Your diarist is filing this dispatch from a small village named Halton, some 50 miles northwest of London.
To be more precise, I am filing this dispatch from inside an American-made motor home sitting on the great lawn of a 52-room English country manor house, built by the banker Alfred de Rothschild in 1882.
At present, the estate-Halton House, by name-serves as an officers’ training ground and mess hall for the British Royal Air Force.
And in a more immediate time frame-this afternoon-the mansion has been dressed to replicate a grand casino, run by a Russian mobster, in Baku, Azerbaijan, hard by the Caspian Sea.
As I peer outside the motor home, it is lunchtime. The lawn is populated with 190 members of a movie crew. Most of them wear T-shirts with the Panavision logo. There are also 250 extras in evening wear. Most of them carry (along with lunch) prop knives, hand guns and automatic rifles. Everyone chatters into a cell phone. A maze of boardwalks has been laid, so we don’t damage the grass; they lead to two giant white tents-one is our dining room; the other is the extras’ dressing room.
Nearby, next to a field of buses and support trucks, are a dozen or more motor homes-including the one I’m writing in-each of whose size and relative position to the set has been calculated and calibrated, down to the inch, according to the occupants’ billing in the film. (As the lowly writer, it should probably go without saying, I don’t rate my own trailer. I’m camped out in the producer’s motor home.)
And on the periphery of all this-this circus, this strange, bizarre gypsy camp-camouflage-clad Royal Air Force soldiers walk the grounds on training patrols, with M-16′s and bomb-sniffing dogs.
Their guns are real.
Alas, my reason for being here-in England, at this location, on this day, since 6:15 this morning-has almost nothing to do with anything I wrote into this particular scene of the film. Rather, I am here because of the United States, Britain and NATO’s foreign policy with regard to Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Kosovo.
The briefest explanation for this is that last December, plans were made to shoot parts of this film on location in both Istanbul and Baku.
Then, in January, the United States and Britain renewed their air strikes against Iraq, using U.S. military airfields in Turkey as a launching base. To put it kindly, the local Islamic community in Istanbul was not enthused. Or, as someone from the British Foreign Office supposedly explained: “It’s not that we mean to alarm you, but there have been 127 terrorist attacks against British and American holdings in Istanbul during the last month. It’s entirely up to you, but a film crew does make something of a large, fat target.”
Thus, I find myself not so much rewriting the film as reshaping it, to account for locations we can’t use.
To visit-or work on-a film set like this, is truly an excursion to one of the more surreal precincts of modern life.
In the downtime between shots, we discuss politics: The Brits express increasing disenchantment with the U.S. refusal to commit ground troops in Kosovo; they point out that aerial bombing only strengthened their resolve during World War II; they seem bewildered by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s flip-flopping on this issue during the past few days. On Monday, May 17, his Government announced it was imperative for Bill Clinton to commit ground troops; on Tuesday, after the United States declared they weren’t necessary, the Blair government agreed; then on Thursday, everyone was confused when Washington announced they may not be such a bad idea after all. (On Wednesday, there was a hiatus, when everyone discussed The Phantom Menace .)
Meanwhile, in a far corner of the field, the American contingent huddles, and grouses about the Clinton-Hollywood connection-a sentiment that I’ve heard echoed recently in both Los Angeles and New York. “If Jeffrey Katzenberg is for Al Gore,” runs the basic theme, “I will vote for any Democrat against him.” I am neutral on this issue, but I understand the feeling: If Hollywood is high school with money, and Mr. Katzenberg et al. represent the “A” crowd (sort of like jocks, with the ability to hire and fire you), there’s a feeling of alienation-disenfranchisement-on the part of the “B” crowd-in this case, Hollywood’s working class. It’s a fact of life that studio chiefs and movie stars dominate every aspect of their working life. But between the $25,000 benefits and the Clinton Administration’s sycophancy toward the Hollywood overlords, the operative emotion among below-the-line L.A. is resentment that they’ve also been rendered unimportant as citizens. Hence, the outpouring of support for Bill Bradley.
Surprisingly, there is little discussion in the British or American camps about film violence. Part of this may lie in the fact that we do take into account our impact. (For example, during the writing of the film, we decided against a scene where the hero builds a bomb out of a laser printer and household cleaners.) The Brits, however, find American filmmakers’ attitude-screaming about the First Amendment-particularly hypocritical, as the British censor is far tougher on mayhem (as opposed to sex) and virtually every American film is released here in a less violent U.K. version.
In any case, most of this is background noise-chatter to pass the time. On the lawn, I watch as the young production assistants try to pick up the more comely extras. Cell phones bleat. The generators hum. The director has just summoned me to the set, expecting to look at the pages I was supposedly writing during the past four hours.
I’m a long way from 10th Street.
Tomorrow, we shoot on the Thames. And as I sign off, I am reminded of the title of a short story collection by Truman Capote-one of my former neighbors when I lived in the East 50′s. It comes from an old Arab proverb:
The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.