April 4-10, 1983

On the road, Mexico April 1983

Monday, April 4: DAY FIFTEEN

So much to write – but I’m exhausted.  I’ll have to try to catch up tomorrow.

But we were at the studio today, saw the sets, met David – a brief, friendly greeting in the midst of an amazingly busy schedule.

What we saw was a knockout.  The sets are incredible – dense, intricate mazes; large, brooding halls….  A strange amalgam of vastly different periods and styles – Aztec, Mayan, Egyptian, Medieval, with a dash of 20th Century military, and a dominant aura of Victorian/ Edwardian design right out of Wells and Verne.  Totally unlike any other science fiction epic ever made – but, of course.  It’s David.  The man is brilliant and unique.  It’s not a hodge-podge mixture, a grab bag – it all blends together into an overwhelming unity.  The sets in themselves are works of art, densely atmospheric.  Added to that is the visual design of the life-forms and action set-pieces … and it’s awesome.

I won’t spoil it now with all the petty problems that greeted us….

A rumour over supper with Fred Elmes: the equipment might be arriving tomorrow.

Further: we may actually shoot some material for use in Dune – an x-ray display of an autopsy performed by Dr. Yueh, to be filmed from a monitor later and rear-projected into the scene….

Tuesday, April 5: DAY SIXTEEN

The drive down was deadly.  We only got away at about two, Thursday afternoon.  Anatol packed that morning.  I bought an auto-winder for the Nikon.  When the jeep was finally loaded – an awful task – we didn’t have room for the second spare.  So we drove back to the tire dealer where Anatol had already bought three new radials (using the spare for a fourth, and keeping the two best old ones for spares) and bought a fourth new one, putting the old spare back where it came from, and trading in the two used ones.  All of which took time, though the people were very quick and helpful.

We drove south and east through a smog which stretched as far as Palm Springs and beyond.  The California desert and Arizona were pretty damn boring – we kept asking ourselves how anyone could actually live in those towns; no answer offered itself.  TV sets must sell very well.

In Phoenix we stopped for something to eat – just after ten.  Nothing was open along the highway, so we finally stopped at a MacDonald’s – yechh.  Then drove on to Tucson, where we got a couple of not too hot motel rooms for what was left of the night.

Next morning – Friday – we headed south to Nogales, on the border.  More delays there; getting a hood lock installed.  Having a last, very bad, American hamburger.  Then across the border.  They just waved us through, so we made the rest of the journey without any official papers.

Immediately, on the Mexican side, things seemed better.  The atmosphere was different – “more organic”, as Anatol put it.  We drove south through quiet agricultural land – on roads which left much to be desired, and on gas which – though lead-free – immediately affected the Jeep’s performance: engine knocking, poor acceleration.

Anatol at the wheel, Mexico April 1983

We drove on into more barren land, through small towns where the roads often got even worse – sometimes vanished in a mess of dust, gravel, potholes.  But worst of all were the Mexican drivers – absolutely crazy, taking appalling risks.  By the end of the journey, we’d seen about half a dozen burned and rusted bus carcasses in ditches and ravines – not surprising, since the bus drivers were the most maniacal.  As it got dark there seemed to be more and more buses, roaring at us down the centre of the road at horrifying speeds.  The trucks were just about as bad; we saw quite a few rolled semis, often tankers.

As the evening drew on, we stopped for a while – I had coffee, Anatol had beer.  He tried his Spanish out on the very attractive, part-Greek cashier – he can more or less get by, by ransacking his Italian and French.  Deciding we didn’t like most of the towns we passed through, as regards motels, we made a decision to head on to Mazatlan, figuring it would take another four hours or so.

We rolled in finally sometime around seven.  Surprised we made it.  We had both become weird, Anatol was all over the road.  It was far more dangerous, I believe, than either of us thought at the time.  And then it looked as if we might have to drive on; it was Easter weekend and the place was packed.  We had a hell of a time finding a motel, but at last lucked into a decent one by accident.  We crashed for the day, then went out in the evening.  Anatol luckily asked a woman for the best restaurant in town and she recommended a little place called La Herradura (the horseshoe) which specialized in seafood.  We had some very good shrimp and then wandered around for a while.  Neither of us liked the place – a dirty, ugly, crowded town with thick oily air, too much humidity, and an unpleasant smell of decay from the sea.  It killed all the interest we might have had in Mexican vacation spots.  Interesting point: Anatol commented that it was like a bad movie depiction of Mexico.

