It’s October, yet again! Watching the last rays of September sun soaring through the trees in rural Louisiana can be a beautiful sight and while I’m not expecting the colour burst we would have this season in Finland, the fall is coming here as well. The days are still hot, 25-30 degrees of Celsius, but by nightfall, the temperature drops – still nice to sit outside on my patio, but long-sleeved shirt would be nice.
I arrived to Louisiana after my imagined ocean crossing, which took 14 days – that’s the quarantine time in Dubai – finally landing here few days ago. So far, I’ve taken the time to settle down, get my bearings, get some groceries and drive around the area quite a lot in cars, searching for food, shooting locations and so forth.
My first impression about Louisiana is: flat, green and picturesque. Located on the river banks of Mississippi – “Missy”, as they call her locally – the area is known for destructive hurricane season and floods, but it’s also a very beautiful area, with its’ rustic, slightly overgrown charm.
I’ve yet to get really introduced to Louisiana cuisine, but we did have some amazing gumbo and seafood, but there’s a lot to dig into.
The studio is located near the tiny town of Jackson, inhabitants maximum 2000 I guess, really just one main road and few businesses on each side. The studio lot consists of a ten on something old-style cabins with two to four rooms in each, centered around an old, antebellum-style plantation house. This used to be a plantation, with slaves and all that, quite dark history indeed, but now serves as a bunch of decent-sized studio buildings, and a bar that’s open for public, too (but not during Covid-19).
The whole village is very pretty, buildings doubling also as a backlot for any small US village from the days of old, buildings still boasting signage from films shot in here.
Our plan is to shoot a handful of shooting days in the area but not to use the studios – those we will do in the UK. We will need a lot of US driving shots in appropriate scenery and a lot of exterior sequences which we’ll nail here, before moving indoors back in UK.
I imagine myself as a worldly gentleman from the early 1900’s.
Dressed in tweed jacket, a bowler hat and even handling a lengthy walking stick, I’m walking the streets of Southampton, whistling away as I head towards the port. Cobblestone streets flow with grime and filth, but fresh ocean breeze washes my nostrils – a breeze I would feel in my nose for the next week or so!
Awaiting me at the port, moored like a huge metallic rhino with four horns is RMS Mauretania, the most prestigious ocean liner, a shining star amidst the slowly rotting fishing boats and much smaller commercial vessels around it. A long line of passengers, like a black snake, squirms its way to into the belly of this huge, smoke-erupting monster, bound to take me to the New World to meet my fate – be it riches beyond my imagination, or gruesome death in the gutter, penniless and failed.
As I approach the boat, I see my luggage, which I already sent forth from the train station with a carriage, being loaded onboard the ship. While hundreds of pieces of luggage still remain on the side of the ship, my bright yellow case catches my eye, stuffed under the earthly possessions of so many others. Mine contains nothing but the essentials for the journey, rest I can acquire as I arrive to the port of New York.
Ahead of me lies a journey across the great Atlantic Ocean! Seagulls will scream their farewell as the Royal Mail Ship blows its fog horns and bravely heads for the open seas!
By all means, not the most luxurious of ships, but certainly the biggest in the world and while rumours of even bigger ones being built have long circulated among us, world travellers, Mauretania is as good as it gets. Comfortable, with professional staff taking care of the passengers – and fast. Traveling to United States can take just under a week, if weather allows – this time, the journey will take longer.
This is passable for me, greatly so. I’m actually keenly looking forward for the isolation from the buzz of the city, the constantly beating clock, reminding us not to waste one single second of our precious time. The rushing through the early morning traffic, avoiding being crushed under the cartwheels or trampled by horses, or, better yet, being punched aside by one of the new automobiles the rich folk seem so endeared of.
No, I want to feel the salty sparkles of waves crashing on the side of the behemoth of a boat, smell the cool morning wind which mixes with the dusty, greasy and metallic smell of the residue of the steam engine that’s pushing us over those waves, relentlessly. Laughing at the sorrows of generations past, to men who struggled to cross even the English canal, this magnificent ship is a pinnacle of man’s creativity, as if heavens had opened and shone light on a brand new world, world of mechanics, engines and raw, un-manned power that’s lifting us on its’ shoulders, rising us finally, inseparably above the beasts roaming the Earth.
After a nautical breakfast, consisting of fish, mackerels, salmon and pickled herring, topped with English toast, light brown crust, medium heat, eggs, of course, and some marmalade, I would head back to my cabin. There, there lies the real beast I must tame, one which doesn’t roar, only bangs; one that has fangs which bite, but not in physical sense – but these fangs, they are capable of causing much deeper wounds, but also capable of healing them.
