Myanmar Diary – Part 16

20 February 15 – Friday – DAY FOURTEEN

A solid two weeks without a break is really tougher than we thought it would be. It’s more because of the monotony of the sewing shop than anything else. Here I am in Myanmar and what do I see? Mostly these four walls. Even if I were to just get around town a bit might feel somewhat better. I know Cecilia gets to drive around more and visit various corners of Pyin Oo Lwin. Me, I am inside this place and on the street just outside for long stretches.

But we get something of a break today, as Gavin has planned another walk around town following Gilbert as he dawdles along the alleys and byways of Maymyo. This is also the day we see Tinmar Aung’s screen mom for the first time, the pretty young woman who works at our hotel. Like a true Hollywood mogul, Gavin had “his people” (Salai) cast her in his film totally based on her looks. Hope she does okay and is not terrible…

So we’re ready for another morning of, as Minshi puts it, “watching Gilbert walk around picking his nose.” Gavin already has about 30 minutes of Gilbert walking – we all wonder why he needs so much more. These walking shots are insanely dull, so it’s no help the Zyrtec is making me drowsy. The virus is still with me, and whereas I can get through the long takes without so much as a sniffle on the soundtrack, I’m still pretty miserable. It’s clear I’ve got pneumonia. But it’s the walking variety, which means I will probably not do anything except suffer through it. The prospect of counterfeit antibiotics in Myanmar is very high, and the cure could be worse than the symptoms. While I’m still actually getting oxygen to my brain and everything is functioning I’ll just deal with it. At home I’d do the right thing and get a Z-pak.

Can you see how ready Minshi is to take on the world?

The sound is all at a constant din – an amplified road rally of motorbikes and trucks. There’s no way to distinguish any one track from another. My drug-fueled haze makes me so dopey I’m starting to get sloppy, too. The transmitter pack is clearly visible from front or back since Gilbert is walking through the shot. When I cuff his ankle with a transmitter, it just slips down during a shot. When Gavin told me about the problem the first words out of my mouth were “Okay, so what am I supposed to do?”

Ugh. So passive aggressive! Minshi to the rescue – he suggests putting it on the upper thigh. It’s obvious, why I did not immediately go to that solution is beyond me, and it’s a sign I’m getting grumpy and surly, which can help no one. I better keep that in check. Thanks, Minshi, seriously. I’ll blame Zyrtec, but the fact is that I’m just getting worn down by the monotony. It’s only 10 AM when we finish the outdoor stuff, and I kind of wish I was dead. I’m just tired and sick. We’re not getting enough rest even though I skip dailies constantly and fall asleep like I’m blacking out.

Soon we’re back to the sewing shop for the shots of Gilbert with the treasure box. Gilbert has a tendency to speak softly while on camera and to bark when not. So my right ear is gradually being destroyed. He also sings quite a bit – little snatches of fake R&B songs. My least favorite music. I’m constantly whipping the headphones off, at least from the right ear to keep from having either my anatomy or my aesthetic ruined.

Our new actress, Nyin Zar Wai, is fine with the pregnant prosthetic we brought for her to wear, and looks lovely indeed. It Gavin and Sean light her well then we’ll be in luck. While wiring her up (also ankle) I am very pleased to hear her voice, which is soft and low – lower than one might expect coming out of that diminutive frame.

Nyin Zar Wei in the fatsuit

As we rehearse the scene it occurs to me that Gilbert’s turning out to be a bit of a pain in the ass, and not just for me. He rushes to his phone immediately after every take, regardless of whether we’re setting up to do another immediately or not. He has no concentration or attention to detail. We’re spoiled by Tinmar Aung’s professionalism. Gilbert cannot remember that we do not want him to wear a watch, and we’re constantly forgetting to tell him because we have a billion other things to think about. So we have to redo shots when one of us realizes he’s still wearing that gawdy, clunky G-Shock piece of plastic on his wrist right in the middle of the shot.

The day finds Gavin hard at work trying to get yet another dramatic scene out of non-actors using a translator. It’s not going well – it seems as though threading a needle with spaghetti using remote control pincers controlled from the dark side of the moon may be more direct and probably easier. The crew are bored and are snacking again, including yours truly, professional fat ass. Batteries drain while Gavin struggles through this – note to self: don’t ever make a movie like this. I know, that’s a crap note, and I’ve been making it every day for a while. Rehearsals on set while crew are waiting are never my favorite, but we may have reached an all time disparity between when we shoot without the actors and with just Tinmar Aung – in which we knock out scenes with fluidity and speed – and scenes with actors that require an hour or two of standing around before we can roll off the first of 15 takes.

What makes matters a bit worse is that Gavin’s strict aesthetic requires us to shoot these scenes as long, wide masters. If we were doing closeups or shot-reverse shot you could probably just feed people lines from off screen as fast as possible and let the editor sort it all out. You still would not get much of a performance, but at least we’d get done earlier and get to shoot a lot of coverage to make up for it.

By lunchtime the cruel Gavin is still keeping us waiting for a scene that is simply not working. He’s keeping us going because we’re trying to squeeze the last few minutes out of Gilbert – he has to go to class – but we also feel like it may be Gavin torturing us.

The rehearsal grinds on, without much change. But in these cases sometimes the discussions turns on a single word. Cecilia solves a major dramatic point in this scene by adding a single line; suddenly all the problems anyone had vanish. But there are also too many cooks again, and though the immediate problems are gone, they almost get caught up in some discussion about implementation that nearly derails the ground we were gaining. The translation barrier is palpable. But it seems as though we can at least power up the camera and put something in the can.

