The story behind the story

“So you were in a movie.”

“It was a television drama, actually. A series about organised crime in the city.”

“And you just stumbled into it like that?”

“No. No. I’m a regular at the café and they asked me a few weeks before if I’d like to be an extra in a scene that was going to be filmed there. So, I said yes. I mean, who wouldn’t?”

“Too right. But in your story, it sounded like you just happened to be there.”

“Yeah, well, I wrote it like that to add a bit of dramatic tension. To make it seem real. That’s what the Director was trying to create in the scene too.”

“How?”

“Well, he was using a single, fixed camera and a pan and zoom technique.”

“Get you, with the terminology.”

“Yeah, okay. You want me to tell you or not?”

“Ready when you are, CB.”

“Very amusing.”

“Sorry. Let’s hear it.”

“Well. The camera had a clear line of sight to all the main action points: the table where the elderly lady was sitting; the table near the door, of course, where the two gangsters were sitting; and the cashier’s post where the elderly gentleman came from. So, the camera would pan from one to the other as the story unfolded and zoom in to whoever was delivering their lines.”

“How could you hear them if they were over the other side of the room?”

“There were wireless mikes at each of the locations where lines were being delivered. And then there were boom mikes in a couple of places to pick up ambient noise. Then there was a guy at the back of the room with a mixing desk, bringing the sound levels up and down as required.”

“But didn’t someone have one of those board things that snap shut? And didn’t the Director shout stuff like ‘places everyone’ and ‘quiet on set’ and ‘action’ and that?”

“No. What he (the Director) was trying to get was a really natural scene where people do what they normally do in a restaurant…”

“Like punch the crap outa each other?”

“No. Not that part, obviously. But just the normal activities of people ordering, people eating, waitresses coming and going and the like. That’s why he used the single, fixed camera. The camera provided the viewpoint of a restaurant customer, effectively putting the viewer in the customer’s chair.”

“Okay, so how did everyone know what to do?”

“Well, the Director did what he called a ‘walkthrough’ before the actual shooting started. First he told us what was going to happen; then the professional actors went through their parts while he checked all the angles making sure that nothing was blocking the camera’s view; and then the rest of us just had to stay in our places and do what we’d normally do in a restaurant: you know; eat, drink, talk normally amongst ourselves while the real action was taking place. The theory was that, once everyone knew what was going to happen and knew what he or she had to do, the restaurant went back to being a restaurant. We ordered our meals, the waitresses served them and by the time the real action started, we’d kinda forgotten about the fact that they were shooting a scene there.”

“So how did you know when the filming had started?”

“The Director gave a silent queue to the two gangsters to walk into the restaurant and the rest of us knew that when they came to the table and sat down and the angry man started talking loudly, the cameras were already rolling and we had to stay in our places until the scene was finished; when the elderly gentleman finally walked away and we all had to stand up and applaud.”

“And he did it all in one take?”

“Yes. It was amazing. But there was a lot of preparation to make it happen smoothly and still look spontaneous. It wasn’t like he just pulled up at the restaurant with his crew and started filming. All the angles and distances were workout out beforehand, the actors did their lines, we did the walkthrough like I said and the stunt guys went through the altercation scene near the end making sure that the table and chairs would go where they were supposed to go. It was like a military operation and it took a long time to set up for something that will only last a few of minutes on screen. But it was fascinating to watch it all unfold.”

“Yeah. I can’t wait to see it. When’s it gonna be on?”

“Oh, not for a while yet. There are many more scenes to be shot; then there’s postproduction; and scheduling. I don’t think it’ll be aired until next year. Besides, once it’s edited down, this scene’ll be very short. I think it’s just to establish the character of the two gangsters. It isn’t a key scene in the episode.”

“But you’ll be in it, right?”

“Technically, yes. But you probably won’t recognise me because I was sitting with my back to camera. I’m the guy the elderly lady smiles at after she speaks to the waitress.”

“So how do we know it’s you?”

“Well, you might see the side of my face when we all stand up and applaud at the end; if the camera happens to be pointing in my direction. I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“The bit I don’t get is the fight at the end. I mean, how can some old guy take down a rock hard gangster? That doesn’t seem plausible to me.”

