EXTRACT: History Matters

In this extract from his collected writings, BILL NASSON recalls acting as a historical consultant for Hollywood movie The Deal.

Photograph by Gareth Smit

The Moonlighting base in the tumbling and dog-eared Cape Town locality of lower Salt River had an aptly latter-Victorian location inside The Armoury. Now trendy, this colonial version of the Woolwich Arsenal had once serviced the port’s British garrison. There, I met Steven Schachter, American director of The Deal and a partner in the enterprise, Irene Livinsky, who appeared to combine superbly the roles of producer, accountant, nudging confidante and labour agent. Schachter, a low-to-middlebrow sort of Californian film-maker in his sixties, shuffled about in furry bedroom slippers, chewing gum and blowing bubbles during conversation.

From him I learned about the creation of The Deal, an independent production put together with the accomplished actor, William H. Macy, with whom he had previously collaborated. Meg Ryan was Macy’s co-star in the production which would also be featuring the veteran actor, Elliott Gould, the rap performer – turned actor, LL Cool J, and Jason Ritter and Aidan Lithgow, the younger sons of the Hollywood B-movie actors, John Ritter and John Lithgow. Being filmed entirely in Southern Africa, the cast also included several leading local thespians, such as Jeremy Crutchley and John Carson. Location and studio shooting was to take place in a blue and sunny Cape Town California, and in the brown desert of a Namibian Arizona.

As for content and, to simplify, the subject matter of The Deal was a deal. Based on a Peter Lefcourt novel about Hollywood, it was (or is) about a range of film industry characters involved in the hair-raising studio world of producing, financing, casting, crafting, and clinching a big business project, depicting the pleasures and pains and delights and miseries that accompany it. As a dramatic rendition, its technique was to show The Deal as turning on the production of a film within a film within a film, placing viewers in, or behind, shifting cameras so that they would be unable to take everything that they could see for the nature of a real film reality. As an artistic collage of surprise cutting and fading, rolling and popping, the idea behind this film project evoked memories of earlier exercises in making a film about a film, notably Francois Truffaut’s 1973, la nuit Americain (Day for Night). But this was set to be a somewhat more coarse version of such cinema, with a director shaped by a culture of California surf, rather than of French New Wave.

One of the key moments in The Deal was its historical dramatisation, on which I had been drawn in. As its subject was the making of a film about a robust moment in Victorian politics, at the end of a turbulent House of Commons exchange, the cameras would roll back, revealing another set of film-makers staging the episode in Liberal-Conservative confrontation. This was the inner film about which there was the deal to be made, and which now required historical scrutiny of that portion of a screenplay that had been co-written by Steven Shachter and William H. Macy. For a DogPond/Sydnyk Works & Muse Entertainment Production, the full script was fairly bewildering to a novice reader.

What ensued opened up a question that may scarcely be novel to those working in cultural studies, or what one might call the technological media. Certainly, at first glance, film-writing seems to bear some resemblance, however superficial or slight, to writing historical narratives and, even more, novels. Both forms involve sitting down with a word-processor and recreating or inventing an imaginative universe with some degree or other of relation to real life in the present, or else to a credible human past. What emerges is a narrative intended to be shared. But there, however, the resemblance surely ends, and for a basic reason underlined nicely by the author and academic critic, Malcolm Bradbury. ‘Novels’, as he puts it, ‘are written’, while film screenplays are endlessly ‘rewritten, all the time, and generally by someone else’.

The Deal experience turned out to be more or less like that, although the pieces of rewriting requested were undertaken by someone with less than the haziest notion of how films were scripted. Inspired by the personalities of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, the screenwriters had hit on ‘Bill and Ben’ as a snappy title. I pointed out that for a British cinema audience of a certain generation, Bill and Ben might well prove to be unintendedly comical. ‘Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men’ had been a much–loved feature on ‘Watch with Mother’, a popular BBC children’s programme of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although Bill and Ben survived, other minor alterations were effected, mostly to improve implausible English terminology and ahistorical language construction. For instance, there was the unlikely spectacle of the Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, sneering across the despatch box at his Liberal opponent that he ought to ‘get real, man’, in an 1876 debate on trade and protectionism. Even as glib a twenty-first century British parliamentarian as Tony Blair would never have been guilty of such Americanisms in a British House of Commons Debate. There were also the unmistakeable echoes of a John Wayne Western to lines in which Queen Victoria’s foreign enemies were being ‘quick on the draw’, or in which her country’s French adversaries had ‘the drop’ on Whitehall planning. A crop of other small anachronisms included a Gladstonian ‘no way’, and an autumnal Disraeli promise of action ‘right now, in this Fall’.

