Venda, The Caprice, and The Martini

In the summer of nineteen and ninety-eight, I killed an extra on the set of a picture I was less than a day away from wrapping.  It was a terrible thing, I’ll grant you, a moment I still deeply regret. But a moment that was not altogether unforeseen. She had a rep for being difficult on the set, thought she ruled the roost around the other extras, and was known to use heavily when she was working. Hard stuff. Word around the studios was it was just a matter of time before she bought it. That she was strung out that day and couldn’t walk a straight line didn’t really matter. That I maybe bore some of the fault didn’t really matter. Killing her, though, put the shooting sked behind by more than two hours. And in the movie business, that mattered.

The story circulated for weeks after the wrap…months, really, and I replayed the accident again and again in my mind’s eye for just as long or longer. Mainly because no one who was on the set that day let me forget it. It followed me off location like a cur at my heels and hung about my neck like an albatross. For years, extras wranglers on every picture I worked on made it a point to herd their talent away from me. It was humiliating.

Then, after five, maybe ten years of not hearing a single peep, I thought the tale had finally run its course.  But when a grip that worked the picture told the story at a cocktail party not long ago, it all came back like a bad flashback, albeit with an extra added attraction: not only had it not dried up and blown away over those ten years like I’d hoped–it had survived, it had taken on a life of its own, and become a kind of C-movie legend, a straight-to-video urban myth grown so fat with added scenes and and so flocked with garnishment that even I had trouble recognizing it.

Certain I’d never be able to show my face in Burbank again, I fled the party; every patron, it seemed, clucking and laughing at me behind their hands as I passed their tables.

“It’s time,” my agent said across the telephone line one late afternoon not long after. “The bloody thing’s only going to keep…living, for God’s sake. Unless you do something.”

She’s right, I thought, as I pressed the small END button on the keypad. It was time. Time to free myself at last from the memory, the stigma, and the guilt.

It was time, once and for all, to tell the truth. To tell the real story of what happened that day.

The day Venda Kruger was killed.

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The outlands north and east of the city could’ve passed for Kansas. South Dakota, maybe. Vast stretches of wheat and maize patchworked among broad, fenced fields of barley and sorghum. Droves of sheep grazed lazily in the grasslands along both sides of the road, their backs like woolen whitecaps bobbing atop verdant, open waters. Across the plains, great hulking grain mills stood here and there like giant Burning Man sculptures, with golden halos of chaff dust rising from their silo caps.

We were a good half hour from the set for that day, a working farm built from the ground up by the production carpenters in just over a week. Four-stall barn, outbuildings…sheds and coops, and a two-story log home with bleached tin roofing and a thirty-foot long porch anchoring the front face. Sweeping fields of waist-high wheat surrounded it all, stretching in all directions, it seemed, for miles, giving the farm, from certain angles,  the appearance of an island, a floating oasis anchored in a flaxen sea.

It was our third day there, and the final day of a 62-day shoot. A film launched under an ill-fated banner from the start and doomed to a shelf-life shorter than a can of Spam. A Home Alone-meets-Treasure Island-meets-Time Tunnel mashup family comedy adventure that promised to be a breakout of sorts for its lead, Jim Varney, until he lost the role to a cancer diagnosis and Tim Curry before the first table read. A film that very nearly cost director John Cherry every dime he had, and co-star Charlie Napier his life. A film that found me retching in a service alley behind the hotel at half-past eleven one night, after being hypnotized by Dee Wallace Stone. A film we all knew was going straight to Blockbuster but we all had our reasons for doing. A film that threw us all together in the most unlikely of places, and challenged us to get out. Alive. I, for one, was anticipating an eventful, but bittersweet last day, looking forward to the wrap party and hoping that the varmint wranglers had cleared the trailers and loos of snakes and spiders. And the beetles. The goddamned beetles…..

I slid the sides for the day out of my shoulder bag and turned on the van’s dome lamp, careful that I not awaken Dee, her head resting gently on my jacketed shoulder. At the top in bold caps, the title and logline stretched across the page header:

PIRATES OF THE PLAIN — Adventure Beyond Their Wildest Dreams

But my hope of not awakening her was all too short-lived. I’d only just begun scanning my lines when the van rounded a bend, lurched violently from one side of the highway to the other and came to a screeching halt in the middle of the road, throwing us all against the straps of our seatbelts, and whiplashing us to our seat backs like a vanfull of crash-test dummies.

For a chaotic moment, we all checked one another, our eyes searching each of us for signs of any injury. Until one-by-one, our gazes were pulled to the windscreen, the scene outside the van almost too surreal to acknowledge.

You’ve seen the films or stills a hundred times; a narrow road in Scotland or Colorado and a car literally surrounded by a herd of livestock; sheep or cows, all content to meander just as slow as they please while the driver barely inches forward.

This was like that. But different. we were surrounded, alright, but not by livestock. No genial old herder rode or walked behind this ambling mass.

