Archives For July 2014

Setting Kerouac to Music: An Interview with Kubilay Uner

This article originally appeared in Beatdom #14 – the MOVIE issue.



Kubilay Uner is the composer for the 2013 movie, Big Sur, based on the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name. He has worked with Michael and Mark Polish – the brothers behind the movie – on various projects, as well as performing live scores in concert halls. I spoke to him about setting Kerouac to music for the big screen.




Has Kerouac been much of an influence on your life?

Growing up in Germany I didn’t really start reading much English-language literature until well into my twenties, after I moved to the States. Kerouac was always somebody I knew about, but it wasn’t until shortly before the film that I read his work.

Had you read Big Sur prior to signing on to this project? If so, what did you think?

When I heard that Michael Polish was beginning work on Big Sur, I decided to read it – less because of the possibility of working on the film, but because I figured it must be an interesting work if Mike decides to create an adaptation.  Also, Big Sur (the place) always fascinated me – I consider it to be the most stunning landscape I have ever visited. I absolutely loved the book. The first thing I noticed in it was the rhythm. It soon became clear, at least for me, that the book eludes you until you decide to read it aloud (or aloud in your head – hearing the sounds of the words, rather than merely absorbing their meanings.) So to me “Big Sur” is perhaps more a long poem rather than a novel. It was a deeply moving experience to get inside the head of someone so close to the breaking point that his perception of this amazing landscape turns from awe-inspiring to awe-ful.  Kerouac’s awareness of his own state of mind is so astute yet disarming, there is no chance of keeping any “safe distance” from it. It would take a cynic to not be touched by this book.

One reason that Big Sur has been such a loved book of Kerouac’s is that it is possibly his most lyrical. He wrote it by the sea, and so the sound of the sea is reflected in the flow of the prose. In a book so lyrical, how did you go about composing a soundtrack that would adequately reflect Kerouac’s prose? 

The musical palette – the instruments mostly – was already set, since I was hired to pick up the music where Bryce and Aaron Dessner left off. From the start, Mike did not want a “historically accurate” score – say, an early 1960s Jazz score – but wanted a score that expresses Kerouac’s journey to an audience of today.  The Dessners set a wonderfully moody yet strong tone in the cues they completed before I took over.  It was important that Jack not be made “soft” – he needed a voice that allowed his strength, wit and grace to shine through the deteriorating state of his mind and body.

After reading the book my fist step was to listen to recordings of Kerouac reading his own work, since I wanted to represent *his* rhythms in the music. That turned out to be unnecessary, since Jean-Marc Barr (who plays Jack Kerouac in the film and reads the ever-present voiceover) does an amazing job of capturing Kerouac’s sound and cadence.

Additionally, I created some sketches that were never meant to be part of the score, but only served to hone my senses to the sounds of Big Sur: I used recordings I had made of the environmental sounds there during prior visits – waves, wind, trees – and “painted” musical colors onto them – a voice coming out of the surf, a few piano chords projected onto the sound of strong wind gusts, etc.  This was never meant for anyone but me, in order to give me a sense of “what could live in this environment.”  Among other things, many of the electronic tones in the score were a direct result of these experiments.

In the end it became a very simple matter of reacting directly and immediately to the rhythms and colors of the environment in the picture, and especially to Jean-Marc Barr’s voice as Kerouac in the voiceover. Every film score is largely a matter of “fitting in to what’s already there,” but in this film, with the prominent voiceover, and strong poetic images, this was even more the case – the music score had to seamlessly become but one player in the quintet of actors’ performances, voiceover, visuals, natural sounds and music.

Beatdom #15 Now on Kindle

Last Monday we released Beatdom #15 – the WAR issue – and this week we’re releasing the Kindle version! Enjoy:


Fracas is a Bar

Fracas is a bar
I live not far
Oh, the place is full of history
Involving many a cop and car
A big melee comes to memory
About the night
Of the smashing fist fight
In the parking lot
And not a little but a lot
From near and yon two hundred folks
Online zine screamed and spoke
The place shut down
With nary a frown
But soon reopened
Sharply spoken
About hush-hush dollars
And boy, folks hollered
Things calmed down
In the town
But now new plans sprouted and touted
About kicking things up
While I in my cups
On sleepless nights
Rudely waken
To shaking rafters
On tired morning afters
Weakened and ashen
Flying open the shutters
Bad words in my mutters
Till one summer eve neon light bulb appears
If you can’t BEAT’em, join ‘em, my sodden young dears
Be there on ladies night or open mic
Sign the petition to reeve up the bikes
Next year when lease is expired and died
To quieter shores will I swim on the tide
Safe behind rich landscaped lawns
Leave downtown and its cool little town thorns
To hell raisin’ Hanks and wild young pranks
Call on Bruce, baby, for two river rent
Maybe, baby, mine is all spent

