SLAYING THE BADGER - an ESPN feature documentary

March 2013: Reunited with the ’Bradley Wiggins: A Year In Yellow’ team, director John Dower and sound recordist Steve Hopkins, for the first shoot of another great cycling film. Produced by Passion Pictures and based on Richard Moore’s great book ’Slaying The Badger’, the film tells the story of 1986, arguably the greatest ever Tour de France when ’The Badger’, five times tour winner Bernard Hinault, controversially fought it out with his La Vie Claire team mate Greg Le Mond. The young American had ridden for Hinault’s fifth Tour win in 1985, on the understanding that Hinault would return the favour in ‘86. Not so: he started attacking Le Mond in the mountains and didn’t let up all the way to Paris. Aside from telling a riveting story the film also takes us into the modern day. The film will remind Americans that they do have a great, clean hero in cycling: Greg Le Mond - 3x Tour De France winner, 2x World Champion, not to mention a host of other victories, and all at a time when outsiders were pioneers and largely unsupported in Europe.

We shot in Minnesota and Santa Barbara and will be returning later in the Summer after various trips to Europe.

While Germans such as Karl Haushofer and General Erich von Ludendorff admired Japan’s racial homogeneity, its purely national religion, and its militaristic esprit, Hitler and most of his Aryan supremacists were embarrassed by their alliance with one of the Untermenschen. The Japanese humiliation of the British at Singapore actually appears to have caused the Führer considerable distress. The Japanese, in turn, had to purge their translations of Mein Kampf of the worst racial slurs, and engaged in a great deal of vacuous rhetoric to try to disguise the hollowness of their relationship with Germany. Privately, the Japanese- with conspicuous exceptions among die-hard fascists- often expressed contempt for their German allies (they appear to have generally ignored the Italians).
—  War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (John W. Dower)


I recently started work in Los Angeles on a theatrical feature documentary for BBC Films, produced by double Oscar-winner Simon Chinn. Directed by John Dower, the film is fronted and co-written by Louis Theroux on the subject of Scientology. Louis has wanted to make a film about Scientology for many years; finally it is happening and on a much broader canvas than his television programmes. When the project was first mentioned to me in August last year, I was of course interested (who wouldn’t be?) but I did wonder how on earth you would go about tackling such a difficult, thorny and in some respects well-worn subject. Now I can say, having completed the first block of shooting (with some notable Theroux moments), not only is it possible but it also has the potential to result in a great film.

Due to the nature of the subject matter I am not going to post stills or writing on the filming process but, from the camera dept’s point of view, the main challenge for me is to shoot the film in such a way that does justice to the big screen, whilst also giving Louis the freewheeling space he needs to do his thing. As so often the case on single docs, the development of the style is something of an organic process but we are making significant use of car mounts and very much using LA as a character in itself. Given that access to the Church of Scientology is out of the question, John & Louis have devised an interesting approach to shedding light on this most secretive of organisations. Louis is also keen to take a neutral approach; much has been made of the negative experiences of those who have left but he is equally interested in what attracted them in the first place. Scientology is not a black & white subject; it is an extremely complex story - with no access! However I am confident in the film makers and, whatever the outcome, it’s going to be an interesting ride…

Tech specs: Sony F55, Angenieux Optimos 15-40mm, 28-76mm / Zeiss CP.2 135mm / 24fps / 1.185:1 / 2K 

World War Two contributed immeasurably not only to a sharpened awareness of racism within the United States, but also to more radical demands that militant tactics on the part of the victims of discrimination.
This was equally true abroad, especially in Asia, where the Allied struggle against Japan exposed the racist underpinnings of the European and American colonial structure. Japan did not invade independent countries in southern Asia. It invaded colonial outposts which the Westerners had dominated for generations, taking absolutely for granted their racial and cultural superiority over their Asian subjects. Japan’s belated emergence as a dominant power in Asia, culminating in the devastating “advance south” of 1941-42, challenged not just the Western presence but the entire mystique of white supremacism on which centuries of European and American expansion had rested.
—  War Without Mercy - Race & Power in the Pacific War (John W. Dower)


October & December saw Los Angeles shoots #4 and #5 of the film completed and we are now wrapped (I think…).  By the final shoot of this ambitious project, produced by ‘double Oscar winner’ Simon Chinn, the film had morphed into a truly surreal experience for all concerned. Scientologists were now coming out of the woodwork - confronting us, filming us, tailing us. Marty Rathburn was even being accosted by Church higher-ups at LAX:

While these experiences were being covered by us in a reasonably traditional manner, director John Dower, Louis & I were hard at work on more constructed elements in various Hollywood studios that I think will really make this film unusual, and hopefully instructive and entertaining. So much of what we have attempted has been a gamble, and who knows quite how it will turn out, but I can safely say you will never have seen a Louis Theroux film like this!

