On The Set of Dexter

Posted on 01. Aug, 2008 by Administrator in Film/TV

words by Devoe Yates, photos by Robert Todd Williamson

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the legendary Sunset and Gower lot, where such movies as Dr. Strangelove, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were created, the cast and crew of Dexter sit huddled up in the cool innards of Stage 8, a stage that once housed the sets of Michael C. Hall’s former television series, the HBO classic, Six Feet Under.

For those unfortunate souls out there who have yet to experience Dexter, now in the midst of taping its eagerly awaited third season, it’s the tale of a stoic forensics blood expert named Dexter Morgan who works as a vigilante serial killer on the side, carving unpunished criminals into tiny pieces and dumping their remains into the depths of the ocean shelf just off the shores of Miami. The interiors of the show are shot here in Hollywood and most of the exteriors are shot just south of Long Beach, where there are no mountains to give away the California coast.

It’s hard to describe the joy of walking through the imaginary world of one of television’s finest shows, which is a clever and macabre mix of humor, drama and mystery, all held together by the mesmerizing acting force that is Michael C. Hall.  Today they’re shooting an office scene and a crime scene on the same stage.  A friendly Jimmy Smits and a very focused Michael C. Hall are rehearsing on the office set, listening to the wise guidance of this episode’s director, Keith Gordon, the actor (Christine, Back to School) turned director (A Midnight Clear, The Chocolate War, Waking the Dead).  While the lighting crew comes in for final adjustments, an exuberant Gordon stops by to give us the haps.

First off, he gives us a bit of backstory on what the devil Jimmy Smits is doing here.  When we last left Dexter, all seemed well with his world, the man on his trail, Sgt. Doakes, had been vanquished, as had been his oddly insane girl toy, Liza.  Dexter ended up back together with his trusting girlfriend, Rita, but there was no sign of a Smits-ing anywhere on the horizon.  But as with any good tale, Dexter’s character evolves this season, finding his first true buddy-buddy male friendship with Smits’ character, a DEA agent in town to help solve some nasty crimes.

Keith Gordon isn’t allowed to reveal too much, he himself has only seen the scripts for the three episodes he’s directing.  “I love the show as a viewer, I love watching it unfold.  I don’t even know what happens this whole season. I did the final episode and I still don’t even know how it all works out (laughs)!  I have some theories about some things, and then there are rumors on the set, which is always funny, you’ll hear from one of the electricians, ‘Well, I heard that so-and-so killed so-and-so,’ and you’re like, Really?”

I ask Gordon how the Dexter set is different from the sets of other TV shows he’s directed, House and Homicide: Life on the Streets among them.  “It’s an easy show in the sense that everyone’s great to work with, the cast and crew are full of really nice people.  I’ve been on TV shows where you’ve got diva actors, crews that aren’t very good, producers that are screaming lunatics, and then it becomes a nearly impossible job.  In a case like this, you’re really dealing with terrific people all around, and the cast is not just incredibly talented, they’re incredibly proficient working at this pace.  There are some great feature actors that you’d throw into this situation and they’d have a nervous breakdown.”

I want to ask more, but Gordon is summoned back to his directing duties. Extras mill about in police uniforms and I wander over to the abutting crime scene set where the special FX crew is busy getting the blood splatter correctly placed on the walls of a fake foyer.  They have a custom-made power sprayer throwing dots of blood on the walls and a blow dryer at work to keep the blood from running.  FX technician Steve King confides, “Man, sometimes the simplest gag is the hardest.  Sometimes you’re trying to get a mist like this, but it can’t have any drips.”  His difficult task soon completed, he invites me back to the FX trailer to meet his boss and check out the tools of their trade.  

Outside the stage, we enter the back of a semi-trailer which is full of workbenches and drawers and cupboards filled with odd mechanical items.  “This is kind of our rolling machine shop,” Steve motions about. There’s jugs of blood, a welder, a generator, rainmakers, a compressor, nearly every power tool known to man, and even the special scalpels and syringes that Dexter uses on his murderous escapades. Fixing a bad blood sprayer nearby is a bubbly British man in his late 50’s, the head of FX for the show, David H. Watkins. You might not be terribly familiar with his name, but you are most likely a fan of his FX work for The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Forrest Gump, and Alien.  What amazes me most is that this is the very man responsible for the legendary blood-flowing-from-the-elevators scene in The Shining.  He remarks they did that scene four times as Kubrick was very particular about the color of the blood.  Who better to be in charge of the FX for a show about a blood spatter specialist?

