Chapter 7: The First Real Death
After wrapping on another gruelling shoot, Marie, took Rob and a couple of others back to the accommodation in the Land Rover. She was travelling at a fair speed on the long dusty road when suddenly a child ran out into the road right in her path. She spun the wheel, just avoiding the child, but instead, the Land Rover’s sturdy and ironically named ‘ bull bars’ ploughed into a cow at the side of the road.
Then a truly disturbing scene unfolded where the poor cow tried it’s best to get up only for its insides to drop out onto the dusty road below. This poor animal’s life was clearly over and it was yet another of many sickening events that would be endured during our time there. The child who had ran out into the road and caused the swerve scurried off into the night unharmed. I just hoped that somehow this sudden death saved the animal from some sort of suffering that it might have encountered had it still been alive.
We had already seen these trucks passing us in the streets that had live animals so tightly packed in them that they could not move an inch. We also kept seeing young men using donkeys to carry seriously unreasonable loads and these poor creatures would be beaten so hard and so brutally with sticks that I wanted to stop the car and show the owner how the end of that stick might feel.
Earlier in the trip, I had actually pulled over to say something to a guy who was whipping a donkey that was already moving as fast as it could, so furiously, I felt it must be bleeding but I was told by the locals that they believed they were doing the donkey a favour by beating it like this.
Apparently, the belief was that the more a donkey suffered in this life, the higher a being it would become in its next life, so the guys who are beating their donkeys the most, are the ones who like their animal the most and, therefore making the effort to beat them like that. I told them I felt this was utter bull**t, it felt to me like a misguided belief to allow such cruelty but what do I know. Either way there would be nothing we could do. I found things like this weighed heavily on me and from then on, I simply couldn’t look anymore and I hoped that the cow that had been killed was somehow saved from this sort of prolonged fate. Knowing how things were on ‘The Dead’ though, that animal was probably about to win cow-of-the-year had it got to the other side of the road and would have been treated to a life of pampering and love with as much fresh grass as it could ever dream of!
Marie had finally come back with good news after a phone call. There was another sound guy and he would come to the village where we would shoot the next day to meet us. I asked if he could bring his kit so we could actually test him with a recording. It was ‘no problem’.
The whole crew were tuned in to this need for a sound recordist and many had been calling their own contacts to get someone on board. We all found it bizarre how we could not get anyone. So when this guy turned up on set we all gathered round. This man could be our hero, he might just be the catalyst for us to be able to move with this thing so we can get on with our lives.
The bad news was he hadn’t brought his sound recorder, but that was ok because he could get one locally from a TV studio that existed. He had brought a microphone though and he proceeded to take this out of its case. The fact it was in a case, that was also in good condition created a sense of optimism. My heart sank as it was revealed. It was the type of microphone you would use for a Karaoke machine. If we were to record dialogue with this, not only would it have to be in shot but it would have to be within an inch of the actor’s mouth to actually pick up the sound.
Maybe we could be the first film to only show the actors eyes when they spoke? They do say either ‘be the first or be the best’, and we were still in with a chance of being the first…
Whilst we were still open mouthed, he added, with Marie translating, that even this didn’t have a power supply as it was a studio mic and needed some other kit to come with it. If you had asked me to describe the most unsuitable microphone in the world, this could have been it. It was embarrassing and I wished the rest of the crew were not around to see it.
He told us that if we described the type of microphone we needed he would get someone from another city to send it by bus. Somehow this didn’t fill me with optimism and I felt that our Oscar for best sound was looking less likely by the minute. But anything is worth a go so Jon and I agreed on a particular microphone as being the best all rounder and he would make a call.
The microphone is only one piece of the puzzle; it’s like needing a car and sending someone off to get some wheels. We needed a recorder, a mixer, cables, a boom pole and all sorts of other widgets if we wanted this done right. Even then we needed a human being with expertise who would record the sound with subtlety and precision.
There had been a clue somewhere in what he’d said earlier. There was a TV station somewhere. Surely all we would have to do was get to this place and find their top guy. If this guy came up with the goods in the meantime he would be our man. If not, we couldn’t afford to wait for the bus.
Lucky we didn’t as no microphone turned up on any bus as far as we were aware. We did track down the TV studio though, but it turns out they did not have the type of portable system we needed. It seemed like we were at another brick wall when someone said there was a French guy living locally who had a DAT machine. Perfect. More calls were made and Marie arranged that we would meet him that night and even record some sound.
Having found his house over what seemed like a motocross course, he and his wife seemed very pleasant and sitting inside the living room of their house was indeed some good looking sound kit. They all chatted for a while in French while I smiled politely. Then Marie said ‘This is the equipment you can hire, but the machine is not working’ ‘What?’. They then went on to explain that because of the heat of Africa, it stretches the small elastic band inside and as result it is not pulling the tape around.
The man saw the look on my face then started explaining something in French that seemed to come with the demonstration of a screwdriver and the words ‘No problem’ this part was in English and directed at me. If only he’d known my feelings about ‘No problem’ he’d have left that one out.
Marie translated that it would be ok because he happened to know that in the market that opens at 8am the next day, they sell a particular brand of tape recorder and if you take the tape recorder apart, inside will be the exact same band that is needed to make this machine work. His wife would go to the market to get it and he will have it fixed by the evening. It all sounded so unlikely.
He showed me the band that he had taken out of his machine and it was a thin black band the size of my fingernail. That’s the amazing thing about filmmaking, you can have thousands of things in place, but something the size of your fingernail can grind it to a halt. For a moment I thought about our investors and how they might feel if they could see me in this ridiculous situation – an entire cast and crew at a standstill and me as Producer/Director stuck in a translated meeting about a possible elastic band.
We went along with it though but, on the drive back to the apartment, we both aired our views on what could go wrong. I was sure that the market would have sold out of that brand or the one inside would already be stretched but we went back the next day and, not only had they got the tape recorder, but the plan had worked and the DAT machine was up and running.
Not only that but they had some good microphones, including the exact model of microphone Jon and I had requested. I got them to record some sound and it was so great hearing my voice come back crisp and clear when they played it back.
These little victories were small but it would keep us in the battle.

