'I wake up, screaming'
A Diary by Richard Stanley
(Originally appeared in Projections 3, 1994.)
The dreams came first. The dark man, his face hidden, his hat pulled low, his coat gathered around
him, standing alone in the wasteland, staring towards the lights of the town, a storm brewing somewhere not far behind him.
His image found its way into my early student films and followed me in my sleep as I grew away from my homeland, riding with me as I deserted the army and fled South Africa and its politics of oppression, hitch-hiking across the Namibian border on my way to Windhoek and a plane to Frankfurt and the imagined freedom of Europe.
The dark man's shadow followed close behind me all the way up the Skeleton Coast, hinting in my dreams at some terrible conflagration to come, next to which all the suffering that had ever been would be the merest taper.
In Bethany district it was the seventh year of a seven-year drought and a shadow was on the land. Everywhere people were dying, their mutilated remains turning up in the boots of burned-out cars and strewn out across the
The local police hunted in vain for the killer, finding no clues, their enquiries met by silence. In the towns people whispered about a conspiracy to drive the black farmers off their land, in the bush the sangomas muttered about a black magician allied to the desert wind, a 'Nagtloper' come out of the wasteland to claim the souls of the damned, and in the local church the dominie ranted about the devil and his cohorts Azazel, Buzrael, Beelzebub and Belial, heralds of the baneful pestilence whose breath is the drought that withers the crops in the springtime and whose kin is the famine that slays the cattle in their fields and blights the land.
Behind all of it, I sensed the dark man's hand, the murders following so close behind me that at times I feared for my sanity.
Sleeping in a dry river bed near Keetmanshoop one evening, I was caught in a sand-storm. The column of dust against the setting sun seemed transformed into a writhing pillar of living fire.
I hitched a ride with an armoured column to Bethany, where I hopped a steam train that wouldn't have been out of place in a Leone western. A day later I heard that the body of a prostitute had been found near the platform, and when I reached Luderitz I was beaten senseless by railway policemen driven mad with paranoia.
Even after I left the country the shadow stayed with me, and when a few months later I heard that a man suspected of the murders had been killed in a gun-battle near the canyons, I resolved that I would have to return to the
Skeleton Coast once more to exorcise this demon from my dreams.
Although the murders apparently ceased after the shoot-out, the suspect involved was crucially disfigured by a shotgun blast and never formally identified, leaving the case open to this very day.
In 1984 I returned to Namibia with a 16mm clockwork Bolex, a home-made crane, five friends I had fired up with the idea, a forty-five-page script and a title, Dust Devil, derived from the name the locals give to those small, violent, desert winds that blow from nowhere.
After two months on the Skeleton Coast, shooting was abandoned when our funds ran out and two of our party had to be hospitalized following a car smash on the freeway near Keetmanshoop.
For seven years the dreams continued to haunt me, and in 1991 I dusted off the script, fleshed it out to feature length and took it to Jo-Anne Sellar at Palace Films, who had produced my first feature, Hardware, in the winter of 1989. Shooting in Namibia had finally become feasible following the elections in March 1990, when a socialist government, the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) came to power and I was able to return to the Skeleton Coast without fear of arrest. Hardware's healthy performance at the box office enabled Palace to pre-sell the film and secure a promised £2 million from Miramax and British Screen Finance. A surprising additional investor turned up in the shape of David Aukin, the head of drama for Channel Four Television, who acquired Dust Devil's rights for British television. Jo-Anne was able to secure the use of South African personnel and equipment with the aid of the ANC-affiliated Allied Workers Organization, while flying in the cast and heads of department from Britain and the United States, thus making the film financially viable without selling out to South African politics of moral compromise.
In July 1991 I flew back to Namibia to finish what I had begun so many years before, praying that, with the support of an international co-production and the resources made available to me by the highest budget I had ever been entrusted with, I would finally have a chance to beat the jinx and capture the demon that was the soul of that bleak country on film.
From the outset it was apparent that shooting would be a nightmare. I had experienced the worst Namibia could hurl at me before, but the rest of the crew still awaited their baptism of fire. The film's backers seemed to be dangerously out of touch with my true intentions for the project, refusing to agree on a female lead and suggesting, even at a late stage, that we reset the script in Santa Fe and use American Indians in the lead roles instead of black South Africans.
My insistence on shooting the film in precise locations, following the trail of the original murders, meant that we would have to cover over one and a half thousand kilometers of road during the eight-week shoot and for the sake of an easier commodation deal, Jo-Anne and Daniel Lupi, the production manager based the production in the mist-shrouded, Bavarian-style resort town of Swakopmünd, hundreds of miles up the coast from Bethany and our main locations. All our stock would have to be flown back to Britain for processing, resulting in a turn-around of almost two weeks on the rushes that meant, in effect., that our sets would be struck without admitting the possibility of our ever having to reshoot a single frame.
Weather insurance was beyond the limits of our budget and the convoluted pre-production period had pushed our shoot right up against the start of the windy season. At their height, the gale-force winds that lash the Skeleton
Coast make it impossible to stand up straight, and cars have to be weighted down with sandbags to avoid being blown off the roads. Even then, at the very beginning, I must have been a little insane, confidently leading a celluloid safari into hell to search for a demon that I suspected was both very real and hungrily awaiting us.
On Thursday 8 August, I was precisely one week away from the first day of shooting and still had not reached an agreement over the casting of two of the most important roles: Wendy, the beleaguered South African housewife; and Joe Niemand, the enigmatic projectionist, witch-doctor and story-teller who would lead the film's nominal hero, South African police detective Ben Mukurob (played by Zakes Mokae), on his quest for the dust devil.
Thursday 8 August 1991
I come awake in my narrow bunk, still trying to scream. The sheets are sticking to my body. I half-remember my dream. Something about fire and flying and falling. Burning ships or oil platforms, black clouds hanging beneath me in greasy columns. Then the sound of a fog-horn comes to me and I remember where I am. Although Jo-Anne and Daniel wanted me to stay with the cast in the Cafe Anton, a decrepit resort hotel on the beach-front, I have elected instead to lodge with the rest of the crew in the grim tract of military-style concrete bunkers that passes as the local trailer park. At least here I have privacy and space, including a double garage that will come in useful as an impromptu studio for the second unit. Jo-Anne and Daniel have never been too keen on the idea of running a second unit, and when the chips are down, I know I will have to give their crew all the help I can. Steve Chivers, our director of photography, is garrisoned in the neighbouring bunker and Mad Mike Jay, a science-fiction writer and science programme researcher who will be acting as my personal assistant on the shoot, is billeted in the room next to mine. The sky as usual this morning is grey and listless, a thick sea-fog shrouding the town. There is a taste of salt and corroding metal in my mouth.
My bathroom window faces on to the freeway that runs behind the bunkers, and as I brush my teeth, I look out over the sandbagged barriers that mark the border of the South African enclave of Walvis Bay. A row of soldiers are stopping cars, lazily waving their AK47s, their outlines softened by the mist. The road beyond them is hazy and indistinct, as if they are guarding the perimeter of Tarkovsky's Zone.
Later, I drive inland with mad Mike. The sea-mist comes to an end in an almost solid curtain some twenty kilometres inland, and beyond that, the day is hot and airless. I inspect the progress of the work on our main set, the farmstead belonging to the killer's first victim, Saartjie Haarhoff, which is being lovingly reconstructed from a gutted ruin in the bottom of a dry river--bed near the Kaiser's ostrich farm, the very farm that provided so many of the plumes in the helmits of World War One era Germany. The work is being cheerfully supervised by our production designer Joseph Bennet, Jo-Anne's boyfriend since Hardware, whose work on that previous film contributed immeasurably to its success. Today he's looking relaxed, wearing the crumpled white suit and confident swagger of a classic colonial.
After a reassuring guided tour of the works we return to town, didgeridoo music playing on the car stereo, my spirits falling as we re-enter the dank wall that surrounds Swakopmünd. I am on my way to my first meeting with Chelsea Field, the only available actress whom all the financiers would approve, after my efforts to cast first Kerry Fox (the New Zealand actress from An Angel At My Table) and then Stacey Travis (the star of Hardware) had failed to win their favour. The backers are less than happy with my emphasis on black South African actors and feel that Robert Burke, who will play the killer, is not enough of a name to carry the film. Chelsea is deemed to be 'hot' on the basis of the three unreleased films she has completed the year before: The Last Boy Scout, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and George Romero's The Dark Half - although the only
videotape Palace has made available to me that features her is the Renny Harlin film Prison, which I detest. Being left with no choice in the casting of such a crucial part is a compromise that I am loath to accept, although I faced a similar situation before over the casting of the male lead in Hardware.
