Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa is a Big, Gay Jew (and Other Tales of the National Christmas Tree Lighting)

Ocean MacAdams, former head of MTV News and easily the coolest person I’ve ever worked for, approached me with an unusual request last month. He wanted to know if this latke-flipping, dreidel-spinning, sheyne-meidel would be interested in working with him on the National Christmas Tree Lighting show. Because it was Ocean, and because I’m always up for trying something new, I jumped on the chance.

The first thing I was asked to do was produce a couple of packages that would air during the show. One was on volunteerism and the other was on the history of the National Tree Lighting, which was actually pretty neat. I got to look through a bunch of old, archival White House photographs and find some real gems, like this:

(Bill Clinton meets intern Monica Lewinsky at the ’96 White House Christmas party. See what can happen when you let a Jewish girl in on the whole Christmas thing?)

Unfortunately, both packages got cut from the lineup before I even put them together. I was mostly sad because I really wanted an excuse to bring this photo to the public at large:

(Nancy Reagan gets down with the California Raisins at the ’88 Tree Lighting.)

Fortunately, due to Ocean’s aforementioned coolness, he still found some work for me to do during pre-production, and even asked me to come along and help produce the live-to-tape show in DC! This was going to be the most start-studded National Tree Lighting ever, hosted by Randy Jackson and featuring the following lineup as described by their site:
  • Nine-time Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow
  • Hip-hop artist, actor and author Common
  • Pastoral folk, railroad blues, and front porch country artist Ray LaMontagne
  • American Idol Jordin Sparks
  • Jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau International
  • Irish music phenomenon Celtic Woman
My first task? Find a Santa suit. I’m not kidding. Oh, and costumes for Mrs. Claus and the elf, too.


It might seem strange to have the Jewish girl find the Santa suit. However, I did manage to convince Katie McPhee’s little brothers somewhere around Christmas 1987 that I was an elf because obviously only Jews work on Christmas Eve, so maybe I was cut out for the job after all.

By the way, turns out that our Santa was actually a Tony-nominated performer who was currently on tour with Young Frankenstein. How did he manage to get time off for this show? Well, as a matter of fact, he has a CLAUSE in his contract that allows him to play Santa each year. A Santa Clause. You can’t make this stuff up.

To add insult to injury, I called the DC Macy’s store to see where they rent their Santa costumes from. The gentleman on the other end of the line left to find me an answer and after several minutes came returned for this exchange:

CUSTOMER SERVICE: We don’t rent our costumes.
ME: Oh, you own them?
CS (without a hint of irony): No, we have the one and only real Santa.

GROAN! Really?! Must everything be one, gigantic, jolly, bit of Christmas cheer?

Anyway, I finally found the costumes, the best part being when the shop owner asked me, “Will Santa need extra belly?”


Before we left for DC, I also produced the on-air promo and some show elements with Derek, an Orbit editor who’s been working with Alex Coletti Productions most recently on Elvis Costello’s music/talk show, Spectacle. Derek stole my heart as soon as I saw the Star Wars poster on his suite’s wall, and we were trading bodily function jokes within minutes.

Alex Coletti Productions was also running the National Tree Lighting show. Alex has had a prolific career, and is the kind of guy that calls big celebrities by their first names, in a totally sincere and somehow non-obnoxious way. I didn’t find out until the train ride down to DC that he had created and produced MTV's Unplugged series in the ‘90’s, an absolutely iconic and important show for music lovers of my generation. The Nirvana Unplugged episode in particular was pivotal to my own relationship with popular music. I had to stop myself from totally dorking out over it on the train, but I am going to have to hear more stories from Alex over a bottle of whiskey one of these days.

Despite my utter lack of experience in live TV production, I was lucky to be welcomed warmly into Alex’s absolutely fantastic crew, most of whom had worked together on various shows over many years. Walking off of the train in DC and rolling down the platform with several of the crew members, it almost felt like we were a gang claiming our turf—“Here we are, National Christmas Tree Lighting, and we will OWN you!

Once on-site, I was so impressed with the pros on Alex’s team, especially his right-hand-gal, Liz, who co-produced the show with Ocean. The woman is 8 months pregnant, and seemed to glide through 12+hour days with grace and candor.


Soon after arriving and touring the set, stage, and production areas outside the White House and in the shadow of the Washington Monument, we had a large production meeting. The group included someone from the National Parks Service who was actually wearing one of those Yogi Bear park ranger hats, and someone from the Secret Service who was actually wearing those Men in Black sunglasses. Representatives for the President and First Lady were also there, and it was fascinating to witness how carefully (and understandably) calculated their movements had to be at this public event—a good 10 minutes of the discussion dealt with the best way to move Michelle Obama out from behind the security glass to her position for reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas"--about 10 yards away.

(Our stage. The Presidential protective super-thick glass cube is on the far left.)

Wednesday, our big rehearsal day, was a mess. It was pouring rain from early in the morning, and the production and audience seating areas were becoming one big, muddy swamp. Fortunately, I spent most of the day in “the truck.” The truck is the central command, where the all the stuff happens that makes a live event into a TV show. It’s about the size of one of those pay-by-the-month storage spaces and full of people: a tape operator, graphics person, sound guys, teleprompter, technical director, and show director and producers.