It is soon time to journey through Dexter’s laboratory (sorry about that) and the police station on a nearby stage.  There’s no one there, though the computer screens glow and the lights above hum, illuminating the strange details decorating the walls and desks.  There’s trophies, framed pictures of cops fraternizing at odd locales, and even a wall of blood splatter samples.  Within the offices is Dexter’s workroom where he re-creates the splatter of crime scenes on white walls with the help of a specially-created mannequin head.  The head is often full of eggs that have been bled of yolk and filled with fake blood so as to get some gushy and gory blood explosions.

Not too far away, attached to the same stage, is the prop department, where Propmaster Joshua Meltzer greets us.  He’s in the midst of cleaning Dexter’s signature knives that have been dulled down so as not to cause any unfortunate accidents on the set.  These knives are usually kept under lock and key, but today, they are enjoying some fresh air in the prop department.  “Any of the iconic Dexter props, the blood slides, the knives, we don’t let them out of our eyesight.”  In a nearby room, three seasons of Dexter props sit, waiting patiently for their time in the limelight to return.   Among their ranks are the body parts from the long ago corpse-in-the-empty-pool scene, the Dexter parade signs from the final episode of season one, and a dummy named Larry.  I ask Joshua if he’s been presented with any new challenges of late.  “Wow (laughs). Well, we just had the roasted pig on the spit, a real pig.  There’s an episode coming up where we’re doing some stuff with some large game fish and I’m doing the research right now to find out what kind of game fish are in the Florida waters, and what kind of fish I can get here.  I’m also finding out what it would cost if I wanted to get rubber fish made that could be puppeted and actually have some movement.  When you’re working with fish, which I’ve done plenty of times over the years, there’s a stink factor.  You put real fish on a moving boat in the hot sun, and well…I’ve had actors actually get sick working with the fish (laughs).  So if I can put a fake fish out there for the actors’ comfort and have it look real, I’d personally prefer that.  But it’s more expensive and sometimes the producers don’t prefer that.”

The bell to Stage 8 rings, signaling that more shooting is about to begin and it’s time to run back for one last visit with the cast of Dexter as they prepare to have their way with the aforementioned crime scene set.  Smits stands nearby, as does Dexter’s sister on the show, Jennifer Carpenter.   As the crew finishes up some last moment art department fixes, Michael C. Hall readies his prop camera.  Though he is deeply focused on the scene about to happen, he does offer up some assorted bits of info. I ask him if this season of Dexter is different than the two before and he offers this, “We have that much more history with the characters and the world. There’s more water flowing under the show’s bridge at this point.”  And it is a bridge into new territories obviously.  I wonder what it’s like building such a strong on camera bond with Jimmy Smits, a newbie to the set. “Jimmy is a wonderful and generous actor. We just jumped right in and started telling the story of these two guys. The context of their relationship is loaded to say the least.”  I venture further and wonder if this season presents any new challenges to Dexter’s twisted psyche, “Absolutely. Unanticipated developments force Dexter to face and experience himself in foreign ways. Life happens. And death, of course.”  

As Michael prepares to enter the fake door to a fake house in a distant Miami, I make my way from the set and into the blistering heat outside.  On the way out, I stop to ask Keith Gordon one last question, very curious as to how the voice over in the show is handled. “Michael is one of the most remarkably precise actors I’ve ever worked with, so, we do a timing of it so we know how long a shot has to last, and we shoot it.  Generally, what I assume he’s doing as an actor, and I see it on his face, is that he’s saying it to himself in his head.  So you’re watching his face sort of act the voice over without saying the words aloud. And so then he just goes off and records it himself.  It’s kind of remarkable, as far as I understand it, he goes alone in his trailer with a recorder, the sound crew doesn’t even go in there with him. They give him the tape recorder and he goes in there and he does it, often only one take of each thing, and it’s spot on. It’s creepy.”

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