Chapter 12: War
It’s morning and Anne tells me that Jon has something important to tell me. She has a concerned look on her face, which worries me, and I already know, whatever it is Jon wants to tell me, it’s not going be a barrel of laughs.
Jon had not only been repeatedly ill, but was also officially diagnosed with malaria and had just completed the course of whatever it was he was prescribed that had further weakened him. I come downstairs where Jon says he wants to come back next year to finish it.
I KNEW immediately in my heart that if we left Africa, not one person was going to return for this production, including me, and it would remain just another unfinished film. While I’m conjuring up whatever I’m going to need to say to convince him and everyone else witnessing this conversation to stay, he is already firing out a persuasive argument.
‘We’re like an army at war, we can’t just fight & fight until we all drop dead - we have to retreat, re group, then come back stronger, with more artillery’. I could see the logic and I paced back and forth as I threw back reasons why we had to stay. How the performances and the look would become disjointed, how the government probably wouldn’t even let us back in and how our investors would not tolerate such a delay. We had to keep what little momentum we had going and leave Africa with the movie.
I even suggested he teach me how to take a light reading and I would do my best to light and direct the film myself.  I said I would stay, even if I had to dress up as Murphy and set the camera up myself and be the only one in Africa doing it. But he said he didn’t want his dream project to happen without him there. It was an odd argument but somehow I understood it. He felt if he got ill one more time he really would die and I could tell he really believed it.
By this point we had become so emaciated that our shirts hung off us and we could see our own skeletal structure. So much so that, when Anne had gone back home with the film stock, she had not been able to show our folks back home any photos as it would be to shocking for them.  It certainly felt like death was staring us in the face but I did everything I could to convince him to stay.
The ever-increasing delays caused an additional problem I had not even considered; I only had a few days’ worth of anti-malaria tablets left and with a lot more to shoot we are not going to be leaving any time soon. Having witnessed the awful agony suffered by our lead actor, I didn’t much fancy a bout myself and I now had only 5 days of protection left.
I called my doctors but they said I had to drop in a signed letter to get a repeat prescription and I have to sign the prescription itself 2-3 days later before I can pick the tablets up from the pharmacy. Obviously I could not fly back for this and, even if I did, I only had a single entry visa so it would be the end of it for sure.
A few phone calls later my dad who can switch on the charm when he needs to managed to persuade a nurse to prescribe him the tablets and he would courier them to me. Luckily I have an account with DHL and a few more calls later a plan was hatched.
The trouble is the ‘accommodation’ we were staying in didn’t have an official address.
It was also built on some land that apparently didn’t have an official name. Instead it was described (in French) as something like the house next to the brown building off the long road away from the airport before the town of such and such (this is not the exact wording but it was something as convoluted as this). As a result, no one would courier a parcel to this address.
Finally, we managed to get the package sent to the nearest DHL office about 15 miles away where I would be called on my local phone to collect it. By this time I had 2 days protection from malaria but that was ok. It would apparently take 3 working days to arrive and I’d take my chances with a day unprotected and the mosquitoes could have the treat of a day’s bareback action on me!
By the time I had run out of anti-malaria tablets, there was even more visceral unpleasantness to hand. By now there was no longer any running water in the accommodation we were staying in and, with at least half the crew with upset stomachs and a lot of people still vomiting, including Jon and myself, the toilets were not just a vision of hell but equipped with smells even Satan himself would not have tolerated.
It was bad enough not being able to wash at the end of a shooting day but I was getting seriously worried that the lack of sanitation was going to prove deadly. There were flies everywhere, I remember them landing on my lips a couple of times in the night and I would jump up and pour hand sanitizer all over my face praying that these creatures had not landed on that multi-coloured mixture of everyone’s insides that I had witnessed in the bowl earlier.
Even when there was running water and I was lucky enough to be getting a little sleep, which was extremely rare given the stress and palpitations my heart was now enduring after the day’s events, you would feel like you were finally nodding off when suddenly the distinctive buzz of a mosquito in your ear brings you back to reality. Given that it’s the world’s biggest killer it’s a pretty ominous sound. Now I was ‘unprotected’ there was no way I would even attempt sleep again until that mosquito was dead. The fight was on.
Sometimes I would be up for hours pacing the room with a towel in hand ready to swipe, trying to tune my peripheral vision to locate the microscopic thing in the dull flickering light. I remember looking at my watch and there was only an hour or two before I’d have to be up for the next day. At least once I stayed in battle-mode until my alarm went off. It was nightmarish.
As it turned out, the package with the anti-malarial tablets in it never arrived. For some ‘unknown’ reason that baffled everyone I spoke to, it ended up at an Address in South Africa and 2 weeks later got redirected to Burkina Faso after many calls to the tracing department where I would let them know that this package not turning up was ‘life or death’ and was literally ‘keeping me awake all night’, (which I’m sure they’ve heard far too many times before)  it was too late as we had already started our journey to the north and were hundreds of miles away from that DHL office hoping to shoot the remaining scenes.
