GALVESTON -- "They 'ave been accusing me of taking American sheeps seence 1812. I do not steal from my own corn creeb!" As Todd Jensen calmly recites his lines for the umpteenth time, a roaring din surrounds him; the L.A. actor's a placid atoll in a storm-tossed sea of technical dither -- appropriate considering he's playing the title role in the made-for-tourism movie The Pirate Island of Jean Laffite.
Jensen wears stunt sideburns and a get-up that might be termed "Jean Effete"; he looks like a cross between Elvis Presley in Charro! and girlie-man buccaneer Jerry Seinfeld in the Seinfeld episode "The Puffy Shirt." Jensen chomps on a cigar and crafts his characterization of the 19th-century French swashbuckler as various crew members scream at the top of their lungs, smash booms against light standards and cross aesthetic cutlasses in the collective pursuit of a single image -- or, in this case, a single scene: a Dickensian interlude featuring Jensen as the rapacious scourge of the Gulf Coast, Dan Riordan as his nemesis, U.S. Navy lieutenant Lawrence Kearny, and Austin Vernon as the ghost of a pirate whom Laffite has hanged.
Vernon's late for his call, it's the final day of filming on the six-day shoot, it's hot enough to saute a swordfish on the exposed floorboards of the dilapidated mansion that serves as a stand-in for Laffite's infamous Maison Rouge, and first assistant director Susan Jamison-Barnhart is threatening to "start throwing things soon." The 1AD -- the shoot's official badass -- relates this with her signature klieg-light grin, which she alternates with the blackout scowl she adopts when roaring out rarely obeyed orders.
Pirate's a modest (low-six-figures) flick, but the people behind it seem like sure-footed pros. The director/co-producer -- Houston-reared Grant Mitchell -- is the son of George Mitchell, developer of The Woodlands and Galveston's Pier 21. Grant also made The Great Storm, and Pirate will alternate perpetually with the popular Pier 21 attraction beginning this July or August.
It would be (too) easy to level a charge of nepotism at young Mitchell. People without talent don't get far in this biz; Grant may not be the reincarnation of Michael Curtiz, the famously irascible director of the great Errol Flynn swashbucklers Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, but he did his time at the University of Texas at Austin film school and the American Film Institute's director program, and has a shot at bigger, better things. As the crew breaks for lunch, the gangly, gregarious filmmaker talks about his next project, a "low-budget theatrical release" titled Pavilion on the Links and based on a story by literary swashbuckler Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
Abiiba Howell, Pirate's production manager and the owner of Houston's Dominion Films, is similarly situated on the career ladder. Like Grant, she occupies a relatively low rung at present, and admits that Dominion is "not [yet] equipped to do a $5 [million] to $20 million project." But she's full of ideas and undistilled ambition. Over coffee at a cool, quiet eatery near the Strand, the fast-talking, frizzy-haired woman of African-American descent says she's "antiviolence," but boasts of her first-degree black belt in karate. She also ponders the prevailing allure of stone-hearted slaver/privateer Laffite, though she might as well be talking about her relationship to her own work: "[Laffite] was such a rogue. People not strong enough to be brash themselves idolize those who are."
Back at the manse, mock Laffite Jensen muffs a few lines, director of photography David Garden notices a "boom shadow" in Jensen's cigar smoke during the day's best take (the aggrieved DP, literally jumping up and down, wails that it's "one of the most amazing problems I've ever seen"), the dude in charge of the fake-lightning effect is too stingy with the lightning, and 1AD Jamison-Barnhart -- for all her theatrical bellowing -- can't get anyone else to shut up. Seven takes and almost two hours later, the crew finally nails down the 30-second snippet of film -- one of the final pieces of the Pirate puzzle -- and director Mitchell pumps his arm victoriously on the way out the door.
At their moment of triumph -- the one in which the collective pursuit of a singular vision has been achieved -- the Pirate gang starts breaking set and exchanging good-byes. It's on to the next shoot, the next town -- the nature of the beast. Yo ho ho.
-- Clay McNear
You can view the Houston Press's home footage of the Pirate Island shoot at www.houstonpress.com/1998/061898/nightday.html