The Film Director was a famous man.
At 27 he won an Oscar for directing his second feature. Three years later he almost single handedly sunk a studio into bankruptcy with his third feature. The movie he was directing went horrendously over budget. That is not such a huge sin for a young film director in Hollywood, but there is no bigger sin for a self-assured, arrogant young Director than not delivering a success. And the audience did not show up.
For the next 15 years he directed “small” features with European producers. No one in Hollywood was willing to invest money in his projects. It seemed as if the magic was gone and none of those movies became a success; not with the critics and not with the audiences.
Now I was sitting beside this film director, on director’s chairs, under a pop-up tent during the shoot of his new movie, his so called ‘come-back’, and I was extremely busy reading the script for the millionth time.
He was in such terrible mood.
We are surrounded by empty director’s chairs. The heat in Moab, Utah, was oppressing since the early hours of the morning. Before he showed up all the chairs were taken up by crew members looking for a reprieve from the heat. As soon as arrived, all of them found excuses to disappear, one after the other. That left him and me alone.
Since I have worked with him in the past and am here again, I must be getting along with him, they thought.
I arrived at this shoot in the middle of production. I was working on another project and he insisted I came to his shoot as soon as I finished. I arranged with another script supervisor to replace me until my project was over.
As long as they shot in Los Angeles, I didn’t hear a word from
her, not even a peep. But when they went out of town she didn’t stop calling and asking when I could replace her.
That is why I arrived late. The crew which was working for over a month had some bizarre stories to tell. They were so weird, those stories, that I questioned their truthfulness. But the sentiment was clear – No one liked the Director.
That morning, the first day of my shoot, we got up when it was still dark outside and made our way, through dirt roads to the location in Moab National Park in Utah.
The “Base camp” was already there. Dressing rooms, ‘honey wagons’(aka toilets), makeup trailers, wardrobe, and the catering truck were already hooked up and operating. Crew members worked all night to be ready for first light.
The location itself was a few short minutes’ drive away from the base camp andreachable only with 4 wheel drive. The road was strewn with rocks and big boulders and in one section was so narrow around the mountain with a sheer drop on the driver’s side, that only one car could pass at a time.
Then you’d come upon an open space. On the far side an adobe was built by the art department. The other side ended in a deep canyon, very much like the Grand Canyon itself. That is where the last scene of Thelma and Louise was shot and we have a big scene to shoot. Nine script pages in two days. Since we were shooting outside no lighting was required. On the other hand the sun would disappear behind the mountains in the early afternoon hours, leaving a relatively short shooting day.
That is why I was reading the scene over and over again, so I’d know it almost by heart.
“Look. Look at this.” I heard from the chair beside me.
I looked up. The animal trainer has arrived and was unloading the wolf from his truck.
“Wow” I said. “What a gorgeous animal!”
Indeed it was gorgeous. Silver gray with black marking on the face, just like on stamps and in Encyclopedias.
“It’s not a wolf.” He muttered.
“That’s not a wolf! That son-of-a-bitch thinks I don’t know the difference. Call him over here”.
Not exactly my job but I was glad to get away from his company. I marched to the first assistant director and conveyed the message.
He relayed the message on his walkie-talkie. I saw someone run to the animal trainer and points to the pop-up tent.
“You. Come with me.” Said the assistant director, as if it weas all my fault. “I don’t want trouble. It’s already 10 o’clock; we will be ready to shoot in a few minutes.”
We arrived at the same time, the trainer and us.
“Is that a wolf” the Director asked.
“Yes, like you requested, according to the picture I got.”
“Is it a pure bread wolf?”
“Pure bread? One hundred percent wolf?”
“Not exactly 100%. It is 25% Malamute so it could be trained.”
“I said a wolf and you bring me a dog?!”
“It looks like a wolf” I volunteered, “just like in the picture you showed me too.”
“But it’s not a wolf! I said I want a pure bred wolf. Wolfs don’t hold their tail up like this one. What do you take me for, and idiot? I saw immediately it’s not pure bred. I want a wolf. Wolf!!!”
“It says in the script the wolf is lying down.” I try to defuse the situation, maybe he forgot. “No one will see the tail.”
“It also says in the script it’s a wolf! Not a dog!”
“You want a pure bred wolf?” the trainer asked “You got it. I brought her father as well.”
“HER father? She’s a female?”
The trainer came back with a pure bred wolf. An ugly beast, almost completely black, tail between its legs, held by a metal chain.
And the wolf, as wolfs go, doesn’t like people. In a second he found a hiding place under the base of the crane we were to use in the first shot.
It is not going to be a good day.
We were about to shoot the turning point in the story. About an hour into the movie the doctor finds out that all the phone calls the kid has been making were to an answering machine. The kid never met the healer. He read about him in a book he got from the prison library. No one knows if it’s a myth or based on a true story.
But there’s hope.
