BG4: “Someone to Watch Over Me,” Pt 2
February 27th, 2009
(Continued from Chapter 1)
CHAPTER 2: PRODUCTION
*** Production: The Piano ***
(Hogan and Eddie take a minute to pose for a picture on the CIC)
Roark and I arrived in Vancouver on Tuesday, May 13th. David and Bradley’s script was in the final stage of revision, and Michael was already at Vancouver Film Studios preparing for the shoot. The cast read-through was scheduled for the following day and after that, Roark would have time to practice the solo piano pieces he would have to play on set. Production would begin on Thursday, naturally, starting with the piano scenes between Katee and Roark.
There was only one problem. I had written absolutely nothing.
I had spent a great deal of creative energy thinking about the episode, discussing it with everyone and working out logistical musical details, but during that time I’d managed to not actually compose a single note. My sole tangible accomplishment was sending Roark and Katee a basic, four-hand piano duet version of my arrangement of “Watchtower” that they would have to play on camera. (As I mentioned before, the song technically isn’t “Watchtower” at all, but the title “Final Four Theme Thematic Stand-In for ‘All Along the Watchtower’” would get tiresome fast, so I’m simply calling the song “Watchtower” from here on out, even though it isn’t.)
The script called for several unique compositions, and variations of each of them. Making matters worse, I’d turned everyone on to virtuosic piano compositions by Gershwin and Ravel, so the bar (as is typical with Galactica) was really frakkin’ high.
Roark and I were met at the airport and driven directly to the studio. The sky was blotched gray with dreary clouds and a very light rain fell down on the futuristic-1960’s architecture of Vancouver. I remembered why this place made the ideal stand-in for Caprica City. And having grown up in Bellingham, Washington a mere 50 miles South, it was a climate I was quite comfortable in.
My first task at the studio that day was to check out the piano that production had prepared. I found Michael, David and Bradley and together we walked to the Joe’s Bar set and beheld Slick’s piano.
I was aghast at how horrific this piano looked. I was further stunned to learn that the production had bought it used, but essentially in mint condition. The talented art department had “aged” it so effectively, that even when I looked up close, I was totally convinced that this was a fifty-year old instrument that had survived apocalypse.
Nankin explained “the piano is a major character in the story. It’s probably the last piano in the universe and I wanted it to look like it’s been used in a bar for the last thirty years. We have very limited room on the Joe’s Bar set so I wanted something small. Also, we have seen Joe’s Bar a thousand times, and there was never a piano, so the smaller the piano was, and the more it would blend into the background, the better the audience would accept the fact that suddenly it’s there. They’ll think maybe it’s been there all along, but they just missed it. So we found a very small, low upright piano. Low so that I could shoot from behind it and still see the faces of the people playing. It’s the same kind of piano Dooley Wilson plays in ‘Casablanca.’
Editor and associate producer Andy Seklir was on hand when the set decorating department presented Michael some possible pianos. “Michael chose the bar piano based on the fact that you could shoot across it from the backside and still see the characters faces,” Andy told me. “Choosing a high-backed piano would have considerably limited his shooting angles. The high backed was later used during Kara’s dream sequence when she approaches young Kara from behind.”
“I had the art department age it considerably,” Nankin continued. “I wanted them to kick the shit out of it — which they did. They added dozens of cigarette burns, rings from drinks, and I had them pull the veneer off several of the keys. They chipped it and gouged it and ruined the surface. They even replaced the legs of the bench with legs that didn’t match.
“I think the last thing he told them was to break off one of the wooden legs and replace it with a piece of shop metal,” editor Andy Seklir recalled. “It was like Gaeta loosing his leg or something. That piano took a real beating, but I think it was totally believable in the end and it had a very characteristic sound quality.”
“And the finishing touch to this wreck was that somehow, the original velvet dust cover has survived,” Nankin continued. “It’s frayed and stained, but Slick still covers the keys when he’s done playing. As if anything could save this thing. It made the piano precious for him, even though it’s too late to save it.”
I sat at the keyboard and played some blazing fast Scott Joplin, just to see what the piano sounded like. “Show off.” Nankin said. (I was a little embarrassed because he was right. I was totally showing off.) But, the practical upside to my blatant showboating was realizing the piano had slipped out of tune as a result of its cosmetic upgrades. This really wasn’t a surprise. You can see from the photograph that the keys themselves slant upwards at the top end of the range. It was a miracle that it had stayed relatively in tune at all.
