Something happened that night

ONFILM  April 2010

Waka Attewell looks back in anguish at his stint as a professional crash scene voyeur, during a gig chronicling the heroes who mop up the ‘collateral damage’ of New Zealand’s drinking culture.

It’s just past 4:00am. The grey of dawn is hinting somewhere in the distant cloud, while the sodium light slashes at the occasional Auckland drizzle. Thankfully the city is now quiet.

Deep in their own thoughts the various crews drift back to the motel and, in a ritual that’s been repeated for the past five weeks, stow the equipment in their rooms – you know the drill: putting batteries on charge, sorting tapes ready for the next night’s onslaught.

I’m doing the sorting in the solitude of my own room. This morning I’m not in so much of a hurry to join the others for the usual ‘drinkies’; for me the line between real and not so real has just gone from clear to blurred, as I delicately clean droplets of someone’s arterial blood off the camera…

I finally make it to the producer’s suite and throw alcohol on top of the adrenalin and hope that sleep will be of the numbed variety, without dreams of the immediate. Three quick drinks later I feel reasonably landed so I throw another two on top to make sure. Outside the drizzle nags at the comfort and the chain-smokers hover too close to the edge of the room, but staying dry is their privilege – they deserve it.

Gamboling about the room, the arm-waving producer (who is a few bevies ahead of us) announces, “We’re making great Television!” Kicking open the ranch-slider, he bellows this fact into the dawn.

At the moment, though, I’m not feeling the glow of this greatness – I’m looking across the room at one of the sound recordists and thinking he’ll be the first needing to see a shrink. Then I look at the others and think that maybe everyone present is due for a visit to the bin.

After all, cutting drunk, dying people out of car wrecks is what other people do for a living – not us, not me – not until now, that is.

***

A month or so before this moment I’m high up in the hills of Colorado, working on a screenplay. At 7,000 feet the air is thin; it seems to clears the thought process. The story we’re working on is based on real events that included me so I’m the driving force behind the detail.

I’m enjoying making the real events fulfill the screenplay’s fictional requirements, and mostly I’m enjoying clarifying the purpose of the exercise (truth is, my writing buddy is doing the hard yards, while I’m doing the ‘collaboration’ thing). It’s wonderfully fulfilling and immensely creative, though I’m becoming a little bit perturbed at the way the real people are weakened when they are morphed into screen characters and their conversation is suddenly dialogue inside a movie – I’ll have to get on top of the ‘real’ versus ‘unreal’ aspects of the writing process before the next draft.

It’s been a few weeks now and the Amex card is getting to the limit… Oh well, what’s new, it’s been like this for the past 25 years; something always happens, it’s the way of the freelance world.” (Doesn’t stop you from feeling sick in the weak moments, though.)

Then, on cue, the phone rings – it’s about a job back in New Zealand on what’s to be the country’s first ‘reality’ TV show (though that term has not yet made its way into the mainstream), and the amount offering is exactly the amount owing on my Amex.

Three days later I was on a plane home.

***

As the firemen cut the back out of the car I can get partway in for a medium shot of the ambulance guy, who’s lit by the many torches and flashing lights.

I’m staying clear of the professionals when suddenly he looks up and straight at me – “Can you hold this?” He hands me the IV bag; I grab it with my left hand, have to move closer to do so. I’m still shooting but much to my surprise I’m now also part of the rescue.

I have a wee moment of feeling of more value and that’s when the spray of arterial blood spurts outwards; I feel it hit me as the jaws of life lift the whole roof off. The street lights wash the scene with sodium orange; I have the presence of mind to reach back with the index finger of my right hand and close the iris down slightly as the image errs on the edge of being over exposed.

As soon as the opportunity presents itself I hand the iv to the nearest cop, freeing myself of life saving tasks and falling safely back into the detachment granted by the viewfinder.

Later, walking into the darkness, I give my hunched posture the alibi of a tape and battery change. It’s been a long five weeks – just one more week and the contract will be finished… My tears drip onto the cover of the unopened note book still lying in the bottom of my backpack. No time for notes; no need; all I’ve seen and heard is already etched forever.