A young, beautiful Indian woman with tight jeans and Rayband sunglasses appears out of nowhere to feed the wolf. She tells them the healer doesn’t exist, but when she sees the kid’s condition she relents and tells them where to find her grandfather – the healer- deep in the mountains.
All that in 9 pages of script which I have memorized by now.
“Look at this. What is he doing, the idiot?”
“He’s trying to get the wolf from under the crane so…”
“Not that idiot. The other!”
He was pointing to the path leading to the adobe where people were going up and down busily working.
“That one, the idiot from Special Effects. What is he doing?”
“He’s spreading fuller’s earth (a finely ground earth) so the car will cause some dust…” I stopped there because if looks could kill I would be sliding down my chair.
“What the hell is he doing? Tell him to stop and come talk to me.”
Again I was on my way to the First Assistant Director who stopped smiling as soon as he saw me approach.
“Special Effects. He wants to talk to them.”
“We are 5 minutes away from being ready! What is his problem now?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t stop to ask.”
Again we are under the pop-tent with the simmering director. The head of special effects stopped his ATV next to us and approached.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, very politely.
“How many Fuller’s Earth bags you have on the truck?”
“How many? Plenty. Enough to do…”
“I can’t give you an exact number. I have plenty.”
“Go count them and let me know.”
The Special Effects guy thought for a second and whipped out his walkie-talkie, telling the guy on the truck to count the bags.
“That is not what I said! I said for you to go and count them, not some plebian! I don’t trust those idiots.”
The First Assistant Director took his life in his mouth. “Could it wait? We are almost ready to shoot.”
“No. it can’t. Do it NOW!”
The Special Effects man was on his way before anything else will be said.
A roar from around the camera. The trainer finally managed to get the real wolf from under the crane. Crew members resumed work on the camera.
The director is still steaming “They are all morons, from the same gene pool… All missing a chromosome…”
“We are ready to shoot, what would you like to do now?”
“Wait for the Special Effects.”
Half an hour later he came back with an answer. “I have 20 bags on the truck.”
“Twenty? You are sure?”
What is he up to this director? Where is he going with this investigation?
“Put 10 of them on the path.”
“You have hearing problems? I said 10.”
“But 10 bags is way too much…”
“What do you think? I don’t know you guys? You want to keep some bags for yourself and sell it to the next production. I know your kind.”
“That’s not it! 10 bags on such a small…”
“Ten bags, you hear me? I want 10 bags!”
The Special Effects guy looked to us for help but we were too busy counting our toes. As for me, I know nothing about Fuller’s Earth.
“You better get going. We are waiting on you.”
It was almost noon when we saw him spread the 10th bag on the path. As soon as he makes it to the top of the path we are ready to shoot. No one will be allowed on it once he finished spreading the dust.
The moment finally arrived. The camera went up in the air to see all this magnificent view. The cameraman is ready, sound is ready, actors, yes, the actors and not stuntmen will be driving the car because this shot will end on their close ups, are ready as well. Everything is locked up and you could hear a pin drop. We are holding our breath, waiting for the word that will start all this operation into motion. But the word does not come.
I look at the director and he is deep in thought. The timing of the shot will go to hell if we won’t start now… The camera starts to move, we are looking at the director waiting for his to yell at us when finally he moves his little finger.
“Action! Action! Action!” yells the First Assistant into the walkie-talkie.
The car appears at the top of the path. The cameraman has to strain himself to see it because the timing is a bit off. The car starts down the path, a trail of dust behind it. The camera moves down and concentrates on the car.
The dust cloud is getting bigger and bigger as the car moves. Within a second it engulfs the car. The more it moves forward the bigger the cloud becomes.
“Where’ the car?” the cameraman yells from the crane, “I missed the car! I can’t see the car!”
“Neither can we.” I yelled back and get kicked by someone.
“Put me down, put me down!” I hear the cameraman shout. “If we can’t see him, he can’t see us and he can overshoot his mark and hit us!”
The camera was the least of my worries. The actors are driving down a narrow path, with a sheer drop on one side and they can’t see the road!
Then we heard the sound we dreaded. Metal against rock, scrapping, banging and then quiet.
Then “FUCK!” reverberates from the mountains of Moab. The actor’s voice. They are still with us.
It took some long minutes for the cloud of dust to dissipate so we could see what has happened.
All that prevented the car from dropping into the abyss was a big boulder on which the car was now lodged.
The crew surrounded the actors to make sure they are fine. They were in a state of shock. “Five seconds into the trail, I couldn’t see an inch” said the million dollar star. “Are the special effects guys out of their minds or what?”
“How long will it take to get the other car here?” The film director asked.
“At least two hours.” Answered the assistant director whose career was almost cut short with what could have been a terrible accident. “It is with the other unit, shooting stunts.”
“You are all from the same fucking gene pool! You are all missing a chromosome. You all want to sabotage my vision. I am not waiting two hours for a car. Call my driver; I’m going back to my hotel.”
That is how a Film Directors goes horribly over budget.