Shooting a movie with 140 characters

Twittering actors, directors give on-set insights

When he showed up to begin shooting his new film "Five Killers" in the south of France last week, Ashton Kutcher encountered one of those unexpected glitches that regularly pop up on any movie set. His stunt double had arrived for work with a shaved chest, so Kutcher would have to submit to a little chest waxing of his own.

Kutcher's first reaction was to turn to Twitter, the 3-year-old micro-blogging service that lets users communicate in word-bursts of 140 characters or less, which they send to one another's cell phones and computers.

"Love that they can cgi the sun in but apparently cgi doesn't have chest hair capabilities yet," Kutcher tweeted wryly.

Undaunted, the actor not only submitted to the waxing, he also captured it on video, issuing further tweets once he'd posted the video evidence on Facebook and YouTube.

Welcome to the movie set of the digital era, where even the most mundane developments are on public display.

In the old analog days -- that is to say, before cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging and blogs -- filmmakers viewed their sets as sacrosanct domains. Although hand-picked journalists occasionally were invited for a visit, sets were closed to the public -- and sometimes even to the prying eyes of studio bosses. As far as some directors were concerned, the more far-flung the location the better, since that meant the actual on-set visits from the suits would be few and far between.

Today, though, filmmakers are opening up their sets to any electronic interlopers who wander in.

Robert Luketic, who is directing "Five Killers," has followed Kutcher's example: As he goes about his helming chores, he issues dozens of tweets a day while also posting his own photos and videos.

"The reaction has been incredible," he said in an e-mail exchange. "I have gotten thousands of enthusiastic posts from people thanking me for the frank, unpolished look at the making of my latest film."

A few early adopters like Kevin Smith paved the way, blogging his filmmaking adventures on his own Web sites, ViewAskew.com and SilentBobSpeaks.com, then later collecting his blog postings in a book, "My Boring-Ass Life."

Such tentpole movies as the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "Superman Returns" upped the ante, feeding the Web's appetite with on-set videos as such directors as Peter Jackson and Bryan Singer walked fans through the filmmaking process.

But now that Twitter is surging in popularity, it allows an even greater degree of intimacy.

"Directing is about waking up every night at 4 a.m., exhausted, and not being able to fall back asleep because your brain is screaming at you," Jon Favreau confessed in a tweet posted at 3:08 one morning last month.

Having plunged into rehearsals for Marvel's "Iron Man 2" with Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle, he already was tossing and turning.

Meanwhile, in Greenland, producer Frank Marshall, with fellow producer Sam Mercer, was overseeing a 10-day location shoot for Paramount's "The Last Airbender," which M. Night Shyamalan is directing.

"Pushing call later tomorrow because we are near the start of the Greenland Championship dog sled race. It's always something ..." he tweeted late last week. But, he noted several hours later, "Fantastic day! Finished with beautiful sunset shots for opening of the movie."



Marshall was introduced to Twitter by pal Lance Armstrong, one of the top 10 Twitterers, with more than 455,000 followers who've signed up for his posts.

"I have been following Lance Armstrong's exploits on Twitter and decided to join in," Marshall explained by e-mail. "It's also an easy way to keep friends and family up to date on what I'm doing. I do think it could grow into an early promotional tool. It's easier than blogging."

Universal publicity exec Michael Moses, who's been following Marshall's tweets, gave them a thumbs up, saying, "It's got scope, adventure, location, peril -- all the stuff of a good movie."

At the moment, though, no movie is getting more enthusiastic attention on Twitter than the tentatively titled "Five Killers," from Lionsgate and Kutcher's own Katalyst Films. The action comedy stars Kutcher and Katherine Heigl in the tale of a woman who meets and marries a former hit man only to discover assassins might be out to kill him.

With more than 600,000 followers, Kutcher is the reigning prince of the Twitter universe.

"He's a dedicated Twitter powerhouse," Luketic said of his star. "He makes sure he connects every day and is honest and open. The old fake veneer our business has been flogging for years is wearing thin. It's time to shake things up: Take control of your information -- own it."

Luketic's own tweets run the gambit: He explains how overcast skies forced a retreat to a cover set; acknowledges "our first 'incident' " when Kutcher accidentally cold-cocked a stunt man during a fight scene; proudly shows off the Maserati that figures in another action sequence; in response to one query, says that he's shooting with an Arriflex D21 digital camera; and to another questioner, he says that if he were to kick back and watch a DVD, it would be Federico Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits."

"For me, it's a personal thing," Luketic said of his constant Twittering. "If it has promotional benefits then that's great, but it is primarily a conduit for fans and friends to see what I'm up to. It's pure, uncut. Me and my iPhone."

The popularity of spontaneous Twittering might make some studios nervous -- it could make it more difficult to control a movie's image and imagery -- but the more techno-savvy publicity practitioners already are moving to embrace it.

"All of us have to find a way to fall in line with it because it's happening with or without us," said Moses, who used Twitter to announce previews of "Bruno" footage at the recent South by Southwest Film Festival and then to monitor reactions.

"But don't be fooled: Filmmakers thrive on control, and what they're tweeting is, in some ways, strategic marketing and remains pretty rosy. If something really goes wrong on set, I'm not sure their first impulse will be to type. But for a fragmented glimpse into the world of making movies, there's been nothing quite like Twitter."

One thing's clear: In the digital world, there's no longer any such thing as a truly closed set.

Gregg Kilday can be found at Twitter.com/gkilday.

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