America Fights Back: The Mob Museum
COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Mike Sullivan : America Fights Back: The Mob Museum
As a general rule, I have attempted to avoid any and all association with Organized Crime. That rule has served me well over the years. But when the opportunity arose to edit the signature theater for the new National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement in Las Vegas -- otherwise known as the Mob Museum -- I leapt at it.
To be clear, the Mob Museum is not run by the Mafia. It is a venue that gives the complete history of organized crime in America, from its roots among the new immigrants to America's shores in the 1800s, all the way to the recent capture of Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger, and beyond. At the same time, the museum also features the brave lawmen and women that fought these vicious criminals and brought many of them to justice.
Photos, memorabilia, wall panels, interactive programs and several video presentations fill the Museum's three floors -- and my company was tasked with producing two films.
One film is about the many mob movies that Hollywood has produced since the beginning of filmmaking. The second is about the investigation run by the US Senate during 1950-51 that finally exposed the true nature of these mobsters and racketeers, as well as the corruption of many politicians and policemen to a consternate nation. Entitled "America Fights Back," this project would be the centerpiece of the entire museum. No pressure.
"America Fights Back" was a project that challenged me -- both creatively and technically -- more than any other. It required not just editing skill, but also show-producing and writing skills. Yet, once all was said and done, it was also an incredibly rewarding experience.
First, a quick history lesson. In 1950, a US Senate committee was formed to investigate organized crime in America. Up until then, most people had a vague understanding of the Mob -- it was something that happened in the back rooms of barrooms in the bad part of town.
An ambitious Senator from Tennessee named Estes Kefauver lead the clumsily named United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. It would become better known as the Kefauver Committee.
The Kefauver Committee held hearings in fourteen cities across the country during 1950-51.
In fact, "America Fights Back" plays in the very same courtroom that held the Kefauver hearings. All the furniture and architecture -- from the Judge's bench to the rows of seating for the public -- have been restored. The room is just as it was when alleged mobsters were grilled by Senator Kefauver and his Committee.
In other words, the very room the audience is in while watching the show is actually a part of the show itself. It's all very avant-garde. Of course, it wouldn't really be worth writing about if it were simply a documentary that you watched while seated on an uncomfortable bench in an old courtroom. That would be boring.
Instead, what content developers Barrie Projects, exhibit designers Gallagher & Associates, and media producers BPI did was create a compelling immersive experience that dramatically sets-up the period, provides backstory and motivation and brings true characters from history back to life.
The show uses four video projections, a large cast of characters, energetic lighting effects, intense sound design and powerful music to bring this incredible story to today's modern audience.
Those four video projections were my first challenge. There are two large screens that descend from the ceiling on either side of the Judge's bench and a transparent polycarbonate screen is mounted on the bench directly between them. The fourth screen is not an actual screen per-se. Imagery is projected onto the rear wall directly behind the polycarbonate screen. I'm sure you're probably thinking, "Well how can you see what's on that screen if there is something on the front screen?" Good question. But first...
A good script was written that took the perspective of a 1950s era newspaper reporter writing a story about the Kefauver hearings. We shot actors playing the parts of the Reporter, Senator Kefauver and his Committee, and several real-life mobsters, bootleggers and girlfriends including Frank Costello, Moe Dalitz and Virginia Hill. It was an interesting few days at our studio. Wiseguys and Senators. Craps, roulette and blackjack tables plus shootings, stabbings, and strangulations. And lots and lots of cigarette smoke. You know, same old, same old.
Mobsters, bootleggers, girlfriends, craps, roulette, and blackjack tables...
It was after my first pass at cutting the show that I got worried. It wasn't flowing very well. In documentary-filmmaking, it's not unusual to have to add some narrative bridges and lines here and there as you build an edit, but I was having some story problems that were larger than a quick bridging line.
We had a major structure problem that simply wasn't evident until we had a cut and watched it play out. The show was choppy and episodic. It was missing a solid, dramatic through-line. It didn't have a strong beginning, middle and end. Being a glass-half-empty type of guy, my first reaction was "We're doomed!" However, the Director and Producer were more levelheaded and calm.
The story was there and we had most of the pieces we needed to tell it properly -- but we did need a complete script rewrite. Of course, there wasn't a budget for any re-shoots, so the new script would need to incorporate the footage we already had in the can. Since I was the most familiar with all the footage (both studio and archival as well as dozens of stills), plus I knew the story and what we needed in order to tell it, I worked with the writer for a full day and the two of us completed a brand new script.