I smoke my first cigarette in six months on my way to her bunker, and hate myself for it. Chelsea is plainly as nervous as I am, besieged by Lisa Boni, our make-up girl and unofficial unit psychologist, who is testing burn make-up on her, and Michelle Clapton, our wardrobe mistress, who is taking her measurements and trying out costume ideas. We make small talk about her flight and her feelings about the script, but we both know from each other's eyes that we have more questions to ask than either of us can easily answer right now. There is too much on my mind for me to be able to give her my undivided attention. The completion bond guarantor came in on the same flight as Chelsea, and even as we speak I know he is combing through the budget and schedule with Jo-Anne and Daniel back at the production office.
The fate of the film is still hanging by a thread.
At sunset I go down to the sea-front with Mad Mike and drop in for coffee and cigarettes at the only homely house in Swakopmünd, a beach cabin surrounded by whale bones rented by Ina and Amelia Roux, the production buyer
and dresser, known affectionately by the art department as the 'Vixen Sisters'. Tonight Ina, the practical one of the pair, gets in the beers while Amelia, who affects a cape, and smokes too much, goes wandering off down the
moon-drenched tideline in what approaches an altered state of consciousness, a joint smouldering in her hand.
Friday 9 August
As Woody Allen said, 'The truck arrives with fresh compromises every morning.' This morning is cold and misty as usual, and I spend the first part of the day scouting locations around town. At three p.m. I return to the production office to learn that the competition bond guarantor is demanding that I lose ten pages from the script before he signs off on the bond.
I stagger back to my bunker to discover that hundreds of pelicans have taken over the bungalow complex, sitting everywhere on lamp-posts and every available inch of roof space. I draw the curtains and lock the door, going into a huddle with Mad Mike to do the necessary rewrite.
Tonight there is no time to sleep and the dreams will have to wait.
Saturday 10 August
I emerge red-eyed from an unbroken, twenty-seven hour rewrite that has stretched to over one hundred handwritten pages consuming three full A4 pads. Overnight I have simplified Chelsea's character, cutting the memory of her rape as a child and the paranoid core of her relationship with her husband Mark. Also gone is the character of Aaron the ticket-collector, who witnesses the killer passing on the station platform. I feel sad at letting go of them, but right now I'm too tired for it to hurt. Mad Mike, who has hardly slept himself, takes the mound of scrawled pages in to the production office to type up and I try to get some sleep.
Sunday 11 August
I hear that my old associate, the inimitable Immo Horn, has blown into town in a battered pick-up truck and I go to meet him at the local pizza-joint. Standing nearly seven feet tall in his habitual black coat, sporting a profile reminiscent of the Mervyn Peake character Steerpike, Mr Horn (who has worked with me on a number of past ventures) is a talented underground film-maker in his own right whose work I first encountered in Berlin almost ten years ago. In 1989 we shot a documentary together in Afghanistan covering the events leading up to, and immediately following, the Soviet withdrawal. Mr Horn was severely wounded by shrapnel, losing the use of both legs in the battle for Jalalabad, the capital of Ningrahar province, and in the weeks that followed it had been down
to me to save his life and get him to a Red Crescent hospital in a frontier province and thence back to Europe for surgery.
Mr Horn has always felt he owed me a favour for this, and now I'm calling it in. I'm putting him in charge of the second unit, and supply him with copies of the storyboard and shooting schedule. If we are to have any chance at all, then the second unit must be able to function autonomously and often at a great distance from the main unit. Mr Horn is my insurance policy that, in my absence, the unit's work will meet a desirable standard. For a second unit operator I have brought on Mr Horn's old schoolfriend Greg Copeland, a London-based lighting cameraman who shot all my music videos and came to Namibia with me before on the original Dust Devil I6mm shoot in 1984. I have to trust that their close working relationship and commitment to the material will help bring their rushes to life.
Robert Burke, our lead actor, a veteran of Hal Hartley's quirky oeuvre and the lead in the as yet unseen Robocop 3, has arrived in town and I go to see him at the Cafe Anton, where we sit in an enclosed back garden surrounded by a menagerie of tame animals. Robert has travelled well and is in good form. We talk long and hard about his character, whom we now perceive as a purely mythological figure, a synthesis of Leone's Man with No Name, the bushman 'Nagtloper' and the devil himself, portrayed in the script as an incubus, a demon lover from the id who exists only to lead Ben and Wendy to their deaths. It will be a hard ride for Robert, for, in opening himself to this role, he will become a receptacle for the demon that stalks us, the dark man of my nightmares. In exorcising myself, he will become possessed.
As we talk, the mist clears long enough for the Southern Cross to be visible
overhead, and a tame ground-squirrel climbs on to Robert's shoulder.
Tuesday 13 August
We drive out on reconnaissance for the cave scene to where the granite ramparts of Spitzkop oppose the sky, their cliffs rising sheer from the flat plain, brooding silently beneath the dead weight of the afternoon heat. I scale
Spitzkop's bony flanks,: accompanied by Robert, Greg Copeland and Mad Mike, coming at last to the lip of the hidden plateau that has served as a sacred place for the Khoisan people since time immemorial.
The plateau is ringed by overhangs and huge mushroom-like rock formations, their stone surfaces alive everywhere with ancient life. The faded, ithyphallic figures of the first men pursue zebra, ostrich and eland through the morning twilight of primeval time, their shapes all but hidden beneath the quiet dust of that still, hot plateau where the only movement is the imperceptible dance of the shadows around the prehistoric quiver trees, moving to the ceaseless music of the sun and moon. We linger here and, as the sun sets, Robert sits atop a huge volcanic boulder and plays the flute, while a swallow comes out of the brazen sky and circles him quite deliberately.
Wednesday 14 August
In my dreams I am back at Spitzkop. The dark man is there. The man who has no face or name. He takes me to a high place and shows me the world spread out before my boots.
Robert has begun to have the dreams as well now. We spend the morning in the school hall reading through the script with Chelsea and when we break for lunch he tells me he dreamed he saw me at Spitzkop. I stood on the edge of the cliff and, motioning for him to follow, I smiled and stepped out into the air.
Later, I go over to the props department to approve the faceless one's knife. Dirk, the props master, has engraved its blade with the design of the Midgard serpent. Amelia Roux flirts with me as she shows me the old photographs and their frames that she has amassed for the night-stand of the dark man's first victim, the lonely schoolteacher Saartjie Haarhoff.
I have grown very fond of the vixen sisters and am glad of their company now.
Thursday 15 August
Jo-Anne summons me urgently to the production office first thing in the morning. She presents me with an amendment to my contract that has been faxed over from Palace's legal department, claiming that unless I put my mark on it at once the completion bond guarantor will refuse to sign off and production will be closed down on the movie. The amendment waives my legal right to injunct the film's release or remove my name from the project. I find this very ominous, and refuse to sign unless I can first consult my agent or an entertainment lawyer. Jo-Anne takes this as a personal betrayal and is furious at me, telling me that Palace have already spent three hundred thousand pounds of uninsured production money on the project and that she'll call the whole thing off today unless I sign at once. Furthermore, Daniel refuses to let me use the production telephones unless I pay for my calls out of my own pocket.
At lunch-time I go on a reconnaissance of the mortuary set and call my agent from a payphone out back. It is very hard to get through to her, and when I do she is maddeningly vague, merely recommending that I sign everything I'm told to. When I get back to the production office I tell Jo-Anne I am willing to sign the contract only if I can sign it in blood as a symbol of protest, and to this effect I cut my hand with a razor.
Friday 16 August
The first day of 35mm shooting.
We start with a photo shoot of the schoolteacher and the young boy who will play Zakes Mokae's lost wife and child in the film.
Second unit officially expose the first frames of 35mm stock.
Slate zero. Take one.
Sunday 18 August
A hideous first day of full main-unit shooting.
We are shooting on the freeway in a freezing fog that refuses to lift. Everyone is cold and miserable, including Robert and Chelsea. We wheel on the turbines and put a brave face on it by filming the scenes where Wendy's car is forced into the Bethany turn-off by a sandstorm.
After a grim lunch, we move further inland to find the sun and start work on the crucial sequence where Wendy first picks up the hitch-hiker. It becomes rapidly apparent that our car mounts and process trailer are woefully inadequate, and the Volkswagen quickly disappears beneath a tangle of scaffolding and G-clamps that seems to keep shaking itself apart as soon as we try to get it on to the road, strewing clanging debris across the asphalt and slowing shooting down to a painful crawl. By the evening I have already lost a set-up and gone four pages behind schedule.