From Albion to Shangri-La

From Albion to Shangri-La consists of collected excerpts from Peter Doherty’s journals, circa 2008 to 2013, with an added selection from his tour diaries, all rounded off with a previously unpublished interview with editor, Nina Antonia – the rock journalist’s rock journalist, no stranger to the darker excesses of some of rock’s more elegantly wasted sons – whose sharp eye and clear ear have been called upon to assist in this literary distillation, as explained in her Introduction.Peter Doherty Waterstones Signing 2

So, here is a brief download of life-behind-the-scenes with the selective concentration and short attention span of a pipe-fuelled fly-on-the-wall, flicker-finger on the fast forward of a secret video diary – cut-up surveillance footage to try and keep tabs on what the kaleidoscope of chemically accelerated and trance-translated selves have been up to. The dramatis personae included at the beginning tips the wink to the fact that this is the most fictional of literary creations of them all: True Life Confessional, the reportage of simple facts about a far from simple life – it’s all there, folks – only the names have been changed to protect the guilty, the innocent needing no such cover. (As Doherty sings on the latest album’s Fall From Grace : “If I had to tell the truth, I would be lying.”)

The tour diaries themselves are a confusion of times and places (“I think we are in Leeds”), blurred half-memories of shows well played, shows that deteriorate into random violence, and seemingly never-ending encounters with the young who are the loyal subjects of this uncrowned prince of all the rebels-without-a-clue, timely reminders of just what he means to them:

A 17 year old girl on the crush barrier, saw her briefly afterwards. She works in a jam factory. Left school at 14. Lives for music – says that Babyshambles, Libertines, me, lyrics, helped her through depression, boredom, through life. Her father died from a heroin overdose when she was born. Her mum hadn’t let him see the newborn baby. He went home. Banged up. Checked out . . .

It is because Doherty appears to speak to them, and for them, appears to be one of them – if only writ tabloid large, like them, only moreso – that “the kids” (of all ages) keep the faith. They feel that his successes are their successes, his failures are their failures, and that if he can come from little-or-nothing and succeed, and fail, and still survive and show the hope of succeeding again (even if only to fail again, then try again – try again), then maybe they can, too. It may not be Samuel Beckett, but it’s something. And something has got to be better than nothing. (“Nothing Comes To Nothing” the most recent single declares.)

From Albion to Shangri-La can proudly and rightfully take its place among all the other great works that fill that most singular of literary categories, the drug confessions of sensitive poet souls, along with William Burroughs, Jim Carroll, Jean Cocteau, Richard Hell and Alex Trocchi (to name just a few I can see on the shelf with a half-turn in my chair.) Not forgetting, of course, the grandaddy of them all, Thomas De Quincey: his Confessions of An English Opium Eater sets the basic blueprint, after all, and he and Mr. Doherty would find common-ground, agree over much familiar territory – although De Quincey might just wonder at all the references to Galton & Simpson, Edward G. Robinson and Colombo, or blowjobs from très chic French schoolgirl nymphets! All the reasons, justifications and excuses, the pleasures and pains, the inner-directed flight that almost inevitably ends with inertia – but also the jewels among the darkness, the moving heart-warming beautiful flashes of insight that illuminate this human condition we all share. “Spiritual Beings having a Human Experience” – which is really just a more palatable, New Age way of re-stating that age-old Gnostic dilemma: we are beautiful, pure spirits, mired in a fallen world of suffering, pain, and frightened, nagging flesh . . .

Speaking of which, one of the more striking – at times unsettling – aspects of such memoirs is the notion they project of Self-as-Object, the almost scientific detachment from the body shared by the religious ascetic and the hardcore drug-abuser. I’ll spare you the details, delicate reader, of the autopsy-in-progress, but I’m sure you can guess . . .

Nina Antonia and Peter DohertyIndifference to discomfort and squalor. Intravenous self-mortification. Stigmata of the syringe. The body re-sculpted into a psychic launchpad, more fitting vehicle for the exploration of the endless interior. Outside is hostile, and to be defended against or escaped from. So much a cosmonaut of inner space that even their own bodies – never mind their actions, failings, feelings, or possible consequences – become distanced from them, a distance ever harder to bridge. Epiphanies of a Midnight Sun, too much in the moment, yet too much outside of time . . . The unthinkable becomes the everyday, and the everyday becomes unthinkable . . . Like a former prize-fighter or grizzled warrior, proud of their scars – each one read as a badge of honour, the sign of a scrape emerged from (just!) – the subliminal tattoos in which a whole hidden history can be read.