In the nature of these things, as I now learned, the screenplay did the rounds for a brief time, with Schachter and Macy nodding through suggested revisions aimed at greater historical verisimilitude. Although the job then seemed done, the director was not yet done with me. Inevitably, even recognising another’s pat appetite for flattery does not necessarily prevent one from succumbing. Was the topic chosen for the film’s Commons Debate sufficiently exciting, Schachter wanted to know. Would it convey in dialogue and in combative atmosphere, the drama of high imperial British politics which Bill and Ben was intended to portray?

As a sparring subject for Disraeli and Gladstone, the 1876 Tariff Laws did not, I ventured, really fit that bill. If not that, then what would? Asked to suggest something less dull, what came to mind was heady imperialism. What about the incandescent parliamentary fuss in the mid-1870s over the prime minister’s purchase of the Suez Canal as a gift to Queen Victoria? It had been a coup of sorts, staged by a buccaneering Britain which was greedy for Egypt. It had been a heated domestic issue. It had had its share of party political hostilities, boorishness and absurdities. It would show the intense mutual animosity between the Tory Disraeli, described by The Times in 1868 as ‘an Oriental charlatan devoid of any moral principle’, and the Liberal Gladstone, which the paper derided three years later, as ‘a sanctimonious humbug claiming the authority of the Almighty’.

Known for being pitted against each other like dogs, no Victorian high society hostess would have had them share the same dinner table. A snarling Commons clash over Suez would surely make for a deliciously overstrained history scene.

Moreover, I suggested, given the present day crises of Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, the 19th century Canal saga might even have resonance for some viewers of The Deal.

Not only did the screenwriters take to this. They wanted it to be written as a substitute dramatic scene. Dismissing my qualms at knowing nothing of screen craft, Schachter made light of the exercise. Just take the screenplay, look at its structure of character movement and dialogue, delete the tariff debate material, and insert a Suez Canal scene, simulating the Commons exchange. And write it all ‘to camera’, was the director’s instruction, by which was meant providing physical action prompts to John Carson as Gladstone and Jeremy Crutchley as Disraeli.

History Matters is published by Penguin.

EXTRACT: There Should Have Been Five

An extract from the novel by MJ HONIKMAN.

“Panzers!”

He was yanked from his exhaustion just as it felt his eyes had closed.

In the silvery dawn light Sipho saw a Panzer tank silhouetted on the hill, pointing its long gun straight at them and within moments Panzers were streaming down the hills all around them, like hundreds of ants. Great billows of smoke swirled up from the town and the harbour. And there from the east, on the hill behind the tanks, came thousands of German soldiers.

“They’re everywhere,” he murmured.

“What a mess!” Job was saying. “Rommel sneaked back in the night. He’s bombed the concrete barriers on the south east and brought the Panzers straight in. They’ve come past the Indian and Scottish regiments, down to the harbour and now up here. We have no guns, and there are landmines behind us. We can’t retreat. We’re trapped!”

***

Columns of German soldiers moved briskly down the hill with more Panzer tanks crawling behind them. Italian soldiers trailed behind the tanks. The Germans opened fire. As bullets flew past them, Sipho and Job hunched, frozen for a few seconds, and then scrambled for cover. Allied soldiers returned fire but could not stop the mass of German soldiers as the tanks rolled closer.

A lieutenant ran by, shouting to a captain, “Phones have been bombed! General Klopper can’t give instructions. What should we do?”

“Lance Corporal Maseko!” the captain called to Job. “Get a message to the General. Most of the South African 2nd Division are trapped here!” He held out a note and Job darted off.

Just minutes later two British officers drove by holding a small white flag and shouting through a loud hailer, “Every man for himself! Escape if you can! We are surrendering! General Klopper’s instructions: Every man for himself!

A wind blew off the desert. Thick dust eddied around the armoured car.

Few German soldiers saw that little white flag and the shooting did not stop.

Shell fire screeched and thumped, machine guns rattled. Sipho could not see Andrew. Job was gone. Should he try to escape through the landmines? What would Job do? Two doctors and three hospital orderlies ran from the bombed hospital towards the anti-tank ditch.

“There are landmines out there!” Sipho called to them.

As they scrambled across the ditch and started running over the mine field, Sipho heard two explosions. Five men, two explosions: those were the odds.

A shell thumped close by, and he dropped at on the sand. He needed to get somewhere safe, and started running the other way, dodging low between wrecked vehicles and through bombed buildings, towards the army headquarters.

An officer called calmly through the chaos, “Where’s Lance Corporal Maseko? I need someone who can get things done! Or Private Mahudi! Where’s Andrew Mahudi? Or Private Smith! Johnson? Is there no one reliable here?”

Sipho stepped forward. “I’m here, sir! Ndebele.”

The officer looked at Sipho: just a kid, but a lance corporal, he noticed. And the German troops were closing in. “Ndebele! The Germans haven’t seen that idiotic little flag! We need a big white flag.” He pointed to the half-bombed army headquarters. “Tie it to the roof! We’re surrendering!” He jumped into an armoured car and sped off through the gun fire.

