Starlog Magazine
May 1989

 

Written by Will Murray

Something strange is going on in Somerville, Massachusetts.  In an anonymous industrial warehouse converted into a soundstage, Lorimar / Warner Bros.' comedy-fantasy Second Sight is filming.  A section of the warehouse has been dressed to resemble a Chinese restaurant.  There, director Joel Zwick is preparing to levitate the actress whom fellow cast members call "The Flying Nun."

Sally Field is nowhere to be seen, however.  Instead, actress Beth (High Road to China) Armstrong, attired in a plain grey habit, is patiently watching the piano wires being tested.  At a signal, she's hoisted into a brutally vertical angle.

Co-stars Bronson (Perfect Strangers) Pinchot and and John (Night Court) Larroquette position themselves on either end of Armstrong.  But there's a problem with the lighting.  The wires show.  As Armstrong waits, her co-stars offer her real support so the unnatural position doesn't tire her.  The lighting is adjusted until Zwick, watching from a video monitor around the corner, calls for action.

Larroquette and Pinchot -- who's attired in an absurd pair of blue pajamas that might have been handed down through generations of the Merlin family -- begin a kind of tug of war with Armstrong as the rope.  Larroquette uses both arms, Pinchot only one finger.

"Murray!  Murray!" Larroquette shouts.  "If you want to deal with me, you'll have to put her down!"

To which Pinchot, whose character is not named Murray, replies: "I can't let go!  I'm holding onto resentment from the earthly plane!"  And he gives vent to a maniacal, "Hah hah hah hahhh!" laugh that shakes his long, lanky hair.  He sounds like the Mad Magazine version of The Shadow.

Just then, the fourth co-star, Stuart (Fatal Attraction) Pankin, rushes to the rescue.  He shoves a handful of Goobers into Pinchot's chortling mouth.  Pinchot feigns a faint and Pankin catches him.

Zwick calls, "Cut!"  He's not satisfied.

"Why don't you all try acting?" Larroquette deadpans.  It's hard to say if he's serious, he's serious so seldom.

And it's hard to tell what Second Sight is all about.  Even Zwick has trouble.

"There are two storylines," he explains.  "The major storyline involves a nun, a detective and a dead guy.  OK?  The dead guy, however, is presented through a living character named Bobby McGee, our psychic.  It's his spirit guide, Murray.  Murray is very jealous because the woman he used to live with before he died, who is now a nun, seems to be developing an affection for the detective, Wills.  The secondary story is that the nun meets up with Wills because there's an abduction of a cardinal who is just about to be elected Pope."

Bronson Pinchot plays Bobby McGee, who name derives from the Kris Kristofferson song, "Me and Bobby McGee."

Bobby works for Boston's Second Sight Detective Agency which is called in to solve the cardinal's abduction.  Pinchot's character possesses, among other powers, the ability to channel the spirits of the dead.  But Pinchot is quick to add that Bobby is no omniscient seer.

"He's really more like a psychic Helen Keller," Pinchot remarks.  "He's smart and he has this skill, but he's not very articulate.  The main problem is that he has more coming through him than he has the verbal skills, or even the physical stamina, to handle.  He'll overload constantly.  Especially after his spirit guide gets pissed off at him and steps to one side."

Bobby's guardian is Dr. Preston Pickett, played by Stuart Pankin.

"He's a PhD," Pankin explains.  "His job is to control and document the psychic, who is basically an innocent, with pictures and tape recorders.  Although it really isn't explained in the movie why he has hooked up with this detective agency, I've justified it because it gives the psychic the opportunity to be exposed to all kinds of stimuli in the real world, including dangerous stimuli.  Instead of putting him in an institution, we use him for good and not evil."

"One of the things that calms Bobby down when he's out of whack are candies -- Goobers particularly," adds John Larroquette, who plays the agency head, Wills.  He's trying to explain the scene shot earlier in the day.  "So, Preston comes back with the candy and sees that we're having a tug of war and he's holding her up by his fingertips because he can do that."

"That was something that I came up with," Pinchot reveals.  "The guy that I channel, Murray, used to be the nun's boy friend.  She sent him out for rum raisin ice cream and he got killed.  Now, she's getting eyes for John Larroquette's character.  There was a scene where we just tussled over her until the doctor came in.  As we came closer to doing it, I said, 'That's just not going to wash because somebody's who's already in the Fourth Dimension is not going to have a tug of war with John.  We're going to have my fly her with one finger.'  And they said, 'No.  We don't have the time; we don't have the budget.'  And I said, 'You either have to do it or I'm not doing the scene.  I can make chairs fly out of the way when I'm that character.  You can't retard what you've already set up.'  So, they said, 'Fine.'"

