Actor, Yuki Iwamoto plays
Mr. Kono -- Charlie Chaplin's driver in The Cat's Meow.
This is his account of his experiences on the set of the movie exclusively written for the Cake or Death site (boy, I've NEVER been able to say that).
I had my stuff packed. I had bought my guide-book for Athens, had a few shirts and was glad to get to know the night life of Athens. Greg who picked me up at the airport in Athens told me he needed to shop before taking the seven hour drive to the shooting location, cause there were no shops. What? That was what I havent heard before. No Athens, no glitzy Hotel, no night life and no shampoo. There was no shampoo in my guest room in that tiny village by the sea. One plastic bottle on the sink, with a hand drawn on it, had this very watery, greenish soap in it that did the job of a shampoo, at least for the few days, I was planned to stay.
Steve was the writer of the play. Therefore he had plenty of time. He was on the set conversing now and then with Peter Bogdanovich about slight changes in the script and else, but was not directly involved in the extremely tight shooting schedule. Peter Bogdanovich, Martin, the German line producer, and Ernie the American line producer were discussing what scenes, initially intended to be shot on the boat, could be postponed to the studio in Berlin. We only had two weeks shooting time in Greece and many of the shot required the boat to be set by the pier. Strong wind would prohibit the boat to stay there, cause the high waves would have pushed the ship against the pier. The boat had run out into the sea and filming was often interrupted or shot out in the sea, if the script allowed to do so.
So we ended up sitting quite a bit in the cafeteria or a cafe nearby. Especially Steve Peros, who was basically finished with his job, writing his script, Kim Bieber, the producer, and me. Well, I had my work left at home and was scheduled initially to be there only for two days. I tried to get a computer in that tiny village, but all of them were occupied by the staff. So, I was trying to write down my thesis on a piece of paper at the corner of the cafeteria. At time when the cafeteria got crowded by the film crew I would just wonder about to take a break, going to a cafe up on the hill, that oversaw the small bay. That bay had two piers. One that should represent San Diego the other a different port. Basically, shooting was done on the two piers or out on the sea.
The shooting had cut me out of my work for entire two weeks instead of the anticipated four days including flight. I believe I was just pushed around, since most of the staff thought I was just a student with a free schedule to go. No, I definitely had no time. So in the end, I really had to tell them that my time was up, but anyway, they did my scene on the very last day. I cant really complain about that, since I was able to get acquainted with the actors, the staff and the writer.
Steve was a second generation American from Greece. He was a relaxed character and told me in his relaxed way that he was very excited about being here, how fast everything went once it got rolling, and that he was happy how all the staff and actors were handling the project. He had this way of a writer, this observing but not actually participating way. I know a second generation Korean-American writer, who also has a very similar character. May be it is a way of second generation immigrants, who, on the one hand, have parents bound to the old culture, and on the other faced with the American culture on the other hand. Sandwiched between two cultures, one tends to observe a lot, how to fit in and how to accentuate this and other things. I am neither an American nor a second generation, but since I was brought up in Germany in a Japanese household, I believe I have this way of quiet observation that goes with me. Anyway, as an aspiring writer myself, Steve was the actual hero for me. And it was his first big filming project. For me, at least it felt like, that a friend whom you had known for years just made a breakthrough of his life. He had this easygoing character.
Kim and Steve were joking and gossiping all the time, which I was not able to follow all the time. My brain was thinking about the thesis and I was just out of the routine of American rhythm of conversation, having left Boston for some time, but that was nothing compared to the British that swirled around the many British actors that were present. Why is it that one can understand them so hardly? Do I need a complete pair of new ears to do that? And often, I would get their jokes only a few seconds after having brought out, when everyone has moved already to the next story. Why is that? Its the timing of culture. Different beat, different rhythm, different groove or just the way I am or, hopefully, the way they them Brits - are.
I had been tagging around with them like a quiet shadow, shooting videos, since Steve had brought his personal camcorder to catch the action going on. I was quite thrown out again when they were playing this game trying to come up with a movie, saying an actors name who was playing in it, trying to remember another movie he did or a director he had worked with and so on around the group while waiting during the set change. I did not know most of these names they were able to come up with. Joanna Lumley and Steve were awfully good at this game. "Oh, oh him that would bring us into a complete new dimension. The epitome Western of the fifties..."