The beast I call “Uncle Undie”, a name coming from the golden letters, now slightly worn, embroidered on its’ gleaming black side: “Underwood”. “Undie” feeds on paper – which I have wisely packed ample amounts, almost as a reminder from an earlier journey I might have done, one where I ran out of it, leaving me as useless as a castaway on an island with nothing but one palm tree on.
These days I have devoted completely to “Undie”, and can’t be distracted from its’ call. I have a screenplay I will need to finish before I arrive to America, and it became painfully clear I could not achieve that in London, or even before that, in Finland, my home country. This journey – no, a wrestling match, will result in either me maimed and torn to pieces – or the beast, tamed.
I expect nothing less of a bloody struggle ahead of me, but I’m gallant and ready, steadily facing the task in front of me.
My schedule seems to be pushing more and more towards US scheduels. I stay up very late, to 6am usually, and wake up way past noon the next day. This means, I can’t really get to work before 4pm the earlierst, after lunch, that is of course.
We had Döner for a breakfast and chatted the script with the producer, then I went over to a Tommy Bahama shop and got myself a selection of obnoxiously colourful Hawaii-style shirts, which seem to fit perfectly here in Dubai, which is full of badly dressed tourists anyway.
The day went past by writing and dealing with some of the early production things, which is fun now that we are getting up to speed with everything. In the evening, we decided to hit the theatre and watch Tenet – second time for me, first for him – and enjoyed it quite a bit. Some of the details that weren’t pressed so hard in the first viewing definitely became more apparent on the second, so it was more of an enjoyment for me, although now it had only Arabic subtitles, so the Nolanesque, muffled and unclear dialogue issue did come apparent.
The first week of my Dubai experience is now done! I woke up in a slight hangover due to few beers last night, but was excited enough because today the producer of the movie would join me in Dubai for few days of intensive work on script and setting up the production.
We caught up at a local eatery just downstairs, a Lebanese one, and had one hefty lunch that nearly knocked us dead right there. We opened up the discussion on the script and after the lunch I went upstairs and started writing again.
In the evening, we met again after I had finished my day’s work and headed off to the close by mall for some more food. We found a great Kebab joint, “Berliner Döner”, which would turn out to be our definite go-to joint for both lunch and dinner the next days to come.
The hotel room walls are starting to crash all over me. I need to get out of here, no matter what; I need to see some people. The days go by banging the script, the nights by playing Civilization and I also try to read some Dune every now and then, plus there’s a quick lunch somewhere, a dinner elsewhere. But enough is enough.
After finishing the day’s work just around 4pm, I slammed the laptop cover shut, put on my better shirt and headed out for some drinks and burger. Yeah, all by myself, I do that sometimes when I’m working abroad, otherwise I’d become insane in hotel rooms.
I decided to make my trip by following the happy hours, which is the way for the people who don’t want to end up paying 10 euros a beer, twenty for a drink. First stop was a nice rooftop bar in one of the hotels near by (“Intercontinental”). In AUD, you don’t get to buy drinks from the stores or even regular eateries, the rule is that they are part of a hotel or probably also part of a mall is ok.
Rooftop poolside bars are similar everywhere, so after a Corona I continued downstairs in the same hotel, which had a nice bar with a good selection of drinks available. There, I enjoyed the buzz of the people (mainly: aggressively drunken british tourists) over a glass of Old Fashioned.
Now, I took heed from yesterday’s Lock, Stock & Barrell -experience with sleeveless shirts and had a nice white shirt on me, so I decided to give it another try, as I was still yearning for the burger. Back at the same stand, the same person (I think?) looked up and down my attire and told they are full. Which they definitely were not.
So that’s enough of that bs for me, if they don’t want my money then let me take it elsewhere. I found a similar burger+beer joint in the same mall, had a fantastic dinner and few beers, then decided to continue my journey for one more pit stop. A sports bar.
Again, fully stacked with drunken British tourists, I enjoyed watching people (discreetly, mind you) fumbling about drunk and acting happy/idiot. British tourists are the same everywhere: loud, obnoxious and the women pester the Djs for Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” just like everywhere. And just like everywhere, the Djs hate them and bar staff nearly threw the whole bunch out after one remarkably obnoxious episode.
I downed few more beers, chatting to back home and enjoying the people around me, although I didn’t make any contact with anyone, which would’ve been anyway impossible due to Covid-19 restrictions and after having enough, I headed homewards. And as every time I try to find my way by only using my internal compass, I got lost and found myself walking nearly five klicks to get back home.
