Category: Sunset in the Desert
That’s Life in the City of Angels: Cue The Camels: Chapter Two, Al Minya, Bed Bugs and Sex
A continuation from Life in the City of Angels: When You Can’t Get Published, Fuck It, Give It Away!
Chapter One link:https://davebanks.wordpress.com/2020/06/10/life-in-the-city-of-angels-when-you-cant-get-published-fuck-it-give-it-away/
Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was blasting out from Mark Hufnail’s BMW stereo, fuelling our adrenalin and chest-beating machismo. During Jimi’s solos, I strummed the invisible strings of my air guitar and glanced over at Mark, catching him head-banging to the beat.
Two middle-aged white guys, reminiscing about hippie living and experimental drug days, we were now living on the highs adventure brought. Potential ‘fixes’ dangled from the grueling schedule before us to shoot three documentaries throughout Middle Egypt, along the Nile. With some security concerns, Mark and I drove from his Burbank office to the west side of Los Angeles, for one last advisory meeting with the only Muslim we knew, Attallah Shabazz.
After directing Discovery Channel’s ‘Eco-Challenge, Australia’ – Mark was the Executive Producer – we’d gained a reputation for productions in remote and hostile locations under adverse conditions. We’d delivered a five-hour adventure race on time and on budget to the Discovery Channel and now we were ready for our next big challenge. Mark’s company, MPH Entertainment, had been contracted to produce three documentaries: ‘Akhenaten, Egypt’s Heretic King’, the ‘History of Sex’ for the History Channel, and ‘Tutankhamen, Egypt’s Boy King’ for A&E Network.
All three had to be shot simultaneously in sixteen days, to produce seven hours of programming. Before any overseas assignment, it was my responsibility to budget for and rent the cameras, audio gear, and small lighting package, as well as estimate how many cases of videotape we needed to take for the shoots. Before leaving the States my anxiety started, not from the threat of kidnapping by terrorist or being shot at, but due to the hell of red tape: the filling out of the carnet form or Merchandise Passport. A ‘carnet’ is an international customs and temporary export-import document that’s used to clear customs in foreign countries. Successful completion means you don’t incur duties and import taxes on your gear, or ‘tools of the trade’, if they’re to be re-exported within twelve months.
With ten anvil cases of gear, cross-referencing serial numbers and descriptions of each piece of gear was a tedious and daunting task. If just one serial number was off by one digit it could mean spending precious time and baksheesh (bribe money) in a foreign Customs office, sorting things out. The last thing I wanted to explain to a burly, foreign custom agent is why my boxer shorts had yellow smiley faces on them, having packed them in the equipment cases along with my other clothes.
Being a boy scout taught me to ‘be prepared’; if you know that there are no McDonald’s in the Sahara desert and little time during the day to stop and eat, you pack away enough food for an army. The most important thing to take, however, when shooting in exotic locations, is toilet tissue and baby wipes.
Having spent time in the Middle East previously, I took it upon myself to research the locations, assessing any potential risk. I was well aware of the current affairs in the Middle East and I was able to identify and assess a number of specific threats, not only to our production but also to us.
Beneath the massive limestone cliffs near Luxor is one of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions: the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This was the site of the Luxor Massacre; on November 17, 1997, 62 people were killed – mostly tourists – by Islamist extremists and the Jihad Talaat al-Fath (Holy War of the Vanguard of the Conquest).
As we went into preproduction for the three documentaries – on February 23, 1998 – Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, along with three other Islamist leaders, co-signed and issued a ‘fatwa’. This called on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies, saying it was their duty. The declaration was made seven months prior to our scheduled departure to Egypt.
I’d also read somewhere that Osama and Zawahiri hated Americans so much that they wouldn’t even drink a Pepsi. On top of all that, there was rumored to be a bounty of $16,000 for every American’s head in Egypt. I found this a bit insulting: why couldn’t they round it out? I thought I was worth at least $20,000.
Since the Luxor Massacre, tourism had been pretty much void there. To capture or kill a western film crew like us would have been equivalent to bagging a top prize. Protocol suggested that I went through specific official channels. I presented my assessment and ‘deal memo’ to one of the producers. In my deal memo it specifically requested that MPH accepted financial responsibility to have my body shipped back to the States, should anything have happened to me.
To my surprise and shock the producer said, ‘No deal’. I can only assume that she was ignorant of current affairs and only perceived the rest of the world as a studio back-lot. Unfortunately for me, her world revolved around recreational television, celebrities and Hollywood gossip. This was a serious issue that couldn’t be handled by a mid-level producer so I gave the assessment to Mark. That is how we got to be on our way.
We were meeting Attallah Shabazz at a kosher Italian restaurant. Ms. Shabazz is the eldest daughter of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, the powerful civil rights activist of the ‘60s. Mark and Attallah have worked together on several television productions and have become very good friends over the years, to the point that Mark’s daughter, Megan, refers to Ms. Shabazz as ‘Aunty Attallah’. I’d also worked with Ms. Shabazz on various television shows in the past, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to get properly acquainted.
