Night ShootingRob McClure Smith
4.00 a.m. and two grips rolled the dolly to the stockade. The camera operator turned the wheels and the focus puller crouched low behind his shoulder. Another grip stood on the tongue, counter-weighting the job arm on which they sat. A video camera trailed the shot and the DP, watching the playback on the monitor, observed the same problem with the reflections. So they reset and the grips rolled it back and forth again, and then again.
5.00 .a.m. and the shot was good, in the can, a wrap, an absolute corker. All done but for the steadicam. The crew uttered ‘steadicam’ as a Muslim might Mahomet. The steadicam shot required the summoning of the beast from his lair.
The shot involved the operator gliding around a stationary figure. This key pre-battle sequence needed the flexibility of handheld without the jerkiness. The viewer would see in one fluid motion a man standing in the shadows, low-hanging vines and branches, blocks of blackness, and then, circling, the stockade before him, impregnable, and then, re-circling, an extended arm and, last, the firing of the pistol, the signal to advance. On the storyboard it was poetic. Off the storyboard, there were two problems: first that the man in the shadows couldn’t get the pistol to fire, and second that the man was Duffy.
“The powder must have got damp,” Duffy was saying, jerking the trigger back and forth.
The weapons specialist explained that although the flintlock was an accurate replica of a steel Doune pistol, down to the fluted barrels at the breech and the octagonal flared muzzles, it was not a real gun. No powder. It only shot blanks.
“Well, far as I can see,” sneered Duffy, “it’s not shooting anything, sonny jim.”
With a screwdriver, the specialist made adjustments. He wiped it with a cloth and handed it back to Duffy, who stared into the barrel, finger on the trigger.
“Please don’t do that,” the specialist said, trying to snatch it back.
“You just said it has blank cartridges,” said Duffy, jinking away. “I have acted in films for thirty years. I am aware these are harmless.”
The specialist gently extricated the pistol from the actor’s grasp, explaining that the blanks contained a paper plug sealing the powder in a wad. A cloud of hot, expanding gas expelled at high velocity from the muzzle of a pistol firing blanks was not a good thing. There were accidents on movie sets through carelessness with pistols.
Duffy snatched his pistol back, turned it in his hands.
“I’ve fired more guns than you’ve had hot dinners, laddie. I must've killed tens of thousands of villainous individuals, and not a one of them accidentally. Including all those Zulus that time.”
Duffy resumed gesticulating wildly with the pistol.
“Well, that’s real good,” said the specialist, backing away. “Experience is good.”
“I’ve never had an accident,” Duffy shouted at those dispersing around him.
Lillee whispered in Rich’s ear. “Be a good fellow, and go get Mac before old Duffer blows someone’s arse off. The ancient bastard’s right stonkered.”
MacPherson stared blankly at a bank of monitors. Claverhouse perched on one, preening with his black and white beak.
“They’re ready now, Mac.”
MacPherson looked upset.
“How you feeling?” Rich tried.
“Ah wis copacetic till ah saw this."
MacPherson motioned him to two adjacent screens featuring stills of the actress playing Duffy’s romantic interest: the first from the studio, the other from yesterday on the beach.
“Whit do you notice?"
“That she’s beautiful?”
“Look close. Whit’s different?”
Rich looked again. “Her hair?”
MacPherson shook his head.
“Yir jist guessing! Yir not even trying.”
Rich couldn’t see what was different. “How about a clue?”
“Fuck’s sake,” MacPherson groaned. “Ah’ll give you a clue, Dick. Tits?”
“Tits?” Rich looked again. “Oh, they’re bigger! Her breasts are...larger.”
“Aye, and it’s no them swelling up in the jungle heat. How dare she do this tae me! Again!”
“Well,” said Rich. “I’m sure no one will notice.”
MacPherson cackled bitterly.
“You need to try being nicer to Sir Terry,” Rich offered. “He’s the reason we got this Toubacanti thing financed.”
MacPherson growled like a wounded animal. “Ah’m being chewed tae death by iggers, up tae eight anti-histamine a day, mah actresses ur growing massive bosoms even as we speak. Believe you me, Ah don’t need to be nice tae naebody. The Indians call him Gungidule noo. It means man of gold. They say his Oscar is a powerful nuchu. They practically worship the auld fart.”
MacPherson sat with his head in his hands, rocking back and forth. Rich waited.
“Whit halfwit’s idea wis it tae make a film of the Darien expedition in actual Darien anyway?”
“Yours. It was going to be your Aguirre, your Fitzcarraldo. Remember?”
“Ach, give us that crutch there. Claverhouse! Tae battle!”
The macaw flew to his shoulder, making a clacking noise with its beak.
A light tropical rain fell, spattering the leaves, dripping from lianas and black Saragossa, glinting in the arc lights on silvery petrels, as MacPherson paced the circuit to be tracked by the steadicam operator. He was shadowed by a key grip carrying a .45 to protect the director from animals lurking in the undergrowth.
“I’m supposing his gun works,” Duffy sniffed.
MacPherson issued final instructions to Gunther Klein. The Austrian behemoth, wearing the operator’s harness with the iso-elastic arm attached to the sled, couldn’t bend down. MacPherson was lifted up on a wooden crate. He spoke up at Klein from the crate. The big blonde man nodded, Teutonically.
Klein circled Duffy, rotating and tilting the sled pole. The cameraman needed to be strong because the apparatus weighed sixty-five pounds, the steel harness attaching the operator to it rather than vice versa. The fluidity of the shot, the smoothness of motion provided, was in inverse proportion to the ugly splayfooted waddle required of its operator. Klein walked after the fashion of Frankenstein’s monster as he wheeled smoothly around Duffy, who stared off at the fort, impassive, lips pursed, brutal and silent. Klein stopped. Duffy raised the pistol. Nothing.
“Well, damnation,” Duffy said to the camera. “Powder has got damp again.”
“Cut. Cut,” screamed MacPherson. “There is no fucking powder. The thing fires blanks, damn it.”
Lillee rested his fingers on the director’s shoulder.
“Awright.” MacPherson raised a hand. “Ah know, ah know.”
“We’re having a few snafus with the gun is all it is.”
The weapons specialist returned, chagrined.
“I don’t see,” Duffy was saying, “why we can’t use a real weapon. It's not as if anyone will know.”
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