Here’s the rub: if Doherty turned up on time, clean and sober and freshly washed, didn’t misbehave, played well and spoke articulately, there wouldn’t be much of a scoop and one wonders how much interest there would still be? The sensation-hungry media, all surface and scandal, has no real interest in taking time over story or substance, especially where an all-too-predictable (they think) commodity like “Potty Pete” Doherty is concerned. The irony is, of course, he might just turn out to be an intelligent and sensitive poet, with something to say about the human condition worth hearing, over a well-crafted twin-guitar-based catchy song. But at the rate things have been going . . .

Irvine Welsh, himself no stranger to chemically-inspired creativity and attendant controversy, once dismissed fellow countryman, the infamous Beat junkie writer Alex Trocchi, as “The George Best of Scottish literature.” It’s a comparison that might Peter Doherty might appreciate, constellating as it does precocious talent, literary notoriety, junk and even football – but the greater concern at stake here, surely, is that he doesn’t follow the likes of Trocchi (or Best, for that matter) into a self-thwarting internal exile, or worse. Mercifully, however, Doherty has survived long enough to disperse the grinning vultures, those who just could not wait for him to join Brian, Janis, Jimi and Jim, Kurt and even his talented but tragic friend, Amy, in the infamous “27 Club” – without doubt the one Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall-of-Fame nobody in their right mind should aspire to.Nina Antonia and MLS

(An all-too-grim reminder that this is a game played for keeps is to read the line written into Doherty’s open diary by one of his friends – “I solemnly swear I am not going to die” – and then do a double-take at the signature: Peaches Geldof.)

One can only hope that having survived this long, his obvious love of music, poetry, and love and life itself that have got him this far – with their combined powers to excite, inspire, intoxicate, soothe and sustain beyond anything that can be found in the chemist’s, or at the darker end of the street – will continue to matter enough. As Nina Antonia observes in her Introduction:

When I asked Peter why it was so hard to rest, he replied like a child on Christmas Eve . . . ‘Because there’s too much going on.’ The substance of the giddy tornado of his mind now romps across the pages that follow.

As a veteran of life with Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls, and enigmatic narco-reclusive Peter Perrett of The Only Ones (whose Another Girl, Another Planet surely stands as one of the all-time invocations of the exhilarating confusion of the rush of love and love of the rush) – all of whom she has known intimately, and written about candidly and insightfully – as well as her near-decade of working in the field of substance misuse, Nina Antonia must know better than most that, in the end, there really is nothing much to be said and done.

In the interview with Antonia that closes the book, Doherty reflects:

Talking to kids now they just don’t feel confident taking off to a new city, getting a job behind a bar. Now it’s so much more difficult to get a cash-in-hand job, find a flat, find a squat, the world is so much more sterile.

This is precisely the reason why we need poets, songsmiths and writers like him, as an antidote to the bland conformity and soul-sucking sterility that is on the rise all around us. In May this year, interviewed by Barcelona TV for a launch of his paintings, Flags of the Old Regime, Doherty was asked what his art meant in his life, and he replied, characteristically playfully but also tellingly:

It is my life in the same way that, y’know, a baker smells of flour. It’s my life, I live inside songs and with crayons and y’know – I like the sea, and love – but, y’know . . . I spend my time . . . here [taps forehead] trying to devise a way out of reality, and . . . sooner or later, if you spend enough time inventing a world, you can convince yourself it exists.

Let’s hope that Peter Doherty never gives up on his dream of inventing a world that he can call home, and carries on inspiring others in the process. God Bless the Good Ship Albion in her continuing voyages in search of Arcady and Shangri-La!

(Photos courtesy of Nina Antonia)


Some videos from a recent book signing: 


From Albion to Shangri-La is published by Thin Man Press and is now available on Kindle and in paperback from July 1st. Buy it here with a 30% special web discount. 

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“To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” i

The title of the William Butler Yeats poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” makes me cringe. Is it kind to encourage a friend whose talent may be nonexistent, or is it kinder to speak plainly, in other words, tell the truth? Friend, it’s my unfortunate obligation to say you have no talent in this area and must give this up, the sooner the better, because you‘re wasting everyone’s time and making yourself crazy and are playing the fool on the world’s stage.
Then, there is the other friend who may be the most talented man at the open mic, and this poor soul just can’t catch a break. He’s got looks, lyrics, musicality, but he’s a shy boy and doesn’t know how to promote himself. He spends years writing elegant, intelligent songs that go way over everyone’s head, but those few who hear these songs recognize his heartbreaking talent, unknown, as Yeats writes, that comes “to nothing.” Shy boy knows the world’s great poets. He actually reads Wallace Stevens and can recite Yeats and deeply loves Robert Frost and all those dusty, bearded New Englanders. He stays home year after year in the quiet of his lonely room and writes notebooks worth of lyrics and records songs on a little recording device and spends long evenings with his acoustic guitar in hand. I say perhaps Yeats is being a bit harsh? Maybe shy boy encourages others, maybe just one or two others, and from those two, perhaps good will come from what seems barren. And, hope upon hope, maybe someday shy boy will crack the glass ceiling and rise in “Triumph.”Mark Van Doren - Yeats
Perhaps I’m more optimistic than Yeats. Yes, the writer, the musician, the artist, the creator, desires recognition, desires to leave something of herself behind, as a memento of a life lived. “Now all the truth is out,” whose truth, Yeats, the world’s truth, the money men’s truth, the truth and inner depths of the artist? “Be secret and take defeat,” go in the corner and quietly lick those wounds; take it like an adult. “How can you compete,” yes, you unknown writer, how can you compete with, say, a television personality who writes one book after another and then gets to promote it every night on HIS television program, quite brazenly and without any shame at all? Or that rock star sitting in the corner at the party listening to his own records, how can you compete? Yes, “turn away,” turn away from the things of this passing world, and let the creation of your own work bring you inner joy, ah, easier said than done. Yes, it’s difficult to labor away, year after year in oblivion, but what else is there to do? Who can decide: should you keep this up or give it up? Only the one, you. Be joyful in the creation of your good work.
This is a true story, and I don’t want to give hope to the hopelessly untalented. I had a cousin in Cape Cod who was married to a musician for years and years. I imagine she thought he was hopeless; she was frustrated, resentful, discouraged. They got divorced. Musician moved to Australia . . . and became a big time recording artist. Cousin is all alone and sad, reminiscing of younger musical days.
Yeats, methinks your poem is sweetly supportive. The artist is brave, whether successful or not. He stands naked in front of the world and must accept the world’s rejection, silence, indifference, scorn, jealousy, mockery, criticism, harsh and ill-formed opinions for everyone to read on Internet reviews. But
the great thing, the brave thing, is that he gets up there and does his art, and does it again, and again. What say you Professor Mark Van Doren so many years ago at Columbia University with your own mad “hot blood of youth” students of English literature “Out naked on the roads” ii who turned the world upside down and faced rejection, scorn, and trials, too?
i Yeats, William Butler. “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”
ii Yeats, William Butler. “The Cold Heaven.”

Beatdom #15 is now on sale

Beatdom #15 is finally on sale! You can now buy it for the very reasonable price of $8.99 on Amazon.

This issue is all about WAR. People think of the Beats as post-war, entirely separate and disinterested. But we disagree. In this issue we explore the relationship between the Beats and war, from Kerouac and Ginsberg in the navy, to Burroughs’ intergalactic battles, to the influence of postmemory, the British Beat movement as growing out of WWII, and we also talk to (Colonel) Gordon Ball about Allen Ginsberg teaching in the U.S. Army.

Here’s a sneak peak at the contents:


The Beat Generation at War – David S. Wills

War all the Time – Neil Reddy

War Upon War – Katie Stewart

Everything Changed After the War – GK Stritch

Borne Out of War – Philip Willey

Blood and Black Power on the Streets of Chicago – Pat Thomas

Howl of the Abject – Pamela Kidd


The Pickle Shelves – Holly Day

Cold September Air – Marc Olmsted

Morning on my Island in these Times of War – Chris Astwood

GodCop – AD Hitchen

Taxes – Brian Kuhr


Blood Drive – Michael Lund

Fringe – Larry Duthie

Interviews and Reviews

Gordon Ball Interview – David S. Wills

The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs – David S. Wills

Carousel Gone

“I hitch-hiked to Asbury Park . . . when I got there, I was exhausted—” i

Carousel gone
“No plans, lady, just making the building stable.
Keep away from the machine.”
Enable me, construction man, to see beyond coarse gritty sand
Mermaid vamp and debauch
Rests upon a tarnished couch
Where goest dream place childhood?
Face the ocean where once we stood
Soggy foggy July morn
Hung over and still forlorn
Parking deck hangs undone
In the midst gray cold no sun
Hope rises with the waves
Knocked down by greedy knaves
And the power of those in power
Ebbs and flows

i Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Cody. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

