Three of the best tours and museums I visited on my recent U.S. trip; the NBC Studios Tour and the Museum of the Moving Image in New York and the Newseum in Washington D.C. ...
As a filmmaker visiting New York for the first time I was keen to absorb as much of the cinematic and televisual history of the city as possible. Most of the time this took the form of annoying New Yorkers by stopping and pointing at things whilst stood in the middle of the sidewalk, but occasionally it took the more organised - and socially acceptable - form of attending a tour.
One day in the boring summer holidays of 2003 I was watching a movie I had recorded on an old VHS tape. When the film finished the recording stopped to reveal the final 15 minutes of a longer film my Dad had previously recorded underneath. What I saw made me sit bolt upright and stare at the TV screen, transfixed (and no, it wasn’t porn). I watched in excitement as dozens of old American police cars flew off of a highway, each landing on top of one another in a sea of carnage, as two smart men in hats and sunglasses drove away in their own, older police car. What I had accidentally stumbled on was the ending to The Blues Brothers.
I think it’s fair to say that watching the ending of a film first is normally the worst way to experience it. Fortunately this particular method worked perfectly for my 14 year old self and I quickly fell in love with the film, its stars (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi) and its soundtrack. As soon as I had the DVD I voraciously consumed all of the extra features and discovered that the film had grew out of an idea from an American TV sketch comedy show called Saturday Night Live. Not only that, but the two lead actors I was so enamoured were alumni of that same show.
This was an experience that continued throughout my teens and university days; I would discover a US comedy feature film, actor or actress, then read more about them and realise that they were graduates of this same school of comedy. Clearly this was a show I needed to check out, however living in Britain meant that it wasn’t always easy to watch, so I had to make do with buying what DVD boxsets were available and watching the sketches that made it to YouTube.
I became more au fait with the show's mythology when in 2009 I watched both Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock for the first time. The former was an Aaron Sorkin drama that took place behind-the-scenes of a SNL-esque show broadcast live out of LA while the latter was a sitcom set in Midtown Manhattan's Rockefeller centre, based on Tina Fey's own experiences working in that same building for SNL.
Once the flights were booked, Rachael and I knew that a visit to this building would be high on our list of priorities and so it was with great excitement we booked ourselves onto the NBC Studio tour.
The tour started and ended (rather shrewdly) in the NBC shop at the foot of the building, where we were met by two NBC Pages. This immediately set our TV nerd radars into a frenzy thanks to the character of Kenneth, who has the same job in 30 Rock. Rather naively we hadn't realised that this was a real job and instead thought that it was a fictional creation by Tina Fey. Fortunately these Pages were very much real and were perfectly bubbly, witty and insightful tour guides (one of them even had more than touch of Kenneth's polite pedantic, officious awkwardness which was an added bonus!).
They proceeded to take us on a tour of the studios of The Today Show and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, before we sat in my favourite studio of them all, the SNL studio. This was a very exciting space to sit in and one I wish we could have sat in for a taping (alas we were not quite organised enough to get the red-hot tickets for this). It is the same studio that the show has used since it began in 1975 and some of the larger lights are the very same units that have hung in the rig for 40+ years. It was fascinating to see the amount (or rather, lack) of floor space available to them and made the logistics of staging the show even more impressive.
In between the studios the Pages showed us a variety of other locations, the highlight of which was actually just a humble utility closet, just outside what is now the set of The Tonight with Jimmy Fallon. The shallow closet had originally opened into an old dressing room that in 1964 was occupied by Jim Henson and the Muppets team who were due to appear on with then Tonight show host Jack Paar. Sat around with time on their hands, Jim found this utility closet and he and his team began to decorate the pipes with bright paint and fur, transforming them from dusty old pipes into a mess of monstrous muppets.
The tour then finished with an interactive experience, where we were all invited to take part in a 'live' taping of our own NBC talk show. A host's desk, guest chair, announcer podium and band floor all sat in front of a bank of 3 cameras and a show control room, with all the various jobs being filled by us. I was given the role of the guest and was introduced on-air to a wave of canned applause. My host then asked me a series of tele-prompted questions about the latest action blockbuster I had been performing in, such as how I landed such a killer role. I had to improv my answers so I fell back on an old failsafe; I met the producer at a Coventry City game.
Like New York, you could spend an entire week in Washington D.C. exclusively visiting museums and still have not ticked all the major sites off your list. We only had three days in which to fit in as much as we could so we had to prioritise. Fortunately thanks to my good friend Sean Elvidge we had a very reliable tip-off that there was one particular museum we HAD to visit.
The Newseum "promotes, explains and defends free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition". It is dedicated to the history of communication and news media and honestly the single most impressive, absorbing and demanding museum I have ever visited. When you purchase your ticket you are told that it is valid for 48 hours and you soon realise why; to do this building justice you need to spend some serious time in there (we spent 4 hours in the on day 1 and then another 90 minutes on day 2).
The museum began on the ground floor with a Berlin Wall exhibition, featuring a Soviet guard tower from East Berlin and a large section of the wall itself. It was fascinating studying these structures up close and moving to read about the plight of the people attempting to cross the border. The story became extra vivid for me when I stopped and considered that my own father had spent time stationed in West Berlin with the British Army in the 1980s and that these sites would be more than just museum pieces for him.
