This is a travelogue. There is nothing newsworthy – or probably all that interesting – contained within. This piece stems only from my fascination and envy of Paul Theroux. For the pictures I took on this trip, click here. For something about movies, click anywhere else on the left side menu.
We stood there in horror as the van careened into the box of puppies.
Okay, so it didn’t quite happen like that. I’m just a sucker for a good lede, even if I have to imagine one. But there was a box of puppies, and more than one careening van that left all of the journalists visiting the set of The Dark Is Rising in terror.
Fox-Walden is shooting the first film for their new co-venture in Romania, a former Eastern Bloc communist nation that still plays the execution of former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu on TV every Christmas (rest in heavenly peace indeed!). Romania is attractive to Fox-Walden and other Western films because of the fact that it’s one of the few places in Europe where your money goes very, very far, and it has a strong film infrastructure at the MediaPro studios, which has been in place since the end of World War II and where thousands of communist propaganda films were made. The studio facility itself is very impressive, but I’ll get into that in future set visit reports (this is more of a travelogue), but what does Bucharest, the Romanian capital offer the talent who fly in for the movies?
“I go to my room and cry,” Ian McShane sort of joked with us. “And I go on the Internet a lot… The sad thing is it’s not exactly the most inspiring place to walk around. It really doesn’t have anything.”
McShane flies home to England every weekend. His co-star, Christopher Eccleston, now lives in LA, but he flies to his old hometown of Manchester on his days off. “The Romanian people have been absolutely fantastic, but the problem the actors have experienced is, particularly the Americans is, that when you’re here and you’re not working you are stuck in a hotel. And you’re a long way from home. I mean the Romanian crew on this have been extraordinary and it’s a very different culture, particularly for Americans to come into. I’m somewhat familiar with European poker face.”
I experienced quite a bit of that poker face in Romania, but it was nothing like what I experienced in Berlin. At the peril of sounding a touch xenophobic, I must say that beside the Romanians who ran the studio I found many of the people we met quite unpleasant. Most of the men looked, to these blinkered Brooklyn eyes, sort of like war criminals. The women, on the other hand, all looked like supermodels. Or extremely expensive prostitutes.
The women of Bucharest are in a class of their own. Walking around the city at random I was continuously gobsmacked by the level of beauty and fitness on display; the women all had perfect figures, which makes no sense after eating ‘traditional Romanian cuisine’ (fatty, boiled meat with a side of meat and mustard). It did seem as if reality caught up with their supple bosoms and buttocks upon hitting middle age, but at least one person on the trip noted that it seemed like a genocide had been waged against fat women.
The city itself did not share the beauty of its women. Another journalist commented that Bucharest was like the Mexico City of Europe, and I could see where he was coming from… except that Mexico City (which is the South Bronx exploded for thirty miles) is filled with life and color. Bucharest is almost a ruined city, filled with depressing and redundant Soviet architecture. Everywhere you went, everything looked sort of the same… and it was all grey and beige. Very washed out grey and beige. Walking around Bucharest is not recommended for the faint of heart – the locals drive as if they are enraged immortals in mighty death-proofed contraptions. Crossing the streets of Bucharest can test the mettle of even the bravest man, and it’s made worse by the fact that motorists seem unwilling to cut a guy on the curb a break and make you step right into their path before they’ll give you anything resembling a shot at crossing.
And if you think that’s scary, you should try driving in Bucharest traffic. My group was picked up at the airport by a Romanian guy who was maybe 25 years old and who looked and dressed like he could have been from Ozone Park, Queens. Just a complete and total guido – short, spiky hair, big gold chain, big white faux-team designer t-shirt. You’re never too far from home when the global media allows the most distasteful fashion to migrate everywhere. Of course I learned that this kid wasn’t aping the modern Growing Up Gotti resurgence of the guido, he was just trapped in the American fashions of the 80s, like most of the residents of his fair city. The weather on our trip was very warm, but when someone said, ‘It’s the 80s outside,’ I couldn’t help but ask, ‘The temperature or the decade?’
Our driver was able to communicate with us in English, which is something that every foreigner I have met while traveling seems to have over Americans (being able to communicate in English, that is). He never used his English skills to comfort us as he drove his boxy van through thick Romanian traffic at high speeds, coming insanely close to other vehicles as we slalomed across lanes and lanes of road. Again and again our conversation in the back of the van would be punctuated with quick silences, all of which I believe were filled with prayers. ‘Please, Jesus, don’t let us slam into this car. Please, God, keep all of our wheels on the surface of the road.’
