My Pop Life #236 : Superman ft. Bucie – Black Coffee


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Superman ft. Bucie   –   Black Coffee

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I am a cat-man.  I have always had a cat or two or three, and I understand them.  A little. Cat Man Do.  My reward for good behaviour (miaow!) has been to have used up only a third of my 9 lives…  Two I have written about already : Falling Out Of A Van Going At 50 mph On A Scottish Road (see My Pop Life #232 – C’Mon) and Drowning When Drunk At Dawn In A Las Vegas Swimming Pool (see My Pop Life #235 – You’ve Got A Friend).  The third attempt was more recent than these two teenage incidents and will have to be entitled Being Dropped In A Cage From A Boat Into 30 Metres Of Shark-Infested Seawater With No Oxygen Etc.

It was 2010.  It was – in all seriousness – the second time that I had given up acting for a living.  My way this manifests itself is as follows – I call my agent – in this case Oriana Elia – and inform her that I will no longer audition for anything, and will in fact be quite happy if I never work again.  It was a kind of petulance, a kind of release, and a kind of sanity that swept over me that spring.  I cannot remember the details that pushed me over the edge, but within four months I was in Cape Town doing a film with Halle Berry.

But first a little matter of a World Cup.  I won’t write about it here, but Jenny and I have been to every World Cup since USA 1994 when we lived in Los Angeles as a special treat and these adventures are memorialised in My World Cup Blog.

The World Cup in June of 2010 was in South Africa.  While we were in Johannesburg for the latter stages I received word of a job – in South Africa – in July/August.  Their winter, our summer in England.  A straight offer.  Thank you casting director Gail Stevens.  A special lady.  I was back in the game.

I decided to go home for two weeks rather than stay down there, and thus it was for the 2nd time in a month that I arrived in Cape Town in July and checked into the Waterfront Apartments.  It was actually my third time in Cape Town because I’d been filming here in 2006 (see My Pop Life #117) on The Flood, and spent one day off at the Khayelitsha project of our first aider Kerryn Pitt.  My first stop on this visit was to drive out there and see how they were doing.

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Kerryn Pitt

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Table Mountain from Khayelitsha Township

They were doing well.  They still had their World Cup flags flying over the township.  Kerryn was on good form and had been building a Guest House for the project, alongside the orphan’s school & kitchen.  Township Air B’n’B.  We chatted, I took photos and vowed to return.

That night I met the director John Stockwell for a drink. My worries about the script were aired and then turned to more general worries about the film when he asked me to re-write it.  I decided not to get involved at that level.  Perhaps I asked for more money, I truly can’t remember.  It felt like much of it might be improvised.  The schedule was to be improvised, everything was weather dependent so we had to be ready to shoot any scene at any time, and we’d all be working every day.  And there were no rehearsals, so the first time I met Halle Berry was on the first day of filming, down in Simons Town on False Bay.  I’d made a major fluff of my first meeting with another female lead actor –  Sigourney Weaver back in 1991 on Alien 3 (see My Pop Life #171) so this time I had a plan – smile,  make friends, be charming.  Not too difficult because being the first black actress to win an Oscar was completely historic and inspiring and I told her so.  She is gracious and kind and friendly.  It’s going to be fine.  So far so good and my other co-stars Sizwe Msutu, who stayed ashore, Olivier Martinez, Luke Tyler and Mark Elderkin all seemed untroubled by delusions of grandeur and I rather hoped for a decent shoot.

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Me, Halle, Olivier, Sizwe in a dinghy going home

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Luke Tyler & Mark Elderkin

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John Stockwell

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Olivier Martinez

The film by the way remains one of the very worst-reviewed films I’ve ever had the privilege to have been in.  It’s called Dark Tide and it scored a fairly unique 0% on the website Rotten Tomatoes.  But rubbish films can still be good fun to make (and of course the opposite too – good films can be a fucking nightmare on set and off !)

It is set almost entirely on a small boat at sea.  There are six of us on it.  I play a British millionaire who brings his son (Luke) on a shark weekend – Halle is a shark whisperer who owns the boat and whose business is going bust.  Mark played the skipper and Olivier her partner.  Oh.  That makes five.

Anyway.

What is a shark weekend?  Well in South Africa, Mexico, Australia and other areas of the world it is where you rent a boat and climb into a cage and get lowered into the water to watch them up close.  Cage Diving With Sharks.  What could possibly go wrong?

In fact Luke Cresswell, my buddy from Brighton who co-created Stomp along with Steve McNicholas was just down the road in Gansbaai, filming Great Whites from a naturalist’s angle and he generously took me out on my first free afternoon to watch the water.  A preview of what was to come.  What strange coincidences life throws at you, and great to see him.

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Luke on his shark boat

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Luke and Great White Shark off Gansbaai

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And I had a wonderful drive back along the Garden Route to Cape Town at dusk

I’ve written a little about the shark experience, especially the sea-sickness angle in My Pop Life #37 – A Salty Dog.  Halle rented a house nearby with her daughter and nanny,  the rest of us were in apartments on the Cape Town Waterfront and were picked up at 5.45 every morning.  My driver Hans was a large Afrikaaner who resisted stereotype yet was a huge fan of Meatloaf.  We’d have an hour’s drive into the dawn, playing my music, playing his, playing the radio, then into unit base as the light arrived.

