There’s No Place to Hide Behind the Candelabra

by Javier M. Hernandez
(Photos by Claudette Barius/HBO)

The scene started in a wide shot and we planted two mikes just in case they started early. We hadn’t seen the rehearsal, so we needed to be ready for any possibility. In the tub, Douglas and Damon’s close-ups were shot at the same time so we covered them with two booms. A mirror behind Damon reflected most of the bathroom so we had to work from below and our mikes were almost touching the bath bubbles. Even the camera needed to be wrapped in a towel. The one thing we had in our favor was that the Jacuzzi wasn’t actually running this time.

How I ended up on my knees in Liberace’s bathroom is a tale.

I first worked with Sound Mixer Dennis Towns on the HBO series Unscripted, produced by Steven Soderbergh’s company. We then worked together on some movies Soderbergh directed including The Informant, Haywire and Contagion. Over those years, a movie about Liberace was always in the air. When the call came with an official start date and the news that Michael Douglas would be playing Liberace and Matt Damon his young lover, Scott Thorson, we all knew it would be a special project. To make it even more special, Soderbergh announced this would be his last film.

I had been casually looking at clips of Liberace on YouTube since I first heard that Soderbergh was interested in making a movie about his life. The numerous challenges this project would present quickly became obvious.

Soderbergh has his own style of filmmaking: most importantly, he likes things to be real. With this project, that meant many practical locations and sets full of mirrors. And not the “set mirrors” that you can gimbal; they would be real. And often quite large. And reflective surfaces would be the norm for almost every scene. Even Liberace’s piano and clothing were reflective. Oh, and there would be musical numbers, some involving complicated vari-speed playback and other fancy tricks.

When you work with Soderbergh, the days are short but intense. Soderbergh knows exactly what he wants to shoot, his preparation and vision are clear from the moment he starts describing the setup. Everyone on set knows what is expected of them and he hires the kind of people who can work with minimal need for explanation.

Unlike working with more conventional directors, you can’t assume with Soderbergh that you’ll get it in coverage if you miss a line or two in the master. There are also not many takes. If he likes the first couple of takes, why do it again? If he likes the way the scene plays in the master, why not play it in a oner? This often means having everyone on wires and booming only when possible.

Knowing the challenges we would be facing, I recommended to Dennis Towns that we hire Gerard Vernice as our utility. I had just worked four seasons with him on Chuck. I knew he was a master with wires, that we worked well together and that he would fit in perfectly with the pace and style of a Soderbergh film.

From day one Candelabra was a challenge.

Everything in Liberace’s wardrobe was silk, polyester, and various unknown fabrics, topped off by tons of sequins, rhinestones and noisy jewelry. It became apparent that Gerard would need to wire Douglas in his dressing room as he had to come up with something new and inventive for every outfit.

I thought I had the easy job, as I ended up with the responsibility of wiring Damon. Once we solved the dilemmas of the day with our principals, we would wire the rest of the cast. They weren’t exactly easy to wire either, as they were also dressed in period garb. Skimpy costumes, noisy fabrics, bare chests and lots of gold chains were the norm. I had it easy for a while but, as the story progressed, Damon’s wardrobe became more difficult. His character started to wear polyester shirts unbuttoned to the navel and more of those damn gold chains. Sometimes he wore nothing more than a speedo—not many places to put a wire!

We got very lucky: I was able to work a boom for most of the scenes where the wardrobe was noisy or nonexistent. But getting a boom in often meant crawling on my knees, popping up and down and even jumping over a couch in one scene. For the scenes where the boom couldn’t be in the room because of reflections, we made the wires or plant mikes work. Sometimes in this business, you just have to have luck on your side.

And that was just an average day at work.

One of the most difficult scenes started with Douglas and Damon in the hot tub. They got into a fight, got up out of the tub, walked through the bathroom to a dressing area, went into a closet, and then crossed to a mirrored vanity. Often for sensitive scenes they had private rehearsals, meaning we couldn’t see the blocking and had little time to work out any possible issues. In this case, after they privately rehearsed, Soderbergh walked us through the scene pointing out the four different spots in the bathroom and dressing area where he planned for them to talk. He said it casually, but Soderbergh knew this wouldn’t be easy for us. He trusts his crew to get the job done with minimal fuss or delay. No biggie: just wire two naked men in a tub or get a boom in without a reflection in a bathroom filled with shiny objects.

As I described at the beginning, we had two plants to cover the wide shot and worked two booms from the soap suds for the matching close-ups. When Douglas got out of the tub, I was still on my knees, booming from underneath as we were still limited in where we could be. Then we cut to the shot of Damon in the tub with the champagne bottle in the foreground. The huge mirror behind Damon required him to be on a plant mike. Douglas then crossed into the closet to put on his robe where Gerard was waiting with a boom to get his offscreen dialog.

