Mission to Mars – leaving the terminal city

 

The beginning of the end was a move to a small house a block from East Hastings. It was on a corner where hookers not polished enough for the downtown strip would come and eventually disappear. From my small window upstairs, I began to notice a pattern of decline where young women who seemed like high school girls would in the space of a month or two degenerate into raving scab covered addicts. I would leave for work some days and there’d be a girl trying to restore herself with lipstick and powder in the side view mirror of my car. There were awkward greetings but never names. Eventually they would not show up anymore and new faces would fill the void.

 

While living in this house, I found work on American feature films. Vast reservoirs of money pumped up from L.A. would send me along with legions of other technicians to spectacular locations all over the province. Sets that cost the production millions would be used for a week or two and then destroyed. If a director wanted to shoot where there was no access, a road would be built. If the terrain was too rough, helicopters were brought in. “We need a hundred more camels down there” was one of the more classic lines from a director looking down into the depths of the Fraser Canyon. It cost the production $100,000 in rescheduling but a week later we were back down there with more beasts. The cash that hemorrhaged each day would have easily financed a dozen new media art projects or the operating costs of any number of rehabilitation programs. 

 

The last one of these I would work on in Vancouver was Brian DePalmas “Mission to Mars”, a loose re-working of 2001 - A Space Odyssey. My boss came from an old film family in Hollywood and was not thrilled to be in Canada without his regular team. My first duty was to find pain killers for his aching back. His prescription for Vikaden was on its way but he could not function during the camera testing without chemical help. These drugs had a pronounced Jeckle and Hyde effect that turned my job into a psychological mine field. “Five hundred horsepower a piece” he would often gloat about the photographs of his boat and truck that were tacked beside plans for his 2,000 square foot garage. My lack of genuflection and despondent attitude soon landed me over on ‘2nd unit’ where our days were passed shooting to fill the gaps between close ups of the actors talking. We shot computer screen displays, watch faces, stunt doubles being decapitated or launched. The production had constructed an indoor studio where the bulk of the ‘acting’ was done… a space ship with massive rotating stages to simulate weightlessness… control rooms… green screens. And then there was Mars. A flat twenty-five acre section of Richmond covered by thousands of tons of lava rock coated by thousands of gallons of orange paint. We were a small army – 300 people who would gather in the dawn’s early light to order omelets with spinach and goats’ cheese, eggs benedict, smoked salmon, fruit salad washed down with lattes and cappuccinos. By mid-day, we might be onto our second or third set-up… garbage bins overflowing with styrofoam and plastic would be emptied while the throng lined up at the trough for another meal. The glacial pace at which things happened gave everyone ample opportunity to consider their position in the universe. There were tremendous breaks… waiting for approvals on the angle of a miniature… a prosthetic head to be repaired… a crane to be positioned. Mercifully, being a member of the camera department meant that there was always something to take care of, order, check, test, clean, repeat. Most of the others fought the boredom as best they could… talking about the glory days of quadruple time and cocaine on 21 Jump Street… playing backgammon and knitting… debating the evenings television offerings… new restaurants… property in Belize. For months this went on… traveling to Mars for the day and returning to the grim spectacle that played out below my window at night.

 

