Toodle-pip to Swaziland
How the movie Wah-wah almost wasn’t made
AT the tail end of last century, I scribbled an autobiographical screenplay about my adolescence in Swaziland, southern Africa, entitled Wah-Wah (the toodle-pip and hubbly-jubbly colonial slang of the last gasp of empire).
After a couple of years trying to chicken-and-egg it — get it cast and financed — my producer politely withdrew to become a drugs counsellor in Barbados.
Into the breach stepped a comely French female producer (whom I shall diplomatically refer to by her initials, MC), who promised calm financial passage and clear sailing conditions ahead. Despite the invention of phones, faxes, texts and emails, the small matter of answering any of these communications between my office in London and hers in Paris became increasingly infrequent.
There’s nothing like the hilarity of hindsight when revisiting the near nervous-breakdown-inducing details of working with the aforementioned foe.
Having ploughed through four years of rewrites, pre-production collywobbles and yo-yoing financials, we finally find ourselves in Swaziland, only to discover, five days before shooting, that MChas neglected to secure work permits for the 100-plus crew and cast. She is still in Paris when I am redcarpeted by an incandescent Swazi government minister at 8.30am on June 2, 2004.
He detonates a full-frontal attack: ‘‘Where are your applications? Whywas there no followup? Why was there no contact? Where were you, Grant? Why were you not here, Grant? Why was I not informed, Grant?’’
He is unstoppable and implacable. My feeble attempt to explain that the finances have collapsed and been resurrected, and the permits were the producer’s responsibility, goes for a burton. His voice is now two decibels below full shout. ‘‘His majesty is angry with you, the chief of police is angry with you, the ministry is angry with you. You cannot start filming in five days’ time!’’
I plead, beg, explain and grovel, all to no avail. In the poisonous silence that follows, all I can think about is what the response would be were 100 foreigners to land at Heathrow or JFK airports without visas, permits or permissions of any description, intending to mosey down to Piccadilly Circus or Times Square for a two-month film shoot.
‘‘We are completely at fault, sir, and I understand your position entirely. Thank you for meeting us so early in the morning and I deeply regret that we won’t be able to make the film here or spend a large part of our budget in the kingdom.’’
I know this is brinkmanship. There is no alternative. The likely reality is that it’s all over before it’s even properly begun. The minister says he will convene an emergency meeting and I should be on standby for his response.
Then I call Paris and, for once, manage to get straight through to MC, whose to boil.
‘‘So you believe this minister? You believe him and not me?’’
‘‘That’s not the f . . king point! It doesn’t matter who I believe. The point is we cannot start shooting because we do not have any work permits!’’ ‘‘Go ask the King.’’ How many times in the 21st century are you going to be asked to do this in real life? Her edict rattles around my cranium like a superannuated boiled sweet. I cannot credit this insanity and start laughing. The notion that you could cajole a government minister in London, Washington, let alone Paris, to make an exception to these procedures at such short notice is plainly ludicrous.
The minister calls at 4.45pm
ready and I am summonsed for a rundown of the demands: permits to be submitted first thing next day (minimum of a week to process), letters for location permissions to be delivered immediately, a substantial fine to be paid for the inconvenience. On and on it goes and all I can register is that this is a reprieve.
He is at pains to point out that the film company has caused this delay, not the government, which is now expected to bend laws and make exceptions. The production manager calls MC to report the results. Stunned silence.
Meanwhile in London, the actors are in a panic as they all have to report to a police station and get fingerprinted and pay for certificates to prove they’re not ex-cons, which are then faxed to the Swazi government.
All we can hope for is to be granted an audience with the King to beg permission to start shooting on schedule while the applications are being processed.
At 9pm I get the call to be at the palace the next day.
At least the minister has not vetoed our chances of filming outright. Or so we think until we receive the licence contract from the committee at 11am demanding an extra $US20,000 on top of the $US200,000 fee to cover administration, filming rights, policing, use of scenery, etc, plus a proviso that the film be vetted by the government before it is commercially released.
Four-and-a-half sphincterwinking hours drag by and then a call to ‘ ‘ get to Lozitha Palace immediately’’. We pile into the rental car and drive hell for leather. On the radio, Bob Marley is chanting ‘‘Every little thing’s gonna be alright’’, and we all hope that the man is right.
Royal protocol demands every- one is kept waiting for anything between one hour and eight to meet the King. The formerly incandescent minister has been waiting since noon. Does this mean the King has not yet heard his demands?
No sooner have we arrived at 3pm than we are ushered into the throne room, which ups our status instantly. The King, whom I have met once a couple of years before, greets me with real warmth and insists that I sit beside him on a matching throne. As is Swazi custom, the minister sits shoeless before the monarch on the floor. Surreal.
‘‘Your majesty, we are asking for your blessing to let filming go ahead. We simply do not have an extra $US20,000 as stipulated by the minister this morning.’’
The King’s wide-eyed reaction confirms that this is the first time he has heard about this. We are granted a royal reprieve. The power of an absolute monarch never seemed so sweet.
Postscript: Wah-Wah was released in 2006, the minister has since been fired and MC’s company went into liquidation. This is an edited extract from Lights, Camera . . . Travel! (Lonely Planet, $24.99; lonelyplanet.com), a new anthology featuring ‘‘rich, raucous, and intimately revealing on-the-road tales by 33 international actors, directors and screenwriters’’, edited by Andrew McCarthy and Don George.
Richard E. Grant was born and brought up in Swaziland, emigrated to Britain in 1982, and since his first film, Withnail and I, in 1986, has appeared in 40 films and worked with directors Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jane Campion, Bruce Robinson and Robert Altman.
Richard E. Grant directing his 2005 film Wah-Wah in Swaziland, after the project won a reprieve through royal intervention
Grant directs Nicholas Hoult, who plays the teenage Ralph Compton, on the set of Wah-Wah