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Expat Australian Director Brian Trenchard-Smith recalls the making of Long Lost Son on a Caribbean island with a German dictator … er, producer, as his foray into Douglas Sirk emotional melodrama territory, and including his Oedipal decision … plus his special relationship with a stray dog.

DATELINE, MARCH 2006, THE GRAND TURK HOTEL, GRAND TURK ISLAND, CARIBBEAN: “We can’t let them dictate the terms.”

In the bar of the Grand Turk Hotel after a tough shooting day, I was stating my position about a troublesome location deal with 1st. AD Quentin Whitwell, and German executive producer Andreas Hess, whose company was funding LONG LOST SON.

“No.” agreed Andreas, “ We dictate the terms…We Germans make the best dictators.”

CLANG! That was the sound of my jaw hitting the bar.

Then Andreas’ face turned from Buster Keaton stone face to Cheshire Cat grin. Andreas’ sense of humor was always taking us by surprise. I was tempted, particularly after another couple of local brews to offer my John Cleese Fawlty Towers goose stepping and don’t mention the war routine, but somehow I exercised restraint Rare for me. Andreas is also an accomplished scuba diver, and a well connected man across European television networks. His wife and business partner Sylvia was the producer of his films. This was the second film I was making for them on Grand Turk. They trusted me. (So helpful to a director when you feel that.)

Our first film together THE PARADISE VIRUS, shot in 12 days, had been a big foreign sales success. Now I was getting a leisurely 14 days to shoot LONG LOST SON, a script pre-sold to the Lifetime Network in the US by a trio of talented US producers. These producers and the German producers initially did not see eye to eye on a lot of matters, and I sometimes found myself playing diplomat between warring parties during prep and the first week of the shoot.

A Director For All Seasons. I am available for duty in the Middle East if required

But once we got going and people liked the dailies, (which because of our remoteness, we had to view via FTP site each night), things settled down. Everyone could see they were going to get a saleable film.

I knew Grand Turk Island well - 4 miles long, population 2900 approx - from THE PARADISE VIRUS, which I had produced and directed three years before. The writer of LONG LOST SON was Richard Blade, a UK born Los Angeles radio personality, who wrote himself the part of the island’s annoying hotel manager - as an Australian (!) no less.

First I worked with him to adapt his script to the locations I knew were available on the island Next challenge was that the first 20 minutes of the story take place in Los Angeles , a certain amount of it in heavy rain, but all 14 days would be shot on Grand Turk. Stock footage has been very useful to me in the past, and this project was no exception. I had an arrangement with the Paramount Library for a special rate whenever I bought 25 shots or more. So, coastal aerials/heavy surf/Venice at dusk with storm clouds/aerials of Marina Del Rey at night (with digital rain added)/the whole shipwreck simulation/ the search helicopter hovering over water at dusk, fireworks in the sky/ sharks cruising for prey/diver’s POV of fish and reef/ and more - all that production value, all the LA shots we could not get on Grand Turk, I had written into the script, and ordered from the lab at the start of prep. This is the kind of sleight of hand necessary when working at the $1.3M budget level. For instance there are 56 stock shots in my TIDES OF WAR ( or USS POSEIDON: PHANTOM BELOW, in Australian video stores, but the gay version is better drama).

Every director has his own way of working with writers and creative hierarchy. I start by distributing a page by page analysis of any problems, and adding any production changes and creative flourishes to the script that occur to me. Get everyone to sign off and avoid misunderstandings later. Here are a couple of extracts from my memo on the second draft.

Page 31. Eliminate the Boeing 767.That was my first response. However, there is a great VFX shot of one in AIR FORCE TWO flying through a stormy night sky - the first shot of the plane, the one my credit is over. Re-rendering the color of the plane, changing the clouds slightly, and flopping its screen direction would make it a new production value shot we own that is 90% built already. A tight close-up of Karen in an airline seat panning up from her white knuckles to her face would pay this off and gives us the Act Break.

We cannot do Miami Airport. Let's assume she flew direct to Provo which would be Port of Entry for whatever country the island of Santa Alicia belongs to. (Still British West Indies?) We can do an establishing shot of Provo airport. Then stage the immigration officer scene in an appropriate location on Grand Turk, not the airport (noise), doubling for a Provo interior. Such an interview would have to have taken place before Karen would have been allowed to get onto a puddle jumper for her hop to the Island. Let's try and keep Kristin’s obstacles as real as possible. I suggest a speech by Kristin, fighting her emotions, which persuades the officer to bend a little, as he does, but currently it’s his idea, not hers. Make her active, not reactive, solving her own problems. Stars want these hero building moments. Let's all think about this and revisit it.

Page 13. I am considering doing a more dynamic TIME TRANSITION to 14 years later via a lock-off shot. If Kristin has her meltdown of grief in the living room. Dolly back to isolate her in the fetal position on the sofa. Lock off. Dissolve to totally new décor and furniture. Three new characters watching television. Are these the people who bought the house? Then Kristin enters from a doorway beyond, dolly forward to good presentation angle of her 14 years older. No gray. As she moves deeper into it, superimpose title: PRESENT DAY.

Want to do a trombone shot for Kristin's reaction to seeing Mike is alive. Placement of decor and lighting should be designed to enhance distortion effect.

I saw LONG LOST SON as a heart tugging weepie, dedicated to devoted mothers everywhere, and I went all out for the emotional jugular. But I wanted to keep the performances as real as possible. I was greatly aided in this by Gabrielle Anwar, a highly intelligent actress, who loved the script, but advised 2 days before flying to join us that she hated most of her dialogue and was re-writing it herself. The two producer groups were divided on this issue. It took some fancy footwork to lower the emotional temperature and persuade them to give her a shot. Because she was going to do it anyway. I made sure that none of the lump in the throat power of Richard’s script was lost in the re-write. Good actors are good detectives. They analyze the whys and wherefores of every beat in a scene, looking for inconsistencies. Gabrielle added a lot to her character, and was thus totally comfortable with it from Day 1, which is what you need on a 14 day shoot.

The on-screen fractious chemistry between her and Craig Sheffer, playing her estranged husband, was aided by the fact that they had lived together once for many years and had a 13 year old daughter, whom they brought to the island. Gabrielle’s then husband and their two children also visited. Chinese film proverb: may you live in interesting dinner times.

As is the custom in American television, the network casts the leads. I was allowed an opinion, and requested unknown Chace Crawford for the role of the son based on his knock out audition via FTP site. Back in LA, the hierarchy chose another actor, then happily dithered before making the offer. Suddenly their choice was gone to another offer, I got Chace, and the movie got a future star of GOSSIP GIRL, which will enhance its shelf life for years. From his first scene, I could tell this lad has a future. Let’s hope the business doesn’t destroy him as it has so many talented young people who get fame in their early 20’s. I found Chace to be very level headed so I think he will be OK.

Probably my most controversial decision was to make it evident that the boy found the woman attractive that he did not yet know was his mother. The way Gabrielle and Chace handled the chemistry and Oedipal tension of their first meeting was masterful. The Lifetime network got a 2.5 rating for LONG LOST SON with no paid advertising It is among the network’s most requested repeats. It’s not perfect A few things make me wince a little. Critics will probably mock it. It’s my venture into Douglas Sirk emotional melodrama territory with a Caribbean flavor on a shoestring budget, but aided by a savvy music score from David Reynolds, his fourth for me. The music really helps a lot. But I am proud of the film; it delivers just what a particular audience wants. That’s my job, genre by genre.

I have many happy memories of the shoot, not the least of which was being adopted by this stray dog, (dog pictured above) who would be sitting at my door every night I came back to my garden apartment. I would always bring enough dinner for two. She would sit beside me on the sofa with her chin on my lap watching CNN, as I did my shot list for the next day. There were wild dogs on the island, one of which bit my PARADISE VIRUS continuity girl quite badly. But this dog craved human companionship and affection. She would even go swimming with me. Perhaps she knew she was dying, because I learned months later she had a tumour, and had gone to that great kennel in the sky. True story. Sad but true. We need stories that release our emotions Which is why I wanted to make LONG LOST SON.

Published February 5, 2009

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Photos: Liane Hentscher


Written by Richard Blade
Directed by Briant Trenchard-Smith

Kristen (Gabrielle Anwar) has reluctantly made peace with the loss of her son Mark (Chace Crawford) when her estranged husband Quinn (Craig Sheffer) took him for the weekend and went sailing in a dangerous storm 14 years ago. She has remarried and moved on. But while watching a vacation video her friends took while on a remote island, Kristen sees a glimpse of two faces in the background - faces, she is convinced, are Mike - and her long lost son Mark.

Kristen immediately flies to the small Caribbean island. She discovers that Quinn and Mark have established themselves as "Captain John" and "Matthew" - and they charter a boat to tourists. Mike has left for a few days, leaving Mark in charge of the business. She plans to meet the next day. When Mike calls in to Mark that evening, however, he is tipped off by an innocent clue - and he immediately orders an unsuspecting Mark to pack up the boat and leave. This time she's not going to give up.

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