***

I’m a one-man band, doing both sound and pictures. The radio mic is sown and gaffer-taped into the Fire Chief’s tunic – all I have to do is turn the microphone on while it’s still hanging on the peg.

A call out happens like this… The lights quietly glow a brief moment before the gentle warble of the siren starts. The firemen don’t rush, but they always beat me to the waiting engine. The chief throws his jacket and helmet on and is now transmitting to the Panasonic 520 that’s already running (it’ll continuously run until the operation is over – the timecode will give a clue as to how to find the sync with the three hard-mounted cameras). As I jump into the middle back seat, I drop a battery into the previously rigged floor mount and it rolls the three pre-rigged pencil cameras in the cab. I always put my seat belt on.

The driver hits the accelerator, the chief hits the siren, and then the radio chat starts: car vs truck; car vs amco barrier; car vs car; car vs fire…

***

Tonight a cop car speeds by us. Then another. We first come across a car wreck that’s not our gig, so we drive on through. (On closer inspection the wreck is a cop car, upside down in the front yard of a suburban house – maybe I can hear the trapped cops talking on the radio. The car has taken out three fences and its busted light is still weakly flashing on the lawn. The Samoan family that lives there looks on wide-eyed in their powder blue and pink pyjamas and dressing gowns.)

Further down the road we can already see the ambulance leaving a scene that is many minutes old – this is our gig. We’re the clean up crew – the first crew are already spent and exhausted. A white car sits bent in the middle of the intersection – the personal plate reads BONNY[1] – apparently she dies later that night, as does the Tongan guy still sitting upright and ignored in his car; he seems alert and aware, but the ambulance gal knows something that I don’t. In silhouette I can see the blood pouring silently from his nose… I film him – I want to move closer but my legs won’t work.

In the final cut of the TV episode BONNY doesn’t rate a mention and her car merely becomes a cutaway (with the number plate blurred out), while the Tongan guy is just shown in profile. Nonetheless these images still haunt me and in my darkest moments they tear at the walls. I still wonder who ‘Bonny’ was and who is missing her.

Although we’re regularly invited to swoon at the ‘greatness’ of the TV we were making, it’s hard to see the greatness in other people’s misery.

***

The last night of the last shift and the lights come up from their low ebb and the warble sounds… It’s car vs truck – a drunk couple has gone under the tray of a parked truck on a suburban street somewhere in South Auckland. When we get there the car isn’t jammed but has bounced out and is across the road – the ambulance crew stabalise the unconscious couple while my fire crew chew the roof off with the jaw-of-life. The cops lift the stretchers – the ambulance seems under staffed, so I continue filming but also grab a corner.

The broken couple have an ambulance each but end up at the same hospital and two days later, once sober and patched up, they’ll sneak their broken bones away without signing out. Lucky beyond belief, the cops never find out who they were – in the footwell on the drivers side is an unopened stubby Tui beer bottle. I direct the fire chief to hold it up as if he was doing a TV commercial – he suggests we send the footage to Doug Myers. The shot makes the final cut but the sound mix masks the Myers name (of course it does); they also put a blurry dot over the beer label. After all you have to look after the hand that feeds and the advertising dollar speaks louder than anything else when it comes to how this TV thing works.

***

I never watched the finished shows, though from what I could see in the cutting room they had too much music and too much sardonic opinion informed by too little thinking.

It quickly became clear the reality TV format was more than just the brief fad we thought it was going to be; in fact it’s undeniably become the way of the future. The combination of low-cost production and high-ratings is impossible to ignore – and it’s what the viewers want, because they keep tuning in – who am I to say it’s good or bad?

Even though at the time I got the feeling we were already on shaky ground, and reaching down to the lowest place was not the reason I got into this TV business, I don’t regret shooting the cop-fire-ambulance show – hey, it paid the rent for the next four months.

But I am disappointed it didn’t make a jot of difference to the drunk-driving culture of this country, despite more than 90% of all the callouts on the show being alcohol-related. All those raw nerve ends, all that reality (or should that be ‘reality’?) just seemed to get lost in the noise of the numbing bombardment of fictional and non-fiction images from around the planet.

Seems like more sometimes just lessens us all.

[1] Name changed.

Advertisements