We walked into the restaurant. Sitting at a table alone, in the middle of the busy eaterie, we could not help but notice Ms. Shabazz immediately. Strikingly beautiful, tall, and wearing her trademark African print pillbox hat, she acknowledged our arrival with a broad smile that seemed to light up the room.
Mark set the stage to our trip, telling Attallah that we would be the first American crew to travel by vehicle through Middle Egypt in ten years, according to our fixer in Egypt. Our security was our foremost concern; we’d be two unmistakably-American white guys shooting at various locations
Attallah interrupted Mark. ‘You know, I don’t thing you have anything to worry about, traveling through Middle Egypt,’ she reassured us. ‘The Egyptian government cannot afford another massacre, it would be devastating to their economy. You will be well protected. Think of it as an adventure, don’t let the threat of a small group of extremists hold you hostage.’
We placed our orders for our meal and our conversation turned to shop talk and a bucket full of scuttlebutt. It’s traditional amongst our staff and crew to collect the best pithy quotes during production which we then use as a catchphrase during shooting when things get a little too heated. Over our kosher pasta with meatless sauce, we told Attallah that we’d collected three favorite quotes for the History Channel’s documentary, the ‘History of Sex’:
‘Does the composer actually see the show he’s composing?’
‘Regardless of their academic achievement and expertise, try not to use any male or female archeologist over forty years of age’.
But the killer quote, and my favorite when shooting ancient Egyptian statues, was: ‘You can shoot as many penises as you want, as long as they don’t move’.
We landed in Cairo around mid-afternoon. I was still a bit spaced-out from the residue of the Ambien still in my system and I gave off an odor like fermented Gouda cheese. It had taken us close to eighteen hours to get there, not including the ten hours we’d took to prep our gear before departure. In customs, with all ten anvil cases of equipment, we started the tedious process of cross-referencing the serial numbers of the gear against our carnet. A short, oval-shaped Egyptian customs official, in a blue shirt with wet stains under each arm, raised an eyebrow. There was a bead of sweat resting on the top of his pencil mustache that I couldn’t stop staring at.
The larger gray camera case he found to be empty of the Betacam camera. I was holding it in my hands after carrying it on the plane with me. Inside the case, in place of the camera, were a dozen or so boxer shorts bearing acid-yellow smiley faces, which prompted a smirk from the agent. ‘My underwear,’ I said, pointing at the shorts.
‘Yes, yes, very nice,’ the agent said.
‘Jesus, Dave, can’t you wear regular underwear, like ‘tighty-whities’?’ Mark asked.
‘I, er, have a problem with chafing. I’ve big thighs. Boxers really help with that problem.’
‘But couldn’t you just buy regular boxers?’
‘These were on sale,’ I protested, ‘besides, I’m going to throw them away after I wear them.’
Pointing at the camera case then the carnet, in broken English, the oval-shaped agent asked, ‘Where is this item, the camera?’
‘This is the camera,’ I said, holding the camera up further and pointing to it.
‘But it’s not in the box. The carnet says ‘camera and case’. I need the camera in the case.’
Standing before him, with the camera case at my feet, I pointed again to the camera I was holding. ‘This is turning into a Monty Python skit,’ I thought. ‘This is the camera,’ I repeated, ‘I carried it on the flight so that I could use the camera case to store my clothing.’
‘I understand. But I need the camera in the box.’ This time, his voice was raised.
‘Do I understand you? That if I put the camera in the box, you’ll be satisfied?’
Opening the camera case, I pulled out my boxer shorts and all the other items I’d put in there and placed the camera into its case. I smiled at the inspector who remained stony-faced. It suddenly hit me: Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.
In my mind I heard Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’. The signs for baksheesh were simple – how had I missed them? The term ‘baksheesh’ describes tipping or, as the local authorities call it, ‘a charitable donation’. I call it ‘bribery’.
The government officials could have held the camera gear in protective custody until an ‘understanding’ was reached. Other signs of baksheesh could be: incorrect stamps in your passport or ink of the wrong color; your visa looking forged because the official emblem is smudged, usually after a government official has rubbed his thumb across the stamp, purposely smudging it. My favorite was the palm extended with a smile: simple, to the point and immediately recognizable for what it was. Baksheesh is a common practice across most of the Middle East; it’s common for western film crews to carry large sums of cash, just for these ‘unseen expenses’. Especially American film crews – it seems that we Americans have a reputation for throwing money at any problems we encounter. Good old American know-how.
Once our payment had been graciously accepted we cleared Egyptian customs. Porters loaded the gear onto a flatbed dolly and wheeled it out to the curb. By the time we’d finished loading the van we’d spent about $350.00 – and one carton of Marlboro cigarettes – in baksheesh…I mean, ‘charitable donations and tips’.
On the way to the hotel I decided to ride on the roof of the van with the cases of gear, to shoot B-roll of as we traveled from the airport to downtown Cairo. The driver of the van sped across El-Galaa Bridge that crosses the Nile and an insect the size of a ping-pong ball smacked me between the eyes, leaving little red blotches on my left cheek that looked like a target. I hoped that wasn’t a sign of things to come.
Our schedule was grueling and left so little opportunity for rest and recuperation that I was confused as to what day of the week it was as we rushed from the Pharaonic Village, Giza, to the Cairo Museum. Just like all shoots, we hit the ground running, apportioning no time to acclimatize. With pressure to shoot three documentaries there was no time to appreciate Egypt and its culture, it was just ‘wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’.
For two sweltering days we’d been inside the Cairo museum shooting Paranoiac antiquities, artifacts, and ancient stone penises (but not the moving kind). Alone, and in a rare moment of quiet, I was on the second floor of the Cairo Museum framing the camera to shoot an artifact belonging to the most iconic of all Egyptian pharaohs: the solid gold mask of King Tutankhamen. The 11kg gold mask sat behind protective glass on a high pedestal and I’d found just the right angle to shoot the mask which didn’t also capture my reflection in the glass. I had King Tut all to myself as I began my work.
Then, from nowhere, hordes of tourists from Germany swarmed in, surrounding me and the exhibit. The lens of the camera blocked the tourists’ view; there was much pushing and shoving as they tried to get closer – so much so that the camera and tripod were nearly sent flying. I stepped back from the gaggle of Germans and could not believe my eyes when I noticed several wearing lederhosen. It was freaking hot – at least 28°C – with high humidity and no ventilation.
One man, in the shortest shorts I’d ever seen, started to pick up the tripod and camera to move it. ‘Sir, don’t move the camera,’ I warned.
In a thick German accent, he turned and snapped, ‘You shouldn’t be here! This is for tourists!’
‘I understand, sir. We’ve all come a long way to see King Tut. Just leave the camera alone. Okay?’
He persisted, putting his hands on the tripod. I stepped forward and removed his hand, which is when he elbowed me on my left cheek. It was bang on the place where the kamikaze insect had whacked me several days before.
‘Ouch!’ I muttered, before tensing, ready to defend my space. Sanity prevailed for just a moment as I thought about Mark, and that the last thing he needed was me being thrown out of the Cairo Museum for fighting with a tourist. Luckily, at that moment, a woman – also in leather lederhosen and thigh-high white stockings – grabbed the man’s arm and started scolding him in German. None of the other tourists seemed interested in our struggle for territory as they snapped pictures and left. Now, at least, I was alone with the king, sporting a painfully bruised cheek.
Eventually, we’d shot every stone penis in the museum – erect and non-erect. Our work was over in Cairo and now it was time for our road trip through Middle Egypt.
Attallah was right: we were escorted by seventeen Egyptian bodyguards as we traveled south along the Nile Delta to Luxor in Middle Egypt. Our caravan was made up of several vehicles, including a sky-blue armored personnel carrier complete with fifty-caliber machine gun, and a black 4×4 Mercedes-Benz SUV that carried our four bodyguards. They sat in comfort, in their polyester suits and sunglasses. Except for the front windscreen, the side and rear windows were bulletproof glass, tinted almost black. In the middle of each passenger window were gun ports that looked like small, black puckered lips, ready to give any adversary a stinging kiss of death. On occasion you would see copious amount of smoke stream from the gun ports; most of the time the bodyguards sat in their SUV with the air conditioning on full blast as they played their favorite Egyptian pop music. As a result, the SUV vibrated with a ‘thump, thump, thump’. Jimi Hendrix, it was not.
In contrast, we were stuck in a white minibus, with painted hieroglyphic symbols and a giant portrait of a pharaoh on the hood. The interior seated roughly ten passengers; it would have held more but our camera gear filled the back of the coach. With our security so obviously in tow, this bus shouted ‘tourist on board!’
Driving in Egypt is not for wimps or the faint of heart, which is why I was happy to let Mohammad, our driver, take the challenge. I’d assumed we were safe outside the city of Cairo, where car horns blast continually, insults are spat and universal hand gestures given at the slightest provocation; little did I realize just how dangerous the road to Luxor was. Most roads had two lanes of tarmac, but the condition of the ground varied greatly. The scariest part was when giant trucks frequently passed other trucks already passing cars. I lost count of my ‘sphincter twinges’ during the day but they went off the scale when we drove in the dark. It was a Mad Max movie in reality; the Egyptians didn’t use their headlights until they thought they saw an oncoming vehicle – then they’d flash their lights. Thank God we were in an official convoy, with an armored personnel carrier leading the caravan.
We made numerous stops along the way, shooting B-roll to enrich our documentaries. I shot video and still photographs at each location for ‘cut-away footage’ that could be added to scripted voice-overs or expert interviews. This adds greater dimension to the storylines in our productions, an alternative to the traditional ‘talking head’ pieces. As we continued our trek to Luxor day turned to night. Suddenly, our motorcade came to a complete stop. We were near our destination of Al Minya, at a goat crossing.
I grabbed the camera and jumped out of the van. I started shooting the goat herder and his goats against the van’s headlights when four tourist police intervened. With their Uzi machine guns they hustled us back into the van.
‘Jesus! What was that all about? It’s just goats,’ said Mark.
‘Maybe someone just got his goat?’ I chuckled at my own joke.
One of the security men from our convoy came into the van, still wearing his sunglasses. ‘Keep down! Keep down!’ he said. ‘A madrasa is down the road: the most radical of Islamic schools in Egypt. We believe Osama Bin Laden is inside. The goats are a way to stop people, so they can see who approaches. Just stay down.’
There was a lot of movement outside the van and raised voices. The goats still surrounded us. A second bodyguard came to the door. ‘The local authorities and the village elders fear retaliation from Islamic fundamentalists at the madrasa for hosting you Americans. We cannot stay here or in Al Minya. We have to find another place to stay the night. Please, stay down, and do not get out of the van.’
We waited, keeping a low profile as our security team herded the goats out of the way. The goat herder had disappeared. After traveling south for half an hour, our security team found an abandoned hotel outside an unnamed village. Oddly, there was a flickering light-bulb several floors up. Despite our hesitation, we had been at it for sixteen hours and we were dead tired. We carried the cameras and battery chargers up the dark, shadowy, concrete stairs that offered no handrail. I was so dazed from lack of rest that when I plugged in the charger for the camera batteries I forgot that Egypt’s electrical current was 220v. I neglected to plug in the transformer and the charger blew like an indoor firework display. As the sparks flew, I grabbed the plug and pulled it out of the socket, only to get a jolt. ‘Crap! Crap! Crap!’ I shouted.
‘Are you okay?’ said Mark.
‘Yeah, I’m okay. I just feel like a complete idiot.’
‘You’re tired, Dave, don’t beat yourself up. We’ve another charger,’ said Mark.
As I moved away from the socket I heard a loud crunch. Lifting my boot, I saw the largest cockroach I’d ever set eyes on. The floor of the building was concrete and it was cold; the walls looked to be peppered with bullet holes and the windows didn’t bear glass but iron rods shooting up from the windowsill.
Mark looked out. It was deadly quiet outside. ‘Hey, Dave, there are guards outside, on the ground. I think this is serious.’
The flickering light was a beacon to a frenzy of moths, unidentified flying insects, cockroaches and five-legged bugs, the like of which I’d never seen. We were too exhausted to care and slept on the floor, only to have the creepy-crawlers roam freely on and around us. ‘Mark, are you awake?’ I asked.
‘Not really. It’s difficult when you have creatures crawling on your face. Shit! One just tried to crawl up my nose! Jesus H Christ.’ Mark was now sitting up. He was pale with bags under his eyes and desperate for some sleep.
‘Hey, why don’t we use the djellaba I picked up in Cairo?’ I suggested. ‘We could wrap it around ourselves like the Shroud of Turin. We could wrap our kefflyehs around our faces too, to keep the marauders away.’
‘Great idea. Let’s do it,’ said Mark.
So, there we were: two guys from California in Middle Egypt, beneath a winking light on a concrete floor, shoulder to shoulder and draped under a makeshift shroud. Neither Mark nor I remembered much of the drive from the abandoned ‘roach’ hotel; we slept most of the way. We eventually pulled up at a deserted parking area. Before us was the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which sat atop a series of colonnaded terraces, accessed via long ramps that were once graced with gardens. Built into the limestone cliff face that towered above the temple, there were three layered terraces reaching 29m high.
It was midday, and at least 40°C. Walking up the ramp in the scorching heat was going to be challenge. I drank my last bottle of hot orange Fanta, grabbed the camera and started shooting Arab workmen breaking up the limestone walkway to the temple. It seemed to me to be perfect B-roll for the documentary, but what I didn’t realize at that moment was that they were replacing the bloodstained path where the 62 people had been massacred nearly a year before.
Hot, hot, hot! The tripod legs burnt if touched; the metal of the camera was sizzling and I could feel the heat of the scorching sand through my Doc Martin boots. I took off my kefflyeh, soaking it with water and placing it over the camera, so as not to burn up the electronics. Our Egyptian crew stayed in the van with the air conditioning on and with the hood up to keep the engine cool. Our four bodyguards sat in the comfort of their Mercedes-Benz SUV, smoking and listening to music. Mark and I continued to shoot for two hours, taking breaks in the shade of the Temple’s columns. The Sahara heat was unrelenting and oppressive, though, and I gave up when the glue on my boots began to melt. Because my kefflyeh was on the camera, the back of my neck was naked to the sun. It was now horribly blistered. Back in the van, a sunburned Mark took a long drink from a Fanta he’d kept hidden.
‘You bastard!’ I said. The sun’s heat lost its grip as I stepped into the van. Mark leaned over and pulled out another warm Fanta, handing it to me. ‘Cheers, Dave. You ready to go home?’ he said.
I’d lost all reference to time. I had no idea what day it was or how long we’d been in Egypt. This often happened to us when documenting fragments of time long since gone – you lose your own place in time.
