Friday, January 17, 2014

Hollywood Comes to Kathmandu and I Get a Scene. (With Josh Brolin. Not the Chickens.)

You know those fuzzy pictures that claim to show the Loch Ness monster? This one is clearer. So you can have no doubt that it's really me, with Josh Brolin, on the set of Everest, the movie version of Jon Krakauer's best-selling book on the 1996 Everest disaster, "Into Thin Air." It's filming here in Nepal until they move to the Alps and Iceland so they can breathe while filming. The real Everest can be a little unfriendly, oxygen-wise. (So can Kathmandu, actually. But it makes up for it in colorfulness. Which the movie crew signifies with chickens. I'll get to that later.)

Me and my fuzzy co-star Josh.
Also, I think that's Bigfoot walking behind me,
and the shining white light comes from a UFO.
Think this'll go viral now?

I got to play a key role with Josh Brolin -- at least I consider it a key role, though a subtle one (hey, there are no small roles, just small actors) -- in a crucial scene that establishes his character as a decisive mountain-climbing dude who is also bluff and pushy and sure to clash with others on the slope. (You can tell a lot by the way a man picks up a backpack.) Josh Brolin is playing Beck Weathers, and if you live in Nepal and haven't read "Into Thin Air" and thus don't know who Beck Weathers is, you're in danger of having your visa revoked.

I play Western Woman in Kathmandu Airport Who Almost Bangs into Beck Weathers Repeatedly.

It wasn't really in the script. My official part was Extra Who Walks With Other Extras Behind Beck Weathers aka Josh Brolin As He Picks Up His Backpack Ruggedly. But spontaneity and improvisation are such an important part of the creative process. Plus it was a really narrow area. And given the choice of banging into Josh Brolin or another extra, I picked Josh Brolin.

"The cameraman will come walking backward, with a very expensive camera,"
said the Second Second Assistant Director to us extras.
"Do not bang into him and his very expensive camera."
Nothing was mentioned about not banging into the very expensive movie star.

In case your memory is fuzzy in regards to "Into Thin Air," Beck Weathers was the cocky Texas doctor (and avid Republican: note his Dole t-shirt and expect lots of good Hollywood-style arrogance and conflict) who was climbing Everest when a blizzard struck and he was blinded, lost, stranded, frozen into a human icicle and left for dead twice until he staggered through the blizzard and became the subject of the highest helicopter evacuation in history. He is, quite possibly, the toughest man on earth.

As for Brolin, he was in No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Men in Black 3, and a bunch of snapshots and iPhone shots on the set of Everest.

Anyway, a crew from Pinewood Studios in London came here to start production on the film, which also stars Jake Gyllenhaal as groovy wild-man climbing guide Scott Fischer and Jason Clark as level-headed guide Rob Hall -- both of whom die on Everest along with six others (which hopefully doesn't need a spoiler alert because you already knew that) -- and they needed some Westerners to be extras in it.

I'm not under 18 and don't have two heads and hence I made the cut. Plus, being a historic costume geek of the first order, I helpfully arrived with my own costume, a skirt that I really did wear in Nepal in 1996, a point which I made to the Costume Director, who of course approved. Or anyway he looked me up and down for three seconds and then said "old hippie" with a very British sniff, but I guess that was a note of approval, because it saved me from wearing a skinny pink shirt from the wardrobe rack via eBay like the extra next to me.

I finally get to do costumes for a movie!
Here's my historically accurate worn-in-Nepal-in-the-'90s skirt,
with appropriate trekking top. I'd have worn my Grateful Dead socks,
too, but they are in fact post-'90s and that would have been a terrible lapse.
This is the bus and props used for the movie. You saw it here first.
Watch out. The costume director got pink stuff
on eBay, and he can make you wear it.

So now, for the benefit of those who have always wondered about life in the glamorous lane, I'll explain ...

The Extra Selection Process: Nepal Version

1) Either get an email on the expat listserv or get tapped on the back by the Second Second Assistant Director who cruised the tourist area looking for photogenic types; as you can imagine, I got the notice by email.

2) Go to the five-star hotel where the film folks are staying, the posh Hyatt Bouddha (which isn't as posh as Dwarika's but has better parking, which you need if you're making a movie that involves buses with chickens). Then stand around in a line with other extras like you're up for auction while the makeup crew scrutinizes your face and hair, followed by the costume "triage woman," who pulls out of the line the obviously non-'96 folks so they can get stuffed into pink t-shirts and other eBay finds. She also apologizes repeatedly for how cold you are, which you are not if you live here, because you knew it would be inside and hence dressed in many layers of thermals in Kathmandu Pillsbury Dough Boy Fashion, whereas all the Hollywood folks were operating under the illusion that "inside at a five-star hotel" meant "warm" and suffered the consequences.