I recommended that they bring in a piano tuner that night to correct the pitch. But Nankin was really drawn to the character of the instrument in this state. “It sounded like shit,” he said. “I found this charming and asked Bear if he could deal with it. It added a necessary sense of reality. In the story, all of Slick’s playing is a work in progress, so the detuning helped.”
David and Bradley agreed. I liked the idea of not re-tuning it, because it would mean that the tone of the piano would be unique to this episode of Battlestar.
But, this presented a serious pitfall. How could I refine and revise the piano pieces during post-production if the music on set were recorded with a piano that sounded this distinct? The odds of re-creating this instrument with another piano in LA were very slim. Even if we managed to ship this one across an international border and over a thousand miles to Los Angeles, we’d still end up recording it in a room acoustically different than the cavernous Joe’s Bar set where the production sound would be recorded. Any re-creation of this piano would sound noticeably different than the one in production.
This may seem like a minute detail, but together we strove for the utmost musical authenticity. Generally, the portrayal of music on screen is a constant source of annoyance for me. Think about a musical, when an actor is speaking lines one minute and then singing the intro to a song the next. Almost always, there’s a sudden, noticeable shift in the tone of their voice and reverb has magically appeared. One of my jobs on set was to ensure that this didn’t happen with our piano performances.
Standing around this instrument with Michael, David and Bradley, I was suddenly struck with an idea. “We should just sample the entire piano!” The idea was to record every key at multiple dynamics so that I could re-create this exact piano in this exact room in a digital, virtual instrument back in Los Angeles. Everyone agreed that this was the way to go.
The advantages were numerous. I could completely control every piano performance by re-playing them myself in post-production. This took pressure off Roark, because he wouldn’t have to master any of my pieces, but just play them close enough that they worked visually (he basically mastered them anyway, though). Sampling also preserved the unique, out of tune character of this piano throughout the entire process of filming, editing and scoring.
Nankin later said “Bear jumped at the chance and even — spending hours late one night — digitally sampled each key so that, back in LA, he could play this piano in this environment on the score. It had a unique sound and if a studio piano suddenly came in, it would sound fake. In the story all of Slick’s playing is a work in progress, so the detuning helped.”
Bradley Thompson later told me “sampling the piano gave us the flexibility to amplify or correct musical performances without sacrificing any acting.”
*** Pre-Production: Composition ***
My next stop was to help Roark and Katee learn the piano duet arrangement of “Watchtower” that they would play together at the episode’s climax. Production had set up a keyboard in a stage that wasn’t being used in this episode to serve as a piano practice room of sorts. Of all ridiculous places, it happened to be the Cylon Baseship set!
As it turned out, Katee was unavailable that afternoon and Roark required no help learning the part, as I discovered he’s an excellent sight-reader. So, instead of working on something productive, I asked Roark to snap some pictures of me playing piano on the Cylon Baseship.
I thought this was especially hilarious considering Baltar heard my solo piano piece “Battlestar Sonatica” everywhere he went on the Baseship, beginning with Season Three’s Torn. I had frequently amused myself with the idea that there was literally a piano on board somewhere, entertaining the cylons all day and all night. Well, these pictures prove it… I am the Cylon Piano Player!
This was good for a laugh, but it didn’t change the fact that cameras were rolling in less than thirty-six hours and I hadn’t written the composition Slick would be playing in that first scene. So, I went back to the hotel to get started.
After I’d left, Katee eventually found her way to the piano and began to work on the “Watchtower” duet with Roark.
Like Kara Thrace, Katee Sackhoff had studied piano as a child and drew on those experiences for Someone to Watch Over Me. “My mother forced my brother and me to both take piano lessons from a very early age,” she recalled. “I hated it. There are teeth marks on my fathers old baby grand from me biting the piano when I was bored. I quit and switched to trombone when I was thirteen years old and then subsequently quit that when I was fifteen. I’ve always loved to sing and wanted to be Whitney Houston when I was little. I still can’t read music though. I always played by memorizing the notes. My father (who played the accordion and the piano beautifully) would hate that.”
The unforeseen advantage to Roark teaching her the duet was that he would help her learn it, exactly as his character would help Kara. This musical and personal bond began in reality and seeped into fiction.
“I found out I had to play the piano in 419 about two or three weeks before [production began],” Katee said. “I was terrified but Bear made it easy and gave me a couple days to learn it. Also Roark was awesome and really helped me a lot. He has children so I think he was exceptionally patient with me and my lack of abilities on the old ivory keys. Loved him.”