Anatol was still hungry – or thought he was – so we went into a Mexican place and ordered some Mexican food.  They dumped some sludge on us which wasn’t even warm.  We couldn’t eat it.  It sort of spoiled the earlier meal, and sealed our dislike of tourist places.  So we went back to the motel and slept.

(To be continued.)

We were given a fuller tour of the studio today.  It just gets more and more incredible – the sets are massive and complex and awesomely beautiful.  The design is amazing, thought out so carefully.  And the craftsmanship so detailed and skillful.  The sets themselves are genuine works of art.  And David’s genius shines through them all.

Kyle MacLachlan (Paul Atreides) & Linda Hunt (Shadout Mapes) outside the Dune restaurant at Estudios Churubusco

We were introduced to many people – too many to absorb.  Some of them biggies.  Finally met a couple of the actors – one being Richard Jordan, the other – much to my pleasure – being Linda Hunt, who played Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously.

But the topper was a ride in a VW microbus into a less savoury part of the city, along narrow unpaved lanes, through waste grounds and dereliction, to a place called Aguilas Rojas but known (we were told) as “dead dog dump” – for reasons which became clear.  And there we found a huge construction crew which had spent the last seven months digging out the volcanic rock and building some small mountains and a big castle wall.  Everything seems to be bigger, more staggering than whatever came before.

Wednesday, April 6: DAY SEVENTEEN

A certain amount of aggravation developed during the journey of course.  Anatol would get worked up and barrel ahead without taking time to work things out.  When something looked wrong, he wouldn’t stop to reason it out and find our way back – he’d roar ahead saying “this looks like a good road….”  But we only lost our way a couple of times – in Culiacan late at night, and in Mazatlan in the morning as we were leaving.  He pulled up at a seedy street stall in Culiacan and a drunk set upon him, wanting to buy him a Pepsi.  The place was filthy and stank – and Anatol, having unwillingly shaken hands with the drunk (who was also filthy and stank), was worried about picking up some unpleasant disease.

Arriving in Mazatlan in a state of utter exhaustion, we had an argument.  He insisted on having someone unload all our stuff for a small tip – and attacked me for pitching in.  That’s what those people are there for … mustn’t over-exert ourselves….  I didn’t like acting like a tourist.

(Since then we’ve had a few more run-ins; he has an annoying habit of ceasing to understand what I say – and then when I get tired of pointlessly repeating and trying to clarify, he looks at me as if I’m stupid and gives up as if I’m a hopeless case.  And yesterday it seemed that as far as he was concerned we were to take care of our own areas and he wasn’t going to remind me of anything – and, I suppose, I don’t have to remind him.  If either of us forgets anything, too tough – we have to suffer from our own mistakes.  I got pissed off because if anything comes into my mind, I tend to mention it.  At least yesterday, he didn’t return the favour – and made me feel stupid for having forgotten something (which turned out to be unimportant later).)

We left Mazatlan Sunday morning and went up into the mountains.  From the map, we’d figured on hitting Mexico City ten or eleven in the evening.  But the roads were bad, winding, often clogged with heavy Easter traffic.  At one point we ran low of gas in an area where there wasn’t much in the way of habitation.  Luckily, we found a gas station in time.  We made a decision not to let the needle fall much below half.  Later on, having struggled through mountain roads and Mexican holiday weekend traffic, Anatol didn’t like to stop and lose our position (we were constantly fighting to get by loud, filthy buses and trucks).  We would gas up and eat at Guadalajara.  But when we got there, all the stations we stopped at were sold out.  We kept getting told there was a place twenty, thirty kilometers down the road.  Whenever we reached the place, though, it was either sold out or had never even had unleaded.  We were literally running on empty.  It was dark.  The country was empty.  We got bloody nervous – it wasn’t the sort of region we would want to get stranded in for the night; we were apparently wealthy norte americanos – and country people have big knives and machetes….

A miracle occurred.  We rolled into a small town, swearing to stay there the night.  Found a gas station.  Asked desultorily if they had any no-lead.  Sure, the guy said.  We filled up.  And across the street was a restaurant at which we had a fine Mexican meal.  After the tensions of the last few hours, it was like a rebirth.

So we rolled on and ultimately found ourselves on a genuine highway which carried us right on to Mexico City.  We got here between three and four in the morning – and what greeted us was just like Blade Runner’s Hades landscape made real – a vast, glittering expanse of lights and flame and smoke.

