Hey there, it's Dan Milano - I directed tonight's episode of Warren the Ape and I also perform Warren. "AMENDS" was the fifth episode of our show to be shot. The concept for this story was originally written by my co-creators Spencer Chinoy and Sean Baker and then fleshed out in the writers room
with the addition of Bill Freiberger and myself. Alan Denton and Chris Bergoch also contributed creatively. Episodes are written as structured outlines with some suggested dialogue. All scenes are then improvised on set by the actors.
The episode starred myself, Josh Sussman as Cecil, Mary DeVault as Racquel, Dominika Wolski as Ludmilla, and Seth Green & Clare Grant as themselves.
The original concept was that Warren would try making Amends to someone who hated him, sleep with the guy's wife, and ultimately see him get killed by a car accident. I'm not sure the character of Cecil even existed at this point. The car accident was intended to be random. Warren would then give the eulogy at the guy's funeral, as a final insult. In many ways it reminded us of the "Frank Grimes" episode of the Simpsons. Possibly too much.
There was talk of trying to get Ashton Kutcher because he was a friend of one of our producers, but ultimately we were looking for a way to bring Seth Green back to our show and the role ended up being offered to him. We love Seth. He's been a good friend not only to the show but to me personally. Over the years he's worked with us on various incarnations of Greg the Bunny and I've had the pleasure of working for him on Robot Chicken.
It was a matter of time before we brought him back - but it was always a trick because since Warren the Ape is a reality show, we needed to make sure that Seth played HIMSELF, since the show was not a fantasy world but is meant to take place in real life. Seth had already played himself on Entrourage, so we wanted to do something different. They portrayed him as an asshole, whereas we wanted Seth to play someone more similar to his real self. We were also nervous about staging a scene in which Seth was hit and killed by a car.
There was a LOT of creative discussion about whether or not to have an onscreen death. Some of us saw it as cartoony and unreal, but obviously getting hit by a car is something that CAN and DOES happen every day in real life. But the idea of it being a random accident bothered some of us, and we argued for the incident to connect to the story somehow. At the same time, the network was looking for us to flesh out other characters besides Warren. So eventually we decided that Cecil would be the one driving the car, and that the accident would be Warren's fault since he kept Cecil up for hours driving to Texas and back. (Most of the scenes of Cecil driving to and from Texas would later be cut for time).
Ultimately I was the one that brought the concept up to Seth. Comedically, he was up for anything and willing to take the leap. But creatively he had one big worry -- "I really don't want you to kill me off," he said. "I really want to continue to work on the show, and if you kill me I won't ever be able to return." That was something we hadn't really thought about. He was right -- since this was a reality show and not some cartoon world - killing off Seth would mean never, ever using him on the show again. It would also hurt the "reality" of our show. Because if Seth was clearly still alive in real life - his on-screen death would seem less real.
This might seem like a small issue to some of you, but we take the "reality" of our show very seriously. Yes, this is a puppet show. But other than the main character being a puppet, we want you to really believe in what you are seeing. And so, a fake death just didn't seem to settle well with us. So, we changed it to a visit in the intensive care unit - which at the end of the day is just plain funnier (at least I thought so) because you get that fun scene where Warren visits Seth in the hospital.
Working with Seth on this show was a dream come true for both of us, since we'd never gotten the chance to do much improv on the FOX series. Seth was never that comfortable with the character of Jimmy Bender - chasing after Sarah Silverman one week and hugging Eugene Levy the next. It was a fun ride, but it's not the character or the shooting style we'd envisioned. In this case, we were able to set up a simple scenario -- Warren shows up uninvited with his film crew and Seth is angry about something in their past -- and just improvise our way through the scene. After a few takes, we're sharpening it up a bit and before long we're moving on. So much fun.
Rather than cast someone to play Seth's girlfriend we decided to keep things as real as possible and use his real-life girlfriend, fiancee (and now wife) Clare Grant. Clare is a great actress with a solid grasp on the comedy and is quite beautiful on screen. The girl's eyes are unreal - I swear she has cat DNA.
As usual all our scenes were improvised. I'm not sure but I think I tend to shoot more footage than the other directors when it comes to the improv scenes. I'm very actor-friendly and I really like a lot of choices in the editing room. Of course those choices become very difficult when you fall in love with scenes and jokes that are hysterical but may not necessarily propel the story forward.
There are a lot of deleted scenes from this episode, including an entire B-story of Cecil's car trip to Lubbock Texas and a scene between Warren and Clare where Warren actually talks his way into Seth's house (and supposedly Clare's bed). We'll make them available online or on DVD (assuming we go to DVD one day --- DEMAND IT FROM MTV!)