Goetleib and the Path of Least Pleasure

Goetleib, the undisputed arbiter of taste and opinion, was sitting cross-legged in his armchair with a book clamped open in his left hand. He licked at his elongated snout with the thin whip of his tongue. His brow wrinkled suddenly, severely, and he mused out loud

– Gah! I wish Mancuso hadn’t used dashes instead of quotation marks, no, oh my, no, no, no, no…

He turned another page in the book with a flick of his foreclaw and turned to type up what he just said aloud – ‘I WISH MANCUSO HADN’T USED DASHES INSTEAD OF QUOTATION MARKS…’

Very soon (20 pages in, in fact) he became bored of Mancuso’s book, distracted by more of his own puerile thoughts, thoughts about tearing open termite mounds and feasting on the juicy worker bugs inside – and then he remembered he wasn’t allowed to eat insects anymore and the mudhook of sadness sunk itself deep within him.

He sniffed his hose-nose hungrily and braced the book shut before tossing it on the crackling hearth. Goetleib then went about justifying himself to the empty room.

– Poorly copy edited, too much supernaturalism, yes, no unity of effect, no sense of the swelling, impending terror or suspense I’ve come to expect, and then there’s the dashes instead of proper punctuation, no, no, no Mancuso! But the main problem with this book, yes I’d say its main fault, above all else, is that it isn’t written the way I wanted it to be written…

He gave a leonine stretch and was left amused and content by his own corrosive tone – after all, his career was over before it had even begun and he had nothing to lose.

Goetleib had an urge to interfere with himself but remembered that he wasn’t allowed to masturbate anymore either. He suffered from a retrograde disorder that meant when he ejaculated his bladder-sphincter would contract and release semen through his urethra, the path of least pleasure. Goetleib’s dry orgasms were frustrating and made him irritable and rather irrational. This went some way in explaining his scathing condemnations of almost everything he was asked to review.

There was a colony of ants obstructing his ejaculatory duct. They’d survived digestion and set up camp in various pockets of Goetleib’s lower abdomen. The irony was not lost on him, the near-constant pelvic distress serving as casual reminder.

It seemed poor Goetleib wasn’t allowed to do any of the things he enjoyed most, apart from ruining the reputations of writers and musicians that is! He was left cooped up in his deciduous forest home. It was a tragic life in a way.

He often felt the insects milling around inside him and when he thought about the amorphous domes and the supercolony of undigested ants, the desire to masturbate subsided.

He strolled around the grasslands of his estate still very pleased with how he’d dismantled Mancuso’s book so clinically. The anticipation of seeing his critique published gave Goetleib a strange rattle of joy in his testicles. He went up to an easel where he’d been painting non-descript images with his own smeared faeces and took in a smug lungful. His eyes were bathed in tears. Goetleib knew he was a genius.




Around mid-day, his frustration would intensify. It would become too great to ignore, Goetleib decided he would go about committing suicide. Killing himself at this stage of his career would set him in good stead for the future. People might even come to the conclusion that Mancuso’s book had driven him to self-eradication. Goetleib hoped that this would be the case.

He hurried to the drawer in his kitchen and pulled out a long wire extension. He lassoed one of the overhead beams and yanked on the chord until it went taut. Goetleib then mounted his chair and placed the wire over his head. It drooped loosely around his neck. He tightened the ligature and kicked away the chair.

Old Goetleib hung for around 20 seconds, swinging back and forth like an insane ant-eater shaped chandelier, but his hardwood neck refused to break. He felt his penis hard and was suddenly very aware of just how hard it had gotten, before the weak slipknot in the wire unfastened and sent the desperate critic crashing to the floor.

