chewing on bones

I've been on a few feature film sets but only once, the first time, as crew. It was a tax dodge teen slash movie made by some Americans in Auckland in the summer of 1980-81. They shot the city as if it were a small town in Illinois. Working title, Shadowlands, released as Dead Kids. I never saw it. I started out as 3rd Assistant to the Director, driving the make-up van to the set each day; but when I baulked at one of the more menial of the tasks I was expected to perform, instead of being fired, as I hoped and expected, I was moved to the Art Department. A mate of mine, Russell Collins, was the Art Director and the Production Designer was Susanna Moore, a writer, who later published a good thriller, In The Cut, from which Jane Campion made a not very good movie of the same name. I liked Susanna, even though her habit of plundering Auckland's antique shops for (to her) absurdly under-priced relics of Aotearoa's colonial and Maori past, bothered me somewhat.

Crewing on a film is hard, monotonous, repetitive work, the more so the further down the hierarchy you fall. Consolations for your privations come in, basically, three forms: food, money and camaraderie. A film crew marches on its stomach, as someone said to me the other night and it's true. If the food is bad, or inadequate, the Producer will soon (i.e. in an afternoon) have an unhappy, even rebellious crew to deal with. Ditto if the wages and/or per diems do not arrive on time. Camaraderie is most often a given of the job, and a genuine pleasure, but it can easily turn against the hierarchs if the food and money are not right. I know this, because it happened on Shadowlands. One day the per diems stopped arriving for the Art Department. We asked for them, and were told they were on the way. They didn't come. We asked again the next day and got the same kiss-off. By the third day we were ropable. We decided to act.

The villain of the piece was a double amputee in a wheelchair who was pretending to be someone else. The real person he was, allegedly, was dead and buried. Out of forgotten convolutions in a very silly plot, it was decided to disinter this dead man. The reveal would show that the coffin contained only the bones of the lower leg and the feet, proving that the man in the wheelchair was actually the dead man. Or something. We worked ahead of the main crew, preparing the tombstone for its opening. The scene was going to be shot in a beautiful parklike cemetery out the back of Remuera. We got there in the early afternoon, meticulously prepared everything for the opening of the grave ... then hid the bones in a gully at the bottom of the hill. When the rest of the crew arrived mid-afternoon and began setting up, we told the Director: no per diems, no bones. Then folded our arms and sat down on the gravestones to watch the fun begin.

It was extraordinary how quickly the bundle of white envelopes arrived. One of the Producers (I won't name him but he was the Kiwi end of the deal and he's still producing films there) turned up within, oh, half an hour ... I remember him, furious-faced, in his white shoes, picking his way down the green slope towards us. With good grace we took our envelopes and retrieved the bones. They got the scene before nightfall. Like I say, I never saw the film so I don't know what it looked like.

Why am I telling you this? Because this week, to my surprise, I found myself in the same sullen, rebellious state for the exact same reason. I write all the time, obviously, and most of it I do for nothing but the doing of it. If money eventuates at some later date, that's well and good, but it's not a consideration in the writing process: unless it's a film script. Then, if I'm not being paid on time and when I need it, I feel like hiding the bones down in the swamp, folding my arms and sitting on a gravestone waiting. For as long as it takes ...

Fortunately, twenty-four hours after this sullen state descended, and following a series of increasingly over wrought messages into the empyrean, enough money has arrived for me to cover my commitments for the next week or so. Just. And now I really do feel like returning to the screenplay 'with renewed energy' as they say. Funny that.

No comments: