Shoot Interrupted by Muammar Qaddaffi

Pyramids before smog in Cairo

The two large pyramids at Giza. Richard climbed the one on the right.

Richard Sylbert invited me to help him make movies ten times in my life. I think he may have been the one for whom I have made translite backgrounds the most to date in my career. Certainly Ruby Cairo was a shoot that had some unique memories. I will focus on a couple of things in this post, reserving a few things for a later one.
It was my first visit to Egypt. Dick Sylbert (he called me Dick, too.) told me that we were going to work on a movie called Ruby Cairo. He needed some translites. We did some work here in LA near the airport for a house location. And then he said that I would come to Egypt. I would be making a translite backing of the view from the top of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
Graeme Clifford had used Dick to design his first feature as a director. That film was pretty serious. It was Frances. We went to Seattle. But more about that another time. The current shoot in Egypt was one stop along the way of a film set in foreign locations. It was a serious film, but also included some romantic themes between Liam Neeson and Andie MacDowell. One scene in particular was to connect Liam’s character’s love of golf with the story. He was to climb the great pyramid and make a dramatic golf shot from there into the swimming pool of the nearby hotel at Giza. Dick’s set on stage here in Los Angeles would have the top of the pyramid to allow him to climb the last part and the view from the real pyramid made into a translite background that I would shoot and print for him. I will talk about some details later, but today I will focus on one.
We climbed with a small group of local helpers the first day. I think it took me about 40 minutes. John King, the supervising art director, just seemed to walk up with giant strides. I seem to remember Dick’s son also joined us. Time has muddy my recollection of the crew. The Egyptian helpers took longer, as they had my 17 cases of gear in tow. I ended up setting up five 8X10 cameras to record the scene, making a long panoramic view. But we did not shoot because it got too late. We ended up spending the night.
Next day, we woke to really heavy haze. The sister pyramid was actually not even visible. In time, the haze burned off and we finally could see some things. But before we could go ahead, word was passed up the side from the bottom that we were going to have to stop work and just sit down for a while. Security concerns had changed everything. We had to wait to resume work to allow the state visit of an important person, Muammar Qaddaffi. At that time, the US was publicly mad at him and very suspicious that he had been involved in the downing of the flight out of Lockerbie that killed 270 people, including many Americans.
As we waited in the Egyptian sun, me in my white cowboy hat brought along from the states and my long sleeved chambray shirt, eventually a blue and white light plane flew up the middle of the big pyramids, apparently checking for security threats. Then a little while later, we saw a long string of cars coming. It was a caravan of around 25 Mercedes Benz cars. All were black except one which was silver. They were the 126 body type. Could not tell if they were the L type or not (five inches longer than the regular sedan), but my guess was that they were. They came to a stop on the road that cuts between the pyramids. I don’t remember being able to see whether anyone got out. But I did think that I would have had a good shot from that vantage point had I been a trained CIA assassin. The truth is more likely that both making a hole in one in the hotel pool and making a “hit” on Qaddaffi would have been nearly impossible no matter if I tried or a carefully trained professional did it. But, of course, I had no intention of doing either thing.
The string of German cars departed, stopping and lingering at the Sphinx for a half hour or so before moving on. We were then given the green light again to resume the work. I shot around sunset and climbed down with a case of film in the dark, helped along by the light show put on for the normal tourists and my Egyptian crew leader. I returned the next morning and did another series of pictures before striking my gear and going home. I will tell you about the guide I had from the Antiquities department, my Egyptian crew leader’s threats, and the mosquitoes next time I visit this shoot. Thanks for reading.


About Richard Lund

Translite photographer and a reader and a talker.
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