No Guts, No Glory – Confessions of a Zombie Survivor

No guts No Glory - a zombie war cry

No guts No Glory – a zombie war cry

Last weekend, I was filming, darhling, sweetie, lovey. As a supporting artist, or a featured extra. Or ‘just’ an extra.’ But, ‘there are no small parts, only small actors’, as I was told when I spent three years studying drama. Make it your story.

It was my second attempt. The first was a disaster.  I’d answered a call for actors to participate in a zombie film (is there any other, these days?) and received all the details via email. Nice thank you for participating. No payment. Except the glory of the Big Screen. So I got up at 6.30am on a weekend, and drove myself (no chauffeured car, like Danny Craig probably gets) into the centre of Coventry. It’s not difficult to imagine Coventry as a zombie city, even at its busiest. It was, of course, the inspiration for Ghost Town by The Specials. And at 6.30 in the morning, even with a ring-road half destroyed for ‘roadworks’, there was no traffic to get in my way. Coventry has been described as  all ‘ring-road and car parks’ by many , although finding a car park now is difficult, even for a long standing resident. I was pleased to find one, get my ticket, and be informed that it was a cheap parking day (£2 all day).

Unfortunately, as the ticket barrier went down, I also realised that this car park was closed until 10 0’clock. And I was now caught between the closed ticked barrier and the car park shutter, which had been locked down. I tutted loudly, and tried to consider what a zombie would do in this situation. Fortunately, I found some buzzer that put me through to Coventry’s faceless Big Brother Traffic Control, who were able to tell me to reverse, as they re-opened the ticket barrier. I’m sure Danny Craig never suffered this sort of humiliation. Never mind, I thought, I can use that for my character. Zombies are probably often frustrated.

It got worse. I arrived at the filming location fifteen minutes early – I was always taught to be punctual for performances, it separates the professional from the amdram – and was surprised that there was no-one else who was visibly zombie-like or filmworldy. How unprofessional, I thought, wrapping myself up in thermal longjohns, vest, hat, gloves and coat, readying myself for a long cold morning of filming.

Then it dawned. Today was not going to be Zombie Apocalypse. As I looked down at the instructions I’d taken all the trouble to print out, I realised that I had turned up two weeks early. If I was Danny Craig, I could have blamed my agent. As it was, I’d made a stupid, stupid mistake. Never mind, I could use that for my character. Zombies are probably often frustrated. And stupid. Their brains have rotted. I sat down dejectedly on a bench, as Coventry’s tramps and drunks walked past me, sobbing ‘I want to be a zombie! I want to be a zombie!’

So this time, I’d double checked the date and time of filming, and checked out which car parks were open. I still had my thermal longjohns, vest, hat, gloves and coat, readying myself for a long cold morning of filming. And this time, when I arrived, there were people. With cameras and booms, and clipboards, and people milling around, which is what actors do. I was introduced to the cameraman, second director, runner, and a whole host of other Hollywood type people.

I sat quietly and prepared myself. I had very little information. And, technically, I didn’t have a character.  But, remember, there are no small parts, only small actors. So I invented my character, Lem, and took the billboard above as inspiration – No guts, no glory. Very appropriate for Lem, who clearly had some form of learning disability, was easily frustrated, and prone to depressive bouts of sobbing in public. I’d gleaned that the film was about some sort of virus affecting people and turning them into zombies. Although, technically, I wasn’t a zombie, as we’d sent in photos to be chosen to be ‘zombies’ or ‘victims’. If you hadn’t heard back, you were supposed to be a victim. I didn’t see Lem as a victim.

We got separated into two groups to do walking acting – this time milling professionally on screen. A couple of takes of ‘walking’ – some actors, apparently, were walking in French. Lem was walking to finish some Christmas shopping for orphans with disabilities in Coventry, because he had a Big Heart and an abused childhood.

Then we did walking from another angle, which is where it got Quite Complicated and I became Quite Confused (I decided Lem was also easily confused, which was probably part of his learning disability.) We were separated into ‘People Dying’ (infected with a virus, and taking a while to die dramatically), ‘Victims’ (people who just dropped dead because they’d been infected with the virus) and Survivors – people who ran away and survived. Now, I’d already established that Lem wasn’t a victim. So I didn’t quite understand why the director hadn’t chosen me to be in the Survivors or People Dying groups. There are no small parts, only small actors. And Lem had a story to tell.