Pinchot isn't being temperamental.  His co-stars give him credit for not bluffing his way through his character(s).  Pinchot demands a strong adherence to psychic tradition as well as plot logic.  And more to the point, Second Sight is primarily a Bronson Pinchot vehicle.

"I was going to do another movie at Lorimar," Pinchot reveals, "which was also somewhat supernatural.  It was about this bodiless being from outer space that comes to Earth and kidnaps this car repossessor and makes him find this space crystal.  The little car repossessor was going to be me.  That didn't work out.  I decided at the last moment I didn't feel right about it.

"Lorimar had already gotten fixed in their heads that I was going to do movies with them and they sent me this script," he adds.  "I said, 'Great idea.  Strange script.'  And they asked, 'Would you be interested in sitting down with a writer and he producer and working on it?'  And I said, 'Yeah.  Sure.  That would be fun.'"

As production drew near, the choice of a director became a problem.  Pinchot suggested Joel Zwick, who has directed every episode of Pinchot's TV sitcom, Perfect Strangers, and with whom he feels comfortable.  The studio quickly hired Zwick.

Despite a superficial resemblance to Ghostbusters, Zwick has a much different take on Second Sight, which some cast members jokingly call The Three Stooges Meets Ghostbusters.

"I don't see this as a special FX movie," Zwick says.  "We rely more on comic acting inventiveness than Ghostbusters did.  It is a fantasy.  There are a number of special FX.  Essentially, my vision has been to work with the actors and not to put them in front of a blue screen and ask them to act a problem that they can't even see."

Telekinetic Take

In one sense, Second Sight is haunted.  The ghost of the writer's strike, still unresolved during the shoot, hangs over the Tom Schulman and Patricia Resnick script.

"The script I went into production with was -- nobody's fault -- a few drafts away from what I would have done into production with if I didn't have a writer's strike," Zwick says.  "Because of that, the actors and myself have had to work on the set to reinvestigate the dialogue and the logic of the scenes.  So, I venture to say that virtually everything is created as we go, using the script as a starting point."

"It was very terrifying at first," says Bess Armstrong, as she waits in her trailer for her next scene, the dreaded ice cream sequence.  She plays what she describes as "a nun with a past," Sister Elizabeth.

"She's now working as executive secretary to the Cardinal of Boston," Armstrong notes.  "She's a woman who pretty clearly doesn't belong in a convent but has made that choice through emotional trauma.  They way we play her, she makes no moves.  She's quite honorable to her vows, until the denouement, which we won't talk about."  She smiles sweetly, like a nun.

A crewman pokes his head into Armstrong's trailer and announces, "Time to make you green!"

"What we do for art," she says dryly.

"Let's dump ice cream on these suckers!" Zwick chortles gleefully as he arrives on the restaurant set.  It's clear he enjoys his work immensely.  Either that or he has directed too many episodes of Perfect Strangers.

Larroquette and Armstrong take their places, toe to toe, facing one another.  They're definitely an odd couple.  Imposing in his grey double-breasted suit, Larroquette (STARLOG #138) towers over the wan Armstrong, who has to tilt her head back to look him in the eye.

Overhead, riggers are checking the ice cream tub.  It's the size of the tubs they scoop cones out of.  They send it running back and forth along an invisible-wire track, making sure that it doesn't tip until it's directly over the clinging couple.  It seems to work fine.  But it isn't loaded yet.

Then, the tub is filled with semi-liquid ice cream.  Around the corner from the set, Zwick hunches over his video monitor, practically licking his lips in anticipation.

Zwick calls for action.  Larroquette and Armstrong exchange some dialogue and the tub begins its run.  On cue, it tips -- and a liquid stream of vomitous green ice cream splashes on Larroquette's shoulder.

It completely misses Armstrong.

"Cut!" Zwick cries.

"It's a little [bleeping] late," Larroquette complains sourly.  Neither he nor Armstrong have broken their embrace.  The ice cream drops down Larroquette's well-tailored suit.

"The ice cream missed," Zwick says matter of factly.

"That," Larroquette says, pausing for effect, "was a miss?"

"Yes."

"Then, somebody better shoot the [bleeping]  seagull that just flew through here."

Zwick ignores Larroquette.  The shot has misfired.  If he send the pair away to get cleaned up, expensive shooting time will be lost.  And there's only so much ice cream on hand.  After conferring, Zwick hits upon an elegant solution.  They'll dump the remainder on the hapless actors and splice the two shots together.