“To be honest, I don’t know. We were only told about the scene we were in; not about anything that had happened before or happens after, so I suppose we’ll have to wait until the whole thing is screened to find out how it all hangs together. But I did overhear a couple of the actors talking about a scene where the gangsters come back later and firebomb the café. So, maybe the humiliation of being taken down by the old guy is the justification for the firebombing and the escalating violence of the gang.”

“But why an old guy?”

“Like I said, I don’t know. But in the end it’s only a piece of fiction and sometimes you just have to suspend belief and allow yourself to enjoy it. Maybe the old guy was a war veteran. Special Forces. Maybe he’d learned hand-to-hand combat. Who knows? You can’t just assume that because a person is old they’ve never done anything else in their life.”

“Bu the probability of this actually happening in reality is so small that I just can’t accept it.”

“But that’s my point. This is not reality. It’s a telemovie. If all that movies did were to dish up more reality, then there’d be no point in them. It would be better to go out into the streets and live your own life: meet people, meet a girl, fall in love, get married and raise a family. That’s reality. Get a job or start a business. Employ people. Try to get a plumber to come to your house late on a Friday afternoon. That’s reality. Trying to get the RTA[1] to listen to reason. That’s reality. But good movies and theatre and literature and music take you beyond that. They show you things that you might not otherwise have seen; make you think about things you might not otherwise have thought about; make you feel things that you might not otherwise have felt; and in so doing, make you think about yourself and where you stand in relation to all those things they have enabled you to see and think about and feel.”

“I still don’t get it. How can some old guy beating up a gangster in a café be a lesson in life?”

“Okay. Let me put it this way. The Director was going for maximum realism so, even though I knew that it was all make-believe, I tried to imagine how it would feel if it was really happening, if there was no camera, no telemovie and the angry man was a real gangster instead of an actor playing a role. And let me tell you, after just a few minutes of his obnoxious ranting I started to feel pretty angry about the way he was carrying on. It wasn’t just the language. I’ve heard worse. But it was what he represented. He clearly believed that he had the right to rant and swear and disturb everyone’s peace because no one would dare stand up to him; because he could physically assert his will.”

“That’s the law of the jungle.”

“But we don’t live in a jungle anymore. Our society has evolved more sophisticated rules that, if observed, enable its members to live in relative peace and harmony. I’m talking about behaviours like respect, compassion and consideration for others. These behaviours define what we call ‘civilisation’. But people like the angry man think that they’re above civilisation; that they can do what they want, when they want and to whomever they want without constraint, through fear and intimidation.”

“So what do we do about it?”

“I know what I wanted to do; I wanted to punch him in his loud, arrogant mouth; but I also knew that I couldn’t go through with it.”

“Because you were afraid he’d pulverise you.”

“Of course. But also because civilised people don’t do that sort of thing.”

“The old guy did. Doesn’t that make him as bad as the angry man; above the laws of civilisation?”

“Not really, beause the elderly gentleman only existed as a character in the telemovie. He represented the personification of what a civilised person might want to do in that situation but couldn’t because he respects the rules of civilisation above his base animal instincts. And the applause the customers gave after the fight signified that he was this personification of Everyman. But at the time, I was more afraid for the restaurant manager. He’d been placed in an invidious position because he had observed the rules of civilisation where the elderly lady was concerned; but this had placed him at odds with the angry man. It’s the classic paradox of the person who is forced to make war in defence of peace. So in this one, brief scene of the telemovie the filmmakers had managed to portray examples of real, profound moral and ethical dilemmas.”

“Wow! I’d never’ve thought of that.”

“Neither would I if I hadn’t been there during the filming. That’s why being a part of that little scene was so enlightening. We watch TV or movies and often don’t appreciate what goes into making them; not just the physical work but also the intellectual and creative thought. Art makes us think. But great art makes us feel. Unfortunately, so much of what passes for ‘art’ is just entertainment; and as such, we might be better off going out and living our own lives instead of passing our time living vicariously in someone else’s fictional world.”

“You mean, it’s better to make a movie than to watch one?”

“In a way, yes. Unless fiction takes its audience beyond reality, it has no material value. In that case, it’s better to have real experiences than canned ones because fiction can never tell the whole story. It’s always a simplification, or an idealisation of real life. By definition, it never is real.”

“Then tell me this; when a director is making a movie, is he living in reality or in fiction?”

“Hmm. That’s a very good question.”


[1] The Roads and Traffic Authority

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