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 ever met.
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 memory.
'I 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.

Malaria Rob
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 bed.
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 milked.
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
Apparently these 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 loved’. 
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).
This worked.
 
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.
To 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 THE CAN
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 remaining 20. 
 
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 first shot.
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 GOOD ADVICE
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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