Sound one small victory
Five weeks after the intended start date, when the van loaded with our equipment, props and attached generator arrived after Amuda’s heroic 5 day round trip, not only was it damaged but the generator had been drained of oil, the radio had been ripped out, and a few other items were missing.
The most devastating of issues was the fact that the generator looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it.
The soundproof housing was so badly damaged it would have required a lot of welding and we simply didn’t have the time or connections to fix this. It was even beyond Jon’s capabilities with the limited tools available.
This meant that rather than the silent generator needed for recording sound, even with every single piece of cabling we had, including hiding the generator behind vehicles or trees, even putting it downwind, it’s engine could still be heard when we were recording sound.
Having gone through such huge efforts to even be able to record sound, now we had yet another dimension of frustration as it then meant that we could only record dialogue during the day when we were using reflector boards only and other times we would have to post-sync the sound (re-record the dialogue with actors in a sound booth during post-production, also known as ADR). ADR is no good for performance and it was an additional cost we could not afford.

On top of this, we found that the old prop car was also adding to the problems. It had taken us weeks to purchase and several meetings with a local chief where we had to bond with him by eating peanuts before we could even discuss cost. This rickety car looked exactly how we wanted it to. It had character but it also gave us audio problems and even when we were not running the generator, no matter how much we padded it out to lessen the engine noise, it was still too loud for our actors to be heard talking in it.

Car Frustrations

Also, the vibration from the engine would cause our video assist monitor to go off, which meant we could never play back even a guide of the scene to see if we had got what we needed.

