Small-screen version of the great man...

Wolfe was in his office looking at television, which gives him a lot of pleasure. I have seen him turn it on as many as eight times in one evening, glare at it from one to three minutes, turn it off, and go back to his book.

-- Rex Stout's (1953) THE GOLDEN SPIDERS, p. 93.

Some reflections on a visit to the set of the tv production of THE GOLDEN SPIDERS

I've almost always found it to be true that if one loves a book, one hates the adaptation. Favourite characters are physically different from how one imagined them, their physical surroundings jar with one's mental images ("What? The globe, in that corner?"), and evil-minded script-writers take unspeakable liberties with the plot. So it was interesting, getting a chance to see a little of the latest attempt to fit Nero Wolfe into 2D.

It all started a year or two ago when a guy e-mailed me to say that he was interested in making a Nero Wolfe movie, and had found my address through my Nero Wolfe fan site. I thought it was an awesome idea, and we corresponded about which book would be a suitable intro for a modern audience, but frankly I never expected it to materialize. I've always only been a consumer of movies; movie-making seemed the remote activity of an alien world. But suddenly it turned out the film was coming together. This nice guy on the other side of cyberspace, it appeared, was that exotic animal, an Executive Producer. The money had been found. The book (THE GOLDEN SPIDERS) had been chosen. It would definitely be filmed, for A&E. It would be filmed in Toronto. It would be filmed this summer. Maury Chaykin would play Wolfe. Timothy Hutton would play Archie.

"Why don't you come down and see the set?" the nice producer (Mr. Jaffe) wrote.

It seemed like a strange, alien concept.

And then, one day, I got a phone call. "Are you ... the Nero Wolfe expert?," a strange voice asked. "Er ... yes," I said, mendaciously. The strange voice belonged to a new character, the production designer (whose name I promptly managed to lose). It was her job to put together the set of the brownstone. It quickly became apparent that she had an awe-inspiring knowledge of Brownstone detail, harvested explicitly for this purpose. She had read all the books; she had read the Baring-Gould; she had read the infamous Darby; she had read everything, it appeared. What she wanted to know was how I visualized the office, since the books are inconsistent on some points. As you come in the door, on what side of the room are the desks? How are they oriented to each other? I tried in vain to articulate my vision. The conversation went on for about 25 minutes, and then continued in a second call. And what about Wolfe's chair, what did it look like? "Well, big," I replied, weakly. She said, they had sent out to obtain the biggest chair any of them had ever seen, but when it came in, the actor looked ridiculously dwarfed by it. I was taken aback. Now they were trying to build one, or something. And what were the dimensions of the picture that concealed the sliding panel? "Oh, the waterfall!" I said, glad at last to be back in familiar details. "No, no, that was in later books," she replied, sharply. "At this time, it was a picture of the Washington Monument."

It all seemed so much more complicated than I had imagined. But I was very, very impressed by the effort and expertise that was obviously being applied to be faithful to the details of the Stout books.

So we worked out a schedule, and in the last week of August 1999 I took the train down to Toronto. I was staying with friends overnight, and when I got in they hilariously informed me that a guy had left a message that a mini-van would be picking me up the following morning to drive me "to set". No definite article, doncha know, like "to church". Wolfe would have snickered, I felt sure.

With some trepidation, the following morning, I approached my mini-van. A very nice guy drove me out to the studio in Scarborough, where the filming was taking place. I attempted to pump him for scurrilous stories about the cast, but to no avail. Timothy Hutton's shameful addiction to junk food was the only hint of scandal -- apparently he's very demanding about getting regular doses of pizza. It all seemed unlike the Babylon I had imagined. "Er ... and what do you do?," I was asked, for the first time of many that day. "I have a web page," I said, with some confusion. It seemed an inadequate answer.

At the set, I was met by several kind people, who had obviously been told to look after me. "You must be security?," I gauchely enquired of one young man, eyeing his formidable looking collection of headset, radio, and obscure black gadgets. No, it appeared he was a trainee director. Then I met the 2nd assistant director, who showed me around a little, and at lunch I met the 3rd assistant director, whose job seemed incredibly stressful and involved constantly ringing a hideous buzzer to warn people the cameras would soon be rolling. Everyone was remarkably polite, if obviously unable to figure out what status to afford me. ("Er ... what do you do?" "I have a web site." "A web site? You mean, like" "Not exactly.")

I'd never been on a set before, so the physical layout itself was of interest. It was a huge warehouse, with trailers out front for the cast plus the food people; they had vats of coffee laid on, which I appreciated. In front of the doors was a card table set up for the cast to play cards -- I instantly recognized Orrie, I'm proud to say, and later found that I had observed Horan also. (Needless to say I forgot to write down everyone's name -- with any luck the IMDb will have the details, closer to the show time.)

Inside the warehouse smelt of plywood, and, when we were on the set itself, flowers. I was thrilled to see that there were actual orchids decorating the "office".