We barely made our flight back to the States and had to sacrifice taking a shower and changing into clean clothes. I wasn’t too upset; there’s something magical about carrying the sands of the Sahara in your boots with you as you arrive home.
Days later, I was back at the NBC Studios. The guests that night were David Spade and Kate Capshaw, the musical element provided by Deana Carter. I was still painfully sunburned and therefore moved slowly; I could continually smell the odor of fermented Gouda and, during rehearsals, I found a strip of bubble wrap that seemed to resemble the blisters on the back of my neck.
During lunch at the NBC Commissary I told my cousin, Hank Geving, who was also a cameraman on the show and dedicated reader of Ancient Egyptian history, about Queen Hatshepsut and her temple. She was the first great woman in recorded history, the forerunner of such figures as Cleopatra and Catherine the Great, and female pioneers of our own age, such as Madonna. He listened intently, and it gave me a huge glow of satisfaction to have stood where she had, centuries before. Many people living there don’t acknowledge that there’s life outside Hollywood. How wrong they are.
Life in the City of Angels: When You Can’t Get Published, Fuck It, Give It Away!
Cue the Camels
Copyright © Dave Banks. The right of Dave Banks to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.
FOREWORD by JAY LENO
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Dave asked me to write the foreword to this book. I’ve always known Dave as the guy behind the camera with the very loud laugh. His audible approval of my jokes has always proved wonderful feedback; sometimes, his chuckles would escalate to a full belly laugh that echoed across the stage during rehearsals.
I’d clearly notice Dave’s absence for weeks or months at a time – his giggles only heard in my memories – until, unexpectedly, his distinctive howl would come from behind the camera once again. Dave’s disappearing and reappearing act had been going on ever since I took over the Tonight Show in 1992, but it wasn’t until reading ‘Cue the Camels’ that I learned Dave was freelance – booking out of my show to shoot news and documentaries in the Middle East and North Africa.
As a solo journalist he covered the war in Afghanistan which goes some way to explaining why he always seemed to have a smile on his face. He was just happy to be somewhere he wasn’t being shot at or pursued by a foreign army. He appreciated the warm, comfortable studio and that he was not lost somewhere in a landmine field, however much I like to think it was my jokes and free coffee that kept the constant smile on his face.
Within these pages Dave has written gung-ho, self-deprecating, wildly engaging accounts of his exploits, with all the behind-the-scenes high-jinks that go into shooting news and documentaries across the world.
In his chapter ‘Dog Biscuit and Noah’s Ark’ Dave perfectly describes his decompression from one of his trips back to the Tonight Show: ‘Forty-eight hours ago I was in eastern Turkey, a target of the Turkish army, avoiding the PKK, dodging Kurdish smugglers and circumventing landmines on a goat trail.
Recovering from jet lag, painfully sore calves, busted blisters and jock itch, I was now hobbling about Stage 3 at the NBC studio lot in Burbank, California. I’d picked up a couple of days’ shooting on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The guests that night were Martin Short and Mia St. John, the music provided by Santana and Rob Thomas (which I was particularly excited about). The best part of the gig was the perks: free coffee, pastries, camaraderie and good laughs.’
Dave welcomes you to both of his worlds.
I once told Dave, ‘Whatever you do, make it entertaining, and don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself.’ I’m glad to see he took my advice and applied it to ‘Cue the Camels’.
‘Doubt consumes the spirit; without risk, our destiny is ultimately written by others.’
‘We were not mentioned in S. E. Hinton’s book, ‘The Outsiders’. We were the nameless kids from north Tulsa whose economic standing was somewhere between the Socs and the Greasers. We were the nerds, the geeks and socially inept when it came to girls. But, with our parents’ Bell and Howell 8mm cameras, we charged other kids 50 cents to be in our war movies. Our little band of brothers found its place in life.’
~ Dave Banks
While watching the History Channel, you may be captivated by a shot of a majestic sunset in the Sahara Desert; Bedouins and their camels enter the frame and cross your television screen, their black silhouettes strolling across the blaze of the sun. This image burns into your imagination and transports you from your recliner to a place you’ve never been. Then the program fades to black and a Snuggie commercial begins. You ignore the ad and replay that desert scene in your mind. A thought may pop into your head from time to time: just how did they capture that incredible footage?
Have you ever wondered who filmed the rock climber two thousand feet up, dangling from the granite walls of Yosemite? Or considered how a cameraman got those claustrophobic shots deep inside the ancient tunnels beneath the pyramids of Egypt? How about the intense handheld footage of the Los Angeles riots – what kind of cockamamie person would voluntarily put himself into that chaos? Well, I’m ‘that guy’. In this book, I’ll bring you a unique glance into the two worlds I inhabit and the difficulties I’ve had to endure.
Few people realize, that to film documentaries in exotic locations, a cameraman, or ‘shooter’ may be forced to brave blinding sandstorms, the blistering heat of the day, ‘bone-marrow freezing’ nights, as well as experience the sharp crack of gunshot followed by the screaming hiss of bullets as they pass by his head. He’d need to survive the projectile side-effects of eating what some cultures call ‘delicacies’, but what we would simply consider ‘repulsive’.
