Did I ever tell you about the time I nearly burned down a cabaña in Mexico?
In the summer of 2006, my wife Jen and I joined about 80 other people to celebrate the wedding of our good friends Chris and Sara in Tulum, which is about 60 miles south of Cancun. The assembled throng completely took over one of the beachside resorts, which consisted of a series of standalone cabañas, all overlooking the Caribbean.
Jen and I were excited to return to Tulum; we had spent three weeks in the general vicinity for our belated honeymoon in the summer of 2001, and when we heard that Chris and Sara's wedding would be happening there, we didn't hesitate to RSVP in the affirmative.
I also spotted a personal opportunity, which was to shoot a music video for "The Legend of Enrico Corazon," a traditional Mexican folk song I had written a few years before, largely inspired by that first honeymoon trip. It's a humorous song about "a legendary Latin lover" that had been a hit, insofar as a song whose biggest-ever live audience was probably 50 people, can be a hit. Which is to say, my friends liked it.
There were a few factors that made me feel I had to go forward with the idea. First, I could shoot entirely outdoors in the daytime, which eliminated the need for lighting setups, always the most time-consuming factor in filmmaking; second, since it would be a music video (I already had a great recording of the song, lovingly produced by my friend Larry Heinemann), I would also have no need to record any sound, always the biggest postproduction headache, as a music video is like a silent movie; third, I would have an abundance of friends on hand who I could beg, bribe, or otherwide coerce into appearing in the piece; and fourth, having already spent a good bit of time there, several shooting locations came to mind right away. It felt like the stars were aligning, and that I had to do this project.
Once I enlisted my friend Brian Scott, a gifted physical actor who's spent quite a bit of time banging on tubes in blue grease paint, to play the role of Enrico Corazon, I knew it was on. I spent the entire four-hour flight listing locations and drawing storyboards in a notebook (which I ended up almost totally ignoring when shooting began), and spent the next two days shooting scenes of Brian (as Enrico) silently romancing all the women in the wedding party, one at a time.
Everything was going great, all things considered. It was easy enough to wrangle people into doing short scenes with Brian, as none of them took more than a few minutes to shoot, but it did require a lot of Brian's time, as he was in nearly every shot. He was a great sport about it, though, and I was getting a lot of great stuff. After two days' shooting, I told Brian I had enough Enrico scenes, but it nagged at me that an entire piece shot in blinding sunlight, particularly when its major theme is the act of love, didn't seem quite right. I needed some more intimate material, something in dimmer light, evocative of the act the song was describing.
Then I had an idea. Chris and Sara had given a little goodie bag to each of the wedding guests that contained a half-dozen votive candles and a little lantern, which was a handy gift because everyone was staying in 12' round cabanas with thatched roofs and no electricity. Wandering around the compound I noticed a lot of those goodie bags laying around untouched, presumably because most of the wedding guests were Burning Man veterans, well accustomed to partying in the dark and equipped with headlamps and flashlights.
So my idea was to gather up as many of those candles as I could, arrange them sexily in my cabana, and shoot some candlelit bedroom scenes with Brian and whichever of the ladies I could cajole into doing one more scene.
I saw Brian, my star, early the next morning and told him my idea. He said he was up for it, but that he was going to check out some jungle ruins or a ceñote or something like that (here my memory fails me). I asked him to try to get back to my cabaña around dark, and he said he'd be there.
By this time, I had commandeered two full days of Brian's Caribbean vacation, and did not feel entitled to demand any more of his time -- it's not like I was paying him -- so I did not push him on this point. I feared that with no cell phone service in the region, the generally decadent atmosphere around this wedding (which was glorious; have I emphasized that this wedding was a barrel of laughs from beginning to end? No? It was a barrel of laughs from beginning to end), and his trip inland to a jungle ruin would combine to wreck my little plan, but I didn't feel I had the right to do any more than hope for the best.
As dark fell, I had seen or heard no sign of Brian's return from the jungle or wherever he'd gone. I asked around and someone told me they'd seen him getting in a car to go into town and get dinner. I didn't know if he'd be back to shoot the scene or not, but I went ahead and started arranging and lighting the candles anyway. It took much longer than I expected -- I was probably at it for 90 minutes or so, maybe longer. It was getting hot in there, but my camera tests looked great, but Brian was still nowhere to be found. I knew that although it would be dark for many more hours, my window of opportunity was short, because by about 10pm the party would get cracking in earnest, as it had the previous two nights (have I mentioned that this wedding was super, super fun?), so if he didn't come back soon, it wasn't going to happen. I wiped sweat off my brow (the candles were making it really hot in there) and considered my predicament.
