Shoot diary for David Gray “This Year’s Love
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.
Saturday 24th February
Casting notes – Pig Nosed girl – from casting VHS tape.
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.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN PROMO MAGAZINE MARCH 2001
Written Feb-March 2nd / 2001 revised March 21st 2001 © David Slade
To see the video go here:
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.