For the research and development of the series CARRIER and feature companion ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE, Director Maro Chermayeff (CARRIER) and Director Deborah Dickson (ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE) and Consulting Producer Michael Polaire (CARRIER) went on two scouts on board the USS Nimitz in February 2005 and March 2005. The following is an account of those two trips written by Chermayeff and Dickson.
This ship is really big!
We are here to figure out how we can possibly imbed a film crew of twenty on board for a full six-month deployment on a nuclear aircraft carrier headed for the Persian Gulf. All of us, like the sailors and pilots, are going to leave our families, significant others, our homes, our kids, our warm beds, our good food and glass of wine with dinner and importantly, our privacy and the only option for bunking will be the Navy racks. We are lucky because, unlike the average enlisted sailor, they have actually made available to us what are usually junior officer quarters. We will get three rooms: an eight-man stateroom for the women, and two six-man staterooms for the men. But we also have to keep ALL our equipment in our rooms, so it will be very tight. They are charging us $10 a day for food and lodging per person as guests of “Hotel Nimitz” a bargain by production standards, but the going rate on board for visitors. However, it does not resemble any hotel we have ever been to!
We have two options for feeding ourselves and our crew: the mess decks with general enlisted eating and what are called the ward rooms, which are the eating areas for officers. There are two ward rooms, one on the mess deck level, and another which is closer to the ready rooms and the flight deck where the pilots tend to eat and hang out.
We had omelets for breakfast and hamburgers for lunch. Seems okay. It reminds us both of the food in our high school cafeterias.
Our first day will be devoted to the grand tour of the ship, going from department to department. The handler’s office or flight deck control, the Captain’s Bridge/Pilot House, the mess decks, and the ordnance magazines otherwise known as “the bomb farm.” This is actually where DD has her first moment of pause as a very energetic guide points to a large weapon on the ground and says “And here is my personal favorite, ‘the cluster bomb’” We are definitely not in Kansas anymore!
We then went out onto vulture’s row, the perch overlooking the flight deck; where, with a heavy set of ear and eye protection, you can watch jets land and take off. It is the Nimitz’ version of going to the movies and I have to say we did it for hours. It never ceases to be pretty amazing! Michael is looking around and already very concerned, and rightfully so, about the radar which is going to be hell on the cameras with video and sound glitches. We begin to brainstorm ways to handle this impending problem.
For the end of the tour, we descended the metal stairwells (the first of probably hundreds of thousands of stairs we will ascend and descend over the course of six months) We soon discover The Nimitz is referred to as “the world’s largest stairmaster.“
Our afternoon is spent on the flight deck where we expect to be filming extensively. The flight deck is one of the most dangerous work places in the world. With wires re-coiling, airplanes or “birds” (as they are called) landing and propellers turning, and jet blast so powerful that it can blow you straight off the deck to plummet into water that would feel like concrete. This is an amazing and dangerous environment hence the phrase “keep your head on a swivel.” Here we learn new definitions for cats and dogs: “cats” are the people who man the catapults; and “dogs”; the arresting gear. We take a close look at the infamous set of wires, which each plane must catch with a small hook to land back on the ship. It is a pretty thick wire.
For two women who never really thought that much about planes like second-hand smoke we got our first dose of testosterone and we love it.
We are really tired. DD and MC climb into our rack tonight. No wonder the average age on this ship is nineteen! To get MC in to the upper rack, DD has to balance a chair and hold it while MC awkwardly climbs up top.
Note to selves: DO NOT DRINK WATER BEFORE GOING TO BED!
12am: WOW! We have not slept a wink.
We have been given one rubber-like pillow and one gray military blanket. We are freezing cold off the California coast in the winter. We, in the dark, put on the layers of every single item of clothing that we have brought and make another note to selves: sleeping bags, blankets and warm clothing a must. However, we have been warned that the weather takes a turn and despite being cold now that it will be literally boiling in the gulf in the summer months with temps up to 120 degrees. Camel backs and water bottles for hydration critical! We continue to make notes about the requirements and necessities to properly prepare our crew for this experience.
Breakfast is OVER by 7am. It is 7:20am so now we are going hungry. They treat us nicely. After all, we are civilian fish out of water and we get omelets even after the kitchen is closed. We determine that this special treatment will not last. (Nor should it! We have an obligation to learn how to manage our team on this tightly run ship).
We have determined that leaving your rack without everything needed for the day can be an issue. The XO says he can get anywhere on the ship in 2-3 minutes, but DD and MC are not finding that to be their experience. We decide that we must have backpacks with all necessary gear with us when we head to breakfast. Since we are now on our own, we begin the critical task of figuring out how to navigate this ship. Over the loudspeaker (called the one MC) we hear the following: “one tack ten tack bravo tack thumb tack ten.”
As filmmakers we have determined that you have to learn the ship by finding visual markers that indicate you might have taken the wrong turn. And guess what? We have taken a wrong turn. We stumble into one workspace and taped across a storage locker we see a bumper sticker “Give War A Chance”. Never seen that one before.