I return to my bunker a gibbering, frozen wreck and am cheered only by Lisa and Amanda, the make-up girls, who surprise me with a hot meal before I crawl into bed.
Monday 19 August
At sunset we burn the Haarhoff house.
The scene calls for Robert to walk away from the blazing building, climb into the car and drive off, circling the sundial in the middle of the driveway before heading out into the open desert. Like all scenes of this nature, it can be staged only once and while I intend to cover the action from the dolly in an elaborate tracking shot, I hedge my bets by using two other cameras. A second emplacement in the bottom of a shallow pit behind the sundial will provide us with a static master, while Greg Copeland mans the roving second-unit camera to pick up telephoto detail shots as the action happens.
Jo-Anne, Daniel and poor Steve Earnhardt (Miramax's executive in charge of production) watch from the flanks of the hill, tension mounting as the afternoon slips by. We rehearse the scene again and again until everything is
running like clockwork, waiting until the shadow of the sundial signals the onset of the magic hour and the mountains behind the house glow like ruddy gold. The set falls silent and everyone takes their positions.
I signal my first assistant and he calls action on the bull-horn, setting the mechanics of the shot into action.
Rick, our stunt co-ordinator, presses the detonator but nothing happens. Something has gone wrong with the wiring of their pyrotechnics. Robert stands, looking puzzled, at the head of the steps, the cameras rolling.
I call 'Cut' and our other stunt co-ordinator Roly goes running over to the house to trace the fault. The shadow of the sundial lengthens.
There is a sudden crack inside the house and black smoke begins to pour from the window frames.
I can't see Roly, and no one seems sure whether he's clear of the blaze or not. Jo-Anne is running towards me, cursing and shouting for us to roll cameras. There is still no sign of Roly. There is a flicker of orange fire inside the downstairs windows. I call for turn-over and the cameras are already rolling by the time the first assistant relays the command on the bull-horn. I cue Robert and he starts down the steps without looking back, flames
climbing higher in the windows behind him. Then the glass explodes outwards and the fire begins to take hold of the veranda.
Robert reaches the car and climbs inside, but now seems to be having trouble getting it started. He takes off the brake and for a heart-stopping instant the car begins to roll backwards, before the engine grumbles into life and he heads away down the driveway, circling the sundial as the house disappears into a column of flame and greasy black smoke behind him. In the midst of the conflagration a flock of geese fly slowly out of the east, forming a huge V-formation as they soar directly over the burning house. This additional, unplanned detail is captured only by Mad Mike on his Super-8 camera. It will not appear in the film, but at least I can prove it really happened and isn't just some weird, stress-induced hallucination.
When I finally call for the cameras to cut and a phalanx of stunt assistants descend on the inferno with fire extinguishers, I learn that Roly has managed to escape out of the back of the house and a tragedy has been averted.
Thursday 22 August
Today is our first day of interior shooting in a roadhouse-cum-service station outside Swakopmünd that has been restored from a gutted shell by Joseph and his art sluts with such loving care that several motorists pull off the freeway during the course of the day to try and tank up there.
During the shoot I bump into a gaunt, raven-haired girl who is hanging about the set watching the proceedings. I introduce myself, and she seems surprised that I am the director. She rather sweetly tells me that I look more
like some kind of acid casualty or burned-out bag-person, and for the first time I notice that my military fatigues are covered in a thick layer of grime and glistening mica. Her name is Deborah Deats and she is to be Chelsea's stunt double. Wasting no time, I turn her over to Lisa and Amanda, who dye her hair red and start to transform her into Chelsea's doppelgänger. I note with interest that her first appearance on set coincides with the passing of Roll 13, Slate 66, Take 6, which of course is a complete screw-up.
It is full moon tonight, a time traditionally associated with the mixing of the pigments used in the elaborate rock paintings central to Khoisan magic, and Mad Mike and I plan to head out to Spitzkop and spend the night under the stars at the ancient ceremonial site. We have arranged to rendezvous at the plateau with Greg and Mr Horn, who have been out at Spitzkop today doing time-lapse work. The gore boys, Chris Halls and Little John, who are responsible for the shoot's quota of latex, gelatine and karo syrup, tag along, riding in the back seat on the long journey across the moonlit plains, as we thread the back roads out to Spitzkop with Mad Mike at the wheel and a selection of Golden Oldies on the stereo. At one point, a great white owl looms up in the headlights, narrowly missing the windscreen as it swoops over us. At another, a strange hopping animal like a rabbit bouncing on its hind legs crosses the track in front of us, its eyes glowing like embers.
We plunge deeper into the heart of the wasteland - Spitzkop's crags coming into view on the horizon, a deeper patch of darkness against the night passing every now and then solitary figures wandering on the verge of the road, dressed in suits or what seem to be shrouds, looking like they're on their way to a casting call for a George Romero movie.
Just before we hit Spitzkop itself, another set of headlights comes up hard behind us, bearing down on our tail and then swerving around us to cut us off. Our car skids to a halt, dust rising in the headlights. The doors of the battered, maroon-coloured touring car blocking our way burst open, disgorging a posse of unlikely-looking individuals, so many of them that it's hard to imagine how they all fitted into a single vehicle. At first Mad Mike thinks they must be connected with the shoot and rolls down his window, but as they come shambling into the circle of our headlights he realizes that this is not the case. Their dark faces are unfamiliar, even though they are grinning at us to a man, their movements strange and erratic, their limbs trembling as if they are either very drunk or in the last stages of some degenerative nerve disease.
There is something oddly animalistic about them, and as one slaps his hand against our bonnet I see his eyes glint in the headlights like a dog's. He leans forward, his face twitching spastically, his lips parting in a horrid mockery of a smile, his eyes wide and moon-crazy, brimming over with monstrous mirth and a stupid, bestial rage.
He reaches for the handle of my door and I bring my fist down on the lock, my other hand going to the hilt of my knife.
Then 'Suzie Q' comes on the stereo and Mad Mike floors the accelerator, skidding around the touring car and leaving our assailants behind us in a cloud of dust. I watch in the rear-view mirror as they pile back into their car and gun its engine into life, following hot on our heels. The dirt track comes to a dead end at the base of Spitzkop's granite cliffs and Mad Mike has to effect a three-point turn, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with the touring car that is now determined to try and run us off the road. Mad Mike is pushing the car to its limits, the vehicle slaloming from side to side, its wheels barely holding the switchback surface of the track, its suspension jarring as it leaps depressions and wash-outs.
As we come back up fast from Spitzkop, the touring car still on our tail, a pair of figures suddenly appear in our headlights.
A woman seems to be lying in the middle of the road with a man standing over her who appears, in that insane split-second that we see them for, to be beating her. Mad Mike swerves to avoid them, narrowly missing mowing them down, the car trembling as it skids across the sandy verge, threatening to go into a roll at any time. By the time he regains control of the car, the figures are lost from view behind us and we can only guess at what we have seen.
We screech to a halt when we hit the dirt track to Hentie's Bay, flagging down a passing car that turns out to be a local farmer on his way home. The touring car has turned off its lights and disappeared from sight behind
us as if it never existed. The farmer, a doughty, middle-aged German, readily believes our story and casually explains that he is carrying several guns in his pick-up truck, including a couple of lightweight pump-action shotguns designed for riot control. He coolly suggests that if the occupants of the touring car show up we should
simply shoot it out with them, confident that his fire-power is vastly superior to anything our assailants might be packing.
As we wait in ambush, the farmer explains that one has to expect this kind of thing when one visits Spitzkop, and come prepared. The local psychos are apparently a well-known hazard of the area. Apparently Spitzkop has attracted a considerable squatter population who scratch a living scouring the mountain's flanks for rock crystals that they sell to those tourists foolhardy enough to venture this far from the beaten track. The lazy ones spend their time grinding down the bottoms of Coca-cola bottles that they try to pass off to the tourists as the real thing.
The crystal gleaners have come to form a tribe in themselves, defined by the physical stigmata of inbreeding, their behaviour further deformed by the malignant influence of the local well-water. The former describes the water as
bra, salt or poisoned, claiming that it drives anyone who drinks from it homicidally insane. The district's history reeks of overt viciousness and half-hidden murders. Even the farmer seems unsure of exactly what is the matter
with Spitzkop, referring obliquely to 'something to do with magnetic fields', loud crackings and rumblings that are heard frequently from within the rocks, and the old legends of conclaves of bushmen who once called shadowy shapes out of the hills and celebrated blood-drenched rites here to the gods of pre-Christian Africa.
