I directed twelve of the twenty-five episodes of The New Adventures of Tarzan, Season One, and a couple of days of wildlife footage at the Cuernavaca Wildlife Park to be sprinkled throughout the show. For four months I had enormous fun. Sometimes there was more human comedy going on behind the camera than in front of it. If the Coen brothers were to make a Day for Night-style movie about shooting an animal picture, this might make a good scene...
EXTERIOR. CHIAPAS JUNGLE, MEXICO—DAY
An episodic film crew makes the final preparations for a complicated shot. Dolly track has been laid to converge on a tree with sprawling roots.
The Director looks at his watch.
The Guest Star Who Has Seen It All stands nearby with bemused interest.
The Director looks at his watch again, as if willing the minute hand to stop and. if possible, go backwards.
Fluff and Buff, the hair and make-up artists, dab sweat from the brow of The Actor, standing at the base of the tree. Given that the temperature is over 100 degrees, this is a noble but futile effort.
Don’t worry about the sweat, he’s meant to look scared.
I am scared.
Don’t worry. This is totally safe.
Nothing is going to go wrong.
The source of the Actor’s anxiety arrives on the set, his partner in the scene, a male with dangling testicles each the size of grapefruit. Sudan, a large African movie lion, is led out of the bushes on a chain by two Trainers. Two other Trainers follow, carrying short poles. As the Trainers tether the lion to a spike embedded beside the far end of the dolly track, Sudan yawns, and licks his lips to cool them.
Has he been fed today?
If we feed him, he won’t work.
ACTOR'S jaw tightens further.
I’ve brought an apple for him.
Humor is no comfort.
TIME CUT to:
Everything is in place for the take. The Trainers have been positioned out of shot to protect both the Actor and camera crew, should the lion stray from his designated path. The collar round Sudan’s neck is concealed beneath his shaggy mane, and the trailing leash masked from camera by his body. The Actor has practiced limping backwards whilst swinging a burning firebrand to deter the advancing beast. The dolly grip and operator have rehearsed the camera move that will keep the lion on screen right with his retreating victim on screen left. It’s a traveling geography shot that will add tension when intercut with compatible dolly shots on the faces of the lion and the Actor.
The Director wants the audience to see the lion and the Actor in the same shot; but not a static shot, which could be achieved by the elements being photographed separately with a locked-off camera, then fused in the lab, with the vertical join disguised by a tree in the close background. This would spare the Actor any proximity to the King of Beasts.
No. The Director wants a Movie Shot, not a get-it-done-move-on episodic approach, but a sense that the camera is almost mounted on the flank of the lion as it slowly closes in on its prey. The time for this glorious cinematic moment has arrived.
So, on action: slowly hobble back, wave the firebrand,
shout at it to back off…feel free to improv…
Back off, you fucker?
Something like that, but without the fucker…
Here we go, roll camera.
The Prop master lights the firebrand again. The 1st AD calls for camera turnover in Spanish.
The crew, a well-oiled machine, commence their respective duties. The Chief Trainer calls commands to the lion.
Sudan! Go! Slow Sudan! Slow! Good Sudan! Good!
The Director hovers beside the camera, which keeps pace with the ambling lion. Sudan is fascinated by the firebrand, and reacts to its movements. The Actor is In The Moment! Everything is working perfectly.
At this point the Transportation Captain arrives on set to watch the shot. The 1st AD sees him, and a long simmering feud chooses this moment to erupt.
(Curtly) No ha puesto los camiones en donde le dije!
[Apparently, he hadn’t put the trucks where the AD told him.]
Cree que es el jefe? Yo soy el capitan de transporte!
Los camiones parquean endonde digo yo!
[It’s a territorial dispute: You believe you’re the boss? I’m the Captain of Transportation! The trucks are parked where I say they are!]
They neither see or hear him. They are in a world of rising steam.