Cary Elwes and I were once driven in a van to the pier. It stopped at an inclination just before the pier and Greg, the Greek driver, left us. When he closed the door the van began rolling towards the sea. Greg saw it, jumped back into the car and brought the car to halt. Cary looked at me with his eyes turned to an owl gleaming at night saying, "That would have been me and you in the sea." Why is it that American actors need to dramatize everything to the apex? Now, that churned me to reply in the same way, trying to create round owl eyes as best I could to with my slitty Asian eyes I was born with, braking all my face muscles and reply "Yes indeed, duh".
I had no idea that Cary was British. He is very, I would not say American, but he was very Hollywood Californian. No, I never knew anyone before from Hollywood, no, but his style, hard to say what, may be his beautiful Hollywood wife, or something. First of all, he does not speak British. His speaks groovy Californian. Well, I have to think about that character more, was not able to analyze him on those few occasions I met him. Or you must analyze any married man from his wife. Thank god I am still single.
Often we just ran out of any conversation material. There was no TV, no newspapers no radio. Once people would discuss their laundry.
Ronan: So, you have packed to be here for two days.
Ronan: So, that would be quite a few socks and underwear short for a two weeks stay, you know, the wet weather does not help to dry things. (grinning)
Ronan was so right on the point. I hated that. I wore them inside out, back to front notice, I am only joking - had washed them turned it, did whatever it took to dry it. Well, the air conditioner in the room worked somehow as a dryer, imagine me standing in front of it holding up the stuff to dry... not a beautiful sight.
Ronan: How do you wash them? In the sink or while you shower?
Me: Thats some very personal question.
Eddie also grinning.
You would not want to follow this conversation. So thats it.
Most of the time I was on the set talking to the potato like owner of the old timer a taxi driver in Berlin and another older guy who also came from Berlin and owned a few of those cars, cause they tended the cars while I was on the set. The second guy was probably an engineer or something, I can smell these things, cause I am a trained one myself. We were spending the time talking about the cars how they worked, what was different at that prehistoric time. Almost everything had changed, except the basics. I never got used to clutch in between at neutral when you had to shift.
Richard. We had two Richards on the set. The still photographer Richard, that dude with long hair, who wanted us to make believe he had a PhD from Stanford, well he really seemed to have gone there but it remained a mystery with which degree he had left. He was swimming in the sea whenever he had time. The other Richard, was the young, lanky, tall German trainee who did everything for Peter Bogdanovich. He was carrying his bottle of water, running around to get this and that getting toilet paper, getting his food, getting tooth picks. Tooth picks were extremely important, since Peter, once a chain smoker, had quit smoking. Now he had to chew on a stick, just to feel fine and able to concentrate. According to Richard, the still photographer, there would be a distinct shaping of a rectangle around the stand of the monitor on the ground of used tooth picks, that Peter would crush in the middle after their use and drop them, walking around the monitor in deep thought. "RICHARD" Peters voice would echo, when Richard was out there among other staff, getting sometimes too comfortable. Richard would jump up with a happy face and run to assist the big man at work.
How did I feel being thrown out there into that filming wilderness? I dont know. Slightly giddy, some dismay, and I was never sure who I was or where I belonged. I thought I had something in common with Steve, cause he was a writer, and I was and am still a wishful writer; I had something in common with Martin and Ernie, since they were managing the project and I used to manage, but in the end I was there as an actor, at least on the paper. I think that feel came through when Robert from the costume tried to get me into that old style clothing. I was not used at all someone getting me dressed. It felt like I had returned to childhood when mother tried to get me my clothes. I mean its awkward and I could not stand still. "You just have to stand still and behave like an actor" were the words from Robert when I had to shift my shoulders again, when he wanted to put me on the jacket. Ok that was that. I had to stand still and repeat in my head I am an actor, I am an actor, I am an actor...
