By: Barry Butler
The Deerhunter, from the point of view of being there,
“I worked on Deerhunter in Thailand, John Learned the writer of this narrative, I met there; he is still my friend, and a most interesting man. This is his recollection”.
Chapter 1: The Beer Hunter
By: John Learned
There was a time I worked on movies, Hollywood and Thai productions. Barry Butler, a long time confederate in Singapore, had recently visited me in Luang Prabang, Laos, where I lived with my daughter, Annie. He told me someone writing a book about the making of The Deerhunter, had contacted Bangkok photographer Patrick Shrimp Gauvain, asking for his recollections of the experience. Shrimp put him in contact with Barry, who suggested I write to the author, as my recollections would definitely be clearer than his.
So it began.
One day in Bangkok, my friend Richard Franken, asked me if I could source fresh pigs’ blood for the props department of an EMI production about to be filmed in Thailand. It was to be directed by Michael Cimino, a name I had never heard.
I kicked my bike alive and within a short time was at a slaughterhouse near the Saen Saep Canal in the Prakanong district of the capital. In 1976 there were still rice fields, duck and pig farms in, what is now, part of cosmopolitan Bangkok.
Because of refrigerated storage complications, the uncertainties of schedule, and the need for anticoagulants, among other things, the props and special effects departments and the directors opted for the tried and true (though less realistic) cinematic gore substitute, a blend of corn syrup and red food dye.
Soon after the pigs’ blood foray Richard told me they were casting for extras, something that sounded potentially fun, so along I went. In the casting office I admitted I spoke Thai with some fluency and the next thing I knew, I was hired as an interpreter and assistant AD. At 2,000 baht a day (about 50 US dollars back then), plus per diems this was an unexpected opportunity to do something completely outside my experience.
My language capability served me well in helping to manage the Thai extras and work closely with crowd control.
In any scene shot in the vicinity of Bangkok or other populated areas, there were always hundreds of locals trying to get a better look, to get as close to the action as possible, and hoping to get within frame, as most Thais are not in the least bit camera shy, so a great deal of patience, energy and good-natured cajoling was necessary to contain the ranks of curious bystanders, thus I became quite good at it. In two separate scenes there we had around 2,000 extras, we started with, that is.
Once, because of Michael Cimino’s insistence for realism, during a refugee column scene, he cut off the drinking water supply for the extras in 40-degree, no shade, heat, while he shot the same scene over and over and over. He then delayed lunch because he was irate that his refugees did not appear truly miserable, so he did his best to make them suffer. I did whatever I could to alleviate the problem, as there were mothers with babies and young children in danger of sunstroke and dehydration. I did my best to encourage them to persevere or they wouldn’t receive payment at the end of the day.
By the time he was satisfied, after about ten takes, there had been a 50% attrition rate in the refugee column. Half the extras simply threw down their burdens and barrows, and quit. This was good for Cimino as it saved the finance department $20 a head to the poor villagers who refused to suffer the indignity, intense discomfort and the director’s lack of compassion.