Chapter 4: Staying Focussed
|At this stage, the only one
person who managed to remain upbeat was our lead actor Rob. Rob was like our
very own Mr Motivator. We would come back from the port each day empty handed
and Rob would offer us a hug and ‘pep talk’ the lot of us into remaining positive.
He would say ‘Stay focussed on the goal, and take active steps towards it’ he
would actually have us saying that out loud in unison.
| Not only that, but he would
get us doing workouts in the courtyard of the hotel and other motivational
activities. I had to admire his almost child-like positivity for the world
around him. He would cut open a pineapple like he was opening a treasure chest
and announce how he could ‘taste the sunshine’ and that it was energising his
body. It was a marvel to watch. He would also cook us couscous dinners, and you
couldn’t stop him mucking in and lifting heavy equipment. This guy was fitter
than most people half of his age. In fact he was fitter than most people I have
|He would simply not stop
exercising. I remember the first time he turned up at my house for the
audition. He walked straight into my kitchen and started doing tricep dips on
my sideboard until the structure nearly collapsed. He then had Jon and me both
doing handstands in the living room, before we remembered that we’d better get
on with the audition.
|Whilst feeling at an all
time low as we failed to get to our first day of shoot for nearly two weeks,
Rob had us draw out a map of the film highlighting the journey we would go on
and at one point he spotted that we were truly in the depths of depression so
he grabbed the script and said ‘here guys, I’ll do a quick run-through of some
dialogue’ and he then proceeded to deliver a performance nothing short of
stunning, getting close to tears as he went through the lines on the doctor
scene where his character reminisces about not having been able to help anyone
following the plane crash. It was truly uplifting and it momentarily got us
back on track.
|I had visions of coming home
and hailing Rob as our hero. How we might lift him up on our shoulders at the
wrap party and toast his unique ability to remain positive through thick and
thin. That, and the fact that due to his workouts we would clearly all be
fitter and healthier than ever, and now be fending off lucrative contracts to
become swimwear models.
|But alas it was not to be.
Even his memorable rendition of the doctor scene would remain just that. A
won't get Malaria' Rob said when I first met him at
my local coffee haunt in Brighton 'I don't get ill'.
'But what if you do, just hypothetically?' I said.
Part of my casting and crewing process for those
that would travel to Africa was to paint a picture
of how tough it would be then see how they reacted.
If there was any trace of a concern they couldn't
possibly be part of the production. I pushed the
issue as we stood outside the coffee shop about to
depart 'Look, what if you get this part and we're
out in the middle of Africa and you get malaria or
something, are you going to want to come home?' He
gave me an icy stare and delivered another
convincing performance as if he were a proud captain
sailing an unsinkable ship 'I WILL NOT GET MALARIA'.
|I was the first to
get ill, maybe it was the stress of the situation but I spent the
first of what would be countless nights during the trip as a human
food blender. It seemed to start with a subtle rumbling of the
stomach, and then a wave of sickness would soon ensue. Rapidly
followed by projectile vomiting and diarrhoea so severe I was
convinced my diarrhoea had gotten diarrhoea. It sometimes seemed
your body was so forcibly trying to get whatever it was out that you
were about to throw up a lung.
|Thankfully, this wasn’t malaria. This was just good
old fashioned food poisoning and we soon learnt that
every meal was like playing Russian roulette. Every
mouthful was filled with trepidation that this might
be the one that would knock you down.
The next day it would then be like a Cludo of
illnesses, as we would determine what made us sick
through the process of elimination, comparing who
ate what verses who was still able to get out of
So, just when I would have been happy to be lying in
bed, the Land Rover finally gets out from the clutches of the Port of Tema.
Maybe our lack of appearance there in the last
couple of days had convinced the port that there was
no more money to be had. The cow had been
Either way, we now had at
least enough props to shoot our beach sequence.
Namely, the fake guns, Robs costume and the crate he
would float in on. Plus, enough of Max and Dan’s
special effects materials to get us started.
|There was no time to
waste and we would start shooting first thing the next morning. Even
though I had only had an hour or so of sleep, it was at least going
to be good to get something in the can. I still don’t understand the
cruelty of the human body’s way of ensuring you don’t have
sufficient sleep the night before what you consider to be an
important event. It seems, if you’re not doing anything that
requires you to be on form the next day, you’ll sleep like a baby,
but if something is going on that requires you to be in tip top
shape for the sake of your own future or even your own safety, your
body will ensure you don’t sleep at all or at least very badly.