Grandma can destroy anyone’s morale

Eleven takes later we’re exhausted from the ordeal and looking forward to a delicious lunch of coconut noodles. Ohn-No Khao Swe is the name of the coconut version of the Shan noodle dish, and we go back to a favorite place to get them. The restaurant is kind of strange – from the outside it looks just like someone’s house. A sign with tigers on it announces the place, and inside you’re still quite sure you’re in someone’s house, only now you’re eating out back on the patio, next to the koi pond. The noodles are a curative, and it’s nice to get out of the set for a while. Gavin may have lost some time, but he’s gained morale in great leaps and bounds. He’s so obviously excited to eat this food that it’s contagious.

We’re in good spirits when we return for another 30 to 40 minutes of rehearsal with Grandma this time. But the energy fades soon, and at 2:40 PM I’m standing here scribbling in this book. Hone Hone has been drafted to sew a new zipper on our reflector. It’s pretty common for the zippers to go on those units, and whereas they are extremely useful and flexible, they’re not much good when the zipper goes. Good thing we’re in a sewing shop.

Gavin and John are deep in the middle of getting this scene right, even though it’s quite simple. Grandma is peeling fruit with Nyin Zar Wai, and she is supposed to be bad-mouthing the girl’s husband (Gilbert) for being kind of a dreamer and possibly not capable of providing for her or the unborn Tinmar Aung.

Nine takes later, it’s twenty to four and were still struggling with Grandma’s inability to remember a single line. Nyin Zar Wai is also getting tired – especially since she also happens to be good – a natural actress. Gavin must think of himself as a regular star-maker now – he’s the new Burmese film mogul. This country sorely needs him.

Sean, Minshi and I are taking bets again as to how may takes this will be, but we all lose. Somehow everyone nails it on the ninth take. A quick reverse and we should be in time for Gilbert’s return and some night scenes. I get the feeling from how quickly John leaps into the van with Nyin Zar Wai that maybe he’s trying to make time with her? Odd behavior for a guy who just got out of seminary, but maybe that all fits together better than I thought. He certainly seems attentive in rehearsal. And not just one male is giving Nyin Zar Wai lots of attention today. Sean has been mooning over her as well. He has taken exactly one cell phone photo this whole trip, and it’s been a selfie with her. Well, who can blame them, she’s a pretty girl.

Almost an hour later, Gilbert has still not shown up. He does have to cross town, doubtlessly on some motorbike or other, but we’ve got downtime until he arrives, and we’re getting antsy waiting for him. Gavin’s setting up for a scene in which Gilbert comes home after the Balloon Festival. After that we’ll get the rest of the Ghost Tinmar Aung scene – essentially the beginning of that segment in which Gilbert wakes and hears a noise. Gavin is playing some Hong Song-soo style misdirection for this bit. We’ll ape the first Ghost Gilbert scene, drawing him to the kitchen just like with Tinmar Aung, and then show nothing. He will turn around and go to the front of the sewing shop where he will see the Ghost Tinmar Aung.

It’s a subtle and fun play on what we’ve just seen. It’s scenes like this that I hope will make the film strange and good.

Gilbert finally rolls in at 5:30 PM. We’re lit for the rest of the night, we’ve had so much time. We were hoping to bang these out. By this time we’ve had so much waiting around that we’ve also already made food and dinner plans. We live in hope. By a quarter to six we’re rehearsing. But strangely, Gavin is rehearsing Gilbert as if he’s in a play rather than a movie. It’s hard to explain it any other way. He’s making him do all the action from the front of the sewing shop, even though we’re shooting it in sections. Since this is a radical departure from how we have been doing things, this does not bode well for the evening. Something is unclear to Gilbert and we sense we’re in it for a long haul.

Gilbert finally shows

And so Minshi and I are sitting around giving ourselves the giggles again. This is a nightly occurrence now, not helped by my general loopiness on so much cold medicine and fatigued as hell. Our humor is pretty much the lowest form – scatological and juvenile. It’s a festival of boner and ass jokes. By 6 PM we have not even set up the first shot. Kill me now. I’m falling asleep as I write this.

For some reason we find this REALLY funny

Why is it that the women are better at acting than the men? Women are better at directing than men, as well. I noticed this first in my own directing class when I realized that despite what the scores and the exams told me, the best directors in the class were easily distinguishable by how they talked about the scenes and characters. And it struck me that women had a much better sense overall about how this stuff works. Guys were better at placing the camera, and had no idea why people do what they do. But women seem to get it easier. I wonder if this also holds true for acting. When I think of bad actors I think of fewer women than men. I’m quite sure this wholly unscientific bias of mine is completely unfounded, but at the moment I can’t see anything else but this truth, no matter how untrustworthy.

Gilbert is so unprofessional that it’s a real pain in the ass for me. When the camera is not rolling his sharp and slightly adenoidal voice is screeching in my ear. He is also wildly uneven, and having no set schedule besides a number of scenes Gavin wants to do in a day is not helping. Gavin: always optimistic, never realistic when it comes to schedules. So it’s 9 PM now after a 13 hour day, and there are at least three shots to do. Considering Gilbert averages 5 to 6 takes per shot (unless there is talking, in which case it may be more) that should take us to 10 PM. Which is the time we are normally going to sleep. Who knows what the call time will be tomorrow?

I understand the need to push this – availability, dealing with Gilbert, etc. – but it seems to me the 14 hour day after 14 days of solid work is possibly not the best option. But just as I’m beginning to resign myself to this fate, we somehow rocket through and get out by 9:30. I’m in bed by 10. No dailies, no time to label files, just sink into the Win Unity bed and let Morpheus drag me away.

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