Night had fallen by the time I crashed in my hotel room that first day. The production had rented me a keyboard so I could write music while I was there. I pulled it out of the flight case and set it up next to the desk. I had brought with me a miniaturized version of my studio at home and unpacked my laptop, cables, other odds n’ ends and set everything up so I could actually start writing. I regret not taking a picture of the room like this, because it is pretty amusing in hindsight. The hotel room had a great view of the city and was lavishly decorated, but I basically flooded it with equipment. By the time I was finished, that room felt a little like a Cylon Baseship itself.
The first night in Vancouver was also my first chance to clear my head and begin searching for the musical soul of this episode. While David and Bradley’s script had gone through many changes with regard to Slick’s musical process, the basic concept remained the same: he would struggle with a composition throughout the episode and gradually finish it by the end. The simplest approach for me was to start with the complete version of the composition so I could deconstruct it and work my way backwards through the script.
Ironically, the episode about a frustrated composer provided a refreshingly painless compositional process. The time and creative energy I’d already invested in this story, the change of surroundings that reminded me so much of my childhood home, and my enthusiasm for being involved with production for the first time fused into a burst of inspiration. The first piece I wrote for Someone to Watch Over Me was the piece Slick plays in his initial scene with Kara, to really get her attention. It served as the main thematic identity for Slick and, ultimately, was used as the recording on the DAT tape heard in the episode’s heartbreaking final scenes.
(The first day of production)
This is how I would spend the next week. Every night I went back to my hotel room and churned out compositions necessary for the following day of shooting. (Usually after a round of heavy drinking with cast and crew. You just can’t say no when Eddie Olmos invites you out for drinks!) And I spent my days on set with Michael, Roark and Katee, supervising the musical performances.
My first full day in town was the last day of pre-production: the cast read-through. I went to the studio to check this out, since I was incredibly curious. David, Bradley, Nankin and all the principle actors and crew gathered around the main conference room table and read through the script. I sat down at an empty chair and then realized I happened to be sitting in the midst of the Final Five, which was amusing. Seeing the actors read through their lines while wearing their everyday street clothes was a very surreal experience.
After the read-through, I caught up with Roark and gave him the sheet music for Slick’s big composition that I’d written the night before. We spent a few minutes at the piano, and discussed the composition. I had to be honest with him, and told him that I hadn’t gone easy on him. I’d basically written a piano piece as blisteringly difficult as I could possibly play.
Roark was totally up to the challenge, but the reality was that he had to shoot this scene the following day and simply didn’t have time to learn the piece as it was. So, we made some efficient changes that kept the spirit of the piece alive, but made it much easier to perform.
This was incredibly important because most of Roark’s creative energy would be spent in performing the character and memorizing the lines. I didn’t want to dilute his acting by writing a challenging piano piece that required too much concentration. Besides, I would eventually re-record all the piano pieces myself anyway, when I scored the episode. Roark’s first and highest priority would be to deliver the lines and the character’s performance.
I did my best to be a useful resource for Roark and Katee, but sometimes my comedically high standards got the better of me. Nankin recalled that one “thing that slowed us down a bit was the fact that Bear (ever the perfectionist) was usually dissatisfied with Roark’s playing of his music. I had to separate them a couple of times.”
“The only reason its hard having the composer on set is because you don’t want to let them down,” Katee said. “I can sing, but play the piano I cannot!”
*** Pre-Production: Nomion’s Third ***
After working with Roark, I marked up my score with notes for simplifying it and drove back to the hotel for another round of composition. That afternoon was the first time I began thinking seriously about the sole piano composition in the episode that was not supposed to be written by Slick: “Nomion’s Third Sonata, Second Movement.”
“Nomion’s Third” came up in my earliest conversations with David Weddle about Someone to Watch Over Me. He envisioned a scene where Slick would riff on a famous piece of classical music, one he doesn’t expect Kara to recognize. She does, and that sparks a conversation about her musical upbringing. One of the first questions David asked me was for help naming this famous composition.
I sent him a virtual tool kit of composition titles to mix and match from. I provided terms such as sonata, theme and variations, prelude, sonatina, fantasia, suite, passacaglia, fugue and many others. The fictional piece could be simply called by its form and chronological order in the composer’s canon (Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5”) or could have a narrative story and title (Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral”). Of course, the simplest answer is usually the best, and in the next draft of the script I read, Kara referred to it as “Nomion’s Third, Second Movement.”