By now the moon is past its zenith and a further confrontation with our pursuers is starting to seem increasingly unlikely. Finally, wishing us luck and warning us to stay away from Spitzkop in future during the full moon, the
farmer clambers back into his pick-up truck and goes on his way, leaving us alone with the sibilant African night. Mad Mike, whose nerves are worked to shreds, refuses to drive any further and Little John volunteers to take the
We head slowly and cautiously back down the dirt track, determined to reach our destination while the moon is still in the sky, driving with our headlights and stereo turned off now. This time around we make it to the foot of the mountain and, gathering our gear, we begin our ascent of its eastern ridge, coming at last past the mushroom
rock formation and into the sacred valley, while the moon blazes down and the stars gleam above us like innumerable campfires or, as the Khoisan liked to believe, tiny burn-holes in the blanket of the night.
We lower our packs and sit in silence on the topmost ridge. Then, without a word, but as if by some prearranged signal, we slip one by one into a deep sleep.
Saturday 24 August
The rising sun wakes me, the rock growing warm against my face. My mind is awash with fragmentary yet vivid dream images. A dark man, his naked body covered in mud, sitting in the middle of a dry salt-pan beating a drum.
Myself running naked through the desert at night, my body bristling with an animal's fur, the knife-blade glinting in my hand, graven with the design of the Midgard serpent. I open my eyes and see Greg and Mr Horn, a tripod over one shoulder, hiking up the slope towards us, the rising sun at their backs. I turn over, pressing my face against the rock and close my eyes once more.
When I wake again, it is full day.
Mad Mike, Little John and Chris Halls are standing some way off down the ridge smoking a joint. I amble over and ask about the whereabouts of Greg and Mr Horn, but no one besides myself has seen them. We wait at the plateau until the early part of the afternoon, during which time I sit and meditate for a while in the cave of the rock-paintings, but still there is no sign of the second unit.
Finally, we go back down the rock and turn the car towards Swakopmünd, Mad Mike at the wheel once more. Driving away from Spitzkop, we pass a man standing watching the road. I am convinced he is one of the individuals who attacked our car last night, but no one feels like stopping to ask him any
On the freeway back into town we overtake a government delegation travelling in convoy, flanked by police cars, heading for the local sports centre where another bizarre ceremony is under way. The production is holding a reception in the striped catering tent. Daniel, our beloved production manager, gives a short speech and Robert Burke, in the guise of the dark man, presents a hefty cheque made out by Palace Devil Limited to the visiting party members as a 'goodwill donation' to the South West African People's Organization. Nobody asks me to say anything, nor do I volunteer to.
Afterwards, the crew play a rather one-sided match with the local team. Needless to say, the locals win.
The latest batch of rushes are in and I return to the production office, where once again I am thoroughly entertained, the footage proving to be of a consistently satisfying quality. Derek Trigg, the editor, has set up a Steenbeck in the suite next door and is attempting to move towards an assembly of the scenes already shot, but is
having trouble getting his edge-numbering machine to work. The machine has jammed on 666, stubbornly refusing to print any other numbers. Derek's team are feeling a little spooked by this. They have only been here forty-eight hours and already they're getting the creeps,
Later, while I am at the office, the vixen sisters turn up to announce that the props department has been broken into and that a key prop, the dark man's knife carved with the design of the Midgard serpent, has disappeared. Now I start to get the creeps as well.
Monday 26 August
Guy Travis, my first assistant, tells me that I've been riding the crew too hard lately. He urges me to use a more hands-off approach and to stand back after giving my brief, to allow the art department and lighting crew to get along with setting up the shot at their own pace.
I try out an experiment and give Steve Chivers and Carrie Fisher, our operator, their heads for the first set-up, waiting on a bench on the station platform and reading from Andrei Tarkovsky's Sculpting in Time until Guy comes to tell me that the crew is ready. As a result of this new policy, we go some three hours behind schedule and I have to tell Guy that, regrettably, a return to my old ways is in order until he proves that he can make the crew hold their pace without me.
After wrap I have dinner with Marianne Sägebrecht (best known for her performance in Percy Adlon's Baghdad Café) whom I have not seen since a film festival in Sitges, Spain, the year before. Marianne is a big fan of Hardware and having told me that it was her ambition to cameo in a horror film one day, I made a point of offering her a part when it came to casting Dust Devil. She has brought a gift that she now presents to me, a carved wand startlingly similar to the kierie that the witchdoctor, Joe Niemand, gives to Zakes' character in the film.
In Khoisan mythology, the vampire Nagtlöper (literally 'night walker') can only be trapped by being tricked into stepping over the magic kierie traditionally laid across the threshold of the hut to guard against nocturnal visitations. There is an obvious parallel here with the stake hammered through the heart to exterminate the undead in the European vampire myth, and although the kierie used as a prop in our film is a genuine magical artefact carved for these very purposes, it in fact hails from Borneo, where there is a parallel tradition.
Marianne's kierie is of local origin, carved with the figure of a naked fertility goddess and decorated with lucky beans, designed to ward off evil and ensure a good harvest. I thank her for the gift, and promise to carry it with me on the shoot from now on as a way of symbolically protecting the crew.
Tuesday 27 August
We are in Joseph's vast, sepulchral mortuary set today, shooting the scene where Zakes' character goes to consult the local pathologist, played by Marianne, who points out the connection between the murders and ritual magic.
We spend all morning lighting and rehearsing the scene, but when we come to the first master take, things go hellishly awry.
In the scene, Zakes and Marianne are standing in the fluorescent glow of a slide bench, poring over transparencies of the mysterious blood mural from the scene of the first murder, when a morgue attendant bursts into the room to
announce that there is an urgent telephone call from Bethany police station. The room is lined with two rows of motionless extras, made up by Chris Halls and Little John as partially dissected corpses, their faces and stomachs
pinned back by surgical clamps. The morgue attendant is played by a weird-looking local who in real life pedals around the town on a rickety bicycle selling Bibles, and who is now waiting excitedly in the wings to storm in and
say his one line.
Zakes and Marianne have just crossed to the slide bench on the first take when something inexplicable happens.
Although it is still early in the day, the atmosphere in the railway shed where the set has been constructed is hot and airless, and as the flickering fluorescent tubes come on inside the slide bench I start to feel strangely giddy.
It is almost as if the walls of the room, of reality itself, have suddenly become very thin, warping in and out of focus and seething like hot Silly Putty. I stagger, putting one hand against the door-frame to steady myself, my
other hand clutching Marianne's kierie.
Then the morgue attendant begins to scream and comes running into the shot uncued, his arms pinwheeling. Zakes and Marianne are plainly confused, vainly trying to continue their dialogue as I struggle to call the shot to a halt, only to find the command sticking in my throat. The morgue attendant is doing some kind of weird dance now in the aisle between the slabs, stamping his feet and chanting something almost unintelligible. For a moment it is as if he is speaking in tongues, but then I manage to make out some of his words.
'Hallelujah! Hallelujah! He is come! The Lord is come!'
His words disintegrate into an agonized gurgle, his eyes rolling up into their sockets so that only their whites remain visible. His legs fold under him and he drops to the floor, his body convulsing in a full-blown epileptic seizure, his lips flecked with foam, his teeth gnashing, Zakes and Marianne breaking off their dialogue and turning in shock.
For a split second everyone seems paralysed.
Then Daniel and Guy come running into the shot and start trying to force a metal ruler into the morgue attendant's mouth to stop him from swallowing his tongue, and I find my voice at last, calling for the cameras to cut, the kierie waving in my hand. Even after the cameras have stopped rolling, the corpses refuse to rise from their slabs, the extras having apparently fallen into such a deep sleep that they remain blissfully unaware of Daniel and Guy struggling to hold down the screaming morgue attendant in the aisle, his legs thrashing against the concrete floor.
'Hallelujah! Hallelujah! He is come!'
I turn away, gasping for fresh air, as Zakes and Marianne flee the set, joining me in the doorway. Zakes complains that he can feel a weird pressure at the base of his brain, and Marianne tells me bluntly that 'there are too many
psychics in the room.' We clear the set and break for lunch without a single usable take in the can.
It is Marianne's birthday today, and we have laid on a seafood lunch with a platter of Lüderitz oysters shipped in specially for her. I try to make light of the morning's events, rationalizing the morgue attendant's behaviour as an epileptic seizure brought on by the flickering of the fluorescent tubes.
By mid-afternoon we have resumed shooting, with a new extra cast as the morgue attendant. On the first take of the afternoon, when Marianne and Zakes reach the slide bench once more and the same line of dialogue that
triggered the first morgue attendant's seizure, there is an electrical malfunction and the fluorescent tubes begin to flicker maddeningly, sputtering on and off for no apparent rhyme or reason.
