I say ‘Ola’ to you because this is my grown-up and entirely desperate version of Dora the Explorer. This is the fourth entry in the ongoing story of my six-week documentary shoot through Europe in the autumn of 2004. Four entries in and I still haven’t left – I haven’t even boarded the plane yet. Already this memoir of six weeks shooting a documentary series throughout western Europe is taking longer than the actual trip. It will never end. I am writing it and writing it. It will never end. And I’m switching to present tense for this entry, because it suits my memory. Visit the travels index above the header to find your way along.
A friend of mine asked me the other day if this story is my masterpiece, or the thing that I have to get out of my way before I write my masterpiece. Three pints of beer had lit the fire of honesty within me (because beer’s naturally inflammable, so the metaphor works, you see); I said, “It’s… um… the thing”.
Most international airports tuck their Customs Office away in hard-to-find corners, weird empty culs de sac or hidden hallways. You won’t find the office without careful instructions, and once you get there, the office is invariably a tiny room with a plexiglass grille separating you from the bored man in white shirtsleeves. There is no way of knowing how far Customs will be from your departure gate. There is no guarantee that Customs even exists in the same terminal.
Greg and I have walked into strange spaces in our history of foraging for Customs offices. Long empty hallways with all the ceiling tiles torn out, wires and ducts snaking everywhere like an abandoned set from Brazil; a huge room with a middle-aged Sikh man seated at one end behind a desk, whose sole function was to point at the sign that pointed to the exit; empty areas adorned with huge signs advising you that alarms will sound if you stop walking; clean white corridors branching rhizomatically into the null-space of Airport World, the extradimensional bubble blown into reality by the bureaucratic sighs of nation-states. Sometimes I imagine that there is only one airport, an endless building of conveyor belts and sunglasses stands that spills out into our world at certain points, and there’s a door somewhere that will take me into the in-between spaces. Not that I would want to meet the people who live and work there.
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At eight in the morning the offices were usually empty, with the exception of a couple of editors finishing the graveyard shift, trudging up and down the halls in sock feet and eating from cups of ichiban. The only other person in the building iwas Angela, the production coordinator, her eyes foggy with the early hour. Angela’s job was to get us to the airport and make sure we have all the equipment and paperwork necessary to get us through the next six weeks.
The equipment, all 200+ pounds of the stuff in two oversized, armoured and padded cases, was chiefly concerned with the production and manipulation of light. We had flags, blacks and hoods to block light. We had silks and bounces to diffuse and direct light. We had cookies and gobos to slice light into patterns that suggested venetian blinds, or cut it into mottles meant to emulate an unseen canopy. We had bits of fake greenery to cast shadows. One betacam, one DVcam, one 16mm Arri, one still camera to capture the light. Tapes and film stock to record it all.
Then the jumble of extension cords and electrical equipment, bags of clothespins, c-stands and tripods, convertors and adaptors, power supplies and battery packs, along with a light meter, a monitor, and tools for any bizarre situation. A mini-boom, two lapel mics. Then there were the lights themselves in a separate case: two 150 watts, two 300 watts, and a hulking 650 that would stun your eyes into submission if you happened to be looking at it when the switch was thrown. Greg had packed it all the night before, but we went over it again; a crew doing reenactment shooting might have come in during the night and cannibalized our gear.
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This is Part Two of Travels With Greg. You can read Part One here.
Week 1 – The Netherlands
horrible disaster discussed: the North Sea Flood
plus: Bruno the klompenböer; the longest bicycle in the world; the biggest field hockey stick ever
Week 2 – south of France
horrible disaster discussed: the Malpasset Dam Failure
plus: no santons
Week 3 – Germany
horrible disaster discussed: The Oppau Explosion
plus: the world’s longest car; largest marsupial; biggest turtle; most ginormous cuckoo clock
Week 4 – western Austria
horrible disaster discussed: Blons Avalanche
plus: Head Sport ski factory; the world’s tiniest model trains that turned out not to be particularly small
Week 5 – horrible horrible Belgium
horrible disaster discussed: Meuse Valley Killer Fog
plus: a parade of lead-poisoned Walloons dead set on making my life miserable; world’s smallest blooming plant; manneken pis
Week 6 – England
horrible disaster discussed: Queen Mary Collision
plus: world’s biggest goddamn restaurant bill ever
Week 1, day 1 – 6:00-8:00 am
It’s a common experience among travelers to wake up and not know where they are. To open your eyes and have nothing match, no thought connect to thought, no wall or window or hotel art print meet up with anything in your mind. It’s like the first split second of a helicopter ride, when you realize that you are abruptly no longer touching ground and the entire machine feels like a rocking cradle in a thunderstorm.
That never once happened to me on the road. I would close my eyes each night with the following day mapped out in my head. As soon as I opened my eyes again, I was on. I was working, and all my job consisted of was following the map that had been prepared for me. That’s the first talent of a field producer. The second talent is not blowing up when the map turns out be completely wrong, when the day suddenly flips over and you’re traversing an unknown geography full of strange roads, missed appointments and a flat tire on the edge of some city a whole hemisphere from home.
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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.
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