DENISE CALLS UP was shot almost entirely in a single townhouse in Manhattan, over a period of several weeks. The cast was allowed to meet face-to-face for the first and only time at an initial script reading, and were then shot seperately. Each actor's participation took anywhere from two to five days.
Director Hal Salwen specifically requested that the actors not rehearse in person, except on the phone, and even then only when absolutely necessary. "When you're on the telephone, you're not together with anybody and it changes the dynamic, " says Salwen. "Everything you do is very different than when you're talking to someone face-to-face. It's not just being in your underwear or on the toilet; it's much more subtle than that -- it's where your eyes go, whether you choose to cross your legs, or cross the room--everything you do reflects the fact that the other person is not in the room.
"In effect, you're not responding as powerfully to another person's emotional state or their personality. It isn't true human contact, it's responding to and interacting with one small element of another human being, their voice, and even that isn't real--it's an electronic facsimile squeezed through a tiny microphone."
According to Salwen, some of the actors in his cast were a little anxious about his approach, while others understood it immediately. While shooting, off-camera lines were generally read by crew rather than cast members, and it was Salwen's job to make sure that inflection, emphasis, and the emotional through-line of the phone conversation, were all matched perfectly. Tim Daly recalls: "There was something very freeing -- to be acting all by yourself with a phone in your hand. At the same time, it was limiting because you couldn't tell what the other person was going to do, or had already done. It was really up to Hal to see that things fit together."
Liev Schreiber's character, Jerry, has a three-month love affair with Barbara, played by Caroleen Feeney, without the two ever actually meeting. Schreiber describes the uniqueness of that situation as an actor: "Caroleen and I never actually worked together. A production assistant or technician would stand in the wings, reading off-camera lines to us as we talked on the telephone. I did meet with Caroleen a couple of times, we had the initialread-through, and every once in a while we'd go out for a bite. While I'm not sure whether Hal minded us socializing (he's pretty easy-going), I do know that he didn't want us together when we did the work. And we shot so fast that there wasn't a lot of time to rehearse or hang out with the other actors even if we'd wanted to."
Dan Gunther acted the part of daddy-to-be, Martin. He recalls Salwen's strategy a little differently: "There's a detachment that happens between two people on the telelphone that Hal wanted to make sure to preserve, and I think that was a wise decision. But it was my first feature and I was a little nervous and wanted to rehearse. So the night before I had my big scenes with Liev, who at the time was on location in Arizona, I asked Hal if we might rehearse on the phone and he said it was fine. I went in the next day and shot my side of the conversation alone on the set with a tired script girl who fed me Liev's lines."
About his involvement in the project he says, "I first saw the script two years before we shot it because the producer, Todd Harris and I had been friends for many years. I was so impressed by the writing, by how witty and topical the script was. I realized this is exactly what great satire is supposed to be: it's exaggerated enough that, depending on your life, it might not be exaggerated at all. And I'm always astonished at how many people have come up to me and said, this is exactly what my life is like. The movie seems to be touching nerves on both sides of the Atlantic."
Finally, the burden of matching and arranging the conversations fell on Salwen and editor Gary Sharfin. Salwen recalls, "The pace and rhythm of all the conversations was ultimately going to depend on how we edited them. In another kind of movie there are two-shots and three shots. It's partly the director and partly the editing, and partly the performers who share in the rhythm of the conversations. The weight falls on the editor's shoulders. But what a good editor knows is not how to cut smoothly -- that's what an amateur thinks -- but rather how to cut to what you want to see, or what you want to show the audience. There are an enormous number of cuts in DENISE, and I was initially worried that the film would seem 'cutty', but I don't think you ever feel it.
"I also knew that until the very end of the movie I was never going to have a complete scene. With most other films you can begin cutting scenes and putting them together while you're still shooting, because once you've finished in a location, for example, the scene is generally complete. With this movie you were never shooting an entire scene because you might not shoot the other half until two weeks later. More than most movies, it had to be in my head, and the surprises had to be limited. It was very, very rigidly planned."
Last modified 28-Mar-96.
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