He nursed his garrotted throat for a moment then felt something happening between his legs. Goetleib felt lactescent sperm rise in him, through a different tunnel, a different path – a path of pleasure! – and he collapsed again as it gushed forth in an ridiculous cascade. The ants had been dislodged from his ejaculatory duct and were now parachuting from the widened and raw japseye. Goetleib looked at the puddles of screaming ants in their milky pools of DNA. He leaned over a tiny troupe of disorientated insects and sucked them up through his hose-nose. He sat on his rump and savoured the taste of the ants and cherished his voided testicles. Goetleib found that now he couldn’t stop thinking about Mancuso’s book…

Vanity of July

Tonight it pours for the first time in three weeks
In the hot humid heat of July
I watch from second floor window
As Red Bank streets puddle
Girls carrying packages run down narrow alley
Boys stand in a doorway ready to make mad dash
Happy to see rain wash dry streets
For the first time it’s quiet here
I like the sound of rain
And flash of lightening
Empty waterfront streets
I wish it would rain all summer
And stay cool
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” i
I stalked the streets of life, of Manhattan ii
So let me find peace, peace and quiet . . . and a good book
A home meal cooked
And a sweet soul to share this nook
As I turn my back on the world
And its meaningless pursuits
And vanities

i Ecclesiastes 1:2
ii Kerouac, Jack. Vanity of Duluoz, (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1968). p. 279.

My War

It wasn’t the heat that was getting to me. It wasn’t the seasickness, the overcrowded boat, getting jabbed in the ribs by the butts and muzzles of guns, or even the fact my right knee felt primed to explode.

We had been on the boat for seven hours, just drifting around the Gulf of Thailand, the temperature well above a hundred degrees, and us soldiers wearing itchy woolen shirts and trousers, oversized water-filled boots, and backpacks and guns. The only thing we didn’t have were helmets, which might have helped keep the sun off our heads.

It was important to crouch, though. That was stressed over and over. The enemy was hidden in the trees, possibly armed with sniper rifles, and a stray head above the bow would prove very messy. The heat, the discomfort, and this repetition of what it was we must fear had dragged morale to a record low. After long enough, we were actually eager to jump into the water, run to the shore, and throw ourselves onto the sand. What would happen next, no one knew.

The red arrow is pointing at the yours truly.

The red arrow is pointing at the yours truly.


Cambodia had fascinated me for as long as I’d been in Asia. It seemed more dangerous, more suited to an intrepid traveler, than the likes of Bali, Phuket, or Goa. The promise of landmines, mob “justice,” ubiquitous AK-47s, its de facto dictator, and the potential for a complete collapse back into civil war and the return of the Khmer Rouge all made it sound so very romantic. The town I’d chosen was famous for sexpats, drugs, corruption, and a freakishly high mortality rate among foreign tourists.

I’d bought an Irish bar in May, 2013, and by October I had hardly gone further than the supermarket. Business was good but my sanity was faring quite poorly. I was actually bored in Cambodia – undoubtedly one of the world’s most interesting countries.

One day I was writing an article for a French magazine when the editor asked me if I’d like to work as an extra in a movie. “Yes,” I said, rather immediately. He went on to say that it would pay and that it would feature well-known actors and directors. He told me that it was a war movie called Le Soldat Blanc (“The White Soldier”) set during the French occupation, and that the scene for which extras were required was basically a rip-off of the opening to Saving Private Ryan.

I didn’t care. I was already sold.

Back then I was working on a novella or novel (it never got finished, and looked like it was heading towards being the latter) about several generations of the same family who had fought on the Southeast Asian peninsula. I had done a lot of research into French Indochina, and it fascinated me. I was also going through a year-long phase wherein I convinced myself I could make a movie. The opportunity to see behind the scenes on a big movie was too much to pass up.


The day before shooting began, I was required to go for costume fitting at a swanky beach-side hotel. I was busy, and in an odd mood – perhaps drunk – and when I arrived there was a queue of drunken Russians outside. These, I soon learned, were my fellow extras. Despite having spent months trying to find suitable candidates in a town with as many Europeans as locals, the casting director had noted that it was nigh on impossible to find someone in this town that fit the criteria of being A) under thirty, B) not fat (ie thin enough to pass as a soldier), and C) believable as a French person.

Le Soldat Blanc filmingLong ago, I could speak French very well, but now I hardly know a word. When I arrived the Russians were waiting in the sun, and a handful of French people – looking to be in charge – were standing at the doorway. I walked immediately up to them and barked, “I’m here and I don’t have much time. Where do I go?” It was quite out of character, but I really didn’t have much time and I didn’t fancy standing in line for an hour.

I was taken through labyrinth of hallways to a few joining rooms that had been taken over by the production company. A very flamboyant man gestured at me and spoke in French until he realized I couldn’t understand him, and told me: “Dear, you don’t look like a soldier at all. You’re too skinny. You’re what we’d find if the movie was about breaking into Auschwitz.”