Since our film is about people, we determine that the best way to find subjects is to visit the workspaces and the pilot ready rooms, introduce ourselves and just talk to people and figure out who people are, where they are from and what they do in an effort to find subjects to be profiled. We, of course, meet amazing people from the minute we knock on a door, or enter a workspace. Everyone is open, warm and inviting and looks forward to sharing their experiences and lives.
We made it to breakfast waffles. Waffles, as we have discovered, are pretty much available at every meal and one sailor told us that he eats over 1,000 waffles a cruise. That is actually about six waffles a day, so we believe him.
The ship is really rocking today it is not like being on a small boat, or even a big cruise ship, It rolls from side to side (Dutch roll) and back and forth and when you sit at the breakfast table, you have to hold on to your cup of coffee. DD also notes that she is having a really hard time getting a decent cup of coffee and she CANNOT go six months without a good cup of coffee several times day! Note to selves: Starbucks.
We talk to great people all day. Now we are creating a subject profile book. We take Polaroids of everyone we meet. Take their stats, info, and story. They all love the book. It is becoming an infamous green binder under MC’s arm on the ship and now people are coming up and telling us they want to be in the book! We realize that from the POV of the shipmates, being in the book is like being listed in Who’s Who’s in America in a joking way. We are all just getting to know each other and there are expectations and presumptions on both sides. Everything in the Navy is about rank and position and we are finding our place in the pecking order.
We are happy to put as many people in the book as we can find and it is getting thicker by the minute. The more the merrier and these are all GREAT people. From 18-year-old sailors working on the flight deck or in Pri-Fly to swaggering pilots. We have met two wonderful female pilots Alex Dietrich and Laurie Coffey and there are only a few female pilots on board, so it will be interesting to find out how they came to this place and what it feels like to be a woman in this kind of job. But they are quick to tell us that they don’t really want to be pigeon-holed or be caricatures, which is very fair. We have also met a terrific young girl working in Pri-Fly, Shaneka McRead. Everyone has interesting stories and interesting lives.
Deborah and Michael and I discuss each evening all the people we have met and discuss how unique their stories are. We find it very interesting to discover from the sailors themselves when they speak on their own terms why they are here. Why they joined the Navy. And how they feel about their role in this controversial war. We are surprised to find that many of the younger people are in the Navy for personal reasons: they wanted to travel, or get money for college. Many come from come from very troubled backgrounds and that they actually have very little knowledge of what this war is really about and what America’s role really is. We are surprised and interested.
On our final evening of this scout, we have a very meaningful meeting with Captain Ted “Twig” Branch. We all confirm our shared observations: that this is a story of the people. And Twig confirms that this is his objective in allowing a film crew on board: to tell the story of the people, especially, the enlisted and not the story of the ship.
We are all on the same page, but the access has not been secured. It is been through the hard work and connections of our Consulting Producer, Captain David M. Kennedy, a retired pilot, that we have been able to secure this invitation and we are very clear with Twig that we will need to have full and unfettered access without Navy control over our content. That is critical to our integrity as documentarians. So, despite them welcoming us on board, we will have to get CHINFO approval from Washington, D.C. and we will have to have the support of Admiral Peter Daly. Admiral Daly has just rotated to this command and is not on board yet. We cross our fingers that he shares Twig’s views on why this is an important and timely film project. But, in the end, it is all about trust and being very clear about our plans.
We schedule another visit to the ship for a few weeks down the line. We plan to do test shoots with a variety of viable cameras and bring a scout crew with us so we can address all of our technical concerns, as well as lock down production details and meet more people. One thing we know is that this environment is so enormous that we all know we want to shoot on cameras with great visuals. We do not want to make what we refer to as a run-and-gun show. We are researching all the newest and best High definition cameras.
Back home on terra firma, we now know the meaning of the term “sea-legs.” We were not dizzy or seasick on the boat, but now on land and no longer rocking, we are rocking back and forth in our heads, awake and asleep and we cannot make it stop. It is really strange and disorienting and, apparently, common. Well, you learn something new everyday, and in the case of the Carrier, every minute.
More to come.
Everyone is excited to see us, which is a good sign. We have brought with us cinematographer Don Lenzer; camera assistant and DP in his own right, Tony Rossi; and sound, Alan Barker. All very experienced documentary veterans. We have also brought with us five different kinds of cameras and a variety of sound equipment.
Our hosts inform us that due to some DV’s on board (distinguished visitors) the only room they have available for us for this trip will be a two-man stateroom for MC and DD but the men will have to lodge in enlisted quarters where they have found some spare racks amongst 180 enlisted sailors.
Breakfast at 6am. Don Lenzer has been awake and roaming around since 4am and we find him in wardroom 3, eating cereal. He is very good-natured about the fact that he got little to no sleep. He is adjusting to the noise, and the racks, which have so little head room that it is difficult for a full-sized man to sleep on his side. DD and MC think back to some of the 6’-4” sailors that they met on the first scout.
Today we going straight to the source of concerns are shooting on the flight deck. As suspected, the radar issues are major and some wise advisors from the cryptology group have told us that the radar will actually increase as we are going to be a fully deployed ship with the full associated armada and air wing, which have their own radar which will also be in play.
