Sunday, November 21, 2010

Beyond Rangoon: Part I

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi by Myanmar's military government last weekend brought back some memories for me, thanks to my taking part in the John Boorman film Beyond Rangoon, both as an extra and working with wardrobe for a couple of crucial scenes. The film, an official selection at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, had a major impact in Aung San Suu Kyi release back in 1995, after her first six years of house arrest.

Only weeks into the film’s European run, the Burmese military junta freed the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (who is depicted in the film). In her first interview with the BBC, she thanked the filmmakers for helping raise world attention on the Massacres of 1988 by her country's military rulers.

Having had experience as an extra in the movie Indochine, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, I was asked by Sylvester of Movie Location Services to audition for a small part in film Beyond Rangoon. Like the French film Indochine, parts of Beyond Rangoon were to be shot in Penang, where I’m based as a writer. For Indochine, Penang was French Indochine (Vietnam); while in Beyond Rangoon, Penang would become Burma.

Beyond Rangoon is a Hollywood production – with a British twist. Both the director, John Boorman of Deliverance, Excalibur and Hope and Glory fame, and his assistant director, Mark Egerton, are British.

The film is about an American doctor named Laura (portrayed by Patricia Arquette of True Romance and later Stigmata) who tries to overcome the senseless murder of her husband and four-year-old son by traveling to Asia with her sister Andy (Francis McDormand, who won an Oscar for Fargo). While in Mandalay, Laura witnessed a political rally led by Aung San Suu Kyi (who later won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 while under house arrest). But then things go wrong, and there’s a military crackdown. Unable to leave Burma because of a lost passport, Laura tries to flee the country with the help of a middle-aged Buddhist priest whose life is also in danger.

Leading Hollywood producer and financier Barry Spikings, with over 100 films to his credit, including the Oscar-winning Deer Hunter, Elephant Man and When Harry Met Sally, came across the story by Bill Rubenstein, liked it and sent it to John Boorman. Right away, Boorman was interested. Like a lot of talented directors, Boorman had moved to Hollywood because of a lack of financial backing in the British film industry. He had also just turned down a multi-picture deal with one of the studios because he didn’t like any of the scripts.

Beyond Rangoon was different. It involved an unusual friendship between an older Asian man and a younger American woman, both from very different cultures, and it also documented history – the 1988 democracy uprising in Burma plus it examined the nobility of the human spirit when caught in an extreme situation like in Deliverance, Boorman’s signature film.

Deliverance, by the way, made a star of Burt Reynolds who went on to lead the box office for six straight years. No doubt Patricia Arquette was hoping for a repeat performance. All the right ingredients were there: a good script; a US$25 million budget; Barry Spiking’ commitment, and John Boorman’s dedication, plus a top-notch director of photography in John Seales, an Australian who had been nominated for Oscars in cinematography for Rain Man and Witness.

The part that I was asked to audition for was that of an Australian doctor. I met with Barbara and Mary Gail, in charge of casting, and was given a few lines to read. After rehearsing them a couple of times in the hallway, I read them as convincingly as I could:

“Are you a doctor?”

“I’d like to help,” Mary Gail replied, reading Laura’s lines.

“Thank God. We can certainly put you to good use. Where the hell did you come from anyway?”

Several of my friends also read the lines. A few of us were later called back to be video-taped for John Boorman’s final approval.

In the end, in order to shorten the film, the lines were cut.

Then Sylvester called me back a couple of months later, in early January 1994. He said John Boorman was in town and wanted to meet the extras. Instead, we got to meet Walter, the acting coach.

The following week, I was told I would be in the American Embassy scene to be shot in March and that I needed to meet Ernie to arrange my wardrobe. Ernie suggested something smart and casual and a little touristy, so I brought two sets of clothes. The Wardrobe house was stuffed with racks and racks of clothes. The front door was wide open so I wandered inside.

Ernie, a Hungarian transplanted to California, suddenly appeared, coming up the steps from the basement.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said, referring to both the house and his hands, which were stained red. “I’m in the middle of dying longyis (Burmese sarongs). I need to make them different colors so they all don’t look alike.” He shrugged his muscular shoulders, suggesting that someone had to do it; he just wished it was someone else.

I sympathized with him and showed him my clothes. “Try them on and we’ll see how you look.” He took a Polaroid of me in both outfits. “Boorman likes to see the clothes. He’s very detail-oriented – wants to make all the final decisions.”

I glanced at the other pictures, recognizing several friends, including Joanne.

“Ah,” Ernie said, nodding knowingly. “She’ll be your wife.”

“Ah,” I replied, hoping my real wife didn’t mind, nor Joanne’s husband, who was a lot bigger than me.

Another change of plans.

It seemed Joanne and I were not “blond” enough for the American Embassy scene. Instead we would be hotel guests. I was told to be at the set at 6:30 am. When I arrived at 6:15 am, I was promptly told the time had been changed to 8:15.