Alas, I was one of the few “French-looking” people they could find, and certainly the only person in the target age-group. The costume department, then, spent the next hour trying to make me look less like a concentration camp survivor and more like a kid who got mistakenly drafted a few years too early.

When I walked out of the building the line hadn’t moved, and my fellow extras stared daggers as I drove off.


The following morning, at 4am, I got on a bus with a few of the Russians. The casting director looked about ready to tear his hair out. He had needed forty extras, and had ended up with less than a dozen. It was also a French production, and most of the people on the bus could neither speak French nor English. It had “disaster” written all over it.

The film was being shot in Ream National Park, almost 20km east of Sihanoukville, but a good hour’s drive. The producers had more or less bought the rights to use the beaches and mangroves from one end of the park to the other, and had gone to the trouble of cleaning every piece of trash, leaving it nothing short of idyllic.

We filed off the bus to meet our new co-stars – the Cambodian Navy. Thanks to the impossibility of finding a semi-sober, non-obese, under-thirty Caucasian in Sihanoukville, this part of the script had been rewritten to include more “local” help. What the Cambodian Navy hadn’t been told was that they were actually playing the Vietnamese. No one dared tell them.IMG_7104

From the get-go, I was fascinated by the flurry of activity going on around me, but left somewhat in the dark by my inability to speak much French, or any Khmer or Russian. The casting director, however, seemed eager to keep me – as the closest thing to a believable French soldier – and informed of what would happen.

The schedule was set up like this:

The scene involved a unified Vietnamese-French invasion of Indochina at some unspecified point in the region’s turbulent history. There would be one boat (I don’t know why just one) and everybody would have to crouch down and wait for the order to storm the beach. The actors would go through their lines as the dialogue was filmed from every direction, and then we’d just jump off the boat.

That was it, except it would take two whole days. I couldn’t believe it. We would probably have hours of free time to roam the beaches….

They say that Rule #1 of making movies is that, no matter how interesting the final product, the process itself is soul-crushingly boring. I didn’t know this, or else I might have thought twice about agreeing to spend several days in the jungle with a film crew.

We began by getting into our uniforms which, outside the air-conditioned hotel room were rather uncomfortable. Before, I had been concerned by the itchiness. Now it was the sweltering heat. I was padded out because apparently being a 50kg man doesn’t make you exactly frontline material, and even at 6am it was unbearably hot.


Soon we were crouched on the boat. I kept being pushed to stand next to the lead actors, who went through their lines many dozens of times over many, many hours. My knees were giving way, and people were complaining loudly in their various languages. A woman was employed to put sunscreen on our necks, and another to pour water into our mouths. (We couldn’t be trusted not to hold the plastic bottles on camera.) The real actors handled it well. They were young, wild, friendly, strange people. Mostly it was their unbridled enthusiasm that got me. I didn’t know how they could keep doing their lines over and over.

In the beginning, I would take cues from the director on how to act. I was just an extra, of course, but in the West extras usually make some effort. It is their job, after all, they probably hope that it will lead to a speaking role. Here was an assortment of hungover people who didn’t want to be there anymore, mixed with the Cambodian Navy, who were busy sword-fighting with their guns.

Ream National ParkAt first I would try to convey a look of fear through my face. I never realized acting was so hard. “The enemy is on the beach. They will kill you when they see you,” the casting director – who had the best English – instructed me. I tried to look scared and probably failed miserably, but after a dozen or more takes, I just knelt there and hoped that I didn’t do any long-term damage to my knee.

The boat was spinning in the water as the sun rose, and as the day progressed morale dropped to abysmal levels, and I think the only reason that they stopped shooting was because it had become apparent that most of the extras wouldn’t return the next day if it went on much longer. I was certainly thinking that.

When we got back to the camp, the extras filed quickly onto a bus, where the driver had been sitting since 5am. It was now 5pm, and he’d been enjoying the air-con and doing a bit of karaoke. Predictably, when he tried to start the engine, the bus just spluttered and died.

After twelve hours of sitting in the sun, the extras had to push the bus along a jungle track until the engine ticked over just enough to start, and we managed to slowly wind our way back. It was evident that most people wouldn’t be returning, even to collect the money they were due.


The following morning I awoke and got back to the bus to find that indeed the majority of extras had bailed. Film-making isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, and in a town with as many bars as alcoholics, it wasn’t difficult to drown one’s sorrows.

I didn’t really know why I was there except that I’d become reasonably good friends with the casting director and would feel guilty if I let him down. Also, a certain vanity told me that having sat next to the lead actors for their speeches, I’d probably be featured prominently again, especially with fewer white people around. I certainly had no aspirations of a career in acting, but it would be cool to have maybe gotten a line or something to show my parents.