Meanwhile, in addition to our script issues there were several technical aspects of the show that needed to be addressed. Remember, one of our projections was directly behind another. We needed to know how that would work. Also, there are times in the show were photos, headlines, subpoenas, and other imagery would move across the screens. We needed to figure out how to do that as seamlessly as possible since the screens are different sizes and they are not directly next to each other in the theater.
It was impossible to figure all this out in a vacuum. We needed to do some testing in the actual theater with the actual screens set up and working. This meant a trip to Vegas.
That quick trip to Vegas became incredibly important. I cut together a few scenes that we could use for testing. The A/V hardware company (AVI-SPL) had the screens and projectors set up for us, but they didn't have the playback devices online yet. So, in addition to our video files we brought some ROKU mpeg players and cabling with us.
The test files consisted of our actors composited over super-black (0 IRE.) Their corresponding backgrounds would be a separate video on the rear projection. We needed to test different luminance values of the backgrounds to see what would best show through the center screen without blowing out the character.
I also made a video grid that we could put up on the screens simultaneously so I could see how images would line up as they moved across from one screen to another. The final test was for sizing between the two larger side screens and the center screen.
The Mob Museum courtroom with projection screens.
A few times during the show, we have characters on each of these screens interacting with each other. For example, Virginia Hill appears as a witness on the center screen and a Senator on the left screen questions her while Senator Kefauver reacts on the right screen.
Since the two side screens are much larger than the center, I made a few versions of the Senators at different sizes so they would be the same physical size as Hill on the center screen. The idea was to give the impression that these characters are all in the courtroom at the same time with the audience.
A couple of other problems cropped up while we were in Vegas that wouldn't have been noticed otherwise. The first was the rear projection. The native resolution of the projector being used for that piece was 1024x768. That's a 4x3 ratio. Of course I had just assumed we would be using HD16x9.
Luckily, I was using After Effects to edit and build that screen so I could create a composition at the correct resolution. But, if I didn't have that information, I would have created an HD 16x9 comp and it would not have been displayed properly.
Another issue we discovered on site regarded the center polycarbonate screen. The image on that screen was rear projected, which caused a reflection on the back wall. Not only did this destroy the illusion, the reflection also got in the way of the rear screen imagery. Due to space issues where the projector was placed, the decision was made to angle the front screen, pushing the bottom out towards the audience and causing the reflection to be cast lower on the wall where they would not see it.
However, by angling the screen in this manner, the characters became distorted. I had to "pre-distort" the shots in post so that when they were distorted in the theater, they actually appeared correct.
If we hadn't done the on-site testing, those issues wouldn't have been seen until installation, and by then it might have been too late to fix them. There really is no substitution for on-site testing in the exact environment with the exact projectors and playback units when you are creating these types of shows.
Above, the actual wall that served as the backdrop for the Valentine's Day Massacre on February 14, 1929 in Chicago, as two powerful gangs collided. Jeff Green Photography.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Based on the information we gleaned from our tests and having a new script, I was able to go back into my edit room and put together a pretty cool show. In the museum world, it's not very often you get to cut a show with screaming, gambling, gunshots, blood, and other forms of disorder and mayhem. It was a fun edit.
Perhaps the coolest thing that came out of the actual edit involved the archival footage our researcher provided for us. The Kefauver hearings coincided with the growing popularity of television. Some of the hearings were broadcast live and between 20-30 million Americans were glued to their new TV sets to see these crime bosses, gamblers, hit-men and bookies that until then, had only been spoken about in whispers.
Of course, this was in the script from the start, but in our new revised script this became the climax of the film.
We had shot an actor playing Costello, and he recreated the scene word-for-word. However, during the edit we discovered newsreel footage of the actual event. We had the real Frank Costello abruptly walking out of the hearing, and it had been shot perfectly to fit into the center screen.
So, in our show we have actors on the side screens questioning the authentic Frank Costello on the center screen. He gets angry, stands up and walks out. A quick montage, some flash bulbs -- Pop! Pop! We hear a jail cell door slam shut and see a gavel bang and then -- Flash! Costello's genuine mug shot stares out at us as the narrator/reporter tells us that "for that stunt, Costello got 18 months in jail for contempt."
I've had more than a few fun projects come through my edit room over the past few years. I've cut a couple of cowboy movies, a Revolutionary War Battle, a bunch of WWII projects and now a Gangster Film. Not bad.
The new Mob Museum opened to the public this past February 14th on the 83rd anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Fitting, don't you think?