Now a lot of movies use back-projection, where the actors are not even moving and in fact, they are in a studio with either a blue or green screen for the landscape to be added in post-production or an actual projection of the landscape played during the shoot. The believers in this process argue that you can direct your actors this way. This may be true but, every time I see this glaringly obvious technique on screen, I’m not even watching the actors. I’m too busy watching how bad the back-projection is and pissed off because the actor who is driving seems compelled to shake the steering wheel back and forth like a four year old!

We didn’t come all the way to Africa to add backgrounds later and we, perhaps naively, hoped that people might appreciate the little things like ‘real driving’ in an age where so much is faked. Jon had physically hand-built and welded a very good car mount from scratch for these sequences, so we were determined to make it work and as Jon & I often said, if we’re the only ones that appreciate it, it will still have been worth it.

So, swallowing our words, the closest we could get to directing these moments were practising a scene with the car stationary, then physically pushing it ourselves until Rob or Prince shouted ‘finished’. Then, gasping for breath and, if it was a long scene, near heart attack stage, asking Rob & Prince how it went.  We hadn’t had production situations this bad since our short films more than two decades ago.

Pushing the car
The car also created a problem of a very different kind. We would park it up at the accommodation then the next morning it wouldn’t work again. A member of the local crew told us surreptitiously that another local crew member was sabotaging the car in the night and had a 50-50 split deal with the local mechanic.
If that’s true, I would rather they had just come to me for the money as the mechanic cost was nothing compared to the fact we would lose several hours each morning having it sorted and then having to compromise our shots or lose much needed action sequences.
We had a big action sequence to do early on in the film with a hell of a lot of shots and set-ups and it soon became apparent to me that even getting a fraction of the action we had wanted, would be near impossible. It seemed to take hours just to get one extra to walk from point A to point B in the way the scene required, let alone capture the complex mayhem I had in my head for the scene. It felt like water through my fingers, I just couldn’t get the first shot in the can.
Firstly we’re in a French speaking country and Jon & I hardly know a word of French between us. In any case, we have now found out that actually only 1 or 2 people at the most in any rural village know French either. Sometimes there are no French speakers at all.
There are, however, a lot of local languages, so to direct people, I have to talk to our French speaker, who goes to the nominated local French speaker, who also understands the local language and that person passes on my instructions to the recruited villages as to where to stand, how to act etc and these are people who have often never seen a camera before, let alone understand the concept of acting, or indeed have any acting ability.
It was totally alien to these people but I was hugely appreciative that they at least gave it a shot. We could expect nothing more than that and, even though the process was at least 20 times slower than any normal production, I started to find, with patience and persistence, eventually we would get a shot here and a shot there that would be usable and I developed new techniques for ‘cheating’ people into accidentally doing something that looked like convincing acting.
Having taken from 6pm to nearly 4am to get our first action shot in the village that night and this had involved one hut burning out of control, it was only moments after calling cut that I realised there was a another real panic. The sequence had involved a truck full of soldiers entering the village to pick up survivors and eliminate any attacking Zombies and we were just about to re-set, to get an angle that would show the number of soldiers we had in the truck. A ‘money shot’ as it’s known and I wanted as many of these as we could physically get, as I wanted the films budget to look far bigger than it actually was.
However, for some reason the person that had been nominated to drive this huge army vehicle seemed to have no control over it whatsoever and not only would it never end up where we wanted it to be for the focus or angle, the driver had slammed the brakes on so hard in the last take that it had sent all the soldier-extras flying into the metallic back panels and one poor guy had sliced his hand open right to the bone. It looked like a serious injury and blood was pumping everywhere.
Anne who was due to play a doctor in an upcoming sequence seemed to forget she was not a real doctor and ran in there to tie up the flow of blood with a piece of material. This was incredibly noble but then someone reminded Anne of the possible dangers of what she was doing and a strange scene unfolded where everyone wanted to help this guy but no one wanted to get covered in his blood. It was an extremely odd and heart-wrenching moment but soon his wounds were carefully wrapped up and I found someone who would rush him to hospital.
It sounds merciless, but the show really does have to go on. Quite understandably no one wanted to get back into the flailing truck so that was the first of many ‘money shots’ that would never make it from script to screen. It’s painful enough to have had all these soldiers in the truck on-set and for the image never to have made it to screen but to have someone seriously injured to achieve it and you still don’t get the shot, well that’s the type of insult on top of our injuries that we would have to get used to.