Slivers of sunlight cut through the van’s windows, the first fingers of dawn just curling over the rim of Howequas Mountain to the east. Had it been any earlier, we might not’ve seen them. We might’ve plowed right into them. And as many as were there, it’s likely one or more of us might’ve been killed.

Their species is called Papio ursinus. One of the more social of their kind, highly intelligent, known to grow as large as humans and travel in great numbers or troops. To many people in this part of the world, they’re called the Chacma. But to most in the veldt north of Cape Town they’re simply called the Cape Baboon. And right now, we were encircled by scores of them. Great hairy beasts, loping across the road with their red asses held aloft and murder in their eyes.

For a moment, we were all too stunned to speak…and perhaps too frightened; that the sound of any one of us saying even one word might draw them towards us. Slowly, I scanned the interior, thinking, I’m riding to the set of a barely-breathing movie in a ’92 Toyota microbus with Tim Curry, Dee Wallace Stone, and Charlie Napier. It’s 5:15 in the morning, there’s no coffee in the van, Napier’s hung over, there’s a troop of baboons as big as men surrounding the van. And we’re in the middle of South Africa.

What else could possibly go wrong?

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We found out what else could possibly go wrong at 3:18 that afternoon.

The last day of principal photography on a picture is beautiful thing. There is a sense of…conclusion. Of accomplishment. Of closure. It informs virtually everyone and every minute on the set and propels the team towards a finish line that looms nearer by the minute; a finish line marked ceremoniously, reverently, even, on some pictures, with The Last Shot of the Last Day. A shot so anticipated, so beloved, so important, that it was given its own entry in the great lexicon of film terminology. A cinematic sobriquet of such conclusive power that when heard or spoken could reduce even the most hardened of production veterans to tears. A shot traditionally called out by the 1st AD, or the production manager; called out from the camera line with a bullhorn, the AD’s voice blaring across the set with the revelatory zeal of a barrelman high atop a crow’s nest sighting land. At 2:45 Patrice Leung brought the megaphone she kept holstered on her right hip to her mouth and hit the TALK button.

MARTINI SHOT IS UP!

Around the great log home, some seventy people erupted into spontaneous, prolonged applause, then turned their eyes, their attention, and, yes, their hopes, to me.

The Martini, you see, was mine.  An honor normally reserved for everything from the simplest of coverage shots to final shots of the lead….but a privilege I’d never held, in twenty years of making films.

The setup was unremarkable…elementary, really. Bent on swindling Dee, her father (Charlie) and her son (Seth Adkins) out of their family farm, I’d come to discuss ‘terms’ with Dee. I pull through the gate, up to the house, step out of the car, and into a fertilized gift from one of the cows created just for me by the crack team in the special effects trailer. Three cameras: one on a crane to follow the car through the gate.

With a walkie-talkie on the passenger seat to relay direction from John, I climbed into my picture car: a nineteen-ninety dark blue Caprice Classic. Soft tricot-cloth interior, ribbed to look like hand-stitching. Power seats and windows. Cold air.

We rehearsed the scene four times: twice for for timing, and twice for angles and lighting. It was a snap. This was literally a no-brainer.

The walkie-talkie burped to life next to me. Patrice:

“Ok…settle, please. Buck, hold. Annnddd….Extras in.”

From the back of the house a pickup appeared. An older model Toyota with a five-foot tall stock rack squaring the bed and containing three long wooden cages stacked three high. From behind my Ray-Bans, behind the wheel of the Caprice, I watched as the wrangler, Ethan Kruger, a weathered and storied Africaaner known by every film crew on the continent, got out of the cab, walked around to the back of the SR5, dropped the tailgate, opened the latches on all three wooden cages, and two-by-two, brought out the extras for the Martini shot.

Fifteen South African chickens.

Fifteen mildly tranquilized South African chickens.

For what seemed an eternity, Ethan Kruger carefully moved hens and roosters from the truck to the ground, placing each upon their mark. Beautiful birds, all…Ovambo bantams and free-range Koekoeks. Naked Neck roosters and a duo of Rhode Island Reds. All obviously precious to Ethan… his moneymakers, yes, but his children in almost all respects, evinced not only in the gentleness with which he handled each bird, but in the fact that each had a given first name and Ethan’s own surname. With the driver’s side window powered down even slightly, I could hear the old man talking quietly to each bird…. his voice rising and falling among their clucks and peeps.

With what appeared to be a small brood milling about his feet, Ethan turned one last time to the open cages, reached in to the topmost pen, and withdrew the last extra. A massive bird, nearly as big as a goose. A bird that carried no small amount of baggage with her. A rumored prima donna with four pictures to her credit, including ‘Cry The Beloved Country‘ with Charlie Dutton in ninety-five.

The cast and crew all took in an audible breath as Ethan turned, his beloved Venda resting in the cradle of his arms, her brilliant plumage of black and white and red glistening under the waning light of the westering South African sun. He no sooner placed her on the ground with the others than she began earning her rep, establishing her own pecking order, as it were, nipping at every other bird near her until she’d created a buffer between her and them.

