Hayley was a serial killer, like Hannibal Lecter, only much younger. Everything was black and white, I had a hundred notes, and from the official green light we ended up with only three weeks’ preproduction before we started rehearsals. Here what seemed so rich on the page seemed to have occasional stumbling “movie beats,” and as we found them we eliminated them, one by one. The movie I had in my head was being revised, over and over, the months of prep jettisoned and rewritten, and I was getting three to four hours sleep a night.
None of this was Brian Nelson’s fault. Brian had written the best film that I had read since moving from London to Los Angeles two years earlier, and that film remained intact until the end of postproduction. It was Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page’s fault. Ellen brought a personal vendetta to the character. She was human and in that reality was a spine-tingling power. Now all kinds of shades of gray began to enter our dark shadows and white highlights, things you don’t see in storyboards and can’t prepare for in notes, things that needed rewrites that Brian was happy to do, and things that just had to be done by any means necessary.
This was a music video treatment for the song “This Year’s Love” by David Gray.
I decided rather than pitch a whole video idea I would write a short story as a starting point.
MAPS TO THE STARS
by DAVID SLADE
Monday 11am and John Gilmore Harris stood under a small dark cloud that poured out a thick deluge upon him. He looked up at the otherwise blue sky without surprise.
Drenched in the hot sun and shivering as people crossed the street to avoid him John looked down curiously at the flier that he’d just been handed.
He was curious on a number of counts:
Firstly he was curious because, though there were many people handing out all kinds of fliers in this part of downtown, this was the first time anyone had bothered to hand one to him.
Secondly he was curious because this was not an ordinary flier, it seemed that this flier was meant for him, or people like him. He could say this with certainty as the flier was sealed inside a zip lock bag, the kind you would put leftover food in.
Thirdly, it was handed out by a kid of about nine who didn’t seem to be accompanied by anyone and in this part of town that was curious, and more than a little dangerous.
“This is all odd”, he thought as he looked down at the kid. She was wearing yellow rubber gloves, a yellow plastic raincoat, and a yellow plastic souwester hat and at arms length she held up a small umbrella.
She seemed happy enough.
He turned the ziplock bag over, on one side it had numbers, on the other the word “hope”.
“This something religious?” he asked, his voice felt odd in his mouth and the words came out a little louder than he expected them to.
The kid was taken aback and shot him a scalding look, she said “maps…” her face twisted up like a young bulldog, “..maps to the stars”.
John looked back at the kid, focussing as best he could which was not so well with the constant rain. “You mean maps to the stars homes?”
“Nooohh!” the kid added an exaggerated pause, then elongating each word like she was talking to an idiot “…m-a-p-s t-o t-h-e s-t-a-r-s’. The kid waited for comprehension and when John showed no outward signs pointed to the side of the flier with numbers then explained “Latitude and longitude” John crouched down and looked her in the eye “oh! I see” he mouthed, responding to her pause with some exaggeration of his own.
The kid shook her head from side to side and John was going to say more but his vision shifted focus again and by the time things were back to normal she walked off around the corner.
The rain hammered down, just on John. Everywhere else was dry.
He had no idea if his sadness had brought the rain or the rain had brought his sadness, his memory didn’t seem to focus back more than a couple of weeks. These days the rain was always with him, a small cloud that hovered a few feet over his head hammering him with a down pour that seemed perpetual. He raised his eyes to the cloud and sighed out loud, it was still the only cloud in an otherwise blue sky.
John pocketed the flier and took a step to his left, the rain cloud shifted left with him. He took a step to the right and it drifted back. He walked slowly down the street, watched people dive out of the way to avoid him as he headed off home.
Monday 11pm - John reeled back and cursed as he took an electric shock off the light switch above his bed. He pulled on a rubber glove and switched it out. Long rays of soft moonlight poured in through his bedroom window, rain still hit him from the omnipresent cloud, just under his bedroom ceiling. His bed had a tarpaulin for a cover but tonight he didn’t bother to get under it as the darkness enveloped him he curled up under the cloud.
Tuesday 12noon, John picked up his food from a take away burger window, and as he sat on a downtown bench with rain rippling the surface of his coffee he pulled out the flier reading the numbers off the back out loud.
“Between 51.5 degrees and 55.5 north, and 5.5 degrees and 10.5 degrees west.”
Later he bought a map from a military surplus store; the kind that has a plastic coated surface and traced the co-ordinates.