We were told the schedule for Day #2:

  1. Jump off the boat.
  2. Storm the beach.

It was more or less that simple, except that just jumping into the water once wasn’t enough. We’d have to do it over and over in order for the cameras to capture everything just perfectly. We did a few practice runs in our underwear, screaming and running with guns held above our heads, and it was actually fun.

This went on for a few hours, and then a few more. People started complaining about blisters from having water in their boots and everywhere else, and people were slipping on the metal and hurting themselves, or jumping on top of other people already in the water. One of the main actors got cracked in the mouth with a gun butt and bled. It was carnage.

After six hours of jumping into the water and running to the beach (which was only 10 meters away) the director decided that it would look better if the boat stopped at 50 meters out, and we ran from there. In order to ensure that his inexperienced extras looked sufficiently afraid, the director had instructed the effects team to carry out their work secretly, and when the first soldiers were only 5 meters from shore, one man began triggering explosives buried in the sand, while another opened fired with a paintball gun, spraying red paint into the water. People threw themselves to the ground, genuinely terrified, and it was probably the best take of the day.

But then it was back to the boat, and back to repetition.


Along Cambodia’s coastline, the water is ludicrously shallow, and so you can sometimes walk a half-mile out into sea. In this case at 50 meters I was chest-deep and it didn’t seem a problem. However, that soon started to change. Between the heat, the weight of the gear, the padding I was carrying to make me “less-Auschwitzy,” my months of drinking and smoking, and having effectively sprinted through water repeatedly for more than six hours, I struggled.

I struggled badly.

I kept it to myself and just did as I was told, but sprinting 50 meters through water is not easy at the best of times. In fact, some people would say it’s impossible. But, when you have an entire film crew watching you, you can’t be the last one there. You can’t trail behind. You have to get it right, or people will be angry.

The extras were carefully spaced and positioned, and for some fucking reason, I was the last man. I was at the 50 meter point, while some were at 15 and 20. As the takes went on, I started to feel light headed. I started noticing myself getting to the beach later and later, and started throwing myself down into the water instead of the sand.

At one point, one of the extras asked me, “Hey man, you okay?”Ream National Park

I couldn’t reply, so I waved his concern away and smiled, but he looked unconvinced. Other people were starting to watch me, too. It was embarrassing.


On the next take, I got most of the way to the beach and then woke up in the medical tent, slumped forward on a chair with the casting director and a doctor, and a girl giving me a head massage. (Khmers believe head massages can cure just about anything, and it certainly does feel good.)

After asking a few questions and getting some vague, confused answers, the doctor told me he was sending me back to town. “Exhaustion,” was the diagnosis. The casting director was red in the face, shouting about the director. “I told him, I told him,” he said. “It’s too much!”

I was helped back through the jungle and stuck in the crew’s temporary ambulance. My friend kept apologizing, and then handed me my money. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I got paid for the entire two days, even though I’d made it only one and a half.

We took off back towards Sihanoukville, and I kept feeling a mix of relief and guilt. I didn’t really care much about my lost career as a movie star. I felt bad for the casting director, felt contempt for the director, and quite pleased that instead of getting home at 9pm, I’d be home at 4pm with full pay.

I was worried, too, about my health. Working behind a bar isn’t exactly conducive to a healthy lifestyle. I had dropped a lot of weight and become very sedentary. That thought triggered a memory – one of the first from my time in Cambodia. It was the story of another French production company who had attempted to recruit “extras” from the local expat population. They were shooting a reality TV show that was purportedly filmed in Thailand, but to save money they’d come here and hired local drunks at a fraction of the price. The overzealous director had demanded these random barflies swim from one island to the next – a large distance – and had ignored the protestations of the various crew members, including the doctor. Predictably, one of the extras died. How they expected these poor men to make the swim, I don’t know, but the doctor and the director both killed themselves in shame.

That story was, perversely, one of my favorites when I first came here. It embodied the wildness of Cambodia – the fact that this is a place where anything goes, where everything is tinged with danger. Yet I had forgotten it, and in the end it was the lesson I should have remembered, rather than repeated as a bar story for a few months.

That I survived my own war story is a matter of luck. When you land face down, unconscious, in the sea, a victim of extreme exhaustion, you have to count yourself lucky. And hey, like I told the casting director as my jeep pulled away, “I think I’ll have the most convincing death scene in the movie.”