The bit was simple: Ethan slowly herds the birds to the drive, then, out of frame, waves a brightly painted piece of cardboard the birds know, scattering them as I pull in. Chickens mildly tranc’ed, me driving at about 2 mph…nobody saw a problem.

Beside me, the walkie-talkie burped to life again: Patrice.

“Ok… everybody settle, please. This is for the martini…. in 3…2… Ethan: extras….. and Buck… action.”

I slid the Caprice into D, turned through the gate and into the drive, my ears tuned to the walkie-talkie and my eyes glued to my stop-mark ahead. To my left, Ethan was waving the brightly painted cardboard and all the chickens were scattering across the drive on cue.

The first instinct I had that something was amiss was the slight, very nearly imperceptible rise-and-fall of the right front end of the car, followed by the same sensation from the right rear. I remembered neither from the four rehearsals, and wondered how I’d missed the clod I’d obviously just driven over.

The next instinct I had was that my first instinct was wrong. Way, way wrong. Off to my left, old Ethan Kruger was loping as fast as he could towards the Caprice, tears welling in his eyes. Beside me, the walkie-talkie again came to life, but the voice now was the director’s. Even through the static, I could make out the unmistakable sound of John Cherry exhaling before he spoke even one word…

“Oh, man…” he sighed. To my right, now, Ethan disappeared below the door-frame of the Chevy. As he slowly rose into view, John came back on the radio, telling me what I already knew.

“Ok… let’s, um, let’s cut, man. You, um…..you just, uh….”  but from the open passenger window, Ethan finished for John:

“You bastard. You just killed my Venda.”

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I was, of course, exonerated, and eventually even old Ethan apologized and acknowledged as much, but for the rest of the day, the death wore heavily on us all, placing a decidedly pitty olive in what should’ve been a fabulous martini. Packed back into the microbus, the long ride back to Cape Town and the hotel after the wrap was like being in a sensory-deprivation chamber; my cast-mates all but shunning me. It was mortifying.

Against my better judgement, I listened to Dee, Charlie and Tim and went to the wrap party, where we screened dailies and I drank myself into near-forgetfulness, regretting the pending separation from the cast and crew and hoping that the memory of the day’s accident had faded from their minds as well. Sufficiently oiled with a serious South African Merlot, I was gathering myself up to return to my room when Tim and Dee sidled up to me with a dinner invitation to join them in Charlie’s room in an hour. Having done no more than pick at finger food for as long, I jumped at it, taking a detour to my room where I splashed some water on my face, changed clothes, grabbed another bottle of wine, and at seven-thirty, made my way to Napier’s room.

I’d barely knocked when Dee opened the door, gave me a quick peck on the cheek, and led me into the suite, where Charlie, Tim, and John waited for me at the dining table, beautifully set with white bone china, silver and crystal surrounding the meal my friends… my dear, dear friends… had prepared for me.

A bucket of KFC.

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© 2017. J Buck Ford

Lessons From My Father

(Note: Originally written in 2007 for the Commercial Appeal)

Ernest Jennings Ford was part of a generation brought up to believe that sparing the rod spoiled the child. And like many my age, the lessons my father sought to impress upon me in my youth more often than not came with a reminder, which usually left an impression of another sort altogether; one that spared no emphasis, one usually in the shape of a hand, a belt, or a switch, and usually found somewhere on my backside. Many of those impressions were so…impressive, that they actually left depressions back there. Over time, I think I actually began to develop calluses on each cheek.

I know now, that all of the reminders in the world wouldn’t have mattered, wouldn’t have guaranteed that I’d remembered. It is, after all, a well-known, but oft-forgotten fact that the lessons our fathers spent most of their adult lives teaching us to remember, fail to be remembered until we’re well into our own adult lives, and old enough to have our own children. I know this to be incontrovertibly true. I’ve told my own children many times that one day, they will wake up, slap themselves and realize their mother and I were right.

They will realize that the same lessons given to me by father, and his father to him, will be the lessons they will (eventually, I hope) seek to hand down to their children; those lessons that mold who we are; the lessons that shape our character and define how we live our lives among others. Their simplicity is the key to the enduring value each holds: Tell the truth. Respect your elders. Don’t take it if it isn’t yours. Wash your own plate. Sit up straight. Earn it. It only takes five minutes to get in trouble with somebody, and a lifetime to get out (a personal Ernest Ford mantra in my teen years). Brush your teeth. Don’t slouch. Speak up. Mind your manners.

…Life lessons that will endure generation after generation. Lessons I will spend the rest of my life teaching my children to remember, knowing they will possibly need an occasional, moderate reminder.

Last time I checked, none of them had any calluses.

Thanks for the lessons, Dad. I miss you.

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© 2007 Jeffrey Buckner Ford