NOTES FROM MEXICO CITY -- WEEK FIVE (Oct/Nov 1999)
There is nothing quite like the instant where thousands of screaming bullfighting fans go from yelling OLE in unison, to a compete hushed silence --as a young Matador is viciously gored and nearly trampled to death by a frenzied bull.
Actually the only thing that's equally frightening and memorable is finding out that your gaffer (the person in charge of the lightening crew) is a complete alcoholic.
Both those things, and more, happened to your faithful note-taker this past week. Love it or hate it, Mexico City is more than just an amazing place, it's a state of mind. And my pathetic little mind is on overdrive.
As we head into the final half week of prep (we start shooting this Thursday) things have gone from hectic to insane in the drop of a sombrero. At the bullfights, which I attended with some of our faithful crew this past Sunday, the audience throws their sombreros into the bull ring if they are either very happy or very pissed. I was very pissed, to say the least, that cameras were not rolling when we witnessed what several bullfighting veterans in our group called the bloodiest day at the fights in memory.
Things started sanely enough, with a gigantic steak lunch, hosted by the Zavalla Brothers. They might as well have brought the whole cow to the table--tail and all-- because this meal was gigantic. There's nothing quite like the sight of thirteen grown adults viciously attacking a mound of extra rare steak as crowds of blood-thirsty bull fighting fans streak by the open windows of the restaurant. Alexandra, easily the coolest woman this side of the Frida Kahlo, and our supervising producer here in Mexico, is a bullfight fanatic, and she quickly inhaled her barely cooked cow and urged us to hurry up. See, once a fight has started it can last up to twenty minutes and no one is allowed in the stadium while it's going on. Alexandra did not want to be stuck outside for one bloody moment. So seriously do the Mexican's take their bullfighting that once the matador enters the ring, you can hear a pin drop. Except, of course, for a loud chorus of OLE's during the course of the fight. Near the end, the matador asks for a new sword so he can finish the poor bull off. But the thing is, if he doesn't kill the bull is one perfect stab, the audience loses complete interest. No matter how good the matador was, if the kill isn't perfect it's a total washout. Suddenly the doors open and people flood in, vendors start hawking Pepsi while wearing Coca-Cola shirts, people start talking and arguing. It's the most amazing thing to behold. It goes from complete silence to complete chaos in seconds. People don't even bother to watch as the humiliated matador tries to kill the bull with a second or third stab.
One matador was so incompetent that he stabbed the bull about ten times. As you all know, I'm not the most squeamish man in the free world, but God, that was a hell of a lot of blood. They had to rake the sand for ten minutes just the clean it up.
As Alexandra escorted us to our excellent (and of course gratis, courtesy of Zavalla Bros.) seats, we were lucky or unlucky enough to witness the most brutal thing I've ever seen. Now, I'm not doing this story justice without telling you that it took two weeks of begging Sarah, our cinematographer, to join us at the Bull fights. She doesn't much like blood. She doesn't much like violence to animals. I basically had to lie to her and tell her that the Bull fights were some sort of "cultural experience" or some crap like that, for her to join us. Little did I know that literally moments after we were seated a man was having a bull's horn rammed right through his arm. Like a Latin American stage version of Fox's "When Animal's Attack" we were not twenty feet away from pure bedlam. Picadors, trainers, other matadors jumped in the ring as the bull stomped on the poor fellow, bloodying him up like the rare steak I just ate.
For a moment the crowd was hushed. The matador did not move. His girlfriend, who he dedicated the fight, stood frozen, her hands covering her overly made up face. Suddenly -- The matador leaped to his feet, pumped out his chest (as they are wont to do) and walked out into the middle of the ring. Dirtied, bloodied, hurt, but not humiliated. The crowd roared. I lit another Cuban cigar. Beer flowed. Sarah breathed. The fight continued.
About once a year a bull is so tough and wily that the matador cannot kill it. In that instance the judges decide to let the bull live. This is such a rare thing that not one of the local Mexicans we were with had ever witnessed it. Well, the bull that gored the matador, refused to die. Like some sort of four-legged Milton Berle, the thing just would not give in. Finally the judge, a wiry old man in a large white hat, decided that this bull, this man-hating bull, should be spared -- And I thought the applause for the gored matador was huge. People went nuts. Sarah, who looked like she wished she majored in accounting at college instead of cinematography so she wouldn't have found herself in a little country I call Mexico on this rather cold day, suddenly recovered the color in her face. In fact I swear I saw tears. People threw sombreros. Men danced in the aisles. It was like Christmas in October.
