Night and Day
A Foreign Film Crew Captures 2 Sides of New Orleans.
By Lee Yates
JULY 28, 1997: Andiamo was the battle call.
Italian for "we go," the word was used alternately with aspetta, which means "hold on a minute."
Filming is just that by nature: hurry up and wait. Framing the shot, arranging the set, adjusting the lights and monitoring the sound are hard to do at the same time. When you add the human element and move from location to location, it becomes infinitely more complicated.
My mission was to assist a film crew shooting a late-night special called Beyond the Night for Italian television. The documentary-style show entrances viewers for an hour each Saturday night with exotic characters in exotic locales. It focuses on major cities all over the world and, specifically, on people who lead one sort of life during the day and a completely different one at night.
Needless to say, New Orleans was ripe with subject matter. By the time the Italians packed up their camera bags and stowed away their tripods, they had experienced more local culture than most locals. The crew captured everything from witch rituals to private "goth" clubs, from impromptu strip shows on Bourbon Street to a walking tour of crime sites.
The local liaisons helping to produce the show learned plenty about their own city in the process.
Slow StartersThe crew was already behind schedule before it started.
Allesandra, the producer, had broken her arm while playing Roman roller hockey the week before she was to come to the Crescent City. After the bones were set a second time and she received a few day's rest, her doctor gave her the OK to fly, but by that time she and the rest of the team were three days behind schedule.
Not that shooting a documentary-style show is something you can really plan to begin with. Any schedule is, at best, a guideline, so a simple, declarative statement from the director -- "I would like some fruit salad," for instance -- can change the rules in an instant.
And these Italians weren't much for following rules.
Alberto, the director, had a sort of perpetually curious scowl that proved he was always thinking. Allesandra, who had to do everything with her left hand, maintained a goofy equilibrium thanks to strong pain medication. (After the first week of sleep deprivation, the entire crew was goofy.) And Giorgio, the light and sound wizard, won over his new American friends by playing the jester -- and teaching everyone lots of Italian swear words.
The local crew consisted of an assistant director, gaffer, grip, transportation coordinator, location scout, production coordinator, set designer, line producer, researcher, electrician, casting agent and production assistant.
Needless to say, both of us worked pretty hard.
Several months before the production started, local line producer Amy Nesbitt researched shooting ideas, assembled story boards, created character profiles, procured equipment and tried to wrangle discount rooms and meals from the New Orleans visitors bureau. Despite my meager production experience, I stumbled into this job when Nesbitt mentioned that she needed someone who was flexible under stress and willing to work 16-hour days for two straight weeks.
I was broke and curious, so I signed on.
Spending the hours between the early afternoon and sunrise trying to capture the atmosphere of New Orleans for two weeks can be mentally and physically exhausting. Finding bottled water and muffins at 4 a.m. or that great cappuccino in Bywater near sundown can be tall orders. Trying to explain local linguistics and the cultural idiosyncrasies of New Orleans can be even more daunting.
We had to do some tricky maneuvering to escape Bourbon Street after police blocked off the street with metal poles. An unfortunately timed downpour on Frenchmen Street caused a panic among the crew members, who had to dry expensive digital equipment with thinly woven paper bar napkins. And catching a fleeting sunset while trying to cross the Crescent City Connection was risky, to say the least.
The Italians weathered these obstacles with aplomb, however, and their reward was a wealth of unique vistas, colorful characters and moments that could only be captured in America's Most Interesting City.
In fact, the sheer number of interesting people, places and things in New Orleans was a problem in itself, because the crew frequently had to choose between two equally compelling events. How do you decide between the drag show at Rubyfruit Jungle and a gig by Michael Ray & the Cosmic Krew at Snug Harbor? The answer, of course, is that you try to get it all.
Faces and Places
The crew's first three days in town were spent scouting locations and meeting the local "cast" of colorful characters. In keeping with the day vs. night theme, there was an assortment of people living dual lives: writers who were also cab drivers, sex workers who were doting moms, and musicians who doubled as private investigators. The producers were interested in some degree of risque behavior, so the crew spent much of its scouting time in and around the gentlemen's clubs and not-so-gentlemanly clubs of Bourbon Street looking for characters who would indulge a taste for the unusual.
Getting first-time film crews off Bourbon Street is even harder than getting your average tourist away from the city's most visually impressive spectacle, so, as expected, we spent many of our days and nights shooting drunken tourists, bawdy hawkers, exotic dancers and the cast of degenerate thousands who make Bourbon a 24-hour sideshow. But the most productive hours on Bourbon came during the first night of serious shooting, when we captured the exotic burlesque routine of the one and only Gio in the previously unused upstairs room at Rick's Cabaret.
Not that the process didn't have a few glitches.
