Going the Distance:
Shooting a Feature in Northern Alberta
This is an article written for the Fall 1999 issue of POV, a newsletter from FAVA (Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta.) It's written by Peter Dranchuk who was the sound guy for the film. He also appears briefly in the film as a customer walking out of the store with a bag full of groceries.
Some experiences change your life forever. You just see the world differently as if a large set of doors onto the world were opened for you and you could now see it in a light you never did before. Falling in love does that. So does traveling or living abroad.
This summer I had the opportunity to work with Hakan Sahin on his first 35mm feature, called 'The Student' (working title). Rick Gustavsen lead the crew as DP, and Dave Luxton was the First Camera Assist. I rounded out our three man crew as Sound Recordist. For gear we had two pickup truckloads and in the cab we carried an Arri 2C, a Nagra IS and over 35 rolls of 35mm film in a variety of stocks. Our Destination: Zama City. If you don't have a map or know Zama, 'Yellowknife','Anchorage', and 'Wood Buffalo National Park' put you in the neighborhood. Its a ways. The turnoff for Zama is 16 hours North of Edmonton, about a couple hours shy of Hay River, Northwest Territories. After making the turn, it is another hour and a half on potholed muddy dirt before you come to Zama City, which itself was, in words of our Lead actor Ugur, (pronounced 'Oor' as in "oar' with an 'oo' sound.) 'Haiarr toez du man', which means in Turkish, 'The surf of Mud covers the earth.', or 'Mud Everywhere.'
Entering Zama we saw no one was at the store where Hakan said we would meet. Puzzled, we drove around town through the mud for about half an hour without seeing a single person. It was eerie. It wasn't until we made it full circle back to the town entrance that we saw Hakan standing in front of the store, next to the Northern Lights Cafe. He welcomed us and showed us the main set, the store, and we moved the gear in and then went next door to the restaurant to eat and talk over the project. It wasn't an hour before we all went our separate ways to rest up for the next day.
While I was putting my gear away, I was surprised by the sound of Zama's Canada Day fireworks. It was astounding really, not in sight, but in sound. Each report echoed for dozens of seconds across the emptiness of the green ocean of trees that surrounded us. I say emptiness because we were told if you were flying into Zama and your plane crashed, you would never be found in the dense brush and muskeg. Outside of winter, trucks sink and disappear a foot or less from the road. Every night we were there it was daylight until two or three in the morning, and again at five. Horseflies in the dozens darkened the windows and ate us at will. We were so far from anything that it was as unique as any foreign country I have been to, maybe more so. It took quite a bit of getting used to. One of my few regrets was that by the time we had to return home, we were just getting to know the people we met there. If anything made the difference it was the personalities we met. Each one was a book unto themselves. Anyway, fireworks. I was happy to see them in Zama, as I had seen fireworks two nights in a row before we left Edmonton, early July second. Zama made it fireworks three nights in a row. That doesn't happen often. Falling asleep that first night, I couldn't help but think it a good omen.
Starting the next morning was tough. We started at 14 hours a day and worked up from there to an average of 16 a day for the next fourteen days. It took me a couple of days to get used to this. The demands of the project and the opportunities it presented brought all my experience and skills to work. It was wonderful. Still photography, music composition, human perception, international relations, people skills, foreign language skills and business skills all helped in one of the most intense intense jobs experiences I have had. I can remember by day three getting only a few hours of sleep each night only to wake up the next morning to literally stagger around until my breakfast and coffee kicked in, then going all day. It was as glorious as it was tiring; I felt very much at home. It was funny. In the restaurant one day, this guy hit it right when he said Zama is the kind of place where 'every night is Saturday and every morning's Monday.'
For me the hard part of it, being only one of the three crew, was also a strength: I can't think of any part of production I didn't get to experience first hand. That meant I got to see it all. All the things I had dreamed, read and heard about film production. We did it all. One of my favorite was watching Hakan and Rick rig cameras. With them, its an art. Stunt driving. Helicopter aerial photography. Lighting and setting scene after scene, soaking it all in. Most of all it was the most incredible experience to watch Ugur act. In a word, he was good.