Douglas then re-entered the bathroom and went to the vanity. As he made the cross, I came in underneath to get his lines. And then things got interesting: the rest of the scene played out in one take.

At the vanity, we were shooting into the mirror and Douglas was speaking into a plant mike while Damon’s off-screen lines were on the plant mike by the tub. Damon then crossed to the closet where Gerard was still waiting to boom Damon’s lines as he got dressed. Damon then walked back into the room where his lines were picked up by a plant mike by the doorway. As Damon walked toward Douglas at the mirror, I picked him up on the boom, still from underneath, and then the camera panned from the mirror reflection into an over on Damon. At this point, I was able to boom both actors from underneath as the camera moved from the over on Damon, past Douglas’s back and more mirrors, into another over, this time on Douglas.

Although it’s only part of one scene, this shot required two booms and three plants.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that Soderbergh doesn’t use a video feed so Dennis had to mix all of this blind?

While the tub scenes involved the most mikes and presented some unique challenges, I still felt lucky to be able to boom at least some of the dialog, even if I was on my knees the whole scene. You see, as a boom operator, sometimes the hardest thing is to rely entirely on wires. There can be a helpless feeling in the pit of your stomach as the cameras roll because, if something doesn’t work, you’re not able to fix it on the fly.

On Candelabra we dealt with this on a regular basis. Sometimes it was due to wardrobe, sometimes the sets and sometimes because Soderbergh wanted to shoot a long scene in a wide shot oner.

Liberace’s wardrobe presented unique challenges with every different shirt, cape or wig. Each change of wardrobe required Gerard to go to Douglas’ dressing room and come up with something new and inventive. The “backstage” scenes would be the first time Liberace was in full performance wardrobe. We had a chance to look at the wardrobe the day before but, frankly, seeing it didn’t help much; it just added to our concerns. Gerard went to off to wire Douglas, not really knowing what the solution would be, but he was smiling when he returned to the sound cart. At first he was having trouble finding a quiet place to put the mike. The jacket was quite tight fitting and made of a very noisy material. Then a brooch was added and Gerard quickly put a Countryman B6 with a small amount of butyl gum adhesive behind the brooch. The butyl served two purposes: it held the mike in place and isolated the mike from touching the brooch itself. Instead of trying to work around all the necklaces, jewels and sequins, Gerard decided to use them in his favor. Often he threaded the B6 mike through one of Liberace’s many necklaces, and placed the element within a link or charm, leaving the mike concealed, yet out in the open. Doing this helped us achieve the cleanest audio by allowing us to place the mic in a perfect spot for dialog while minimizing clothing rustle and rubbing.

We shot many scenes at the LVH in Las Vegas. The set designers and their crew meticulously dressed Liberace’s penthouse to look as it did back in the 1970s when it was called the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. Did I mention Liberace’s love of mirrors yet? The very last scene we shot in the penthouse was another of those of those scenes where we would have no choice but to rely mostly on the wires.

It was a Friday night and we had been having a good day. Most of the scenes were in the bedroom and we had been able to get it all on the boom. Looking at the sides, I knew we had an almost three page scene coming up in the living room area. I was just glad it was no longer playing in the Jacuzzi area as it had originally been written. They had planned a small party after wrap. After shooting in Liberace’s penthouse, we were going to get to socialize and relax and enjoy the view from the top floors of the LVH. The party was scheduled to start at 9 p.m. It was about 7 p.m. as we set about blocking the scene. This gave us about two hours to set up, rehearse and shoot a three-page scene. The living room was in typical Liberace style: mirrors and windows and a ceiling covered with recessed lighting. (see video clip below)

As Soderbergh started walking with the actors and talking about the scene, it became apparent that most of the scene would be done in a oner. A wide oner. The scene was set up as follows: Douglas and Damon would walk into the penthouse arguing, with dogs barking at their feet, and then walk over to the bar where Douglas was to make a drink. Then they would both walk over to the couch where they continued arguing as they sat down. At the end of the scene, Douglas would come over and give Damon a hug. Soderbergh then confirmed to me that he planned for the scene to be a oner until the end, at the couch, where he intended coverage for the last couple of lines.

While bringing in food for the party which would be held at the penthouse next door, one of the guys from craft service asked me, “So, how we doing?” I told him we had a three-page scene left to shoot and he replied, “Well, I guess we are not starting the party at nine.” I asked him why. Did he think we couldn’t finish three pages in an hour and a half? And then I reassured him. “I’m sure we will done in time for the food to stay fresh.”

