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The Story of the Elusive Envelop
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The Story of the Elusive Envelop

 

At the end of 1989 I was invited by an independent producer to direct a World War II movie entitled “Osterman Files,” based on a true event that took place in a POW camp in Germany towards the end of the war. It was to be a $10 million dollar movie, a big budget for an independent film at that time. The movie was to be shot in and around Zagreb as a co-production with Yadran Studio of Croatia, which at the time was part of Yugoslavia. At that time my agent was Martin Baum of CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and the producers contacted him to set up the terms of hiring me. Mr. Baum negotiated a very good deal, with great compensation, a large expense allowance, plus first class travel and accommodations. I was very happy because it was a very interesting project, a good story with an excellent cast, and decent budget. I love war movies and I was hoping this one could be the best of my career, and to top it all, I was to be paid well. It is customary in our business to give the director 10% of his salary upon the signing of the contract, before beginning work. The contract I had included this point, and my agent was waiting for the 10% to be paid so that I could start working. According to the producers, the money for the production was in transfer from several banks into one account, and they told us that as soon as the transfers were completed, they would write me the check for that 10%. At the same time, they wanted me to leave for Zagreb immediately, since the pre-production team was already there preparing the movie, and they needed the director on location urgently. Tremendous pressure was put on my agent to let me go to Croatia even before the first payment was made, in order not to delay the schedule. To convince him not to worry about the money, they brought all sorts of documents to his office, proving that indeed the money would be available within few days. As a sign of good will I agreed to go, if the production would provide me with a round trip first class ticket from Los Angeles to Zagreb, plus five star accommodations and weekly expenses (known in our industry as per diem). They agreed to this, and the next day I received a KLM first class ticket. I was promised that, as is customary, the line producer would meet me in the airport in Zagreb, and give me the agreed upon per diem expenses upon arrival.

 

On the designated day a stretch limousine with a uniformed chauffeur arrived at my house to whisk me off to the airport. It is starting out very well, I thought to myself. Flying first class to Amsterdam was nice and pleasant, and so was staying overnight at the five star Hotel Kampinsky. A smaller limousine took me back to the airport the next day to fly on a smaller plane to Zagreb (sorry, no first, only business class this time.) After clearing passport control I was met by the local team consisting of an American producer, Croatian producer working with Yardan, and a line producer. They drove me into town, not in a large or small limo but rather in a tiny local car driven by the producer himself.

 

Now by this point in my career I had been a director on location in many different places – the Philippines for “American Ninja,” South Africa for “American Ninja II,” Louisiana for “Avenging Force” and more. It is customary in our industry that upon arriving on location the producer immediately hands me an envelope with cash for the first week’s per diem expenses, as specified in the contract. It is especially true in foreign countries where I have no local currency to start with. But that day I was not given the expected envelope, neither at the airport, nor in the car, not even in the hotel lobby. I was puzzled but politely did not say a thing. The hotel we arrived at was the very fancy Sheraton, in the center of town, probably the best hotel in Zagreb at the time. It reflected well on the production, but the lack of the envelope was bothering me a bit. So during registration, when I was asked to give my credit card, I acted on instinct and said that I did not have any, and that if the hotel insisted on it, one of the producers should put up his credit card to vouch for me. And so it was. As I discovered three weeks later, this turned out to be a very smart move!

 

It was agreed that we would all meet for dinner that evening, after I got to my room and rested. The “room’ was an overwhelming surprise. It was the Presidential Suite, with two large rooms, including a piano, and a huge bathroom. It was on the top floor of the hotel and overlooked the old city with a magnificent view. Since it was December the suite was decorated for Christmas, with flowers, fruit baskets, and bottles of wine. It certainly appeared that the producers were living up to their word and abiding by the contract in terms of the five star accommodations. I was very happy, and called home to announce my arrival.

 

In the evening we met in the lobby in preparation for dinner, and since I had not been given the expected envelope, I approached the line producer and asked when I could expect the per diem as promised. He replied that he was very sorry for the inconvenience, but it is only a delay, because cash was not available today, but I should not worry, he added, tomorrow it would all be arranged and I will be given the per diem cash. And in the meantime, I asked, what should I do? In the meantime, he replied, that I should not worry, when in the hotel I could just sign my room number at the restaurant, and also for any other expenses such as telephone, fax, room service, bar, laundry, and so forth. Outside the hotel I should just use my own money, until cash arrives. By now my defensive guard was up. I decided that being in a Communist country, where I knew no one, it would be better if I preserved all the US dollars I was carrying with me, saving them for any possible emergency that might arise. So I declared that I had been relying on the promised per diem, and I had not brought cash with me. So unless we ate at the hotel, the production would have to take care of me whenever we were out working, and in need of food.

 

In the ensuing days and weeks we were busy with pre-production duties, mainly location scouting, production meetings to discuss logistics, wardrobe, extra casting, and so on. The envelope did not arrive the next day as promised, nor did it arrive in the following days. Whenever I asked about it the answer was the same: Don’t worry, the cash will come tomorrow. In the meantime I ate all my meals in the hotel restaurant - breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. The food was good although rather expensive, but I didn’t care since I was just signing my room number, nice and easy.

 

On top of my other duties, I was also working with a writer on a rewrite of the script. This was one of the duties stipulated in my contract, and it carried, according to the regulations of the Director’s Guild of America, as well as according to the contract, a separate fee and compensation. These are called development fees. The problem with the rewrite was that the producers did not want to fly the writer to Croatia to work with me, but rather asked me to communicate with him by fax and phone from the hotel (this was before the days of e-mail!) As needed we spoke by phone for endless hours, and then he would fax me pages, and I would fax pages back to him. As we all know, using a phone in a five star hotel is not cheap, especially if the calls are international. In the Sheraton Zagreb it was, as I discovered later, very expensive. In fact, it was very, very, expensive. So here I am, living in the Presidential Suite that I am sure is costing at least $500 a night, with mushrooming restaurant and phone bills, reaching thousands of dollars, and every time I was approached by the hotel regarding the bill I sent them to talk with the American and Croatian producers. They should take care of it.

 

Two weeks later it was Christmas. In the days leading to Christmas great events of historical proportions were unfolding in neighboring Romania – we were witnessing the downfall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and an ongoing revolution that would bring down the Communist regime. As the days passed we completed much of the necessary pre-production work, but with no starting date in sight, and more and more free time on my hands, I spent much of my time watching the Romanian drama unfold on CNN – the improvised trial, and execution of Ceausescu just a few miles away across the border. I had time to roam the streets of Zagreb, and I visited the old and new city. The one thing that made the biggest impression on me was not any historical or architectural detail, but the height of the Croatian people. I am not short by any standards, but in the streets of Zagreb almost everyone was taller than me, even the women – especially the women. After being in Manila, where all I saw walking along the streets were the tops of people’s heads, since virtually all Philippinos are shorter than me, Zagreb was a strange experience as I had to lift up my head all the time.

 

As the holiday approached, the town became more and more festive; decorations were up, people were holiday shopping, but it was a warm winter that year and no snow was in sight. The lack of snow got us all worried, since the movie we were about to shoot takes place entirely in the snow. It was an integral part of the story and we had yet to see one flake of snow. There is a film set of a German POW camp outside Zagreb, and every time we visited it, it looked like it was the middle of summer. The beautiful, sun washed grounds was not looking good for us, but there was another factor of greater concern, and it was financial. I had been involved in many productions all over the world and with all that experience I could sense that something was wrong. I still had not seen the elusive envelope, there was no definite start date, there was no money visibly being spent, and there was a lot of bickering between Yadran Studios and the American producers. Each side was expecting the other side to start spending money and neither side, it seems, had any money to spend or just did not want to be the first to start spending. I did not get my 10% advance in the United States, and no one had received any living expenses so far. In the back of my mind doubts were starting to develop that this production was not going to happen, doubts that there was no money at all for this production.

 

Christmas night was a beautiful evening. The town people gathered in the main square to celebrate with family and children in Sunday clothing, and music, food, and fireworks going on until midnight. Then we all went to one of the churches for midnight mass, carried out in the Croatian language so I did not understand a word, except for here and there “Bethlehem” and “Jerusalem” which I understood and it delighted me, because I am originally from Jerusalem.

 

The following week, between Christmas and New Years, was slow and tense. We started looking for snow outside Zagreb, in the mountains and even across the border in Hungary. But it was a warm winter, and there was no snow to be found anywhere in the area. At the same time the relationship between Yadran and the Americans was heating up and got very tense over money issues. The Sheraton was after the studio and producers for some payment since we occupied six rooms plus the presidential suite I was in, and our collective telephone, room service, laundry, and restaurant bills were already astronomical. There was no more work for us to do – the rewrite was finished, all locations were scouted, props and wardrobe were ready – so it got boring. We were thinking of renting a car and going on a tour of Dubrovnik, but decided against it.

 

Toward the end of the week, as we were approaching the New Year, I was becoming more and more convinced that this movie was not going to happen. I was sure by now that there was no money behind the production – if they could not come up with a few hundred dollars for living expenses, how could they come up with 10 million?

