Anything For The Shot - Part One
While conducting an interview in L.A. in 2006, filmmaker Werner Herzog was shot in the stomach by a gunman armed with an air rifle. Herzog simply relocated and continued with the interview. My hero. Not just because he soldiered on, but because this exemplifies the lengths to which he goes to bring us the compelling films he does. He is an adventurous documentarian who pushes boundaries to capture remarkable people doing remarkable things in remarkable places. Powerful stuff indeed.
I’ll never be in the same league as Mr. Herzog, but I’m going to share several anecdotes that may get me a small percentage of the way there, at least in regard to the tribulations production crews encounter in the field. Often, it is not the shoot itself that makes for the best “war stories,” but the moments surrounding the shoot—the moments in the periphery of what makes it to the viewer’s screen. I’ll begin with an anecdote of an overseas shoot very early in my career and follow up with more recent tales from the trenches in my next blog entry.
This post began as an exercise to help unravel what these events now mean to me in the light of my experience, so you’ll find takeaways at the end. If you’re a seasoned member of a film or video crew, laugh—or cry—with me. If not, feel free to laugh at me—these are not my finest moments.
You don't know how lucky you are, boy
Shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (USSR), I was on my way to a city a couple of hours north of Moscow for a multi-day shoot with a small delegation of university and college representatives. Rarely am I able to sleep on a plane, so upon touchdown in Moscow, I’d been awake for more than 36 hours and my eyelids were as heavy as our flight cases full of video gear. Two cars had been sent for our team, but—Russia being Russia—one broke down on the way. Five passengers, luggage and video gear were not going to fit in one small Lada. Being the youngest in the group, out-ranked and refusing to be separated from my gear, it was clear I’d be spending most of the night in the airport until the driver could make the return journey. Waiting with me was a college dean who promptly fell asleep the moment we sat down.
Just as I myself began nodding off, I noticed a growing number of malevolent souls circling where we sat. Violent crime—organized or otherwise—was at an all-time high in Moscow and it was obvious I had expensive goodies in those cases. If I shut my eyes for even a minute, the trip’s final video would consist of nothing but poorly drawn stick figures. I don’t know what was more difficult, fighting the urge to sleep or trying to look intimidating, but somehow I was able to fend off the bad guys until our driver returned.
Stranger in a strange land
Five hours later we were headed north. Sitting in the front passenger seat, every time I tried to latch my seatbelt the driver waived his hand over the belt, shook his head and said something in Russian. My travel partner—who spoke rudimentary Russian—was no help as he’d already fallen asleep in the back seat. As the number of cars on the side of the road that had been in accidents—many seriously mangled—increased in frequency, I tried one last time to latch my seatbelt. Only then did it become clear what the driver had been saying. “Don’t bother, it is broken.” At that point, other than a crash helmet, I wanted nothing more than sleep. As we careened down a narrow road littered with crumpled cars in which people had most certainly died, I was getting no sleep.
My compatriot however, had no such problem. I was beginning to think the dean may be part opossum because when presented with a stressful situation, he seemed to become so paralyzed with fear he simply passed out.
Finally arriving at our destination (physically) unscathed, Dean Opossum quickly awoke, grabbed his luggage and scurried into his host family's home—probably for more sleep. It turns out the driver had no idea where my host family lived, who I was or what I was doing there. After hours of driving around the city making inquiries and getting no answers, we stopped to eat at a restaurant. There, we found a combination of people who were able to translate Russian to French, French to German, and German to English. After this multilingual game of telephone, my driver learned enough to piece together his next steps.
The kindness of strangers
We finally arrived at my host family’s home and, when I heard, “Welcome, Kevin”—in English—I was overwhelmingly relieved. To round out this comedy of errors, I was offered tea before turning in after well over two days of being awake. It was a wonderful smoked tea sent to my host family from friends in London. I liked it so much I had two cups. If I drank any tea at that time in my life it was herbal, so I was not considering the effects of caffeine. I had an early-morning shoot the following day and needed to be on my toes but, combined with jet lag, and the tea, I think I cried myself to sleep—without the sleep part.
My love of shooting video was all that kept me going for the next several days. That, and my host family, to whom I grew very close over the short time I was there. They were a joy. Every day was capped with good food, many stories and much laughter. I toured the local television station and befriended those who spoke my language—not English, but video. The following day one of their videographers shadowed me while I was shooting local scenery. If you want to see what a dead-tired videographer looks like—in glorious standard definition—here's a news segment the station produced and ran on that evening’s news.
What’s interesting is the news story on the historic agreement signing I was there to cover got less than a minute on the local news, but this segment is almost four minutes long. So… I had to wonder about their news priorities.
Here we go again
The core of the trip, while delightful, was bookended by more challenges on the return trip. We returned to Moscow—in two functioning cars this time—for the requisite Red Square visit and then a tour of a renowned monastery. I was encouraged to get footage within the monastery walls, so I was off on my own throughout the rather large compound. Looking up from my camera’s viewfinder I found two gruff, uniformed men, each armed with an automatic rifle hovering over me. Before rising to my feet, I considered the Dean Opossum defense but instead went full-on “Minnesota nice” with, "Hi, how are you guys doin’?”
Apparently not from Minnesota, they each grabbed an arm and forcefully walked me to building, down a hall into a room—I kid you not—with a single lightbulb hanging from the center of the room over a chair. They sat me down, walked from the room and locked the door behind them. Reminiscent of a scene from “Midnight Express,” I began to ask myself, “What would Billy Hayes do?” Extortion from custom officials was commonplace at that time and I expected it once they saw our video equipment carnet—more on that to come—but machine guns? Really, fellas!? Several minutes later another uniformed man charged in to the room. There was so much yelling and stomping I had to work very hard to keep from laughing. Don’t get me wrong, he was intimidating but it was clear he was just trying to squeeze American dollars out of the guy with the expensive camera rig. Either that, or I was on some Russian version of “Candid Camera.” Not seeing cameras or Allen Funt, I began mentally preparing for a pistol-whipping—in a monastery mind you. As quickly as it began, my interrogator threw his hands up and stormed out, my camera was returned and I was released to rejoin the group as if nothing happened. Cue the strolling and casual whistling.
Later that day at the airport, despite my papers "being in order” as they say, a particularly ornery official was inches from my face, loudly and repeatedly exclaiming, “I am not happy!” She’d pause for a staring contest bout and start all over. She wasn’t heavily armed so, after my ordeal earlier that day, it fazed me not. I finally wore her down with a smile and she let me pass. In retrospect, the passive opossum routine essentially worked for me too.
To cap off my time in Russia, as I sat in my seat where I had a view of the luggage loading belt. As I watched my camera case travel up the belt, just before it disappeared out of sight into the belly of the plane, it was pushed off the side by another piece of luggage and fell to the ground. Lovely. It was a rental—and insured—so no great loss. The tapes—yes tapes (this was 1992) were safe and sound and, at that point, all that mattered. I got the shot.
What did we learn, class?
- Travel as light as possible. You attract less attention, you can move faster and your back will thank you. Fortunately, production gear has gotten much smaller over the years making traveling light easier than ever.
- The further you are out of your element, the more valuable traveling with a local is. Someone to serve as a translator and knows the city. This type of guide is also invaluable in large cities, even those closer to home.
- Attitude is key. I spent a great deal of my career on the road. You’ll quickly burn out if you’re not smiling through it all.
- When overwhelmed, just play dead.