Yes indeed, I was an actor. At least I had a room for myself. Most of the staff members had to share a room, cause rooms were of short supply in this village. Quite tough. Though when all the actors were at the airport in Athens I noticed that all of the them were flying out to Frankfurt by Lufthansa, but me. I had to take a taxi to a different airport that looked more like a huge Greyhound bus station, had to change the ticket and fly out three hours later with the Olympic airline. Luckily, a girl from the local Greek staff helped me to get my ticket and else, but it would have been much nicer, flying out with everyone. Who says I was lucky enough being there and getting paid. Well, I believe you are right.
How the hell did an engineer get into acting? Well, you may get a hint in the following chapter.
Caught Between Cultures
Well, caught between cultures. Thats me. When I returned to Japan to work for a corporation called S..Y people gave me nicknames. "Ich bin," "Gaijin","Doitsu-kun"(from Deutschland), "Doitsu-jin", "Geruman" well basically they referred to me as a foreigner, who was too outspoken, too direct, not having manners, disrespectful and just uncontrollable. I corrected my ways, at least I was able to control myself for a small stretch of time, so Japanese would not notice me anymore as a foreigner. When I was about to polish up my being Japanese I quit and moved to Boston.
The US was different challenge. Now it meant being American. At least I had to act American to get my ideas across. It was the world of fighting for yourself or get succumbed, especially since it was the automotive industry, where blames were thrown at each other think Ford, Firestone - , costs were cut to where parts were sold in pounds, and schedules were imminent, - you did not want to stop a line at GM -. You had somehow protect yourself, otherwise the blame would be piled up on the undefended. You just cant be too naive in the car industry. Its a crime. Being an underdog, yes. Weakness and naivete, no. After a while, I surprised myself and others by shouting out f words in a complete American way, exactly how the car industry demanded. It felt f cking great.
Oh, by the way, I used up the watery shampoo bottle with a picture of a hand on it. Did the laundry, washed my hair, well quite did not work as a tooth paste, but was all right. It also felt great to wear some clean clothes back home again.
The first time I saw Eddie, he came out from the ship, looking tired from the shooting day and walking towards the car that was waiting for him on the pier. I dont know how I knew he was playing Chaplin, it was due to some instinct, the air around him he was carrying on his shoulders. He disappeared in the van. That was on the second day I was there. Then I had not seen him for about three days until my first shot with him in the 1925 Packard, a 2,8 tonnes heavy 8 cylinder, that would not respond too easy. I was figuring out the gears, while Eddie was sitting in the back quiet, probably slightly concerned that I may catch the wrong gear driving back into the sea from the pier. God, was he quiet. I, the absolutely new person in this tinsel town project, on the other hand was absolutely consumed with the gears and handbrakes that was standing in my way to swiftly get into the car and get it moving in the direction the director wanted and with speed as he had ordered. Though quiet, Eddie made a good suggestion how to open the door and climb into the car. He was observing frantic me with a confidence of an experienced entertainer from the back seat. I could feel his eyes drilling holes in my back, though most of the time he was just looking out of the window.
He was a question mark to me. I had seen all the other actors drinking and partying except for Eddie and Kirsten, the leading roles. Edward Herman, one of the veteran of this business, was jolly drinking with us despite his heavy leading role. I actually did not realize he was important, since he would be drinking well into midnight. So, six days passed and no sign of Eddie. Well, I would see him sometime with Peter Bogdanovich in the cafeteria, but not more. May be for his reputation, I should think he was having a big orgy or something in his room, but alas how should he do that in a village totally cut out from civilization? Alone?
Anyway, after the sixth day, I started to see him much more often in the cafeteria, or just hanging out with the rest of the actors, including myself, who was there just by coincidence. At least it felt like that.
I remember one conversation. Ronan (playing Hearsts private secretary), Eddie and I were sitting around at a table talking how we ended up here, sitting in a simple cafeteria, sipping cheap Greek wine that came in one liter plastic bottles, the only brand at hand.
Ronan: I did not know a month ago I was going to do this.
Eddie: Joanna had told me she had not known of this a week prior to her shooting.
Me: Well, I had a call last Friday to come.
Ronan and Eddie: Really? Did you audition in Berlin?
Me: Well. Uhh... Ahhh. Well, they did, but I was at home.
Eddie and Ronan looked at each other confused.
Me: They called me and we did it over the phone.
Eddie: Oh, Peter called you.