After calling ahead and working out details with a legion of managers several times, we arrived to realize that there was no stocked bar upstairs, an inadequate number of chairs and a quarter-inch film of dust covering every surface. We madly scrambled to prepare for the show. As the guests arrived, I sanitized the stage and ransacked the inventory of portable platforms used for "table dances." Amy rounded up the dancers who would warm up the crowd and learned how to operate the foreign sound system, while the Italians set the equipment at ready.
Then it was showtime.
Gio warmed up the crowd by tossing out several dozen pairs of ceremoniously colored red, white and green long beads amid shouts of "Viva d'Italia," After some "witches" (who double as professional strippers) further livened up the audience with a number featuring leather and dominance, Gio performed a spirited foot fetish routine in honor of the Italian fascination with shoes. Her acrobatic maneuvering -- and foaming beer bottle trick -- brought uproarious applause from the crowd of local luminaries.
When the final interviews were done, we packed up and patted ourselves on the back. We asked the club managers about our complimentary meal, but they were too busy counting the night's take at the bar, so we rewarded ourselves with a leisurely meal at La Peniche. And then we proceeded to our next location.
What some find odd, unusual or eccentric, New Orleanians perceive as normal. Without thought, we nod our heads as someone from out of town tries to shock us with the weirdness they've encountered here. So ingrained is our nonchalance that you might say taking things for granted is one of our favorite sports.
But if you're willing to look deep into the recesses of our city, the assortment of spectacles you will encounter may surprise you -- yes, even you.
With the help of their local contacts, the Italians filmed professed witches doing a sundown ceremony on the lakefront under the veil of advancing armies of mosquitoes. They captured unintelligible operatic dialogue between two fashion models frolicking in the deserted neighborhoods of Bywater, with dumbfounded Harbor Police officers standing guard. And they made a permanent record of dancing laborers enjoying happy hour while bopping up and down to Rebirth Brass Band on the juke box at Little Peoples Place in Treme.
We discovered a surreptitious speakeasy somewhere near the river called the Pearl, where underground musicians play impromptu gigs until sunrise and artistic prophets share their reflections on the many dangers to our freedoms in America. A nice-sized bonfire crackling in the backyard added intensity to their ruminations.
Rubyfruit Jungle supplied a drag show with extravagant costumes and skillful lip-syncing. And an underground private "gothic fetish" club offered an assortment of would-be vampires and fully equipped rooms outfitted to suit the nighttime festivities. Not surprisingly, darkly dressed ghouls recoiled instinctively at the appearance of hand-held filming lights. But the Italians got their shots.
The crew devoted a lot of time to the local music scene. We captured blues harmonica player Andy Forest in his French Quarter apartment and during his steady Bourbon Street gig. We caught up with Michael Ray and his crew during a rehearsal in his funky back yard, where he wowed us with his experimental jazz riffs. And we filmed a local hip-hop show at Score's on Elysian Fields featuring a pair of twins from Chicago who go by the name Which One.
We enjoyed Tony Green's Gypsy Jazz show at the Columns Hotel and then dashed over to Mid City Lanes to film his wonderful period murals and catch part of a set by Johnny J. & the Hitmen. We found a Dragon's Den showcase of an all-female hardcore band named Down There. And, despite the Northshore's patented resistance to intrusion, we ventured to Ruby's Roadhouse in Mandeville for a smoking show from Rockin' Dopsie Jr. & his Zydeco Twisters.
Once Dopsie and his band began playing -- and the floor, speaker columns and lights were swaying -- it became obvious that we were getting the best musical footage of the trip. Overall, it can be safely said that we gave the Italians more music than they ever bargained for.
The middle part of our production was spent trying to shoot Beyond the Night's fictional segment, which was a brief collection of scenes designed to dramatize an urban myth that had captured the imagination of the Italian crew. The story involved a private detective, a glamorous socialite with plenty of sexual curiosity, and a local fixture -- "the lesbian vampire." At least the script didn't call for aliens.
The filmmakers wanted to inspire lurid terror in an Italian audience, but, because Anne Rice was unavailable for an interview, we realized we would need our own ingenuity to make the piece work. First we needed a star, and we found him in real-life private detective/musician Gary Hirstius.
The first shot of the story featured Hirstius and his band, Day Seven, performing at the new and improved Benny's nightclub. Mixed in with Benny's normal jumble of college kids and neighborhood regulars was a vampire who was stalking Gary from the crowd. Next, the crew built the storyline around the vampire and her voluptuous victim as Gary spied their coincidental meeting at the Famous Door on Bourbon Street. The intrigue continued as Gary staked out the plush surroundings of the main bar at the Fairmont Hotel, where the women went for further conversation and a couple of glasses of wine.
