by Sam Hamer with Jennifer Winslow
Kathryn Hahn & Kevin Bacon. (Photo: Jessica Brooks)
Saying the title of this show, whether placing orders with a vendor or simply telling friends and family, gets their attention. The title I Love Dick is based on a series of “love” letters by Kathryn Hahn’s character, Chris Kraus, written to Kevin Bacon’s character, Richard, aka Dick. It is a story of obsession and “female desire,” gone awry. Published first as a book, then as a stage play, then as a TV show for Amazon, when Jill Soloway came onboard.
Part way through mixing season three of Transparent, I was asked to work on another show created by Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins and I jumped at the chance. Having been fortunate enough to have worked with Jill and the Topple family since Transparent season two, I was very excited and appreciative to get to work on another project with the same group. The first thing I did was make sure my Boom Op, Eddie Casares, and Utility Ted Hamer were available and interested. It says a lot for the work environment at Topple when both Ted and Eddie were immediately excited at the opportunity.
Kathryn Hahn, Griffin Dunne & Kevin Bacon. (Photo: Leann Mueller)
The production methodology on this show is far from traditional, some might say odd, I say unique. Being on I Love Dick (and Transparent) is unlike any production I have been involved with before or since. We start the day with a gathering of the crew and cast called ‘Box.’ This is the moment where anyone can get up and speak about whatever is on their mind. It seems counterintuitive to spend five to forty minutes talking and listening first thing in the morning, but it brings us all together in a way that doesn’t happen everywhere. It reminds us that we are all on the same side, on the same project and working toward the same goal. Production can be stressful, locations can be challenging, daylight is finite, time is money, this is a morning moment and it reminds us that we are one family with one heart connection. Because we are able to share such personal moments with one another via the Box, it allows us to build a very strong trust between the crew and actors. This ultimately, helps with the work by creating an environment where the actors are comfortable to have a Boom Operator in the room during many very intimate sex and nude scenes. It is very nice to be respected and trusted enough to have the emotional IQ appropriate for such scenes and not have to have the sound or performances suffer.
Jennifer Winslow booming in the tiny jail cell set.
The shooting itself is very free-flowing, there are scripts, but the actors are allowed and encouraged to explore the part. This means, scenes often end up veering pretty far from the script, both in mood and stage direction. The show is shot handheld and is very organic with scenes developing from the first rehearsal, often on camera, to ‘Moving on!’ As with many shows of a similar freeform nature, we rely heavily on wireless lav mics, with two cameras (sometimes three) seeing anything at any time. However, because of the subject matter of the show, costumes may come off at any moment, so the boom operator must always be aware and available. It is an intricate and beautiful dance that Eddie Casares performs with the Camera Department, every shot, every day!
Kevin Bacon as Dick meeting Kathryn Hahn as Chris for the first time. (Photo: Patrick Wymore)
There are many last-second decisions being made in the creative moment that can be very difficult for sound to keep up with. Eddie’s sensibilities with regard to story and the director’s intentions give him the ability to make quick decisions with the boom and allows us to continue without breaking up the action.
One of the joys of working with Jill as a director is the confidence in what is being shot, what is needed and what specific coverage is required to make the scene work. With that skill, it makes it really comfortable for us to know what we need to cover the scene. Oftentimes, we will shoot big scenes with ambient music, onscreen musicians, background wallah or offscreen commotion. It can be very unnerving from a sound perspective, but what may seem like chaos after the first few passes, eventually becomes beautifully crafted where things often play as if it were in front of a live audience, intimidating, but exciting. Watching Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Hahn and Griffin Dunne flesh out those scenes was truly a wonderful and privileged experience.
Sam Hamer mixing with his bag-rig. (Photo: Jessica Brooks)
Eddie had to leave a few weeks from the end of the show due to a family commitment and we had to find someone that could jump into the deep end, have the appropriate sensibilities, set presence and personality to take over. My first call was Jen Winslow. Having worked with Jen before, I knew she would be a great fit and she blended in seamlessly to the mix, without missing a beat.
Jennifer Winslow: “My first day on I Love Dick, I walked onto the camera truck and met the show’s allfemale camera crew. For the first time in my many years in the business, I have never been on a show that was as female dominant as Dick. We unloaded the gear, chatted some and pushed into the set. I noticed a big difference in the tone immediately, and was warmly welcomed on that first morning, when we gathered in a circle around a rather large apple box signed and decorated by all those who have stepped foot upon it. This Box moment was such a surprise, the whole crew stopped what it was doing and came together. I’m so used to rushing onto set, watching the first scene rehearsal, listening to the director and DP devise our shots, and coming up with a strategy to get my department the best sound in the most efficient manner. Well, none of that happened. Box took at least a half-hour off the top of our day, every day. What a great way to start the day!`
Mixer Mack Melson in Marfa, Texas. (Photo: Patrick Wymore)
“Empowered and feeling good, immediately after that, I was thrown into an eight-page scene with six actors, all talking some scripted, some ad-libbing, all moving. I have filmed documentary style before and I quickly went back to that style of booming. Grabbing the most important sound to the story, using all my senses, listening for the key dialog as it was being generated, split-second, off the top of the heads of our actors. We had two to three handheld cameras, dancing and circling, creatively composing shots as we went on and on and on. The directors don’t always call ‘Action’ and ‘Cut.’ Instead, they say, ‘Off you go’ and ‘Thank you.’ That took a little getting used to, but again, the edict of this show is to be respectful of all involved, not to yell or get loud, unless safety is an issue. I was inspired and thrilled at how quickly I bonded with our two female camera operators, Julie Kirkwood and Shelly Gurzi, and their assistants, Zoe Van Brunt and Faith Brewer. We were in very tight, cramped quarters often. In one scene, I had to share a small space in a jail cell with six female actors and the camera crew while we shot a long, feminist-messaged ad-lib scene. This was an extraordinary experience and one I hope to repeat in the future. There was a slogan going around set inspired by Madame Gandhi, one of our actors and band members, ‘The Future Is Female.’ Needless to say. Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins are feminists and not afraid to get political.