Reading that early draft of the script was the last time I’d really thought about Nomion. It dawned on me that the filming of the “Nomion’s Third” scene was coming up very early in production and I had no idea what it would sound like. After all, it should sound like a different composer wrote it than the composer who wrote Slick’s pieces.
What better way to accomplish this then to actually have it be written by a different composer? In an instant, I knew exactly what I wanted “Nomion’s Third” to be. Stu Phillips, the composer for the classic Battlestar Galactica, composed a piece for that series called “Exploration” that I’ve always loved. Set apart from the bombastic march of the “Main Title,” “Exploration” is much more mysterious, ambiguous and harmonically rich. Listen carefully to the closing seconds of “Colonial Anthem” on my Season Two Soundtrack CD and you’ll hear a duduk and bansuri state a fragment of this theme. Even then, I couldn’t resist incorporating the theme into our new Galactica.
(Stu Phillips and I met at a “Battlestar” convention in 2005)
The more I thought about it, the more sense it made that our mysterious composer Nomion should, in fact, be Stu Phillips. Stu’s classic “Theme from Battlestar Galactica” serves as the Colonial Anthem, a piece of music so famous that everyone in the fleet knows it. In Someone to Watch Over Me, I’ve revealed that Stu’s “Exploration” is also a famous piece of classical music in the Colonies.
I had very little time, and quickly called Stu for help. Stu and I worked together before, on “Colonial Anthem,” and he was very excited to be involved again. I sent an assistant over to Stu’s house and had him fax me the scores for “Exploration” that very afternoon. I looked through the score and found the three passages I adored the most and arranged them into a simple piano piece. I sent it back to Stu that night so he could check it out.
“Glad it all worked out.” Stu wrote me. “This is why my book is called ‘Stu Who?’ Nomion?.. Does Nomion have a first name? Like… Wolfgang, or Ludwig, or Dimitri? Stu Nomion sounds good.” Well, now it’s official. Nomion’s full name is Stu Phillips Nomion!
Even though I arranged a substantial amount of Stu’s music, regrettably only a few seconds of “Exploration” made it into the final episode. But it is a very memorable phrase:
This is the powerful orchestral fanfare that opened the original movie. When Slick plays it a couple times, the tune catches Kara’s ear as a familiar melody. Stu and I hope that fans of the classic Battlestar Galactica had the same reaction.
By the end of my first full day in Vancouver, I’d arranged “Exploration” for Nomion’s Third and written most of Slick’s major compositions. But, the following day the real excitement began.
*** Production: Bear On Camera! ***
The first day of production was a rush of excitement for me. I had never really seen the behind the scenes process of this, or any series, and it was a thrill to wander around and watch everyone do their thing.
The first scene shot was Kara’s introduction to Slick. I watched as Michael blocked the sequence out and the actors ran through their lines. Roark had only had an afternoon to learn my piano pieces and, as such, was vamping on it here and there. But, I assured him and Michael that I could adjust and revise the music when I scored the episode. I didn’t want the musical aspect of the scene to be a distraction. After all, our goal was to have the performance look as natural as possible.
I’d only been on set the first day of shooting for a few hours when I ran into David and Bradley… in costume! They were dressed up in flight suits and I found out they were going to be extras in Joe’s Bar. Sign me up!
I went to the wardrobe department to get a costume. Everyone there knew the rules of Battlestar mythology like the backs of their hands. Viper pilots wouldn’t have my long hair or facial hair, so I was demoted to a grease-jockey. (It was that, or shave my goatee which I’ve had now for 12 years. I didn’t want to be a Viper pilot that badly.)
The detail that went into the costuming really impressed me. They gave me dog tags to wear, made sure I wasn’t wearing a wrist watch, and looked for anything else that could possibly draw the viewer out of the scene if it happened to end up on camera. The dog tags actually had a name on them, too! Through total blind luck, or the divine intervention of the gods, I ended up with the dog tags belonging to Razor’s Kendra Shaw.
(A footnote to this story: I recently met the actress who played Kendra, Stephanie Jacobsen. Our meeting actually wasn’t Battlestar related at all, but at a Sarah Connor Chronicles Holiday Party, since she’s a regular guest on that series as well. I told her I ended up with her dog tags when I was an extra. She confessed that she’d never even worn them during the filming of Razor. Maybe I was the first person to get them?)
I emerged from the wardrobe trailer a member of Galactica’s fine crew and went back to the set. I must confess that David and Bradley looked more fitting as Viper pilots than I did as a mechanic, but maybe that’s because I know my talents are certainly not in fixing anything mechanical.
