“I must go somewhere — find someone — no matter what the consequence!”
Well, we’ve stunned Joan Bennett, if that helps. You can check that off your bucket list.
But never mind that — the big story today is happening on the other side of the camera. Apparently, this is Take Your Executive Producer to Work Day, as we begin a week of episodes directed by a certain Mr. Dan Curtis.
Dan was the creator of Dark Shadows, and the primary creative force behind the show. He’s an interesting guy — a bold thinker, driven, aggressive, and one of television’s true eccentrics.
My favorite Dan story comes from Leonard Goldberg, an ABC executive who was interviewed for a DVD bonus feature. Before Dark Shadows, Dan was a golf show producer, but one day, he called Goldberg and said, “I have to tell you — last night, I dreamt a daytime show.”
He said, “There’s this girl, and she gets on a train, and she’s very nice and very pretty, but very fragile, and she’s going up into New England somewhere. And she’s going to be the governess for a man, who’s a very scary kind of guy, who lives on this big, lonely –“
I said, “Dan, Dan, Dan — let me stop you for a second. You’re telling me the story of Jane Eyre.” And he said, “What’s Jane Eyre?”
I said, “Well, it’s a very famous story.” He said, “Is anybody doing it for daytime television?” I said “No,” and he said, “So, let me finish.”
That’s the guy who can create Dark Shadows. I was about to say, “who can create a show like Dark Shadows,” but that’s the point — there is no other show like Dark Shadows. That’s who Dan Curtis is.
Fast-forward to March 1968, when Dark Shadows has become the strangest, the most surprising and the most popular show on daytime TV. Dan decides that he’d like to try something new, so here we are — his first day as a director.
Now, here’s the list of Dan Curtis-directed projects that I’ve seen: the 1970 movie spinoff House of Dark Shadows, the 1971 sequel Night of Dark Shadows, and the first episode of the 1991 Dark Shadows revival series. They’re all terrible.
For more information on how terrible they are, see my “Time Travel, part 1” post about the 1991 pilot. The short version: Every shot is a gimmick, none of them effective. Dan likes to set up shots from high above the actors, or down by their shoes, or straight up Ben Cross’ nose. He shoots from behind chairs, from the ceiling fan — really, any distraction that he can provide that might get in the way of the actors and the storytelling. He is a completely insane director.
The thing that I can’t explain is that Dan was nominated for Emmy awards for producing and directing two TV miniseries — The Winds of War in 1983, and the 1989 sequel War and Remembrance. I haven’t seen either of these, because they hardly have any vampires in them. Maybe he matured into an incredible director in the 1980s, and then suffered a head injury right before they started on the Dark Shadows revival. I can’t say.
That’s all the context I can offer right now, as we ride along on Dan’s first day in the director’s chair.
Happily, he lives up to my expectations. The thing that I love about Dan is that it never occurs to him to play it safe. He doesn’t wake up in the morning and say to himself, I’m going to hold back a little today, and make sure things run smoothly. Hell, no. He wants to try something new.
So right away, he starts playing with the camera. The first act starts with a shot of Barnabas’ portrait, and then there’s a pan across the foyer as we settle on Naomi and Ben in the drawing room. Then the camera keeps moving, pulling in tight on Naomi’s face, as she stares off into the distance and waits for her cue.
This is an unusual shot for Dark Shadows. You’ll see occasional moments when the camera will pull in on a character’s face, but only once in a while. In yesterday’s episode, for example, they did it twice. But going from a pan around the set to a long shot to a close-up with the same camera is rare. We’re going to see a lot of new camera moves today.
They’ve got three cameras in the studio, and the editing is all done live, with the director looking at three monitors and cutting between them on the fly. Usually, that means one camera’s doing a two-shot, one is doing close-ups, and the third is waiting around the corner of the set, getting ready for the next bit of blocking.
As it turns out, one reason that they don’t do a lot of these single-camera moves is that it’s hard to stay in focus as you pull in from the room to the character’s face. As we zoom in for this close-up, Naomi is noticeably fuzzy.
So Dan plays it safe for the next couple shots. We’ve got a medium two-shot as Naomi and Ben talk about Barnabas’ condition.
Then we cut to another medium shot, from a slightly different angle.
But Dan can’t play it safe for long; it’s not in his nature. When Ben says that Barnabas is under a curse, we start pulling in on Naomi.
This time, it works; we get a really nice reaction shot.
But Dan loses his nerve almost immediately. A half-second later, we cut to another angle.
But you can’t keep him down for long. The actors move into a new position…
And then we cut to another angle.
Naomi turns, and we immediately swoop in for another close-up.
Unfortunately, this happens to be a moment when Naomi is a little unsure about her dialogue.
So we end up with a nice close look at an actress checking the teleprompter for her next line. You can almost hear Dan gritting his teeth in the booth.
But then he pulls it together, and you can see the effect that he’s going for.
He starts with a shot of Naomi, as she tells Ben to take Daniel over to Reverend Bland’s house, to keep him safe as she finds a way to deal with Nathan.
The camera pulls back, to show Ben’s reaction.
Then it moves in to focus on Ben, as he realizes that it’s almost dark, and Barnabas will be waking up in the tower room soon. You can tell that this shot was planned in advance — the close-up comes at just the right moment to emphasize his response.
We pull in tight on the perfect shot…
Then back out again for the two-shot…
And then back to starting positions for the dismount.
Naomi exits the scene…
And the same camera continues to track her as she walks into the foyer. This is a little clumsy — she walks right in front of the camera, and it’s tough to keep her in focus — but it works. You have a sense of motion, as if you’re in the scene as a participant, watching her walk by.
We’re still on the same camera as she walks upstairs.
And then we pull back gently for a really nice shot as Ben enters the frame to watch her go — essentially standing in the place where the audience just stood, and taking our place as the observer.
We hold here, as Ben watches her cross the balcony.
And we finally cut to a different camera as Ben walks back into the drawing room. That’s about 75 seconds with one camera, doing what would probably have been six or seven different shots for one of the regular directors.
Of course, now there’s a chair in the shot, poking in at the bottom left of the frame, so that’s probably not ideal. But that’s kind of the point.
This is a daily show, filmed live-to-tape on an assembly-line schedule. They’ve already figured out how to put the show together competently. They’ve developed a routine that gets them from day to day, with the minimum number of gut-wrenching mishaps. They stretch themselves when there’s a new special effect, but when it’s just a couple people talking in the drawing room, they can go on autopilot.
But then there’s Dan Curtis, who doesn’t know how to live that way. There is nothing in this world that he’s scared of, except being bored. He’s amazing.
Tomorrow: Don’t Love Me.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the start of Act 1, the camera pans across the foyer. When we reach the drawing room, we can see the boom mic at the top of the frame.
At the end of Act 1, Naomi gives Ben instructions: “I want you to take Daniel into town. I want you to take him to the Reverend Bland’s. You must leave him there. I want to stay here — I want him to stay there, it isn’t safe.”
At the top of Act 3, we see Naomi standing still, frozen in the middle of closing the drawing room doors. She gets her cue, and closes the doors.
When Nathan tells Naomi that Barnabas is active at night, she’s bothered by a passing fly. It’s a long two-shot, so you can’t see the fly, but she flinches and passes her hand in front of her face.
There’s a rare tape edit just before Barnabas bites Millicent. It’s one of their better edits; they match the pose and music very well.
Tomorrow: Don’t Love Me.
— Danny Horn