I think this was the first time we shot in the "Crazy Girls" strip club on LaBrea Blvd, right across the street from Jim Henson Studios. Ludmilla was played by Dominika Wolski, who did an amazing improv (complete with Russian accent) for her audition. Dominika was a fan of our show and did an incredible job improvising with Warren. She even brought me a Fraggle as a present all the way from Canada. (Wembley, my favorite.) It was a really fun day. Ludmilla was a name Spencer and Sean suggested, it's Brigitte Nielsen's name in ROCKY IV.
We had often spoken in the writer's room about developing a character for Warren to confide in, and laughed at the notion that it might be a pole dancer. We figured that even though Warren had one of the best doctors in the world (Drew Pinsky) to speak with, he would be more comfortable pouring his heart out to a stripper. So Ludmilla was an experiment - we'd hoped that she or some version of her might become a recurring character if we got picked up for another season.
Speaking of recurring characters, we also talked about a woman that might be a good love interest for Warren. She would need to be the kind of girl that he never really noticed, at least not in the way that she wanted him to. The one girl under his nose the whole time who loved him for himself but that he would always take for granted. And while we never fully fleshed out this idea, we'd fallen in love with Mary DeVault, an actress who played one of Warren's girlfriends in our first episode (IT GIRL, which has not yet aired.)
Mary has a very sweet demeanor, a unique and bubbly voice and is very talented at improv. Her take on Racquel reminded me of Dottie Sunshine, the character played by Dina Waters in our Greg the Bunny series on FOX. I've said before that we love casting human actors who have a slight puppet quality, and in Mary's case it's her voice and her wide, innocent eyes. And while the character seems bigger than life, she also feels quite real. Mary seemed to play Racquel as someone who was perhaps once damaged, but then recovered. Someone who could probably relate to Warren's dark side, but had found the light long ago. And I like that - because if Warren would just take her hand, she could probably lead him out of all that darkness. But he won't, at least not for long, and so their relationship has a tragic side. Which I of course love.
At least that's how I see things. I've never really discussed these details with Mary. But I think she plays the bubbly girl very well, while not making Racquel seem stupid. In this episode, Warren tries to manipulate her, but she stands up for herself. She calls him on his bullshit. If he had simply taken advantage of her, it would have made her a weak character. I like that Racquel has a strength to her. She's had enough guys walk all over her and she's not about to let it happen again. But she gives Warren a little leeway because she knows he still has a long way to go and thinks he can get there. She's waiting for him to see the light. Again, very sweet and a bit tragic.
Greg the Bunny appears in this episode. Since I perform both Greg and Warren, it was difficult to shoot them in the same scene. We'd of course dealt with this problem in our past shows, but this time we had some very complicated setups. Touring Greg's mansion (a Malibu mountian home we rented for the day) and sitting out in his ball pit - a back patio hot tub filled with plastic balls.
The plastic balls were a nightmare. Imagine two puppeteers (myself and TED MICHAELS) placed in the bottom of a hot tub lined with blankets. We were given monitors, microphones and headphones so that we could see, hear and speak with the camera crew from inside the tub. Then a plastic sheet was draped over us, and thousands of plastic balls were poured on top. We were in there for THREE HOURS STRAIGHT.
It was cold and temperatures were freezing. It was an overcast day, rain threatening to fall, and the wind was intense. The poor girl who played Warren's ROBOT was in a skimpy waitress outfit and even the most bundled up crew member was shivering. She killed herself in that scene, doing take after take, and I haven't even paid her the respect of remembering her name. (footnote - I found it! Her name was BECKY O'DONOHUE. So funny, her "He thinks I'm a robot" line always makes me laugh.)
I was performing Warren the whole time and doing the voice of Greg as well. Basically I was having a conversation with myself but only performing Warren physically. So when I would do Greg's voice, poor Ted Michaels would shake Greg's head to the sound of my voice. It was not ideal, but given the nature of our improv it seemed the best way to get the scene. Ted, like all our puppeteers was a real trooper.
If we had to do it over again I probably would have suggested that Warren visit Count Blah. But we really liked the idea that since their FOX show was cancelled, Greg had done everything that Warren had NOT done. He'd saved his money and invested it wisely, and was living in a mansion while Warren was living hand to mouth. It gave Warren one more thing to hate about Greg, which is always good.
This was different than our pilot presentation (a sales tool used to sell the show to MTV) in which Greg was depicted as homeless, living in a cardboard box:
A few special effects to point out. Warren holding up the ipod in front of Seth's house was a gag we'd written for the episode and filmed on set long before we's heard that MODERN FAMILY did a similar gag on their show. Ironic, since that show is produced by Steve Levitan, who ran our show when we were at FOX. Anyway, the wide shot of Warren holding the ipod and speaker was accomplished by simply using rods to hold Warren's arms in the air, while his feet were placed firmly on the ground. The rods were then removed in post production. MVP award goes to Bill Freiberger, who ran to his house to grab his son's old-school Ipod for us to use on set.
