The Staircase had been difficult—not enough money, not enough experienced crew, not enough time—but that seems to be the rule rather than the exception in this industry. It was a good script, based on fact with minimal Hollywood fantasy mixed in; the story of Santa Fe’s Miraculous Staircase in the Sisters of Loretta Chapel.
My stay in New Mexico was interrupted by the unexpected news that my mother had died of a heart attack. I rushed home to take care of her funeral and other immediate issues. A week later, I returned to Santa Fe to finish the movie. Then came the dreaded trip home to Atlanta, where I was inundated by legal matters and quickly learned that a death certificated was required for literally everything—even disconnecting the telephone.
I remember hearing once that we survive life’s difficult times because we are too dumb to know we can’t. I waded through all the legal red tape and once on the other side, wondered, what do I do now? Thanksgiving had come and gone, and Christmas was fast upon us. A friend in Miami offered a way out: “Come down here and stay as long as you want.” That was it; I would leave that evening, drive as long as I wanted and arrive the next day. I went out to run some errands and returned home to several voicemails. One was from a producer I’d worked with before, Gerritt Van Der Meer. “Joe, this is Gerritt. Please call me.” He gave me a phone number considerably longer than ten digits.
I dialed and he answered immediately, was brief and direct: “Are you available for work?” I said I was and asked when he needed a set decorator. “Yesterday,” he answered. “Is your passport in order?” I told him it was. “Can you leave tomorrow?” I guess so. “I’ll have Diane call you in the morning with your travel itinerary.” “Gerritt, where am I going?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, laughing. “We’re in Amsterdam, and we’re shooting a four hour miniseries.” In less than 24 hours I was on a plane.
Arriving in Amsterdam, I was greeted by the production designer, who gave me a script and told me to rest up; we would have a staff meeting the next morning. Starving, I decided to venture out, eat as quickly as possible, then hopefully sleep some.
Directly across the plaza was a much too familiar site: Burger King. But what the hell, I had just flown several thousand miles and would settle for a Whopper. Just like home—except my order included a small container of mayonnaise for the French fries (frites, they call them). Suddenly I remembered the scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta tells Samuel L. Jackson that Dutch people put mayonnaise on their fries. They both thought that was gross. But you know, it’s not bad.
At the meeting I met the art director, his assistant, and three local crew members: Nienka, her husband Michel, and Ann Marie. I learned that I had been rushed in to replace a set decorator from London. “When is the first day of shooting?” I asked. Malcolm looked at me with what I can only call pity. “Tomorrow. 7:30.”
The first day’s work included a scene set in NYC’s Central Park. A hot dog cart, a large trash can, a nondescript park bench. Easy enough. Day three was something else entirely. We needed to create a New York apartment, and I found out that morning that virtually nothing had been acquired. Nothing. It was one of those moments when you want to throw up your hands and yell, “Who do you have to screw to get off this picture?” I wanted to, but I didn’t. It was 2 p.m.
I grabbed Nienka and a truck driver named Remko. We sped to the store farthest away that had the most American-looking furniture and went through the store tagging pieces with post-it notes. Nienka made a deal with the owner and we loaded up and moved on to the next store. In all, we made five stops in four hours, all across town.
We got back about 6:30, after all the stores had closed, and began putting pieces into place. I added some magazines, some clothing, and the space came to life. Then, I just remember hearing: “What about a TV?”
A TV! For this apartment we were using a suite in a Dutch hotel and the television there was a brand I had never heard of, certainly not American. I wracked my brain, then suddenly remembered the TV in my hotel room was a Philips. It would work. I ran back to plead with the hotel manager, who laughed and kindly let us borrow an extra television he had in storage. Done, at last. 10 p.m.
Later, I cornered Gerritt in the living room and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me Monday was the first day of shooting?” He patted me on the back, laughing. “Because you wouldn’t have come.”
By mid-February, we’d finished the Amsterdam scenes and the medical advisor and I boarded a KLM 747 bound for Johannesburg, South Africa, where we would shoot the rest of the miniseries. Talk about a change. We moved ahead just one hour, but went from winter to summer overnight. And we were in Africa, a place I wish everyone could see. My first meal there was not at a Burger King.