April 19th, 1983
“Johanna still has three weeks of vacation. She is hobnobbing with the U.S. film director Steven Spielberg (he did Star Wars, E. T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Harrison Ford who starred in these films. We met a little girl at the Suisse Hotel pool who it turns out is the leading lady’s (Kate Capshaw’s) daughter. She’s six – Jessica. Anyway, Johanna is doubling as friend and guide/interpreter for the group. She leaves the house about nine, goes off to spend the morning watching the shoot on location, has lunch and spends the afternoon swimming or shopping with them, and we see her sometime after dinner. I can’t understand why he hasn’t asked her to sign on yet. Anyway, she’s keeping busy.”
This is how my mother described my April school vacation,1983 in a letter home to my Grandfather. I had just turned 11 and found myself hanging out on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Most of the filming was taking place just above the Hantana Tea plantation located across the valley on a hill opposite my house in Kandy. Each day, a van would pick me up and make the drive of about 30 minutes to the film location. My travel companions depended on the shooting schedule for the day. Most of the time Jamie (Kate Capshaw’s friend) would bring Jessica to meet her mother on location and they would pick me up on the way. But, sometimes Kate could arrive later on set and she would make the trip with us. Occasionally we would be joined by Ke Huy-Quan (Now Jonathan Ke Quan) who played Short Round in the movie. He was never without his mother. She did not speak much English and so I think he was looking after her as much as she was looking after him. It is reported that they privately referred to Spielberg and Lucas as Bearded Man 1 and Bearded Man 2. I wouldn’t be surprised, although his English was still a little rough, he was quick at making jokes and frequently made us laugh.
We would travel down the winding road from my house through the heart of Kandy before climbing the hills on the other side. I had grown accustomed to the driving in Sri Lanka. Close calls with bicycles and overcrowded buses no longer registered. But the wide eyes of my fellow passengers were a clue that driving in California was more, shall we say, regulated. When the driver would make especially adventurous forays, the van inhabitants would take a synchronized breath in as if they could somehow suck in the sides of the van as they sucked in their guts. The closer we got to the film locations, the bumpier the ride became and we bounced off each other like pinballs. Kate Capshaw would cross her arms and hold her chest, “Gotta hold on to the puppies,” she’d say. I didn’t even have kittens at the time, so I could not relate.
Some of the jungle brush surrounding the area had been freshly cut back to allow a primitive road to be built specifically for the film crew. Larger vehicles couldn’t pass beyond a certain point and we would walk up a steep series of dirt paths behind grips, best boys and gaffers carrying equipment that weighed more than we did. Yeah – I just threw those terms in there to make it sound like a film set. I really didn’t know what most of the workers scurrying around me were up to and I certainly didn’t know their titles. It all seemed very complicated. There were camera tracks on the ground, cables everywhere and men walking around with smoke machines. Yet, with all of these unusual things and all of the famous actors, directors, designers and producers, I was the one who seemed to be the curiosity.
At every break in shooting, and there seemed to be a lot of breaks, somebody would sit next to me and ask about my unique situation in Sri Lanka. After inevitably commenting on how hot it was, they would ask about food, culture and customs of the country. Many of the same crew had worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark and so I guess I was somebody new to talk to.
During one such break Jessica and I found a rock on which to eat lunch. Well, Jessica was eating; I was relishing. I had grown accustomed to and quite fond of Sri Lankan cuisine, but I hadn’t had good American fare in quite some time and the food on the set was – ridiculous. Hamburgers, potato salad, corn on the cob, BROWNIES… I climbed up the rock careful not to lose a precious french fry or deviled egg. For fans of the movie, our lunchtime rock can be seen when the boy who escapes the mine comes staggering back to his village and collapses in Indiana’s arms.
It was a warm day, but a portion of the rock was in the shade and as we ate and relished our meals respectively, Jessica and I chatted. We were soon joined by Mr. Spielberg who asked if he could share our shady spot. “Another hot one,” he said. I moved over to make room, almost losing my ear of corn in the process. After some deft maneuvering, it settled back into the middle of my plate.
