The Good Shepherd
. Reflecting the chapel's stained-glass
window. Upside down in the infinite mahogany
waves of the expensive coffin
. That's what I was looking for, though I simplified it some for Jimmy the prop man:
"…a Casket, mon. Wood. Shiny and cheap. It works tomorrow."
I was directing a movie too far from home in the island paradise of Jamaica. Things were not going well. We had too much to do and not enough time or money to do it. It was your typical low-budget independent feature film and I was having a ball. But I'd never been to Jamaica before. I was not prepared for all the help I was going to get.
Jamaica is the Caribbean island from which those industrious slave-trading bastards operated in the shameful early years of our nation. Hundreds of thousands--maybe millions--of kidnapped Africans found themselves sold from the very auction block across which I was staging a chase scene. From the day we made our first location scout, driving on the wrong side of the road out of Montego Bay, I was fascinated by the tortured history of the place. James Bond's turf. The home of Ian Fleming. God's monument to Bob Marley.
Not that I really had the luxury to consider history. A director works sixteen hours a day, every day, all the way through to the end of the movie. By the time we'd shot our way down to Toby's funeral scene I was wasted. Thank God for the Jamaicans.
I've never known a better crew; industrious, always willing to help; happy--to tell you the truth--just to have a job. No matter how bad things got in the course of a shooting day, the Jamaicans pulled through. I developed a mantra, which drove the American money men mad: when faced with a crisis, whenever things threatened to get totally out of hand, I would a: take the blame (that drives bean counters to distraction; He took the blame?!) and b: deliver my mantra--The Island Will Provide. It made them crazy, but it kept me sane, cause it worked.
I'd given it some serious thought and come to the conclusion that it must have had something to do with Jamaican history. Think about it. A million lifetimes of servitude. If you got off the island, you got to be a slave on some plantation in South Carolina. If, somehow, you were lucky enough to stay there in paradise, at the service of some Brit governor or whatever, well, you'd still be working for the man.
Shuffle through a bunch of generations and you come up with a person who knows how to anticipate needs. Which is what Jamaicans do for tourists, naturally, without a selfish bone in their body.
When a New Yorker gets off the cruise boat in Ocho Rios and is immediately swarmed by Jamaicans, he gets scared. Oh! I'm White, they're Black. Oh my God, they must be after my money. But that's not what it's about. These folks just want to make your life easier, mon. That's what they do. It's historical. It's natural. It's their way:
Relax, mon. You're on Vacation. It's Jamaica!
The Island Will Provide.
If you can get past your bullshit in Jamaica, you can have a great time for very little money. Unfortunately, making a movie anywhere assumes nothing but bullshit, and no matter how hard my Jamaican friends tried, they really couldn't make my life all that much easier.
Take the aforementioned mahogany coffin. There was only one place on the island I could get a mahogany coffin, and they didn't wanna give it to me because they knew the crew would damage it. True. Movie crews break stuff. It's their karma.
I went to scout coffins at an undertaker's in a little town not far from where Bob Marley was born. We were shooting the funeral in the church across the street, and it would be really convenient if I got my coffin there, locally as it were. The coffin folks were very friendly. Business had been a little slow and they were happy to guide me around the showroom.
This is why I like show business. Where else could you go shopping for coffins without a whole lot of emotional attachment? I saw fibreboard coffins. Corduroy coffins. Chenille coffins with big balls hanging off them, like rear-view mirrors on a low-rider. I saw plain pinewood coffins, brushed aluminum coffins, robin's egg-blue-painted coffins and coffins made of cardboard, for those really quick funerals drug dealers can be so fond of.
At last, dramatically in the corner, reposing like the beautiful undiscovered work of art it was, sat my coffin. I mean the polished mahogany coffin I wanted to put my leading man's best friend in. For the movie.
You know, mon. Hollywood.
No way, I was told. Too expensive. Suppose it were damaged, mon? It would cost a fortune.
Camera was ready, so I hurried back to the set, exiting through the back room at the Jamaican Undertaker's. Interesting. There was a concrete floor, right off the viewing room. Very moist, close, in there. Not much question about the business end of a Jamaican funeral parlor. Generations of sadnesses through that room…
I forgot about my coffin while we got the shot.
We made another company move, late in the day, up to the Ferngully rain forest for a moderately complicated scene involving a car crash and a fire. We were in a tourist area. We were losing the light. I'm worried about tomorrow, but right now I've got gasoline and fire and too many tourists on my mind.
The Jamaican marketeers saw us coming; one more chance for a sale before it got dark. They nibbled at the fringes of the crew. Good prices on Teeshirts. Bongs. Ganja. With impeccable accuracy the cleverest of them worked his way through the crowd, past the producers, the myriad assistants, maybe a dozen people who could give him what was needed. Which was money. For his services, you understand. The Jamaican knew who the honcho was, and in this case it was me.
"So how do you like Jamaica, mon?" he asked in that laid-back way, all smiles, leading a donkey that was wearing a straw hat and looked hungry. I was busy of course but I really wanted him to know how I felt:
"I love Jamaica!" I answered honestly. "Really. You know, I have a saying: The Island Will Provide."
"That's right, mon," he said. "And she will you know."
He stroked the donkey's bristled chin thoughtfully, sizing me up expertly, like generations of his people before.
"You know mon," he said finally, "there's an old saying we have here: We can get you a secondhand coffin if you need one."
And the thing is, I did.
The Island Will Provide
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
We Were Soldiers