The isolation hit John in starts and fit, he would go weeks without talking to anyone. When someone struck up conversation he was so grateful of the company that he would talk in excited bursts, that would usually scare off his potential companions. He got wise to this after a while.
Friday 10am it was raining. He loved the rain when it came from the wider heavens above, it allowed him to walk freely.
It was only in the general rain that he could get close enough to people in the street to initiate conversation. In Los Angeles it doesn’t rain, not for months and months and when it does it might just be for one day. After months of solitude he would be nervous of talking, he reasoned that without practice he might talk like a madman, and when you talk like a madman in downtown LA you guarantee an audience that consists largely of mad men.
But this day was different he had managed to strike up a conversation with a young woman sheltering in a doorway, it was all going well when the rain suddenly stopped. Johns cloud persisted and the girl made her excuses pretty soon.
He strolled a few blocks then stopped. He looked up for a second at the cloud and then set off running, the cloud drifted behind him, he ran for three blocks before he was out of breath and the rain cloud caught up.
Saturday 4pm - John brushed off the crazed young man with dreaded hair. Last month the crazed kid had talked to him in friendly tones, got him to accompany him to his car, he told him about a great view just over the wall, the dread head had climbed up on the car roof and asked him to join him.
“Up here man, you can see the whole of downtown just over this ridge” John climbed up on the roof of the car. There was no view; he had been taken for a ride, that was the last time he played the role of free car wash.
He made money though, it was tough getting to his job at first but after a while he sorted out a travel arrangement with a guy called Joe who had an open back pick up truck.
He worked on Thursdays and Wednesdays. He would arrive in a suburban neighbourhood, a place more affluent than downtown but not enough to have personal lawn sprinklers. This was his gig; he worked as many neighbourhoods as he could pacing grass lawns for ten dollars a time.
At first people would be unwilling to pay him, but as he explained that he was watering their lawn and that he was not prepared too do it for free, they would get a worried look about them and pay him the ten dollars. Sometimes they would give him the ten dollars as he arrived and he wouldn’t have to take more than a few strides about their lawns. They would say things like ”Please, just go” and didn’t seem to care about their lawns at all.
Soon he had regular customers, and after a while he earned enough to pay his rent and buy food, which was better than begging. He got the money in plastic ziplock bags which he would stash in his sodden pockets next to the crumpled flier and the military surplus map.
For the first week he expected to die from hypothermia, the thought terrified him and seldom left his mind. He thought of buying a wetsuit and wearing it under his clothes, but he couldn’t hope to earn that kind of money. After the first month he began to worry about it less and less. After the second month he thought about it once or twice and after the third month never gave it a second thought.
It was Billy that made him go to the co-ordinates, Billy would hang out in downtown alleys. John had struck up a few conversations with him in a recent rainy season, but John didn’t much like Billy, he was strange.
There were two strange things about Billy. The first was that he had bugs crawling all over him, at least that’s what he said, John never saw any evidence of this, but Billy was adamant. “Huge bugs the size of mice!” he would say. Another strange thing about Billy was that didn’t seem to mind the rain. John thought at first that Billy was after a free shower, to get rid of the bugs, but Billy never came that close to him.
Something worried John about Billy, he didn’t seem to notice the rain, and John didn’t seem to notice the bugs and something about this whole arrangement unsettled him.
He hitched a ride with Joe again. Joe wanted a lot more money than usual as the co-ordinates were way out past Vasquez in the middle of the dessert. John had to do a lot of suburban lawn walking to support the trip but eventually he had $100 cash in a wet ziplock, Joe took over half of it and didn’t even wait for him. As soon as John dismounted the tailgate of his truck Billy floored it and left him by the roadside.
John walked through the desert, leaving a wet trail that evaporated quickly in the hot sun. It took him three hours to find the co-ordinates; there in the desert was a small storm. There were others there, others like him, about six or seven people sitting at a point in the dessert all hammered by torrential rain, all with individual clouds of their own.
They greeted him as he approached, all of them happy to see him, and somehow he seemed to recognise some of them, there was a familiarity in their faces and it gladdened his heart. He saw all around there, that in this barren part of the world all kinds of flowers had sprung into being, small unusual plants, small desert flowers and beautiful flowering grass.
He sat in the blistering heat for hours and though he felt weak, for the first time in recent memory he felt the sadness begin to lift from him. Everyone was so nice to him. They told him that he shouldn’t worry about hypothermia and how they had all seen Billy’s bugs, they were huge “Like rats!” and as his melancholy lifted completely so did the rain clouds.
They lifted higher and higher and he wondered why when the rain was gone, was his vision still blurry?
But this didn’t worry him as his new friends explained it all. They told him not to worry about the weakness, it was to be expected after such a long period of sadness. Then they took him in their arms and told him the best thing for him right now was to lay down and rest.
So he lay back and as his breathing slowed in the blistering heat he realised that he couldn’t seem to work out when was now and how much was then, and that everything, even that very moment, seemed to have become the past.
And as everything became the past he looked up at the now darkening sky and stared as the stars came slowly closer and closer.
Powering through the Palmdale desert in a trail of dust, the sky is blue black and we are driving at 65 miles per hour. At the wheel is Karen O‘Brien producer and wife to Jo Willems the Director of Photography who is sitting in the back with 1st assistant director Martin Serene. My head is spinning a little and I backtrack just a single a week and I get to..
Friday 23rd February
Arriving in LA and there is the customary detainment at immigration. I am beginning to get to know the immigration guards on first name terms. It’s away into the little room with me and my bags for a good search. A trip to LA wouldn’t be the same without an uncomfortable entry.
An hour and a half later I clear customs, the weather is warm, the smog is choking and the sunset is golden. I am picked up and taken straight to Swingers diner where I meet with Pete Chambers already in town shooting a commercial also at the table Karen and Jo Willems and my usual LA producer Youree Hendley. I see location photos and talk through another video that is “bidding” with Youree.
11pm and I stagger into my hotel room and lay on my bed for hours of sleep that I can’t work out. In fact it feels like someone took those hours and spliced them out of my consciousness – blink – my eyes close its 11pm – blink – my eyes open its 6.15am and I have showered and I am running to the car downstairs waiting to take me to the first of many location recces.
I am praying that the pig nosed girl can act - she looks more like a boy than a girl sort of androgynous but of a pile of American actor kids she is the weirdest looking, most interesting. Her acting is hammy but there’s something there – the casting director asks her to pull a face and she obliges with a cross eyed gurn that gets her the job.
Monday 26th February
Casting notes 2 – Tiki Life symbol
8am somewhere close to Vine and Yukka - Hollywood
This is the second casting session, the first was done while I was flying from London, this one I get to attend. I love casting and always attend if I can. Good actors you notice straight away – in person and on tape, but sometimes the bad actors get through on tape – its the tiny things that give away the bad actors.
“Directing is making up for the mistakes you make in casting” I think it was William Goldman who said that.
I am seeing about 300 people for about 4 parts and some of these people must go to up to 10 casting sessions a day – most have a good nature and a sense of humour. Mark Jury our casting Director stands six and a half feet tall, short bleached blond hair roots showing baseball hat, ripped jeans, he has tattoos all over his arms and is bummed that everyone who sees his Tikki Life symbol tattoo asks if he’s an Einstrurzende Neubauten fan.
It looks very much like the EN symbol, EN must have adopted it, he pulls out a faux German accent that would make John Cleese proud, says “Zee jjjeermon industrial band JJYA??!!?”
The casting begins soon after and as he is a little pissed off about the tattoo he takes it out on the first poor hopeful – he barks out with a good-natured smile:
“OK listen up we’re casting for the part of Billy, Billy gots bugs all over him, so you’re itchin and scratchin and you’re mad as hell too, OK? Now, ACTION!”
Most people stink, but there are a few that can pull it off – every now and again we get someone who tries an off the wall tactic.
A large man of about twenty-five reads deadpan and almost without moving
“Hi my name is Billy I am covered in bugs and this bug does Shakespeare”
He pulls out an imaginary bug with one hand, then begins about two minutes of monologue from Richard the IIIrd.
Wednesday the 28th of February
I am standing in the grey blue darkness on Beverly Boulevard waiting to be picked up. Its 4.30 am or maybe by now its 5am I can’t quite remember, and it should be dead out here. No cars, no people, the streets should be empty. But no, its busier now than daytime, the only difference being that the humanity seems to be missing, there’s nothing but freaks out in the godless hours.
It’s a scary place; I feel like I’m tempting fate just being here and contemplate returning to my hotel room when Jo and Karen screech around the corner in their beat up red Fiat.
We drive to Palmdale – two hours on the road and I wish I could sleep - the freeways are packed. By 5.45 we are hitting the desert and the overhead blanket of inky blue black is cracking open at one end. By 6.30 we are cutting across flat fields and slamming into dust storms that look like they bridge gaps between other worlds.
