Actor Leland Orser (“Se7en,” TV’s “Scandal”) makes his directorial debut with the tender drama “Morning,” starring his wife Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Laura Linney. Below, Orser shares a scene from his film, which is currently playing in select theaters. The film centers on the five days in the life of a couple (Orser and Tripplehorn) immediately following the accidental death of their child.
Shooting the Scene
What you are watching here is the scene we were most scared of. It’s just a piece of it — a small part but it gives you the idea. This is the type of scene that keeps you awake at night as a director, and fills you with a low level of anxiety and dread. There are so many moving parts in shooting a scene, let alone a full movie. And before you do shoot a scene like this, before you actually start turning film in the camera, you want to make sure that all of those parts are in order and in place. Sound has to be perfect. Lighting has to be perfect. Makeup and hair – perfect. The area around the set needs to be locked down to such an extreme, that no noise or distraction might ruin the take. Because once it gets started, you can’t get in its way. There’s no calling ‘cut’ or running in to adjust this element or that. Scenes like this, where the emotional stakes are so high, you may only get one shot at bringing home the perfect take. You really have to understand that there may just be one chance. It’s all about performance and only performance. If the performance is there, you have to be ready and able to capture it. I basically wrote a three-page monologue, for Jeanne’s character, Alice, to deliver in this scene. It’s the end of the film, the culmination, and resolution of all that we’ve seen. This is the moment in the film where Alice stops running, and opens the door to her emotions, just a crack to start to let them out, while simultaneously beginning to allow the smallest glimmer of life back in. There are so many beats, so many emotions that bleed in and out of each other in the words that she speaks. Grief, shock, confusion, denial, blame, wonder… and the list goes on. It’s an impossible layering of so many levels of pain.
I left Jeanne alone all morning that day while we were setting up the shot. Then I went and found her when we were ready and asked her if she was good to go. She nodded. We didn’t talk. I told her I believed in her. And then I went back to my place at the monitors. We didn’t run the scene, like we so often would do; to hear the lines and the cues and let the actors get comfortable. We decided to save everything and just roll, catch whatever we could on film. Call it a rehearsal. Call it whatever you want. I had a feeling that we needed to get the camera up and start rolling. I checked in with Laura, made sure she was good to go, and good with her lines. I asked all the department heads to quickly finish whatever it was they had to finish and clear out of the way. We brought the stand-ins out. And Jeanne and Laura stepped in. They sat in their places and Jeanne closed her eyes. The cameras were trained on her. The lights were set. I asked for complete silence. You’ve never heard a quieter set. It felt sacred. It felt scary. I held my breath. I think everybody did. Sound began to record. Film started to roll and when I quietly said, ‘action,’ Jeanne opened her eyes. She knew the role and the script so well. She had done her homework. She’d worked on it for weeks. She was connected. She was ready. She opened her mouth and she let go. I could see it in her eyes immediately. She was there. She was in. All you could hear were the quiet haunted words as they came out of her mouth and the calm reassurance of Laura’s warm voice. So personal. So private. So painful. So raw. The result… well, the result is what you see in this clip when you’re watching the film. The result was that first take, the rehearsal we filmed.
The cinematographer, Paula, who was operating the camera at that point, told me afterwards that she was afraid that parts of the scene would be out of focus because of the tears that kept welling up in her eyes and streaming down her own face. The focus puller was crying. The boom operator was crying. I was shaking. I was so nervous. And I was crying too.
That was it. That was the take. We did it one more time just to be safe. But we were done and I knew it. I knew we had what we’d come for.
Laura Linney took me aside after, as we were turning the cameras around to focus on her. She told me we should go home; that we didn’t need to shoot her coverage, that we were done for the day. We had what we needed, she said. We didn’t need her. “Of course we’re turning around on you,” I said. “Of course we’re going to cover you and all of your lines. You’re as important to this scene as Jeanne.” And she said to me, “Okay that’s fine. Shoot me. Do what you have to do. But if you dare go into that editing room and cut to me even once in this scene, when you’re putting it together, I’ll kill you.”
A beautiful, generous threat from a beautiful, generous person who had sat across from Jeanne and witnessed a performance – so rare. Laura had enabled it. It couldn’t have happened without her. She grounded the scene as Jeanne flew high above it. Everything Jeanne gave, Laura received and ever so gently lobbed it back. It’s what you wait for as a filmmaker — what you dream of, I think, to have two such great actors, together on the same set, interacting in a scene, on a level, so high – to be there, to witness it, and to capture it on film.
Watch the trailer below: