“We bought the wrong damn chickens…” Brandon Payne, Ti Laurent’s Production Manager, sighed as one of our Haitian colleagues, Widline made an unsuccessful attempt to shoo off a chicken that was supposed to be used in a key scene of the film. In it, the chicken needed to run comically fast, like in a Rocky training for a fight scene and be tackled by our main actor, Pedro. But our chicken calmly took two steps and continued to peck at the dirt.
Brandon and Wildine had purchased the chickens from La Savanne, a crowded and depressing slum at the edge of La Cayes, where we were shooting some of the film. Bazil, the Haitian producer on the team, shook his head, “they must be Dominican chickens, Haitian chickens run,” laughter ensued. Producing in Haiti was like this, buying 10 chickens was relatively easy and cheap, but making the chickens run, difficult. Finding a hospital operating room to use was easy and free! But, finding a sausage to use as a prop proved impossible, as we found out after wasting two days navigating the intricacies of Haitian offerings, to finally end up with hot dogs.
Now, to produce any film, you need to spend more time in preproduction than production and post, think of all of the things that can go wrong and pre-empt it. Brandon says, he thought about many things, crew not showing up on time, small budgets (the feature had $11,500 and he managed to , keep it at $8,600), coordinating 106 scenes, 88 actors and 48 locations, to be shot in 3 weeks, but buying the wrong chickens was definitely not on his list. Neither was the rain that poured on us and was not in the weather forecast, the night we had to shoot an outdoor scene with Ti Laurent and the hobo. As the heavens opened up on our crew, we took shelter under the small portico of an abandoned building and waited for the rain to pass so that we could ride back to town in the back of the pickup truck that we had hired.
Another surprise for at least us, the American crew. Haiti is really loud – there is noise all the time, night or day – roosters begin to crow at 4am and pretty much continue throughout the day, the mode of transportation are motorcycles, great solution for bad or non-existent roads, but their electric chainsaw sounds were hell. In the absence of too much entertainment in the town of La Cayes, we became a main attraction, especially if we had slightly violent scenes. One night, our lights had attracted a hefty crows of 200, which erupted with laughter, clapping and suggestions, with every take, our film was being filmed in front of a live audience. One another occasion the bystanders were just being Good Samaritans. In the opening scene a white farmer throws the main character out of a moving truck. We shot it outside of town on a dirt road. As we were filming it, two Haitian men came by on a motorbike, witnessed the ejection and stopped to intervene. They had ruined the shot, but we laughed as we tried to explain what we were doing. They thought we were ridiculous, and they were right.
While we had three Americans with film experience, we had a dozen Haitians with no experience who worked eight, ten, twelve, 16 hours some days to bring the project to fruition.
Brandon told me about the audition process, which happened before I and Pezh Jatala, the DP, arrived to Haiti. They held an open tryout at the Alliance Française and more than 100 people came to audition. Soon they had a deep roster of potential talent. The real problem was that he needed to coordinate students, workers and parents volunteering to be in the cast. Since the production was not paying them but only offering meals, everyone’s scenes need to be scheduled around work, school and family commitments, a logistical nightmare.
The production hired a cook and $1000 went for the provisions, a lot of rice and spaghetti, a limited amount of chicken and vegetables, water that came in plastic pouches and you had to rip a little hole with your teeth and then squirt into your mouth. Like so many of the production tasks, getting everyone fed would have been impossible without the hard work and canny practicality of the Haitian crew members.
We are already more than a week removed from production, but we already look back with nostalgia on the torrid experience of filming. Like most Caribbean countries Haiti runs at its own relaxed, island pace. This makes for a wonderful place to unwind, but it was difficult to imagine pulling off a high stress and time-sensitive schedule of a film production. More than once during shooting we had our doubts if we would really finish it. We ended up finishing the film on time and on budget and thanks to the amazing sense of Humour and spirit of the Haitian cast and crew, we had a ton of fun. That’s a testament to the collaboration that was fostered. Our biggest challenge now is finding a venue large enough for the screening, to host all of the people that assisted and participated in the film.