(Bradley and David in the background of the final cut)
Bradley and David are both visible in Someone to Watch Over Me but I actually ended up in a pick-up scene Nankin shot for the previous episode, Deadlock. I suppose it was fitting that after the surreal experience of auditioning, I would be on screen for the acting performance I’m most qualified for. And ironic that, after all my piano music in Someone to Watch Over Me, my background cameo would end up in a different episode entirely.
Being an extra was surprisingly difficult and occasionally hilariously awkward work. When cameras rolled, I had to talk with the two young ladies at my table, but not actually make any sound whatsoever. I tried to visualize what a mechanic on the Galactica would talk about, trying to get into character. (So amateur!) Everyone around me was incredibly professional. They knew exactly the facial expressions to make and how to react to one another. I kept stumbling and “pretend talked” while someone was “pretend talking” to me. If we’d been making actual sounds, I would’ve been the asshole in the room who never shuts up.
When the episode aired, it was fun to see that Nankin put me quite obviously in the frame, and it seems that many Galactica fans caught the cameo.
The scene required perhaps an hour to finish. With my lofty acting dreams now fulfilled, I focused my energy on the other aspects of production that required my attention.
*** Production: Art Department ***
While I was there, the art department came up to me and asked for my help. Later scenes would require that Slick write musical notation as he composed and they asked me to scribble down some pages. So, I quickly jotted down the musical idea I had been working on the night before.
There’s actually a decent close up of my sketches in the show. And you can hear Slick playing variations of this idea when he meets and chats with Kara in his first scene. I had written this simple theme and variations the night before to represent the most basic seed of what would eventually become Slick’s full-blown composition. Nankin and I even discussed using it as underscore for the episode’s opening montage.
The art department guys also showed me the case and liner notes they’d made for Kara’s father’s DAT tape: “Dreilide Thrace, Live at the Helice Opera House.” The front showed a faded photograph of an old man hunched over a piano. The back had a track listing of the songs presumably on the record. I confess I don’t remember exactly what they were but they were really lame show-tune-y titles similar to “Raindrops and Tears” or “I Love Your Smile.” Adding insult to injury was a floral pattern around the text.
I politely recommended that we change this. Kara’s father was a serious classical pianist and a composer in his own right. These song titles wouldn’t do. They agreed to ditch the floral pattern and then asked me for new song titles. I thought about it for a while and came up with the following list:
1. Nomion’s Third Sonata
2. The Shape of Things to Come
3. Diaspora Oratorio
Nomion’s Third was obvious because he references it in the episode. In fact, Kara even refers to the Second Movement, although not by name. Here was my chance to actually name the individual movements, and took them from my own Battlestar compositions, same as “The Shape of Things to Come.”
I knew I had to have “Diaspora Oratorio” on the list as well (even though it makes no sense to have a solo piano version of an “Oratorio,” which is a work for orchestra and chorus). This is because my personal, creative frustration in writing that piece inspired Slick’s dialog. When he talks about writing something for four days and being in Hell… I knew he was talking about that piece in particular.
The DAT tape case was featured in a couple key sequences, but unfortunately we never got a good look at the back liner notes. Still, it meant a lot to me knowing that my compositions were there on the back.
*** Production: The Last Performance ***
Some of my oddest experiences on set were seeing the actors before and after wardrobe and hair. One minute, I’d see Michael Hogan at the read through. Then, an hour later, he was gone, but there was Col. Tigh! I’d see Katee at lunch, but later Starbuck walking through the hallways. Most of the Canadian cast I’d never met, so it was a wonderful chance to finally get to know everybody. And most of the crew had no idea who I was, but eventually word got out and everyone was incredibly warm and welcoming. I really felt like one of the family, even though it was essentially my first time on the set.
Fortunately, I was also able to catch up with some of the actors who didn’t happen to be in this episode. I called up Alessandro Juliani to grab lunch one afternoon. He and I had become quite close while we were working on “Gaeta’s Lament” for Guess What’s Coming to Dinner. And I didn’t want to miss seeing him while I was in town. However, he was obviously no longer involved with the show, since his character’s untimely demise in Blood on the Scales. But, he came by the set and all the cast and crew were very excited to see him again.
I also spent much of my visit in Vancouver with James Callis and his wonderful family. I hadn’t seen him since the Battlestar concert the month before.
(Alessandro Juliani, myself and James Callis)
And what better place for a photo op than in front of the official Battlestar Galactica dumpster?