We found ourselves on the Periferico – the perimeter highway – a huge futuristic road complex passing through vast deserted concrete landscapes.  As it turned out we passed half way round the city, turning into it from the south.  Eventually we found the Zona Rosa, the hotel-cluttered tourist centre where most of the crew are living.  We had breakfast at four, exhausted.  A group of youngish people, five male, two female, were eyeing the Jeep unpleasantly.  Anatol had gone to wash his hands; the food had just arrived; I rushed outside – afraid someone would grab me for not paying – and had to stand guard for a while.  I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had any real idea of what things are like around here.  I was shaken up – more so because I was so tired.  But when I came back a while later from washing my hands, I found Anatol heading out the door; a fight had started across the street and some people had a guy down on the ground and were kicking the shit out of him.  That made me feel even worse.  We were both shaken, disliking the city already.

Eventually we found our way to Churubusco Studios and sat there from six-fifteen until Fred Elmes arrived to take us in hand.

Since then we’ve been looking around, meeting far too many people, seeing far too many things – and feeling lousy because we have no equipment and we look useless amongst the bustle of production.  (The equipment, by the way, is still in L.A.)

We toured the backlot this morning – a marvelous place full of a bizarre mixture of architectural styles.  The exterior of the Atreides castle on Caladan is there.  And they’re building a huge Arrakis exterior – dunes and a mountain wall.  Fred was there, setting up a shot of a miniature in which thousands of tiny Fremen are pouring out of caves into open sand.

We saw some of the model construction and the furniture shop (they’re whipping up a case for my Sony portable recorder).

The craftsmanship here – from the largest sets to the smallest details – is absolutely incredible.

Thursday, April 7: DAY EIGHTEEN

Today was both good and bad.  We actually seem to be slowly getting into the feel of things at the studio.  We visited Stage 2 this morning where they’re building the world’s largest blue screen; unless something goes horribly wrong, we’ll be able to get some film of them making and raising the actual screen in about six weeks.

We also spent quite a bit of time on Stage 8 where Fred’s crew were setting up to film some “filmbook” inserts of a sandworm’s innards.  Just after noon a whole frozen bull calf was delivered, which was to be sliced and filmed.  But there were a lot of problems – particularly the apparent impossibility of making the Mexican vet and butcher understand the simple cross-section cuts that were necessary.  When we finally left at about three they’d made quite a mess of it, hacking their way through.  It was badly thought out, I’m afraid, with no one having really considered what equipment would be required.  It would have been much better, as one of the effects people pointed out, to buy a mess of guts, arrange them as desired, freeze them, and slice them.  Which is probably what they’ll end up doing.

Meanwhile, the stench of the carcass is making the stage intolerable.  Poor Fred….

Also meanwhile: Armstrong’s rep down here – Anne Strick – is revealing herself by the moment to be a flake of inconceivable proportions – ignorant, helpless, pretentious.  And she’s latched on to us, trying to appropriate us to her PR department.  We hope, once the equipment arrives, to lose her.

Other people:

Bob Bealmear is Dykstra’s man down here – an almost too friendly and helpful type, the kind who makes you a bit distrustful.  But he seems to be quite genuine, willing to help get stuff from the States if we need it.  Gray haired, tall, in his forties, he’s lived all over – Europe, South America … – has been an actor, is a writer.  This is his first real effects work (he’s supervising the blue screens).  Yesterday he introduced us to some Mexican film types who’ve done documentaries.  Three women (Mara, Alexandra, and Alexandra) and two men (David, a young guy who’s even worked a bit with Jack Nance, and an older man whose name I forget).  We didn’t know quite why he introduced us and we were a little wary because there’s a lot of local resentment against the production and the secrecy surrounding it.  We were invited to the women’s place for the evening – a poker game – and Anatol figured we should go, strictly as a matter of business; the women (production managers) could get us access to some one-inch video equipment which we might use for the hospital sequence if our own is delayed much longer.  As it turned out, it was a decent evening; we went over after a good meal at a decent local restaurant (El Refugio), taking a couple of bottles of wine with us (a decent bottle costs about three-hundred pesos – two dollars).  The people were friendly, Bob showed up; and one of the effects people (he did the big boulder in the cave in Raiders of the Lost Ark).  We stayed until almost eleven (too long) and drank a fair bit of wine (a mistake for me).  And walked back here, not far.