Me: No it was Steve (the writer).
Eddie: The director did not call you?
Me: Ahh... no.
Ronan: You read the script over the phone?
Me: No ahh.. I had Business Week lying around on my table so I said can I read something from that?
Me: Yeah, it was a computer ad saying something about human environment and speed or something. I broke up in the middle of the first sentence and asked him whether he wanted more Japanese accent or less. Steve just said, thats for the director to decide. With hesitation he asked me whether I would read him one more sentence. And that was it. That was Friday. On Monday I was on a flight to Greece.
Pause. An inconvenient silence. Gee, may be I should have told them that I was chosen from 50 candidates. Then both started laughing. After that I felt comfortable sitting with them, mostly listening to what they were talking about. From that day Eddie also stayed after dinner, brought his DVD player and connected it to the TV in the cafeteria, cause the only TV show that could be seen was in Greek. Since then I was bothering him every day asking him to bring his DVD player, for we had hellishly few things to do in the village. Ronan took care of the player, when Eddie decided to go to bed earlier or study his lines.
We left Kyparissi in a small bus to Athens. Few had to remain to do a final night shot, but we had been finally released from that small village in nowhere. When I got into the bus, all the double seats were occupied by at least one actor, except for one. I knew that Eddie was coming in last behind me. Should I just take the last double seat and have Eddie, the star, share a double seat with some other actor? I had to think fast. But on the other hand, I could not have taken the seat next to Kirsten. I mean, there is no law, but you just dont. So I ended up taking the only double seat left which was one row before Kirsten. Eddie came, I kind of ignored him, what should I have done anyway - looking sorry that the driver took Chaplins seat? He passed and I instantly turned around to check what he was up to. He took a seat in the back row, next to James who had played the doctor. Well, that went all right. The bus left the place and climbed up the rocky coast, that had no guard rail. The view was spectacular, liking the view of the coast from a helicopter. Only Kirsten was screaming and trying to hide her head under her coat, even though she was sitting on the side facing the rock wall. Eddie and I were leaning over to the other side, to catch the view.
Eddie to Kirsten: You should see this.
Kirsten from beneath her coat: No, no, no.
I leaned toward the window even further where Victor was sitting to see the vast coastline expanding in the deep.
James: Yuki, you should lean back, the bus is going to tilt over.
Kirsten: NOOOOO. NOOO. Why are you all torturing me? You should treat me well, cause I am sooooo much younger than you guys.
Eddie: That is a sign of love and also a cause for envy. ( Dont remember the exact wording though.)
There were little altars on both sides of the street, probably to honor those who lost their life building or travelling the road. When Kirsten saw these she would lift up her jacket curiously, she was observing everything from underneath her jacket and scream "death box" in a girl/womans falsetto and retire to her previous position. After repeating her actions couple of times she fell asleep, for she had caught a cold.
Eddie pulled out his portable entertainment center DVD and opened up a movie show again with all the viewers on the back seat. I had joined them James, Claudie, Claudia and Eddie - for a few minutes, but left, for the little screen was really eye straining.
Anyway, after almost six hours of tortures ride we finally hit Athens, with our bladders filled to the brim ( OK, I admit, we had one stop in between to relieve). We decided to stop in front of a McDonald before reaching the airport, and we descended into the bathroom in the cellar. We finished our business, and when I stepped out, Kirsten was standing in line for the womans toilet. She turned to me and with a dire exasperation and opened her mouth.
Kirsten: Is there anyone else in there?
Me: What? Oh. Only Eddie.
Kirsten: Could you watch that no one is coming in?
Me: No... I mean yes. Sure.
Kirsten rushed inside the bathroom. I also walked back in, slightly annoyed by the eyes turned on me from all of the Greek women lining up and partly amused by this situation. Gee, Kirsten owes me one.
Eddie was washing his hands and saw Kirsten rushing in through the mirror, but remained calm. For the shortest second I thought may be I was the guy who landed in the wrong bathroom. Eddie dried his hands and gave a look at me sideways pointing his finger to the door. I gestured its OK that I had everything under control. I saw in his eyes the look that kind of told me: I am entrusting my little sister to you or something similar to that effect. Eddie exits. Seconds passed and I felt a weird sensation wondering, gee I would not have imagined in hell two weeks ago, that I would stand guarding a bathroom in Athens for Kirsten. But then, on the other hand, I had not heard of her prior to this shooting. Anyway, I cant be proud to say that I did not know Peter Bogdanovich and Eddie either. ( What an actor am I anyway?? Can I be partly excused by the fact that I am living in a small sausage village in Germany?)
