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Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning New
Actor Joseph Lawrence takes a catnap.

PROVO — Anyone who thinks filming a movie is as simple as "lights, camera, action" needs to spend a day on a movie set.

The actors and actresses working on the feature film "Together Again for the First Time" spent most of their days in July on this north Provo set just "waiting around," said actor Blake Bashoff.

Creating a scene that lasts just moments onscreen takes hours on the set. Veteran character actor David Ogden Stiers said that getting everything to come together just right can be "bloody murder."

"You have to wait for the planes to stop flying overhead, the neighbors to stop blasting the stereo, the fly to get out of the room — and the reward is to check the gate," Stiers said. (For those who don't speak movie-talk, "check the gate" means make sure that no fuzz or hair or lint of any kind is in the camera lens. If there is, the scene has to be reshot.)

"As Orson Welles once put it, 'I act for free; they pay me to wait,' " Stiers said. "That just comes with the job."

Before the shooting even starts, the actors have to rehearse the scene several times to make sure they have it just right. Meanwhile, the director throws in his bursts of inspiration, which can completely change the scene and lead to even more rehearsing.

And before the rehearsing starts, the crew needs to set the scene — no easy feat in this case. The movie is set in Spokane, Wash., during Christmas. The old joke about Christmas coming in July has come true here, with everything from Santa and reindeer on the roof to fake snow being blown around by giant fans to mimic a blizzard.

Reed McColm, screenwriter and producer, said the hardest scene to create thus far was a nighttime, outdoor shot that included Christmas lights all along the street and snow falling around the family. Try pulling that off when, even at 2 a.m., temperatures rarely dip below 70 degrees.

The fake snow, which McColm describes as Cheetos without the color or flavoring, got everywhere, and the fans blowing it around were "ridiculously loud," and the actors sweated out the shoot in their winter coats.

"But it was pretty when it was done," he said. "Oh, was it pretty."

The actual filming in Provo started June 26 and continued through the end of July, but creating the film started much earlier, back in 1989, when McColm and Jeff Parkin, the director and a film-production teacher at Brigham Young University, were getting their master's degrees at the University of Southern California.

The men decided they wanted to write a movie together, so they went through play manuscripts to find something with potential. "Together Again for the First Time," a play that premiered at BYU in 1985, seemed like their best bet, so they adapted the script for film and sent it to another of Parkin's friends, James Huntsman.

Although he had the family chemical business, Huntsman had wanted to work in the film industry since he saw "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as a 9-year-old boy. When he read the "Together" script, he decided to be one of the film's producers.

The "dramady" is about a large family that gathers for Christmas — the first time all the kids have been together since they've grown and left the nest, with the parents played by Stiers (best known as Charles Winchester III on TV's "M*A*S*H") and Julia Duffy (Stephanie on "Newhart").

"The dialogue between the siblings and step-siblings is really funny, quick and fresh," Huntsman said. "Coming from a large family myself, it's the kind of humor I can relate to."

Although many producers don't have a lot to do with the actual filming process, Huntsman prefers a more hands-on approach because he gets to interact with so many talented people.

Likewise, Parkin said his favorite part of the film is working with so many creative people and bringing the ideas together.

Another enjoyable aspect of making "Together" is that it includes 40 BYU interns and recent graduates. "I just love moviemaking because you get to involve so many people," Parkin said. "I have my students from BYU and a great cast from Hollywood, and we all put our ideas together."

Of course, having a crew with little production experience can lead to a few setbacks. Stiers said the first day on the set, the producers warned the cast that a lot of the crew was still learning how film production works. "But make no mistake, everyone here is a professional," Stiers said. "And they are as willing to learn on Day 9 as they were on Day 2."

Making a movie requires working together at every level, and that is especially true for the actors. "You have to let the wall down," said actor Kirby Heyborne. "It's up to you to make the chemistry. It's a conscious effort on your part."

But for this film, the chemistry came easily.

On their first day together, the cast got to know each other over a Christmas dinner. After filming together for 10 days, they really did act like a family.

For example, many scenes didn't require all of the actors being around. In one scene, while most of the family is gathered around a speaker phone talking to Heyborne's character, Heyborne didn't need to be in the room because he wasn't on camera. But instead of staying in his trailer, he was on the set, reading his lines and supporting the cast. "Everybody stays here," he said. "That's what makes this cast so fantastic."

Onscreen, the transitions between scenes are seamless, but they are most often shot out of sequence. The actors have to re-create the emotional mindset of the scene, even if they shot the previous part of the scene several days before.

To do that, said actress Kelly Stables, the actor needs to know the script inside and out. Stables and Bashoff compared acting to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. "It's all broken down into shots and angles, and you need to know where a scene falls into the big picture," Bashoff said.

"You need to know each piece of the puzzle," Stables added.

For Duffy, learning "each piece of the puzzle" has been more of a challenge than for the others. Duffy flew into Salt Lake City a week into the filming to replace actress Patty Duke, who was let go because of creative differences. Because of that replacement, filming will take about another week, but the producers did not have an estimate of the added cost.

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Although she didn't have as much time to get to know the script and other cast members, Duffy said she takes it one scene at a time. But it's pretty easy for her to relate to the film's theme, since she's a mother with children around her character's age.

"My children are 17 and 20, and the script is a lot about children leaving home and growing up that is very emotional for the parent and the child," she said.

For Stiers, the best part is just being around the cast. "For such a young cast, their energy, experience and tension are so high," he said. "They are so constantly alert and available, and so unrelentingly good at acting."

And their talent shows up on screen, in the form of a real family. "We're good enough actors not to be too far away from (looking like a real family) anyway," Stiers said, "but we have become much more intimate, genuinely caring about each other, and that just deepens the pleasure of the film."

E-mail: jcloward@desnews.com