The French New Wave director Francois Truffaut once remarked that:

Shooting a movie is like a stagecoach ride in the Old West.  When you set out, you are anticipating a pleasant journey through a beautiful landscape.   But half-way though you just hope you will make it to your destination!

I am not halfway through.  I am on the cusp, at the proverbial stagecoach depot, sitting in a café at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, waiting for my flight to Budapest.  In the next month, I will direct and shoot twenty-five dream like scenes based on letters, journals, and an interview I did with Paul late in his life.  Portraying his childhood as well as my own, they complete the production.  They are the narrative glue that ties together archive film, photographs, interviews, and location footage.

Forty-two years ago, when I had my first job in Public Television directing sequences for Carl Sagan’s series Cosmos, we did things differently.  We shot on 16mm film and we did “recces.”  Recce was British argot for reconnaissance.  Weeks, and sometimes months before I showed up with a film crew on location, I had the luxury of visiting the location, standing in all the places I would put my camera, arranging with fixers for everything from helicopters to permits for shooting at archeological sites.  I loved recces.  I was able to feel into a place, to synthesize all the variables of a particular kind of light, the probability of rain and the individual personalities of local crew.   I knew what I was getting into before I got into it, before I started spending thousands of production dollars per day to shoot the film.

Alas, recces are no longer.  Six months ago when I suggested to my Hungarian production manager Máté Szorád, that I do a recce to meet him, scout locations, cast actors, and strategize with his crew he was puzzled.  He said, “No need. We have Skype.”  Indeed we do, so the first leg or our stagecoach journey occurred in the ether.  I will meet Máté in person for the first time when he picks me up at the airport in a few hours, but we’ll have no trouble recognizing each other.  I have seen more of him in the past six months than anyone else, ethereal or corporeal, except for my wife, Sharon.  I know that anyone reading this under that age of 40 will think “so what?”   But we baby boomers came of age in a different world.

TIME, then and now, is a theme in my film, What I saw as a child, what I see as an adult, and the juxtaposition of the two.  There are sixteen actors portraying my grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, my sister, myself, 1950s cocktail party guests (imagine a scene from Mad Men) and Herman Kahn the nuclear war planner, who became the model for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s film.  Finding all the people to play these roles has been a heroic task.  Not only did Zsófia Szilógyi, my casting director, have to find people that resembled photographs of members of my family, she had to find actors to play the same role at different ages.  There are three versions of me at age 5, 11, and 17.  There are two versions of my sister, Michèle, at age 11 and 18.

Zsófia started by sending me pictures, dozens of head shots.  Based on the pictures we liked, she shot a video of each candidate.  People who looked great in their photo were sometimes lousy on video and visa versa.   Professional actors were not always the best choice.  A philosopher plays Herman Kahn, a puppet master is my grandfather, Andor, and a musician (jazz or rock, I’m not sure which) plays my father.  My Hungarian second cousin, a twenty-year old film student, is the spitting image of me in my late teens, down to the long, raggedy hair.  Zsófia has pulled off a miracle.  It is  also a feat that would be completely impossible to duplicate in the United States.  I know this because I tried…and failed.  If I were making a low budget feature film. I might have been able to negotiate an affordable rate with the all-powerful Screen Actors Guild.  But the Guild has no category for a documentary film with dramatic scenes, so I would have had to pay the same rates for actors as in a multi-million dollar Hollywood film.

Not everything has gone as beautifully as Zsófia’s work.   Some things that would appear to be simple have become incredibly complicated.   Virag Mariai, the beautiful actress who has been cast to play the role of my mother, has just dyed her hair blonde for a theater play, so our hairdresser is scrambling to find her a wig.  The same actress is performing alternately in three plays, one of the them in a town 90 minute-drive from Budapest, so we will have to provide her with a car and driver to take her from the film set to the theater and back.  The logistics are so daunting that we thought about replacing Virag with another actress, but the scene where my mother has a psychotic break is so demanding that finding someone with the same chops who looks like my mother seemed implausible.

Props are the things that actors hold in their hands, the chairs they sit in, the artifacts that must evoke the specifics of time and place.  Rental prices for props in Hungary are astronomical.  At first I couldn’t understand this because Hungarian per capita income is about a third of what it is in the United States.  Paradoxically, this relative “poverty” contributes to the exorbitant prices.  In the states  I had worked with creative property masters who cut deals with rental houses and picked up treasures at flea markets, garage sales, and second hand shops.  We are such an affluent culture that we throw a lot of stuff away so there is a lot of old, period stuff around.  In former Soviet bloc countries that have never been affluent in the way The United States has, people hang onto stuff.  Prop houses in Budapest hold a monopoly and are rapacious.

Edina, my Hungarian Producer, made a deal months ago with a props house to provide around 100 pieces of furniture and props.  Last week they reneged on their commitment, saying they had a far more lucrative Netflix project.   When the deal fell through Edina was in the hospital undergoing emergency surgery.   Now we are all scrambling to get props from other sources.  Put the wrong prop from the wrong time period in the frame and you’ve shot yourself in the foot.  All it takes is one poor choice.

Items for late 1950’s scenes in the United States are hard to come by in Hungary.  So, I’ve been frantically trying to fill in the gaps by ordering retro stuff on eBay and Amazon.  For example, a 1960s transistor radio that Michele listens to while tanning herself on the beach. and my mother’s 1940s portable typewriter.   All in all I am bringing about 60 props stuffed into three cases, hoping that Air France does not lose them!

As a producer I base my production planning on Murphy’s law.  Anything that can go wrong will.  You need a plan B, C and D.   Strangely, when the shit hit the fan with the props situation, I was relieved.  Things had been going too smoothly.  There had been no crisis.  What was I not seeing?  Now it’s all hands-on deck.

There is so much more I could write about, but I have not even landed in Hungary.  I hope to send you dispatches, as time permits, in the coming weeks