Kirsten: Can I come out?
Me: The air is clean.
Kirsten came out and washed her hand (she, in fact, did ) and rushed out. She joined Eddie who was buying something to eat.
The real sensation came a few months later when I saw her on "Interview with Vampire" with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt on TV sitting in our house in the sausage village. Gee, I was guaranteeing her a peaceful and relishing moment in Athens. Actually, now I am wondering, is it OK to write these things? Well, I guess it is. Am I going to get invited again to some projects like these? One should always remain optimistic. But what am I doing to the fans who think she is a goddess and believe she does not have to go to a bathroom? Hm, she is also fallible to the demands of nature, believe me folks. No, I did not see it, but I could tell by the way she looked coming out.
Kirsten, you still owe me one.
I was shooting my first scene with Eddie and Peter Bogdanovich was telling us what to do. I foolishly decided to suggest something in the middle of his sentence. Suggesting something to Peter Bogdanovich by a rookie like me could not have been a good idea to begin with. In addition to that it was in the middle of his sentence. The response was curt and clear. " Dont interrupt."
Then I made a shooting mistake walking out of the door way too fast. On this occasion Peter just laughed and said "You screwed up." That kind of took the nervousness out of me. Again, too much. I started making suggestions. Again. I mean, my lines are short. They may have some influence on the overall story, but my role is a small tool to get the script going than being a real character. But hell no, he listened as long as I did not interrupt him in the middle of his sentence. That enhanced my confidence again by one notch. I was sitting in the 1925 Packard, the motor barely running, stuttering along just been adjusted by the potato like owner of the car who was a cab driver in Berlin in his normal profession. I had to drive the car toward the ship in a banana like curve. Peter walked to me sitting in the car about 60 feet away from where the camera was situated and gave me instructions. He walked back. I did the scene, not to his satisfaction. So Peter walked again and stopped half way, looking at me, expecting me to walk the other half. Well, I really did not feel like getting out of the car. It probably was all right, letting the engine run, but what if the engine began stuttering again? In that case I could have just give some gas and save it, but if I was not there, the engine would have died. So I stayed. Peter looked at me. I looked back, raised my hands from the wheels. I could see by the movement of his shoulders a small sigh it could not have been that small if you can see a sigh from 30 feet away ... - and walked the remaining 30 feet to me, gave me the instructions and walked back 60 feet. Again, I failed. So I had him do that twice. I think I threw away all my chances for future projects...Anyway, one should always remain optimistic.
My last shooting day was in Berlin. I was supposed to be in the first shot, driving Chaplin to the cemetery, but time ran out. I had been just sitting there, talking a little with the actors, many of whom have brought their parents over. Then I was talking with the Filipinos who were playing the Hawaiian band, how they ended up in Germany or being actors. It was nice being back, since I had been at home after Greece for over a week to finish up my work which I had wrapped up the day before. Nice being again among the film crew, the actors and the hype of film making. That night they had a small party to celebrate a delayed "Bergfest", a party to mark the point that half of the work was done. I was planning to go there with much enthusiasm, but was completely exhausted by all the busy schedule. There was the film crew of three, two women and one dude, nice people shooting "the making of" and I wanted actually talk to them. My brain was totally fried that day, it did not work at all from the work I had been doing and I was talking something that did not make any sense. The one girl of the documentation crew I have exchanged words with was Peters daughter. Now that kind of froze me. You dont get friendly with the directors daughter. Do you? She was putting her arms around Peter, her father, and that somehow, made it difficult to me to talk to her again. No, there is no law, and you are allowed to talk to her, but I guess I was just too tired. Eddie and Kirsten, were relaxed having finished most of their difficult scenes, everyone else seemed to have a good time, though Cary, Edward, Claudie, Claudia, Ciara, Joanna were not there or must have left very early.
