Ernie was ecstatic when I rescued him from TEFL teaching to work on my TV series.
He had skills I desperately needed. He was a damn good cartoonist; he sold cameras before joining Peace Corps so he knew photography; and he was a genius at making props out of Styrofoam. Oh, and one other thing.
“You’re going to be my kung fu master,” I informed him.
“But I’ve never done acting,” he protested.
“You’re a natural. Trust me. I’ve made films in New York. You have a great sense of comic timing. You really do.”
“No, seriously, why me?”
“OK, it’s because you’re Chinese and you’re free. This is a low-budget operation.”
Magic Sticks, my first TV script, included a ten minute film called “Alphabet Trouble” which we would use to introduce the English alphabet. Thai kids weren’t familiar with the shapes and sounds of the 26 letters of our roman alphabet because the Thai language uses a Sanskrit alphabet of 44 consonants and 28 vowels. The first thing they had to learn was their ABCs.
On the morning of the shoot, Ernie and I headed over to the Petchburi Hotel. Ernie was dressed in baggy, indigo peasant pants and a Thai cotton shirt. A pair of wooden chopsticks were stuck gunslinger-style in the checkered pakama wrapped around his waist which served as a belt. I carried the Bolex in my bag.
When we got there, the day manager didn’t even look up from his paperwork as we slipped out to the swimming pool. The only people poolside at 8 A.M. were a half-dozen G.I.s working on their ham and eggs while their bored Thai girlfriends sat on their laps smoking cigarettes or lolled around in the water. The grunts looked suspiciously at Ernie in his vaguely Viet Cong outfit. We moved to the deserted end of the pool and I pulled out the script. I didn’t want Ernie to see it until I had him safely at the pool.
“OK, here’s the storyline. It’s a typical scorching Bangkok day, so you wave your magic chopsticks and create a swimming pool.”
“How do I do that?”
“You don’t. We do, using stop-action camera. We’ll shoot that later. You’re now standing in front of the pool you created and decide to take a cool refreshing dip. Jump in when I give the signal.”
“Dressed in all my clothes?”
“Yeah. You’re hot, you see the pool, you wipe your brow, you smile big, you start running and leap into the pool.” I looked back towards the breezeway. No manager or desk clerk in sight. “Ready? Go!"
Ernie sprinted across the concrete, and cannonballed into the pool, all 130 pounds of him. The girls hanging around the pool started giggling.
“Got it!” I shouted. Ernie dogpaddled over to the side holding his glasses. I leaned down and briefed him on the rest of the storyline. “Now that you've cooled off, you lounge around in the water until you spy a farang reading an English newspaper at a poolside table. You wave your magic chopsticks and individual letters – A,B,C – fly off the page of the newspaper and we use diting to freeze-frame each letter in mid-air for fifteen seconds while a voice pronounces each letter and asks students to repeat it after him. Got it?”
“OK But where’s the farang and the newspaper?”
“We’ll shoot those scenes later,” I explained. “Now we’re going to shoot the final scene. You wave your chopsticks and fly out of the pool into the air like Superman, ending up on a second story balcony.”
“And how do I do that?” Ernie asked warily.
“Relax,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
I scooted back through the lobby where the desk clerk was still head down in his paperwork, and up the stairs to the second floor. I jogged along the outside corridor until I found an open door where a maid was vacuuming a checked-out room. I gave her a sawatdee, walked out onto the balcony and yelled down to Ernie.
“Up here! Room 212!” I waved.
One of the bar girls smiled and waved back. Her G.I. trick looked up and glared at me. What the fuck was I doing inviting his girl up to my room? No, no, I frantically signaled, pointing to the other end of the pool. Not your girl, that guy over there. He looked over at Ernie then back at me and shook his head in disgust. Couple of homos. Fucking katoeys. A minute later, Ernie joined me on the balcony, dripping wet.
“OK, we don’t have a lot of time,” I shouted over the roar of the vacuum cleaner. ”When I give you the signal, I want you to jump backwards off this balcony into the pool. When we edit the film, we’ll run it in reverse and you’ll look like you’re flying up to the balcony.”
“Are you crazy? I could get killed!”
“You’re gonna be famous. Thousands of Thai kids will be begging you for your autograph. Wait for my signal.”
I sprinted back downstairs to the lobby. The desk clerk looked up from his paperwork.“Welcome to the Petchburi Hotel. Can I help you?” He eyed my camera.“Thanks. I’m just visiting a friend,” I explained. I hurried out to the pool. Ernie wasn’t anywhere in sight.
“Ernie!” I shouted. “Ernie!”
Ernie emerged from the room and walked up to the balcony.
“I’m not doing it,” he shouted back. “I’m coming down.”
“You can do it!” I lifted the camera to my eye and rotated the lens to wide angle. Shit! Forgot to wind the camera. I cranked it furiously then re-framed the shot. “C’mon! C’mon!”
Ernie hesitated a second then hiked himself over the balcony like a suicide. He clung to the railing, gathering his courage. Poolside, people started clapping and whistling. Waiters and maids gawked and pointed. Girls in the water scattered to get out of the way. The pool boy dropped his net and ran to get the manager.
“Jump, Ernie!” I shouted. “Now!”
Ernie leapt off the balcony backwards, windmilling his arms, and hit the pool with a whump, knocking off his glasses and sending up a towering geyser of water. The crowd erupted into cheers, and one of the girls retrieved his spectacles. I had the camera stuffed in my bag by the time he reached the edge of the pool.
“Gotta go!” I said, hauling him out of the pool. “Hurry!”
We passed the manager heading for the pool as we dashed through the lobby. He looked at us and started to say something but we didn’t slow down.
“Next time, I’m writing the scripts and you’re doing the jumping,” Ernie groused.
I loved going to work each day. It was my crazy NYU summer all over again. We shot films all over the city – in noodle shops, hotels, city parks, the Saturday-Sunday market, on rooftops, from boats on the Chao Phraya river, at the Grand Palace and the Dusit Zoo. I tried to duplicate the zany humor, visual puns, and cinematic tricks I saw in British director Richard Lester’s Beatlemania films Help! and Hard Day’s Night. The results ranged from embarrassing to hilarious, with everybody on the staff eagerly anticipating the next screening. Ajaan Boonsom even started smiling after a while, though she nearly had a heart attack when she saw Ernie’s leap from the second story balcony.
“That was very antarai, Khun Maitri,” she scolded. “Please do not do that again.”
“It’s just the camera angle, ajaan,” I suggested. “It makes it look more dangerous than it is. If you look close, you can see Ernie smiling just before he jumps.” Ernie rolled his eyes.
While I wrote scripts and edited films with Chachaval, and Ernie made elephants disappear, Dan worked with Somchao to create the puppets and design the set.
Dan was building dams and bridges upcountry when we recruited him, but he had majored in theater and fine arts at Middlebury College before joining Peace Corps and had even exhibited his work at the Guggenheim in New York. Dan was the technical star of the team, light years ahead of the rest of us. For $40, he built an animation stand complete with camera mount, lights and cell holder, and we started churning out short, animated cartoons.
To teach children how contractions work in English, Somchao created a little Pac-Man creature that roams around a sheet of paper gobbling up the letter “i” in sentences like “He is” and “She is,” producing “He’s” and “She’s.” Dan used paper cutouts of a boy and a girl and stop-action animation to teach demonstrative pronouns. Jack and Jill pick flowers on a hill. When she points to a flower, he picks it, holds it in his hands, and asks, “This?” Unfortunately she always changes her mind, pointing to another flower further away – “That!”
Ajaan Boonsom was warming up to our madness.