As a result of being dispatched all over the globe, I’ve embarked on the types of trips few travelers ever experience, and I’ve done this whilst lugging thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment. I’ve risked life and limb for the sole purpose of sharing the farthest reaches of the world for the audience back home. I’ve covered expeditions, mountain climbs, archeological digs, adventure races, civil strife and war. I’ve been shot at; I’ve been lost in the Sahara desert, and I’ve been chased by a foreign army. I’ve strayed into a landmine field twice and had a bounty on my head. And I’ve also covered a story on fainting goats. For twenty years, I’ve taken huge risks to bring the world into your living room.
It’s quite normal for me to one day be working with celebrities in the air-conditioned studios of Hollywood, then the next, shooting film at hostile locations in the Middle East.
The material in this book has been adapted from years of journal entries that started as dry, factual lists, production notes, itineraries and equipment checklists. The handwritten notes on these lists grew to be the heart and soul of this memoir. Increasingly, my journals have become utterly treasured; in some cases, they literally kept me sane during my riskiest adventures.
They’re tales that I have lived, not imagined. You’ll glimpse what happens behind the scenes and the lengths I’ve travailed to capture those magic moments or ‘money shots’, always with a zany, international cast and crew close behind. This book brings to the reader the hardships and escapades that go into filming on location, with a (sometimes dark) sense of humor. Hopefully, it will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of how anonymous shooters like me see the world, and what we endure in order to make a living in our chosen profession.
This book also offers the reader the unique opportunity to view many of the clips I’ve treasured, via QR technology, as I refer to them within these pages.
At times, the search for the fabled money shot means stepping away from the familiar, and into a place where life seems to balance on the razor-edge of reality.
CUE THE CAMELS
Assignment: Shooting Eco-Challenge Promo
Location: Sahara desert, Morocco
Mr. Abdul Salam, my Moroccan fixer and driver, had found the perfect setting for the money shot. A perfectly stunning, cinematic backdrop that could have been borne from Lawrence of Arabia; we imagined a bright azure sky, puffy white clouds, the Sahara sand expanding towards the horizon and the midday sun hanging in the air.
The Betacam was on the tripod, locked off and shooting directly into the sun. The idea was for five Tuareg riders on their camels to circle the camera, creating silhouettes against the desert sky. As each Tuareg passed, a burst of sunlight would splash, striking the lens, hopefully creating great B-roll. At least, that was the plan.
As I started to set up the shot, and without warning, I was subjected to a forceful whack to the back of my head. As I lay semi-conscious, face down on the hot, sun-baked ground – and with the legs of the tripod entangled in my lower limbs – I heard a loud, gassy belch.
The attack was not by some crazed Jihad but a long-necked, long-legged, wooly dromedary with a Chris Brown attitude. The twenty-seven pound camera teetered on my back and shoulder, the lens resting on my head. Interrupting the faint sound of the camera’s internal recording heads rolling was another belch: a loud, guttural siren accompanied by a violent, sputtering snort. Fumes of rotten vegetables contaminated the otherwise unsullied air and a cloud of scattered earth fell over my face.
The heat from the desert floor forced its way through my clothes, searing my torso and palms like a steak. I opened my eyes to a vertical world and immediately recognized the image inches away from my face: a hairy camel hoof with two protruding toenails on a broad pad about the size of a dinner plate.
I then became aware that fluid was trickling down my forehead, behind my right ear and towards my neck. ‘Oh, God,’ I thought, ‘I’m bleeding!’
Still disoriented, the sensation that the back of my scalp was soaking wet and that my shirt was firmly plastered to my back made me reach for the nape of my neck. I just hoped my hand wouldn’t come back red. I quickly deduced that I wasn’t horrifically bleeding. Why was I so wet? Jesus, did I urinate on myself? If so, how did it get up here? Pawing at my neck, it came to me why I was drenched in such foul-smelling gunk.
There are two myths about camels spitting. Firstly, camels do not spit habitually, they only spit when provoked. Secondly, camels do not ‘spit’ saliva but the partially digested contents from the chambers of their fore-stomachs.
When camels are angry or threatened, they ‘burp up’ some of their cud. Once the cud is in their mouths they angrily wield their heads like mad birds. The cud is propelled from their mouth onto their droopy lips, which they fling in the direction of their victim, which, in this case, was me. The amount of camel spittle foisted on a victim could cover their upper torso, and the color is tied to their dietary intake. It appeared that this camel had been eating dates, grass or wheat, as I was covered in a sickly, tea-green colored ‘smoothie’, not that it looked appetizing or nutritious sliding off my skin.
The camel’s slobber was sticky and thick, like cheap hair gel. With helping hands and laughter from the Tuareg, the tripod and my legs were divorced without damage to the camera or the lens, though I couldn’t say the same for my ego. I turned the camera off (it had been in recording mode, capturing the attack in all its disgusting detail), making a mental note to review the footage later in the day.