(“B.S.G. Only! Non B.S.G. Garbage will be returned”)
(Another of my favorite signs)
Evenings were usually spent with cast and crew at a couple of spots in downtown Vancouver. The week I was there also happened to be the first week of production on Caprica, and so several nights I ended up hanging out with Esai Morales and other cast members. They all asked me what their themes would sound like. I assured them honestly I didn’t know, since I hadn’t been hired. It would be another seven months before the series would bring me on board officially. (Esai and the gang, if you’re reading this… yes, you now all have themes!)
The first week went by in a flash. Roark and Katee’s scenes just got better and better the longer they worked with each other and Michael Nankin. On their last day of shooting together, they filmed their final scene where the song is revealed and Kara figures out Slick is her father.
The first thing Nankin shot was Tigh, Tory and Ellen sitting at a table at Joe’s Bar. When Kara began to play “Watchtower,” the script called for them to recognize the song and walk over to her. However, for these close ups, the piano wasn’t on camera. So, Michael asked me to play my arrangement of “Watchtower” to help inspire their reactions.
As cameras rolled, I sat at the piano and played gentle strains of the Final Four theme at the piano. I started simply, one finger playing the melody. Then, I introduced the left hand accompaniment, filling out the sound. Slowly, Tigh and Tory looked up in astonishment and rose to their feet. As I played, they made their way across the room, heading towards me.
“It was thrilling to hear,” Nankin recalled. “I love working with music on the set — especially the music that’s going to end up in the final version of the picture. The first time Bear played ‘All Along the Watchtower’ in Joe’s Bar, chills went up my spine. I was in tears. Suddenly this element of the show that only existed outside the reality of the characters was actually being played on the set where everyone could hear. The song has made its entrance, in the same way an actor would. And what an entrance.”
Of all my memorable experiences working on Battlestar Galactica, this one was the most surreal. For Crossroads, Part II, I wrote the music that drew the Final Four through the hallways, but all my work was done in post-production. The actors themselves weren’t hearing my music, or any music for that matter. Imagine how I felt then, a year later, playing my Final Four theme on a rusty old piano within the Joe’s Bar set and watching Col. Tigh and Tory being drawn towards me. I felt like the Cylon Pied Piper.
“It was awesome to have live music played during that scene,” actress Rekha Sharma recalled. “I’ve heard there’s a director (is it Wes Anderson? I can’t remember who) who plays the music that he’ll be using for a scene for the actors so they know the feeling of a scene… I think that’s brilliant.”
“Because we’ve done this [series] so long, there are things we’ll do on set where we go, ‘Wait until Bear gets a hold of that, don’t worry about it,’” actor Michael Hogan told me recently. “[During filming], it feels empty, but we know you’re part of the team, it’s your character in there – he’s not on set, but we know that you’re going to be there, right?”
Recalling the day I played piano on set for them, Hogan said “you’ve always got to be there, in our minds, and now you’re actually here physically. When you started tinkling [on the piano], it was like, ‘Wow…’ That song was already a part of us by that time. When you were there, on the set playing it, it was like a completion because there you were, physically playing it. But it was incredibly spooky, that it was the man himself, playing on that piano. But yes, it helped, because there was no acting required. You just go with it. You should be there more often.”
After filming the cylons’ recognition of the music, it was finally time for Katee and Roark’s big scene. In their precious downtime throughout the week, Roark had taught Katee to play the piano duet arrangement. By the time I sat down at the piano with her, prior to shooting this sequence she had become so good at it, I was almost disappointed we didn’t shoot the scene earlier in the week, when she was still learning.
“You both made my life easier,” Katee said later, of Roark and myself. “Loved you both throughout the entire process.”
During blocking and setups she was now playing the tune quickly and nearly perfectly. However, I was amazed at her musical performance when the cameras rolled. She was able to channel the emotions and insecurities of her character into a hesitant and heartfelt piano performance that begins simply and grows more confident. This is not an easy musical task, and Katee, who has always impressed me as an actress, really earned her musician merit badge.
(Nankin discusses a scene with Roark and Katee. Far left, Michael Hogan and DP Steve McNutt, far right David Weddle)
Their scene together is beautiful on many levels. There’s honesty there, an authenticity that can’t be faked in post-production. These two actors are sitting at a real instrument and actually playing it. Because Roark and Katee were able to play my arrangement themselves, Michael Nankin and cinematographer Steve McNutt had total freedom to shoot whatever angle they wanted. They didn’t need to hide the actors’ hands.