I was more worried about the stress this little episode had caused my dad back home than I was about dying of malaria. He was still getting over his major bowel cancer operation and it was in the balance as to whether he would even still be on this earth when we returned. It had been another waste of time and energy, none of which resulted with a shot in the can, which was how I measured the success of our efforts at this point. There were also far more immediate dangers about to come our way.
Although Rob was out of hospital and apparently not imminently about to die, all was not well.  He had been saying strange things here and there but during the journey to the north, we were driving along in convoy at a fair speed when he suddenly screamed at me ‘Howard stop, you’re going to hit the lorry, STOP!’
He screamed so loudly and with such certainty that even though the road ahead of me was completely clear I did slam on the breaks and the cars behind nearly piled into us. ‘Rob, what WHAT?’ I panicked, my heart was on overload.  ‘There’s nothing there’ I added, completely baffled. ‘Oh, I thought I saw a big truck, it was coming right at us, I’m sorry’ came the response. It was extremely bizarre but little did I know it would soon prove to be a premonition for an imminent incident that would see many dead.
We’re now on a dry and swelteringly hot location but Jon is not letting me point the camera at Zombies again and this time I cannot understand it at all. What’s more baffling is that this particular sequence was entirely his idea at script stage and it’s got the potential of being a brilliant scene.  Jon is very heavily into car mechanics and came up with the idea of our two main characters needing to fill the overheated car with their precious water, and I loved the idea. It was an interesting dilemma.

Ford bros discuss
We developed it further in the writing and to me it was up there in my top 3 favourite scenes the other 2 we had to rip out, and now we’re here right now to capture this one, admittedly not with anywhere near enough time to do it justice but I want to have a bloody good crack at it anyway.
I’ve had Dan all day making up Zombies in the incredible heat on his own as by now Max has had to leave for another shoot. He had stayed much longer than planned but there is a limit to how long people could stay so they were gradually dropping like flies. Marie and Lucy have also just left as they too had commitments and had already extended their trips twice. They will be sorely missed and we all have to compensate for their absence.
Let me quickly tell you something about Dan Rickard. He was originally one of my students at The Brighton Film School where I teach every now and then when time permits. Sometimes you would get a particularly talented student coming through the doors and I would look out for these and ‘poach them’ as crewmembers on commercial shoots. Paid work experience and, hopefully, a leg up in a tough industry so it’s a good thing all round.
Dan was a fairly unassuming young chap, but then I caught sight of some of his work, and I now know he is quite literally a genius. He had been involved in a short movie where a tidal wave hit Brighton, the town where I lived, and the moment I saw it, whoever did the effects was ‘hired’ no matter what. Then he actually turned out to be a lovely guy and very easy to work with. Unlike any other visual effects artist I have known, he never says ‘can’t do it’. The worst case is ‘I’m not sure how I’m going to do it but I’m going to try’. And he nails it every time and some.
He has since worked on more that 10 of my commercials and, before we shot The Dead, we even sent him on a physical effects course as we wanted as little CGI as we could get away with for realism purposes. Amongst many things he has been doing ‘bullet hits’ using air pressure with a pluming device.  He has also turned out to be like a terminator; he absolutely will not stop ever, he is the only crewmember who hasn’t once been ill. He also hasn’t moaned at me a single time, which I am incredibly grateful for. I would not have survived this shoot without Dan, but even he, for the first time, is upset that his efforts that day might not be captured on film.

Dan Rickard
I’m now fearing that Jon might have properly cracked and maybe he is also about to collapse with malaria or something as I cannot for the life of me imagine why he is now saying ‘there’s no point in having Zombies in this, we may as well just get the meat of the dialogue, it’s all s**t anyway’.  I think he was referring to the fact that the scene itself was far more elaborate in the first place, which was true.
Or maybe he is just so incensed that he has had to spend half the day fixing a generator to the prop car so we can create the effect with the smoke machine of the steam bursting out when it overheats.
We originally had the dead attacking our main characters so they had to push the car a little further to keep trying to fix it with yet more attacks and mounting tension. It was clear we had no time for all of this but I, at least, wanted a little bit of action but Jon felt it would be too compromised so not worth doing at all. I couldn’t bear the fact we were spending so much time having these rows as we could be shooting our action instead of rowing. This was not the way we worked.
We did shoot the dialogue and I was on the ‘B camera’ for the close-ups and Jon took the wide on a track. We both hated shooting this way but sometimes it’s the only way to get something done in time.  Again I secretly arranged with Dan and Abatcha our local translator at that moment, that when I called action, to have some Zombies approaching the car in the distance with yet another secret thumbs up signal. It was ludicrous to have to do this secretly but I felt we needed more than the dialogue even if it was a compromise on the original action sequence.
It was working, I panned away to the back of the truck and got what I felt was a usable shot of a Zombie or 2 approaching the car. It wasn’t the lens I would have gone for but the secrecy element meant that I could only get away with it on a long lens. Suddenly Jon cut and shouted ‘What the f**k are those Zombies doing there, I told you we’re not having them’.