Village hut burns out of control
The actor who we had cast to play Daniel’s son, Gael Hamma, had been waiting on location the previous day and with everything against us we could not get around to his scene so we deferred it until the next day. The trouble was that when we were finally ready for him we were told he was too ill to shoot. He had Typhoid, which can be pretty serious, and he was unwell for another week so we had to change the schedule again. There were very few moments where we could actually shoot what we had down on the schedule.
Having insisted that the man who was injured had received the best care possible which, of course we would pay for, I asked to meet him a couple of days later to make sure he was really fine. His hand was indeed all stitched up and through the translator I told him how sorry we were and what he felt would be adequate compensation for his injury. Amazingly he not only said he didn’t want any money, but that he wanted to say sorry to me for ruining the filming and causing delay. It almost broke my heart.
I insisted it was the other way round and perused the matter until the translator was able to tell me how much he needed to feed him and his family per month. It was an alarmingly low figure so I quadrupled it and handed him the cash. It sounds crazy but the guy couldn’t believe his luck. This was one person who should be angry with me, he had every right to be but, instead, he’s almost passing out with joy and shaking my hand so hard I’m worried it might split open again.
We discovered that locally, some people were working up to 12 hour shifts loading and unloading 40kg bags of rice for the equivalent of 1 US dollar a day. Surely if we were to pay people at least 5 to 10 times this ‘daily rate’, plus feed them, not only will we be bringing cash into the local economy but we will also have ourselves a very happy cast of extras.
And that’s exactly what happened. In fact Chamberlin and his guys simply had to drive into town in a pick-up truck and announce the word and they would come back with a load of potential Zombies. We then further discovered that we didn’t have to cast anyone at all. Simply the act of parking somewhere and setting up our equipment resulted in a vast number of people emerging from behind trees and bushes, very willing to be a part of the film. It was bizarre.

Loading rice bags
If you choose to make a film, once you have gone through the effort of actually completing one, the fun really starts.
Films are sold much like a market like Cannes, AFM (American Film Market) and many others. They are a bit like fruit and vegetables markets but with films and slightly sexier, due to the actors and models hoping to get ‘discovered’ there.
Films are generally sold by Sales Agents who are basically like estate agents (Realters in the US)  but they take much higher commission and are often more highly skilled in bulls**t.
Commission varies around 15 – 25% and there are often ‘market expenses’ on top. (Marketing expenses are either funding for the publicity that will help advertise the sale of your film, plus a portion of the company’s expenses in getting to market in the first place or an opportunity to extract more money from your film. Usually a bit of both)
The idea is that these agents have ‘booths’ at the various markets where ‘Buyers’ (the industry term for distributors) make appointments to come and see them to see what ‘product’ (The term for your film that you have sweated your creative lifeblood on) they can buy for far less than it’s actually worth.
Buyers (who wear special colour coded buyers badges so they can be hassled more by agents desperate to make a sale) often sit on couches in these booths and seem to grunt their way through a series of trailers much like they are at a crematorium with their mother in the furnace. Occasionally watching a few minutes of a film that they feel they can sell in their particular country, rarely they make an offer on a film; sometimes they just come for the free sweets in the bowl at reception.
As a filmmaker, you shouldn’t really be around this stuff. Markets and market screenings are not pretty at all. It’s functional and you should be spared the way things are done. Let’s put it this way, just because you find bottoms sexy that doesn’t mean you’d enjoy spending an hour or two as a toilet. There are certain things that spoil the magic.
As I say to my film students, if you are brave enough to come to a market with a film and attend meetings, the only item you really need to take with you to a distribution meeting is a condom. You’re going to get screwed whatever happens so you may as well do it safely!

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