In the end I was sitting at a table talking with the line producer Martin, the American line producer Ernie and a German girl from the costume. It was convenient just to sit there and listening to them. Do I regret it? No, they were very interesting too, since they were real creators, Ernie wanting to direct and Martin with many documentaries on his account, but somehow I wished I had more energy on that particular day.
BACKGROUND INFO ON THE
(translated from Japanese with comments by Yuki)
Who the hell was Kono? Chaplin's driver was also was his personal secretary, a handy man and a friend? Or was he a friend? Why did they go separate ways? And how did they get together in the first place?
He was born 1888 and moved to the US at the age of 17 or 18 to become a lawyer. He saw an article in a newspaper providing a job as a chauffeur and ended up coincidentally with Charlie Chaplin.
Kono showed peculiar behavior in the beginning, asking Chaplin to pray for the emperor, acting weird or with anxiety. When the Japanese president, Inukai Takeshi at that time had been assassinated, it became clear to Chaplin that Kono had been once pressured by the Japanese right wing, still carrying the fright with him.
So was he satisfied with his boss? He was fond of him, one can probably say and ill mouthed about Chaplin's second very young wife Rita Grey, who was an avid spender of money and enjoyed parties with marine officers. This is according to a memoir by Mr. Ushihara, a Japanese Director, who wish was to be a student of Chaplin. He therefore contacted Mr. Kono, who replied: "My uncle is a very difficult man. But I will try what I can do." When permission was achieved Ushihara to be a student of Chaplin, Kono was supposed to have exclaimed joy as if it was his own destiny, showing his side of a compassionate good man.
Mr. Kono also tried to get some other acts together, for example when director Sternberg asked him to arrange Chaplin to see his movie, shoving a little bit of money into the pocket of Kono. Oh, was Kono greedy? Noo, this example should show, how Kono would work hard to get pieces moving together, taking his job serious as a secretary of Chaplin. It is obvious that Kono was a man of the Japanese Meiji period with strict moral orders. Chaplin invited Kono to play a part in his movie "Adventure" (Gee is this the American title? I just translated it from the Japanese) and was glad to tell his wife about the additional income he had received, upon which, his wife responded: "How dare you, an actor, this will never be forgiven by our ancestors, you should never, ever try to do this kind of thing again."
Kono tried to support Chaplin in many ways. When Chaplin was going through the divorce with his first wife Mildred Harris, his project "Kid" which was in the process of being edited, was in danger of being held down by the court as a property. Both ended up fleeing, Kono driving the car with 60$ and Chaplin himself with 70$ in his pocket respectively all the way down to Salt Lake in Utah.
According to David Robinson, who wrote about Chaplin, Kono took also care of private matters. He was supposed to have camouflaged the proceedings with Rita Grey and Chaplin, to support a smooth process for their wedding.
After 18 years Kono decided to go separate ways. Chaplin was now together with Paulet, who was more engaged than his preceding wives in Chaplin's personal matters. According to Mr. Yodogawa, the famous film critic of Japan, Kono was jealous of Chaplin's new wife, and mad about Chaplin himself, who had made himself being a marionette of her, telling him what Kono had to do. Chaplin later apologized and asked Kono to come back again three times, but his wounded pride never really healed.
Chaplin arranged him new work in the movie business, but Kono never found a way to stay there. He opened up a law office in Little Tokyo at Los Angeles and was known among the neighbors just as a lawyer Kono, not by the long-term relationship with a famous man. He reveals the character of the old traditional Japanese, pertaining thoughts and memories for himself. That on the other hand is the lack of a million seller titled "Charlie Chaplin, the Writer, Director, Actor and the Man who Shagged a Million Chicks". (Had I been Kono, gee, I would be living in Hollywood in a mansion with three swimming pools and 100 chicks.)
In the late days Kono was living in his apartment in Hiroshima. Mr. Yodogawa, the film critic paid him a visit and recalls the last time he met him that he would speak of Chaplin with love and before departing, that he was guiding out the way and looking at him until he disappeared in the far with eyes that followed his past.
1916-1934 Personal Secretary and Driver of Chaplin
1971 Passed away in Hiroshima
This piece was written based on the information written by Hisaji Kubo.
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