Michael observes that it depends where you are on the flight deck for it to go from bad to worse, but in radar intensive areas such as the “paddles” area right where the jets fly on, and up on vulture’s row with the rotating radar dish it is just terrible. We have also found that some cameras are worse then others. The smaller cameras literally turn off automatically when a radar hit affects them. The larger cameras are getting bad glitches across the frame and the sound recordist is finding buzz-like sound hits, akin to a mosquito zapper. We all re-group and begin the process of realizing we will be needing “barney-like” soft cases hand-built for our camera and sound gear of choice with many layers of protective material, which will encase the equipment when we are on the deck.
We determine that we want to shoot the series with HD cameras and are leaning towards the Panasonic Varicam, which is just beautiful. We will have to discuss this with Icon and share all of our findings and discuss the dailies with them to evaluate the quality of image because every choice we make has ripple effects across our budget.
Cannot describe in enough detail how now on trip 2 and approximately 12-15 meals on the Nimitz that we have had more more food here then one would request for a lifetime! All this as we sit in the ward room and envision the next six months of our lives, or about 5,475 meals.
All the sailors talk about how much weight they loose on a cruise because of the heat and strenuous work. But MC knows that this will not be the case for her because English muffins with peanut butter on them are very caloric when eaten by the truckload three times day. And rice at every meal is a carb avoider’s biggest nightmare. And every menu contains meat, meat and more meat, except we don’t know what kind of meat it is: could be pork, could be veal; no, veal would be too expensive. We decide chicken is always a safe guess because everything tastes a little bit like chicken. We concur. The best meal on board is the chicken adobo because the kitchen is historically managed by Filipinos in the Navy and the tradition still stands. So, needless to say, the adobo rocks.
We are looking at all of our footage from yesterday. It looks really good, and we are seeing what works best stylistically, and what does not. This environment has unexpected beauty, but pretty harsh lighting. We have been given a small room off of the print shop, below the mess decks, as a small production office. We determined from this act of generosity that we must have a production office for the deployment. So we will start working on them right now to make this room a permanent “film crew” office. We also go about setting up e-mail accounts, because general Internet or surfing the web does not work because out to sea, the satellites can be used to track the ship’s movements, which are classified. And you can never write anything about the ship’s activities or locations to friends and family because “loose lips sink ships.” So everyone has to have their own Nimitz account and, we are told and have already experienced, that they can go down frequently, as do the outgoing (phone-card) telephone lines. When the services are off, it is called “river city” but we are not sure where that name comes from. Yet.
Today is an ordnance and supply on-load. The ship the USS Bridge sidles up along side us and loads on equipment and bombs on cables over the water. Apparently this is a very precise act of physics. The ships must travel at the same speed and particular distance apart at all times! Otherwise, they will collide. Helicopters move gear from ship to ship. It is an amazing ballet. We film for a long time from every angle. Don is in heaven because these are fantastic things to film, so visual and stunning. We have heard that these kinds of activities occur at sea because it is far safer then were they to occur pier side, which makes sense, but what an orchestration.
Today is the pilot “quals.” We are shooting on the flight deck and up in Pri-Fly primarily. Each pilot must be qualified and stay qualified at all times during a deployment. Especially for landing at night. One pilot tells us that you never get used to landing at night.
Less coffee, less soft toilet paper, less phone calls, less Internet, less privacy, less wine, less time to notice.
More English muffins, more sleepless nights, more cold, more hot, more waffles, more cheeseburgers, more ordnance, more cereal, more filming, more radar hits, more diet coke (then even MC could dream of) more great people, and, importantly, more really relevant reasons to tell the stories of these people in a way that has never been told before.
Heading home, we barely get to the airport off the ship with minutes to spare. We are not looking our best and have not had a bath or a good “Hollywood” shower in days. For some reason, the water was freezing.
As we rush our bags through the conveyor belt, MC steps through security. Buzzer sounds. Remove belt. Buzzer sounds. Put keys into a plastic dish. Buzzer sounds. Some talk is heard in the background about dental fillings. Buzzer sounds. They pull us over to the side and run a wand all over us. We are taken to another room to take off pants, shirt and still we are not passing muster! We are getting very close to missing our plane. This has taken about 35 minutes! They begin asking questions.
Fearing a probing strip search, finally, it gets down to MC screaming: “What is going on here?” And they scream back: “WHY ARE YOU TESTING POSITIVE FOR EXPLOSIVES?!”
MC waves a hand in the air: “Oh, that. We have been on board the Nimitz. We were filming. I was sitting on top of bomb casings while I was taking notes.” You can just imagine! Lots of laughter and relief and we find it interesting that that relieves them; but, after all, this is San Diego. They have a lot of military passing through security at this airport. Our initiation is complete. Let the games begin: we have officially gone native as the Navy likes to say and “tested positive for explosives.”
This is going to be a very tough series and a very tough shoot. We feel very determined to let everything the shipmates, the politics, the environment, the danger, the controversies speak for itself.
On to the incredible work required to prepare us for clearly what will be one of the most amazing and fascinating and difficult journeys of a lifetime.