So when they shouted ‘action’, I went with the Truth of the Moment.Yes, technically, the direction was that I should just drop down dead. But, Lem took over me, and I looked around at people dropping dead, and heard the Survivors running behind me and past me, and Lem made a split-second decision to run. Lem ran through every take.

It was exhausting. Lem wasn’t terribly fit, and his shins and legs were aching and on fire after several sprints. And probably his immune system was trying to fight off the virus.

Other actors followed the direction more closely – some might say they were more professional. I just think they weren’t truly in character. Although I did complement one actor on his walking. Although, when I said ‘I like your walking’, he didn’t seem to take it as a complement.

So – spolier alert – Lem has survived, joined the Eco Warriors – and is now available to appear in the sequel, Lem – A Story Of Survival. I’m just waiting to hear from the Director ….

Lem will be coming to a screen near you as part of  the Coventry Film Festival in 2015. Unless he ends up on the cutting room floor.

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Living the life of Rogue and Queen – and Happy Birthday

Tomorrow is my birthday, and as usual I’m feeling a mixture of dread, excitement, relief and melancholy. It’s been a year of ups and downs – cancer, heart surgery, mini-stroke, loss. But I’m here. And thinking of Eartha Kitt‘s fabulous self-penned lyrics for Life Made Me Beautiful At Forty , which she purrs through during her cover of All By Myself.  Naturally, it’s a camp anthem ad here’s just some of the reasons why:

I’ve been through clouds and stormy skies

and diferent worlds all filled with lies

I’ve travelled through the stings of lovers,

and wiped my tears upopn their covers

I’ve lived the life of Rogue and Queen

and dyed my hair to fit the scene.

I’ve had my ups, I’ve had my downs,

and sipped champagne with worldly crowns.

I’ve been as honest as I could

And shamed the shame of those who should.

Athough my last post was about smashing the self-critical and overly introspective mirror, birthdays, – like New Year – have always been a time of reflection for me. Melancholy and nostalgia come as  natural background feelings. I love Douglas Adams‘ explanation  in The book Of LIff  of Aberystwyth (where I studied drama at University) as:

A nostalgic yearning which is in itself more pleasant than the thing being yearned for.

A friend and lover from my time there died recently. I’d missed him for a long time before that. And so there’s another feeling, which felt the most pronounced when I watched Brokeback Mountain  for the first time. I’d dreaded watching a Hollywood treatment of a ‘gay relationship’, but was taken aback at the profound impact the film had on me and only realised a long time afterwards that the feeling the film left me with was one of longing. Not of, or for anything in particular, but a sense of something missing and worth finding. When I tried explaining it to friends, we started referring to it as the ‘Brokeback moment’ – an instinctive response or realisation that comes when least expected, but leaves you forever changed.

In The Cherry Orchard, Chekov notoriously introduces the sound of a breaking string that ‘seems to fall rom the sky’ and is ‘a sad sound, like a harp string breaking.’ It’s heard as something different by each of his characters – for Lophakin it’s ‘an echo from a mine shaft. But it must be far away.’ Gayev hears ‘some kind of bird … like a heron’, and Trofimov hears the wisdom of ‘an owl’. The sound makes Liubov ‘nervous’. The string represents a sense of disconnection, which I also associate with melancholy  and was part of my ‘Brokeback moment’. The reaction I like best of this ‘disconnect’ in The Cherry Orchard is that of Firs, who is reminded of ‘the day we got our freedom back’, commenting further :

Well, it’s all over now, and I never even had a life to live.

Life is full of Brokeback moments and breaking strings, and that’s what Eartha was singing of.  Moments of laughter and pain, loss and joy. I’ve fought damned hard over the last year to keep living those experiences.  Later in the same song, she trriumphantly recognises:

the taste of life has not been so bad

between the tears and joys I’ve had

for with some good and a little sin,

she always allowed me to get up again.

So, Happy BIrthday. And here’s to tears and joys, some good and a litle sin, Brokeback moments and breaking strings.