This may not seem like a big deal, but if you watch film and television with a keen eye for music you’ll realize that almost every time an actor is supposed to be playing piano, his or her hands are conveniently hidden. This has always aggravated me as a viewer, even when I was a kid. Ever since my first phone call from David Weddle about this episode, I knew that I wanted the musical performances in Someone to Watch Over Me to rise above those clichéd cinematic sleights of hand.
“It felt so great to have you on the set, working with the actors, walking them through the musical moments, and working with Nankin to orchestrate the scenes,” David Weddle said. “All Brad and I had to do at that point was sit back and let you people do what you do best. I said to Brad, ‘We put all the pieces together, and now all we have to do is stay out of their way.’ I am extremely proud that we had the foresight to do that.”
I asked Nankin what it was like having the composer on set: “A nightmare only Dante could dream up.
‘Real answer: The best thing that happened to the episode was the fact that Bear wasn’t cast as Slick. This gave him the opportunity to be on the set and concentrate only on the music — which became an absolute necessity to the success of the show. Roark Crichtlow, who played the part, was an accomplished pianist, but was a little rusty. Bear spent a lot of time with him, teaching him the score and getting his performance up to snuff. Bear also had to work with Katee Sackhoff, who hadn’t played in years. She didn’t have to play much — until the climactic scene — and then we wanted her to be comfortable with it. It was thrilling in prep to walk on the stage and see the three of them pounding on the keys. Katee had a girlish thrill meeting Roark, who had been on a soap she had watched as a teenager.”
By the end of that day, Roark, Katee and I had played my Final Four theme on the piano about fifteen thousand times and an interesting phenomenon occurred. I started hearing cast and crew whistle it, all throughout the day. This became so frequent, that it reminded me of strange bird calls. For a while, I don’t think anyone noticed that it was stuck in their heads. But, imagine listening to this theme for eight consecutive hours, for days on end. It bore into our brains.
Months later, I asked Katee if the theme was stuck in her head for as many days after production as it was in mine. She replied “you’re assuming its still not there!”
*** Production: Recording Slick’s Piano ***
After shooting in Joe’s Bar had basically wrapped, Nankin began shooting the Boomer / Chief storyline. That night, I stayed behind after everyone left the stage with recordist Matt Willoughy-Price to record the piano samples. All the lights had been shut off, and the stage was almost pitch black, and getting damn cold. This stage clearly wasn’t intended to ever be a recording studio, since it was actually quite noisy. And we lucked out that it wasn’t raining, because there was little sound-proofing. However, it was helpful to always keep in mind our goal, which was not a pristine piano recording, but an authentic recreation of the sound of this specific instrument in this exact room.
We set up a few microphones to get the best (relative) sound from Slick’s piano. During the filming of the scenes, I consulted the sound recordists on getting a decent recording of the piano, but we were limited to a single channel. The best we could get was a mono microphone hidden behind the piano so the cameras wouldn’t pick it up. Now the cameras were gone. Without those restraints, we were free to set up an overhead stereo pair that would produce a more realistic recording. And the fact the piano recorded during production was mono really didn’t matter, because every note of the live piano performances would eventually be replaced by the samples I was about to record in a stunningly difficult process I’ll address in the next chapter.
I started off the session by recording wild versions of Slick’s compositions, including multiple versions of Slick’s final composition. I performed every variation of every theme I’d written the past week. This was simply to give this episode’s editor Stewart Schill and Andy Seklir something to edit around when they got started. After having written these compositions on a keyboard with headphones in the Sutton Place Hotel, it was very liberating to play them on a real piano, and feel the sound waves in my body.
I was also thankful for the chance to make a recording of all the sketches I’d done that week. I knew the piano pieces would eventually go through more transformations before the final score was completed. But these recordings preserved my ideas at this early stage, recording at this very inspiring location.
At this point, I also performed additional pieces at the request of Michael Nankin. “I also started having ideas — which developed during prep and the shoot—about using Slick’s compositions as score for other scenes,” Nankin explained. “In my shooting script I’d drawn lines from piano scenes, extending over the next two scenes (or the previous two scenes,) indicating where this would happen. I started talking to Bear about this in the early stages, so that he could write to it, essentially scoring the episode before it was shot. The episode contained stories that were very different in tone (Starbuck’s visitation, Tyrol and Boomer’s cylon projections, the plot to steal Hera, Adama and Laura saying goodbye) which I felt this approach to the score could smooth out. I always attack an episode with the idea of making it all of one thematic and emotional piece, rather than disjointed A, B and C stories.”
