A Galaxy of Stars
Samuel L. Jackson doing his thing in Rules of Engagement. I was on the crew during the sections shot in Morocco in 1999.
Samuel L Jackson
Ouarzazate is a small town the other side of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and only a stones throw from the Sahara, so a good place to build a film studio as it is convenient for any desert locations, and Ouarzazate can double for all kinds of middle-eastern locations, including the Yemen, which is what we were doing. British crew were only there to make up the camera numbers - I was on 'C' camera with Rodrigo Guttirez (operator) and Sam Barnes (Loader). For the most part the US camera crew were all very friendly and easygoing, but US film sets can be more akin to live cabaret, with a high degree of drama, anger, high dudgeon and firings - but oddly, once wrap is called, everything calms down.
While we were there a cameraman was fired and another brought in to take his place, and it wasn't unusual for Billy Friedkin to promote 'B' camera to take over 'A' camera's role - something that could really make the fur fly. The producer stayed in Marrakech and had the rushes (processed film) flown in and out by private jet at enormous expense. We had a Chinook and two huey helicopters painted to look like USMC, and actual real live marines. One of the most interesting was a chatty Private nicknamed 'Meat' who eventually became the model for 'Fodder' in Early Riser.
I digress - the three weeks I spent on the set would make a book in itself, and although we at 'C' camera had less to do with front line shooting and for several days did nothing at all as we weren't needed, I did have the opportunity to be cringingly sycophantic to Billy Friedkin, when I told him (we were walking to breakfast, concidentaly at the same time) how the train/car chase in 'French Connection' was still the best ever. (it is)
Still I digress. Sam Jackson was as much of a star then as he is now, and it always impresses me when the titans have time for the grunts - and he did. There is a major scene where he is crawling around on the roof taking fire and gives the order to engage - pivotal to the film - and we had at least four cameras on him. He made all the effort to enthusiastically greet what he called 'new faces on the set' and was unfailingly polite. Then, and this is a serious rarity for any actor, least of all a star, he gave us focus pullers a rough idea where he would be moving to - so we could keep him in focus. Very generous - a true professional. (It should be noted here that as a focus puller, you don't get to look through the camera. You take marks from the ground, and focus accordingly on the focus scale of the camera. It requires a deft touch, and a sense of timing and anticipation. For the most part we are ignored - until we get it soft, when we're despised and quite often fired. Sam Jackson wasn't unique, but unusual - stars and actors are usually cordial on set as it makes no sense to piss off a crew - but some do go the extra mile, and we love them for it. Of all of them, Christoph Lambert of Highlander fame was the most focus-friendly actor I worked with. He also obligingly used to do 'Ook ook' ape noises for the crew, referencing 'Greystoke'.)
Incidentally, I was also designated carpet buyer on the shoot, as I could haggle pretty well with the local carpet sellers as I didn't actually want one, and enjoyed the gallons of mint tea that are part of the haggling process. Better still, Moroccans have a great sense of humour, so when one showed me how much they wanted for the carpet, I asked if that was his phone number - and was met with gales of laughter - and more mint tea. On one memorable occasion I was asked if I wanted to see something 'really special' as part of a deal-clinching gambit. I said I would, obviously - who wouldn't in Ouarzazate? We climbed to the top of the shop and he showed me - Karen Allen's door. Yes, that Karen Allen. She'd been out here on a shoot, bought it but never had it shipped. And there it stayed. I was suitably impressed. You heard it here first. Jasper Fforde has seen Karen Allen's door - and it was a good one - an aged Moroccan wooden affair, with nails and hand-made hinges and all sorts of shabby chic loveliness.
Recalled April 16th 2020. A longer version of this article appears in Fforde's Biography, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 2032.