At home, I ordered a wine from room service (God bless them!), popped Goodfellas on the Telly and spent a nice rest of the night in the world of mobsters under Scorsese’s amazing direction.
The ordeal with the police was luckily nothing more than, indeed, a “standard procedure, all normal”, as the cop had told me. I still wasn’t remarkably relaxed with venturing out of the immediate vicinity of my hotel, so I decided to stay in the next day and just focus on my actual work, which at the moment is writing.
Coming back to my work, as I’ve said vaguely I’m working on a new film production, of which I can’t tell anything at the moment as it’s not yet launched, but it’s a pretty cool thing I’m getting very excited on. As so often, these things take longer time than expected, and this film has actually been in discussion ever since February, that’s before Covid-19 hit Europe, so not surprisingly, a lot of complications have stood in the way of this thing becoming a reality since then and now – and the backstory of the film itself is much longer, but I won’t get into that now. All I can say is that the fact that we are here, now, en route to Louisiana to get the actual production kicked off, has taken quite a lot from quite a many people, and as always, it can still all go south any given moment. The world is now a very volatile place for any production or construct that requires a lot of people working seamlessly together and a pile of money to keep things running.
So, having said that, I was very happy to have our first actual production crew meeting on Thursday, after our almost-daily script catchup. This meeting was with prosthetics and makeup team lead, and a very productive one indeed. I’m still lacking a director of photography for the project, and yet to hear from the casting, but those are to come in any given day.
In the evening, I felt like stretching my legs a bit and was looking for a place to down a beer and a burger. The Internet told there’s a cool place close by, by the name of Lock, Stock and Barrell, a rock bar and a burger joint I hear. Not a typical Arab country joint for sure, but something I always love to go to when traveling abroad.
“A rock club, you say”, I says to myself. “Well, this calls for my best sleeveless shirt to show off my incredibly rock tattoos, a sure way to get in swimmingly”. And yeah, gazes I did get as I walked out, since not too many locals have too many tattoos, and anyways I don’t look like a local. The place was located inside a (blissfully well air-conditioned) mall close by the beach and as I walked in the line, the place seemed not too crowded from the outside. Just before me, a regular tourist couple arrived to the line and asked kindly for a table for two. “Sure, this way sir.” In they went.
When it was my turn, I sensed right away their disgust. They looked at me from head to tow, shaking their heads. I asked for a table… “Sir, do you have a reservation.” No, I did not have. “Sorry sir, we’re fully booked tonight.” Really? The place was half empty. More than that. “And sir, may I say, we don’t allow people in sleeveless shirts in bars here.”
Now, that’s a whole load of bullshit right there. I could see people in bars in sleeveless shirts all the time. The place wasn’t packed, either, so they could’ve easily fit me in, it’s a huge joint all in all. There’s just something in the cut of my jib that doesn’t work with the people here in UAE.
So, instead of a hip designer burger and a craft beer, I went to Mickey D’s and got myself a load of self-loathe/self-pity burgers and a coke and went back home.
The speaker is a big, burly, black-bearded man wearing a green uniform, with a big nightstick hanging from the belt. On his shoulder, Dubai Police badge gives extra gravity to his words.
I’ve just climbed up the metro stairs, coming back from a long, sweaty and pretty non-productive trip to the Al Seef area of Dubai. I went there for two reasons: I wanted to test how the local subway works and to see Coffee Museum. In short, subway works fine, Coffee Museum was closed.
The thoughts race through my head. What have I done now? Is this it, they arrest me for something I’ve never done, and after two weeks of interrogations the world media sees me crying in front of cameras, apologizing for unknowingly ridiculing their country or leaders? I do a quick inventory of all the people I’ve mocked in my films. Star Wreck was kosher, first Iron Sky had only few Middle-Eastern background actors in it… The Sequel, though, has Osama Bin Laden fist fighting The Pope while chasing the protagonists with a dino chariot… but UADs hate Isis just as the next two countries, probably even more!
I’m already sketching my defense speech in my head as the man leads me to a shady-looking metal door, opens it and leads me to a small, windowless room. In the room, there’s a desk with some papers on it, a fan and another guy, in civilian clothes, idly hanging around, doing nothing. The chair they appoint me to sit down has its’ armrests completely torn down. Almost like someone had gnawed them off in pain.
“Is there a problem”, I ask, trying to remain as cool as possible.
“No, no problem, sir.” His tone of voice is reassuring, even slightly high-pitched, which is kinda weird for a big guy like him. I’m sure it would not be like that if he shouted. “Just a standard procedure. Give me your ID.”