Nankin showed me these specific scenes in the script he wanted music for and I played them out in my mind, performing score that I thought would be useful in the cutting room. It was strange, to “score” scenes that hadn’t been edited (or in some cases, even shot) yet. Supervising editor and associate producer Andy Seklir was also on set, so I was able to discuss these pieces with him as well.
I performed solo piano versions of “Roslin and Adama,” Tyrol’s Theme and Starbuck’s Theme and anything else I thought might come in handy. (And since you’re wondering, the entire Roslin and Adama subplot was cut out of the episode, so I hope you can see these scenes on the DVD set.)
Once all the songs were done, I began the painstaking process of sampling that damn piano. I actually sampled it in minor thirds instead of every note, because otherwise I would’ve grown old and died of boredom that very night. That still left me with more than enough samples to do the job. It took about two hours to record all I would need to for a decent digital version of the instrument and finally packed up my music and called it a very long night.
That was the last time I’d get to play that piano. I wonder what ever happened to it? Did it end up in the BG Props Auction last January?
*** Production: Kara’s Dream ***
There remained one musical sequence yet to be shot: Kara’s Dream. In the script, she wanders through the mysteriously empty ship hallways, drawn to the hangar deck. As she approaches, the creaking sounds of the ship slowly become piano music and she approaches a vision of her younger self, playing the upright piano.
“At one point set dec suggested using a baby grand for the dream sequence,” Andy Seklir recalled. “Michael agreed that it would make for an interesting counterpoint (to see an elegant piano on the grungy hangar deck), but he decided against it for the simple reason that he felt Kara should be dreaming about her childhood piano which he felt the high-backed [piano] better represented.”
As for the actress, the production had already cast young Kara in Season Three, for Kara’s haunting visions and flashbacks in David and Bradley’s Maelstrom. Erika-Shaye Gair was brought back and this time she would be asked to play piano. I was very nervous that I’d be asked to teach her basic piano, because teaching young children is not a skill set I can claim. However, I lucked out. Erika-Shaye had taken piano lessons for several years and was comfortable with the instrument.
We hadn’t yet decided what she should play. I had an idea she should perform some disguised version of the Final Four / “Watchtower” Theme (I’ll get into more detail on this later). But, she started playing a simple piece she’d learned in her studies and we all felt there was potential there.
The piece was a little too lively for what I knew would end up a very spooky, ethereal sequence. I asked her to slow it down. She pulled the tempo back a bit, but really didn’t make a difference. Then, I asked her if she could play it as slow as humanly possible, and the piece became a fascinating dirge. Nankin and DP Steve McNutt framed the shots in such a way that Erika-Shaye’s hands were never directly on camera anyway, but the fact that the young girl is actually playing a song on the piano comes through in her body language.
This was one of the last scenes shot, literally minutes before Katee ran to a car to take her to the airport (sometimes I wonder if she traveled in her flight suit?). We all had a little fun that night, even Erika-Shaye.
The last shot they got was Katee turning her dead body around. But, the Kara-Corpse-Mannequin would always bob its head when she spun it around in a manner that got increasingly hilarious with each take. We were all pretty exhausted by this point, so that certainly didn’t help.
But, at least I finally got to meet “Dead Kara.”
With that, my experiences on the set of Battlestar Galactica had ended. I later asked Bradley Thompson if I had been a useful resource to them. “Fishing for compliments, huh?” he asked. “Well, without you up there, this show wouldn’t have nearly the impact that it did. Having you there gave us all the ability to take advantage of moments that came up in real time on the set. The idea of sampling the entire piano to replay Slick’s work, change pieces in editing, correct mistakes – came when you were sitting at that piano. You built pieces of the compositions on the fly while we were shooting. It was frakking ESSENTIAL to have you there.”
After that, I left Caprica City… I mean, Vancouver, and returned to the States. As I left, I knew that David, Bradley, Nankin, the rest of the cast and crew and I had laid down the foundation for what could become a remarkable, musical achievement in episodic television.
However, my creative journey with this episode was only just beginning. Awaiting my return to Los Angeles, were scoring duties on Sometimes a Great Notion, A Disquiet Follows My Soul and all the rest of the current season. Several months would pass before I would begin actually scoring Someone to Watch Over Me. This idea was particularly amusing because I’d already worked on it longer than I’d ever worked on any episode of television before, and already composed at least an episode’s worth of music for it. And I was about to discover that post-production would present new and exhausting challenges.
CONCLUDED IN CHAPTER 3…