Where The Road Runs Out is a feel-good drama about the power of redemption and friendship.
Science lecturer George Mensa, (played by Isaach De Bankolé of Casino Royale, Mother Of George), turns his back on the world of European academia when he inherits a field station in the middle of the African jungle. There, his views on friendship and romance are challenged upon meeting Corina (Juliet Landau of Ed Wood and Buffy), the mistress of the local orphanage, an old friend Martin (Stelio Savante of A Beautiful Mind), and Jimmy (Sizo Motsoko), a naughty orphaned boy—to whom he introduces the joys of chocolate.
When I initially took up the challenge to make this, the first feature film ever to be shot in Equatorial Guinea, West Africa, I thought to myself, “Here’s a chance to make a little film history.” In 2003 my film Indoor Fireworks became the world’s first fully digital film, but this was different; more of a logistical challenge than a technological one. How do you film in a country where the infrastructure for film is very much in its infancy? At the same time I immediately felt a calling. How many countries remain unexplored to the filmic eye?
Equatorial Guinea is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa, although many of the locals in the more distant villages stick to Fang and Bube (anyone know any good 1st ADs with a proficiency in either?). On top of that, Equatorial Guinea is covered with rainforests, with an average humidity of around 80 percent most of the year. Shooting in the rainy season was impossible, but even when we were there in August, you could expect torrential rain at any given moment.
Our crew for the Equatorial Guinea part of the film was your basic low-budget skeleton crew, consisting of line producer Karin S. De Boer (The Spiral, Eisenstein In Guanajuato), a fixer, DP, production designer with an assistant, costume designer, make-up, 1st AC, grip, and sound man.
No matter how prepared you are, nature, man, or an act of God will always throw you a curveball—one of the reasons to always have a well-thought-out shot list or storyboard. Even if you veer off from your prepared plan, have that plan ingrained in your head. This goes triple for when you’re shooting on different continents.
My own storyboards were stolen in London on my way to Africa, including my laptop, loaded with some films to watch for inspiration, script notes, and general prep for the film. Everything was gone! I knew to always keep a backup—but I foolishly had the backup disk in the same bag as the computer. Luckily, the beauty of preparation is that at least some of it will stick to the grey matter.
Playing with Fire
Before the Equatorial adventure, we shot scenes in beautiful Kwazulu-Natal (Zulu country), a rural part of South Africa. One of the biggest challenges was the action sequence at the end of the film where we set fire to the field station, George’s home in the jungle. In the story, this happens as a result of an orphan boy mistaking hard liquor for water and knocking over a lamp. The first part was easy with the help of flame gel and a dedicated SFX team, but dealing with children and fire always requires extra precautions, of course. The most dangerous part of the scene, during which a sleeping Martin (Stelio Savante) is surrounded by fire, had to be carefully choreographed with flame bars burning about two feet into the air, with extinguishers at the ready.
The scene in the original script had a beautiful payoff, as George races to the rescue and sees the field station engulfed in fire. In desperation, he drives his Jeep into a nearby water tower, which tips and spills, putting out the flames. He then rescues the boy. Martin is presumed dead until he crawls out from the water container the next morning, a little hungover but full of beans. A happy ending.
This would have been a wonderful climax to the film. The water tower was built, angles were calculated by brilliant production designer Jan Walker, and they started sawing through the water tower’s wooden support to make the stunt possible. I was told that we would only have one shot at this sequence, and if it didn’t work, there would be no time to reset until the next night. Our schedule was already tight as we had lost quite a few shooting days. On top of that, once we set fire to the field station, we would probably only have around 45 minutes to get all the other shots around the burning inferno.
But as I later discovered to my horror, the field station was doused so well by the SFX team that it burned down in around 10 minutes flat! So what to do?
My wise and seasoned 1st AD Aaron Barsky came up with the brilliant idea of playing the scene comedically rather than as an adrenaline rush. I decided that since this was a feel-good drama with an art-house edge and not Transformers 5, this was the way to go. In the new scene, George gets woken up after a particularly heavy night of drinking by Jimmy, who’s blowing a vuvuzela into his ear. Naturally, George is not amused. We knew this would get laughs and it suddenly made sense to start thinking of the scene as a metaphor for the simpler things in life that we shouldn’t take for granted.
