Film: That joke's not funny any more

Film editor Guy Bensley was having a hard time working on LA Without a Map. Then a fax from Johnny Depp arrived and things got a lot worse
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The Independent Culture
I have a cutting room with sliding doors that open onto a pool glistening in the late afternoon Californian sun, a picture window with panoramic views of Los Angeles and for work LA Without a Map, a gentle parody of Hollywood featuring this season's hippest dude, Vincent Gallo, plus a cameo from Johnny Depp... Surely a dream come true for an English editor in November. So how did it all come to resemble the worst kind of living nightmare?

I first met Mika Kaurismaki, the director, with one of his producers in a room in Charlotte Street. I had recently finished cutting my second feature film, and he liked what he had seen of my work to date. A sticky meeting ensued, but despite the unpromising combination of his diffidence and my frivolity I was eventually employed to start work in LA at the beginning of November.

The production of a film involves a series of pivotal relationships, some of which can survive and even thrive on tension, while others cease to function without at least an element of co-operation. The editor-director axis falls firmly into the latter group. And so armed in this respect with no more credit that the doubtful half smile earned from an hour's ingratiation many months before, I set off to LA with some trepidation (to add to my problems, despite a desperate last-minute bid by the heroically overworked London production office to legitimise my trip, I am due to arrive in the US without a work permit).

So much for the down side. The die was cast, and since this is Hollywood after all, let's talk the prospects up a little. We are to stay in Wim Wenders' house above Sunset Strip. Cool!

But hang on - who's we? Well, here's the deal. In the interests of good housekeeping - which after all is the producer's prevailing interest - the director plus girlfriend, an English producer, the lead actor from Scotland, and the editor are all going to muck in together!

Oh, and as it later transpires, anyone's mate who happens to be passing. "I'm sure there's another mattress in Wim's darkroom..." It's sold to us as the film-making equivalent of Utopian Socialism, Robert Owen comes to California at last...

After a sweaty passage through customs in which I unfortunately fail to incriminate myself as illegal labour, I cross the concourse of LAX unmet by my housemates. I locate the house in gathering gloom, where I am met by a welcoming party that resembles a family of badgers sniffing the mouth of their sett and scenting baiters. David the actor resolves the stand-off by cheerfully hauling my bags into the house and asking about the flight.

While the others fan out into the city the following morning to rehearse or schedule shooting (it is Saturday, filming starts on Monday), I slump in the vast, cool living area and stare out at the rain, breaking off occasionally to ponder the mysterious notes I made back in England about the workings of Avid. This is the computer editing system that I have been persuaded to give my rookie performance on, right here in LA. A brief contemplation of my rudimentary sketches of the myriad icons that make up the edit tool turns my stomach to lead, my mouse hand to jelly.

First Monday. Lynne, my Cockney Californian assistant arrives to soothe my nerves. The Avid will arrive this afternoon, so in lovely sunshine we lunch al fresco and talk of pubs in West London and the absurd simplicity of the Avid system. Definitely a high point, a brief plateau of contentment from which I am to rapidly descend...

A few days on, and Mika and I have come no closer to developing a rapport. I have done my bit for the cause by sharing the margaritas `n' corn chips sundowner routine while affecting an interest in the Weather Channel (one of the in-jokes that preceded my arrival) but the wheels of conversation still stubbornly refuse to turn. This is, I realise, at least in part a Cultural Thing. Just as the Finnish language has no word for "sorry", it also holds no place for the everyday exchange of matters banal or incidental - that is to say, conversation. Since English is the lingua franca of the house, and Mika, like all Finns, speaks it well (if sparingly) this mutist approach strikes me as somewhat hostile.

A fax arrives one afternoon. Since the first week has seen a sheaf of jolly, well-wishing messages pour through, this latest one comes as no surprise. The single scene in the film in which Depp has a substantial amount of dialogue has been grossly expanded and overwritten to delirious comic effect. Lynne and I greatly enjoy this satire on the film world, on its self-inflated stars and rampant egos, so much in the spirit of the film itself.

The gang return from shooting. First Julie the producer and David, who share in our delight, then Mika, who takes the fax, reads it solemnly, turns a silent crimson and retreats to the kitchen. That there has been a misunderstanding quickly becomes apparent. Things will never be the same. Sadly, they will be even worse...

Mika stews over the incident for a couple of days before unleashing his fury on me prior to a rushes screening at the lab. In anger Mika is loquacious at last, lambasting me for invading the privacy of his fax. And, more importantly, having the temerity to question the artistic judgement of Mr Depp who is, after all, responsible in no small part for the funding of the film being put in place.

Our tenuous truce snaps, and from now on I am in Mika's eyes a deplorable, contract-bound necessity, an operator whose replacement will have to wait until there is time to address it properly. In presidential, and indeed editorial, terms I am a lame duck.