The real trick was getting the rights to IN YOUR EYES, clearly the most popular and most used Peter Gabriel song ever written. This cost us tens of thousands of dollars to use and as a director I had to give up licensing music in my other episodes in order to help pay for it. We were going to use a cheap "clone" of the song, but when you do a parody I think you need to try and get the actual song. Especially since we are supposed to be a reality show. Fake songs in a real world? Not cool.
The other special effect was obviously Seth Green getting hit by the car. Jason San Filipo, who was also Seth's stunt double in the upcoming MARS NEEDS MOMS, took two hits from the car. No matter how carefully coordinated these things are, there is always the chance that something could go wrong. You're playing with dangerous odds, and even the best stunt person could take a bad fall. So needless to say, our hearts were in our throats.
The first take Jason jumped off his feet the moment before the car hit him (which is how these hits are done) and did a roll on the hood. The second take (which we used) he actually was a moment late, which meant the car literally took him off his feet. This was dangerous, but looked amazing and Jason was just fine. He did an amazing job.
We of course did not shoot at Seth's real house. In fact, we didn't even shoot in a real hospital. The hospital scene was shot in the guest house on the property that doubled for "Seth Green's Estate." Lucy Crawford (above) did Seth's makeup, making him look as nasty as possible - we really wanted people to cringe when they saw him.
We also thought that that more serious Seth's injuries looked, the more awful it would be when Warren took advantage of him. Seth was a trooper - he had that plastic tube in his mouth and his leg suspended in the air for almost an hour. His poor foot was numb by the end. Seth will appear again (bruises and all) in episode eleven -- THE BLACK LOTUS, which I also directed.
Gotta give a shout out to Josh Sussman - one of the funniest human beings I have ever met. The kid is a scene stealer, plain and simple. We shot a TON of footage of him in this episode and much of it got cut for time, but every frame was brilliant. Josh has the ability to speak and act in a heightened way that puts one in mind of a young Jerry Lewis or Woody Allen, but the real trick is that there is nothing hammy or fake about what he does. Cecil always seems grounded and real - he's just a character. This scream is absolutely real - you feel he's experiencing true terror. But it's terror as depicted though the unique character of Cecil, and is so shrill and unique that you laugh hysterically. This is not easy stuff but Josh seems to be a natural. The only thing funnier than the scream is the way he turns to the camera afterward - tears in his eyes, desperately pleading for us to help him. This is all Josh - in the moment, just doing what comes to him when someone calls action. I'm a fan of his for life.
One final note on this episode - I was especially happy with the restaurant scene. With this being the fifth episode we shot I think it was the first scene that really and truly felt like a reality show that was capturing a spontaneous moment onscreen. The cameras were shooting dirty angles with telephoto lenses from a far distance - through doors and around corners, giving the impression that they were "stealing" footage and capturing a real moment as it unfolded. Going forward we would try to continue this method of shooting for the rest of the episodes.
Another way to help make the scene feel real, I even had Warren even asks Seth and the producer to "sign a release" at the end of this scene, which is supposed to give the impression that the reality cameras are real and the footage being shot cannot be aired on television without their consent. (I guess they eventually signed.) Another example of this kind of dialogue is Warren asking the "crew" about his microphone when he first knocks on Seth's front door.
Quick trivia note - we shot several Vietnam scenes for Warren's "BAD PO FO" movie trailer while on location at this restaurant. (check the trailer out here
And another shout out - to my childhood friend and first creative partner, Phil Altiere - writer and director of the first puppet movie I ever made. People always mispronounced his last name when we were growing up, so the character of PHIL ALTIERI that Cecil apologizes to was based on him. Just a little shout out to someone very special in my personal and creative life.
Well, that might be it for this very long-winded production blog. As always, there are so many people to thank for their hard work. Our camera crew, set department, wardrobe, props, puppet builder, etc. The list goes on and on.
Next week is GAY APE, directed by Spencer Chinoy and starring cameos by Perez Hilton, Robert Michael Morrison, Nancy O'Dell and introducing Warren's neighbors Mark & Merkle (Drew Massey & Victor Yerrid.)
Thanks for reading,
An amends is actually not an apology. As Dr. Drew tries to tell Warren mid-way through the episode, the Amends step in recovery usually involves someone taking personal responsibility for the damage their drinking may have caused someone, and their attempt to repair that damage. Ironically, returning Seth's toolbox is the closest Warren comes to making an actual amends. The rest of his attempts are mere apologies. This was a conceptual mistake we made creatively, though it's also within Warren's character to ignore or misinterpret the steps to fit his own goals.