“Sorry,” a young Malay man said, “I tried to call you.”

The hotel that we would be guests of was the Cathay Hotel, which had been renamed the Kipling Hotel for the film, in honor of the writer Rudyard Kipling.

Since I had written several articles on Indochine, I was asked not to write any articles about Beyond Rangoon until after the filming was completed. I had to sign a document to make it official. The reason for the news blackout was because of the sensitive nature of the film and the attempt to protect the families of any Burmese actor or consultant still living in Burma. So in this article, I have left out every Burmese name except for Aung San Suu Kyi, who at the time was in prison. (Twenty years after the uprising, she is still being kept under house arrest.)

Deborah, who was in charge of Wardrobe, took one look at my geometrical Balinese shirt and said, “I have just the thing for you,” and she asked me to follow her to the Wardrobe container. She held up a pair of plaid shorts.

“You got to be kidding,” I said. “That's tacky!”

She nodded with a smile. “That's the look, I'm afraid,” and asked me to put them on. My shoes and socks were light brown, my legs pale. Not a pretty sight. “People will notice you,” she said, which didn't make me feel any better.

Joanne’s flowery outfit naturally clashed with mine, while another extra, Joelle, who has red hair, was asked to wear a pink dress.

“Where's the Lady in Pink?” Boorman kept asking. “Have the Lady in Pink stand over there.”

Joanne and I were to stand inside the entrance where Walter instructed me to point to an intricate wrought iron window and explain its cultural significance to Joanne (which I ad-libbed) as Patricia Arquette’s tour group entered the hotel. The tour group – a mixture of American, French and Swiss middle-aged ladies – were all hot and tired, and the poor receptionist, played by Malaysian actress Tiara Jacquelina, took the brunt of their complaints.

Spalding Gray, who was in The Killing Fields (and wrote a monologue about his expereinces in the film, Swimming to Cambodia, later committed suicide), was the tour leader, Watt. He turned to Laura, whom he had been coming on to, and said, “I’m having this most overwhelming urge to murder whiny middle aged women.” To which Laura replied, “Where would you be without them?” and walked away.

At this juncture, Boorman decided Joanne and I should approach the front desk and ask directions to one of the main tourist sites. He told James, the props man, to find us a map, which we would peruse for several moments before approaching the front desk. As soon as we arrived, Spalding Gray would look directly into the camera and say, “The bar?”

Since the Cathay Hotel had no bar, a real bar had to be created out of one of the rooms. They also turned the spacious hallway upstairs into an old-fashioned bedroom, complete with an antique bath.

Dressed casually in a white t-shirt and khaki shorts, Boorman constantly surveyed the set through a pair of friendly eyes. He made eye contact with everyone, including the extras, and rarely did he overlook a detail. For example, just as the tour group arrived, another hotel guest, upset with the shoddy service, signaled to the porter to collect his two suitcases and follow him out of the hotel. After the first take, Boorman walked over to the two suitcases and picked them up. Upon realizing they were empty – as we had all assumed – he told James to put some sandbags inside. He didn’t want the suitcases to appear heavy; he wanted them to be heavy so the porter would have to struggle as he lugged them across the lobby – something he had to do half a dozen times. Luckily for him, someone in the crew always carried them back.

In between takes, technicians and handymen would rush back and forth to make adjustments here and there, whether to correct the lighting, or to block something unsightly out of the way. Due to the physical constraints of the hotel lobby, no matter where we stood, we were in their way. As soon as Boorman was ready for the next take, all movement and sound had to cease – something some of the local workers helping outside didn’t seem to understand. Each time, Emma, one of the assistant directors, would have to go outside and tell the workers, particularly two Indian men carrying wood back and forth, “Not a sound!” Thinking they were being clever, they removed their shoes and kept on going. Emma caught them. “Don’t walk! Don’t move! Don’t carry!”

Before entering the hotel, the tour group had arrived in a tiny, filthy mini-bus – too small, in fact, to carry the entire group. So they faked it. Those who couldn’t squeeze in stayed off camera until the camera moved away from the mini-bus. Meanwhile, 600 extras were being prepared for a procession that the mini-bus would have to weave around before it arrived at the hotel. Shooting scenes out of sequence, which I learned firsthand in Indochine, was common in filming.

Also common was that no matter how much time, effort, and expense had been put into shooting a scene, there was always that element of unpredictability – the weather. After 600 extras had spent the entire day getting dressed, made-up, and had rehearsed what they had to do, it began to rain. So all 600 had to return the next day and start all over again.

My role for the day was finished. Deborah, however, asked me and some of the extras to help out in Wardrobe during the upcoming American Embassy scene where there would be a thousand extras, and another scene with two thousand extras, which I gladly agreed to.

                   -from Tropical Affairs,Episodes from an Expat's Life in Malaysia
                                                               Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer

*Link to Part II 

**Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.



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