That's when I remembered the mariachis.
I had encountered a mariachi band at an outdoor restaurant about a mile walk down the road from my cabana the day before and quickly offered them $100 to come back the next night and stand behind me and pretend to accompany me while I played guitar and sang my song into the camera. They barely understood what I was asking, thanks to my pitiful Spanish, but I somehow managed to get my point across. Amusingly, they asked no questions whatsoever about me, the video, where it would be shown, or anything else -- once they heard "one hundred dollars" the deal was done, and we agreed to meet at nine o'clock. I felt the video gods were smiling on me.
So now, alone in my cabana, the room ablaze with five or six dozen candles, I faced a dilemma. It was a little after nine. I needed to get myself, my guitar, and my video camera a mile down the road as soon as humanly possible, or lose the opportunity to get the crucial shots of myself leading a mariachi band. At the same time, all these candles had taken over an hour to light, and if I blew them all out now and somehow managed to shepherd Brian into the cabaña for one last scene, it would take me another hour to get them all lit again, an hour I knew Brian would spend (quite justifiably) chomping at the bit to get back to the party.
I made a snap decision: leave the candles burning, run down the road, shoot the stuff with the mariachis as quickly as possible, hope I'd find Brian down there (this restaurant had become the default meeting spot for the whole wedding party), bring him back to the cabaña, get these last few sexy shots, and get back to the night's planned revelry (have I mentioned that this wedding was the most fun ever?).
I quickly changed clothes and hustled down the road with my guitar and my camera. It was about a 15 minute trip, and I was probably halfway there when I started hearing a voice in my head. The voice was my own, and I couldn't deny it was making a lot of sense:
"Did you really just leave 80 candles burning unattended in a tiny wooden structure with a thatched roof? How stupid are you? What do you think are the odds that the thing is not a smoldering heap of nothing when you get back there? You have done a lot of stupid things, my friend, but you're going to have to change your name after this one..."
On and on, my own chastising voice played in a loop in my head. I considered going back, but by this time I was closer to the restaurant than I was to the cabaña, and I really, really wanted to get this shot with the mariachis, so I decided to press on with the plan, though I was starting to feel some adrenaline.
The mariachis arrived right after I did, and I had my Spanish-speaking friend Ken operate the camera and act as translator. I nervously hurried through two or three takes of the song. After the first take I saw that the shot was way underlit, but the voice reminding me of the candles in the cabaña was echoing in my head like the Tell-Tale Heart-- I was having visions of the whole thing going up like a Roman candle, taking out adjacent cabañas-- and I decided I didn't have time to find a better-lit spot, that I'd try to fix the lighting in post (that's a little filmmaking lingo there), that what I had would have to be good enough.
I ran back to the cabaña as fast as I could (which is not that fast) and breathed probably the biggest sigh of relief of my life when I saw that it was still standing. I opened the door and was hit with a blast of heat -- it was probably 110 degrees in there, thanks to all the candles. Still hoping Brian might make it back, I waited around for a little while, then decided to cut my losses; I shot the empty candlelit room, sweeping the camera over the bed and around the candles, hoping to create some semblance of a sexy vibe. Then I blew out the candles and found everybody at the bar next door, and had a great, great night (have I mentioned that this wedding was the best wedding of all time?). I mentioned nothing to Brian, because I genuinely felt (and still feel) that he did nothing wrong whatsoever; he was on vacation, and he had every right to spend it however he wanted; I felt lucky and grateful that he had given me all the time he'd already given me.
The wedding party broke up a couple of days later, but Jen and I stayed for another week of scuba diving, traveling to a more remote part of the coast. We also shot the rest of the material for the video-- all the shots of me playing the song alone. We would soon come to find out that we brought a very special souvenir back from the trip. That souvenir turned four in February, and if he ever does anything as stupid as leaving 80 candles burning unattended in a highly flammable structure, I will have to do my best to keep a straight face.
Here is the video: