Showdown at Shinagawa: Bowling for Budget in Tokyo

Since our last visit, the pricy sashimi-and-sushi restaurant in the lower level of our Tokyo hotel had been replaced by a TGI Friday’s. Young Japanese guys and gals, many sporting red hair, waited tables and tended bar in cowboy boots, vests, chaps, and pins that said “Ask Me About Curly Fries” or “Margaritas 450 Yen.” Unlike many of the restaurants in the Shinagawa area, it featured cheap food (for Tokyo), late hours, a full bar, and casual cross-pollinated international atmosphere. One night we celebrated Larry’s birthday there with burgers, fries, and beers. It was a big hit.

Shanghai Lunch

After our lunch of gristle and slime cubes, we walked over to the apartment of Mr. Wu, the Important Doctor’s 80-year-old patient, who lived a few blocks from the hospital. On the way, our translator Vincent, who looked like he might blow away in a stiff wind, questioned me about my musical preferences: “What is your favorite jazz?”

“I love Miles Davis and John Coltrane.”

He looked puzzled. “Who are they?”

“Jazz musicians. Americans. What kind of jazz do you like?” I crossed the street just as the light turned red. He hung back timidly and called out, “I love you for sentimental reasons!” It took me a minute to realize that he was referring to a song by Nat King Cole.

Wrecks and Pissers: The Bombay-Pune Road

The terrain presented a smorgasbord of sights: lush, fertile valleys with palm trees; dry, scraggy, rocky, reddish-brown mountains; barefoot laborers in numerous construction areas, the men bare-chested with baggy white shorts, the women in brightly colored saris tucked up around their waists as they schlepped rocks or mixed mud bricks or carried ridiculous burdens on their heads.

We saw families living on the streets or in fields near the road or in cardboard cartons or crude shacks made of tin sheets, bathing in culverts, drinking brown water that made us shudder. People of all ages and genders ate, drank, urinated, and defecated everywhere, without self-consciousness. Apprehensive about our surroundings, we tried to enjoy our smooth ride in hermetically sealed, refrigerated luxury. Suddenly and without warning, a trailing explosion of yellow vomit erupted from the rear window of a dusty, open-air public bus in front of us.

China: Globalization with a Vengeance

As a San Francisco-based cinematographer working for a New York producer, flying separately on Singapore- and Hong Kong-based airlines, using Japanese-branded equipment to shoot a film in China interviewing the American general manager of a Japanese hard drive factory, I was an agent of the very forces the protestors opposed. Because of them, I was stuck at the border. And I was sitting in a Starbucks, the poster child for relentless global expansion.

New Zealand: Living a Lie at Mrs. O’Brien’s

Just then, the cops dropped by.

“Your neighbor reported seeing some lads loading a van in front of the house,” the constable told Mrs. O’Brien. “Just wanted to make certain they weren’t burglars.” Mrs. O. introduced us like old friends and assured them of our good intentions. At that point she’d known us about two hours. Eventually we completed the interview and finished the cookies.

“Brent, that was a delightful scene,” I said as we took our leave of Mrs. O’Brien.

“Oh it’s just a bunch of fluffy ducks, isn’t it?” he responded. I recognized those as English words, but the meaning escaped me. Clearly he was speaking a foreign tongue. Something was fluffy ducks, he explained, if it was just too cute for words.

21st-Century Village: Telemedicine in Rural India

When all is ready, the students sit on the floor of the school, and I wade on my knees amongst them, the video camera on my shoulder. The younger teacher leads them in a singsong English lesson, chanting “Roses are red, violets are blue…” They perform for her and for the camera with spirit and gusto. To support the words, the other teacher points to pictures of flowers and colors on the turquoise walls of the schoolroom, though they have trouble finding a visual for “sugar is sweet…” Clearly they are proud of their tiny school.

Starstruck at Cannes: Morgan Freeman on the Red Carpet

As they walk the Carpet, Morgan poses and pauses, scanning the camera platforms to find us among the tuxes and tripods. Mark calls out and waves, but the scene is loud and cameras are flashing as the dogs do their work. Finally he catches Morgan’s eye after the group has passed us. Ever the showman, Morgan dances a graceful sliding two-step down half a dozen stairs toward us, finishing with a flourish and bow in front of our platform. With a wink, a wave and a thumbs-up, knowing we’ve gotten our shot, he rejoins his group, swings them in our direction for another quick wave, and then continues up the carpeted stairs to the Palais.

Tokyo: The Tale of the 33rd Floor

Our rooms featured self-warming combination toilet-bidets found only in Japan. When I sat down, I heard warm water gurgling merrily to heat the seat from the inside. Press the wrong button (all instructions in Japanese) and Old Faithful gushed vertically. My pals insisted the hygiene and the eruption sensation were worth checking out (“I feel so clean!” said Randy, our director), and the temperature and pressure were adjustable, but I wasn’t curious enough to experiment.

Singapore: No Worry, Chicken Curry

I’m a big guy, and my worst problem with bunny suits in Asia is sizing. On a previous trip, the largest suit available was much too small, and I couldn’t get it on over my clothes. Our producer took me aside and advised me to go to the men’s room, remove my jeans, and force the suit on over my underwear. This suggestion made it possible to squeeze in my parts, but it was so tight I feared gangrene. Randy commented that I “looked like Nureyev on steroids,” a sausage packed into a casing much too small. I’m sure even a cursory inspection would have revealed both my gender and my religion, and the effect—perpetuated by a treacherous photo taken by one of my companions—had been a source of amusement to them in the decade since.

Health: Our Most Important Product

You might expect Ishmael and his family to be bitter about his situation. “But despite all this,” says his doctor as she suddenly weeps on camera, “he is a young boy who is seeking the deepest meaning in life.”

“He dreams of being able to walk,” says Ishmael’s mom, also close to tears. “But he always says, ‘Mom, since I know that may not be possible, my biggest dream is to be a person who isn’t afraid of life.’”

Taiwan: Mr. Wong and the Universal Language

I called in turn for each lighting instrument on our list. To see the 1200-watt (1.2 kilowatt) HMI light, I said slowly, “1.2 H-M-I.”

The staff chorused, “Wan-poyn-too hay-tchem-aye, okay,” and then brought it out, plugged it in, and turned it on. Frequent use and repetition of the Prime Validator “okay” are important components of the Universal Language syntax. We repeated the process for each light we had ordered. Many were ancient but serviceable.

“Wow, so this is where old HMIs go to die,” said Rod. Yet they all worked.

Sweet Home Shenyang

On the third night (after another long hospital shoot day, bisected by a huge, fabulous Chinese lunch feast), we opted for the Brauhaus again.

This time we sat much closer to the stage. We tried to order Martinis, but the waiters seemed unclear on the concept. They brought us Remi Martin cognac, which did contain many of the same letters. They sent over “the only German waiter” in the place to clarify our order. I could ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen with him, but I didn’t know the word for vermouth and he wasn’t really interested, so we settled for Paulaner beer. Again.

Steve Jobs: Consuming the Apples

Our director had told us Steve’s idea: that he would be alone in the store with a cameraman in the most low-tech setup possible: a handheld camera with an on-camera microphone, with no other crew, no lighting in the store, and no wires anywhere. He would start out in front of the black barrier, then walk through the barrier and lead the viewers through the store in one long, uninterrupted take. Simple, eh?

Except for a few challenges, which made our skin crawl as we anticipated them.

Brazil: Some Days the Bear Eats You

We discussed a change of concept. Mush offered to run up to the 26th floor, look for our missing guy, and get a couple of lights and a different lens. That’s when he called me from upstairs.

“We’re locked out up here!”


“Well, everywhere. I think the receptionists have gone home. I’m not even sure I can get back to you.”

At that point our gear and crew were spread among three floors. Big problem.

Gigantic in Japan: A Tall Tale


I slammed my head into a low doorway. Suddenly I lay stunned on a damp floor, looking up at the urinals. A young Chinese man peeing into the trough next to me looked down with alarm and called out, “Okay? Okay? Okay?” in that loud voice we all use when addressing people who don’t share our language. I got up slowly, squinting warily at the six-foot-high door lintel, four inches too close to the center of the earth. The peak of my ball cap had obscured this low doorframe as I watched my footing on the stairs.

Uganda: A World Together

Later we interviewed James out front under a mango tree, the clinic building and a dozen colorfully dressed women and babies in the background. The SatelLife project, he told us, was “a means by which doctors within Africa and the West can … exchange ideas, do literature searches … like a leap from the postal service into the satellite age, whereby we can communicate instantly. This is something which has never happened in Africa.” He spoke articulately, with passion and charisma, about the spread of AIDS in Uganda, how he had come back from the relative prosperity of Nigeria to help fight it.

“The future is to think globally, and to act locally. The most exciting thing about living here [in Uganda] is freedom … The world my children are going to live in will be a peaceful and healthy world.”

Dog Years: Sophie, Pop, and Bill Clinton

The day after meeting Clinton in New York, I visit Pop in a rehab facility in Scottsdale, only a mile from where he and Mom live. My dad has always been a Renaissance man—musician, teacher, and author of over thirty books on crafts, hobbies, and the outdoors, a tough old bird who could build or do anything. He’s a smart, accomplished, multifaceted guy. I’ve always been different—more one-sided, focused on my career as a cameraman.

Nearly 90—about the same dog age as Sophie—the man who could do everything now lies helpless in bed at a nursing home, fed by a tube, his eyesight and hearing impaired, paralyzed on one side and incontinent.

The Big Break: Malaise in Manila

During our scout, we watched a local film crew building a prison set in one corner of this huge edifice. Gene and Archie chatted with them in Tagalog. A new Roger Corman-produced thriller was scheduled to shoot prison scenes in a few weeks.

At last I was starting to see the film in my mind: We can stage several scenes in this bombed-out ruin. We’ll fabricate a street market for various encounters between Dirk and the common people, stage dialogue at a food stall around the corner, and light mysterious intrigues in moody, shadowy, yet electrifying ways.

I tried to imagine Dick Fly, his shirt in tatters around his torso, in a fight to the death on the steps of the Comelec Building, and my cameraman’s mind started to catalogue the shots we would need to cover the action.

Outroduction: Getting Randy

Our first shoot together came early one morning on a San Francisco sidewalk. I’d been up all night at the hospital with my wife on a false-labor scare, weeks before our first child was born. Of course I was tired as I shouldered the camera for a long, backwards walking shot leading an actor down the sidewalk, but I settled into the work, enjoying the comic nature of the script (an oddball skit urging college students to repay their student loans) and the light approach Randy brought to the set.

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