“Where did you find corn like this?” I asked. “I haven’t seen any since I got here.”
Spielberg explained that none of the food they were serving was from Sri Lanka. They were worried about the health of the cast and crew, and so everything was being flown in from West Germany. I quickly saw a way that the film could save a lot of money and provide the local cooks with work and explained that the food in Sri Lanka was delicious and safe. Surprisingly the assurances of an eleven-year old did not convince him to alter the catering practices of his 28 million dollar enterprise.
“What about the water?” he asked. “You don’t drink the water do you?”
I explained that at home we boiled the water that we drank and that I’d never been sick.
“What about the showers?”
This question confused me. “We just use regular water in the showers,” I said.
“Do you keep your eyes closed?”
Again, a confusing question “I – um – only when I wash out the shampoo.”
“I keep my eyes shut when I shower here. I heard that water that gets in your eyes can find a path to your throat and if you swallow it you can get sick.”
I tried to imagine the internal connection between the eyes and the throat and made a mental note to ask my Mom about what joined the two. He was definitely concerned with cleanliness, especially of the water. Kate later told me that when they had to film the scene in which she falls into a puddle of water that they damned up a small area and filled it with bottled water.
I was about to admit that I brushed my teeth with tap water when an assistant arrived with a wax-paper wrapped sandwich for Spielberg. With all the options flown in from Europe, he had opted for a classic PB&J. The conversation turned then from water purity to crunchy versus creamy. FYI I really like them both – depends on my mood.
Filming was interesting but could be tedious. On this day, they were filming the scene when Indy, Willie and Short Round arrive in the village. (The clip can be seen here) The villagers offer them some food. Mr. Ford had asked me how to say thank you in Sinhala the day before. When we arrived on set he asked me to remind him again, and after going over the schedule for the day with the director, it had slipped his mind again. “Stuthi,” I said slowly. “Stoooooti.” As we practiced he was constantly being interrupted so finally I wrote it down on a scrap of paper and he kept it in his pocket. I helped him with a few other lines he said in Sinhalese. The speech by the village elder explaining the magic of the stones which Indy translates is all in Sinhalese. When the movie came out I read though every tiny name in the credits searching for mine. I thought, maybe I would be under special thanks. Much to my disappointment, I was not listed. But, I guess they didn’t forget me. When we were planning our wedding, my then fiancé sent letters to Ford and Spielberg who both sent back replies including this personalized best wishes from Ford on our wedding day.
The hut where they were filming the scene was cramped. I first watched the scene from behind the camera where they were shooting. Short Round spontaneously copied one of the gestures that Indy used when describing his plane crash and Spielberg liked that and asked him to mimic him some more. We watched them film the scene multiple times. By then Ford had his Sinhalese line down. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the pronunciation, but it was hot, and for some reason despite all the discussions they were having about angles and light they were not asking the the kid in the the back for her opinion on dialect. I gave Ford a thumbs up and Jessica and I went to sit outside. There were several director’s chairs just outside of the filming area and we hopped up into two empty ones next to George Lucas. I had often seen him standing with arms folded. To me, he appeared very quiet and serious and even intimidated me a bit. I tried hard not to stare at the white patch in his otherwise very dark beard. For some reason I wondered if it was real. “Action!” was heard once again from within the hut and we could catch the same dialogue we now had memorized. “I can’t eat this….That’s more food than these people eat in a week…I’m not hungry…” Just then Lucas shifted and crossed his legs and the chair he was sitting in made a terrible creaking noise. He cringed and a dozen heads snapped around to find the source of the disturbance, annoyed that the noise might have ruined the take. Lucas pointed toward me and then quickly put his finger to his lips as if to shush me. My eyes widened and my cheeks flushed. He was blaming me. But quickly he laughed – “No, my fault,” he said quietly to the crew as he patted his stomach. “Too much lunch.” Jessica and I giggled about it later. “He pretended he farted!” she laughed. I guess he wasn’t so serious after all.