Clem Sunter

Choo choo train

2012-02-01 11:15

Clem Sunter

Back in the days before writing about hedgehogs and foxes, I was asked by an American producer called Brad to do a video on scenario planning. He would finance it, write the script, choose the locations (which were mainly around Cape Town) and bring out the camera crew from the US. It took about a fortnight to shoot, subsequent sales in the US were satisfactory and it won some kind of award.

There were three incidents during the filming which I have never forgotten. The first was at the Cape Town telephone exchange where I had to explain why Western Union had turned down Alexander Graham Bell’s offer of the telephone. They were convinced that telegrams would go on forever. They never played an alternative technology scenario (like e-books today). Somehow we managed to get to take 32 because I had messed up the words or the lighting was wrong or whatever. Brad looks at me and says: “Be spontaneous!” I respond: “How can I be spontaneous when I have already done the same thing 31 times?” Anyway, take 32 worked; but I will always have special respect for Oscar winners who make it look so natural in the scenes that won them the award. Perfection requires repetition.

The second incident took place on the last day of filming when the generator broke down for the wrap-up shots on a beach to the north of Cape Town. I was to walk along the edge of the sea searching the horizon for possibilities. Having had two intense weeks of remembering the script, not fluffing my lines and looking earnestly into the camera lens, I was distraught. It was a Saturday morning so where would they get the generator repaired or get another one? Brad did the most amazing thing. He not only fixed the problem in the space of two hours, he acted like a good prescription drug that takes your anxiety away and puts a smile back on your face again. So I acted out the final scene as though nothing had happened. As he said at dinner that evening to celebrate the completion of the movie, any producer worth his salt must have the ability “to towel the talent down”. He sounded like a second in a boxing ring. Nonetheless, it made me wonder how many times on Hollywood sets difficult stars had to be towelled down to complete a scene.

The third incident was really the reason I have written this column. At the beginning of the video, I was asked to stand on a railway track and look behind me at a single track which represented the past; and then look forward at some points where the single track diverged into a whole series of tracks. The latter was the physical manifestation of the possible paths the present could take into the future and the scenarios designed to portray them. In the middle of the filming, a train came out of the tunnel from the past - luckily not at great speed - and we had 20 seconds to get out of the way before it arrived at the present! This was totally unexpected as Brad had been told, when he was seeking permission to do this part of the shoot, that the line was disused. Anyway, we all survived and we got the take without ending up under the train.

Symbolically, though, the near miss constituted an important example of what real life is about. You can have all the radar systems in the world, but you will never pick up everything that happens to you. There is always an unscheduled choo choo train that emerges from the tunnel at the most inconvenient time to disrupt your plans - however carefully you have laid them out.  In the futures trade, we call them “unknown unknowns” or things you don’t know you don’t know. The speed and quality of your response determines your chances of survival.

In other words, to be resilient you have to be flexible enough to cope with whatever life throws at you. Hey, it’s the same for all of us!

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