Raffaella seems tough – a hard businesswoman.  Apparently she has powerful feelings about people of different nationalities: Italians are best; Spanish and Mexican next; then the British; with Americans at the very bottom – and worse, she’s seems to lump David in with the rest of the Americans (he’s a director Daddy hired to make his big film).  I have a feeling very few people on the production side realize what they’ve got in David.

Production Designer Tony Masters at Estudios Churubusco

Golda Offenheim is an old, eccentric lady, very English, who’s production coordinator; Aldo Puccini is an old Italian who’s worked with all the great Italian filmmakers – he’s in charge of all the construction and doing an amazing job; Tony Masters is a tall, very English man, who has interpreted David’s ideas into the physical design of the film….

We still haven’t met Freddie Francis and I’ve forgotten the names of so many others we have met.

A young guy from the States introduced himself to us this morning on Stage 8; an admirer of “Mr. Lynch”, he’d been looking around for a project to get in on (film school is too expensive).  He tried Dune.  They turned him down flat.  So he saved some money, flew from New York to Mexico City and walked into the office here.  Unpaid, he’s been a production assistant for the past two weeks – he’s to speak with Raffaella at the end of this week to see if he’s actually got a job.  I respect his nerve, and if he’s actually worked on all the facets of film he claims to have done, we might be able to get his help on our project.

Yesterday, we finally saw Kyle McLachlan, the young Seattle stage actor who’s playing Paul Atreides.  He looked impressive in the hallway dressed in full Atreides regalia.  But I couldn’t remember his name.  So I said, “Are you Paul Atreides?”  He said, “Some of the time,” and hurried away before proper introductions could be made.

The cow incident will keep coming back to haunt us.  Because it was surreal, pure Bunuel; and also the essence of David Lynch – the bizarre mind of Eraserhead made flesh – gruesome, horrifying and weirdly funny.  And also because we had no equipment and so lost one of the strangest, most fascinating things we’re likely to encounter in these six months.

Friday, April 8: DAY NINETEEN

On the equipment: we got a list this morning – nine crates, supposed to fly in today.  So we might get it by the middle of next week.  However, there’s no tape listed in the manifest.  So we might not be able to shoot, even if we get it all set up.  (Tape is one of many items on which there is an import ban because of the virtual collapse of the country’s economy; the fact that we’re not actually importing may not make it easier to bring it in.)

Fred’s crew has a night shoot this evening – we may go along (we haven’t spoken to him about it yet).

And we started using company transportation today, after four days of tense city driving in the Jeep.  The studio has a plentiful supply of vehicles (seventy) and drivers, and we arrived at the studio much more relaxed than usual.

It’s going to be very difficult filming the first unit a lot of the time.  So many of the sets are so tight that they can barely get the necessary personnel into them – let alone extraneous observers.  I hope David doesn’t live to regret the way things have been designed.

We still haven’t seen a full cast list, but neither Anatol nor I think Francesca Annis is right for Jessica – a rather cool British actress cast as the passionate concubine of a Duke and the mother of a messiah; and Kyle McLachlan looks much too big for Paul (who becomes known as Muad’Dib, the tiny, quick desert mouse).  But Linda Hunt as the Shadout Mapes is perfect.

How much say has David had in casting the film?

The first art nouveau science fiction film, with Spanish detailing added.

I just called Fred – he’s about to leave for the studio (the call is for five – they’ll set up then wait for dark).  It’s okay for us to drop by and watch.  Now I hope Anatol hasn’t changed his mind – he gets upset about seeing things he’s unable to shoot (for myself, I want to see as much as possible).

Saturday, April 9: DAY TWENTY

Yesterday developed into a long session – a good one.

I got back to Churubusco at about four-thirty, checked in at the office and discovered that a separate shipment of tape was supposed to have been sent (all ten gross, for some stupid reason).  But we don’t know if the special permit which is required had first been obtained – if not, the whole shipment might be lost.  Also, we don’t know whether Armstrong, having discovered that he has to buy the tape, has bought the cheapest he could find.  It’s highly likely.

DUNE callsheet for April 9, 1983, the 6th day of shooting

I walked over to the backlot where the crew had erected a couple of towers at the Caladan castle set during the afternoon – one for lights, one for camera.  Ran into Doug, the young guy from New York.  He’d been assigned to second unit, which pleased him because he could be closer to the action there than he had been on the crowded first unit (and further from departmental politicking).  He was needed only occasionally, so we chatted.  Quite enterprising.  He’s virtually the only person around here with a work visa because he faked a letter from Universal, flashed it at the Mexican consulate in NY and said he needed papers immediately – and they gave them to him.

