Thursday, November 25, 2010

Beyond Rangoon: Part II

When I arrived at the jetty to join Beyond Rangoon Wardrobe at 5:30 am, it was still dark and hard to see.  Ernie was busy directing people as they unloaded from a truck the two thousand longyis that he had dyed.  He had been up most of the night trying to repair the axle on the truck so he could make the delivery on time.  Also present was Ernie’s wife, Kathleen, who always wore a pair of scissors around her neck so she wouldn’t lose them.  They had been working together for the past sixteen years and had been married for ten of those years.  Kathleen directed me and Rikki, one of the tour group extras, to help two seamstresses make bandanas.  She told us to tear up several basketfuls of materials, fold them into a triangle, tear again, and then pass them on.

As soon as the extras – mostly students rounded up from every available school in the Penang area – began arriving by the busloads, they were sent to one end of a shipping container filled with clothes racks.  By the time they had exited the other end, they had a shirt, longyi, bandana, scarf, and sandals.  They were also given a plastic bag to store their clothes and vouchers in.  They would need their voucher at the end of the day to get paid.  All meals, including breakfast, were provided, plus beverages, throughout the day.

Handling all the logistics was the Kuala Lumpur based Movie Location Services.  They scouted the locations, auditioned the local actors and extras, arranged for permits, provided transportation and food, and even constructed the sets, including a nearby Buddhist temple, complete with an authentic-looking 33.5 meter pagoda.  Chandran Rutnam, the company chairman, who was responsible for bringing 50/50, Indochine, and Gateway to China to Penang also brought Barry Spikings to Malaysia and had persuaded him to shoot Beyond Rangoon here.  Fortunately Spikings was impressed not only with the all-year round sunny weather that was conducive to film-making but also Malaysia’s multi-racial, multi-cultural environment, which made it possible to make a shot appear to have been filmed in a least half a dozen different countries, thus saving on production costs.

After finishing the bandanas, I helped with the 50 policemen and 50 soldiers.  First I collected their vouchers.  If they failed to return their uniforms intact, no voucher was given, thus no pay.  Although all of them had been pre-fitted and their respective clothes tagged with their numbers, problems cropped up.  One policeman didn’t have a hat, and three others, no pants.  Two seamstresses quickly got to work.  Then a soldier lost his shoes.  He had set them down and, apparently, the shoes walked away.

When everyone was dressed, they were assembled into their respective groups for inspection.  Those who were missing an article of clothing or had their clothes tucked in or wrapped inappropriately were put right.  While Rikki helped the women get dressed, I assisted the men.  Then I went around cutting the tail off their headscarves.  As soon as a group was ready, they were herded back onto the bus and sent to the set.  Then the next group was brought in.

Once we finished at the jetty, I was transported to the set, sprawled out over several streets near the Esplanade, where I joined two others named Tomcat and Libby as part of the “aging crew”.  Our task was to make sure all the freshly washed clothes were badly soiled, so the students would look like they had been wearing them for days on end.  Mineral oil was applied to the clothes to create sweat stains; dirt powder of different shades were used to create smudge; and colored wax was rubbed into the elbows and collars to add some filth.

Later Tomcat, who sported a long ponytail, needed to do some serious ageing on the lead Burmese actor’s vest, including a few rips and a bullet hole.  He couldn’t find his special rat-tail file that he needed for the job, so he sent me to a van on the other side of the set, a good distance away, to go find it.  When I returned from the van empty-handed, Kathleen assured him once again that it had been left back at the Wardrobe house.  Tomcat rolled his eyes and shook his head, then proceeded to gripe about the missing rat-tail file for the rest of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Libby was also upset and was complaining a lot.  When Deborah drifted by to see how things were going, Libby stalked off.  Everyone was reaching the ends of their rope.  This was only natural after working long hours, for weeks on end, and often under stressful conditions.

Then there was the politics.  Ernie felt he should have had Deborah’s job as Head of Wardrobe because he had more years of experience.  Deborah, however, was more familiar with Asian culture as she had lived in Penang several years ago and was now based in southern Thailand where she works as an archaeologist.  Wardrobe was her means to finance her projects.  Despite their differences, however, she and the others got the job done professionally.

There were plenty of light moments, too, when they played tricks on one another, or sat around and swapped anecdotes from past movies.  Ernie talked about the time Gene Hackman had taught Catherine Deneuve, the legendary French actress, how to swear during the filming of March or Die.  “She was going around telling everyone to ‘f— off’ without even knowing what it meant,” Ernie said.  “It was hilarious, but they all thought I had taught her!”

Since there was no American Embassy in Penang, they borrowed the stately Municipal Council building.  Besides adding an American flag, they built a wall made of Styrofoam and covered it with plaster and coats of paint, including streaks of black and gray to age it, so that it would blend in naturally with the environment.

Several cars had been overturned and set on fire.  Close-ups shots were taken of students running, ducking here and there to avoid bullets, so they did not end up like their dead comrades.  Later in the filming, there would be a ‘blood’ day when all of the people would get shot and killed.  When shot, the actor or an extra would release blood via a hand-controlled mechanism.  After each take, new clothes had to be brought in and more blood would be spilled.  A messy day for Wardrobe people, something they were not looking forward to, but the deaths and wounds had to be realistic.