Stoically, Larroquette and Armstrong maintain their clinch while the tub is recharged and readied for action.  Zwick, back at his monitor, signals the effects man.

The tub rolls.  It tips.  This time, a veritable avalanche of emerald slop cascades down, inundating Armstrong and Larroquette thoroughly.

"Rum raisin?" he asks.

Zwick, laughing, calls it a print.

Larroquette sloshes off, thoroughly slimed, while Armstrong, her composure intact, calmly announces, "I would like to thank the crew for their control during that take."  Her gratitude is genuine.  Had anyone burst out laughing, both takes would have been ruined and she would have had to endure even more of an ice cream bath.

Pyrotechnic Plane

A week later, the cast has left town, and filming has shifted to the benighted streets of Boston.  This is the second unit, otherwise known as "the plane unit."  It's named after the maimed American Trans Air 727 that's discreetly parked on North Street, near Boston's Fanueil Hall.

"The three heroes think Will is in Pittsburgh," explains second assistant director Glen (Beauty & the Beast) Trotiner.  "So, they've gotten on the plane to go help him.  It turns out he's still in Boston.  Bobby psychically takes over the plane by way of Murray.  The plane gets this mysterious aura around it.  It starts out of the line of taxiing planes, comes racing out of the airport, up the highway and drives through the Callahan Tunnel.  The wings come off.  The tail comes off.  People fall out.  Luggage comes out.  Eventually, it winds up in an alley where it surprises the killers, who are firing at Wills."

The previous evening, Trotiner explains, they had shot the beginning of the sequence at Logan Airport with a real 727.

"We dressed the tarmac to look like a highway.  We took cars and put them on the tarmac and put down a yellow line, and they were driving up and down it.  We put some signs up, and we drove the plane down.  You see the skyline of Boston over the water.  It looks like a waterside highway."

Some miniature work will be done in post-production, but for the scenes actually shot on Boston's infamous traffic-defeating streets, the balsa wood and aluminum prop plane is utilized.  Over 60 feet long and wingless, the tail end is a gaping maw of orange passenger seats.  Police guard it carefully from a growing crowd of gawkers.  A passing airline pilot walks up and earnestly asks about the prop.  One wag, attempting to impress his friends, raises a hand and calls, "Taxi!"

FX coordinator Larry Cavanaugh details the inner working of the prop, actually a modified parade float.

"It was fabricated in California," he says.  "The guy who built it is pretty ingenious.  He's famous for building the floats in Pasadena.  It has a 454 Chevrolet engine in it with an automatic transmission.  It's rear-engine driven, and it has a truck chassis underneath it.  The driver in the pilot's compartment sits there and has all the controls, steering and the whole thing.  It's pretty maneuverable.  It'll do 45 miles per hour."

For the scene about to be shot, Cavanaugh, an explosives expert, has rigged the plane with spring-loaded titanium arms and spark tubes to generate friction sparks.

Patiently, Trotiner oversees the setup.  Midnight comes and goes.  Finally, deep in the night, they're ready for a dry run.  The plane float lumbers around the corner.  Stunt cars scramble from the monster's path on cue.  It looks good.

Then, they go for the real thing.  This time, the plane careens into view.  The pyrotechnics go off spectacularly.  A car swerves to avoid it.  Another, coming down the street, screeches to a halt, and shifts into reverse with alacrity.  The plane's nose chases it the length of the street.  Extras dressed as Bostonians react with amazement.  Real Bostonians who happen upon the scene, absorb it with something more akin to incredulity.  Only Hollywood would attempt to drive a jet through Boston's excruciatingly narrow streets.

As the plane sweeps by with amazing agility, sparks spit from the tubes concealed in its ruined tail.  Luggage tumbles off and extras are visible, frantically clinging to their precariously perched airline seats.

The shot comes off with only one hitch.  One of the swerving cars blows a tire on a curb.  Fortunately, the take is fine.

"This is the fantasy part of it," says Glen Trotiner, a regular STARLOG reader, unabashedly delighted to be directing a special FX unit.  "We've done some levitations and some things coming in and out of rooms mysteriously.  This is the climax.  The bullets stopping in mid-air and the psychic lunar ecl -- uh, better not tell you!"  He cuts himself off with a chuckle.

And then he goes back to work.  It's nearly 3:00 a.m., but that's a long way to first light and the end of this night's work.

WILL MURRAY, veteran STARLOG correspondent, is the current author of NAL's Destroyer series.  He profiled John Larroquette in issue #138.