The Zookeeper's Wife
Has many lovely and moving moments but fails to capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors.
As a James Bond fan, one of my life regrets was missing the filming of “License to Kill” here in Mexico City in 1988. Even if it went to become one of that series’ bottom-dwellers, after all, it did feature Desmond Llewellyn’s Q driving a car a few minutes away from my old home. I would have surely settled for taking a peep from afar. Unfortunately, in those pre-internet days you usually didn’t learn about such things happening until it was too late. For years, it seemed like I had missed one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities except that it turned out to be a twice-in-a-lifetime one when early last year extras were requested for the shooting of a “Spectre” sequence, to be held here later that March.
After answering a massive casting call in a park, I was asked to show up at Churubusco Studios where I would be fitted for the role of “hotel civilian” in a Day of the Day themed crowd, meaning that instead of having to dress up like a skeleton, a folk character or the like, I could simply wear my own pre-approved clothes. I anticipated a day or two of work but eventually discovered that movie makers don’t really mind using the same groups of extras in several scenes (after all, who notices such things?) so this brought the total to six days. More interestingly, I found out this was not just any part of a Bond movie but the pre-title sequence which more often than not it is their most exciting section.
The first thing I learn from this experience is that being an extra is no piece of cake. The production people treat you with great consideration, constantly providing you with food/water and putting sunscreen on your face, but your job is basically that of a living prop. You arrive at a reunion point (an old convention center located just a few blocks from the set) at 4:00 A.M. and find yourself surrounded by thousands of strangers while facing a full breakfast (the likes of chorizo and eggs with chilaquiles or pork skin in green sauce with refried beans) while your loved ones are still in a deep sleep. Early in the morning you freeze to death and the rest of the day you have to stay under the hot sun, all the time thanking your lucky stars that you weren’t chosen to wear a black zombie custom and carry its respective prop for hours, be it a mini-coffin, a little skeleton or the framed photo of a supposedly deceased relative (my favorite was that of a smiling guy wearing a “Sean Connery” t-shirt). When you get up at 3 in the morning, 9 AM seems like late afternoon, noon feels like quitting time and 5 PM feels like you’ve been there forever. Naturally, I loved every minute of it.
Sadly, I was not invited to the first two days of the shooting Friday and Saturday, when the actual opening of the movie was made; this included a later section where Bond walks on the edge of a rooftop (a crane with a cable attached to Daniel Craig’s back made sure he didn’t fall over). I was under the impression that Monday would be the best day as it was to take place inside the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico, where not only was “License to Kill” filmed but so was Costa-Gavras’ “Missing” (1982) with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. The scene involves a couple of hundred people as opposed to the 1,500+ that will later arrive on a daily basis. The job itself is nothing more than walking up and down a corridor around the third floor patio while Bond and Estrella (Stephanie Sigman) ride a scenic elevator to her room. This was obviously a continuous scene but it isn’t until watching the movie when I realized that this day’s work simply represents a small portion of a 4-5 minute unbroken sequence, shot over a three day span in three separate locations (the hotel’s exterior/interior are really two different buildings located several blocks away). I also guessed that the shots inside Estrella’s room were created inside a studio since the actual location had a fake door/wall and was built on top of a service elevator. This means that when Bond climbs out of that room’s window, we were actually watching Daniel Craig in two different locations thousands of miles apart.
The second lesson I learned about moviemaking is that each shot requires about a dozen takes to get it right, so there’s a lot of waiting between takes, giving you the opportunity to make quite a few friends. I discover that some of the other extras do this kind of work on a regular basis, be it in commercials, soap operas, B-movies, and so on. More often than not, you’d see someone pointing at Daniel Craig and asking things like “how many has the guy done?” So it is only natural that we the Bond fans should end up hanging together. One of them is Mauricio, a young director and film teacher familiar with Roger Ebert, David Bordwell and Matt Zoller Seitz’s (then) recent article about watching “Aliens” with his kids. Another is Erik from Sweden, who’s traveled to Mexico to fulfill his dream of being in a Bond movie, going as far as making a prior five hour trip to Mexico just to go through the uniform tryouts. The latter became known by just about everybody, not just because of his remarkable quest but for the kind of permanent, happy mood that you just don’t see very often. To kill the time between takes we discuss other Bond movies that this one seems to invoke (think of the parades in “Live and Let Die” & “Moonraker” and the helicopter opening in “For your Eyes Only"). In case you’ve ever wondered what keeps the extras in a Bond movie occupied, it is mostly dealing with 007 trivia.
After a Tuesday of idly waiting, Wednesday involves the start of a wild foot chase among the ruins of a collapsed building that’s been created as a fake extension to the old Mexican Senate, right in the middle of what’s usually a busy street. The characters involved are James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Marco Sciarra, a member of SPECTRE played by Italian actor Alessandro Cremona. The set consists of falling debris made out of Styrofoam, several crushed cars and even the fallen marquee of the fictional “Arriba” theater (“Fru-Fru” in real life). The surroundings greatly remind me of 9/11, and our own 1985 massive earthquake.