The dust storms are a worry, wind isn’t something we have much defence against shooting in the desert, but as we get closer to our location the storms die off. The grey blue is now almost washed out into the soft brown hues of sand and rock littered dirt.
The roads out here are straight and every cross road is marked with dead flowers in wreaths and the weathered crosses of the dead.
Road accidents here seem to be common and often fatal. There’s no emergency response; no hospitals out here just an army of stray dogs that must wage war with the coyotes at night. Then there’s those recently checked out from methadone clinics, and in contrast, those with their own crystal meth labs, all of it side by side every few miles interspersed with thousand year old Joshua trees.
We arrive at the location just in time to see all hell break loose. Despite trying to keep this shoot low key we have a small village of motor homes and they are all parked in the wrong place…
David’s Gray is laying on the desert floor getting used to the camera and his first performance take is stiff and so I get down on my back in the dirt and I try to show him the looseness of movement we need. I explain that he is supposed to be relaxed, half dead with defocused eyes. David jokes that he should be able to do the half dead bit at this time in the morning. The sun is shining directly in his eyes and so we go for eyes closed throughout the second take. He picks it up quickly and we move on.
David is good at being himself and this is a relief. On a punishing schedule like this if an artist retreats into his character for safety, its better if that character is him and not some projected image. So far David is being himself wonderfully.
We have been shooting for an hour and a half, mainly shots of David Gray laying in the dirt singing when he gets a telephone call and disappears into his trailer. Outside we set up a wide lock off shot of a lush patch of fake vegetation we have dressed in the desert. We need to shoot various plates for the final video and safely locking down the camera alone is going to take ten minutes.
Its another hour and a half before the door of David’s trailer is unlocked and news comes straight to us. David’s father has just undergone cancer surgery, we knew this from David’s management – but now it seems that the cancer is back and as vicious as ever and David’s has just been informed that his father has not long to live.
Outside in the desert the wind is getting heavy blowing our equipment around. We stand fairly immobile waiting a little longer for news from management. Will David leave straight away, will he stay for today’s shooting? We are behind now, an hour and a half but I am optimistic we can pick up the pace, we may lose one set-up. When life steps in like this the film making takes a back seat.
Half an hour or so later we have made the decision to continue shooting with the actors we have with us, David is still in the trailer while we battle with the wind blowing our rain machine everywhere but where we want it.
After we wrap for lunch with our main actor I go to talk to David in his trailer – David is visibly, shell-shocked, his expression is dominated by a look of disbelief. I make it as clear as I know how that we can work around whatever he chooses to do next. Even if that is leave on the next plane. My suggestion at this point is to cut a scene and then reduce his involvement in the video down to a minimum. Cut some of his performance scenes and have him for the next hour or so then just a couple of hours the next day. If he wants to go I explain that we will still have a video. He calmly states that he wants to stay, then he says something I will later read in a newspaper interview. He says being half way round the world covered in yellow make up – being rained on, in the desert. What circumstances in which to learn of your father’s imminent death. Then he says he feels like life is playing a cruel joke on him. I leave him in his trailer and get back to shooting the actors with a cold chill down my spine. We get through everything and despite the setback lose only one set-up. When we come to shoot David’s performance part he is honest and full of tangible pain, and there is a moment when he sings the lyric “ain’t life so sweet” then pauses and just shakes with emotion.
In the end David has been taken to his hotel, I am crammed in the front seat of a back firing pick up truck, holding a tiny monitor. In the back no less than five people are crammed into a four foot square area along with an Arri 435 on baby legs a hand held two K light, a huge heated water tank and tiny hand held rain machine and an actor.
I kind of wish David could see us hanging onto to this pick-up, half of us in danger of falling off like Keystone Cops as we rush against the daylight to get the final shot. I imagine he would laugh and that this would be some relief as I cut the take and the actor who for the first time all day is having problems performing yelps because the water in the rain machine is scalding hot. I imagine he would laugh as someone runs frantically to get cold water and at how ridiculous we all look with our serious faces clinging to this tiny truck again chasing the last of the light as it dies in the sky.
Again not one of my best pieces of work, all these early videos suffered from a lack of time, bigger ideas than budgets would allow. But this one sticks in my mind. I was never much of a fan of David’s music, but this song seemed to stick with me.
To me the story of the circumstances under which we made the video seem so much more affecting than the video could ever be.
