Trenchard-Smith on Firebase Gloria
Antony I. Ginnane and Brian Trenchard-Smith have worked together on some of Australia’s classic 80s genre pictures. Here, Trenchard-Smith shares his memories about making the film that Ginnane calls his best – The Siege of Firebase Gloria. Check out the November issue of INSIDEFILM for an interview with the two filmmakers ahead of their latest collaboration, Arctic Blast.
If there is that great 40’s era studio in the sky – if, in fact, all filmmakers (like all dogs) go to heaven or hell – we’ll all have a lot of war stories to swap in the studio commissary, won’t we?
Working with Tony Ginnane is like joining the Navy – it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure. Suits me just fine. I like adventure, making a movie with your bare hands in exotic locations: Manila, Cairns, Tasmania… where to next?
Tony has given opportunities to a lot of talent, both on camera and off camera, over the last 40 years, and I am truly grateful that he saw something in me, when many arts bureaucrats at the time did not, and subsequently funded two of my more enduring genre cocktails.
Tony cites Siege Of Firebase Gloria as my best. (That assessment has its adherents, though El Q, the ultimate authority on these things, hovers between Firebase and Dead End Drive In.) For my part, I hope and dream that my best is yet to come.
While my percentage of Firebase has never got past the break-even mark, I would not have missed the experience for the world. Like all the work I have done with Tony, it was rich in memories.
We filmmakers are passionate, obsessive folk, and I am no exception. We are driven by the belief that each project is the Holy Grail. Let nothing stand in your way. Men with guns for instance.
In 1988 I was being taken to survey a location two hour’s drive out of Manila, accompanied by first assistant director Carding Guzman, and production designer Toto Castillo and unit production manager Mike Fuller.
After one hour, we passed a guard tower at a crossroads, its elevated platform cocooned in netting, conjuring the image of a robot beekeeper.
“What’s the net for?” I asked. “Grenades, sir.” was the deadpan reply from our driver.
Yes, of course.
In 1988, the Philippines was still in the grip of two insurgencies, an Islamic one in the South, and the Communist New People’s Army (NPA) on the main island of Luzon where we were.
So an hour‘s drive out of Manila we were already crossing the perceived border beyond which lay NPA contested territory, and we had an hour’s driving to go.
“Don’t worry about the NPA, sir, they are the Good People.”
I mistook this for character evaluation. In fact it was an item in all Philippino movie budgets at the time. Ostensibly, it referred to security staff for locations outside Manila. Indeed, who better to protect you from the NPA than the NPA themselves?
I was told that they were better than the Philippino military. They did not get drunk, or bring their cousins demanding they get paid as well.
We arrived on a hill with a good view of surrounding countryside, an ideal choice for the firebase. We discussed the layout of the defensive perimeter and bunkers while awaiting the arrival of the NPA representatives.
A pick-up truck approached and parked. Two armed men with bandanas round their faces got out. Apart from a moment of frisson at the sight of a real loaded gun (I was unaware at that point that two of my Philippino companions were also armed) I did not feel I had anything to fear.
I trusted the judgment of my Philippino crew. And indeed, cordial conversation in Tagalog took place, a deal was made, and the NPA were on there way again. We would pay $5000 for each month of our stay in their territory. They would protect us, ensure that local bandits did not strip our firebase set each night, etc., or kidnap any personnel.
They even volunteered to be in our battle scenes, and bring their own rifles. They had Armorlites, we needed AK 47’s which were in abundance in Manila. The well-trained Viet Cong women you see in some battle scenes are NPA. Their only stipulation was this – when we brought in the Philippino Army helicopter gunships for the strafing and bombing scenes, we would give the NPA notice so they could make themselves scarce.
The Army were grateful for this too. They did not want an unnecessary fight either. This was indicative of a level of popular support for the NPA, purported champions of the poor in the Philippines, where social inequality had reached obscene levels.
Although we were a little late in paying one month, causing our second unit director Andrew Prowse to be warned not to leave his hotel till it was, the NPA honoured their deal throughout.
During a tough night shoot I wandered away from the lights of the set, so I could gaze at the brilliant stars in the sky, and recover some inspiration. One of the NPA security people at our perimeter told me not to go any further.
“But you’re the Good People,” I said. “There are ‘good’ Good People, and there are ‘bad’ Good People, particularly at night,” he replied in good English, “Best stay back.”
OK. Got it.
But I don’t think that I really ‘got it’ till the night we were relaxing having dinner in the only American style bar in the tiny town of Pagsanhan (where a lot of Apocalypse Now was shot).
At the only street-lit section, this bar was right next door to the police station. Twenty yards walk from door to door. The police chief entered the bar. He wore a side arm, a sub machine gun hung from a strap around his neck, ammunition pouches and grenades dangled from his belt. All this firepower to go 20 yards!! Grenades!
Was everywhere outside of the walls of the police station a free fire zone? Later outside the bar, two of his men monstered one of our cast, Clyde Jones, who plays Shortwave.
“What are you doing in the Philippines?” they demanded.
“I’m making a movie!” tried Clyde, with the biggest shit-eating grin he could muster.
“What do you do?
Clyde felt confident in his reply. “I’m an actor.”
One cop snorted and turned to the other officer. “An actor? Shoot him!”
For a few heart pounding seconds Clyde really thought they meant it. Two liquored up cops, thousands of miles from the US, in a town with three street lamps… who would ever know what really happened to him?
At that moment life in Detroit was looking pretty good to Clyde. Then they roared with laughter, and let him go. Clyde Jones, being the ballsy guy he is, did not catch the next plane home, but continued giving a great performance and dodging pyrotechnics till we were done.
Incidentally, our chief pyro guy Danny “Boom Boom” Dominguez, as he was known locally, told me that we ultimately let off more explosions than Hamburger Hill!
When the army helicopters were scheduled for the strafing and bombing sequences, we duly informed the NPA, who duly melted back into the jungle. But the helicopters were five hours late. The captain in charge apologized. They had been on a mission 100 miles north.
“We will now change to blank ammunition,” he said.
“Excellent idea!” I quipped. The army guys laughed.
But my quip masked a sharp twinge of guilt and sorrow. We were doing simulated war, while further north people were dying in real war, people who were compatriots perhaps of the local NPA who had treated us well. When they might easily have held us to ransom.
This strengthened my resolve to maintain the underlying theme of the movie, that wars are caused by politicians but fought by brave dutiful people on both sides. I had to fight the distributor on this issue who felt this point of view was “unpatriotic”.
Cuts were made, but enough even-handedness remains in the picture, which has become a favourite of a lot of Vietnam vets. Check out their postings on IMDB. It’s a mystery to me why MGM does not bring it out on DVD.
The entire US Marine Corps, to whom R. Lee Ermey is a god, would buy copies. One fan even started an on-line petition to MGM. As yet, no response.
Standing on a hill, calling "Action!" and 200 armed men rise up out of the long grass and charge forward, firing from the hip, mortars detonate, helicopters swoop – it doesn’t get much better than that for a genre filmmaker.
There are many recent memories that I will cherish from shooting Arctic Blast in Tasmania.
It was a challenging schedule, which the collective will of cast and crew enabled me to accomplish. Tasmanians were very generous in the location support they gave us, particularly the fire department, and emergency services.
The picture will look much bigger than its budget. And that’s what the 21st century Australian film industry has to do to attract sustaining investment in the new global entertainment economy.
I am shocked at the budgets of some recent Australian films of limited appeal. We must tailor our budgets to the recoupment potential of the subject matter. We are the clever country; we can be the clever film industry.