We try to continue with the take, but eventually have to call another halt to repair the fuses and restore everyone's calm.
Marianne insists that there is a presence in the room. Something unborn trying to break through into our reality.
I no longer try to deny that something weird is going on, but instead try to assume a quasi-shamanic role, insisting that we can only exorcise the demon by pressing on with our work. This strategy proves to be an effective one, and we are able to complete the sequence without further interference from the ether, although we have to rush the scene and simplify the coverage considerably to make up for lost time. Just when our spirits are starting to lift, an
urgent fax arrives for Marianne. Her mother has had a serious stroke that afternoon and she is asked to return at once to Munich.
Later, sitting outside Marianne's trailer, my head in my hands, I am approached by Dirk and the vixen sisters from the art department. They tell me there has been a street fight in the local township, Mondessa, and that a vigilante group hired by the production has succeeded in recovering the stolen knife after a pitched battle with one of the neighbourhood gangs.
Ina puts the knife in my hand and I hold it up in the glare of the floodlights. Its gleaming edge is notched and the etched design of the Midgard serpent is clotted with blood and bits of hair.
Later still, after a series of frantic telephone calls from the production office, we learn that Marianne's mother is out of danger, and Marianne volunteers to stay another three days to complete her scenes before returning to Germany.
Friday 30 August
Today we begin work on Marianne's final scene in the mortuary set, which has now been re-dressed with glowing murals and lit by hundreds of church candles, the floor dampened down to reflect their glow. The set is intensely humid and Marianne is more than a little nervous.
During the morning there has been another odd incident. While the second unit were shooting pick-up shots with Marianne, the slide bench malfunctioned again on the same line of dialogue as before, the fluorescents beginning to flicker once more as if on cue. I try to reassure Marianne that our work today will be a kind of exorcism, laying the demons raised by the previous shoot, and have cause to reflect on how the film-maker seems to have taken on the same cultural role in this century as the shaman in times of old. The West has displaced its unconscious mind into the media and now we are called upon to act as dream doctors for the masses.
Kierie in hand, I glide through the afternoon, the shoot presenting few problems.
Saturday 31 August
Today is the first official rest day I have allowed myself for all too long. I take the chance to drive up the coast into the uninhabited wasteland beyond Hentie's Bay to visit the seal colony at Cape Cross. With a thousand miles of trackless volcanic desert on one side and the fathomless depths of the South Atlantic on the other, Cape Cross feels like the very edge of man's universe. Beyond where I stand, there is nothing save wind and water sweeping away to the ends of the earth and the barren shores of Antarctica and the Falklands. The air here is thick with the stench of excrement and decaying flesh, and raucous with the roaring and bellowing of the huge sea lions whose writhing bodies undulate across the jagged rocks, fighting, fucking and foraging for food, as vast glacial waves burst over the top of them.
Everywhere around me there are creatures being born and dying, the living copulating on the bodies of the dead, the young going in constant threat of either being crushed by the adults or eaten by the jackals who boldly weave in and out of even the thickest parts of the press, their eyes glistening with a constant, seemingly insatiable hunger. I am reminded somewhat uncom-fortably of Gustav Doré's engravings for Dante's Divine Comedy, the souls of the damned languishing on the jagged reefs of the sunless seas of hell.
On the beach at the world's end lies scattered the decay of the centuries. Mussel shell, seagull's feather, tiger's eye, the shattered spars of man lie entangled with the bones of dead leviathans, for all that is lost must one day fetch up on that flat expanse. The beach-comber of this desolate shore walks alone with his wicker basket and, waiting and watching with infinite care, he plucks one by one unto himself the derelict dreams of Earth.
Sunday 1 September
Today is one of the single most expensive days of our shoot. On a windswept railway siding at Usakos, Joseph has reconstructed Bethany railway station and a steam train has been brought in from Windhoek in order for us to film the dark man's arrival in the town.
In the afternoon and evening we board the train to shoot a dialogue scene in one of the cattle-trucks between Robert and two South African soldiers, played by Phillip Hen and Luke Cornell, the animal handler; in real life, both are veterans of the Angolan bush war. Before the light goes, we have to complete a helicopter shot of the steam train approaching Bethany, our rushed schedule requiring the scene to be shot simultaneously with our work in the train's interior. Daniel sees this as being the sequence's 'money shot' and insists on personally taking charge of the helicopter rather than leaving it up to : the second unit. Once he is airborne, he discovers that in order for the shot to cut with the rest of the sequence he has to use the same filter as the main unit camera; however, his own budget cuts have allowed for the provision of only one filter pack, which is already on the train.
This leads to the insane scenario of Daniel chasing the train in the helicopter, yelling over the two-way radio for
us to pass him the filter pack. We have to complete the rather leisurely on-board dialogue scene while Daniel hovers impatiently overhead, cursing at us through the static. When I finally call cut on the last take, he brings the helicopter alongside the cattle-truck so fast that we are still busy checking the gate. The crew has to rush to
reseal the camera before the cloud of dust kicked up by the rotors clogs the works and ruins the afternoon's footage.
Passing the filter to the helicopter is a crazy business that seems far more dangerous than anything on-screen, and I end up on the roof of the moving train, jumping from carriage to carriage as the desert flatlands stream past us,
bathed in the golden glow of the magic hour. I am so preoccupied with staying on the train that I narrowly miss being struck on the back of the head by a power-line that goes flashing past. I duck under it with only a split second to spare, and afterwards exude a false confidence in order to mask my own awareness that I have come within a hair's breadth of a very nasty death. I would almost certainly have been decapitated or swept beneath the train's wheels, had I not glanced around in the nick of time, and this serves as a sobering warning to me.
As in my memories of combat, being under shell-fire, saturation bombing or in a particularly bad car accident, reality has a habit of flattening out and slowing down, becoming dreamy and distant at times like this, so that the fact of one's own death seems suddenly of frighteningly little consequence. I am determined not to let this film put me in my grave prematurely and resolve to take more care from now on, knowing as I do that the shoot will collapse if anything happens to me. Daniel completes the helicopter shot and I call a wrap, riding back to camp on the roof of the train, the sky turning from beaten bronze to a sullen red behind us.
That night there is an inexplicable orange glow in the northern sky that I first notice just after midnight. Several of the crew, including Mad Mike, Little John and Michelle Clapton, the costume designer, see the glow as well and we stand dumbstruck outside our bunkers watching the light for more than an hour. The eerie nimbus comes from the direction of the deep desert, where all of us know there is no human habitation or artificial light source, although the intensity of the glow seems almost to betoken the presence of a large city such as the glare of Los Angeles' lights reflected against the smog as seen from the back of Topanga canyon.
We stand for a long while, gaping like yokels who behold a marvel beyond their comprehension, filled with a sort of half-mystic wonder and dreamy curiosity. The light is no aurora or human beacon, and whether it comes from just beyond the craggy, volcanic horizon or a billion miles away in intergalactic space, none of us can say. Just after one in the morning it grows dim and starts to fade, leaving my sense of wonder acutely sharpened. My knowledge of natural science, although far from extensive, can afford no plausible clue to the light's origin and I feel with a wild, half-fearful, half-exultant thrilling that the thing we witnessed is not to be found in the annals of human observers. The phenomenon leaves me in a state of profound excitement and sleep, when it comes, is intermittent.
Tomorrow marks our biggest company move, over a thousand miles to the south to Bethany district proper, to shoot the climactic ghost-town scenes and the canyon sequence that can be shot in no other part of the world but those regions where the original events took place back in 1984.
The winds are already picking up down south and if we leave it any longer it will make shooting impossible, although a company move now is a logistical nightmare that will cost us at least two days of precious shooting time. Jo-Anne and Daniel try to insist on me taking a charter flight south with the cast and heads of department on Sunday, but as I have a morbid fear of flying ever since a narrow escape in Zambia many years ago, I stubbornly refuse, insisting instead that I travel overland, driving down tomorrow with the rest of the crew.
Jo-Anne is frightened that for some reason I might go AWOL, but I swear to her that I will reach the airstrip in Lüderitz before her. Despite my willingness to take a substantial wager on the matter, Jo-Anne for some reason remains curiously sceptical, as if already convinced in her heart that I am plotting to abandon her and disappear back into the desert. Her lack of faith saddens me and encourages me to go hell for leather to prove her wrong.