The third thing I come to learn about making movies is that the image of a director standing around yelling "Action!" and/or "Cut!" is mostly a myth. Before working on a scene, Sam Mendes gives instructions personally to the main people involved and then goes back inside a black tent where he checks the results of each take on monitors, and conveys his remarks on how to proceed through an assistant director who blurts out one heck of a magnificent “Action!” yell. We get to follow the proceedings from above the stairs of the Senate, with the only disappointment being that they mostly involved stunt doubles running after each other. Bond’s look-alike wore a wax mask to better resemble Daniel, and he kept it protected from the sun between takes with an umbrella. A while later and out of the corner of my eye, I believe I'm seeing the same stunt-double, but this time he looks and walks a little too much like the real deal. It turned out to be Craig, followed by a continuity girl who stops some mild screams, coming from the direction of a few over-enthusiastic lady skulls, with just a stare. He passes by us on his way to the interior of the building where I see him receiving his instructions through headphones and warming up for his take by walking back and forth. The shot takes place while wind-blowers hurl paper debris above our heads. In the finished film, they end up using most of Daniel’s material while adding a few inserts with the stunt-doubles going all for it, making his run seem a bit more furious than it really was.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the chase continues among a huge Dead of the Day parade that includes several fantastic skull floats, hundreds of marchers, a few dozen bystanders (that’s us) and a group of folk dancers on wheels. The latter’s uniforms are amazingly detailed but also very stiff from the waist down, causing one of the girls to lose her balance and miss half of the day’s work. Bond walks by our side of the street while Sciarra does the same from across, both keeping an eye on each other at all times. On the second day of the parade, the filmmakers add a helicopter flying amazingly low (about at third floor height) but the assistant director orders everyone not to look up until it is right above us, even though you can actually hear it coming for miles. The whole Day of the Dead concept is based in true Mexican traditions but this is obviously a very overblown version. It’s as if our country had just happened to win the World Cup on the actual Day of the Dead, but that’s all right. After all, the one thing that movies do best is turning fact into something greater than it really is. Still, if anybody visits Mexico City next year hoping to find such an event, they are bound to be sorely disappointed. Most of these parade scenes are later reshot as to include a line of cops watching over the proceedings. This is the way for Sam Mendes to justify a lack of running on the part of the main characters here. As it turns out, Daniel Craig has hurt his knee beforehand and has a hard time moving too fast. Between takes we wonder whether these are real policemen or simply extras dressed as such. But as one of my friends points out, our police force is famously overweight and these guys are all in great shape. Needless to say, he turns out to be right.
The fourth lesson I learn about filmmaking is that when decorating a set or dressing up an extra for a movie such as “Spectre," the production people go into great detail even though the chances of something/someone actually appearing on-screen are rather slim. From the 15-20 people that I get to know, only 2-3 can actually be seen in the final movie. Location shooting involves around 50 crew people from the UK and they occupy the hotel depicted in the opening scene in its entirety, making this a very expensive enterprise. Their main goal is to finish their work as programmed and this makes for a tight, focused environment rather than that of the Bond convention I would have liked. Showing up daily on the set, we become accustomed to seeing Daniel Craig and he’s always in a cheery mood but everyone has been advised by the local casting company not to distract “the actor” which is fine since you tend to draw a blank when running into him.
As the days pass, it becomes increasingly easier to imagine the climax of the sequence. By now we’ve seen the teaser trailer and it’s not too difficult to guess that the guy inside the coffin at the Rome funeral is surely our friend Cremona (Monica Belluci’s husband in the movie). Everything points to Bond and Sciarra meeting at the helicopter and having a fight on board, which initially doesn’t seem to me like an original/worthy 007 pre-title sequence as it reminds me of that part in “Rambo II” where Stallone fought a Russian on a chopper some 30 years before. Between takes, I strike a conversation with stunt coordinator Gary Powell. The fan in me took over, and I unwittingly conveyed my concern with the lack of originality of this concept, which he takes to heart. He tells me that they always do their very best to meet the audience’s highest standards. Sure enough, the following day I come to notice just how many members of the British crew go out of their way to get their picture taken with this helicopter pilot who’s obviously a prodigy, just not to a degree that I could have imagined until someone points me towards his YouTube videos. He is Chuck Aaron, the famous Red Bull pilot (the only pilot licensed by the FAA to do acrobatics with a helicopter) who does things with a chopper that I never imagined possible. Finally it all starts to make sense.