3) Keep standing in line (perhaps as a test of your capacity to endure film-set boredom) until the arrival of the costume director, who looks at everyone like Mr. Blackwell picking the Hollywood Worst Dressed List and has many ways of pronouncing "no" -- nooOOoo, nnnnnO, NO -- all of which communicate utter disdain. But I passed muster because I guess he could use an "old hippie." And besides, I'm sure he could tell that, in my heart of hearts, I would love to be a movie costume director (although I clearly need to work on my pronunciation of the world "no" and also on my tolerance for pink.)

Filming commenced the next day on a bus and then at Kathmandu's domestic airport, which was standing in for the international airport circa 1996. Mr. Brolin's job, in the scene in which I appear if I'm not cut, involves ...

walking up to a cart full of trekking gear and swinging his backpack over his back. 

Which he did very decisively, I must add. Over and over. From many angles. He made the bag look heavy. Which it wasn't, because they were all empty. He then walked forward with his pretend-heavy backpack as I walked behind him, along with other extras who had been instructed to look "confused" (since we were looking for our bags), and it was a narrow area and I did "confusion" so well that I kept brushing into Brolin, which wasn't planned, but I would argue that banging into another foreigner is an important element of character development and symbolizes The Likelihood of Future Conflict, along with the Dole t-shirt, and hence should not be cut under any circumstances.

There were several scenes filmed at the airport, mainly involving bags and walking. In my spare time, of which I had a great deal, I took bad pictures of ...

Location, Location

The setting of my important scene,
with baggage props and cardboard box props

and people wondering onto the set, which actually was a working airport. 
So they'd film a bit, and then Nepalis would wander in and talk on their cell phones 
and line up for flights, and then they'd film again when it cleared up.

Details. (Someone Was Paid to Do This.)

Is this cool or what? There's SO MUCH DETAIL
that they actually have little tags on the luggage with the character names. 

This character is an older, experienced climber 
who sensibly decided he can't make it and steps aside, and hence survives.

Chickens, to Signify Nepal's Third Worldiness

According to Hollywood, Nepal's airport has buses with chickens on them.
Silly Hollywood. Our chicken buses aren't at the airport. (Usually.)
But think about this: someone who worked for the movie
had the job of finding both a very beat-up bus and some chickens for it.

And the Oscar for Costume Design Goes to ... This Guy?

Persnickety Costume Director (far left) inspecting extra-wear at the Extras' Wardrobe-and-Dal Bhaat tent.
Yes, they fed us dal bhaat. I think we were supposed to get a box of sandwiches
from the Hyatt Bouddha,, but the drivers ate our sandwiches and so we got the Nepali food,

which was dal bhaat and probably better than the sandwiches anyway.
They get points for several things: 
1) The Second Second Assistant Director (at center in the puffy black vest) helped serve us lunch; and,
2) Lunch included both alu achar AND lapsi achar. Good job, all around.

Extras Hard at Work

Western extras, waiting at a ticket counter
for the scene where they play people a ticket counter.
More extras, looking 1996-ish.
I'm a historic costume geek, so naturally
I took lots of pictures of the costumes.
(Stars? What stars? I want to see how they do '96!)

Cameras Are Really Big and Heavy

Filming something.
Granted, my shot isn't exactly a good one,
but that's why he has a job as a cameraman in movies and I don't.

The Ones That Got Away

Not extras, but if I worked for the movie, I'd have made them be in it. 
These folks were definitely around in 1996.  I suppose they were headed to a plane,
but wouldn't they rather be in a Hollywood movie?

So there you have it. My day with the stars.

Check it out when it hits the big screen: Everest. Or maybe it'll be called something else by then, like Into Thin Air or Spiderman on Everest. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Jason Scott and me. Plus a crate full of chickens.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Indiana Jones and the Ratty Nepalese: A Winter's Tale

Meet The Ratty Nepalese, a character in Raiders of the Lost Ark, wherein his job is to attack Harrison Ford at a bar in Nepal. Which is located, it turns out, in Patan. Just like me.

The Ratty Nepalese.
That's really the official name of the character
played by, uh, Malcolm Weaver.

There are three things that people not in Nepal tend to think of on those rare occasions when Nepal happens to cross their minds: Mount Everest, yetis, and that bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark where you see Marion's bar in the howling, snowy remoteness of the high Himalayas. I bet you didn't know that Marion's bar was in Patan. But apparently that's the case.  So according to Spielberg, this is what my house should look like.

"It's a crummy dive in a Nepalese village that  nobody would otherwise visit,
but the local enjoys the warmth of the fire, and the climbers who hike through here
enjoy the company and the booze." -- Marion Ravenswood, on her bar in Patan

Those who know Nepal might quibble that Patan is a city of over 200,000 people who answer census questions (and maybe a million who don't), and is to Kathmandu what Brooklyn is to New York. It's K-Town's Siamese twin, or rather Siamese quadruplet, since there were once four kingdoms in the Valley -- Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur and Kirtipur -- whose kings, being relatives and hence bitter rivals, engaged in a long game of one-upmanship that involved trying to build more temples than each other. It was a familial Cold War fought with temples, and left the Kathmandu Valley with more temples than Wyoming has missile silos. They're everywhere. And so, now, is Kathmandu, which is really one tangled multi-limbed quadruplet of a city, complete with clogged arteries and, well, a whole lot of temples.