Saturday 7 September
I set off on the road south just before dawn, travelling in a hired car with the taciturn Mr Horn, Deborah Deats (Chelsea's stand-in) and Mad Mike, who as usual takes the first spell at the wheel. We call a halt for the evening at the point where the tar road gives out, on the banks of the Fish River, which winds through the second-largest natural canyon on Earth, a place that the Khoisan people knew as the home of the great snake-father Kouteign Kouroo. Back in the first times, in the time of the red light, Kouteign Kouroo, the great serpent and father of the rainbow, made this place from the lashing of his coils.
We climb down the side of the canyon, the river glistening below us in the darkness, and pitch camp beneath the stars on a dry sandbank, the sound of the running water whispering to us in our sleep, our fire sending up its sparks to greet the backbone of the night that I arches above us. In some strange way I feel, as I slip into deeper slumber, that I am coming home, returning at last to the source of my dreams.
Sunday 8 September
I sit naked on a flat rock beside the river, breathing in the breathless tranquility of the prehistoric landscape that surrounds me, allowing the sun's first rays to warm me just as they warm the rock, feeling my strength returning to me as if I too am made of stone. Then rising, I dive into the sluggish orange waters of the Fish River that runs wide and tumid across the sandbanks, holding my breath and swimming along the bottom until I reach the far shore.
When I break surface once more, I feel cleansed and somehow rejuvenated by the river's embrace, as if the dust of all that has gone before has been washed away from me. Later, refreshed and revitalized, we climb back up from
the river and turn the car on to the dirt track to Lüderitz, Mad Mike at the wheel once more.
Just before Aus we pass the Bethany turn-off and, leaving behind the canyon and mesa country, emerge on to a seemingly limitless primordial plain, dotted with ant hills, that sweeps away to meet the steely sky at a point infinitely remote from us. On the westernmost rim of the horizon we can see the huge igneous rocks that surround the blighted hamlet of Aus and which once served as back-projection plates for part of the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
We arrive at the airstrip on the outskirts of Lüderitz just as the charter flight from Swakopmünd is getting in, winning our wager by a hair's breadth. I amble out on to the runway to greet Jo-Anne and the principal cast members as they disembark, welcoming them to the town and assuming a relaxed air as if I've been waiting here for days already. After freshening up in the seaside cabin that has been allocated to me, I head back into town to rendezvous with Jo-Anne and organize a scout of tomorrow's location.
When I reach the steps of the production office I hear the sounds of screams and breaking glass coming from within and Sheila Frazer Milne, the starchy production secretary who once worked with the sainted Andrei Tarkovsky on the production of The Sacrifice, comes running out of the building. She bumps into me on the steps and seeing me, starts to scream: 'Don't go in there! Don't go in there!' , I try to get some sense out of her, and she explains that Joseph has found out that Jo-Anne is having an affair with Daniel and has stormed into the production office and tried to attack them, beating them with his fishing rod. Glancing over her shoulder, I see at once that Daniel has got the better of Joseph and is busy slamming him around the room, while Jo-Anne stands in one corner screaming abuse and Deborah Deats, who was apparently trying to make a long-distance call to her boyfriend, cowers under the table, still clutching the receiver. Sheila cuts and runs, telling me to guard the steps and make sure that no one comes or goes.
A moment later Robert appears, also in a blind rage, and insists on trying to push past me to see Jo-Anne. He claims that his hotel room has no running water and threatens to walk off the shoot unless it is seen to immediately. I try to make light conversation with him, leaning from side to side to block his view of the commotion in the office, while he cranes his neck to try and see past me. Insanely, neither of us comments on the violent tableau unfolding behind us, and eventually, seeing that it is an inopportune moment, Robert goes on his way, promising to return later with a vengeance.
A split second after Robert has gone around the corner, Daniel throws Joseph out of the office, both of them swearing loudly that they'll kill each other. Joseph is a mess, his face streaming with blood, his fishing rod still
clutched in one hand, his white suit streaked with gore. I walk him as far as the local bar and try to comfort him a little, hoping at least to convince him not to do anything rash. Over the grim, Bavarian-style bar counter shamelessly hangs a cherished portrait of Adolf Hitler, who is obviously still a hero to the unrehabilitated locals.
Thursday 12 September
Today we begin work on the climactic showdown in the ghost town's main street. The sequence is deliberately designed to evoke echoes of a classic Western shoot-out, although in Dust Devil it is a shoot-out in which the man
with no name's pocket watch turns backwards, none of the guns are loaded and the antagonists are a white man, a black man and a woman. I drew my initial inspiration from the climax of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which I analysed for long hours as a teenager, but only now do I begin to realize the full extent-of Leone's genius.
In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the three gunslingers, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood, fan out around a circular arena in the centre of an enormous graveyard. The strength of the scene derives in part from the extraordinary rhythm of Leone's editing, building up a complex montage of images and angles that plainly demand a vast number of set-ups to achieve.
I realize my cardinal error before we are even half-way through the day. By locating my shoot-out in the horizontal perspective of the main street, I have inadvertently locked us into a rigid continuity of light and shadow, with too many identifying landmarks for us to be able to cheat. Leone's sequence is set at the hub of a vast wheel, with the characters surrounded by a uniform background of anonymous graves, thus allowing him to cheat the action to follow the sun, rotating the actors as if on a vast sundial and enabling himself to continue shooting throughout the day.
In a single, almighty error of judgement, I have trapped us into shooting this sequence only in the morning, before the angle of the light begins to differ too dramatically from the master
take. With the sand-storms closing in on us, I have pinned the main unit and principal cast down in this one exterior location for what may turn out to be weeks. I have no choice but to chalk it up to experience and put a damage-limitation scheme into action, splitting our days between the showdown sequence and the interior scenes.
At least tomorrow will be a rest day, and I resolve to travel back out to canyon country to help collect my thoughts and get a fresh perspective on all this.
Sunday 14 September
I have to delay my departure for a scheduling meeting at the production office, and decide to ride out to canyon country with Deborah Deats, who is also making for the river. We finally get under way around noon with Deborah at the wheel, driving a little too fast, perhaps to make up for lost time. We have just hit the dirt road beyond Aus, roughly at the same point where we had the blow-out last Sunday when, predictably, we have another blow-out.
The front left tyre goes soft and the car begins to waver, skidding from side to side on the dry, dirt surface as Deborah struggles to bring it back under control. I brace my boots against the dashboard, seeing the road running out beneath us. Then with a thud and a rush of gravel we hit the soft shoulder and begin to roll. The horizon spins around us, the ground coming up to slap the side of the car, the door crumpling beside me and the windows imploding in a luminous spray.
I close my eyes too late, feeling the flying glass rake my face in a cloud of stinging, insect pain, the car rolling and rolling, threatening to tear itself apart, the roof caving in above me. Then, its momentum spent, the mangled chassis comes to rest on its wheels once more, rocking and shivering, the sounds of twisted metal ticking and cooling all round us, Verdi's Requiem still playing on the stereo.
My face is wet with blood and I try to open my eyes, only to feel a jab of pain and something like broken glass grating against the inside of my closed lid. I manage to get the buckled door open and pull myself from the wreck, my wet shirt chafing against raw nerve endings as I paw at my face, trying to wipe away the splinters still embedded there.
I turn my eyes towards the sun, feeling its heat on my upturned face and sensing the silent immensity of the landscape that surrounds me, yet I see nothing. I stagger a few paces down the road and then sit down in the dust, Verdi's music lending the scene a farcically operatic quality. I dab at my eyes with part of my shirt, feeling pain once more. Then I feel Deborah beside me and I ask her if she's all right. She reminds me that she crashes cars for a living and then tries to apologize, obviously spooked at the idea of being held responsible for putting me out of
action. She brushes some of the glass off my face and tells me to try not to move or open my eyes. I sit waiting in darkness on the soft shoulder while she fetches water from the wreck, a giddy sense of calm enveloping me.
I keep seeing the same thing over and over.
The last split second before it all went dark.
The glowing halo of flying glass fanning out in the air before me so slowly that I can see every individual fragment in sharp focus as they rush up to meet my face.
My thoughts turn towards the shoot and the still uncompleted film. I begin to feel afraid.
Then I feel water on my face and Deborah's touch once more. I try to tell her that it's all right but she tells me to be quiet and relax as she tries to re move a particularly dangerous splinter from the corner of my left eyeball. As I blink, there comes a spark of light. The spark irises up and the world comes mercifully back into focus.
The first thing I see is Deborah's face as she leans over me, the sky behind her over-exposed, burned out to a white glare, an almost comical expression of concern on her face. I find this absurdly touching, a massive sense of relief flooding through me as I realize that I haven't lost an eye after all. My head hurts and friction burns have flayed the skin from part of my left arm and shoulder, but otherwise I have been afforded a remarkable escape.