 

I approached the producer and line producer with my doubts and with an ultimatum - If I did not receive the 10% salary and per diem by New Year’s Day, I was going to pack up and go home. I had the round trip ticket still in my possession. The producers encouraged me not to lose faith and not to worry, because the money would soon be in the bank, I would be paid, the production would be on track, and we would all live happily ever after. I listened and kept silent but my doubts just grew, because from my experience I know one thing – when people in a position of responsibility tell me not to worry, I start to worry, and if they keep repeating it a lot, I start to worry a lot. So, at this point a new thought entered my mind, one that got me paranoid. After all, I thought to myself, here I am staying in the luxurious Sheraton, the most expensive hotel in the area, and in the very expensive presidential suite, no less. I have used the telephone in that suite for calls to Los Angeles for several hundred hours. I eat in the hotel, all three meals, every day, for three weeks straight, always signing my name and room number. Add to this the hundreds of faxes at $5 per page and laundry services, so I calculated that my bill alone would be in the tens of thousands of dollars. On the one hand I did not care because supposedly the production was taking care of the expense, and the hotel did not have my credit card number. On the other hand, what if the hotel insists on being paid and the producers back out, and the credit card they used does not cover the bill? The hotel management could insist that I pay and if I refused, they could call the police. Now, I was thinking to myself, this is a Communist country, not particularly well known for respecting human and civil rights. Here I am a foreigner, and if they took me away I could end up in a prison where nobody could trace me. They could take me from here to Belgrade and from there maybe even to Moscow, and then perhaps to some labor camp in Siberia – who knows? These are the kind of thoughts you develop when you are all alone, at night, in the huge presidential suit, at the top floor of the Sheraton hotel in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (back then we still considered Croatia to be part of Yugoslavia,) with a huge unpaid bill. So armed with this new paranoia, I knew I had to devise a plan of escape, one that was bullet proof and that no one would suspect. I could not sleep that night and spent the rest of it planning my next move, and indeed, came up with a brilliant solution.

 

The American producer in Zagreb was Clive. A very nice man, who liked fun and good food, as his guest, I visited some of the finest restaurants in the city. Clive was American of Greek descent and he kept reminding me of that fact. He also spoke a lot about Greek food and the fact that one day he would visit his ancestral homeland of Greece. We had spoken often about Greece. I told him about my traveling there, and how much I admired the Greek culture, its food, music, and people. On December 31 early in the morning I rushed to the hotel restaurant for breakfast and to meet Clive. Right away I told him that I had a great idea for the New Year. Since for the next two days everything would be closed for the holiday, we could rent a car and drive all the way down to Greece to fulfill his lifelong dream. I would be his guide for the trip since I had already been to Greece twice before. At first Clive was dumbfounded by the idea; it had never crossed his mind to just leave everything and go. But I didn’t let it go and kept after him with great enthusiasm until Clive started to think it was not a bad idea at all. From skepticism he moved to enthusiasm and when I offered to share the cost of renting the car, since it was a private excursion not related to the production, he not only agreed to go, but was also thankful to me for coming up with such a fantastic idea. We agreed that right after breakfast we should rent a car, and so we did.

 

The rest of the day our small group was busy planning the evening to come. They were eager to have a good time ushering in the New Year. Again, like in Christmas, the town people gathered in the main square with music, food, and fireworks. After the champagne at midnight, our group went back to the Sheraton to join the hotel party. It was agreed that Clive, his wife Emma who was the wardrobe designer, and I, would meet very early in the morning by the rented car in the hotel parking lot to start our vacation trip. I left the party before the others, bidding all goodnights, promising to see them all when we return from Greece. I mad sure that it is clear to everyone, that I am coming back. In the suite I packed all my belongings into the one suitcase I had brought. Luckily I always travel light, and I went to sleep setting the alarm for 5 AM.

 

When I woke up the next morning it was still dark outside and dark in the hotel corridors as I made my way out of the Presidential Suite for the last time, suitcase in hand. Despite the fact that I was pretty sure that nobody would notice me sneaking out of the hotel at such an unlikely hour, I was pretty nervous. Just to make sure I did not encounter any hotel workers, and not to raise suspicions, I did not go out through the main door and did not cross the lobby, but rather used a side door from the kitchen to the parking lot. I had found this route the day before and practiced it; to be sure it would work. The plan worked, and few moments later, I was out in the dark parking lot, waiting by the rented car, with my suitcase hidden out of sight, ready to put it in the trunk of the car.

 

Clive and Emma arrived soon after, carrying small bags for the three day trip. They were surprised by the size of my suitcase for such a short trip, but I told them that I didn’t have anything smaller, so I had packed just a few items in that case. The truth, of course, was that I had all my belongings with me, including passport, credit cards, and a few hundred dollars in cash which I had not yet spent.