|Surely we should have evolved by now to the
point where the brain and the body recognises this need and gets its act
together. For me, the night before the first day of shoot, going to bed is a
pretty redundant act and this night was no exception.
|Upon arriving at the beach,
we soon discovered that we were going to experience a lot of unwanted
attention. The moment we opened the doors of the mini-bus, a couple of dread
locked ‘Rasta men’ appeared and took a keen interest in our shiny boxes of
camera equipment. We knew they were Rasta men as they would literally come up
and shake your hand or give you a hi-five and say ‘I am Rasta man’.
|I was later told by
our newly found African friends that these men would want people to
know they were Rasta men, as foreign people over the years had
viewed Rasta men as cool and, ‘in touch with the earth’, often
sleeping on the beach and playing a guitar at sunset and as a
result, so our local contact informed me; young, attractive, white
girls who wanted to rebel against their rich parents would have sex
with them after sharing a joint.
You might want to get those looked at
girls would then give them money and expensive gifts and these guys
would press all the right love buttons to ensure a steady flow of
western union transfers would then flow in from abroad in the coming
months. According to the locals, these guys often had hundreds of
foreign girlfriends, all of them thinking, ‘they were the one he
|Right now though, security
became an issue. I figured these guys would either be with us or against us and
they were growing in numbers, rather like the plot of our script. So I quickly
called Barbara, who would save us in more ways than one over the coming weeks,
and she went round getting these guys on the payroll. They would now work for
us; keeping other people away for what they locally called a ‘dash’ (a hand
over of cash after the deed was done).
|Soon our Zombie extras
turned up including, much to our relief, our disabled friends. So, following
some swift apologies for how long it had taken us to get to this point, which I
was fast becoming an expert at, we left Max to start making them up, including
the severed limb effects and Dan started to apply the white contact lenses and
costumes while the rest of us got on with the first shot.
me, I just wanted to get the first shot over and
done with fast. This would be Rob floating in the
water on the crate.
|The first shot is
often the most drawn out on any shoot and I knew the importance of
bursting this bubble and getting things moving.
|GET YOUR FIRST SHOT IN
|When I’m teaching
at film school and I’m asked for just ‘one piece of advice’ when on
set or location it’s simply to get that first shot in the can as
soon as you can (or on the tape/hard drive/whatever). Figure out in
advance where your camera is going to be, what lens you want, where
you’re actor/s are to stand. Walk onto set knowing everything about
it and communicate it to your crew immediately.
|Something strange happens when that first shot has been taken. Up until then,
everyone is uncertain of what’s going on and you need that momentum to kick in,
otherwise your crew might just stand around chatting and eating doughnuts (if
you’re lucky enough to have doughnuts on set). Far too many ‘first shot’s take
half the day; the second half is spent whipping everyone to try and get the
| As with most first-shots, we
rolled too much film. It’s amazing how quickly a 400ft roll of 35mm film will
pass through your camera, especially if you are overcranking (rolling your
camera at a higher speed to achieve slow-motion). In order to achieve our
budget, I had calculated how much film stock we could afford to shoot per
working day and it came out at roughly 3 rolls a day. Incidentally this is a
pathetic amount for the average production. We had just shot one roll on the
Not only that, but I didn’t feel it was a very good shot. The shot sounded
simple enough: Rob would float on the crate semi conscious, and then wake as the
crate gently made contact with the shore. The problem was that due to the
delays, we had not had time to test this set up. Getting the crate to float with
the required buoyancy was issue number one. Once this was dealt with, then Rob
had to contend with getting himself in the position we wanted him for focus and
frame, with bloody great waves crashing down either side of him. Not only this
but the current was dragging him along at an incredible rate and he couldn’t
hear us shouting as the water was so deafening.
If we’d had a decent budget we’d have had a support team of divers, a stunt guy
for the wide shots, and a water tank in a nice studio for the close ups of Rob,
a controlled environment, for us to really create a cracking scene, and for our
lead actor to be relatively safe. But no, instead I would be screaming at Rob,
‘left a bit’, ‘right a bit’ ‘Back a bit’ ‘We cant see your face’ ‘Turn a bit’,
with Rob calling back ‘What?’ ‘Did you call action?’ Then when I did call
‘Roll camera’ Rob said ‘I’m just going to adjust my position on the crate’ so we
quickly cut again. Then he acted the scene thinking I had said action but I
hadn’t, and he said ‘did you get that?’ ‘No!’ and so on. I was thinking to
myself ‘This is a shambles, what the hell are we doing’?