JUNE 2000 OPM "HEAVEN IS A HALF-PIPE" music video shoot diary
June 2000 OPM shoot day Vasquez Rocks
I have to test out the harness rig the arm of which stands a good thirty feet above the sandy rocks, the wires hanging down to a corset harness designed to suspend a human off the ground with the minimum of bulk and the maximum of pain.
We have to test the harness to make sure the camera is in the right place. We strap up Jamaal – a particularly useless and annoying PA, Jamaal, in his hideously expensive looking shirts, had spent all of the previous week tactfully avoiding work while presenting us with his “I’m here and ready for work” face.
Up goes Jamaal, high up in the air, swinging with his balls pressed up his arse by precisely the force of his own body weight.
Part of the test is to see how long before the pain of having your balls forced up your arse becomes unbearable - pretty soon Jamaal is stuttering “C’mon guys the pain is pretty bad now…”
“Pretty bad, but not unbearable?”
“C’mon guys its pretty bad”
“Hoist him a little higher and let’s change the lens..”
Later that evening
We are running against the clock and Producer Youree has signed a contract that means if we shoot past midnight he goes to jail„ I am genuinely puzzled as to why he did that, he must know that I would take pleasure in sending a producer to jail.
I am operating one Arri 435 with a thirty five mm lens - The commissioner, Sharon Robertson of Atlantic has been requesting a party atmosphere all day – now we have thirty or so of the bands friends who have turned up off their own backs. They are drunk, drugged up, fighting and seem to be genuinely having a party.
I hear a faint tapping sound and look down at a huge insect thrashing around on a camera box nearby, then look up at the giant overhead Musco light.
Here in the Vasquez desert there are tons of insect lives, most of that have come alive at midnight to launch a suicide attack on our bank of lights. There must be a million insects in the sky, making the night dense with front-lit white and zigzagging fractal patterns. The sight is staggering.
The first shot in this set-up is the various members of the band floating down to earth in front of a burnt out car wreck and a mob of people after drifting through the rest of the video like lost souls in the sky.
The track comes on over the playback speakers, I turn over the camera and in front of the lens all hell breaks loose. People punching each other, breaking the car headlights with their skateboards – smashing the windows, beating its roof in with their trucks – there is a hilariously high violence quota.
We cut the shot and I’m laughing my head off – Sharon is paralysed, her face a mask of abject horror, she says she is uncomfortable with the level of violence. I explain how the bashing of skateboards by the trucks on a hard surface is a traditional skate sign of appreciation. She is having none of it.
We send in Anthony Dimino, esteemed 1st assistant director known as Pete Clemenza for his Italian American descent and his ability to arrange what ever is needed. Clemenza has quite word and we continue shooting.
The playback comes on and the action resumes, with exactly the same violence quota as the last take, everyone is giving the camera the finger, the band feed off the energy of the crowd. They leap around all over the place. A kid breaks a skateboard over his head, but we don’t catch it on camera . Then the same kid leaps onto the rusty gnarled scrap car and cuts face, not badly but there seems to be a lot of blood, I wonder if he signed a waiver. The shoot has turned into what the esteemed Clemenza would refer to as a ‘Pigfuck’.
I hate this guerrilla style shooting, but I battle through it, working against the clock picking the camera up, throwing it down, rolling, picking it up throwing it down…. We cut the last shot and Clemenza, comes over to me and asks if he can call a wrap – I look at him wearily and mouth the words “put me out of my misery”.
Not one of my favourite videos. I don’t think the band liked it much either, they were more slapstick fellows, and I was trying to create multi meaning narrative, and the label just wanted a party video.
The skating was pretty lame because we couldn’t afford pro skaters and we only had one day to shoot, although if you look out you will see Wee Man doing a rail slide in one party shot.
All that said it was fun to shoot, we used Pan anamorphic lenses, Jo Willems shot it beautifully, Frank Voiturer graded it wonderfully and the effects done largely by Sean Broughton at Smoke and Mirrors in London turned out amazing.
We had a whole slew of shots that where flickering due to a faulty ballast on two of the flicker free lights. Again all this footage, was saved by the genius of Sean Broughton who devised an algorithm to regrade the luminance of sections of the shot in a flicker that cancelled out the problem.
The song was a big hit all over the world and so this was probably one of my most played videos on MTV. Life is full of savage ironies.
Sadly this is one of a few videos that will leave a note of sadness within me as it was produced by the wonderful and sadly missed Barney Jeffrey who passed away on March 10th 2008.