Austria is rightly famous for many reasons; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Billy Wilder, Wiener Schnitzel, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sigmund Freud, Midge Ure, gondolas… No, wait a second, that’s Venice. I secured a job in Austria’s capital, Vienna, thanks to a savvy producer and a great friend from my Amsterdam days, Marjolein. Vienna is a word that conjures up the lyric “It means nothing to me…” from the Ultravox song of the same name. Midge and company couldn’t have been more wrong. For the furtherance of South African and European (including Welsh) harmony, I offer you a diary of misadventure, surreality and human bonding.
“The feeling is gone only you and I,
It means nothing to me,
Ultravox’s Vienna (1980)
I hate flying. I may love flying if I could actually fly but alas, I need several tons of metal and chemical thrust to move myself through the air and as the contraptions rarely but sometimes fall to Earth with much screaming and igniting of aviation fuel, I have a supply of Xanax to take the edge off the all too real terror. If I was unfortunate and things literally did go south, I’d rather be high at the time if you know what I mean. The flights were incident free on the way out. Once I’d landed, things got wonderfully bizarre. I speak no Austrian German except for two words so was at the mercy of the kindness and tolerance of strangers, both traits abundant in all the Austrians I met (maybe except the yoghurt guy but we’ll get to him in a minute). I knew how to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Sorry’ which in most cultures will take you far. My name is a common one. Even my middle name is common. It’s Robert. So if there’s a sign gripped by a taxi driver with the words “Robert” and “Miller” on it, I’m almost convinced it’s for me.
I said ‘almost’… The first name on the card (a telephonic Chinese whisper?) was ‘Elm’. I had to imagine that somewhere an individual with the utterly brilliant name of “Elm Robert Miller” is still roaming Vienna airport with increasing desperation. Even his initials, ERM… indicate a hesitant nervousness. If this individual exists, I’m afraid I nicked his ride. Then there was the baffling journey – not to the studio where I would meet up with my new housemates – but out of the airport car park. It took ten minutes for the driver to navigate the one-way system and by the time we slipped on to a Viennese road, there was already a significant reason for celebration.
The husband and wife team of filmmakers was waiting at the studio (there was a full size red cow scaling the wall outside à la Spider-man, I kid you not) and within minutes we were whisked off to our shared house. I’d worked on the filmmakers’ footage before and found the experience incredibly rewarding. Imagine if you will, film craft as food outlets. Most offer, at best, McNuggets. This particular partnership offered prime steak as default. I knew in my soul that we’d all get on. We had a shared vision of what the film we were making might be. Both had been ensconced in stunningly beautiful but forbidding bits of Africa while I had independently worked on their material a few years ago but now we were together for just two weeks of intimate collaboration. Nothing brings people closer together than a common goal and apparent idiosyncrasies in living conditions, something shared, and endlessly and hysterically spoken about.
I have no wish to cast a critical pall over anyone else’s house (a short term rental, it was clearly set up for parents and three children as the family photos reminded us at every turn) but that said, the shower had no curtain and at its absolute vertical physical position, it didn’t get much higher than my chest. The morning shower was literally a physical contortion that Marcel Marceau would have incorporated into his act. There were no locks on the bathroom doors (connected to both bedrooms – oh, what fun that could have been…) and the lock on the stand alone landing toilet was slightly raised, enough that it did not fit the hole which meant that if there was a breeze from the open window, the door flew open. Trust me, that’s not any way to say “Good morning…” It’s great if you need to rescue a child. It’s not so great for a lumbering adult with his hand on the handle uncomfortably stretched out behind him to the right. Nothing to me says comfort more than a locked bathroom door. My own bedroom door was a glass one (this was a first for me) and clear not frosted. Problem solved with an artfully draped blanket. For the benefit of just two people, I must mention the potatoes. I shall say no more. And just for a topper, the mobile internet speed there (in one of the most famous capital cities in Europe) was measured on some days in bytes and kilobytes per second. Web pages didn’t load, they congealed. But we didn’t care. These were all things to joke about until we improvised around them.
Heinrich, the studio’s Executive Producer, treated us all to a delightful and informal meal showcasing authentic Viennese food and wine and one of our Commissioning Editors, Franz (sensing that ten to eleven hours editing days may be making us all a little cabin fevered in the cutting room) took us on a tour of the city one evening. In truth, every hour in the cutting room was a joy. I’d forgotten how much fun it had been working with others as lately a great deal of my work has been done alone). Franz’s lovely gesture was embraced by all despite my constant concern that I needed sleep (and gin) as there was still so much to do. On the way into the city we passed a rubber fetish shop, one that our taxi driver suggested I may be interested in. His English was terrific; not so sure about his judgement of national character. I mean Brits come in for a lot of stick but I don’t know anyone who’s desperate to don the Gimp’s outfit from Pulp Fiction. We schnitzeled at Figlmüller’s restaurant (providers of first class, plate-overlapping Schnitzels and the doggy bags to top all doggy bags) and pitched up at the top floor of the famous Sofitel Hotel. The views, if not the hospitality, were terrific. We were not staying at the hotel and perhaps not dressed well enough to mix with Vienna’s crème de la crème.
I must stop just to say that a man has just blundered into our cutting room and dropped a carton of yoghurt on the floor and said something in anger and frustration we couldn’t understand in Austrian German. Dare I say it might have been “What are you people doing in my cutting room? And just to teach you some manners, I’ll leave you a calling card.” He then backed off leaving a small trail of yoghurt on the carpet. See what I mean about surreality?
My filmmaking team is as good as the extraordinary footage they shoot. Passion for the project flows out of them like, ahem, yoghurt from a dropped pot and they have a wonderfully pure and untarnished view of filmmaking which contrasts and dovetails nicely with my thirty odd years in the business. I do not think I have laughed as long and as hard in the two short weeks our lives intersected. If friendship was ever monetised, I’ve been a very rich man this past fortnight. So – off they go on a mission to complete their film, moving back into a customised four by four they call home (they sleep on the roof) and a bucket of water they call a bathroom. They will stay in the middle of the Namibian desert for months at a time seeing sights no person has ever seen and may never ever see. Off road, off the beaten track, are their lions, the ‘Musketeers’ who are growing up. May all the luck in the world rain down on them (thereby making my job significantly easier next year). To appreciate what they do, have a look at:
A toast to Will and Lianne and to all those at Interspot for a successful shoot and post. Oh, Vienna…