travels with greg – day 0
This is the first of a series of day-by-day entries on my six-week documentary shoot through Western Europe in 2004. Warning: there was no sex on this trip, unless you’re counting the highly audible Dutch couple in the adjacent room. Up until then I never realized that inarticulate grunts and cries were delivered in accents. That was day 6 of 41.
From 2003 to 2005 I worked as a field producer/unit director for a small but plucky, but ruthlessly cheap, television production company. My job was to go on the road with a cameraman (unless we were crossing international borders, in which case he was the Director of Photography) and shoot interviews for one-off documentaries and low-low budget series on crimes and historical disasters, the kind that typically end up on cable specialty channels. We also did kid’s shows, which usually meant that I would end up running a shoot involving a pack of sad clowns or a giant lobster. Those were not the highlights of my career.
In some ways it was an ideal job: I only visited the office twice in the course of an assignment (once to load the equipment up, once to unload); I usually had two to three weeks to spend at home between assignments; and I was usually, although certainly not always, sent to interesting places, locales that I had barely even dreamed of visiting. I took helicopter rides over the Alps, climbed a volcano in the Philippines, picked wild blackberries at the foot of Roman ruins. On the less positive side, the shows I shot for were budgeted as tightly as possible, which meant eight- to twelve-hour days, six days a week, invading strangers’ houses three times a day to set up lights and interrogate them. Some of the motels were so cheap that sometimes I feared to lean against the wall lest the sheet of chipboard collapse and send me flying into the neighbour’s bathroom. After three weeks of driving around foreign cities and grilling strangers about old crimes and disasters, I would be longing to get back home to see my wife.
By March of 2005 I was compelled to stop and take a desk job. Not only was I seeing more of Greg the cameraman than I was of my wife, the constant movement and change unseated something inside me, shook it loose and sent it pinging around. I remember a few days in Newfoundland when I genuinely thought I was having a nervous breakdown – I probably was – and times so frustrating and lonely that I would lock myself in a hotel bathroom, shut off the light and sit in the cool tiled darkness. Then there were the times when I would get sick on the road, conducting interviews with a spasming back or trying to run a shoot at the Crazy Horse monument while running a fever that lent my questions and directions a slightly lunatic edge. Once I came home from Australia, jet-lagged and lightheaded from some antipodean flu, only to pack up and fly to the States two days later.
In mid-2004 I found out that Greg and I would be going to Europe for six weeks. It was all Western Europe, countries slumbering in the nest of the European Union, where the toilets resembled ours and you could generally find someone who spoke English in an emergency. Europe was the longed-for prize among the field producers, but it was also known as the trip that would break the fragile, drop them from a great height and split them open on the rocks. Forty-one days of near-constant travel and work, each day unwinding its endless scroll of challenges, inconveniences, bored police, greedy pay telephones and horrible roadside restaurants, where an obese woman would sit at a little table by the bathroom stalls, silently demanding a Euro for use of the toilet.* A field producer who had done the Europe run in 2002 told me that, somewhere around the third or fourth week, I would be on the phone with the producer in the middle of the night, shaking with anger and threatening to quit.
That point came around day 21. Right at the halfway mark.
Next up: day 1 of 41.
*At some point I realized that you could just walk past the woman and use the toilets for free.
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