4 min read
At the time I was neither a redhead, nor, unfortunately, a boy. Nevertheless when I had my initial meeting with the First Lady of Jamaica, that’s what she called me: Redhead Boy.
She clearly enjoyed her position as the wife of the Jamaican Prime Minister and so broadcast this raised eyebrow kind of stuff from that elevated perch. Nevertheless, she did it with a devilish grin. I suppose it was partly to amuse herself and her small entourage and partly to get a rise from her intended subject. Perhaps she thought I was one of her subjects.
But I was too cool for school and just laughed it off.
I was back in Jamaica on another job. This one was a TV show about Jamaica’s First Lady and she was digging all the attention and fuss. We were a good size American crew so there was always plenty of fluttering around her.
We first met in her office to discuss the scenes and schedule for the show. Maybe it was how the Jamaican sun lit up the room but suddenly I became a redhead. The “boy” part? As I said, she liked to stir things up.
We got along. My job was to make sure the production moved ahead smoothly without too many bumps and to make sure she was happy. This meant she would have plenty of input into the show’s subject matter and we didn’t take too long to shoot anything that involved her.
But Here’s the Thing…
…about video/TV/movie production: it can be slow, deliberate, and laborious. If you’re just an average citizen and you’ve somehow landed in front of the camera on a real production, this can still be a thrilling predicament.
It’s new and fresh. It’s all about you. So, you will be patient and agreeable and do what you’re told. For as long as it takes.
But for those who’ve already soaked up plenty of on-air camera time… maybe not. And even less so for those in positions of power. Or who have minions to pave their way in life, thus eliminating wait time and inconvenience.
So when things got unavoidably pokey, as they sometimes do (think lighting, setting up camera moves) I made sure to sit with the First Lady and explain what was going on. And all the whys that went with that:
“Mrs…., the plan here is to give you a sort of halo effect. And to show you’re in charge. So we’re going to bring in some lights and set the camera to dolly gracefully alongside you. It will take a few minutes…”.
You get the picture.
In production, as in life, as in relationships - managing expectations, plus lots of attention, go a long way.
Generally, the First Lady enjoyed getting her 15 minutes, or in truth, 45 minutes, because that’s what we were contracted to deliver to the network.
We of course, started our programme in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica – its governmental and business center. Few tourists come this far south on the island, preferring the beaches and festival atmosphere of the north coast’s Ocho Rios, Montego Bay or Negril.
But Kingston’s got a funky street life and a hip Rasta vibe. Here you can land in some cool back alley club with the locals and put away a platter of jerk chicken, callaloo and a cold bottle of Red Stripe.
However, Kingston also echoes centuries of British rule, which only ended in 1962. So not far from clubs with names like Redbones or Barbie’s, are other places with names like Vale Royal, Admiralty Houses and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Hope.
This mix of Island and Empire adds to the rich Jamaican palette of elegant and earthy. Walking the streets of Kingston is like a passport to the land of the Royal and the Funk.
A timeless holdover from British tradition: all Jamaican schoolchildren dress in neat school uniforms, many with the traditional ties. You can always spot clusters of them going to and fro at nine and three.
These tidy and noisy little packages of Jamaica’s future generate gigawatts of renewable energy and fun wherever you see them.
We had photographed scenes with the First Lady and many of these young children in their proper uniforms. She was involved in all sorts of educational programs on the island. It was part of our show.
One of these programs was for young pregnant teens. There was a facility where these girls could find support, continue their education and learn to care for their babies. The First Lady had championed these girls and we decided this would be an important scene.
It would not be an easy or light moment like the zip-lining, polo playing or music vignettes we had covered but it would speak to an on-going issue and a hopeful solution.
And Then I Got A Call
The crew was already setting up to shoot this scene when I got a call from the First Lady’s office. An assistant abruptly announced, she didn’t want to come out. I misunderstood.
“She wants to shoot it later?”
“No. She’s changed her mind. She doesn’t want to shoot it at all.”
“Oh…”, I replied. “I’ll be right over.”
I hung up before the assistant could say anything. I sat for a moment to collect my thoughts.