Since the shot would involve a big dolly move throughout the penthouse, the camera guys rehearsed the move a few times while Gerard and I wired our actors. Damon’s shirt was made of polyester, but he only had one chain for this scene, so I knew I could make it work. I used a vampire clip and a little piece of moleskin to help lift and isolate the mike from the shirt. Gerard also needed to use a vampire clip on Douglas but, being Liberace, he had a bigger chain. The rehearsal went perfectly. It sounded so great that Gerard and I walked over to Dennis, who was hiding in the hallway behind a statue, and we started high-fiving each other. We were  ecstatic that it was going to work on the wires, knowing full well that there was zero chance of getting the boom in for this wide, constantly moving shot. During our celebration I noticed a discussion going on around Damon, so I walked over to see what was going on. They were adding more gold chains. I knew it had been too easy. After wardrobe had added those extra gold chains, “we” were ready to shoot, but I needed a couple of minutes to find a way to make Damon’s wire work as well as it had in the rehearsal when he had only the one chain. The rehearsal had been so good, but now one of chains was right on the mike and I didn’t have many options. I moved the mike higher, fitting it between the chains. I then put the vampire clip behind a button, using a white mike and a white clip in the hopes that it wouldn’t be seen on the white shirt. It was right on the edge. As Gerard would often say: “We are flirting with disaster.” As I was walking along with the dolly, I realized what a great shot it was. The camera dolly was seamlessly following Damon and Douglas through the beautiful penthouse, with its mirrors and large windows. It’s another example of the kind of shot that Soderbergh is so good at designing: a shot where he can create dynamic action and allow three pages of dialog to just flow naturally. And all I could think was “We better get it. This is a great shot.” It was sounding great, and the whole time I couldn’t take my eyes off Damon’s shirt, looking for any chance that mike might become visible as he moved. Douglas sounded great; even though his chain moved a little bit, it wasn’t on his dialogue. Everything was working. When we cut there was a long beat and Soderbergh said: “That was great. I have it.” Douglas and Damon had a little conference. Soderbergh was happy with the take and so were we. Personally, I didn’t want to do it again. It was perfect. It was like tempting fate. They decided to do one more, for protection. The second take was OK, not as good as the first as I could hear a little bit of the chains. It wasn’t bad, but not as good as Take One. Unlike many directors who might “chase the dragon” in search of another perfect take, Soderbergh realized he had what he wanted in take one, so we moved on. We did a couple of closeups for the last lines. And that was it. The three-page scene was done. It was 8:45 p.m. and the party would start on time.

The last scene in the movie (see video above) was also the last scene we filmed. It involved Douglas flying up to a piano high on a platform where he would sit and sing a song. Since it was a fantasy, there was no handheld mike, unlike in the other performance scenes. He would then stand up from the piano, say good bye, and fly away. This was a complicated scene involving a big dance number, a flying rig, and recording Douglas singing live. On our day off we spent the day rehearsing the scene. It was great to get to see Douglas in his wardrobe in advance. Unlike some of his other performance outfits, this one didn’t have a brooch that might hide the mike and yet it couldn’t go on the jacket. Douglas would be wearing a flying harness and the chances of the mike picking up clothing noise were too great. We all looked at each other and said, “It has to go in the hair.” Going into this project, we had thought that a mike in the hair would be something that we would use a lot, but it never worked out before because Douglas’ hair was too short in the back and you could see the cable. For this outfit he had a Dracula-type collar that stood up and would hide the cable for us. Gerard had a quick word with the hair department and they agreed to help us put the mike in Douglas’ wig. Having a day to rehearse was a great luxury; it gave us time to spot the problems and work them out without being under the stress of shooting. We had the time to work it out that Gerard would wire the wig and the hair department would help hide the cable. They were out of New York and had the kind of theater experience to do a great job. The mike was hot, Douglas was put in the flying rig and away he went. When he got to the piano and started singing, I was so relieved that it not only worked but it sounded great. It had to work. There would be no adjusting the wire or getting a boom in and a plant mike just wouldn’t work. We had tried to use a plant mike in the piano, but it was too noisy and it was picking up the “clink” of piano keys being pressed.

It was an emotional day for everybody. It had been a challenging show and the end was near. Would it be Soderbergh’s last film? As Douglas soared up into the air, I was able to step back and enjoy the magic of movie-making. I just felt lucky to be a part of this film. Despite the crazy day-to-day problem solving, this was the most fun I’ve had on a job in a long time. And none of this even mentions shooting in Palm Springs and Las Vegas in weather so hot the cameras had to be wrapped in ice packs. I went home exhausted every night but proud of the work we were able to do.