(Our production truck on the right, with audience seating, the National Tree, and the White House in the background)


Inside the truck, I mainly worked with the graphics, or “duet operator” person to create all of the chyrons (or lower thirds) that would appear on screen during the show. I also worked with the “tape ops” person to make sure that the elements I created before the show were properly imported into the truck. It’s amazing how specific people’s roles are in the truck. The tape operator’s whole job—and they are experts—is bringing in and spitting out different types of tapes. Despite all of the technology in the truck, something felt very old school about it.

(Inside the truck, our Command Central)

So on prep day, I was mostly between the truck and running around doing whatever else Ocean needed (Can you make sure the “Director of Elf Services” has a briefcase to bring on stage with him?) but I was lucky enough to sneak out to rehearsals with the Marine Band and a couple of the artists later in the afternoon. A highlight was Ray LaMontagne. If I have one thing to be thankful for with this opportunity, it’s being introduced to his heartbreaking vocal talent.


I stayed up until about 1 AM working on the final list of credits, and our call time on the big day was 6:30, but I was so pumped that it didn’t even matter. We had a lot to do, particularly because the rain the day before held us back some.

Fortunately, when the sun rose, it came a-shining and things began to dry out quickly. That meant that some people who didn’t get to rehearse the day before got the opportunity in the morning…including Santa!

So I finally met Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the “Director of Elf Services,” for whom I had done my first task. The charming threesome called themselves “The First Family of Christmas.” And family they were. In real life, Mrs. Claus is Santa’s sister, and the elf is his boyfriend. Wait, what?! Oh, and there’s more. SANTA IS JEWISH. Wait, what, What, WHAAAT?!

Now, you just hold on one cotton-pickin’ minute. Here I am, thinking I’m the sole heathen who has infiltrated the system and then, lo and behold, it turns out Santa is a big, gay Jew. But you know what? I gotta hand it to my Hebrew homie. When he hit the stage, he was the most wonderful, most believable, jolliest Santa I’ve ever seen!


One reason that we had to hustle so much in the morning is that Secret Service had to do a mandatory sweep of the area and the entire place—truck, production tents, stage, EVERYTHING—had to be completely evacuated from noon to 3 PM. And, oh yeah, when they let us back in they were also going to start letting audience members in. Yikes!

Everything went by in a blur, and yet somehow was crystal clear at the same time. Our live pre-show started at 5 PM and I swear the last credit screen was built at 4:59.

Once the truck was fully “on,” with its flashing screens, headsets, and blinking lights, it was like being inside R2D2’s brain. Alex was the conductor, communicating simultaneously with the people choreographing the stage and all six cameras and the other people in the truck who make the onscreen stuff happen, to ensure that each instrument was played to its finest and a harmonious symphony emerged.

(The First Family, just after lighting the tree)

The show, I have to say, was fantastic. I loved seeing President Obama seem relaxed and happy with his family. It was a relief to hear him give speech that took a momentary break from Afghanistan, health care, the economy and all of his other inherited woes to enjoy the season and spread a message of peace.

Other highlights were the First Lady’s fabulous rendition of “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Santa’s festive appearance (Word up to my man Robert Mancini’s highly entertaining script, which actually made me LOL), Ray LaMontagne, Jordin Sparks, and the (by the way, super HOT) Common.

After the show, a few of us stayed on to wrap things up and fix anything from the live show that we could before sending the tape to PBS for airing the following day and throughout the month (For example, covering up the little kid with the big yawn during Obama’s speech!). It ended up being somewhere around an 18-hour day, which is pretty crazy for a show that only lasted about one!


Live TV was very new to me but it was seductive. Seeing the highly orchestrated movements on stage and in the truck crescendo into a show before my eyes was thrilling. You can see the results here (but really, the best part is already captured below…)

Happy Holidays, friends!!!!

Monday, December 14, 2009

I’m Grande in Italy

The lovely Italian writer and photographer Chiara Barzini visited Brooklyn this past June on an assignment for XL Magazine to find hot, up-and-coming NY filmmakers and learn how they were approaching their work and finding success outside of Hollywood during this economic crunch. Miraculously, I was on her list.

I had the pleasure of joining doc-makers Margarita Jimeno (Gogol Bordello Non-Stop), Eddy Moretti (Heavy Metal In Baghdad), Jody Lee Lipes (Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same) and Matt Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur
Russell) for a photo shoot in Williamsburg that eventually became the fabulous looking spread below (Click images to see larger.)

If anybody can translate the gist of the article, give me a holler. In the meantime, I’ll share my answer to one of the writer's more thought-provoking questions:

Chiara (to all):
Most of your films are addressing ethnic/avantguard/political music scenes. Do you want to say something about why there might be a phenomenon pushing young directors such as yourselves to want to talk about influential, and "underground" music scenes?

Me: Many of the best known directors have made music films or music videos at some point in their careers. One of my favorites, Michel Gondry, started as a music video director. I don’t think it’s a new trend, but it’s a powerful one. Both music and film can be agents for social change, so they have a natural link. Music also lends itself to film so well because the pace and passion of the music can set the whole tone and aesthetic of the film. Also, musicians are often fascinating characters, and that’s what a film needs most of all. For my film “Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land,” the colorful and rebellious young punk musicians of Tel Aviv were the perfect characters to tell an alternative story about the complicated political situation in Israel.