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Simons Town, False Bay

Costume change & make-up plus breakfast at unit base then down to the quayside and board the boat V.S. Volante at 8am and start the engine which produced a very particular kind of smell – of oil – then out to sea and shoot all day til the light faded at 6pm.  Six days a week.  Lunch was brought alongside by a rubber dinghy.  We often anchored up near Seal Island, which is where we were that day.

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Green Point at the top was near the Cape Town waterfront. Simon’s Bay was base camp about an hour down the Cape.

I’ll just digress gently and note that while we were filming, guys were chumming the water on either side of the boat.  Throwing bucketfuls of dead fish overboard to attract Great White Sharks in other words.  Then if one came near us we would film with it behind us, or even try and get it to approach the boat.  Some of these were large – the females we were told, some were smaller and whip-flick irritable – these were the juvenile males.  Of course they were.  We were not expected, naturally, to get into the sea with these beasts, we had a stunt crew for all that.  But apparently we only had three sets of oxygen tanks, and they, naturally, were for the stunt crew.

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Seal Island

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On the fateful day in question, it was decided that Luke my son and I would do a scene with skipper Mark just before we go down for our first cage dive.  This involved being fully dressed for scuba diving – masks, fins, weights, tanks.  The tanks weren’t full of oxygen.  They were props.  Fair enough, we weren’t going underwater.  We were doing some chat then climbing into a cage which went up to waist height off the back of the boat.  And cut.  The stunt crew with the real oxygen tanks were at least a 45-minute boat ride away.  Halle and Olivier were inside the Volante resting.  Olivier was actually  affecting a tremendously French couldn’t care less attitude while clearly staying available.  Halle’s favourite.

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Lunch arriving.  Be honest, it isn’t a large boat.  See cage on the stern.

We were shooting off the back.  Sorry, the stern.  As we waited for the camera I looked at the cage, suspended from a frame by a rope and pulley.  We would climb in via a door in the top of the cage.  I noticed something.  “What’s that blue rope?” I asked marine co-ordinator Jason Martin alongside me.  I hadn’t seen it before.  “That’s a safety rope” he answered,

in case the pulley breaks but that isn’t going to happen

Right thanks”  I said.

Luke was sitting on the other side of me and hadn’t heard this exchange.  “Hey Luke” I said, “you see that blue rope there?  That’s to stop the cage from plunging onto the ocean floor when the pulley breaks. Which it won’t“.

Good to know”  he said.

We got into position.  Line-up.  Ran the words.  Camera ready.  Actors ready.  Boom op ready.  Turn over.  Speed.  Mark it.  247 take one.  Crack!  And the stage was ours.  We did the words and climbed into the cage.  The water was quite lively and as Luke climbed down into the cage beside me a huge wave went over our heads. “I’d better hold my breath” I thought.  And the wave stayed there.  And stayed there some more. “Hang on“‘ I thought, “I really need to hold my breath here“.  Then Luke just disappeared upwards through the cage door above us, and so did I, breaking water to a crowd of alarmed and panicked faces looking down, reaching out to take our arms, hauling us back onboard where we sat down in a puddle.

What happened?” I asked.

The pulley snapped”  someone said,  “The safety rope stopped you from dropping down 30 metres onto the sea bed.

I looked round. Sure enough the blue rope was the only thing holding the cage.  There had been no big wave.  Below us was the rocky shelf of Seal Island – not that deep, I had dived in Egypt down to 20 metres.  But that was with oxygen.  Plus the speed we’d have dropped would’ve given us the bends.  And then where the shelf drops into the depths, the underwater cliff edge,  is where the sharks hunt for seals, which is actually why we were anchored there.  You couldn’t drop an anchor onto the ocean floor anyway, the chain wasn’t that long.

Everyone was really shaken up.  John the director was apologising to Luke and I.  People were bringing tea and biscuits.  We would be taken inside and they’d shoot something else.  Drama and panic.  Are you guys OK?  I lit a cigarette.  Luke and I conferred.  We were happy about the blue rope (which isn’t in the photo above I’ve just realised, must’ve been added after that day…) but unhappy about the pulley snapping.

For the rest of the day we were placated.  I think we were both in shock and in the dinghy ride back to shore I said I would speak to my agent.  Film sets are notoriously unsafe spaces in many ways – I remembered the accident on Alien 3 with Linda, Sigourney’s make-up lady – but this seemed to be a many layered accident with plenty of possible ways to die or be seriously injured.  There’s always an insurance angle on films which is often the reason why a film isn’t greenlit – they can’t get a bond.  The fear of the insurance doubling rippled through the production – and I’d like to think there was also a concern that two actors might have been lost, and thus the film, because they wouldn’t have gone back and re-shot everything with two new actors.  Would they?

It was decided that Luke and I wouldn’t do any more work in the water, most of it was going to be done in Pinewood Studios later in August.  But in fact that scene was eventually re-shot a few clicks down the shore from Simonstown, in the sea.  The ghost lingered but we got the scene.