As our vampire seduced her victim and coaxed her back into her lair (an abandoned warehouse in the CBD inhabited by a sleepy alternative band called the Gillespie Brothers), Gary took pictures of their silhouetted seduction in a third-floor window from the street.
Then, out came the fake teeth and blood.
Once all the scenes were wrapped, Alberto applauded his victim's portrayal, gave her his card and said he would call her about a movie he was making in Los Angeles. The fiction was finished, but the film shoot was far from over.
The crew's final few days were spent developing characters. We visited Gio, the stripper, at her house in Faubourg Marigny, where she was sandblasting an antique bathtub as part of an ambitious renovation. Afterwards, we shot some footage of Gio's husband, Tommy, in his cherry red Oldsmobile hot rod.
We visited with Ron Caron, a local writer and history buff who moonlights as a cab driver. He took us on a tour of St. Louis No. 1 cemetery, showed us the Iberville public housing development and brought us to see the only remaining building from the city's infamous Storyville red light district.
We conducted an interview with Rockin' Dopsie Jr. at the Pelham Hotel, where the zydeco ace proceeded to partially disrobe and quote from underneath the bed sheets, "Hell, I always stay at the Pelham Hotel."
We also checked in with Squishy, a local sex star, who remarked on the perversity of America's thinking when it comes to nudity and sex while she fed carrots and peas to her toddler daughter Arabella. Her interview continued in the upstairs bathroom, where she applied full body makeup -- and affixed baby bottle nipples over her own -- in front of the cameras. Later that evening, we shot Squishy performing her famous "vacuum cleaner act" at a more remote gothic bar near the Fair Grounds called the Angel. Later, her husband Lucas' band, Big Bamboozle, performed an energetic set of tunes that would have been at home on the New York underground scene.
The crew captured one drag queen hard at work as a hairdresser and another as a home health care provider. Yet another performer showed us her wonderful Terrytown garden and let us watch the preparation for her glamorous transformation.
The parade of people, places and things was really moving at a delirious pace at this point. But the Italians still wanted more. And the city kept on offering it up.
We made a visit to the Mardi Gras Truck Stop on Elysian Fields Avenue and found a trucker/poet named Forest, who educated the Italians about the Arkansas militia and invited the crew to document life in "hillbilly country." Then, we went to pick up one of our stripper acquaintances and filmed an erotic performance in an empty boxcar near some remote train tracks on a location that Alberto had always dreamed of shooting.
After dinner at the Praline Connection -- where Henry Butler was performing with Bob French's band -- we spent a few hours filming Forest's wild-eyed initiation on Bourbon Street with a Lucky Dog in hand. We visited the visionary responsible for the Pearl (the Bywater speakeasy) and filmed him setting up for the night's festivities by grating fresh ginger for a special alcoholic concoction.
Our last night ended up where we had started -- on Bourbon Street in the wee hours of a Sunday morning.
We wandered down the street seeking pearls of wisdom as girls from Mississippi squealed and revealed all the "neat stuff" they had seen. Meanwhile, David, an intelligent and well-spoken young man who might get tagged as a "gutterpunk," told us about his existence polishing off abandoned hurricanes and begging money to eat. He also shared his thoughts about the plight of his generation as it drifted farther and farther away from the cultural norm. (David's themes no doubt will resonate with the audience in Italy, which is cursed with double-digit unemployment rates and massive unrest among the youth.)
Around 5 a.m., as the crew's stay in New Orleans reached its final hours, an attractive porno queen who identified herself as Betty Boobs stumbled into our path and slowly peeled her white cotton dress up from her toes to her neck, revealing the completely nude and well-manicured body that Alberto had been searching for during his entire stay. (It was then that he realized that the best way to find something in this town is to stop looking for it.)
As dawn broke over the river, the crew filmed a sunrise duel on the moonwalk between two fencing enthusiasts clad in black protective garb. The modern-day Errol Flynns clashed sabers and shouted French epithets when undone by each other, and the crew was able to film the sun coming up behind them.
Finally, we captured the aftermath of the night's carnage being whisked up by city employees at dawn as they swept all the execrable matter away to prepare the stage for another performance of imbibery and debauchery.
And, at this point, the Italians finally seemed satisfied.
With all the cameras safely stowed away, we drove back to the Pelham and then silently to the airport in time for the 9 a.m. flight to Milan. As the Kenner police hustled us out of the loading zone, we said our thank yous and goodbyes. The director told us it was the best material he had ever gotten and how much he was looking forward to his next visit.
Then, Alberto and crew boarded the plane that would fly them home. Soon enough, they would be on their way to Istanbul to shoot another episode. The New Orleanians, meanwhile, were finally able to make a long-delayed date with their pillows.
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