Whoa! Bad word in Mexico. Serious escalation. The tension-meter on the set spikes. Hungry lion, anxious actor handling fire, two departments inching towards civil war, complex dolly shot, etc. It’s understandable. But the net effect of the expanding angst is to push the Actor into the truth zone. It’s a great performance, swinging from fear to rage and back again. Meanwhile, the other drama continues.
Chinga su madre!
[The AD is instructed to fuck his mother.]
Chinga tu madre!
[The AD returns the instruction less politely.]
Oh, boy! Now they’re at DEFCON 4, soiling each other’s mothers. The conflict moves to the next stage…The Slap.
The Transportation Captain slaps the 1st AD’s face, not to inflict physical pain, more of a formal gesture, a challenge.
Some men go red with anger. The 1st AD’s complexion goes pasty white. His eyes blaze. Detonation is imminent. Luckily members of both departments seize the potential combatants and hustle them to separate corners of the jungle.
The Lion sits down at the end of his leash, awaiting reward. The Actor has started to enjoy himself. Lions? Hah, they’re pussies. The Director calls for Take Two. There’s no producer on the set to stop him.
Whimsical screenplay scenes periodically crawl out of my Id, but this one actually happened. The Actor was Canada’s Chuck Shamata, whom I have cast in two movies since. The Guest Star was former Tarzan Ron Ely, cast as a nod to the fans of his 1966-68 series. The Lion Trainers were the incomparable Boone Narr and Hubert Wells, and the Director obsessed with getting a tie-in shot was yours truly.
In every movie, good intentions are fused under pressure with powerful egos. There Will Be Blood, if you do not head these situations off at the pass. I had ample warning that the clash of personalities was gathering momentum, but regarded it as a producer problem. Naturally Murphy’s Law applied, at the most precarious moment. So I lost an excellent AD, Rene Villareal, fired regardless of the rights and wrongs of the issue, lest the transportation department immediately get in their trucks and drive back to Mexico City without us. I have learned over the years to develop an ear for seismic pre-shocks, and use diplomacy, humor, bribery, alcohol, whatever it takes to help the parties see each other’s virtues. Part of a director’s job is to set the tone in the workplace, encourage communication, and make everybody’s hard work FUN.
Brian Trenchard-Smith is an Anglo Australian film and television director, producer, and writer, with a reputation for large scale movies on small scale budgets. Quentin Tarantino referred to him in Entertainment Weekly as his “favorite obscure director”. His early work is featured in Not Quite Hollywood, an award-winning documentary released by Magnolia in August 2009.
Born in England, where his Australian father was in the RAF, Trenchard-Smith attended UK's prestigious Wellington College, where he neglected studies in favor of acting and making short films, before migrating to Australia.
Among early successes were The Man From Hong Kong, a wry James Bond/Chop Sockey cocktail, the Vietnam battle movie Siege Of Firebase Gloria, and the futuristic satire Dead End Drive-In, a particular Tarantino favorite. BMX Bandits, showcasing a 15-year old Nicole Kidman, won the Prix Chouette in Europe, as Best Saturday Matinee Movie. Miramax's The Quest/Frog Dreaming, starring ET's Henry Thomas, now on Blu Ray, won a prize at Montreal’s Children's Film Festival. He has directed 43 episodes of television series as diverse as Silk Stalkings, Time Trax, Five Mile Creek, The Others, Flipper, Chemistry, and the Showtime docu-drama DC 9/11: Time Of Crisis, one of five movies he made for the network. Recently released through Image is Drive Hard, an offbeat action comedy with John Cusack as the bank robber and Thomas Jane as his reluctant driver.
His body of work has been honored at the Paris Cinema, Karlovy Vary, Melbourne, Brisbane and Toronto Film Festivals. In 2016 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fantaspoa International Fantastic Film Festival. The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia recently hosted a three city retrospective of his films. He is a member of the Masters of Horror Circle, and is a contributing guru to Trailers From Hell.com. He is married to Byzantine historian Dr. Margaret Trenchard-Smith, and lives in Portland, Oregon.
His autobiography ADVENTURES IN THE B MOVIE TRADE was recently published on Amazon and Kindle.