Sipho stared after him and then looked at the headquarters’ building. He’d be visible for miles around. A target.

He didn’t move until another rattle of gun fire shocked him into action.

Where would he find a big white flag?

Nearby were the ruins of the hospital. There were sheets in the hospital. Sipho bent low and ran between the ruins. He shoved the hospital’s broken door aside and looked into a ward. There, amongst the remains of beds, he found a dirty white sheet. He tied it to a broomstick.

Bending low, he sprinted to the headquarters, climbing up the rubble and out onto the shattered roof. A strong gust blew off the desert, buffeting him as he straightened up. He staggered and sat down hard astride the roof ridge. Bullets clattered against the roof tiles next to him. He tried to drive the broomstick in between the tiles, but could not get purchase. He would have to stand again.

He planted his feet on the tiles and was half standing, rocking in the wind, when he felt hands on his ribcage, stretching him upright.

“Kahle! Steady!” Andrew’s voice.

Sipho rammed the broomstick between two cracked tiles and it held fast. As he and Andrew slithered and scrambled to the ground, the wind lifted the dirty white sheet and Sipho heard it, flap, flap, flap.

The guns went silent. Flap. Flap.

There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Read Bill Nasson’s review here.

EXTRACT: The Wisdom of Adders

An extract from the novella by Dan Wylie.Dan Wylie

It was the Entu. Right enough, but it looked nothing like she had envisaged. In a great broadening swathe across the flat country to the west, a tongue of shimmering silver flecked with rust and peppery black flanked a twinned strip of concrete highway, like the striped down a skunk’s back. Immediately below them this tongue was petering out in tufted grass, the surface broken up and the roadway narrowing to scale she could recognise. To the east, the track curved away towards the hills of home.

And now she could locate what had disturbed her – not so much an emptier sough of wind across that waste areas, but a scent: metallic and caustic.

“Is it the Atomscorch?”

“Not really,” said Mali. “An extension of it, I suppose. The edge of Nummers’ industrial zone, as far as it got before the oil and power died out. Take a look.”

Through Mali’s telescope she could see that the bare areas constituted of bleached gravel shot through with granules of glass and laced with streaks of poisonous black. Here and there were visible ribs of old drainage channels and stubs of rusted stanchions or half-buried elbows of massive machineries.

“No grass,” Shawn noted. “It has to be seriously toxic – radioactive even.”

“I doubt that. A hundred years after the accident, not so much radioactivity left, even in the middle of the Scorch. People even living and breeding on it, with deformities sometimes though. Like MuKechnie.”

“Oh. But it got some close to home!”

Realising as she said so that this, really, was the point of real decision. They had in effect completed three sides of a square, and they were probably just a good day’s walk back along the Entu to get home. Her Spartan flat, her familiar sheets.

Or head west and north and into the total unknown.

She was momentarily distracted by a movement further up the highway, nothing much, no more than a flapping of some discarded rag, perhaps. But as she watched through the telescope, a figure straightened up from behind a sloping slab of concrete. At this distance, half a ki or so, she could discern only a sense of blackened shabbiness under some sort of greatcoat, a beard maybe. The figure appeared to have filled a sack or bag with something and began to drag it across the blue-grey gravel towards the edge of the open swathe. Following him, she now saw that a kind of bunker had been established against a slight slope, so covered with the surrounding materials, its asymmetric entrance so tiny, it was all but invisible. Through the narrow slot another figure now immerged, equally ragged, coated with disguising rags and dust, but Shawn had the impression it was a woman. Together the pair crouched in front of the bunker, and she could just make out a shimmer of heated air between them; some kind of smokeless fire, or heating unit.

“What are they doing?”

“Scavengers,” said Mali. “Getting out heavy metals, maybe, or melting glass down for trinkets.”

There were no other signs of life. They waited. There seemed nothing else to do. Shawn was reluctant to try to cross this strip of bleached disaster in broad daylight. To the west the sky seemed heavy with a kind of fervent bronze energy; she did not want to go any closer to that, but wondered what the territory north of the Entu might hold in store. And she wondered when she ought to tell Mali to go home. It was getting late in the day; maybe in the morning. And there was, she had to admit, a certain apprehension lurking in the pit of her belly about spending this particular night alone.

Mali, for his part, seemed content to sit in silence, self-contained as a carving in oiled teak.

