Supertankers and Me
When I started planning my first feature Schultze
Gets the Blues (I did documentaries before about fishing, wine
harvesting, horse racing and such), I thought the more I’m prepared,
the more I’ll have the freedom to improvise.
So we did a lot of research in Germany as well as in the U.S.
When we thought we were ready, a hurricane cut off all communication
We went there anyway.
It couldn’t be so bad.
Then the story with the supertanker happened.
On our first day of shooting we were at the shores of Port Arthur Canal,
which leads to the Gulf of Mexico.
Port Arthur‘s impressive oil refineries on the right, oil platforms
at the horizon.
For tactical reasons we only shot with the basic team: director, photographer,
assistant, sound man and the two producers.
The plan was to film in one wide shot how our hero’s small blue
boat (later called the “Blue Bomb” for reasons still to
come) putt-putts towards the Gulf.
Not wanting to bother our leading actor with the unnecessary task of
steering the boat (he wouldn’t be recognized on screen anyway),
my two producers decided they would do the “stunt.”
So they got ready and we got ready and when I saw one huge supertanker
in the distance they got the green light.
They set off, we roll, they pass safely in front of the tanker and everything
It’s just that it’s a low-budget production and the producers
are on the boat.
So they decide, while the Director of Photography and I are thinking
about doing one more take, to turn the motor off to save gas (that’s
before Iraq and rising oil prices!).
And they can’t turn it on again!
Frantic but fruitless discussions on the walkies.
So here they go drifting slowly towards the Gulf and while I’m
thinking about if I can go on shooting without them (yes, but I needed
the boat) or how much it will cost to fly them back from, let’s
say Acapulco, there’s another huge supertanker approaching from
the right towards them.
Now huge supertankers are not exceptionally fast but they don’t
have brakes either.
What was about to happen was an elephant overrunning a tiny ant.
And he wouldn’t even realize that he did so.
It’s getting dark, too.
So I think: First day of shooting.
It can’t get worse.
Then the cops arrive.
We’re in Texas.
They ask what we are doing here and who is in charge.
I point helplessly to the boat, a gesture supposed to explain it all.
In doing so I see a small boat passing ours.
The producers are waving their hands and shouting.
Because of their outboard motor the fishermen can’t hear them.
Instead they wave back in a gesture of comradeship.
Fortunately I see them approaching our boat launch.
I take the opportunity to get away from the discussions with the police
and ask the angler for help.
They immediately turn around to do so.
Thank God for American gung-ho spirit!
In Germany they would have discussed insurance first.
Since the tanker is very close now they really have to rush.
In the meantime the cops have called the coast guard, who in turn have
called the tanker’s captain, who turns off his machines now.
Suddenly it’s very quiet.
The fishermen fire a warning rocket into the dark sky, but what can
a tanker do except to continue its drift?
But probably they want to blow up the tanker rather than get its attention.
Damn American gung-ho spirit!
In Germany they at least would have asked about the insurance before
blowing it up.
And I’m thinking about how much the coast guard will charge us,
the tanker’s captain, the oil company, Texas and OPEC and for
how long we have to stay in one of those infamous Texas jails.
I’m thinking about how the rest of the team is having the time
of their lives now, back in a charming motel in Southern Louisiana.
And after how many portions of crawfish étouffé, gumbo,
Dixie beer and zydeco music they start to realize something is missing.
The tanker is very close now.
The fishermen are trying to pull the boat with a rope.
Now at the very moment when my producers see only a huge wall of oily
steel in front of them, only a few feet away, the other boat manages
to connect the rope and drives full speed towards(!) the tanker, before—by
dangerously testing the quality of the rope—turning around and
One of the producers who already got undressed because he preferred
to jump into the oily water rather than crash into a supertanker, puts
on his clothes again.
The other producer preferred to stay with the costly boat to the last.
Safely they arrive at the boat launch.
One of the cops just shakes his head in disbelief, murmuring that he’d
never seen a thing like that in his whole life.
They get back into their car without us and drive peacefully away.
We get the boat out of the water.
We never hear from the coast guard nor from OPEC.
The first shooting day in the USA was over.
I got my shot.
When people now see this very scene they ask if the tanker is digital.