Too­dle-pip to Swazi­land

How the movie Wah-wah al­most wasn’t made

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & In­dul­gence - RICHARD E. GRANT

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


I am

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; lone­ly­, 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

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