Shawn watched the ragged couple for a while in their mysterious activity, but could make nothing of it. Then she noticed they had straightened up and were staring down the highway. Shawn followed their gaze with the telescope. Out of the wavering haze, the sun dropping a brassy glaze over the wasteland, emerged two figures, then three, no, four – tall, spiky, seeming for a time to float on molten glass. The scavengers began to scurry and bend, hiding or preparing things it was impossible to say. Advancing, the newcomers resolved into four horsemen. In that light, they seemed plated with metal and to bristle with spears or rifles, or both; Shawn couldn’t make out. As she watched they urged their mounts into a gallop; by the time they reached the bunker the scavengers had vanished. The horsemen halted and circled, raising a threatening swirl of dust. One dismounted and bent to peer into the lop-sided slot of the bunker.

The Wisdom of Adders can be purchased from Amazon. Read the review here.

EXTRACT: Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard

An extract from the book by Sean Christie.Sean Christie

‘I don’t remember the name of the first ship I stowed. I’ve stowed nine ships since and I remember all their names but not the first one. I was in a hurry at the time. I was 17. I had been living with the Durban Beachboys for six months, trying to get a ship every night. Nobody was trying harder than me. One night, February I think, a cargo ship docked at Pier 2. I was with a friend called Nnanani, and another guy called Bambo. Nnanani had already stowed a ship about a month before. He was caught and deported to Dar es Salaam, and he had just arrived back in Durban that day, and already he wanted to stow another ship. We came closer to the port and noticed that the crew was Chinese. Bambo decided to turn back when he saw this because Beachboys were too afraid of Chinese crews at this time. A lot of our guys had already been thrown in the sea by Chinese seamen in the nineties. It is better now, but in 1999 people were proper scared, especially of the mainland Chinese crews. Hong Kong Chinese are better, but you can’t tell who is who from a distance, so Bambo left,’ said Adam.

When Adam and Nnanani saw that the gangway of the bulk carrier at Pier 2 was unguarded, they sprinted up the steps and made it onto the deck, which, at 1 a.m., was clear. Skirting the cabins, they came to a place where fuel drums had been stacked one on top of the other.

‘We each climbed in a drum and made our bodies small,’ said Adam, folding his arms against his chest. ‘After an hour a guy came and shook the drums but he never looked inside. Afterwards I felt the ship going. I don’t know what he was thinking but Nnanani climbed out of his drum and came and shook my drum. I thought I had been caught until I heard him whispering to me. When I came out I saw the sea all around the ship, and the land far away. I thought, What the fuck, Durban is leaving. I’m at sea for the first time. It’s a feeling I can’t really explain.’

The two friends needed to find somewhere better to hide, and decided to climb the tower of the ship’s cargo crane hand over hand on the vertical ladder until they reached a platform which, if they kept their bodies flattened, shielded them from view.

‘It is very high, if you drop you’re dead, but I grew up climbing coconut trees in Tanzania so it wasn’t a problem,’ said Adam.

The ship tracked South Africa’s east coast in the darkness and by mid-morning drew towards another port.

‘Nnanani knew what was going on. He said, “Yow, we’re docking at Richards Bay,” a South African port in the forest, near the border with Mozambique. He said we needed to stay hidden until the ship left, but after five days we were still there. I said, “Nnanani, we don’t know when this ship is going to leave and we can’t go on like this. I’m going to try and escape.”’

Having observed the deck-top activity for days, the stowaways knew exactly when the crew took lunch and, at this time, scuttled down and made for the gangway. Rounding the cabin block once more, they ran into a Congolese security guard.

‘The security officer radioed for chief officer, who came and said, “Where you stow?” I said, “Durban.” He said, “You sure?” and then he punched me. He asked again. Nnanani said, “Durban,” so he punched him too, and almost broke Nnanani’s thumb. After that he locked us in a cabin and brought us food and water.’

The Beachboys slept for hours, and when they woke it was to the barking of sniffer dogs, searching the ship for other stowaways. When this process had been concluded, the cabin door was opened and a man the boys had never seen before ordered them down the gangway and into a minibus with the name of a stowaway detection service written on the side. The sniffer dogs went in the back, and Adam was guided into the passenger seat, with Nnanani behind him on a bench.

‘I had big amount of ganja in my sock, seventy grams or so. I was thinking, They’re going to take us to the police station straight, so I decided to leave it under the seat of the car. But they just stopped the car outside the port area and said, “Come off.” Richards Bay harbour is surrounded by a big forest and they just left us there in the bushes. We hugged each other then, me and my brother, because we were free to carry on with our lives.’

Adam and Nnanani were too naïve to know it then, but their sudden release was not out of the ordinary. One of the unlisted services that stowaway detection outfits provide to shipmasters is the removal of stowaways from under the noses of port authorities. The procedural processing of stowaways costs a great deal of time and money – up to R100 000 a case, according to insurers – and shipping companies happily pay for alternative outcomes.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is published by Jonathan Ball. Save R40 when you purchase online at Bridge Books before 27 April 2017 (type AERO in the box that says “Discount” at checkout). You can collect your purchase in-store or get it delivered via courier (delivery fees still apply).