My role in Transformers

questionmarkAre you in TRANSFORMERS? There’s a quick shot of a soldier escorting someone away from a helicopter. On screen for two or three seconds. Looks EXACTLY like you.

Just curious.

– Ben
Los Angeles

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but as far as I know, I am not in Transformers. I have a somewhat ordinary face, and coupled with my big bald head, it’s not uncommon for someone at the gym to say, “You were really good last night on Law and Order.” (Apparently, my doppelganger was a white supremacist.)

But I can’t say definitively that I’m not in Transformers.

Years ago, a friend called to say, “I saw you in ‘L.A. Doctors!'” That was a CBS show at the time. She described the scene: I was walking a pug on Melrose Avenue. Which was in fact my dog. I was probably walking home from Starbucks when a second-unit camera crew caught me. (Yes, they should have had me sign a release. No, it’s never worth pursuing.)

I guess it’s possible the filmmakers digitally put my face on some random soldier. They certainly had the technology; they put all those tentacles on Bill Nighy for the second and third Pirates movies. But Occam’s Razor would suggest it’s probably just a guy who looks like me.

The virtues of technology failure

I brought my videocamera with me to Malawi, only to discover upon unpacking it that the main sensor was shot: it could record sound, but not video. In retrospect, this was a fortuitous failure.

Looking at things through a lens–or on a tiny flip-out monitor–creates a layer of distance, of safety. On a subconscious level, it feels like you’re watching TV. I would have watched, but not seen.

And given my obsessive need for coverage, I probably would have shot so much footage that I could never have begun editing it down.

So, lacking a proper videocamera, I just shot with my digital still camera. The clips had to be very short; I only had a 1GB card, and no way to off-load it. But I think it worked out for the best. What I ended up with are more like video snapshots. They don’t tell a story. They simply capture a moment.

I’ve posted a few more up in my YouTube channel. Here’s a sampler.

Q: What side of the road do they drive on in Malawi?
A: The center.

There’s only one paved road in Mulanje, which has to be shared by cars, bikes and pedestrians. The dirt roads are strictly one car wide. They recently plowed the road towards Kumwamba Centre, so there’s hope it may be paved before too long. You can see the in-progress road on this second version of the drive to the church on Sunday, featuring the song that’s been stuck in my head for 10 days.

Photos from Malawi

Mulanje MtI have all my photos from my visit to Mulanje, Malawi up on Flickr for the world to see. You can check them out here.

You may want to use the “View as slideshow” link. If you do, you’ll notice a floating lower-case “i” over the center of the main photo. (You may need to mouse over it to make it appear.) Click it, and you can see all of the captions.

Malawi is a land-locked country in southern Africa. A former British colony, it is now one of the poorest nations on Earth. It’s been especially hard-hit by HIV/AIDS, losing a huge portion of its 20 to 40-year olds. Young parents, especially. It’s now a nation of children and old people.

FOMO (Friends of Mulanje Orphans) runs 10 centers, providing services to 4,000 orphans. Ryan and I visited to help repair and repaint the Gulumba Centre, and to meet the kids who are doing remarkably well in remarkably difficult circumstances.

We also visited medical clinics, in the hopes of establishing a presence for U.S. Doctors for Africa. Treatable diseases like malaria are a huge threat, and the lack of medicine and infrastructure is crippling.

brothersFor all its challenges, Malawi is incredibly beautiful, as are its people. It’s like an island nation without an ocean.

So what now? I’m still figuring that out.

Obviously, FOMO will continue to need financial support, and I can help with that.1 But to a larger degree, Malawi really needs to be put on the map of human awareness. There’s no hot story happening in Malawi: no civil war, no genocide, no pretty blonde tourist going missing. The country is isolated and easy to overlook. And its citizens are so invariably polite, it’s hard to imagine them demanding their fair share of the world’s attention.

But I think there are unique opportunities in Malawi. It’s stable and English-speaking. It’s infrastructure is lacking — its roads in particular are a mess — but the lack of embedded choices can be a blessing. If there’s any place perfect for leapfrogging to the Next Better Idea, it’s Malawi.2

The main reason I wanted to blog about the trip is that I’ve always been kind of uncomfortable-slash-terrified about the developing world and global poverty. And I suspect most readers are, too. It’s overwhelmingly macro.

But when you look at it in the micro scale, it’s not nearly so intimidating. I didn’t leave with any big answers, but I now know a bit about keeping kids fed. And how to install a corrugated metal roof. (You nail through the peaks, not the valleys, with capped nails.) I spent most of my time painting walls, and watching. Learning.

Obviously, not everyone is in a place financially to book a ticket to the other side of the world and just help out. (That’s what Ryan and I basically did.) But a lot of my readers are young — in college, or just after that — which is a perfect time to head out and explore the world. If any part of you is thinking about doing that, trust your instincts.3

  1. As can you, obviously. It’s a registered U.K. charity.
  2. The land-line phones (and with it, the internet) in the entire Mulanje region went out for three days, yet I got four bars on my cell phone almost everywhere. Wireless internet in the U.S. is handy. Wireless internet in Malawi seems essential.
  3. Beyond university-affiliated programs, a quick Google search will reveal dozens of programs that specialize in a new kind of “voluntourism.” We considered programs in five African countries and South America before picking FOMO.

I think I just got Google Mapped

I was walking my dog this morning when I noticed an orange van with strange equipment on its roof: an array of cameras pointing in all directions. As it passed, I read “TeleAtlas: We’re mapping your world!” on the side.

The company is partners with Google, so I have a hunch I may be showing up on Street View before too long. (Los Angeles doesn’t have Street View yet, but they’re no doubt working on it.)


Malawi MapI’m back from Africa — physically, at least.

Mentally, I’m still floating somewhere over Dakar. The potent combination of jetlag and unprocessed emotion is making it very difficult to commit to that last leap over the Atlantic. I was only gone two weeks, but it felt like months. Like an alternate timeline, with extra days slipped between seconds.

Like Narnia, but with smoke, orphans, and red dirt.

It’s not that time dragged. Every minute was full, from the dark blue hour before sunrise when the overachieving rooster would start his business, to the hour after dinner, when a casual conversation with the program founder would reveal an unexpected, mind-blowing twist. For the first time in 15 years, I wore a watch, only to look at it in amazement as I went to bed at 7:30, exhausted.

At least twice each day, as Ryan and I were painting a mud brick wall Bermuda blue, we would look to each other and say, “Hey, do you remember when…”

Inevitably, we were referring to something that had happened just the day before.

Like all great trips, so much had happened so fast that it became difficult to keep events straight. More than that, the Now was so overwhelming, so emotionally dangerous, that there wasn’t an opportunity to process. I’ve never kept a journal, but for the first time I found myself making bullet points of the day’s events, just to clear them off my mental blotter. Like a to-do list in reverse.

I’m working to get photos up on Flickr, but in the meantime, I’ll offer one short video clip. No single example is going to sum up the whole experience, but this gives some sense of why I’m still somewhat stuck in Malawi.

Split screens

How would you go about writing two scenes in a script that run at the same time in split screen, but don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other? Basically like a scene from the movie Timecode.


That’s a real challenge to do in standard screenplay format. While someone watching a movie can follow the action happening in multiple sections of the screen at once, the reader simply can’t. Reading is a left-to-right, top-to-bottom process. So you’re going to have to figure out another way to communicate the same idea.

Your approach depends on how crucial the split-screen timing becomes. For instance, in an earlier draft of the first CHARLIE’S ANGELS, there was a chase sequence between Alex (Lucy Liu) and the Thin Man (Crispin Glover), in which they were both trying to get to the roof of the building in order to reach the satellite dish that Eric Knox was using. The chase started with the two characters on opposite sides of an iron fence, which formed the dividing line down the middle of the screen. We then followed each character on separate, sometimes overlapping paths, as they fought their way to the roof. Finally, Alex kicked the Thin Man “through” the center dividing line.

In this example, the exact timing of who-is-where-when was important, so I chose to write the action as two parallel columns on a horizontal page. It was a pain in the ass to format, because Final Draft couldn’t handle it, so each time I printed out the script I had to make sure to leave blank “filler” pages in which to insert the properly-formatted side-by-side pages. Still, it was a fun challenge.

Ultimately, the split-screen stuff was dropped and the sequence became about Alex and the Thin Man kicking the crap out of each other.

For TIMECODE, Mike Figgis apparently didn’t work off a traditional screenplay at all. The entire movie was rehearsed and reshot more than a dozen times. To figure out who-is-where-when, Figgis used musical score sheets.

For your script, since the two sides don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, I would recommend writing the scenes out straight. If it’s important to indicate to the reader that certain scenes are playing side-by-side, just put a note in parentheses in the first line of a scene’s description. It’s not a perfect solution, but in most cases that’s as straightfoward as you’re going to get.

(This article originally ran September 29, 2003.)