I remember reflecting on the experience with some sadness a couple of days before we wrapped in Zama, thinking it would be over soon and that it was silly to be washing clothes so close to our departure, but I had no choice. Exhausted, I put my clothes in the washer and sat down to watch TV with friends from the restaurant. As a rule I don't watch TV, but I did that night. First I watched the last hour or so of The Peacemaker. I'll never forget it. After two weeks solid of watching scenes being constructed from the ground up, I sat watching the television in awe. It was as if a special channel had come on. As if a light had been turned on and I could see how everything had been constructed. How much care had been taken to achieve the results I was seeing on screen. All the things that had been collecting in my unconscious clicked together like pieces of a nuclear device which exploded into insight. But this was just the precursor.
After putting everything in the dryer, I got to see - Les Miserables- in that same light, having never seen or read the Victor Hugo play in my life. I could never hope to describe the experience in any other word than transformation. It changed my life. People had asked me through the years if I wanted to see it, and I had always refused, saying, 'it isn't time yet'. That night I could see why.
Before this point I had always seen the screen as a mirror of sorts. I never saw beyond it. That night, for the first time, I was seeing the screen from the other side as well. I could see the puppet strings now. I wasn't audience anymore. It was like watching Bunraku, Japanese puppetry, where the puppeteers all dress in black with black veils covering their faces so not to be seen, only now I could see them in all their graceful beauty as they moved the puppets. I could see puppet, puppeteer, and the dance between them. It was sad almost, except I realized how much more I could do with film. How much more there was I could understand and work with to bring my heart and passion to the screen with quality. As I said to Dave Luxton,'Man, look at how much I can play with now!' This might sound a bit childish, but it spoke well of my awe and enthusiasm at the time. It also pointed to the depth of this transformation, which was great.
I have spoken with other artists I know about this kind of experience in their own arts and they concur. Some complain that it is annoying because they can't just appreciate the art anymore, because all they see now are the technical details. Someone else who was much further along in their career said, 'it doesn't matter to me; I just watch the film.' This made me think that after a time, or for some, this awareness can be turned on and off at will. I must confess that I only found one glassblower friend who shared my perspective of seeing the art simply more deeply now, so that the whole of the process came to be an expression of passion and heart, not just the finished product or the technical details, separate, but linked in dance if you will; each part of a contiguous whole.
As I write about it now, I find I reflect upon it as if it were a birthing experience or rite of passage which brought an understanding one cannot appreciate before one has gone through. I remember Rick asking me while we were cleaning up and packing to go home, absolutely exhausted,'So, did you learn anything?' and then,'so, what do you think? You still want to make this your life?'
I smiled. Somehow in my exhaustion, I am reminded of an experience I had washing windows in West Edmonton Mall. I was busy at work and in the flow of things when I noticed this little old Chinese man some twenty feet behind me, standing in the middle of the mallway, watching me intently. Twenty minutes or so this guy watches me as I wash this huge section of glass back and forth, water on, water off. After I finish it shines. I always like the colors refracted in freshly cleaned glass. I collect my tools then look at my job well done. As I do this, this fellow shuffles up from behind me, tugs on my arm, smiles then stutters out the words,'you...,you...wash...window...well.' Then he nodded, smiled again and slowly walked away after I thanked him.
Working on Hakan Sahin's first feature gave me the opportunity to see how the windows were washed on a film set. It gave me a much better understanding of my calling and the workmanship which goes into making a motion picture breathe with life. As I said to a friend recently about working on set, there are no unimportant jobs or positions on a film production. Everyone is important. All contribute to the flow of the work, its finished product and the process of its creation. The only question that really needs to be asked is whether this life is for you, and whether you want to put the effort in to wash well. That, above all, is what I learned in Zama City, or at the least, that is what I brought back with me to Edmonton. My daydream ends as I hear Rick's question repeat in my mind as he waits on my answer, patiently: ' . . . so, what do you think? You still want to make this your life?'
Tired as hell, broom in my hand, I answer.
'Yes. More than ever.'