Realism was important to John Boorman.  The moment the audience stops believing in the realism of the film, it becomes a farce, and they tend to reject it.  Above all, Boorman liked to engage the viewer’s intellect:  You have to have them think.  ‘Would I have reacted or behaved like that if caught in that situation?’

For the American Embassy scene, Boorman and his crew were set up just inside the gate where all one thousand extras would soon be charging.  His orders were given via walkie-talkie and relayed to a Malay translator standing on top of a plat­form who would announce them in Malay over a megaphone.  Each take took a long time to set up, and the wait for many of the extras seemed even longer since they had been there since early that morning and it was already pushing evening.  Some grew restless.  Just prior to one take, a young Malay woman suddenly shouted and ran out crying, bringing everything to a halt.  It seems a boy standing behind her had been pinching her behind nonstop.  The boy was promptly thrown off the set.

The chief advantage of being an extra or helping out behind the scenes was not only getting a firsthand view of how movies were made, but also seeing the stars up close as they performed.  Standing only a few yards away from Patricia Arquette, I could clearly sense the tension building up inside her.  Before each take, she would hop up and down and take deep breaths, psyching herself up, for she knew that Beyond Rangoon could be the perfect vehicle to make her a major star.  There was plenty of action and suspense, and it involved some serious acting, like when she had to fight off and kill a soldier bent on raping her.

For Patricia Arquette, Beyond Rangoon, was a change of pace.  In True Romance, where she starred opposite Christian Slater, she portrayed a call girl.  She also read for the part of another call girl (before Julia Roberts was chosen) in the original version of Pretty Woman.  Commenting on Beyond Rangoon, she said, “Since Laura and the priest were not romantically involved, it delved more into the human and spiritual side of a relationship.  This older, wiser man, from a totally different background was able to help Laura confront her fears and to look beyond them to become a better person.”

Acting is not new to the Arquette name.  Her father Lewis Arquette was an actor, so was her grandfather. Then there’s her sister Rosanna, who hit the big time first when she starred opposite Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.  Toto’s Grammy award-winning song Rosanna, incidentally, was dedicated to her.  Patricia also has three other siblings who act: Richmond, Alexi and David.  And now a new generation is getting into the family act: Patricia’s five-year-old son.  She had brought him along to be close to him; however, when the casting crew failed to find a suitable boy to portray her son in the film, her real son got the nod.

Nepotism is not new in the movie industry.  In fact, John Boorman’s son, Christopher, would portray the Belgian photographer in the American Embassy scene.  He was first used by Boorman in The Emerald Forest as the American boy who got lost in the Papua New Guinean jungle.  In between scenes in Beyond Rangoon, he helped out on the set wherever needed and was kept busy.

Another Boorman offspring on the set was his one-year-old daughter.  She endured the chaos with complete bliss.  No doubt, a future star in the making.  A highlight for me was being able to stand close to Boorman and the cameramen as a thousand extras stormed the American Embassy.  They came right at us.  It was an awesome feeling.  And to have it repeated take after take.  Where else in life can you restage a great moment over and over again until you get it just right?

As it turned out, most of the people helping out behind the scenes were people like me who just happened to be in Penang and were either interested in how movies were made or were simply available.  Many were friends of those already involved, like the girlfriend of the second cameraman who was always hanging around the set and was soon put to work.  Or the Australian who came to Penang to see his friend and because of his sheer size was hired on the spot as a grip.

Movies are like magnets.  They attract all kinds of people.  Payment for many of us was secondary.  Some would do it for free just for the once-in-a-lifetime experience and the glamour associated with being involved in a film, especially a successful one.  Then there were the out-of-work actors who needed a steady income as they bided their time to get discovered, so they took on work as extras or small speaking parts.

As for myself, once the shooting was wrapped up for the day, I had to rush back to the jetty and help everyone undress.  In exchange for the policemen and soldier’s uniforms, they got back their vouchers.  So far so good.  For the others who were coming back tomorrow, we had to pin their voucher number to their clothes and hang them on the clothes racks in numerical order so they could easily be found the next day.

There were some complaints, too.  One boy had his new Reeboks stolen and a young woman lost all her clothes.

It was one in the morning when I finally left, only a few hours from working around the clock.  The day we had 2,000 extras, I arrived home at 5a.m., and would gladly do it all again.

When I first got involved, I often felt I was in the way, but after working behind the scenes a few days, I just did what I thought needed doing and found myself moving about the set with a sense of purpose – whether it was chasing down Tomcat’s missing rat-tail file, cutting off tails of headscarves, or coming to the aid of several people trying to find the key to a locked portable toilet that hundreds of extras needed to use.  I coolly picked up two pipes and broke open the lock, solving the problem within seconds.

“Nice move,” one of them said, before rushing inside.

It was all in a day’s work.  As Churchill once said, “If there’s no wind, row!”  You do what you have to do to get the job done and overcome all obstacles.  That’s basically what everyone does in the film industry.  That’s how films get made, including Beyond Rangoon.  And because this particular film got made, Aung San Suu Kyi finally got released.  That was back in 1995, and now she’s released again.  But for how long…
 -from Tropical Affairs:Episodes from an Expat's Life in Malaysia
                                                          Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer
* Link to Part I 

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

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