5:30 am and I’m ferreting in the dark for a snooze button. My alarm is weaker than usual. Maybe I forgot to kick the volume up before I hit the sack. What’s more perplexing is when I changed my wake-up song? The I realize that the tune isn’t coming from my phone… It’s coming from the towering minaret a mile away in the center of town.
This is the days first call to prayer, otherwise known as Adhan, and it blankets the city like the morning fog I’m still in. Five times a day, every day, a muezzin sings from the holy Koran, reminding the faithful that there is no other god but Allah. The melodic drone echoes through the streets just before dawn, again around noon, in the late afternoon, right after sunset, and lastly at nightfall. If it seems foreign at first, it doesn’t take long to find comfort in the ritual. There’s an austerity to the spiritual history here, a modesty that no individual is too busy or too important to kneel, wherever he may find himself, and touch his head to the floor.
The Tut production could use a prayer today. It’s the first of two massive battle sequences, and coordinating a 1000 some-odd bodies with precision will be mandatory for pulling it off. 800 extras dressed in Egyptian and Mitanni garb are preparing to clash on the plains of our location at Fint Oasis in Morocco’s panoramic Atlas mountains.
The logistics of managing this many extras, in addition to 80 stuntmen and our central cast and crew of 50, are dizzying. There are 100 fixers on set just to look after these people, making sure they’re transported, hydrated, fed, have access to bathrooms, and eventually get their pay envelopes. Roughly $20 for a thirteen hour day in ninety degree heat. A quick survey reveals around around 200 Mohammeds, 100 Youssefs, 73 Amins and at least 50 Husseins. By the time they’re all wrangled, the 2nd Unit will only have a few hours to rehearse and shoot. It’s barely organize chaos.
Costume, hair and make-up have been on set since 3 am, preparing the masses for the day’s bloody cut-and-thrust. Long haired wigs for the Mitanni, headdresses and eye make-up for the Egyptians, full leather armor for both. Throngs of soldiers on both sides wander about already wounded, waiting for the fun to begin. One Mitanni footman enjoys a breakfast of eggs and beans with an arrow protruding from his chest.
My own costume, hair and make up only takes about 30 minutes. I have two layers of robes, a heavy leather vest, thick leather shin and arm pads, and boots that our costume department built around a running shoe for comfort. But for others applying wigs, fake beards, and detailed special effects wounds, make-up can easily exceed two hours.
In reality, all the armor we’re donning is creative license. Historians have discovered papyrus rolls revealing agreements between the Egyptians and their enemies not to go to war in the summer.
When they eventually did fight, almost no armor was worn– it’s just too hot and too cumbersome to be effective in the desert. This slain Nubian warrior, an ally of Egyptian forces against the Mitanni, is dressed much more realistically for fighting in 100 degree heat.
It’s now 6 am, thirty kilometers outside Ouzazarte, and the sun is backlighting the jagged mountain range. It’s a postcard location, and only when you’re right smack in the middle of it can you marvel at what a miracle an oasis actually is. You’re almost entirely surrounded by rock and sand, when a strip of plush vegetation explodes to life, seemingly out of nowhere.
For some reason, geography has allowed an aquifer to survive here for thousands of years, most likely because there’s a substrata of impermeable rock that keeps the water from sinking deeper into the ground. It accumulates and percolates to the surface, where a world of vegetation, animals, and humans gratefully build a civilization around it… And eventually make movies films about that very human history.
The sun has clear the mountain. We’re getting close to to the start of shooting. But before “action” can be yelled, the production’s wily Snake Wrangler scours the terrain for the sundry reptiles, arachnids and other predatory arthropods that can cause serious harm and death. Today he hits a triple, first discovering a three-foot black hooded Cobra behind one of the tents. He grabs it with his bare hands, shows it off to gaggle of dumbfounded crew, and then proceeds to kiss the highly venomous serpent on its head. We later learn it will be sold to a snake charming act in Marrakech for 600 Dirham, or about $70.
An hour later, the same wrangler proudly exhibits a new acquisition: a scorpion the size of langoustine. Another gaggle of slack-jawed onlookers snap pictures, only to be upstaged when the wrangler literally shoves the creature into his mouth. He spits it back out with a toothless smile and jams it into a large water bottle, telling us without the slightest tinge of irony that he’s been bitten so many times he’s basically immune.
Later in the day, he snags his final treasure, a camel spider the size of an infant’s hand. The biggest ones can grow up to eight inches in length, including the legs. I try not to look at any of these creepy crawlers, knowing if I do they’ll soon be flittering through the coils of my unconscious, but curiosity gets the best of me, just as it does the camel who warns us of the spider’s presence. Camels have a reputation for being ornery, but this particular even-toed ungulate is anything but happy about his six legged visitor, and he’s unafraid to announce it.
And then it finally happens, our fearless director, David Von Ancken, finally shouts the days first ACTION and the epic battle commences. Egyptians and Mitanni hack away at one another, firing arrows, throwing knives, swinging swords and shields. Fake deaths are dramatically enacted, and real injuries are unfolding left and right.
The Atlas mountains are a mix of volcanic basalt, shale, and limestone. It comes apart easily under your feet, so twisted ankles, battered knees and elbows, and lacerations abound. Our Moroccan set doctor diligently attends to the wounded in his medical tent… while chain smoking, bless his heart.
Me and the four Mitanni I bravely dispose of somehow make it through our combat choreography unscathed. We’re covered in fake blood, a mix of corn syrup and food coloring– spurted generously by the F/X department from what looks like a fire extinguisher– and the fruit flies are starting to invite their friends and relatives to the party. Fruit flies and Morocco, an inseparable team.
It’s close to wrapping time. It’s been a long day, especially in the 30 knot winds that kick up consistently between 2 and 6 pm. They whip the sand into your skin at stinging speeds. There’s no escaping it. The bigger issue is in the sound department. It’s nearly impossible to record clean dialogue in these relentless gales. Looks like we’re coming back here tomorrow morning to finish out the scene sans the wind. Joy…
As the cast pulls back into the Berbere Palace hotel, covered in sweat, dust, crusty make-up, sugar blood and happily headed for a life altering dip in the pool, another call to prayer sings out across the scantily clouded sky. Day 12 of 73 is over, thank Allah. Tomorrow is another 5:30 call…