They set me up in a chair behind the director's chair, so that I could watch the tvs onto which the camera views are projected. It seemed an odd system; we were actually out of the line of sight of the 'office', in the 'front hallway' of this ersatz Brownstone. So the director, Bill Duke (whom I know only as the director of HOODLUM) would leap around the corner into the office, set up the shot, then leap out into the corridor, shout 'Action', and watch the events on the two little tvs. ("Cut! Print that," he would say menacingly, after a successful shot.) Between takes, I wandered around the other 'rooms', mostly filled with cables and crew doing crossword puzzles. The dining room contained some revolting statuary (Wolfe would never have such bad taste!), but also some very satisfying framed menus, wonderful to see.

From the angle I saw, too, the office looked all right -- shelves of books, looking great, and the globe (though there will obviously be no spinning of it, since the back was cut away to lodge a huge light). I was amused to see a large portrait of Holmes on the wall, along with one of Austen, and other authors whom I couldn't identify. (One of the set direction people kindly but unsuccessfully ran around trying to find out for me -- it was actually kind of distressing, that no one else could ID them.) I couldn't see Wolfe's chair clearly, but the yellow chairs all in a row were there, and the carefully placed red leather chair also. Later in the shoot, when the office filled up, they kept sending out for more yellow chairs, in an eerie 'art-imitates-life' moment.

Apparently the budget of this show was about us$4.7 million, of which a fair chunk would be salaries. With furnishings and everything the set was about us$400k, which apparently was high for a tv production, but has been justified because they hope to make a whole series of these Wolfe movies. THE DOORBELL RANG and THE MOTHER HUNT are being considered as the next in line, but whether or not they get made depends on the ratings for THE GOLDEN SPIDERS.

The scenes which were being shot that day were, as I said, the finale. Mr. Jaffe had warned me that the original dialogue had been deemed "too complex" for television, so I was prepared for the worst. But what I heard didn't horrify me too greatly -- really, most of it sounded authentic. The most disconcerting thing was hearing Wolfe, who of course in the books always speaks flatly & without raising his voice, orating in this production with the absurd prosody of a tv news anchorman. "By now of COURSE I was a moral IDiot, an egotistical SOW with boar's TUSKS." (I was pleased they kept the original line, though. And I suppose (hope?) the outrageously exaggerated intonation actually sounds normal when filtered though the mikes.)

The worst thing in the scenes I saw was a little bit of kitsch involving cookies -- in a most un-Wolfe-like way, when the people file into the office for the final scene, Wolfe comments "and my chef, Mr. Fritz Brenner, has prepared some delicious cookies". The effusiveness grated on me. (I commented to the producer on this line when I got back to Montreal, and he ruefully e-laughed and said he would try to cut it -- apparently, in one of the first set of "dailies" from the set, he had been appalled to see they'd had Chaykin drinking beer from -- oh! the horror! -- a bottle. But being executive producer has some perks, apparently. He gave them a detailed memo on why it was Wolfe would never do such a thing, and ordered them to reshoot the scene with a glass. ;) ) (And while we're on the whiny details, it annoyed me that Chaykin was pronouncing "Pfui" "Phooey". Pfui to that!)

On the whole, though, I felt optimistic. It looked as though Wolfe's intelligence and presence was actually coming across, in Chaykin's depiction of him. Archie, as I've said, looked great to me - I recognized the character by his fabulous clothes and jaunty demeanour before I put a name to the actor's face. And Hutton had a wonderful sardonic smirk during the scenes I was watching -- just like I've always imagined Archie to have. I was impressed by Cramer -- another familiar face (Bill Smitrovich), and perfect for the role. (I positively chortled aloud when I saw him whip out the cigar, roll it between his palms, and start chewing on it.) Saul, of course, far less bizarre-looking than the books implied (they'd need to redo a Cyrano to get the nose right); to me, he looked too slick, instead of scruffy, but he'd no real lines in the scenes I was watching, so I'm not sure I'm judging fairly. Orrie looked way, way too young for the part, and not nearly annoying enough, but again I didn't get to see him deliver any lines. I didn't get to see Fritz, I didn't get to see Theodore. Jean Estey didn't look intense enough, in the scenes I was watching, and neither did the Horans, but I'm not experienced enough to know whether it will look all right when the film comes out. They were certainly carrying the crew right into the spirit of the finale, I must say: after a take of the scuffle that breaks out after Horan's soliloquy, I heard cries of "You go girl!" and "Kill 'em! Kill 'em!" breaking out right and left.

And that's about it, really! I don't know how the final production will look, but by and large I was impressed by what I saw, and am very much looking forward to the this latest Wolfe incarnation. I hope it's the first chapter of many! [Note: And of course, my hopes were justified! See my notes on the A&E series, here.]

Many thanks to Mr. Michael Jaffe for extending to me the invitation to visit the set. Many thanks to Michael, Tim, Andy, Kelly, Kim, and Patricia for demonstrating that a guest is a jewel in the cushion of hospitality -- that is, for answering my silly questions so politely!

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This page last officially modified December 2001. I created this page in September 1999.

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