Of course the bull was so frightened, hurt, scare and freaked out that it did not understand that it wasn't going to become a carcass. It refused to leave the ring. For ten minutes, a large group of men, trained for decades in the art of bulls and bull fighting, taught by their fathers and their father's fathers, could not for the life of them coax that stubborn bull out of the ring. Finally, and I kid you not, the men opened the gates and let out four animals that can be best described as rejects from "The Island of Dr Moreau". These hybrid animals that make the pushme-pullme look like a collie, somehow were able to get the bull to join their herd, and within moments these freaky animals and their bloodied bull friend left the stadium. Amazing. It took another three hours of frenzied bull fighting before our group of freaky animals left the stadium.
But, as I said at the head of these notes, gored matadors was not the scariest thing I witnessed this passed week. After two days of tech scouting with the entire crew, visiting every location (including the church, which we found!) Jon, Sarah and I were feeling pretty damned great about our locations and our crew. Our gaffer Donald, an expatriate from England who has lived in Mexico for thirty years, had a bit of a body odor problem, but certainly not enough to cause us worry. However, the day after the tech scout, Donald showed up at our office, uninvited, to check out the low-boy which is used to shoot cars when they are towed. Donald did not seem extraordinarily strange that day. Oh sure, he stank from body odor from here to Baja, and sure he was wearing the same clothes he was wearing the day before. But none of that was as weird as his belligerent rantings about how the camera car and low boy were not acceptable because they didn't have a generator. Now excuse all the tech talk, but the camera car and low boy did have a generator. It was the size of one of those freaky pushme-pullme animals we had just seen. And it was right there. Right in front of him.
Donald just refused to see it. Now I'm as slow as the next director, but even I thought that was a little freaky. I didn't say anything because Sarah picked Donald (she works with the gaffer the most) and after the bullfighting fiasco I wasn't about to get anywhere near this woman with a complaint. No how. No way. So I stayed quiet, even though I was wondering why Donald's hand was shaking as he lit his cigarette. Just then, Sarah, as ashen as she was when she saw the matador's arm squirt blood into the air, came over to me and said in a very serious whisper, "Richard. Our gaffer's drunk."
It was two in the afternoon.
Not even two, and suddenly it became absolutely clear. The stinking body odor. The expatriate fifty year old weirdo vibe. The belligerent stupidity. Our gaffer was drunk. Crazy drunk. Now, there’s nothing funny about alcoholism, and this was certainly not a funny moment. Not at all. My heart was racing. I liked the guy, after all. But we had to take action, and fast. Frederic our Assistant Director, Jesus our line producer, and Jon Stern all took turns smelling his breath and talking to him. Unfortunately there was no mistaking it. How utterly depressing...
So we fired our third crew member in four weeks.
Thank God we weren't shooting already when we found this problem out. Unlike wardrobe where the worst thing a drunk could do is mix pink with brown, a gaffer is in charge of heavy lights and thousands of volts of electricity. Not the job you want Foster Brooks running. We hired a man, Jesus (about the fifth Jesus on this film), who speaks not a word of English and worked for 19 months on "Titanic". The guy probably made more money on that gig than our entire budget. He's supposed to be fantastic and we're all thrilled.
Well, the next time you hear from me, dear friends, shooting will have already started. For a while it seemed like that was as likely as getting through a shoot in Mexico without your gaffer showing up stinking drunk at two in the afternoon, but amazingly here we are.
We have a leading lady
We have an amazing church
We now have a gaffer who believes there is a time and a place for everything.
My stomach still is in working order
I saw a man gored.
Victor Zavalla got us every cantina location for free because he traded the owners for some beer (which he got for free from product placement).
I've been to Acapulco and was not killed by rebels and did not go to Planet Hollywood.
I saw the horn of a bull go in one side of a man and come out the other.
Sarah's still speaking to me.
I've been to places that no American filmmaker has ever been to and gotten permission to shoot there.
I've fired three crew members and met others who I will never forget and always love.
I've been dancing at five in the morning to great Cuban music.
I hired a relatively unknown Mexican actor to play the second lead in the film, and know, in my ever expanding gut, that this guy is going to be incredible.
I have two Mexican Academy Award winning actors in minor parts.
I found out that, on average, only thirteen films are eligible for a Mexican Academy awards.
I still haven't cast the 2nd American lead.
I had more cohibas than Castro, more cheese than Wayne Newton and will forever remember this time as one of the most amazing of my life.
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