Boom Operator Eddie Casares with his newborn son and wife.
“One special experience that really stuck with me on the show was an impromptu dance party we had shooting at a dusty location called the Skid in Pico Canyon. It was the end of a long, windy day when we moved into a small crowded room in a double-wide trailer. We were about to begin a long scene when our director, Andrea Arnold, instead of waiting for the final cast members to get ready, asked Sam for help. Ted always has a speaker available on set in case the director calls for mood music. He wheeled the speaker into the crowded room, hooked up the iPod and the dancing began. This particular night, we had a young cast of art students, no rehearsal, no line readings or stage direction. No UPM breathing down our necks. Only dancing with Andrea leading the pack for twenty minutes. What a fun way to reenergize the cast and crew. After the music stopped, we all geared up and began shooting the scene. We shot straight through and finished up in record time. This was definitely my first experience with a random dance party during the workday, led by the director. We had many female directors, with exception of Jim Frohna, the DP, who was so invested emotionally in the show, it was like having another they on set. I got to the point where I didn’t see gender as a primary defining characteristic of my co-workers, as it should be in a workplace. The set of I Love Dick proved to be more than I’d ever hoped to find in Hollywood. The gender equality came from the top down. They talked the talk and walked the walk, which is often rare on a film crew, especially when stress, anxiety and time push the crew to its limits.”
Art students. (Photo: Jessica Brooks)
We use a pretty standard package of Lectrosonics wireless with Sanken COS-11 lavs and Sound Devices recorders. We added some Lectrosonics SSM transmitters to help with pack placement on some of the more tricky and minimal costumes, with the help of our wonderful on-set costumer, Pamela Waggoner. Pamela always worked with Ted to get the best sound even with the most challenging costumes.
I have been using a Sennheiser EW 300 stereo IEM system for monitoring. I send all of the wires post-fade to one channel of the transmitter and a pre-fade boom to the other. This allows the boom operator to listen to the boom feed prefade, while the Utility can monitor both the boom and any wires I may be using. It is a very useful tool for this type of shooting, allowing the boom op to concentrate solely on the boom regardless of what last-second wires may be used.
Kathryn Hahn. (Photo: Leann Mueller)
The show takes place in Marfa, Texas, many of our exterior scenes had to be set in some pretty dusty desert-like environments which were pretty tough on the gear. Ted and I formulated ways to avoid all the mess and thus, a total redesign of the cart was born. The priority being able to close up everything and batten down the hatches! I also took the opportunity to increase my track count from the Sound Devices 788T to the 688, which is working out nicely so far.
Working with my brother, best friend and excellent Utility technician Ted, has been really tremendous. He is always looking one step ahead and preparing for it in advance, so we don’t have to scramble to pull something off in the moment of a new creative decision. He gets a lot of praise from our cast for having so many tricks and solutions for wireless mic and pack placement. It’s really nice to have someone on set to bounce ideas off of, help make technical decisions and as always, try to have a good laugh along the way. It has also become clear over the years that people seem to really like the fact we are brothers working together, it always elicits a good reaction.
I also want to thank Mack Melson for mixing the Texas portion of the show and for everything sounding so good.
Mack Melson: “I met Jill through the UPM from Texas. Happily, I was available. My first impression was that I thought they were all nuts. On prep day, we had a beat change meeting with the actors, Jill and all the Department Heads, and I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into. It didn’t take long before I was dancing along with them. What an amazing group, and I don’t believe I’ve ever worked with a more positive and kind bunch of folks. Love ’em all! My Boom Operator was Patrick Wylie, Utility Audra Hughes, and they both fit in perfectly. Box, Box, Box, words you really come to appreciate. The whole experience reminded me why I got into filming in the first place.”
Mixer Sam Hamer, Utility Ted Hamer & Eddie Casares.
Lastly, I would like to give a shout-out to our Post Department, Supervisor Wade Barnett, Re-recording Mixers Andy D’Addario and Gary Gegan. They have to piece it all together from what sometimes seems like sonic chaos and yet, it always turns out wonderfully by the time they are through. With the cast giving one hundred percent at all times, even when off camera, I always make the effort to capture every word and nuance of off-screen dialog. We don’t need to worry so much about overlaps when all conversations are ‘on mic.’ Jill knows when they really want something clean and we often just pick up that moment.
We all loved working with the cast and crew on this big family and we all Love Dick.