I make my living off the misery, tragedy, and celebrity
of other people’s lives. I work as a freelance cameraman for network
television – Eye to Eye with Connie Chung, Dateline NBC, the CBS Evening News, A Current Affair – and I’m paid well
to provide those and other programs with issues/08/images that entice and entertain
the viewers, and the voyeurs.
A good story for a freelancer
is one rich in overtime, frequent flyer miles, $50-a-day per diems,
and long hours sipping expensive espresso drinks on the clock.
I was lucky enough to work on what was, until recently at least,
THE cash-cow story of the year. No, I was not dispatched to Cape
Town on the eve of Mandela’s election; I did not parachute into
a Rwandan massacre; I even missed the Los Angeles earthquake.
I was working at the time on something much more important. Tonya.
Thirtyfive days of Tonya. Thanks to her, I was able to produce
and direct my first film: a 30-minute Super 16mm/color short based
on a script I wrote last August, called Spree.
In my business, most
of the guys spend their earnings on a new camera, a new Plymouth
van, or some new computerized widget. I burned my money on a dream.
I wrote the script for Spree in August of 1993. The main character, Jackie, is
a battered woman on the run from an abusive ex-husband. She embarks
on a crime spree in the desperate hope of starting a new life
for herself and her kids. Jackie could have lived in any one of
the trailer homes I have visited in any number of small Northwest
towns: Payette, Idaho. Springfield, Oregon. Marysville, Washington.
These were the settings for the stories I covered, and the stories
were nearly always about women abused, raped, or wronged in some
The script lived for
several months in my computer. I scouted locations, reworked scenes,
and despaired of ever having the money to shoot. I wanted to hire
professionals and pay them on time. I’d worked on too many shoots
for nothing, and on too many deferred payment schedules when the
money dried up. I knew that if I paid people, they’d work harder.
|Rustin Thompson takes a break from real life tragedy to direct
Libby Simeon in Spree.
At 6 a.m. on January
12th, I found the end of the rainbow. The NBC show NOW sent me
to Portland because a skater named Tonya Harding had been implicated
in the clubbing attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. I’d never
heard of Tonya, and figured I’d be back home that evening. By
the time I got niy rental car, I’d been paged by three other news
programs, and knew this was a hot story. That evening I hitched
my wagon to a gravy train called CBS, and together we traversed
the twisted curves of Tonya-land for more than a month.
My sound man, Pat, and
I, as a freelance team, were making $700 to $1,200 dollars a day.
The network thought of replacing us after a week with a more affordable
staff crew, but realized we would be taking everybody and everything
we knew about the story with us to the next network that called.
They dropped the idea, and we were in for the long ride.
January 18th was the
night I first realized that my dreams of making Spree were
inextricably linked with Tonya’s claims of innocence. Twenty-four
camera people and reporters were crammed into an elevator lobby
at the FBI headquarters, waiting for Tonya to emerge from questioning.
We waited for ten hours – thirsty, cranky, and gassy – to get
a picture of Tonya exiting the building. If the doors leading
to the interrogation room so much as creaked, we all sprang to
our feet, shouldered our cameras, and readied our microphones.
Our heart rates doubled in three seconds. Usually it was just
a janitor on her way to the next floor. Gradually we relaxed,
turned off our cameras, sat down, closed our eyes. I arranged
numbers in my head: cost of film stock, the fee for a good director
of photography, how much to feed 10 people a day for five days.
Next to each figure was an asterisk keyed to a footnote that read:
"If Tonya doesn’t confess."
When she finally emerged
from the FBI office that night, it was pandemonium. A riot of
cameras, cables, elbows, and lights. I squeezed into the elevator
with Tonya, her attorney, and a hundred others. I wanted to ask
her for a blank check; instead, I said weakly, "How are you
We had two more nights
like that one, when Tonya’s estranged husband Jeff Gillooly was
being questioned. Long hours of paralyzing boredom punctuated
by bursts of coronary inducing panic. Each time I shook my head
at Pat and said "I gotta get off this story," he’d just
mince the act of punching cast register buttons and whisper "Ka-ching."
The third week of the
shoot arrived. I was now in a Zen state. I began to enjoy the
stake-outs, the long waits in the courthouse hallways, the verbal
jousting with the taciturn lawyers. Making enough money to make
my movie was now my raison d’etre. Every minute spent watching
Tonya’s apartment meant a few more feet of film. Six hours of
overtime equaled a day’s rental on a portable crane. Work on Sunday?
Lattes for the crew.
I was paying off credit
cards and longstanding loans by exploiting the antics of Gillooly
and his gang of misbegotten petty crooks. It seemed fitting that,
here in a land of double-wides, duplexes, and obese four wheel
drive pickups, I was shaping a film whose main character was mired
in that milieu. There was, afterall, a real sadness in Tonya’s
story, if you looked beyond the movie-of-the-week hijinx of the
tawdry affair. Tonya was fated to fuck up. It was written in her
upbringing, in the men in her life, in the friends she chose.
In so many ways she was like Jackie in Spree: desperate
for a new life, she struck out wildly, and was doomed to fail.
The gravy train ended
for me when Tonya boarded a plane to
I returned home and began spending money. I cast actors, found
my D.P., finalized the script. I was in great spirits.
We shot on a more expensive,
finegrain stock and rented a grip truck, but saved money in other
ways. The actors rehearsed diligently, we shot in daylight, and
went hand-held in many scenes. My budget went from $15 to $20,000,
but thanks to Tonya, the money was there. If Spree is successful,
I can switch careers. And repay Tonya Harding by never sticking
a camera in her face again.