Tech specs: Sony F55, Angenieux Optimos 15-40mm, 28-76mm / Zeiss CP.2 135mm / 24fps / 1.185:1 / 2K

‘All these radio announcers talking about yellow this, yellow that,’ a Harlem resident was quoted as saying. 'Don’t hear them calling the Nazis white this, pink that. What the hell color do they think the Chinese are anyway!’

On the “Yellow Peril” in the United States during World War II

War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (John Dower)

‘In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people,’ he explained in one of his first reports from the Pacific. 'But out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.’ To Pyle himself, this seemed a perfectly appropriate response, for he went on to describe how, soon after arriving, he had seen some Japanese prisoners in a fenced-in enclosure. 'They were wrestling and laughing and talking just like normal human beings,’ he wrote. 'And yet they gave me the creeps, and I wanted a mental bath after looking at them.’
—  John Dower quoting journalist Ernie Pyle, a “folk hero among American war correspondents,” with dispatches carried by almost 700 newspapers with 14 million readers in War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War


Recently back from Los Angeles and Shoot #3.  As noted in previous  posts, due to the nature of the subject matter, I am not going into detail or posting pictures regarding the process. July was hot in LA and even hotter in the desert, where we had our first run in with actual living, breathing Scientologists - a dispute over private/public land. They also sent a couple of amateur journalists to film us one morning as we arrived at a film studio for work; surprisingly, they seemed unprepared for having the cameras turned upon themselves. The Church of Scientology seems bothered by the fact we are filming with certain prominent ex-members of the church, who they label as bitter & twisted and accuse of having their own warped agenda. However the church have repeatedly refused to put anyone forward for interview and have denied us all access; so naturally Louis would speak to ex-members, who were highly placed inside the church for many years, and who would have unique experience of its inner machinations. As one would expect from a BBC journalist, Louis does not take everything they tell him at face value and challenges their motivations and psychology. This film may be many things but it will certainly not be one-sided. Louis is genuinely interested in understanding Scientology and wants to take the audience with him. 

Tech specs: Sony F55, Angenieux Optimos 15-40mm, 28-76mm / Zeiss CP.2 135mm / 24fps / 1.185:1 / 2K 

Daily Draw Feburary #4: Ivy Crests and Flowers That All Look the Same

Japanese family crests (mon) are a fascinating subject for me.  If you’re at all interested I can’t recommend The Elements of Japanese Design, John Dower enough.  I’m certainly not the type of person who says things like, “All flowers look the same,” but I’m hardly a botany student. More to the point, when you reduce flowers to monorchrome graphic designs…well I think some confusion is unavoidable.

The first block is Ivy designs which I’ll be using in the kimono pattern.  Seems the Ivy motif was a very popular among the pleasure houses so there’s a fun tie-in there; even if the plant isn’t ‘poisonous’ it has a seductive connotation.

The next block is just copies from Dower, I looked through to find flowers that were of a different species but had incredibly similar designs.  Trying to identify these is a bit like looking at a police lineup and I feel like there’s the makings of a great memory game here.

Now all of those flowers of the same species of course have many different versions of themselves.  Dower has thirty-five different variations on the cherry blossom and even with almost 3,000 designs the book can hardly considered to be comprehensive.  But you consider how disparate those two designs are despite being the same species compared to the second set which are all different.

I bring all this up because I had this pipe-dream for the Ivy image where I was going to have every plant in the image be poisonous. There are some major problems with this plan, namely:

  • It’s hard to figure out what plants that are native to Japan are poisonous
  • It’s really hard to figure out what the colloquial Japanese names are for poisonous plants (seriously, what is Monkshood called in Japan?)
  • It’s even harder still to find graphic representations of these plants because, and I think this is a cross-cultural thing, you don’t get a lot of imagery of poisonous plants.  Who wants something poisonous for their family crest?  Nobody, apparently.

I know this is another one of those, “I could just wing it and nobody would notice,” scenarios but as I’ve said before, that’s not really the point.