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Sorry babe I’m already happily married

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After this drama a kind of rhythm was established.  The day was based on how seasick we felt, how quickly the ginger basket was emptied of sweets and biscuits and drinks.  Scenes and sharks came and went.  We couldn’t find the right stormy conditions for the final sequence so in the end it was decided to head south and round the Cape of Good Hope into the open Atlantic to get some churning seas.  That was a day of sickness and drama as Olivier (in character) ordered me to sit down as the waves started kicking the boat around and I (in character) refused.  In make up the following morning Halle came to my chair and started whispering in my ear about making up with Olivier because he was still screwing about it, and would I mind apologising to him.  “I was acting a scene” I objected but Halle had my earlobe between her thumb & finger and was gently rubbing an affirmation out of me.  Olivier and I made up but he still insisted that if we did fight, he would win.

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One weekend I invited Halle, Olivier, Luke, Mark and John to the Indlovu Project in Khayelitsha, and we spent a precious couple of hours in the township where the kids danced for us, we were fed and watered and chatted and took photos of each other.  Halle later donated a generous sum to their project and Olivier supplied them with punch bag and some sets of boxing gloves.

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As the film drew to a close whatever feelings we had about the story we were telling was slowly but inevitably being subsumed by the wild beauty around us and one by one we surrendered to the surroundings.  There was an afternoon of behind-the-scenes interviews where we all mucked in and watched each other’s clips.

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Luke holding the screen for Norma Hill-Patton’s interview, Halle Berry watching. I’d worked with Norma  before on ‘Buster’ the train robber film (1986).  Life is long.

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Effortless grace and lucky guy

We wrapped up and I flew back to Brighton and Jenny and Chester and Mimi.  Dark Tide reconvened in the Paddock Tank in Pinewood Studios.  My oxygen tank didn’t work there either when I was inside the cage one afternoon, so I did the pointing to my mouth thing and my guide diver found me and gave me an emergency oxygen feed as we swam to the top of the tank.   It doesn’t count as a life though if you’re counting.  Never in danger.  It was the Paddock Tank where I’d previously shot the underwater sequence in The Boat That Rocked/Pirate Radio in 2006 (see My Pop Life #205).  I was starting to feel like a veteran underwater actor.  I’m not a great swimmer but I have no fear of being underwater despite nearly drowning when 19 –  I learnt to swim in Hornsey Road Baths when I was 25 years old and the first thing they made us do was go underwater and stay there for ten, then twenty seconds.

Halle came out for dinner one night with Norma to meet Jenny and our friend Martina Laird in the Groucho Club.  They both loved her.  She is a real sweetheart who doesn’t pick the best men.  Olivier lasted six years and they have a child together.

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The handsome couple were married 3 years later

All through that summer I was listening to the radio, to the sounds of South Africa.  I didn’t need my comfort music around me for some reason, and delighted in the new sounds of that new nation.  They were obsessed with house music and a fella called Black Coffee.  In 2006 when I’d shot The Flood in Cape Town I became hooked on a song called Mdlwembe or Umdlwembe (see My Pop Life #117) from the Tsotsi soundtrack which actually dates from 2000.  Ten years later it was house music which dominated the airwaves and this DJ in particular who stood head and shoulders above the pack.  His album Home Brewed was released in 2010 and you couldn’t escape from it’s silky rhythms in bars, restaurants, taxis and on the street.

My favourite memory of the shoot was this moment :

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My favourite shot of Halle was this :

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I write this from lockdown in New York City where the numbers suggest that we have been plague central for six weeks.  99% of the citizens wear masks outside in a huge act of compassion to protect the vulnerable and the elderly the diabetics and the asthmatics.  My wife Jenny is one of the latter.  She hasn’t gone out.  I don mask and gloves and stride out to the shops, intrepid and steeled, keeping spatial distance from the other explorers. The shop has its own rules and lines, screens and bagging procedures.  We are at war.  When I get home, the shoes are left in the hallway, the vinyl gloves unpeeled and trashed, soap and water, bleach wipes on all bags, all produce, all shopping, keys, cards.

Death is just out there.   I will trade in my remaining 6 lives for my wife’s.

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the blue rope with the knot which saved us

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Rob Milner
    May 23, 2020 @ 18:13:19

    Jesus. Arse-puckering moment there.

    Recall with a shudder my own ‘experience’ with water as a kid in Gosport in the 80s. Actually, I think it might have been the closest I’ve ever come to The Big Sleep – that is, having any actual idea the ol’ sword was hanging over my barnet . Classic setup – left to wander out of depth by absent adult for whatever reason, and then the tiles below ceasing to exist and then coming back only intermittently until they weren’t there at all anymore. Hazy memories of shouting, a splash, and a pair of burly arms lifting me up above the waterline as I coughed and spluttered out what seemed to be half the pool and a lung. Enter stage left one embarrassed adult and one hasty retreat to the changing rooms.

    Hate water to this day, which is why I am trying to replace my body’s water content with whiskey.

    I suppose that bloke was my blue rope – and I often wonder where he is even now.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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