In the last entry, we ended with our painful decision to move the shooting location from Venezuela to some other, more stable country. We checked out possible sites in Ecuador, Peru, and Panama before settling on Belize, a small Central American country just north of Guatemala on the Caribbean Sea. Belize is quiet, accessible, friendly, and with the added benefit that English is spoken by most of the population, including the indigenous groups. Also, Matt had lived and worked in Belize so he had very solid relationships in the southern area where we would shoot. Relationships are everything when working in most of the world! This opened up more options for production, but it is still far from Hollywood.
We based the production in the small fishing village of Punta Gorda, population 3,000. We found a filming location on private jungle land where we could build our sets: one large round communal village called a shabano, a small thatch hut nearby, a partial shabano that we planned to burn down, and a more modern village of mud-walled huts with palm-thatch roofs. Working on private land gave us crowd control, security from vandals (though we posted security guards as well), and it was a neutral site so we would avoid rivalries between villages in the area.
Now we also had the option to increase the crew size and equipment package. In the end, we brought in approx. 30 crewmembers from North America. Most of these were not experienced filmmakers, but we were able to pick up professionals in very key roles, like an incredible 1st Assistant Director, an extra Makeup person, a jack-of-all-trades grip, a Script Supervisor, etc. These people made life much better and were the only reason we could even attempt to shoot on a schedule. [As a note, our schedule in Venezuela was going to be in the neighborhood of 14 weeks. In Belize we made a schedule for 8 weeks.]
Our camera package remained similar (Two, matched Aaton super16 cameras) but we were able to bring in luxuries like steel dolly track, big lighting stands, a couple of beat-up (and really heavy) HMI Pars, a steadicam, two generators, and assorted other heavy, bulky items that make filmmaking much more pleasant. We were also able to schedule a jib operator with his 24-foot camera jib to come down for a couple of weeks in the middle of shooting to give us our big money shots. (The offer of a couple of weeks work in the tropics was very attractive to a shooter from Toronto – in February!) We set up a system for sending exposed film stock to Technicolor in Toronto for processing and transfer. FedEx proved to be reliable and safe for every roll we shipped (approx 150 rolls). It’s not overnight, but it worked. We had no hope of seeing dailies, but got reports from our colorist that said everything was looking great. A trustworthy colorist and lab is like gold! Colin Moore is at Technicolor in Toronto – look him up.
Shipping to Belize was a key element of our planning. Airfreight is too expensive for heavy items. It’s not practical to ship by truck through Mexico. We needed dependable production vehicles so we purchased two of them in the U.S. Our big box truck (outfitted by Matt, my co-Producer, with shelves and A/C as a camera/grip truck) and a 15-passenger van were loaded up to capacity with all of the gear that was heavy and not too fragile. These two vehicles were driven from Denver to Mobile, Alabama and put on a boat bound for Belize. We did this two months before our scheduled start of principal photography. When they got there, Matt brought them through customs and down to our shooting location in Punta Gorda. Camera gear and other items that we could not let go two months early flew down with the crew just before shooting. We had nearly 50 pieces of luggage come through with a few crewmembers. It does cost!
Belize, while being a friendly place to work and pretty loose on restrictions, has pretty much no production industry or support. We had to bring in everything we would need. Matt has lived in the jungle and had lived in Belize for nine years, so he knew what to bring and how to pull it off. We rented out most of the Sea Front Inn (right on the ocean!) for our crew housing, production office, and crew cafeteria. We brought computers, refrigerators, printers, chairs, generators, and a water filtration system. We built a (mostly) soundproof sandbag bunker away from our sets in the jungle to house our generators. We built picnic tables on the veranda where our crew ate every morning and evening. There are a few restaurants in Punta Gorda for those that wanted some time away from the film gang, but we grew very close over the few months that we were together.
In general, we had good luck with the equipment and our plans worked. That is not to say the shoot wasn’t full of the normal hair-raising nightmares that are part of all movie shoots, but it came together. More about that in another installment.