I am afraid of flying, and people always tell me that it’s safer than driving. This trip was the first time I believed them. On the way back from MediaPro Studio after the set visit, we were traveling the opposite direction of extraordinarily heavy rush hour traffic out of Bucharest, and there were cars coming towards us in our lane. The response of our driver was to engage in a game of ‘puişor’ and gun the van, hurtling us faster and faster towards a head on collision. At the last second our driver gave up the lane and swerved out of the way, and the driver of the other car – which, remember, was coming the wrong way in our lane! – spat on our van. Truly, a charming people.
We didn’t have a lot of time in Bucharest (at least some of us didn’t. I didn’t know I could request an extra day to go see some castles. I was pretty bummed out about that), so right after we made it to the hotel we decided to do some sight seeing in the general area. We were in the ‘downtown’ section of Bucharest, near the Palace of Parliament, which is the second or third biggest (not tallest) building in the world. The thing is fucking enormous, and it was between us and the rest of the city, so we had to walk around it. And walk. And walk. The distance we walked wasn’t that great, but the area around the Palace is desolate and treeless; the temperature was in the upper 80s and the sun was beating down on us. All we saw during the half hour it took to circumnavigate this monstrosity was it and sidewalk. And bleachers – thousands of seats were being installed for a grand prix event that weekend. The hotel itself would soon be cut off from the rest of the world as the race took over the streets. I would have actually liked to have been there to see it when it was all done, but then again, I don’t know how many days I wanted to stay in Bucharest.
The Palace (which is pictured at the start of this article) is a symbol of why Bucharest sucks. Our old pal Ceauşescu built it many, many years ago, and it was part of his massive urban deconstruction tendencies. After the devastation of World War I, architects rebuilt Bucharest into a glorious city known as The Paris of the East. Ceauşescu bulldozed one sixth of the city to make way for his palace and even more to build his other shitty commie buildings; the wholesale flattening of many people’s homes led to a problem that still exists today – a ton of feral dogs. As people left their homes with nowhere to go, they didn’t take their pets with them. Today a walk down any street in Bucharest is guaranteed to result in the sighting of at least one dog just doing his thing; at first I was concerned about running into aggressive, hungry dogs, but I found them to be pretty mellow, all things considered. They really just trotted around and chilled out, and never gave us a second look.
The dogs are so numerous that they were even running around on the goddamned studio lot. Frances Conroy, the mom in Six Feet Under and one of the stars of The Dark Is Rising, had been taking care of and feeding a whole bunch of them while spending her three months of hard labor in Bucharest (she had not ended up going home at all because the flight to LA is like 400 hours). At the end of our day on set we were hanging out, shooting the shit and libeling other journalists, all while dodging oncoming vans and cars (even on the lot, on tiny little streets, these people drove like Rage-infected monkeys), when some studio personnel came by with a big box that took two of them to carry. ‘That,’ I observed, ‘probably contains the carcass of a feral dog.’
Not quite. It was a box with five adorable puppies, all obviously manged up and one seeming very, very ill. Someone had seen these five puppies being kicked by a group of Romanian children (seriously, honeymoon in this country) and had rescued them. Their thin, ratty mom padded up alongside and looked nervous – but not mean (we had earlier had a lovely lunch of meat on the banks of a lake on the studio property. Wild dogs happened upon us and didn’t harass us one bit for our food. Now, I wouldn’t have begged for that food either, but dogs eat their own puke). As soon as the current take was over, Conroy ran out from the soundstage and almost started crying at the sight of the puppies. A van arrived, and the box was loaded up for a trip to the vet, on Conroy’s dime, but the mommy dog was scared and wouldn’t get in the van. So Conroy just picked up this wild dog and lovingly put her in the back of the vehicle. I was impressed at the lady’s cojones – that looked, to me, like a nice shortcut to some rabies shots at the hospital.
Later, at a hotel, I ran into two of the girls who had been helping the puppies. I ran after them – not just because they were cute, as the other journalists accused me of doing*, but because I wanted to find out how the puppies were doing. It turns out they were doing well and the mom was get spayed or neutered, whichever you do to bitches. Somewhere out there Bob Barker got a chubby.