This was the first of 18
set-ups I had on my list for that day and by the time Rob came out of the water
he was exhausted and I was already starting to lose my voice from shouting.
This was not going to be easy.
IT’S IN THE VAN:
The non shipment of the
loaded van would also constantly haunt us, as so many things were inside it
that were integral to the shoot. No longer could we shoot the type of shots we
had planned. There would have been a crane-up from Rob from close-up on the
shore to reveal the zombies approaching, followed by a very dramatic track in
on his face as he looks up and sees them. But no. All of this jib and dolly
(grip) equipment was ‘in the van’ a sentence that would be repeated thousands
of times over the next few weeks as we would discover vital things needed for a
scene were ‘in the van’.
Instead we had to
shoot hand-held with batteries that Jon built from scratch with a soldering
iron the night before. Not only that, but we desperately needed the space that
the inside of the van provided for setting up cameras and accessing lenses etc
without getting sand and dust in the components. It was now taking us much
longer to shoot and the more time we lost the more compromises we had to make.
The damage the shipping company had caused to the production by not shipping
our gear is unfathomable. This single act would cause it to be a totally
different film and, in our opinion, nowhere near as good.
Fortunately, Max had done a good job with make up and our Zombies, especially
the limbless guys, who looked great. They were also all finding their new found
zombie status quite amusing and some of them took to chasing others around the
beach. I was happy to see them enjoying the moment and wished I could have done
the same. (Enjoyed it, not chased limbless people around the beach)!
So with our first Zombie shots in the can and Rob’s sequence bashing open the
crate to get his supplies, it was Jon and me for the make up-chair. We had
decided to give ourselves cameos early on and we also thought at least a couple
of other white folk should make it to shore and be killed so the audience can
appreciate how ferocious our zombies were from the start.
We also felt it was important that
our lead character should kill a white zombie, rather than have a movie where
our white lead male simply moves through the movie killing black zombies. There
would be no discrimination in our movie and we certainly didn’t want people
getting the wrong idea!
So, one of us needed to be
killed at the shore and the other needed to make it out of the water and then
be killed later (an off screen death) and come back as a zombie for Rob to
plough down in his salvaged car. Jon opted for the more heroic role of being
miraculously uninjured from the crash and still holding a loaded gun, so I was
left with the role of the pathetically immobile soldier who cant even get a
shot off before being eaten. I think Jon was extremely keen on getting to fire the
pump action shotgun and, for a while, it didn’t leave his side.
Seeing as the original plan
had been for us both to have appeared in the plane scene, so there would at
least be a little continuity to who we were as characters when we appeared at
shore, we were both a little worried that it would now feel disjointed but, by
now, we were learning that we would not be able to fight the compromises that
were being forced on us. Moment by moment, shot-by-shot, I had this feeling in
my gut that this film was never going to be the beautiful & powerful piece
we so wanted to make but we had no choice but to plough on.
We were originally going to
shoot this beach scene over 3 days but, like everything, that got cut down and
we had to leave the next day for the 2 day drive to Burkina Faso, so we shot it
in a day and a half then immediately started the arduous potholed filled (or
unfilled as the case may be) journey towards the border.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS
Advice about how to ‘make
it’ in the film business, gets thrown around quite a lot and I’m sceptical as
to how much of it you should really take on board.
Film school has worked
for many people but also many people graduate and never get work in the
industry. No film school tutor has the definitive answer on how to make it in
the film industry.
Even if the world’s most
successful filmmaker gave you advice right now, that doesn’t mean that advice
would work for you. What works for one, may not work for another.
Ask a thousand Directors
who have made it and you will get a thousand different answers as to how they
got where they did. There is simply no set route.
There are examples of
people starting out as ‘runners’, then rising up through the ranks, one day
joining the camera department, later becoming a cinematographer, then one day
getting their own film made and the rest being history.
Then there are examples
of people who somehow go straight in at the top. Their first script gets made
with them directing and it’s a hit. Bingo.
Sadly there are also
examples of people who tried both of these, sometimes devoting many years of
their lives to trying to make it in the film business, even getting one or more
films made but without success. Sometimes these people go back to other jobs
with a regular monthly salary, and who can blame them.
In my opinion, there have
been some great films that have not made successes of their makers and some
poor films that have. Perhaps it was a matter of timing. Or being in the right
place at the right time, or knowing the right person.
There’s nothing wrong
with listening to advice and taking that piece that resonates with you. I think
you’ve got to go with your gut feeling. After all, you might be the next big
thing. You might have been put on this very earth for a particular reason and
really, we should all be listening to you!
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