The laughter and pointing of fingers continued as I dusted myself off and tried to regain some composure. Turned out my baseball cap had been knocked off during the camel’s SmackDown, and as I looked at my reflection in the lens of the camera, I could see that my face had been powdered with beige earth. A huge cow-lick of hair came straight up from the back of my head – sort of a backwards Donald Trump coiffure.
With my breath and a soft brush, I swept sand and grime from the exterior of the camera, using my toothbrush to clean the nooks and crannies around the lens. Fortunately, there was no camel drool on the equipment.
Still unaware of what had pissed the camel off, I moved more cautiously and drafted Abdul to stand sentry behind me. Abdul didn’t want to be there either, but since his name means ‘Servant of the Peaceful One’ he had no choice. Without further incident I got the pretty silhouette shot I was going for.
Before leaving the location, I played back the tape to check that: a) it had recorded, and b) that there was no break up or other problems with the image. I then gestured to each Tuareg to look through the viewfinder at what we’d shot. Regardless of their image, the Tuareg had all their teeth, something I noted when kindly rewarded with smiles of approval at the footage.
We wouldn’t be able to come back and reshoot the sequence which, I think, after departing any location is the worst phone call a shooter can get. Such instruction is usually from the editor or executive producer, saying the footage is damaged, unusable, or a combination of the two. It’s often referred to by a technical term: ‘Shit!’
This has happened to me on a couple of occasions; each time I felt the blood draining from my veins and my self-esteem turn to liquid. It takes weeks to recover from ‘the call’. As a result, you learn to be militant when cleaning the camera gear and checking the tapes. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to deliver sparkling footage that is in focus and not overexposed nor underexposed, which has no swish pans or tilts, and with just the right amount of headroom. The terrifying truth is that when you fuck up, people will see your mistake. And, in some cases, when you fuck up, millions will see your mistake. It’s every shooter’s fear.
We take every precaution, including hand-carrying the camera and footage onto flights, using leaded bags and DHL delivery. Our reputation – the only marketing tool we have – is based on what we deliver. As we often say: ‘You’re only as good as your last shot’.
With the Land Cruiser loaded, I sat in the cab. I grabbed the Snoopy air freshener from the rear-view mirror and deeply inhaled, hoping for a little relief from the stench of my sweat mixed with camel smoothie. My shirt, now dry, was grafted to my back and needed peeling from me like dead, sunburned skin. With the windows down, we headed back to our base to wash off the stains of the day.
My practice, while on location, is to have two changes of work shirts and trousers. When I’m back at base, I stand in the shower with all my clothes on, lather-up with a bar of soap and scrub them clean. This is an old practice that has worked well over the years. After rinsing and wringing, I then hang them on a makeshift clothes-line made of parachute cord, which also makes up part of my kit; come morning, my clothes will always be dry.
My shirts are ExOfficio – they’re as expensive as hell but worth every cent. They’re quick drying, sun-protective and they have great pockets. Cargo pants are Columbia’s convertible trousers; they also dry quickly and (most importantly) they have a gusseted crotch to help facilitate freedom of movement for increased comfort. With regards to my underwear and socks, I just estimate how many weeks I’m gone and simply toss away the skivvies and socks at the end of each day. Someone once suggested that I should buy ‘Depends for Men’; a very stupid idea: in the desert your ‘boys’ need to breathe, not drown.
On one occasion I’d underestimated my stay on a shoot in the Sahara and was forced to turn my underwear and socks inside out for over a week. With no stores in sight and as cotton takes forever to dry it was easier to toss aside and go commando. What a mistake! I suffered horrific chafing and the worst heat rash I’ve ever had. Both my inner thighs were rubbed red-raw along with my testicles: for three weeks I had to continually apply medicated cream to my infected crotch before the rash cleared up. I walked as if I had a spiked bowling ball between my legs. It was a very painful lesson to learn.
After a hot shower – a definite rarity – we went for dinner. The meal consisted of (stringy) chicken shawarma pitas and my favorite food: fried falafel dipped in hummus, washed down with warm orange Fanta. Our schedules, jam-packed with driving to locations, shooting interviews and gathering B-roll, afforded little time to eat; once we leave the plane, we hit the ground running, existing only on Balance bars, Coca-Cola and espressos.
We ate dessert outside under the Milky Way, which seemed almost within our reach. Little separates heaven and earth in the desert.
It’s customary in the Middle East to socialize in the evening, smoking shisha (apple tobacco from a hookah pipe) and mulling over the day’s events. Sitting in molded plastic patio chairs, we smoked, drank hot tea, and watched an Arab soap opera on a black and white television. One of the antennas was wrapped with aluminum and had been sculpted to look like a rabbit. The TV was connected to a car battery that had been decorated with Hello Kitty stickers. In the distance, breaking the serenity, I heard a camel bellowing. Any more relaxed and I’d have been in a coma.
Before going to bed, I viewed the tapes once more, labeling them with dates and a quick description. I cleaned the gear, charged batteries, made production notes, did some petty cash book-keeping, read the itinerary for the following day, checked the map for locations, and finally set three alarms for 5 a.m. to shoot the sunrise. It was 2 a.m. before I finally got to sleep.