 

The trip south was beautiful; we traveled through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and into Greece. It was a great opportunity for me to see the beautiful land that formerly was Yugoslavia. It took us two days to reach the Greek border and to cross into Saloniki. From the moment we left the hotel, I felt relief. Everyone knew we had just gone for a few days, so I did not think the hotel would send anyone to chase us, but still one never knows. It was only when we passed into the West, and arrived in Saloniki, that I truly breathed easier. After spending a night in Athens and visiting the city’s tourist attractions, and after eating some good Greek food, I informed Clive and Emma that I was not returning to Zagreb. Overcame the initial shock, they asked for explanation, and I told them that I was simply executing my ultimatum. The production company had not fulfilled their commitment to me, so I was not bound by any contract to stay. I also explained to them the reason for my secrecy and advised them to do the same, and not return to Zagreb, but Clive could not conceive such an idea. Our next stop was a travel agency where I arranged my flight to Los Angeles. I took advantage of the fact that I was so close to Israel, and flew to Tel Aviv to visit my family. From there I flew back to Los Angeles, never to see the Zagreb Sheraton, or the elusive envelope with my per diem.

 

In the ensuing weeks all the producers fought with each other, and finally the Los Angeles based team split up. Within this conflict I became friendly with one group that justified my actions because they too had never been paid. A few weeks later I met with Clive for lunch in Beverly Hills. A week or so after I left, he also gave up and packed to go home but with a broken heart. I learned that he had to cover the hotel bill, that amounted to several tens of thousands of dollars. As far as I know he was never compensated by the production company. The Director’s Guild of America, which was involved in drafting my contract, decided to sue the production company, to try to extract from them at least the development fee owed me, since I had fulfilled my role in rewriting the script.

 

A year or so later I was in Israel directing the movie “Delta Force III” when one night I got a telephone call from Los Angeles. In Los Angeles it was the middle of the day, and on the other side of the line was a judge who was presiding over the trial between the DGA (Director’s Guild) and the production company. He wanted answers to some questions regarding the case, and the lawyers from both sides interrogated me as well. So in fact I was on the witness stand, only from half way across the world and on the phone. The next day the lawyer from the guild called to inform me that we won the case in a grand way. The owner of the production company irritated the judge so badly that not only did he order him to pay me the development fees, but to also compensate me for the ordeal in Zagreb. He awarded me a quarter of a million dollars! Wow, I thought to myself, just like that a quarter of a million dollars, for not even doing the work. It sounded too good to be true, and indeed it was. The day after the trial the production company declared bankruptcy and soon after vanished. There was no money to collect and the whole ordeal remained in the realm of an episode I could only use as a conversation piece, a good story.

 

I know that this story is not directly related to movie making or directing movies, but indirectly it is. Its about the business of making movies, and what can happen to an innocent director on his way to the Oscars. Is there a lesson to be learned from this story? A lesson about hope, and trust, and resourcefulness? I don’t know you will have to judge for yourself. But before I go, I would like to share with you one more incident that occurred to me in Yugoslavia and then we shall part.

 

As I mentioned earlier, within our group in Zagreb there was a young Croatian producer, a wonderful man by the name of Boris. Boris was an optimistic fellow, always trying to be helpful. He kept trying to mend the rifts between Yadran Studios and the Americans, and he was our translator and host. He soon became our good friend as well. During our stay in Zagreb, neighboring Romania was going through a period of turmoil and violence. Every day I would come to Boris for an interpretation of the events across the border, to hear a local point of view. He was articulate and his opinions were interesting. One time I asked him for his opinion about the future of Yugoslavia. Could it survive as one country given that it was composed of more then six different nations? Would we see in Yugoslavia the kind of violence that was taking place in Romania? Boris got very distressed – how could I possibly compare the two countries, he asked. Such chaos and violence could never happen here, he added adamantly. His opinion was that when the system would change, it will be a peaceful change. “How could you be so sure” I asked. “Because here in Yugoslavia the people of the different ethnic groups are tolerant and peaceful, and all get along.” I don’t think Boris was nave or ignorant, but he definitely was very idealistic. As a young man, married to a beautiful woman and father to a wonderful girl, he wanted to believe in a better world. But how wrong he was.

 

So just like in the movies, on and off camera, in life there are also many surprises, twists and turns. You wish for one thing, but something ales happen. The movie “Osterman Files” resulted in memories only; pleasant, unpleasant, and funny. But in the case of the former Yugoslavia it of course went terribly wrong. When the ethnic conflicts broke out a year later in Croatia, Bosnia, and then in Kosovo, I watched the pictures on the daily news, and read about the suffering, and it wrenched my heart to see what was happening to the good people I had seen and met on my trip to Croatia. I wondered if Boris and his family, and the other people I had befriended in Zagreb were safe. My escape from the Sheraton seems so minute in comparison. Thankfully the war is over now and peace and calm have returned to the region. Maybe it is time for me to visit Dubrovnik at last.

 

 

 

Sam Firstenberg   2005