Deborah has come off even better than me, and after taking a breather we clamber back into the wreck and manage to restart the engine. To our mutual surprise, the car still runs despite its battered shape. We get the clattering wreck turned around and limp back towards the nearest town, Aus, where we stop for a drink to steady our nerves at the local hotel.
Sitting on the hotel veranda, I realize that my temporary blindness could not have been down to the glass splinter alone, and finding a raised lump on the back of my skull, deduce that I must have struck my head against the roof and am probably suffering from a mild form of concussion.
The ageing German matron who runs the hotel joins us on the veranda and we strike up a conversation with her.
Aus, whose name literally means 'out' or 'exit' in German, was originally a concentration camp, one of the earliest, set up by the South Africans for German prisoners in World War One. The South Africans got the idea from the British, who came up with the prototypes of the modern death-camps during the Boer War. The unsettling idea that Aus might have in turn inspired the Germans comes over me.
The matron who runs the hotel in what was formerly the hub of the camp tells me that three years ago Aus froze over, in an unprecedented bout of freak weather that produced an isolated blizzard in the middle of the Namib desert, the only one in recorded history. She disappears back into the hotel to dig out some photographs of Aus under snow, and while she is gone an elderly bushman clutching a guitar comes wandering up on to the veranda and sits down beside us. He is the first and only bushman I have come across on the shoot and I try to speak to him, although his English is non-existent and my Afrikaans and German are equally poor.
The bushman tells us that we look very beautiful together, apparently failing to notice that we are covered in blood. He begins to serenade us on his guitar, singing an inane romantic ballad. The German matron returns and without warning or provocation starts to yell at the bushman, driving him off the veranda and making as if to strike him. Then she cheerfully sits down beside us once more and continues the conversation. I remark on how few bushmen are left and she tells me how back then before World War One, the German settlers massacred most of the locals, burying them in mass graves beneath what is now the local golf course.
Every time she turns her back the bushman creeps back on to the veranda, grinning mischievously and attempts to continue his song, prompting further outbursts of abuse from the hotelier.
All this talk of death-camps seems to make Deborah uncomfortable, and eventually she urges me to move on, driving back to Lüderitz as the day shelves off into night, the car's shattered headlights casting amusingly psychedelic patterns on the road ahead. Even when I reach my cabin back at the beach-front, Deborah seems loath to leave me, still apprehensive at my condition and perhaps wanting some reassurance herself. She waits while I take a shower, washing my hair to make sure all the fine debris has been removed from my scalp. The hot water stings against the raw flesh of my back and I close my eyes once more, turning my face towards the cleansing spray.
Then there is a soft draught as someone draws the curtain, and I feel Deborah suddenly beside me, her hand brushing against my cheek. I turn and her voice comes to me in darkness once more before her lips touch
mine: 'Don't be frightened. Don't spoil it. It's just love.'
Thursday 19 September
The company relocates some three hundred kilometres inland to resume shooting on the edge of the Fish River Canyon, for a swooning romantic interlude between Chelsea and the dark man, shot from the crane and
semi-circular tracks. The grandeur of the landscape stuns everyone into something like religious awe and the shoot runs like clockwork, with the crew talking in whispers as if working in a cathedral.
After getting the big kiss in the can, I sit with Deborah and Mad Mike on the lip of the canyon and watch a half-mystical sunset, the clouds turning into twisting tongues of fire in the brazen furnace of the west, the heated heavens reflecting in the coils of the river far below us, where the first patches of night are already lurking, climbing up every gully and cleft as the desert sky slowly lapses into night and the Southern Cross appears with an almost hallucinatory vividness overhead.
Driving back from the canyon we strike and kill a rabbit, which I take as a bad omen and my mood remains sombre for the rest of the evening, which I spend with Deborah beside a campfire at the river's edge, watching as an endless armada of night creatures fling themselves hissing and spluttering into the flames.
A huge moth sears its wings and goes fluttering around my feet in a frenzied death rictus that only ends when a hunting spider scurries quickly out of the shadows and latches on to it, prompting the dying moth to get itself airborne once more and disappear back into the night, the spider still clinging tenaciously to its underbelly. Even here, then, there is no peace. Only the silent slaughter-house of the desert night. The quiet holocaust of nature.
Sunday 29 September
I join the crew on the set of the Star of Bethany Drive-In Theatre that Joseph has constructed in the shadow of Spitkop's crags. The drive-in is a re-creation of a real theatre in the Keetmanshoop area, its purpose in the film being in part to illustrate the contamination of the witch-doctor's cosmology by western B-movie imagery. By putting an equal weight on mythology and pop culture, I hope to draw attention to the complex iconographic roots of the man-with-no-name figure and the magical possibilities of film itself. The witch-doctor's role as drive-in projectionist helps illustrate the complicated idea behind the dark man's murders, the gnostic belief that life only exists as a result of a war between light and dark, between spirit and matter. The dark man, like us, is trapped in material incarnation and yearns to escape the linear continuity of time like a character in a film who plots to escape from the scene itself.
As night comes on and we move into Spitzkop's caves and deeper into the cosmology of Dust Devil, a posse of confused British journalists arrive with the film's publicist to watch as John Matshikiza, the witch-doctor, squats on a rock beside a fake campfire and expounds on how the black magician knows that there is a spark of light trapped within all of us, a splinter of the true God. Through the ritual of murder the magician can control the release of the spark and ride the light-beam beyond time, beyond matter, into infinity. Our world has no more substance to him than a projected image caught for an instant on the palm of an upraised hand.
Friday 11 October
We spend all night on the eerie, sand-filled set of the abandoned Empire Cinema, the dead heart of the ghost town where Zakes' character confronts the dark man and the ghostly presence of his wife and child. The sanded-in cinema is somehow an astonishingly apt place to end the last day of our official main unit shoot, and for the first time in weeks the quality of tonight's sequence matches the visionary power of its description in the script.
Today is Day Forty-Six of our forty-six day shoot.
From now on we will be working on borrowed time, our continued presence here sustained only by Jo-Anne's successful insurance claim on the damaged mortuary footage.
Thursday 17 October
We spend the morning shooting insert work before relocating to the local shooting-range to complete a sequence torn from the script a fortnight ago. The shooting-range sequence involves me taking charge of a class of local
schoolchildren armed with .22 rifles and live ammunition and working with a vestigial crew without assistant directors, production support or insurance.
The personal and ambiguous nature of the scene has always called it into doubt from the point of view of the film's backers, who are ceaselessly engaged in trying to pare my work back to the bare, exploitative bone and I realize that, even if I manage to get it into the can on the sly, it will probably still be cut from the final release prints.
Coming at the end of the dark man's walk through Bethany, the scene depicts a group of children dressed in cadet uniforms reminiscent of the Hitler Youth being tutored in the finer points of marksmanship by a Marist monk.
The scene is intended as another omen of the coming holocaust and an evocation of Christianity's moral and spiritual bankruptcy, as well as serving as one of the film's only hints at the dark man's past, a moment of strange
recognition flickering between him and one of the pupils.
The scene is a direct re-creation of a precise moment from a vanished hour of a vanished day from my own childhood. Incarcerated in a Catholic military academy for two years, I learned swiftly that if I could shoot straight I would be exempt from the tiresome and degrading ritual of square-bashing and formation-marching. Lying on my belly in the dust, squinting down the barrel of my rifle, I felt strangely superior to the other boys, who were forced to march in endless circles in the midday sun. If my aim was good, the monks smiled on me and I was treated to time off and away trips for competitive shooting competitions.
I really believed then, even at that early age, that all the difference between our squad and the rest of the boys lay in our possessing the will and the specialized skills necessary for killing. We were an elite amongst the other
cadets, privileged to spend our time goofing off, lying on our bellies like lizards in the African sun, concentrating on our targets until the only thing we could still feel were the tips of our fingers against the triggers. In this way I first learned, in the very bosom of the church, the art and privilege of killing, a lesson that for my sins I have never forgotten, even after I tore off my uniform and broke with the programme.
It was on a bright day like this that I first glimpsed the dark man strolling past our school fence, his face strangely shadowed beneath the brim of his hat, the air around him seething like quicksilver. I remember feeling afraid but
fascinated at the same time. His coat, old even then and thick with dust, seemed redolent of adventure and intrigue. Even then I felt a strange allure, a lethal glamour that told me that one day I would be just like him. I have felt him just behind me at every turn since then, threatening and cajoling me, my dark half, my murderous alter ego, my very shadow, the man that poor Deborah has mistaken me for.