This pre-title sequence is mostly filmed in succession, so it’s not surprising that every day is more exciting than the last. Before Saturday’s work, we realize something special will be happening when production assistants stand outside the dressing rooms and double check to make sure no cell phones are brought into the set (incredibly, a particularly nasty lady doesn’t mind answering hers between takes). The crowd pushes and shoves their way to get closer to the helicopter even though the assistant director insists that only the front three rows should be looking towards the vessel. Things becomes especially interesting if you are standing in Cremona’s way as he turns out to be a method actor who happily pushes everybody out of his way in order to achieve the most dramatic effect. This is all in great fun except when a guy with a banner on top of a pole stands behind me and Cremona’s impact forces him to whack me in the head a couple of times. One nasty look later, he volunteers to relocate and all is cool again. Daniel Craig arrives on the set while he practices striking Sciarra’s bodyguard with a skeleton topped cane and he does his work in just a few takes. His work in Mexico is done as soon as he takes a step alongside the helicopter’s door frame (the filming inside the chopper’s interior will surely be done later in a studio). Between shots I’m leaning alongside a wind blower so large, it has its own license plate. As I turn around, I notice producer Barbara Broccoli standing besides me but I guess I looked so startled, she decides to relocate. Later on, her co-producer step-brother Michael G. Wilson walks around taking pictures of the crew and we strike a conversation that ends prematurely when he points to the helicopter motor and mentions that he can’t hear a thing. That turns out to be the extent of my meeting with those most responsible for the recent success of the Bond franchise.
After a day off, everybody is back Monday morning and those of us who got to be in front of the helicopter rapidly take our places not unlike dolphins waiting to be rewarded with a sardine, but the production people notify us that after dozens of take-offs and landings, this part of the shooting has been completed. Our enthusiasm doesn’t go unnoticed so they ask most everybody else to get off the Zocalo square except for some 60-70 of us for what will surely be the highlight of the week. As the camera rolls, the Red Bull helicopter performs several horizontal 360° spins about 50 feet above our heads while Bond and Sciarra’s stunt doubles battle inside with their heads sticking out. When the first take is finished and the helicopter flies away, most people in our group react spontaneously by giving the pilot an extended applause, something that doesn’t please the assistant director too much (that’s the last thing you are supposed to be doing!). After a few takes they try something similar, but this time both characters stand on one of the helicopter’s skids, hanging on to dear life from a security device that will later be erased with CGI. My main concern is not so much that the helicopter will fall on top of us but rather that one of the stuntmen will, and when the assistant director asks us to look frightened, it isn’t all that difficult to comply. About a dozen takes involving real crowds and the helicopter are shot but very little of this footage ends up making it to the big screen.
At the end of that working day, Sam Mendes walks over to the main stage under the greater skull and thanks everybody for their hard work (“Bond belongs to you!"). My friend Erik and I walk around the set and bid goodbye to Gary Powell, we stick our heads inside the helicopter for the sake of it and half kiddingly thank pilot Chuck Aaron for not getting us killed. I then suggest that we walk toward Sam Mendes’ tent to see what’s going on and we find him happily autographing badges. Despite the casting company’s best efforts (and some of their best tackles) I manage to hand him mine just before they get everybody away and Sam kindly dedicates it.
As the movie opens in November, I come to learn a fifth lesson about modern filmmaking: no matter how well you think can spot a CGI in a movie, it is only in the bigger-than-life images that you can usually detect it; there are countless other scenes filled with smaller details that don’t call attention to themselves. Take, for instance, the gap between the buildings in the rooftops that Bond casually skips in order to get within shooting distance of Sciarra; the fake extension to Estrella’s room facade (the only real item there is a single window section), and more impressively the thousands upon thousands of people on the square (in the shots from above during the helicopter fight) that run away from the approaching chopper individually. These fake extras may be 100% convincing but they are about as real as the tsunami wave in “Die Another Day.” Most of the helicopter’s riskier acrobatics are later filmed in the southern town of Palenque where the sea level air is not as thin as that in Mexico City and they are later superimposed on the city shots. The resulting 007 pre-title sequence makes for one of the most exciting and original in the series and it is constantly referred to as best part of “Spectre."
At the end of the shoot, my only regret is having missed seeing the rest of the main cast. But when the Premiere of the Americas is held in our National Auditorium (not too far from my home) my wife and I decided to attend even if it means staying outside with the crowds. As things turn out, the people in charge of the press section there aren’t particularly picky and gladly provide us with a badge once they hear that I write for this webpage, allowing us to photograph most of the movie’s main stars as they walk past the red carpet. Even though said badge should not be enough to get us inside for the premiere, we easily talk our way inside with one of the guards. The place is filled with the giant skeleton floats used in the film, some of the rolling dancers, a couple dozen people dressed as skulls and more importantly, Bond’s Aston Martin DB10. As I watch “Spectre” for the first time, I’m glad to find myself in a couple of shots even though the editing is so quick that one lasts for about a second and the other is even shorter but this isn’t too important, they will stand there for posterity no matter how brief. The sixth and last lesson that I learned from this experience is that if you want to appear clearly in a movie, it’s better if this doesn’t happen during an action scene.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...