Assignment: Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt Shoot
Location: approximately mid-way between Dakhla and Bahariya Oasis – Western Egypt
Mark Hufnail, executive producer and long time friend, hired me to shoot ‘The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt’ documentary. We were deep in Egypt’s interior, beyond Bahariya Oasis, and we’d been shooting non-stop for days. I relished shooting at midday, capturing waves of heat rising from the scorching sand and apparitions of lakes beyond our reach.
I appreciated the power of the sun from the very first time I went to the Sahara. I’d rested my cheek on the side of the camera while looking through the viewfinder; my face burned with such intensity that, for a couple of days, I had a large, red, rosy birthmark on my cheek. From that first experience, I learned to soak my kefflyeh (scarf) with water and wrap it around the camera to keep it cool.
For late afternoon shooting, I picked a location facing west to where the sun was due to set. The stage was a large, symmetrical star sand dune (star dunes are pyramidal mounds with slip-faces, on three or more arms, that radiate from the high center of the mound. They tend to accumulate in areas with multidirectional winds, a supreme annoyance I often have to deal with).
It was to be the last shot of the day and a welcome relief from the desert heat. If all went well, this would be the money shot. I’d planned the scene with two Bedouins in the foreground. As they led their camels across the top of the sand dune they’d appear as silhouettes against the giant orange ball that was the setting sun. I just hoped the camels would prove to be co-operative.
Camels are known as the ‘ships of the desert’; they can travel across desert sands with a speed of up to eight to ten m.p.h. They can maintain this speed for longer periods of time over great distances – about thirty miles a day – even with extremely heavy loads.
With this knowledge, I decided to start shooting three minutes before sunset. Inwardly pleading for all the planets to be in alignment and for a little luck to go my way, I hoped to get one good take of the Bedouins and camels passing in-front of the setting sun.
Houston, we have a problem. As I started recording, the winds picked up. Sand started to blow in all directions, spiraling around me.
‘Holy crap! Not now!’ I muttered.
I was shooting on a long lens with a two-time extender, which meant that any small movement of the camera, no matter how subtle, caused the image to be shaky. Out of fear of getting ‘the call’ and being told that the footage was unusable, too shaky, or too shitty, I went into madman overdrive.
I’d already taken precautions by tightening the tilt and pan head and dropping the legs of the tripod to their lowest point above the ground. I dumped all the contents from my backpack and filled them with camera batteries, my Nikon 35mm camera, bottled water, rocks, sand…anything I could get my hands on that would hold weight. I took the anvil case and tried building a protective wall around the camera. The camera’s shaking stabilized, in spite of the many gusts of wind.
I grabbed the walkie-talkie. I had less then three minutes left to get the shot. I called out, ‘Mark, cue the camels. Mark!’
‘Copy. Cue the camels.’
I had two minutes and twenty-four seconds left before the sun set. The frame was empty, no Bedouins or their camels in sight. With adrenalin in my throat, I barked, ‘I don’t see them! I don’t see the camels. Cue the camels! The sun is setting!’
There was a pause. Then Mark replied, ‘They’re going…and they’re going!’
Looking in the viewfinder I saw the first Bedouin enter the frame. Jesus! It was such a relief to see them. ’Okay, there they are… there they are… keep them going… keep them going. Good, good.’
Two minutes and twelve seconds until sunset.
A gust of wind blew hard against the camera and my face was spiked with sand pellets. As the last Bedouin and his camel exited the frame, I had one minute and fifty-six seconds left before the sun went to bed.
I needed them to turn around and cross the frame again. Straining not to overreact, I grabbed the walkie-talkie. ‘Mark, turn them around. Turn them around! Hurry, hurry…turn them around. Turn the camels around!’
‘Okay, we’re turning them, we’re turning them. Stand by…’
I could see the sun accelerating in its fall. One minute and forty seconds of light left. Now I was pleading: ‘Hurry! Hit them in the ass or something!’
‘We’re hurrying! Camels don’t turn on a dime, Dave, we’re hurrying!’
The first camel had its tail up. ‘That camel better not take a crap,’ I warned.
Mark, very calmly, replied: ‘Nothing I can do about that, Dave, sorry.’ I held my breath and prayed that the camel didn’t evacuate its bowels. Slowly, the two Bedouins and their camels sauntered across the frame without incident and exited the shot.
‘Dave, Dave, did we get it? Are we done?’
I stopped recording and checked the tape. I’d managed to get three good passes with just a little shaking that could be minimized in post-production. After a deep sigh, I put the walkie-talkie to my mouth. ‘That’s a wrap,’ I said. I celebrated this small achievement with a little ‘end zone’ dance before sitting down by the legs of the tripod to enjoy the sun’s departure from the day.
My adrenalin had faded and I became aware of a great stillness surrounding me. The Sahara had toyed with me but now, as I sat in the desert, I felt blessed to be there, with only Mother Nature as an audience.
There was a silence. A silence so great, I could actually hear the earth breathing.