The executive producer stuffed $5,000 in my pocket and $5,000 in the senior producer’s pocket.
“Never get caught in the same place, never negotiate together.”
- Got it.
“Use it only to bribe, everything else use your cards. We don’t know what you’re getting into, but we only have one shot.”
I was on assignment for Discovery Channel and being sent to the coldest province in Siberia. We were in search of an ever moving target in the wilderness, a railroad being constructed on permafrost. The idea was this track theoretically had the potential to connect London to Moscow to DC, if a tunnel were ever built through the Bering straight. Our job was to film the heck out of the extreme rail construction in action, in February, in untamed Siberia.
Even at the beginning of our trip, at a time of great determination, it seemed like a comical task to find and cover a constantly moving location in the north-east of Siberia. Furthering the complexities, the location was in an area that foreigners are not permitted to enter without government authorization, Yakutia. As I was shooting scenics in Moscow and adjusting to the time change, we received reports that a blizzard was raging four timezones away in Yakutsk and our helicopter would not be able to fly for the next several days. We were told that when we got there we would either be stranded in the city or could try to pay-off the helicopter pilot to fly anyways in the extreme weather. We called our executive producer and explained the situation. His reply:
“Book the flight to Yakutsk and you’ll figure it out on the ground.”
True to good documentary producers, we don’t show anxiety, we don’t speak of uncertainties. But this shoot was the dream of researchers and writers, myself included, not the pragmatic perspective of being in the field, as we now found ourselves.
Our fixer arranged a last minute meeting with the minister of economical development in Moscow. The minister, who had considerable investments in eastern rail, made some phone calls while scribbling on paper a map of how we would get to the site, blizzard or not. The map was complicated and involved an abbreviated helicopter flight, checkpoints, off-road driving and staying at a worker’s outpost. It sort of resembled a child’s treasure map and was hard to take seriously. But it was the tangible boost we needed to inspire hopes of the shoot actually succeeding, though the new approach would cost more than the money we had. With treasure map in hand, we booked a last minute one-way flight to Yakutsk from Vnukovo and hoped there was a Western Union for Discovery to wire us money to get out.