In Afghanistan when my marksmanship and talent for killing became central to my survival, once again the line between us became all but invisible. Now at last, here in Namibia where it all began, I pray I have finally drained
that residue of darkness from my soul, dragged the dark man kicking from my wounded psyche and trapped him safely on film, caught forever behind the rolling frame bars of a cinematic prison specially constructed for him.
Maybe now at last I will be free from his shadow. Only time will tell.
I spend the evening burning cows' skulls and dressing up in coat, hat and dog mask to take over briefly from Robert and become the dark man for an insert shot of his partially transformed figure caught in the headlights of an incoming car. After the shoot when I discard the costume, I really feel that I am discarding that part of my life for ever and when sleep finds me, it is deep and dreamless.
Saturday 19 October
Jo-Anne and Daniel slip out of town today, heading for home without saying goodbye and I am left to fight on alone until the bitter end. I still have the helicopter for another forty-eight hours and there is just about enough stock left to keep us busy, although we are desperately short on fuel
I quit my bunker just before dawn and report to the airstrip, where I solemnly say farewell to Mad Mike and strap myself into the chopper for the ride south. All day we fly across a lifeless world of red dust, naked lava ridges
and broken quartz, the ceaseless thrum and flicker of the rotor blades lulling all of us in the cockpit into something close to a trance. Gliding like a solitary vulture on the high thermals, we cross a land that no longer seems to be part of man's universe, an untenanted, unfinished world, the terrain of Gods and Spirits.
Several times I have to splash water on the pilot's face to keep him alert, and near Keetmanshoop we have to cut across the freeway and land at a service station to refuel. Then we are flying over the flat-topped mesas of Bethany district, mustangs running on the plain below us. We find the railway line and trace its gleaming tracks until they cross the curve of the Fish River and we follow the dark man's trail back along its shining coils into canyon country and the timeless gorge that in Khoisan mythology is home to the Great Snake Father.
There on the canyon's wall the last of the production's red Volkswagens has been pushed into place, A pick-up truck is parked a little way off, with the shoot's last two survivors standing by. Deborah and our runner, Desperate Dan Zeff (who always wanted to be more involved in the movie), have been driving all night to make this rendezvous. She is dressed in Chelsea's wardrobe and during the night she has crudely peroxided Dan's hair in a convenient service-station basin and dressed him to resemble Robert.
Now, as we circle them in the fading light of our final magic hour, she takes Desperate Dan in her arms and standing on the very edge of the cliff, draws him into a vast embrace, planting a lingering kiss on his lips.
The moment seems eternal, as if somehow abstracted from time, and I roll the camera until I am out of stock, the chopper lurching perilously beneath me, buffeted by the canyon's curious air currents, the river spinning far below us. I cut the camera and we bring the chopper in to land on the edge of the abyss. I unstrap myself and bundle Desperate Dan into the seat in my place, shaking him by the hand before signalling all clear to the pilot to lift off.
The chopper circles us one last time before banking and heading away north, anxious to reach civilization before the light fades, the throb of its rotors ebbing slowly like a fading pulse, leaving me and Deborah marooned in the
silent, golden glory of the Great Namib.
By nightfall we have arrived at our final port of call, the decaying spa town of Warmbad, on the bank of the Orage river, that was in ancient times known to the Khoisan people as Too-Gah, the navel of the universe, the ancestral point of emergence and portal to the spirit world. Deborah and I pitch camp beside the volcanic spring, a storm brewing in the distance, a vaporous column of living steam rising to the stars behind us, its writhing contours suggesting an ethereal bestiary drawn from some forgotten mythology.
Alone now with Deborah, I finally have to confront the truth about her identity and mine. I ask about her surname and she admits that it has been anglicized from Dietz, and when I probe further, she admits that her grand-father
fled from Germany at the end of World War Two. He had been involved in a chemical factory that had manufactured Zyklon B for the gas chambers of Belsen and Auschwitz. Her father, Michael Julius Dietz, had
followed in his footsteps by becoming an important mover in ESCOM, South Africa's state-owned power suppliers, and is in personal charge of the nation's fledgeling nuclear power programme.
Deborah herself plans to follow suit and dreams of a career in the state-owned broadcasting network. Her dreams get out of hand and she tells me of her vision of a new South Africa, arguing that I can never be happy living amongst the 'white worms' of the West, that my duty is to remain here and become one of the leaders of this
brave new world, a midwife attending to the birth-pains of a strange new order.
She tells me how some of the right-wingers are planning to reclaim this part of Namibia and build a huge wall out into the ocean to divert the Benguela current and cause a temperature inversion to bring rain to the wasteland and make the desert fertile so that the new, pure-white nation of Orandia can be founded. I shake my head and tell her that she is insane. I tell her that the white man will never be able to bend the desert to his will. The sleeping giants of the wasteland will awaken and break their bones if they try. She tells me that I am just like her beneath the skin, that no matter what, I will always be one of 'them'.
I laugh and tell her that the only thing I know for sure now is that I'm nothing like her. I never have been and never will be one of 'them'. She rages at me and threatens me with a soda-water bottle. She calls me a traitor.
I pull a knife on her and tell her to drop the bottle. Now she accuses me of the murders, of having killed all those people when I first hitch-hiked up here after deserting from the army. She claims she has heard me talking in my sleep. I start to laugh again and sit down, sheathing my knife. Eventually she gets tired of threatening me and sits down as well. I patiently explain to her that I am not the dark man, nor am I a black magician or a mass murderer, nor am I a worm or a traitor.
I'm just a filmmaker and a pretty mediocre one at that.
She curses me and I leave her the car keys. I shoulder my pack and she yells after me that I'm damned, that I
condemning myself to a life of obscurity as a hack horror-film director, a life wasted dreams and worthless prophecies. I tell her that this is true and she spits at me. Not wanting to hear any more, I start down the road, heading north more, determined to try and hitch a ride.
A little while later it starts to rain.
In December 1991 I delivered a 120-minute cut of Dust Devil to Palace Pictures. The film was cut to 95 minutes and test-screened at Wimbledon, to a confused audience response. In April 1992, Palace Pictures went into liquidation and post-production on Dust Devil was closed down. After Palace went under, Dust Devil's British distribution rights were taken over by Polygram, who sub-sequently shelved it. In the intervening time, Miramax produced an ungraded 86-minute cut of their own, eliminating the dream imagery and supernatural subtext, redubbing and wildly restructuring the remaining scenes into a new order that bore little resemblance either to the original script or a cohesive narrative.
In January 1993 I learned that one of Palace's creditors had grabbed the 86-minute cutting copy and that another held the negative. I persuaded them to hand over the material and tracked down the rushes and the remaining
excised footage to a storage locker in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. In the next few months I spent forty thousand pounds of my own money recutting and redubbing the film as effectively as I could with the aid of its new editor, Paul Carlin.
Eighteen months after wrapping in Namibia, I delivered a final cut to Polygram running at 105 minutes. The film was subsequently given a token theatrical release, using the one print that I had already paid for, garnering some glowing reviews and somehow actually managing to show a profit on its UK release, grossing more money than the Palme d'Or winner Barton Fink before being dumped unceremoniously on to video, hidden from view behind a tasteless and misleading box cover.
The only cut that has ever been seen outside Britain is the garbled, ungraded Miramax cut that crept out on to video release in Europe and the United States. Channel Four plans to televise the complete Dust Devil this autumn, and plans are in the works to try to re-release the film theatrically in several territories including the United States.
My contract with Palace Pictures has never been honoured. I have yet to receive my final pay cheque, and will never be compensated for my subsidy of the post-production period. Partially as a result of the contract I signed in blood back in August 1991, I have no legal claim to the film's box-office earnings or right to screen the completed film without the prior consent of the distributors.
I no longer have dreams of the dark man, but suffer from nightmares of a different kind. Jo-Anne and Daniel are currently in Utah producing a George Sluizer film described by its publicist as a 'desertbound psychological thriller'. Poor Steve Earnhardt is still working for Miramax. Deborah Dietz drove the pick-up truck down to Cape Town where she was reunited with her Argentinian boyfriend Jorge. On the way back to Johannesburg they were both injured in a serious car smash after the windscreen of their pick-up truck was struck by a white owl. The vixen sisters, Ina and Amelia Roux, were less fortunate. Coming back from another shoot a few months after Dust Devil's wrap, Ina fell asleep at the wheel while driving through the desert night, and steered their car directly into
the path of an oncoming truck.
Ina was killed on impact and Amelia survived with serious injuries. It is to them that the film and this report on its making are dedicated.
Richard Stanley (director)
Malibu, Southern California