Behind the Scenes of the ‘Very Choreographed Ballet’ of ‘Only Murders in the Building’s’ ASL Episode

When director Cherien Dabis was prepping to helm the near-silent seventh episode of Hulu comedy “Only Murders in the Building,” actor James Caverly, who is deaf, steered her toward the 2007 documentary “Through Deaf Eyes” as research. In it, there is a clip that offers an example of what a person on the spectrum of hearing can experience audibly. To Dabis, it “sounded like a film reel whirring,” she recalls. That became the base of the soundscape for scenes told from the perspective of Caverly’s character Theo.

“He challenged me to say, ‘What is going to be different about the scenes from Theo’s point of view versus the scenes outside of Theo’s point of view?’” Dabis recalls about working with Caverly. “I really had to delineate the two worlds.”

Dabis, along with supervising sound editor Mathew Waters and their team, did this by using ambient noise for scenes that took place outside of Theo’s point of view. Waters also worked with picture editor Julie Monroe to discuss ideas. “I took her production tracks and manipulated them so they were unintelligible yet had a very cool quality to them,” he says.

Music was added to many of those scenes to ramp up the tension as the episode, titled “The Boy From 6B,” delivered critical information about the murder mystery in the series. Flashbacks reveal the truth about how Zoe (Olivia Reis) died, while in the present-day storyline, Mabel (Selena Gomez) and Oliver (Martin Short) are in increasing danger as they get closer to the truth of the perpetrator of that crime, as well as the demise of Tim (Julian Cihi).

“When dialogue is not a factor, then you have to really think deeply about the visual storytelling,” Dabis says, “and that, ultimately, what was so satisfying about the episode. The physicality and the way things were framed and shot became very important,” she adds, ​noting that many scenes became akin to a “very choreographed ballet.”

An early sequence during which Theo spies on Mabel, Oliver and Charles (Steve Martin) through binoculars proved challenging because it required Dabis to adjust the blocking so that the trio was “moving naturally through the space, but also turning toward the window on the lines we needed Theo to see” to read their lips. Dabis acknowledges there has been controversy around lip reading in the deaf community, in part because it is not a perfect science. “The majority of people may get 30% of the conversation,” she says. “In this case, it did have to be word perfect and on camera so it was somewhat realistic that Theo could read their lips.”

Dabis acknowledges there has been controversy around lip reading in the deaf community, in part because it is not a perfect science. “The majority of people may get 30% of the conversation,” she says. “In this case, it did have to be word perfect and on camera, so it was somewhat realistic that Theo could read their lips.”

Even bigger challenges came in scenes where Theo and his father (Nathan Lane) were signing to each other.

“There was a scene where Nathan had to come home, take off his coat and gloves, deal with mail, move jewelry to an urn and always look at Theo while doing the activities. How do we do all of this efficiently? You take for granted that actors on set are talking and doing these actions at the same time,” she explains.

Dabis did not know American Sign Language prior to working on “The Boy From 6B.” On set, she and actors such as Lane relied on Caverly’s guidance, as well as ASL representative Douglas Ridloff, both of whom she calls “invaluable.”

“Rather than call cut, we allowed the actors to get through it all the way a number of times so they could feel it in their body. It becomes muscle memory,” she says of shooting scenes that featured ASL.

Since “The Boy From 6B” is so stylistically unique, it is what Dabis refers to as a “capsule” episode. However, its plot pushed so much story forward that it needed to end in a way that proved the show would be returning to its usual format in the next episode. This was done by having Martin exclaim, “We did it,” aloud at the end.

For Waters, going back to “real-world sound” for the last line was “like you can breathe again — and it is very effective.”

While Martin’s line refers to cracking an important piece of evidence in the case, Dabis notes that creator John Hoffman had a double meaning in mind with the line. “The joke was, ‘We did it; we made a silent episode,’” she says with a laugh.

Jazz Tangcay contributed to this report.

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