There were nice things about Bucharest. I am a history nut, and the oldest history you can get in America is a couple of hundred years ago, so I’m always psyched to hit Europe, where something built two hundred years ago is new. Just off the wide, terrifying boulevards of Bucharest lie smaller, cobbled streets. I had done some research and found that a church from the 1400s was near our hotel, right next to the remains of one of Vlad Tepes’ citadels. A quick word on Tepes and Romania: the Dracula part of the country, Transylvania, is geographically the total opposite end of the map from Bucharest, which is near the Black Sea. That said, I found the constant sunlight and heat a weird thing for a nation that is most identified with vampires (after the international sex trade, that is). Anyway, as we walked to that church and citadel, we came across a roadside construction project; a huge, fifteen foot deep ditch had been dug on this narrow road. We could see the foundations of the buildings, and they were just piled stone – it didn’t even look like there was mortar work, although there had to be.
Sadly the church was closed, but we got to ogle the crumbling remains of Vlad’s citadel, which was stocked with some crumbled and destroyed statuary, including broken crosses. Nearby we stumbled upon the most incredible fountain I have ever seen that didn’t come out of the noggin of Darren Aronofsky – it was huge, maybe three or four city blocks, and had dozens, if not hundreds, of jets of water dancing. The fountain wasn’t even a single thing – it was like a complex of fountains, a fountain development. It was so big that a road wound its way THROUGH the fountain. Just incredible, and the spray of the water was glorious on such a hot day.
I actually regret that I didn’t get to experience Bucharest’s nightlife. The guy from MovieWeb did, and went to a local strip club, but he ended up actually falling asleep during the Ian McShane roundtable, so maybe it was for the best that I stayed at the hotel. We did our drinking on the premises, and our hotel had a casino I visited both nights. The first night I doubled my money at blackjack (they have a weird ‘surrender’ rule that upset me, and the dealer doesn’t deal himself his second card until all the players are done), but lost it all and then some the next night. To be honest I was playing recklessly; I think I was negatively influenced by Kyle from UGO, who was heroically hitting on Kara Warner, one of the only girls in my New York City junket crew. I did get a chance to watch Romanian MTV, though, and I saw the best commercial ever on it, which I will detail in the following footnote**.
On my last night at the hotel we encountered something pretty amazing – a Romanian prom was being held in one of the ballrooms. Remember me salivating over how hot the women were in that city? Imagine them at 17 in prom dresses. Unbelievable. They were lined up for photos and it was like the mail order bride catalogue of my dreams. I will neither confirm or deny that I walked around asking if these girls were interested in American green cards.
What was great about the trip is that I would never have gone to Romania on my own. And I would never go back on my own, either. Oddly, while I found the city painfully lacking, the set visit was maybe the best I have ever been on. There’s a couple of reasons for that: the sets themselves were incredible, the group I was with was made up of 90% cool and funny people, and our Fox-Walden rep, Susie, was an incredibly great person to hang around with. Having a fun, interesting PR person makes this job so much easier, but that type is few and far between. Susie’s definitely one of the best I’ve worked with – and she didn’t even engage in any activities with us that would have cast a bad light on her family-friendly employer! It was especially great to be able to be on the trip with Kara and Ed Douglas from Coming Soon and Kellvin Chavez from Latino Review, all people I’ve gotten to know very well here in New York and all people I’ll be leaving behind in a couple of weeks. Sure, I would rather have been somewhere fun with them, but when the company is good it doesn’t matter where you are.
Soon I’ll have a rundown of the actual set visit, including interviews with everyone involved in The Dark Is Rising, descriptions of the amazing sets, and some thoughts on the rough footage we saw.
*They were totally cute.
** OK, here’s the commercial: A guy is working a distilling machine, and he’s distilling the essences of rock stars. First he distills Madonna and drinks it. We see him riding a rural Romanian bus in a cone bra, getting stares. Next he distills Gene Simmons; we see him wandering a rustic Romanian village in KISS get-up, wagging his tongue at non-plussed locals. Then he drinks Elton John and goes to a café. An angry mob chases him (I swear to god) and he runs home where he gulps down distillation after distillation. When the mob breaks down his door, he has been turned into a fleshy, hairy MTV logo.