“Yes, sir. Your ID. Is there someone waiting for you, sir?”
Shit. This is it. They’re going to take me away, interrogate for hours for something I didn’t do – in the best case scenario! The worst one, I don’t even want to think…
I’m already soaked in sweat for having walked for couple of hours in the sunlight but the blissful air conditioning of the metro station has dried me off already – but now, I’m dripping again.
I sit down for a moment. The policeman takes my ID and disappears. The man next to me doesn’t pay any attention to me, just hangs around like I wasn’t there.
Seconds drag on, turn into a minute. Longest in my life, I recount. Then, the man appears again.
“Ok, let’s go.”
I stand up. He leads me back to the hallway…. then hands me back my ID and leads me out of the door.
“Thank you, sir.”
That’s all? Yeah, that’s all. Most likely. Well, now they have my ID and probably keep on following me while I’m here. I probably shouldn’t even write this entry, but… There’s nothing bad here, right?
My room is starting to look rotten. I haven’t asked anyone to clean it since I came over since I’ve been either working all the time or forgot the damn “do not disturb” -button on when leaving the premises. The hotel is starting to get nervous after three days, wanting to know I’m doing OK when they don’t get a chance to come in and see that the room’s still there.
Other than that, the day wasn’t much to write home about. I didn’t dare the outdoors during the day – 40 degrees of celsius is my internal limit, and we’re looking at 41-45 out there currently – so I stayed in, even up to having the room service bring me my lunch.
The day went past mainly by watching movies and working. By the time it was already dark outside, I dressed up and went out for a bit of a walk. I found myself from a nice little Lebanese restaurant around the corner by the Marina, and had a rather heavy dinner.
Note to self: I have to stop eating so much here. The mandatory mask policy means I don’t feel like going out for a walk unless necessary (in this heat, it’s even more uncomfortable), and huffing and puffing to a mask at the ym is simply out of the question, so I’m pretty sedentary right now. This means, if I mean to walk, not fat-scoot my way out of Dubai, I need to think what I eat.
The heat of Dubai landed on me right as I marched through the airplane door into the long, non-airconditioned tube that leads to the airport. Immediately, as I inhaled the stuffy, slightly polluted air I realized that I, wearing long trousers and a woolen shirt, would be in trouble here. Only time I’ve been in Dubai before was in the wintertime, which was still very warm, but this September heat, this is something different.
Covid does change the travel, not just by the amount of it, but also by the general tension of the travel. Before, you were treated approximately very well throughout the whole experience; now, the tables have turned. Starting from booking the flights, everything has become more strict, tense and panicky.
Travelers are clearly more annoyed: now they have to wear the masks. What’s even worse, they have to sit still in the airplane and wait to be asked to disembark. This seems to be the hardest part of the whole Corona prevention measures to some. I’ve never really understood why people spring up the moment the plane is empty, causing huge chaos and delays taking their bags and pushing to leave the plane first. Zero things are achieved that way. And now, when the flight attendants require you to sit down until your row is called, they take it as a personal insult.
I’m all for it. Getting off the plane is much faster, more organized and you don’t have to stand there like an idiot for ten minutes, spine bent into a sideways S-curve, being pushed around like a bag of potatoes.
At the hotel, I found out that my reservation had been cancelled at the last minute. The staff was helpful but apologetic: it seemed to have been an anti-fraud measure, given that the reservation was made for such a long time in such a far-away place, so I had to settle that with the production company, but it really took no longer than 10 minutes and I was in my big, air-conditioned and comfortable room.
First day here in Dubai was pretty much worth nothing, work-wise, I spent it mostly by sleeping and only braving the great (hot) outdoors twice: once to fetch some lunch, second time for dinner. The highlight of the evening was having a long chat with my wife over Whatsapp and complimentary wine from the hotel bar. Looking forward soaking more in of the town, starting tomorrow.
A single traveler sitting in front of me, at an otherwise completely empty departure hall. Every 10 minutes, speaker reminds us of unattended luggages, which will be destroyed if found. A handful of planes are scattered outside, but compared to what it usually is, it’s really empty there, too.
My mask is straining my ears lightly, but the fogging of the glasses is the thing that annoys the most. Yes, it’s uncomfortable as well, but one gets used to it. I’ve invented a way to relief the ear strain, though: wrapping the ear strings around my noise-cancelling earphones. It works, only makes removing the mask much harder.
I’m on the road again, but this time, not headed for China. The Chinese production is currently in post and I’m attending the finalizing of it over the Internet. It’s slow, but the Covid hit the industry there the worst, so that’s understandable. But now, I’m on my way to shoot another movie. At this point, can’t tell you too much, as it hasn’t been yet announced, but since it’s a weird time to do movies, I thought I’ll start another daily blog on the topic of filmmaking in Covid-19 era.