In spite of all the concrete and an overall population of maybe 2 to 5 million (give or take a million, because who's counting?), it doesn't sound right to use the word "metropolis" for a place where cows roam on dirt streets. But Patan can be told apart from Kathmandu only because they're divided by the Bagmati River, which you could walk across if you were a cow and didn't mind using shoals of plastic and coagulated debris as a sidewalk. I have seen cows walk across it, munching on plastic. Free-range cows, fed on free-range plastic. Got milk? It comes with added BPA!

I'm in Technically Patan, but it would take me about 10 minutes by bicycle to get to Technically Kathmandu, if I got up the nerve to brave the highly creative traffic pattern and didn't get smacked by a hit-and-run motorcycle or fall on the bumpy potholed roads. Both of which have happened to me. Whereas it does not look as if Marion had that particular worry, in her version of Patan. Although she did have to worry about Giant Sherpas, who have not, thus far, caused me any particular trouble.

At left is Indiana fighting in the frigid remoteness of Patan with The Giant Sherpa, played by Pat Roach (who was also The German Mechanic in the same film, the Chief Guard in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and a Gestapo in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and thus may have been Indiana's most persistent foe.) At right is a Not Giant Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, with Edmund Hillary during their first interview after they summitted Everest in 1953. Hmmm. Come to think of it, he really was kind of giant.                                                                 

Actually, Patan looks like this, if you're taking pictures for a guide book ...

Patan Durbar Square, about a 20-minute walk from our house

             ... or like this, if you're just taking pictures of your kid on the roof ...

Scenic view from our roof, with teenager, laundry and urban sprawl

                                    ... or sometimes like this, if you're walking down the street and all of a sudden a giant tree thing comes lurching at you.

Happy Holidays! But this is not a Christmas tree. It's built to make it rain,
which it achieves each year by getting pulled on ropes through the streets of Patan
by the people of Patan, or at least by a bunch of rowdy young men,  as a huge crowd follows because

it's sacred and it's tradition and also because it's like watching a giant wreck about to happen.
And it does rain afterwards. So I'm not arguing with experience. 
Plus I wouldn't want to jinx it. The darned thing is about five stories tall.

See? No snow. No howling wilderness with Ratty Nepalese and Giant Sherpas bursting in from the cold to have fights with Indiana Jones. No Sherpas at all, traditionally, since their homeland is up north in Solu Khumbu (at least before half of them bought trekking agencies and then moved to the US to run restaurants). But here's the thing. You don't need snow to be cold. What you need to be cold is to live in Nepal in the winter. Because we have no central heating. So on another level, beyond the deceptive surface of concrete houses and stores that sell Tang and transplanted Sherpas who run trekking agencies and own multi-story houses with marble floors and yet no heat (until they get tired of being cold and move to Florida and rent their house to foreigners), this is definitely Spielberg's Nepal.

Except for one problem. Look at that fireplace. Seriously. That FIREPLACE. Who has ever seen a real Nepali house with a fireplace like that?

I want that fireplace!

You get this ...

Typical rural cook stove

Or you get this ...

True, it doesn't have quite the golden romantic glow of a fire in a traditional home.
But if you need a fire,  well, you can build it right in the hallway.
And if a Giant Sherpa comes in, she can disarm him easily by offering a cup of tea.

Or, in the city, you can enjoy the warm glow of liquid propane cylinders in cabinet heaters.

But you don't get fireplaces in a Western sense, with a mantle to decorate for the holidays. Not unless you're in a tourist guesthouse or a modern house with a fireplace added so it can be rented to expats. Fireplaces in Nepali homes are practical affairs: they're either mud stoves or, high in the mountains, open hearths in the middle of the floor, and you cook on them as well as warm yourself. This is why, when we lived in Washington DC, my husband may have been the only guy in our neighborhood to roast potatoes in our living room fireplace. And it's also why my mother-in-law, when she visited America, had absolutely no interest in sitting around the fire just to look at it. She'd been making fires every day of her life; to her, it was about as fascinating as sitting around gazing at an oven.

Many years ago, on my first trip to Nepal, I recall the complaints of a French couple I met on the trail in an area with few tourists and no "apple pie" guesthouse culture: It is smokey. We cannot sleep in the houses because it is smokey. Why do they not have chimneys? In France, all the old houses have a chimney. They had come to Nepal and discovered, to their chagrin, that it was not France.

All would have been well if they'd just found Marion's bar. Because she has a lovely fireplace, with a mantel and everything. I am going to look for Marion's bar right now, because there's a gas shortage and our cylinder needs changing and we will soon be freezing in the cold chill of Spielberg's Nepal.

Marion's fireplace has the added benefit of coming with Harrison Ford.
My source of heat is a cabinet heater with gas cylinder. It comes with my husband.
But he does have an Indiana Jones hat. So it all works out.