In the end, shooting a simpler version of events actually saved the day. With the flames working so fast to consume the building, I would have been completely out of options had I gone for my original plan. With the improvised ending we could still shoot with flame bars next to the burnt wreckage, as well as pick up some of the much-needed action dialogue that was meant to happen during the blaze. Recycling that vuvuzela as a prop saved us from a difficult production conundrum.
With all this behind us, and swapping the entire crew for a smaller one, we then boarded a plane for Cameroon. From the sky it looked a bit like that island in King Kong, shrouded in mist and undiscovered adventure. Once on the ground, we found the island of Bioko, on which Equatorial Guinea’s capitol, Malabo, resides as a city in a sudden flux of development due to the oil industry.
Cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum’s weapon of choice was the Alexa. We had to condense all our equipment into five cases that we then distributed between us and carried on board as hand luggage. Our ingenious grip, Ari Stavrinos, also smuggled in a set of skateboard wheels which, with the aid of some local carpentry, he later turned into a rather well-functioning dolly.
We received a wealth of goodwill and support from a nation eager to explore the world of cinema, and found rich acting talent from the small Spanish Cultural Center and theater group there. When it comes to casting unknowns I have always been lucky. Even when an actor has had no formal acting experience, there is always a reward in giving someone with real passion a chance to rise to the occasion. (Although, when in doubt, look for a little bit of theater training.) With some help from the Ministry we discovered a warm group of businessmen, enthusiastic artists, actors, collaborators, and new friends.
Egg on Your Face—and in Your Radiator
Our first challenge was a driving sequence from Malabo Harbor to the tiny village of Basupo, quite a few hours away. This journey represents the metaphorical transition of George from city rat back to his childhood African roots. (Speaking of rats, a culinary treat we were offered but politely declined was “bush meat,” as the locals call it—gigantic wild rats that apparently taste “like chicken, only stronger.”)
The local taxi we hired had 400,000 miles on the clock and, as it turned out, simply wasn’t equipped for the rigors of independent filmmaking. But having hardly any room for an operator to film the backseat area wasn’t a challenge, thanks to the Alexa’s ingenious remote functions. Then it turned out that we also had a seriously leaking radiator. What to do?
Our intrepid grip and overall handyman, Ari, came to the rescue by finding some chickens in the nearby shrubbery who were willing to donate a couple of eggs to the production. Turns out breaking an egg into a leaking radiator can solidify and temporarily patch the holes, a lifesaver when you simply have to get that exterior driving shot.
The egg trick is something of an old traditional secret in Africa, where in the old days towns were very far apart, with plenty of dirt roads and not a lot of water. I remember my uncle once doing the same trick. You crack open two eggs and slowly let only the egg whites drip through the cracked shells into the radiator opening. The hot water inside will boil and solidify the whites, and the pressure from the radiator will then force them into the hole in the radiator. Obviously, this is only a temporary solution, but it worked well enough to save the shot and day!
In the end, we still had to tow the disintegrating taxi with some piping bought from the local flea market. Still, we soldiered on and were able to make our day and shot list, including a driving shot over a breathtaking scenic bridge.
Battles with Nature
Our arrival in the tiny Basupo village scene was made spectacular by the use of a commercial cherry-picker, generously procured for the shoot by producer Karin. The villagers were forever grateful as it allowed them to also remove some persistent shrubbery that had started sprouting on their church roof.
The next day we had to shoot a flashback scene where George remembers his father as a kid. Kees came up with a beautiful sequence by pushing the Alexa to 120 frames and managing perfect exposure with the help of some LED panels in the dense jungle. These lightweight panels are quickly becoming one of indie filmmakers’ greatest tools, as they are so portable and don’t generate a lot of heat near faces.
We followed this up with a graveyard scene where George recalls his father’s passing. The only problem during this shot was an attack by stinging, flying insects called mukmuks which left everyone, apart from myself (guess I have a rare blood type), covered in what looked like the plague. I felt terrible for the next few days as I watched my brave team, covered in bumps.
In every film I’ve done, art has somehow ended up imitating life. Where The Road Runs Out, a film about friendship conquering hardship, was no exception. Finding allies in a place that seemed like a threat at first, I have memories that I’ll always carry with me as a filmmaker.
It’s still early days for the film, but we recently won the San Diego Film Festival’s Best Film Award, beating some Academy Award contenders, so some of our hard work has already been rewarded. MM
Where the Road Runs Out will screen at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, from February 5-16, 2015.