I got to play the expert on Eraserhead, telling the tale of my acquaintance with David, which puffed me up pleasantly.

Later in the evening, after the first unit wrapped sometime after eight, David paid a visit to look at the set-up – and he greeted both Anatol and myself warmly – much more relaxed than before; shaking hands, stopping to chat (impressed with our flight jackets, asking where we got them, how much they were …).  When he came back down off the camera tower, Anatol started snapping some shots with his new fully automatic little Pentax; as soon as David saw who it was, he didn’t mind.  So if they come out, there’ll be a few shots of me with David….  All of this produced a massive ego boost for Anatol and myself; from being two vague, scruffy guys lurking about the set for unspecified reasons, we were suddenly stars, seen by the crowd to be closely connected to the director.

And then coming back from supper, we rode with Fred in his limo.  And drove away with him at the end of the shoot at about one-fifteen.  Our stock must have risen considerably, which could be a great help when we start poking around with the camera.

Just before supper, Doug showed up looking despondent.  He’d been transferred again – this time to the office.  He asked me to keep him mind if we need to expand our crew (he’s had some video as well as film experience; and his father is an NY documentary filmmaker).  But even if we do expand, it would be to acquire backup – editing, technical – because we have to remain at a minimum on set; that’s the primary consideration – to be as invisible as possible.

The shoot itself was wonderfully entertaining.  There are some marvelous characters involved.  Pepe Rodero, the film’s associate producer, was serving as Fred’s assistant because Jesus (Chu Chu) Marin was off sick.  Pepe has a superb on-set manner – active, full of humour, and a sensitivity to what’s being shot.  He kept the atmosphere friendly and pleasant.

The two British effects men – Yves and Jeff – were also great; full of humour, yet totally professional, constantly aware of all the details.

The session illustrated the essential unreality of filmmaking.  All that time and effort, all those people, all that money (how many thousands?) – it was all for just two shots, lasting a total of a few seconds.  A rainy night on Caladan; a troop of Atreides soldiers stand to attention as the house’s banner is lowered preparatory to leaving for Arrakis; two men step forward to fold it; another steps forward to watch with tears in his eyes.  The first shot is a high angle slow zoom looking down on the flagpole and following the banner down; the second, a close up of the crying guard.  It involved rain and wind effects and a flag which didn’t operate too smoothly (less so as it got wetter).

Pepe exhibited the essence of his manner by quietly stepping forward at the end to shake hands with and thank the extra whose eyes were repeatedly assaulted by the makeup woman to create the necessary tears.

So again we missed a lot of good material – visually interesting, with excellent dialogue.

Today we didn’t get to the studio until about one-thirty.  And only stayed an hour.  Checked about our equipment – maybe within a week.  And looked in on the first unit on Stage 4.

A piece of, for me, interesting news: Chani is being played by Sean Young – Rachael in Blade Runner.  If she’s anything in person like she is on screen, I’m going to fall in love.

Not yet seven, and I’m at a total loss.  What to do with a Saturday evening in Mexico City?

Sunday, April 10: DAY TWENTY-ONE

View from my living room at the Hotel Suites Amberes, Mexico City 1983

Anatol moved into this building today.  He’d had it with the Hotel Royal, checked out  this morning, telling them what he thought of their power cuts, faulty fans, jamming elevators….

On the whole, he seems to be worse than I am for letting things get to him – generally, I just remove myself from a situation; he wants to explode and strike out.  His moodiness could become a real drag over the next six months (year?).

Yet at other times….  He, Fred, and I went in search of a supermarket this afternoon, taking the Jeep.  We found a big one on Insurgentes Sur not far from here, did a bit of shopping.  Then went further down Insurgentes in search of an appliance place where we might buy some humidifiers (it might be difficult; it’s not the “season” since the rains are supposedly due – but they only fall a couple of hours a day, we’ve been told, so it’ll still be uncomfortably dry).  Anyway, we went too far and found ourselves in a more rundown area – where we were stopped by a cop car.  The cop was aggressive and unpleasant, it didn’t help that Anatol doesn’t have the necessary vehicle permit (since we were just waved across the border).  It turned out to be a good lesson though.  The cop took ten thousand pesos (about seventy dollars) and let us go.  Legally it could have cost a lot more and the Jeep could have been confiscated – so the graft system seems to work both ways.  But it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience.

next