Also on the first floor was an unbelievably detailed and well-stocked exhibit called 'Inside Today's FBI' which focussed on the bureau's attempts to foil and deal with such issues as terrorism, kidnappings and serial killers in modern America. We very slowly combed our way through, reading every last word and looking at every last artefact that included the landing gear from United Airlines Flight 175, one of the cars left parked at Virginia airport by the terrorists that day and printed out instructions for the atrocities they went on to commit. The events of that day shaped the world we now know and we inevitably stopped to contemplate them at various different points on our visit, but seeing actual items such as this brought the reality into sharper focus, just as much as visiting the 9/11 Memorial had.
At this point we could have walked out of the museum and felt satisfied that it had been worth our time and money...but we had barely scratched the surface. You are invited to take the elevator to the top floor and then proceed to weave your way down the 7 storeys through exhibit after exhibit all dedicated to a different element of news and communication. The level of detail on offer was breathtaking, as was the view of Pennsylvania Avenue from the top floor balcony.
Whilst not as tall as the gargantuan structures of NYC, this balcony gave us a brilliant view of the Capitol Building and one of the country's oldest and most famous roads. As you walk down along the length of the balcony you move along a timeline of tablets in front of the handrail that chart the development of this street (and Washington D.C. in general), allowing you to picture the moment of history that have taken place in front of you.
Back inside and down several floors was one particularly moving exhibit dedicated to Freedom of Speech around the world and a huge glass memorial to journalists who have lost their lives because of their job. The number of countries that enjoy freedom of speech was shockingly low (only 13% of the world's population) and the number of dead journalists staggeringly high.
This was an issue that I am particularly receptive to right now; in June I read the book We Are Arrested by Turkish journalist Can Dundar and then interviewed him for a short documentary I directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Can was arrested and spent time in a Turkish prison when Cumhuriyet (the newspaper he worked for) published photographic evidence that proved the Turkish State Intelligence was sending weapons to Syrian Islamist fighters. An international protest and campaign for his release ensued, which fortunately for him was eventually successful, though he narrowly survived an assassination attempt on the steps of the courthouse and is now forced to live in exile and estranged from his wife. His ordeal is far from over and sadly many of his friends and former colleagues now also find themselves behind bars in a country that is clamping down hard on freedom of the press. From reading his book and spending time interviewing him it was clear that he is both a proud and passionate journalist but also a man of exceptional dignity, humility and strength. This exhibit only echoed the stories I had heard from Can and it was stirring to see the (much-deserved) attention the museum was dedicating to the issue of freedom of speech around the world.
Our 3 weeks in the U.S. flew by in a flash and there was always going to be a list of places we hadn't quite managed to visit. One of the ones I was determined was had to fit in before leaving however was the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and we managed to fit this in on our last full day.
The Museum building is next door to (and used to be part of) Kaufman Astoria Studios; New York's only backlot studio. In a city where size is seemingly everything this museum isn't the biggest. However, as you approach the elegantly etched glass front and then pass into the brilliant white lobby you quickly realise that it is a beautiful and well-curated gem of a museum nonetheless.
As you ascend the stairs the first piece you sit to watch is Dolls vs. Dictators by Martha Colburn, a superbly surreal Gilliam-esque 11 minute animated short in which various different despots are combined with children's action figures. The characters of the piece writhe and contort in a hypnotic and nightmarish dance, accompanied by chaotic but sweet electronic music by Deerhoof.
After this film had bent and twisted our minds out of shape somewhat we needed something to help refresh us, straighten us out and tell us everything was alright. What better then, than the warm muppet-y embrace of the Jim Henson exhibition???
Walking around the smiling like an idiot at the array of furry colourful creations I couldn't help but be transported back to various different stages of childhood. Elmo, Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Statler and Waldorf...every character you might hope to see was there looking as bright and vibrant as the day they were dreamt up.
As well as the muppets themselves the exhibition was exceptionally well-stocked with models, prototypes, scenic elements, set-designs, storyboards, draft scripts, shooting scripts and letters to/fro Jim Henson and his team. There were so many great little insights into the processes beneath the fur and they all combined to give you a tangible sense of love and warmth; Henson and his team are very clearly very passionate, dedicated and skilful individuals who manage to bring a youthful imaginative glee to their work. One item in particular brought a huge smile to my face; the front hand-drawn front cover to Henson's pitch document for The Muppet Show. It simply oozed childish charm and I fail to see how any network producer or executive could have ignored it.
Outside this exhibition was a very thorough timeline of the filmmaking process, with each stage of production given a station filled with artefacts from various different movies. Naturally there seemed to be a focus on the movies of New York as we found various pieces from films such as Taxi Driver, Mrs. Doubtfire and Network. Probably my favourite piece of memorabilia came from the latter; Paddy Chayefsky's shooting script opened to the page of Howard's (Peter Finch) infamous "mad as hell" speech.
The journey of the production process then ended with some fun interactive exhibits, including a miniature studio in which to create your own flick-book scene (we shot a 5 second fight scene in which Rachael won the knockout blow), a stop-motion animation station and a booth to create your own ADR track for an existing scene. Needless to say I skipped this last one, having experienced the pain of this process plenty of times already in my filmmaking career!