For Kader El-Janabi: “The French Connection” - [*The following short essay & poem were commissioned a decade ago for publication in Kader El-Janabi’s short-lived magazine,* Arapoetica de la Poésie Int...
Sunday, August 7, 2011
You never know what is going to happen, George Malich
It's now a moment I'll always remember, as long as I am able to remember.
It was a sweltering July day in St. Louis. We were set up in the courtyard at Atomic Cowboy, shooting scenes for our movie, Go South for Animal Index.
George Malich was half in costume as the Lost Almost military chaplain, and Martin Sophia was half in costume as the younger tribal mystic. We had shot really effective scenes with each of them that day, though not together. And now we were trying to figure out if we would get back up in the blazing heat and shoot a scene with the two of them together.
Shooting an ambitious movie with a volunteer cast and crew, there is a lot of running and gunning. I started out trying to shoot my shooting script, scene for scene; and now I just assemble the best cast I can on the short notice I have after confirming a crew is available, and then figure out what we can shoot that best approximates the script.
It's a conceptual silent movie, based on Stefene Russell's poem of the same name. It's a fable that will be edited to a poetry score, Stefene's poem set to music. So there is infinite leeway in working with, or around, my shooting script to construct a fable that evokes the themes of Stefene's poem. This is my way of saying my method is not slop!
Back to that sweltering courtyard at Atomic Cowbow. It was 100 degrees in the shade of the Quonset hut. We had been working for hours. We already had really successful footage in the can with both of the actors in question. If we went home now, everyone would be satisfied. No one was really dying to get back up, put on the other half of the costume, lug the cameras back into the murderous sun, and start shooting again.
But then again, we are crazy people, like everyone else in the St. Louis amateur movie scene. Everyone was kind of looking at me, the director, more or less willing to make another run at it if I asked them to set up for one more scene.
I thought about it. I wasn't sure what we would shoot. I was pretty sure we could come up with something. I asked the actors what they wanted to do.
Martin had just done an exhausting scene where he simulated a prayer ritual to heal a sick child.
It took a lot out of him. He also was justly proud for having nailed a challenging scene with very little direction. Martin was in no hurry to act again.
George also had done a challenging scene earlier that morning. The priest, intending simply to deliver a watermelon to the Lost Almost physicists, had chanced upon some of their paperwork and, for the first time, come to grasp the deadly business they were about: building a weapon of mass destruction.
In this dark mood, the priest was chased away from the physicist's picnic table by a soldier (Thomas Crone) at gunpoint. George, too, had nailed his scene and knew it.
And I knew it. But I also knew it was my job to push people beyond their normal senses of comfort and endurance. So, I said, "I'm looking at the two of you here at the same time and thinking we should just get up and do another scene."
Nobody jumped up to do the scene. It was hot -- heat index hot, people keeling over dead from the heat hot, cameras overheating hot.
Martin said, "I'm not going anywhere," meaning he could always be available for another shoot. "George, you're not going anywhere."
George did not jump right up to do another scene. But he did say, "You never know what is going to happen."
I thought about it for a second. George's availibility and commitment were unquestioned, and Martin had just made it clear that he wasn't going anywhere. More importantly, in my decision-making process, I wasn't exactly sure what scene between the priest and the mystic would work for the movie. I knew something would work, but I was as baked by the sun as anybody else on the set. My instincts as improvising fabulist moviemaker were not at their best.
I called it a wrap. We packed up and went home.
Sitting there at the time, I now know, George knew he had a brain tumor. He knew, in less than two weeks, he would endure open-skull brain surgery. He knew that there was no way to know how many more shoots he would have for this movie, or for any movie.
"You never know what is going to happen," he said.
As it turns out, George and our cast and crew canceled other plans to make everything happened so that all the scenes we absolutely needed for George's character got shot before he went into surgery on August 1. We got it done. And George was amazing.
But we didn't need that scene with the priest and the mystic, and so we didn't get it, and now we will never have it.
"You never know what is going to happen," said George, who knew what was going to happen.