Another row erupted and we were losing light and even Abatcha was getting annoyed, as he had rounded up these people to play Zombies that morning and we had kept them an entire day only for shouting to erupt when they did as they were asked, It was such a painful situation.
The shot I really wanted was an over-the-shoulder shot of the Zombie approaching Prince’s character Daniel as he took a sip of his water before having to hand it away. I could see that shot in my head and I wanted it for the edit but it wasn’t to be.
So, after we covered all the dialogue, there was about 15 feet of 35mm left on the Arriflex, so I said ‘Let me do just one focus pull from the back of the truck to show Zombies in the distance and that’s it, then everyone can go’. I really wanted at least this shot for a modicum of tension and so much time had gone by that I now also felt we didn’t have a chance at even the compromised version of the action scene. 
He agreed on the focus pull and that was that. We ‘tailed off’ that magazine as I pulled focus to and from the Zombies in the distance and that familiar sound of the film disconnecting from the little plastic core inside the magazine and tapping round to a stop signified the end of another day. There was something in the can at least.
For me it was one of the most frustrating moments of the production. The only thing we could do with it was add an off screen gun shot noise as if Prince had taken a shot and a post-production bullet hit in the sneaky Zombie shot I managed to get. I almost find it too painful to watch and I can still see that over-the-shoulder shot that doesn’t exist.
The survival camp leader played by Sergho Dak Jean Gustaphe, who was a fantastic mature actor from Burkina Faso, also had a bit of a rough ride, but in a very different way. It was all down to one letter in his email address being taken down incorrectly. We had met him during our location recce and did some auditions with him. He spoke hardly any English but he totally got the meaning of the scenes when we gave him a rough translation, then the words to read-parrot-fashion in English and he was amazing, an extremely moving performance. His scenes, were going to bring tears to people eyes, I was convinced of it.
As it turns out, his scenes do bring tears to eyes – unfortunately only Jon & mine. He had asked us to send him all the English lines and the French translation with tips on the meaning and we got straight onto it. There was no point in calling him as we wouldn’t have been able to speak to each other but instead I sent Marie all the script info and schedule updates in English and she duly forwarded them to him in French.
I had assumed all was well and kept forwarding information about when we would arrive at the location and then the day came. Murphy’s character would make it to the camp and we would capture this poignant and political exchange about survival and the hopeless nature of the situation. The whole scene was designed to get the audience to feel great compassion. It was also meant to mirror other well known problems in Africa and I really hoped the audience would feel desperate for this tiny thread of Murphy’s radio communication to work. I wanted people on the edge of their seats willing the communication to make it through this little salvaged radio.
The ironic thing was, we would have been better off trying to send Sergho’s lines through that crappy old radio as Sergho not only didn’t arrive that morning but he never received any of the script or call times. He had thought we had cast someone else for the part as he apparently never got any emails and we only found this out after getting someone locally to track him down in a taxi and bring him to the location at 4.30 in the afternoon.
He arrived on set and had a massive go at me, in French through his assistant, which was really weird, telling me how unprofessional I was not keeping him updated, which I really didn’t need on top of everything else, especially as all my emails to him had been nice and polite and even hugely complimentary about his talent but, of course, he hadn’t gotten a single one due to the even more ironic ‘number 2’ that was the missing element in his email address.
So now we had about 30 minutes of light left to get the shot and Jon was in one ear a short distance away from me, screaming about how my apparent conversation with the actor now he had finally arrived was going to cause a camera shadow when the light went lower.  Then I had Sergho, still pissed off and saying he needed at least 2 hours to learn his lines, and we didn’t even have a copy of the translation.
I knew we were only going to get whatever we got in that moment as we were already behind on the amount of days we needed to shoot before the cast and crew would return home, so anything we didn’t get each day was going to be cut and we really needed this scene. So I did my best English/French politics and went with a huge hand on heart apology, and double his agreed fee if we could just forget about it and do the scene right now. I’m not sure which part of what I did swung it but it worked.
Within 10 minutes, Sergho was in costume walking side by side with Rob while I read the English lines for Sergho to repeat and Jon was going back and forth on the same piece of track doing his best to get a useable shot as there was no time for a single angle change.
This sequence was meant to be a deep and moving scene with multiple angles as they moved further into the camp; we were meant to have tracking shots past empty ration boxes and injured victims and Murphy was meant to be truly disturbed at the condition of the survivors and his empathy with their situation growing until it took priority over his own selfish need to survive and get home.
Instead it was a mess. Not because the talent wasn’t there, not because we didn’t have the skill to do it, but because of an email address.  After each take, I asked Jon optimistically ‘did you get anything?’ ‘Yeah, shit’ came his reply. He was as heartbroken as I was about the scene. Neither of us wanted to tell Sergho that 90% of his words were in no particular language at all. He was doing his best but you try repeating lines of dialogue in a language you don’t know. Most of it comes back gibberish. It was just another cruel situation.

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