Sunday, December 21, 2008

More "Tales" DVD Liner Notes - Alan Poul


I WAS PRODUCING a Rock the Vote election-year special for Propaganda Films in fall 1992 when I was approached by that company's head of television, Matt Loze, about producing Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. I think I said yes before the words were out of his mouth. Like all gay men who came of age in the 1970s, I had read Armistead's books as a rite of passage, their characters and references having entered the subcultural vernacular of the day.

Already on board were Armistead and his partner Terry Anderson; producer Antony Root of Working Title Television, the UK company that owned the books' TV rights and was co-producing the film with Propaganda; and screenwriter Richard Kramer, who had just created the groundbreaking gay storylines on the series thirtysomething. Supervising everything was the UK's Channel Four, chiefly in the person of Peter Ansorge, editor of drama series for the innovative network.

The role Channel Four played in creating Tales cannot be overstated. Initially, the plan was to do a 13-hour adaptation that would be funded half by Channel Four and half by an American broadcaster. The American side failed to materialize - no network or cable channel would touch the material. Instead of backing out, Channel Four committed to fully financing a six-hour adaptation, even with no guaranteed American sale.

Channel Four shaped Tales not only with its bankroll, but also with its approach. Ansorge et al. were interested in a televised novel - not a liberally adapted reinterpretation for TV. This basic (but hardly American) principle of respect for a literary text was as significant as any other factor in making Tales such an original piece of entertainment.

Channel Four's one stipulation was that we hire a British director. We watched the work of many contenders, but the one film that stood out was Alastair Reid's Traffik. That this six-hour miniseries is now known chiefly as the basis for Steven Soderbergh's feature is an injustice. The way the series intertwined great scope and complex storylines while maintaining an almost painful sense of intimacy was indelible. After meeting Alastair and learning of his passion for Armistead's book, his fascination with magical realism, and his all-embracing love of the characters, we knew we had our director.

The other major contributor to the pre-production process was John Lyons. At that time, John was one of the best casting directors in features, whose work included all of the Coen Brothers' films since Raising Arizona. Our first major decision was the casting of Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, a unanimous choice. But with his roots in the New York theater world, John was also able to bring us actors we had never heard of, like Laura Linney, Thomas Gibson, Paul Gross, and Barbara Garrick, with the confidence that they would deliver. John has gone on to a successful producing career (Boogie Nights, Austin Powers in Goldmember), but his foresight and instinct were major factors in pulling together the Tales ensemble.

Casting was the first area where we had to grapple with degrees of literal faithfulness in visualizing the text. Though the book frequently describes Mary Ann as a brunette and De De as a blonde, we decided, after considerable hand-wringing, not to force Laura Linney and Barbara Garrick to change hair color. Similarly, until we found Billy Campbell, we had been searching only for a light-haired Jon because the book describes him as "blond." Our initial priority was to be faithful to the readers' collective imagination, but when it came to choosing performance over cosmetic detail, Armistead readily agreed that talent wins out.

The production was based in Los Angeles with exteriors to be shot in San Francisco. On our- first San Francisco scouting trip with Alastair and production designer Victoria Paul, we set out to locate the mythical Barbary Lane. We had assumed 28 Barbary Lane would be shot on small sets representing interior rooms and bits of staircase, with a real San Francisco exterior- to shoot for entrances and exits. But when Armistead took us to Napier Lane, one of the real-life walkways that had inspired him, we found apartment houses with exterior staircases leading up to landings outside each door. Alastair was struck on the spot with the inspiration to turn Anna Madrigal's house inside out and put the skeleton on the outside. Vicki completed the drawings as soon as we returned to L.A., and the three-story Barbary Lane courtyard set was born. This set is so closely identified with the series that it is hard to imagine now it was ever conceived differently.

Alastair survived a brutal shooting schedule with the aid of his meticulously notated script, in which he had drawn a few simple storyboard frames for each scene. This was his editing master plan, from which he could imagine each scene's place in the finished six hours, and thereby reduce shots. The actors returned Alastair's generosity and goodwill with a deep and implicit trust. Near the end of the L.A. shoot, we were filming a San Francisco bathhouse we had erected in the kitchen of the old Ambassador Hotel (on the site where Robert F. Kennedy was shot).There was a problem with the scene where Jon Fielding (Billy Campbell) enters the cubicle of Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson). We couldn't show Beauchamp's face, since his identity isn't revealed until a subsequent scene, and yet we had to make it absolutely clear that Jon was about to have sex. Billy Campbell didn't have a nudity clause in his contract, so we couldn't ask him to remove his towel before stepping in the room, even though that would make the scene work. Sensing the frustration, Billy finally turned to Alastair on the set and said simply, "Alastair, do you want my butt!" Alastair replied, "Yes, dear boy," and the scene (and the towel) came off without incident.

We scheduled the San Francisco location shoot at the end, meaning that by the time we were shooting exteriors, most of the matching interior sequences had already been filmed. That meant that had we encountered a lot of fog or rain, we would have had major continuity problems on our hands. We went to great lengths to secure weather insurance for the 12 days of location shooting, an expensive proposition in San Francisco. As it turns out, our shoot in June 1993 consisted of 12 days of unbroken sunshine. Then, of course, we worried that we didn't have enough fog. But ultimately I think the preternatural sunshine enhances the show's depiction of a magically good-natured world.

As for the American broadcast, our rescue arrived in the form of Lindsay Law, who was then executive director of PBS's landmark American Playhouse series. Even though we were well into production when the sale went through, Lindsay came on board with remarkable enthusiasm, and his efforts went a long way toward making the American premiere the sensational event it turned out to be.

Armistead MauPin's Tales of the City debuted on PBS on January 10, 1994, and ran two hours a night for three consecutive nights, garnering the highest ratings for a drama program in recent PBS history. In San Francisco, the show even beat out the three commercial networks. But thinking back, I can remember clearly that until the moment of the broadcast, we were never sure if we had gotten it right

Alan Poul is currently executive producer of the acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under.

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