To be honest, I’ll probably talk about Covid and filmmaking pretty little as we go along. Just like my China Diary, I write this because drifting in the world alone can get pretty damn lonely.
With my wife, we’ve established a pretty great method of really extracting our brains daily, by talking and sharing our worries and joys and thoughts. Now, that this is out of my life, I really need an exhaust vent for things I see and experience; it’s not the same over Whatsapp anyway. So more than anything, this diary is a personal one, you’re welcome to read it if you wish, but don’t expect it to be interesting or educating in too many ways. It’s me progressing my angst of having to travel yet another three months alone, in the far corners of the Earth.
I’m in Heathrow on my way to Dubai. More about that in a bit, but the reason for me being in Dubai is because I had a one-day stopover in London, where I met my producer and the team at their studio. Located outside of London, in a pictoresque small town, village really, the studio will be where we will shoot portion of the film later this year. But before that, we’ll shoot in USA, where I’m headed for myself now.
To get to USA nowadays is pretty tricky. You have to have been in an applicable country for 14 days prior to entering USA, and most of the countries in the world don’t apply. That’s the reason for Dubai. United Arab Emirates is welcoming travelers, but require a negative Covid-19 test 96 hours prior to entry. So, when leaving Finland on a plane yesterday, I went to take an Express corona test at Mehiläinen, the only outfit that promises results the same day.
Testing takes place in the most forlorn, desolate and drug-trade-gone-bad -worthy dock area in Hernesaari, Helsinki. There, a full HAZMAT-suited woman comes and sticks a long, long stick up your nose, and keeps on pushing it further and further, until you start feeling lobotomized. My dear wife drove me there and kept laughing the whole way as I slapped my knee in discomfort and disgust during the whole process.
After that, you have to wait for around six hours for the result to come in. My ticket was at 4pm and the test was taken at 7am, so I should be able to make it, unless something goes wrong. Mehiläinen has a special app for their operations and true enough, around 1 pm, the apparatus pinged.
I froze. “Shit”, I exclaimed. My wife grabbed the phone, “what, what?” I said, I’m positive. The text said: “COVID-19 virus nucleonic acid test. Positive result means that the mucosa contains the virus.”
Oh fuck. Now I have to cancel my trip. The ticket is already booked. Also, I have to stick around in Finland for at least 28 days to get things settled. This really sucks. And my wife, she can’t do her job anymore for a month, and her son is confined at home, too. This sucks.
Only then I read the text below, which gives the date of the test, and the result: Negat.
Phe-fucking-wh. So I do not have the virus. But whoever made that app should re-visit the wording, a real heart-stopper, that one.
But not only that, you still need to get the printed, stamped and signed paper from Mehiläinen offices. That was luckily easy enough, just grabbed it on the way to the airport, a paper which tells that “To Whomever It May Concern, I hereby confirm that the patient shows no signs of Coronavirus infection at laboratory results.”
This paper would later be needed. But for now, I was able to continue my journey.
Helsinki Airport is these days nearly desolate. Getting thourgh the security happened swimmingly and soon I found myself in air, on my way to make a movie. Hopefully. Covid permitting…
If I was a film school teacher, there’s one thing I would teach to all the directors about the job of a director. 90% of your work will be all about dabbling with dead-end projects that never see the light of a day. The trick to survive in this business is to attack each project thrown your way, created by you or suggested to you with the same fire and passion, because among those, there’s one that actually gets realized and then, boom, you’re off. Each of the dead projects that never happened, or might never happen still teach you a lot, they leave a mark on you, something you’ll carry to the one that eventually gets made. So it’s all work, it’s all the same work actually. You’re doing one job all your life, each of the films you finish and get out are just interphases of the huge project of leaving your mark in the world of cinematic storytelling, no matter how small and insignificant it may be.
And still, there’s so many things that can go wrong, so many moving parts – especially these days – that can jam the wheels and break the well-oiled machine that even if you’re on your way, flying to the set, cranking the camera and casting the actors, things can go wrong and the production might stop. Even getting it shot still means nothing: the only time you can really relax is after the premiere screening.
Then, it’s out. Someone else but yourself and your team has seen the end result and no matter if it’s good, mediocre or utter, horrendous shit, it’s out there and out of your system. Then, you are free to attack the next 9 projects that never get made.
But this one, I have a good feeling. I believe we’ll get there. And it’s going to be awesome!