Well of course we had to shoot this scene. We had limited time and money. Besides, this scene was about something. It had real world relevance and brought some gravitas to this otherwise fluffy show.
Production is nothing if not, problem solving. Fix one thing and something else breaks. Then you go fix that thing. It’s not easy creating your own world.
I let the crew know about this new wrinkle and that I was heading over to the First Lady’s. On my way, I thought about how I came to be in these situations – trying to convince people in power to do things they didn’t necessarily want to do. What were my qualifications?
Did I carry the authority of the network? Not really. Did I have any great insight or psychological training? No. Have I studied diplomacy or even learned proven methods of persuasion? Uh, uh.
So as I walked up to the First Lady’s residence, I concluded I had no qualifications whatsoever to be the person to talk her into doing this shoot.I was just doing my job. Like the guys whose task it is to diffuse unexploded bombs. People look at them in awe and also relief that they don’t have to do that job. Then they get the hell away….
This then is what gave me legitimacy and perhaps a little courage… my job.
I announced myself and an assistant let me in. There, I saw the First Lady sitting on the couch. She looked grim, ready for a fight.
“Hello Redhead Boy.”, she said, but without the smile in her voice.
“Hi Mrs…. Good morning. Can you tell me what the problem is? Something I can do?”
She was quiet, thinking. She didn’t want to engage in conversation. Disconnected is a word that came to mind.
An assistant came over and offered some breakfast. I accepted. It gave me something to do, to justify staying. And a little time to think.
The First Lady motioned to the table and joined me there.
When I’m nervous I tend to eat. In this case it was akee, saltfish and breadfruit - a traditional Jamaican breakfast. She just took sips of coffee.
I tried to be optimistic, “It’s looking good over there. The crew is setting up. The girls are excited. Eager to do their scene…”
The First Lady interrupted, “It’s too late for them. They are too old. They need to be socialized at an earlier age. That is where we must do the work!”
“Uh Mrs… they’re only like thirteen and fourteen. They’re still pretty young…”
She wasn’t buying it. Something had changed within her since we last discussed these girls. Perhaps she didn’t want to be seen with them. Or, perhaps she didn’t want the outside world to see this part of Jamaica.
Maybe she was just ashamed.
I offered up early morning platitudes about hope and purpose. Her mind seemed to be traveling elsewhere.
I couldn’t know what darkness had seized her and now creased the worry onto her face. Who or what was she thinking of? Why had she given up?
It was too early in the day for despair.
I Still Had a Job to Do
So I rose. “Well… I’m going to go back and get everyone started. We have a lot of shooting today.”
She was not expecting this. Perhaps she thought without her, we wouldn’t or couldn’t do the scene. Now she realized we were going forward without her.
“You’re going? You’re going to do this?”
“Yeah. We have to. It would be a lot better with you there, interacting with the girls….”
I got up and assured her we would do a thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of these girls. I would let her know how it went.
She looked at me and then turned away.
I moved toward the door, away from the fog in that room. I was already thinking what I would tell the Network, the Director… the girls.
“Redhead Boy!”, she snapped.
I paused. “Yes, Mrs…”
“OK… I will go with you. We will make something of these girls.”
Looking at her I saw something new. I couldn’t tell you quite what it was… but it made me suddenly feel like I enjoyed my job.
She stood and nodded, indicating I should lead the way. She and her minions followed.
But once outside, she led the way.
She even gave me a quick smile. Maybe it felt good to be walking.
Me? I was happy she was happy. Now I could get the scene shot and move on to the next. This is what I did. The First Lady showed new energy - certain of what she had to do.
With the girls, the First Lady was welcoming and encouraging. But with the cameras and crew invading their space they were at first shy.
Seeing this, the First Lady peppered them with questions and challenged them, bringing their best selves forward. I liked these girls. They too were risking their dignity, appearing before our cameras and who knows how many viewers around the world.
In this unpredictable way, they revealed to be the best of Jamaica - a jewel in its future. They were children but they knew what was important - to create a future for their children.
They were already doing their job well.