With Carlos Gaviria, on the Rio Negro in Colombia.
Two weeks ago I went to Colombia. I traveled into the jungle where I fell into the Río Negro, then returned to Bogotá and fell down on the street after a basuquero had put a curse on me. Or maybe it wasn’t a curse at all. *** I’ve written a novel called Roberto to the Dark Tower Came, which will be published next May. It’s about a young left-wing South American journalist who receives a disturbing phone call: an anonymous voice tells him he has ten days to leave the country or he’ll be killed. Roberto takes the voice seriously, and makes plans to leave, but then he gets wind of a big story developing in the jungle. He decides to take a quick trip to investigate the story, and then get out of the country before his ten days are up. And so begins a journey up a river and through the jungle and into the heart of a darkness so deep Roberto wonders if he’ll ever see the light again.
I flew to Colombia to make a trailer to promote the book. Trailers for books are a relatively new thing. Most of the ones I’ve perused on the internet have been pretty basic and have left me unimpressed. I felt with my background in film I could make a kick-ass trailer with high production values that would leave all other book trailers in the dust.
I took the red-eye out of LAX. I have never been able to sleep on a plane and kept my record intact that night. I changed planes in Panama, and even though it’s in the tropics it had the coldest airport I’ve ever been to. My teeth actually began to chatter as I walked through a long, drafty terminal in search of my gate.
The next morning I was picked up at the airport in Bogotá by my old friend Carlos Gaviria. Carlos went to NYU film school with my wife Stefani, and would direct the trailer. He’s short, plump, and jovial, with a beautiful head of graying hair and a matching beautiful beard. He drove me to my hotel through the chaotic, smoking, honking traffic of Bogotá that makes L.A.’s traffic in comparison seem like something you would find in some poky small town in Nebraska. I was supposed to be able to check into my room early but inevitably it wasn’t ready, so without changing clothes or even brushing my teeth, I embarked on the first of a series of sixteen-hour days.
We were going to shoot two days, one in the city and one in the jungle. Bogotá is in the mountains, so the next morning we left the chilly city behind and went down and down a winding road into subtropical heat and drove west till we reached the little town of Tobia. It was serene and lovely. Dogs would lie in the street till a honking horn would make them reluctantly rise and walk away a few feet and plop down again.
An actor named Iván Lopez would be Roberto. Iván was handsome and charming, as our Roberto ought to be, and played an abogado, a lawyer, on a popular Colombian TV series. We picked up some shots of Iván driving around in Roberto’s aging Jeep Cherokee, had dinner at our hotel, and went to bed early. The hotel was right by the river along which we’d be shooting all day tomorrow. My window was open, and the river was narrow and fast-flowing, and I listened to its soft roaring till I fell asleep.
Someone knocked on my door at 4:30 a.m., and the river began to roar again. The cast and crew assembled outside the hotel as the dawn came on. There were about fifteen crew members, four actors from Bogotá, a half dozen guys from Tobia who’d be playing paramilitaries and guerillas, and another half dozen guys in helmets from a security company who would help us cope with the difficult terrain ahead and make sure everyone was safe when we shot the scenes on the river.
Paramilitaries had been active around Tobia before the recent signing of the peace agreement between the government and the main rebel group, the FARC, so everybody had a good laugh when a cop on a bicycle pedaled past and saw our paramilitaries with their fake assault rifles walking down the road toward him. The poor guy thought they were the real thing and hit his brake and looked like he was about to fall off his bike with a heart attack.
"Roberto," Ivan Lopez, with "Lina," Estefania Pineres, the beautiful guerilla he falls in love with.
It was the beginning of the rainy season in Colombia, and just as we were about to head out, it started to rain. It quit after about twenty minutes. The rain was good and bad for us. It made the jungle lush and green and glowing. Also, it stayed cloudy all day which was good, since you don’t want to shoot in the jungle when it’s sunny because there’s too much contrast between the sunlight and the shadows. But it made the hilly trails we had to traverse muddy and slippery and ended up costing us a lot of time.
This actually wasn’t the “real” jungle—in Colombia that lay south in the Amazon—but it definitely looked the part. We walked single file along a path that ran along the edge of a gorge at the bottom of which the river surged and roared over huge rocks and tossed up sparkling drops of water. I felt dizzy as I gazed down on it. I don’t like heights at all. It was maybe eighty or ninety feet down to the river. When the path was flat it was okay but when it went up or down it was daunting, and it was easy to imagine slipping in the mud and sliding right over the edge and screaming piteously all the way down. And then Carlos would have to call Stefani back in Culver City to let her know her unfortunate husband had met his end on the Río Negro.
I would have liked to have gone a little slower, taken my time a bit, but since I was the oldest person on the shoot I was determined it wasn’t going to be me that would hold up our intrepid little column of filmmakers. I slipped and stumbled some, but I wasn’t the only one, and after about an hour we had reached our first location. The guys in helmets helped the actors and the camera people rappel down the side of the gorge to the river. I was barely able to watch it, it made me so nervous and “Is this safe?” I asked Carlos. He assured me that it was. Although I noticed he didn’t go down there himself.
We spent the day moving from location to location down the river back toward the hotel. The only casualty we suffered was when some idiot banged his head on the bottom of a rickety old bridge, but I think the baseball cap I was wearing saved me from getting a nasty cut in my scalp.
At one point we had fallen a couple of hours behind because of the logistical problems the brief rain had caused along with the malfunctioning of our Steadicam. We’d lose the light around five-thirty or six, and whatever shots we hadn’t gotten then would forever remain ungotten because we were headed back to Bogotá that night. I kept letting Carlos know I was on the verge of freaking out and he kept telling me to not worry, that it was always like this, that we would pick up the pace as the day went on and we’d be fine and he was right. We got to our last location with just enough light left to shoot. And, as if I’d been moving toward this rendezvous all day, this is where the river and I became, let us say, intimately acquainted.
The river was wider and calmer here, and we were doing some stuff with boats. I was trying to step out of a rubber raft onto the riverbank and gee, I just don’t know what happened. The raft moved? My boot hit something slippery? Anway, bang, into the water I went. Crew members scrambled to help up the old gringo. I was drenched and muddy from the waist down, and each hand was covered with mud. As I stumbled up the bank, Helkin René Díaz, our gentle elfin vegetarian D.P., was beaming at me approvingly.
“You are a warrior!” he said.
Helkin told me it was believed in Colombia that if you visited a place and fell down, that meant you were going to buy it. I said it was beautiful here and I’d like to buy it.
Our last shot was Roberto and his photographer friend Daniel splashing frantically across the river with the paramilitaries in hot pursuit, and then the river did a slow fade-out in the dusk and we went back to the hotel. I pulled off my boots and stripped off my muddy clothes. The hotel had no hot water, so I skipped a shower and put on clean clothes and sneakers then hit the road with Carlos and his wife Mariela. Carlos’s car wound up and up till we were high in the mountains again and back in Bogotá.
They dropped me off at my hotel, where I discovered I’d left my boots, which I was quite fond of, back in the hotel in Tobia (along with falling down, losing things was a central theme of my time in Colombia—my boots, my reading glasses, my house keys, my denim jacket, twice). It was very late. I took a shower and crashed and then at 4:30 opened my eyes to darkness and a wake-up call from the front desk.
Today: The Basuquero, Part One: The Jungle
November 14: The Basuquero, Part Two: The City
November 17: The Basuquero, Part Three: The Bracelet