particular episode. Apparently every episode is screened in this way. This was surprising, but having seen what is involved, it now makes perfect sense. Filming a television program or movie takes huge amounts of money, evidenced by all the people and equipment on this site. Everything is clearly about advertising dollars. A show is solely a vehicle to sell product and advertising revenue is what makes it happen.

After reading the script we broke into groups where the actors and writers came to me with questions. What did the first temple in New York City look like? What should the actors wear? How do they tie dhotis and saris? What kind of incense should be burned. What kind of pictures should be on the wall? Who should play the hand cymbals and how are they played? Once the swami entered the room, how would the devotees act? What would he say? How should they respond? How should they sing? What tune should they use? They asked questions in extreme detail! On that first day I spent six hours with the writers, set designers and actors. I was told to return for the actual shoot in about 10 days and be prepared to spend a full day.

Precisely one day before the shoot I was given the address of where and when to appear, everything had been a secret till the last minute. When I arrived the shoot was on a downtown street and police and security were in a abundance. A small shop had been procured just like those early days of the 1960s in Manhattan. They had reenacted the Hare Krishna movement in the streets of Los Angeles. A nearby parking lot had been taken over as a staging area for all the crews, camera, makeup, electrical, costume, catering, security, restrooms, and, of course, the actors trailers–everything that goes into producing a show. In fact a small army had descended on the streets of Los Angeles and whatever was necessary to supply that army was on site. There were literally hundreds of people operating out of this area. I never realized so much was involved in making a television show.

This one day on the set taught me much about how movies are made. Only two cameras were used, one on each side. I thought there would be more. The first shooting is called the Master where everything is shot from the farthest distance away. This Master is shot five or six times with the actors repeating the scene each time. Afterwards the actors leave and replacements, stand-ins, come and take the actors place while the crews move the cameras and lighting in for a closer shot. The stand-ins serve as focal points and framing for the camera crews. Once the set is ready the actors return along with the makeup and costume crews, who go through and touch up the actors for the second take. The shot is then retaken exactly as before except with the cameras in this closer position. They might do this shooting another five or six times. After this the actors leave and once again the stand-ins return to take their place as the crews move the cameras and lighting for another take that is even closer. This is third take. The time between when the actors leave and return is about 45 minutes. This getting closer and closer and reshooting and reshooting goes on repeatedly until they have just what they want. There might be 5 or 6 takes. After this everything is totally reversed. The cameras are pointed in the opposite direction and another Master is shot, looking out from the actor’s perspective. The whole process is repeated as before, moving farther and farther away from the actors on each successive take. Each time, as before, the actors leave and the stand-ins take their place while the crews move their cameras farther and farther back. Add all this together and it is easy to see the tremendous amount of time it takes. While all the shooting is going on, behind the scenes, a bank of monitors with directors and other spotters watch every detail of the scene. These people call out start and stop as necessary and they control how many times a particular camera shoot takes place.

Shooting a movie is laborious, tedious, and honestly, boring. Hurry up and wait is the axiom. Except for the beginning and the end, my time was spent walking the streets of Los Angeles and sitting in my car in a parking structure. Downtown Los Angeles is not a pleasant place. My job on this day was to check the set for authenticity. I had the setup people switch out the wall pictures of Durga and Shiva with pictures of Krishna and Vishnu, and replace the image of Ganesha on Prabhupada’s desk with an image of Krishna. I also helped the actors dress in dhotis and saris and put on the forehead clay. Once the shooting began I just waited for hours and hours. At last about 1130 pm I received a text message from the director asking me to come and show the Swami how to play hand cymbals and chant at the same time. I’d been waiting in my car in the next door parking garage watching past episodes of this show on Netflix. So here I was showing my own ‘guru’ how to chant Hare Krishna and play the hand cymbals. We took 12 shots, yet the swami just could not sing and use the hand cymbals at the same time. I had coached him over and over, but it was hopeless. The hundred or so other actors and support staff who had been patiently waiting become vocally abusive. Poor swami! Finally the main director had to be called. Had it not been so late he would have fired the swami on the spot. In the end the director decided to adjust the scene and dub over the swami with music. It was both an amusing and frustrating experience. The moment the scene was finished everybody immediately dropped everything and vacated the set. It was nearly one in the morning and everyone was thoroughly fed up.

One of the highlights of my experience was when the actors first arrived on the set. I was with them adjusting their dhotis and saris and suddenly news rang out, the paparazzi are here! Immediately the actors and even me were given black parkas that went down past our knees and had hoods that completely covered our heads, paparazzi coats. We were shuttled into vans, hidden away and driven to the site, which was not more than 300 feet away. As we got out of the van all the casting people stood in lines around us blocking any photographs that could be taken by paparazzi. This seemed to be standard for the actors, but for me it was exciting. The very fact of paparazzi indicated the status of the show.

I wouldn’t want to do this for a living, but at least it was exciting to be with the actors, support crews and even the paparazzi for a few days. It was fascinating to see how a movie is made and I learned much I can use in my own videos. It was a fun day and I was well paid. Yes, I love those advertisers.

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