A month before I walked away from that job, I met a very energetic young woman who was a sound assistant on the rare days when one of the principle actors would appear to re-shoot something that the director had not been happy with. Like myself, she was a member of the Cineworks independent film production centre and was putting together a proposal for an “Omnibus” commissioning project. She was looking for filmmakers to add to her team and offered to include me on the application. The proposal was successful and I began shooting material for the film in earnest. The theme was something like “I, the city” which for me meant loading up my bike with a camera and reacting intuitively to whatever would happen on the ride. The first images were taken shortly after watching a seagull get hit by a transport truck along the waterfront. The bird bounced off the windscreen and managed to cartwheel though the air for another ten seconds before collapsing in the middle of the road. By the time I ditched my bicycle it had begun to hobble for the safety of the shoulder. This crippled walk and an extreme close up profile of the gulls labored breathing would become the core material of the film. After a few sessions on the optical printer and several bleary eyed 4 am fumblings with an old cassette recorder to immortalize the ecstatic revelations of hysterical junkies below my bedroom window, I had a film titled “West Coast Reduction” – the name of a rendering facility a stones throw from where I had encountered the bird. When the time came to prepare the original negatives to make a final print, I realized that several rolls were missing. I found one of them down at the lab and the producer, they informed me, had picked up the rest. A call revealed that her number was out of service. When I brought up the matter with the co-op, they told me that several of the other filmmakers were having difficulty getting in touch with her. By chance, I bumped into her brother who was in the process of cleaning out his desk preparing to leave his job as the assistant equipment coordinator. He had not seen his sister recently but he did have a new number. Over the next two months I proceeded to leave a string of unreturned messages. In various measures I applied guilt, shame, compassion, reason, reverse psychology until that number too went out of service. Her brother seemed pestered to hear my voice again but when he found out that her number had been disconnected, his tone shifted. A week later he left word on my machine to meet him at an address on 1st avenue just down the hill from Commercial drive. I will not soon forget the moments that followed shortly after he turned the key to unlock the door to his sisters’ apartment. It was an unusually hot day in Vancouver and I remember how the reeking wall of odor hit me as we crossed the threshold. On either side of the entranceway garbage was piled chest high forcing us to walk sideways to gain access to the main living room. At the end of this furrow lay a bare mattress floating on a sea of small tin foil squares. Giant blue bottle flies floated lazily in square orbits above as the sun melted in through the thick brown residue on the windows. The rest of the apartment was virtually inaccessible. Mounds of half eaten take-out and empty packaged food containers had overtaken the kitchen. The shelves were overflowing with books and cans and boxes stuffed with crumpled paper… paper strewn everywhere… notes written in a furious hand… bits and springs from dismantled four color pens. Her brother stood by the bed and told me the story. He had caught up with his sister as she was returning to the apartment one evening and upon seeing her condition had put her on a flight to a rehab clinic in Newfoundland. He said that her decline had begun with a move in with her boyfriend – a musician who had been struggling with drug addiction. He had abandoned the apartment with what was left of his equipment that same night. The two of us spent half an hour sifting through the shelves and boxes and collected anything that contained film material. As the smell in there conjured a raging headache, my spirits sank deeper as none of the cans we turned up contained the footage. On the way out I noticed a white plastic grocery bag on a shelf that displayed the rounded form of a stack of film. The sac disintegrated like tissue paper as I lifted it from its perch but inside were six loosely wound rolls. Back at my rewind bench with the stench of burnt carpet and rotting food colonizing my editing room, I had the missing negatives.

 

The raft of dark visions that had plagued the film though, had not quite passed. The final episode was a noon hour performance that took place below my window in a dented orange toyota. I was logging the negative rolls for final printing when it pulled up to the corner and parked with a jerk. A stringy haired crack dealer in a leather baseball cap jumped out, slammed the door, and ran off across the street. The driver remained and I could see him trying frantically to find something in the glove box. A lighter… and then more searching… or was he starting to play with himself? What looked like a porno mag lay on the seat beside him now… and a spoon. He was wearing sweat pant cut-offs and lined up to poke himself in the thigh. Five minutes later with the needle still dangling from his leg a neighbor who was crossing the street startled him. The car stalled as he tried to get it into gear and then, flailing desperately with the stick shift the car lurched forward onto the curb narrowly missing a fire hydrant and rounded the corner with tires squealing.

 

The stars were in perfect alignment now. A call came in that afternoon from a very close friend who had been hired in Toronto to shoot a kids’ show. He had no trouble convincing me that I should pack my bags and move east to pull focus for him. Driving over the prairie, it became clear that I had ended one of the darkest periods of my life with an exorcism… a film into which I poured all of the bad spirits, trapped them, and left them behind. I realized further that the entire body of work I had created while in that city was charged with sadness. I had been subconsciously overwhelmed by how the gross inhumanity I witnessed each night could exist alongside that gross wealth. It had crawled inside of me like SUV culture through the Starbucks parking lots…  where a films importance was judged by the size of it’s budget... where independent meant drama under ten million and experimental was a vaguely remembered semester of boredom.