The Happy Village of Erskineville
So I’d got back in one piece from North Korea; I’d learned how to make a propaganda film in Kim Jong Il’s style; and I’d just finished two intense weeks rehearsing it with my brave Aussie actors. We were ready to shoot.
Susan Prior and Elliott Weston between takes on the set of ‘The Gardener’
Our North Korean style propaganda short, The Gardener, was a homage to all things weird and wonderful about North Korean cinema. It started with a nature metaphor, had people randomly bursting into song, featured a working class heroine, star crossed lovers, a capitalist villain, some kick-ass Taekwondo fight scenes, and a didactic plot, in which the heroic villagers of Erskineville rise up to defeat the gas fracking, pig-dog miners.
Peter and Matt do their own stunts, without padding – North Korean style
Susan Prior was our noble heroine, Kathryn Beck her Taekwondo fighting daughter, Elliott Weston the devoted husband, Matt Zeremes the idealistic lover who converts to the cause, and Peter O’Brien the evil, gas-fracking miner. The actors were in their costumes, and Geoffrey Simpson had chosen their marks.
Our first AD, Tom Reid, was ready to roll on the first scene, which involved Elliott and Susan, strolling down the main street of ‘The Happy Village of Erskineville’, singing a rousing song about how much they loved the village.
Shooting on the streets of Erskineville
Elliott had written the song according to the instructions of Kim Jong Il’s favourite composer, Peoples’ Artist Pae Young Sam, who told him to write “simple words that are easy to sing,” and to sing them in an “honest way”. Elliott stood in his overalls with a guitar, warming up his voice, and Susan waited beside him in a floral headscarf. She held a piano accordion, because actresses play accordions in just about every North Korean rom-com I’ve seen.
Elliott’s song, in true North Korean style, was completely without irony: a zealous celebration of the happiness enjoyed by the good villagers of Erskineville.
The lyrics are, to give you a taste:
Laneways and smiling faces,
Backyards we skip away
To the beautiful park we dream of,
Easy like a summer’s day.
We love this village, we love this village.
We love this village, we love this Town!
So far, so good.
The only problem was, Erskineville village, on that particular day, was not happy. The abandoned fruit and veg shop, which we’d paid to have reopened so we could decorate it for the shot, turned out to be the front for some recently departed drug dealers. They had fled the neighbourhood, owing money to some pretty shady characters.
As we tried to shoot Elliott and Susan singing about their happy village, these shady characters started to wander in and out of the fruit and veg shop in the background, carrying out TVs, white-goods and whatever else they could find, in lieu of moneys owed.
Comrade Designer, Andrew Raymond, who was busy defrosting dead fish at the back of the shop for the next scene, tried to stop it happening. But these villagers wore the kind of expression that suggests polite chit-chat is not a good idea.
Comrade Production Designer, Andrew Raymond
Meanwhile, in the village’s trash-strewn main street, Tom Reid was having a field day trying to keep the junkies who had wandered down for their 11am fix out of frame.
It was the Sydney version of the unsavory reality that North Korean propaganda films are made to hide: I had my rosy-cheeked actors in the foreground, bursting with joy at their good fortune; and the village’s greasy-haired addicts in the background, nodding off on benches with needle marks still fresh on their arms.
The catchphrase of the day went to Tom, who muttered into his two-way in a deadpan drawl before every take: “Zombies at 2 o’clock. Clear the Zombies. Clear the Zombies. Zombies clear? And…action.”
Comrade First AD, Tom Reid: wrangling the zombies
If we’d made The Gardener as a grungy indie pic, Elliott’s song might have survived, but only if sung in a Tom Waits’ rasp, by scar-faced characters in leather jackets –
Zombies with snarling faces,
Whitegoods they nick away
For the heroin hit they dream of
Easy like a summer’s day
We love this village. We love this village
We love this village, We love this town.
Sydney. You gotta love it.