The Trouble With Set Visits

Some thoughts on whether set visits cloud the critical mind.

I'm writing this from a hotel room in Toronto, waiting for a car to take me to the airport and then a plane to take me home to Los Angeles. I'm in Canada for a set visit (I don't think I'm allowed to tell you for what; I wish I had read my NDA more closely), and I find myself reflecting on what these visits mean.

I've been writing about movies online and visiting movie sets long enough that I know the almost-canned responses by now. There's always someone in the audience who believes that by taking this trip I've put myself in the bag for the movie I've visited; the same belief surrounds destination junkets, where the studio flies you someplace to see a movie and interview the talent. Destination junkets are more complex, critically, but not for the reasons most people think. They assume that because I'm being flown to Hawaii (as I was for the Forgetting Sarah Marshall junket, for example) I'll be more inclined to like the film. The reality is that any positive experience seeing a movie - ie, free of hassle, good sound, comfortable seats, I'm not too tired - will make me like a movie a bit more. But I see where the perception comes in, and it's hard to battle.

Set visits? The idea that set visits color my reviews is harder to understand, having now been visiting sets for so long. I do it less than I once did; for one thing the focus for studios has shifted to bigger, portal-like sites. Ten years ago it would be common for 'fan' sites to be flown en masse overseas to check out a nerd set, but these days it's the same people from Yahoo! and MTV and Collider, all big sites with big traffic numbers. I travel to sets far less often than I did in 2005 or 2006.

But the problem of the set visit remains the same, and it isn't that my critical judgment is swayed by being in another city or the magic of being on a set (having visited probably a hundred sets at this point I still haven't lost the thrill of stepping onto a sound stage. If I ever did I'd probably find a new job) or having access to talent. In fact it's a rare set visit that makes me like a film better. Yes, you read that right: set visits often make me judge a movie more harshly.

You have to understand that a movie exists in three discrete phases while it's being made. As a script the movie is all possibility, while in the editing room a movie is rapidly approaching it's true form - it's revealing itself in the edit. But on set it's in a strange in-between place, where every day the possibilities of what this movie is collapse towards the singularity of what it actually will be. It is transitioning from the open possibilities of the script with each choice being made on set; every take, every line reading, every shot is bringing the film closer to its ultimate form. But the filmmakers and talent don't know what that ultimate form is; they're operating from the script and the pre-production and the hopes for what they're making. They usually haven't sat down with the footage and confronted what they truly have, which can be quite different from what they hoped.

What this means for me and my set visit is that I come to a movie for one day and talk to everyone about what they think they're making. I talk to the director about his vision for what the movie will be, I talk to the actors about their ideas for how their characters could end up onscreen. Even the craftspeople on a movie set are telling me about what they dreamed up and designed before the movie started shooting, and they're not quite sure how their sets or costumes will look when taken as a whole in the finished product.

But I miss the next step, which is the sculpting phase that is editing, where the movie really comes together. And so I miss all the transitional phases (the missing link, if you will) that takes the movie from vision to cinemas. Sometimes I'll be lucky enough to see an early cut of the film, but even then I'm not truly understanding what the director and editor are doing daily in the editing room, what they have to work with and how their choices are being made. 

So when I eventually sit down to watch the film, which has gone through all the pains of the edit (and ask any actor about how an edit can change everything; they give a director five different takes, never knowing how the director will use those choices. There's a lot of trust in being an actor and letting the filmmaker assemble your performance out of disparate, disconnected pieces), I only know what the vision was. I only know what the filmmaker wanted, I don't know the journey of discovery that took the film to its final form. Which means I walk in with the ultimate spoilers in my head - not of plot but of intent. I  can get excited about ambitious intent on set only to find everything that excited me gone from the finished film; while the scenes are still there the way they're played or cut removes the thematic elements that made it seem so cool on the day. I've walked off of a lot of sets amped up about what the filmmaker was attempting only to be completely deflated when I saw the actual film and realized he had failed in that attempt. Or perhaps he had found something new - idea B - in the editing room, but I walk into the screening room knowing he was going for idea A.

I've gotten better about this over the years; I've learned how the different phases of filmmaking work and understand the ways movies change as they race towards theaters. That said, I still sometimes find myself disappointed when watching a film whose set I visited; too often the big ideas, the grand plans that charged me up a year before are gone, replaced by something more conventional or easier to accomplish. That, of course, isn't always the case (and is rarer in recent years as I've been visiting fewer random sets (see Inkheart, for example) and more specific sets with great directors at the helm), but on the average I'd say my opinion of a film has been lowered by a set visit rather than artificially inflated. (It's worth noting that sometimes you visit a set and it's so clearly a fucking disaster, with everybody having different visions of what it should be, that you walk away expecting the worst. Sometimes you get pleasantly surprised)

There are realities of this career I'm lucky enough to have, and they're eternal ones. Roger Ebert visited movie sets forty years ago. Movie junkets used to be even more impossibly lavish (I started doing junkets right at the end of the great baroque era, when Columbia offered unlimited per diem at hotels). The relationship between critic and studio and filmmaker has and will always be complicated. And yes, some people are bought by these trips - they want to keep taking them and so they don't rock the boat. I've been taking them less and less, so I think I've probably rocked the boat too often. But so it goes. My only credential is my integrity, and that all comes down to perception, since nobody reading my reviews can see into my head.

These are just thoughts I had while waiting for my car. Every time I travel (see my recent trip to Noah's world premiere) there are some who grumble I'm bought, which speaks very much to their low opinion of the value I place on myself, but also of a lack of transparency in the process. Sometimes it's good to pull the curtain back and show a little bit of the behind the scenes nonsense.