EXT. DAY — (Dac To Camp)
A film crew works during the afternoon heat in a clearing of the Vietnamese jungle. Actors and extras smoke prop cigarettes while waiting in position on an elaborate military set carved out of red earth. Water bottles are passed out by production staffers, fires are stoked with tyre rubber and tree branches planted in the dusty ground are scorched using oxyacetylene cans. There is excited chatter among the cast and crew as we wait for a direction.
Director: (gesturing wildly, charging out of his viewing tent) “SILENZIO!! SILEENZZIOO VAFFANCULO! Giovanni can I have some silence on my set please?!! I need silence to do my work. PLEASE, I beg you!!”
Assistant Director: (scurrying around, sweating profusely) “Si Marco, si.”
Director: (hands clasped together in prayer) “Pronti Giovanni, PRONTI!”
And so continues day two on the set of L’Oriana, a two part, made-for-television biopic about the late Italian activist, journalist and author, Oriana Fallaci.
The director losing his proverbial pasta e fagioli in the 38-degree tropical heat is Marco Turco. He’s the passionate man from Rome responsible for telling the story of Oriana, “a feminist before there were feminists”. Famous for interviewing the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, Deng Xiaoping, The Ayatollah Khomeini and General Vo Nguyen Giap, Ms. Fallaci was so divisive that not even half of the people on that list liked her. Henry Kissinger described his interview with her as the “single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press”.
I’m an extra in the film about her life along with 50 other expats from Ho Chi Minh City. We have all responded to an open call for soldiers and three weeks later find ourselves both dressed up and sweating just outside Cat Tien National Park in Madagui. It’s a part of the country abundant with the type of dense green foliage and ochre red dust synonymous with films about the war, making it a prime location to shoot. It’s also hot. Very hot.
Somehow I’ve been made captain, meaning I’m head of the department in charge of pointing at fake Viet Cong strongholds and yelling fake orders at a bunch of fake privates. I tell myself it’s an immense and important role.
As we wait between takes on the set — a paintball course dressed up to look convincingly like a US military stronghold — the sense of the surreal is with us. We’re living in Vietnam, getting paid to be in a movie traversing the sensitive topic of war, wearing military uniforms and pointing guns at imaginary enemies. In terms of ‘stuff men should do before they die’, you’d have to equate it to moving to Munich and getting a job as a beer taster during Oktoberfest. In any case it’s real boys' own stuff and I’m thinking of selling the concept as the ultimate bachelor party slash weekend away for blokes. But making movies is not about drinking beer, it’s about collaboration, getting ‘back to one’ — that’s first position for those not in the biz — and waiting. Oh yes, being an extra on a film is definitely about waiting.
Two days into the three-day shoot and as an astute captain and observer of the human condition, I can see that all of this waiting has affected my men. My thin thread of fake authority is quickly waning — getting ‘back to one’ is becoming less and less of a priority. I need to reach out. To do this I try to meet as many of my fellow soldiers as possible, and among my squad I find Louis from Nigeria, a father and DJ here in Saigon for the last six years.
Louis looks the part as well as anyone — think Carl Witherspoon in Predator — and is even given some lines during a key emotional sequence. A novice actor, he’s nervous when his turn comes, but does well, so I ask him how he feels when it’s over. “Let’s go have a beer,” he quips, a relieved smile settling on his face.
Also present is Cyril, a wounded programmer from the Ukraine. He’s surprisingly upbeat for a man shot in the stomach, but despite his smiles I’m not holding out much hope for him. I decide to prescribe him some morphine and move on. Kyle is here as well, a musician, teacher and theatre major from the US. He’s acted before and has been asked to cry on cue, which he does, to the delight of Marco and his DOP.
“I didn’t know when they were going to call me,” he tells me. “So I’ve been holding onto the feeling of wanting to cry since I got here. It’s done now, so I can enjoy the rest of the shoot!”
His effort reminds me of the credit that has to go to those who inhabit this high pressure, competitive world. Tim Daish is another of the professionals on set, a trained actor from London with an Italian agent. He plays a long-lost friend of Oriana.
“I got sick on my first night here in Vietnam, lost my phone and didn’t know what scene I was doing the next day,” he says. “I ended up having to deliver my most important scenes with Vittoria (Vittoria Puccini who plays the lead) in half a fever. I was sweating buckets, but it’s the way it goes on these things. You just gotta do it.”
His story makes me happy to be in the low responsibility role of captain, despite being told that it was a job that didn’t come with a long life expectancy during the real thing. Hopefully I’ll be ok here, the most life threatening objects appear to be the fish heads served at lunch.
The Vietnam Factor
The rest of my squad is a mixed bag of French, Brits, Americans, a guy named Miguel, Nigerians and a Tom Berenger look-a-like from Perth, Australia. They’re enjoying the experience as much as I am, snapping away at each other and eulogising about war — what is it good for? Some of us have experience in this, but most of us do not, and we’ve all been shipped to the location by local production studio, CreaTV, who are looking after us well by putting us up in the Madagui Tourist Resort nearby.
CreaTV specialise in giving a home to international productions like this one and are run by Othello Khanh, a self-made pioneer and filmmaker who started this business on his own 20 years ago.
“When international productions and news media come to Vietnam, they know to come to me,” says Othello, energised by a recent spate of activity. “It’s been a crazy week, one helicopter in the air over Saigon for L’Oriana, and me sitting in another in the Gulf of Thailand, filming news footage for ABC!”
For the cast and crew of L’Oriana it’s a unique experience to be able to do this in Vietnam. It’s seldom that the authorities will allow guns, helicopters, jeeps, explosions and American uniforms in combination. Throughout filming, representatives are here keeping a close eye on things, and I am assured that even the script has been given ‘approval’.
“This production has been to India, Indonesia, Tunisia, Greece and Italy, and on a very low budget,” says Marco. “This is not Hollywood, so we have to accept that things will not always be as we want them to be,” referring directly to a lack of a helicopter as required by the script on this day. “This is life.”
I ask him how people who will see this film should feel.
“I want to make a good movie,” he says. “Oriana Fallaci was someone that people loved or hated in my country, and the same will apply to this film. I am prepared for the criticism over balance or something like this, but I don’t care. My job is to capture the soul of this important character, and to make a good film that people will enjoy. Oriana will always be to the people whatever they want her to be.”
In this way Marco is just like the subject of his film; tough, anti-establishment and prepared to take criticism. For myself and the rest of my squad, we have the photos to prove that we have lived out a boyhood fantasy. And while I’m not sure it’s the start of an alternative career for many of us, some of us have performed well in the heat of battle. The flashbacks will come later for sure, but for now it’s still hot in the jungle, the director is still shouting, the cameras are still rolling and the Viet Cong are everywhere.
Who Was Oriana FAllaci?
An Italian journalist, author, and political interviewer, Oriana Fallaci became well-known worldwide for her coverage of war and revolution, as well as for her interviews with many world leaders during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Her book Interview with History, contains candid, lengthy and penetrating interviews with many dignitaries including Indira Gandhi, Muammar Gaddafi, Yasser Arafat, Golda Meir, Deng Xiaoping, Henry Kissinger and Vo Nguyen Giap. Divisive and yet to the point, after retirement she wrote a series of articles and books critical of Islam that aroused support as well as opposition.