Sunday, March 30, 2008


I first met Allan Eastman on the set of "Lions for Breakfast". I was starring with his girlfriend Susan Petrie and he, fresh from Bristol Film School, was anxious to check out the scene. We hit it off immediately, a couple of prairie kids who had embarked on a show business path unknown and unexperienced by any of our friends and family.

But, like baseball and most wars, the average film set is moments of extreme action and excitement between long interludes of crushing tedium. And after a couple of hours of watching me work, Allan had reached his boredom threshold and asked if I had anything he could read. I had a script I'd just written and handed it over.

At day's end, he wandered back, said he'd liked it and would I be amenable to him directing and Susan assuming the female lead. I said sure and that weekend we talked to "Lions" producer Tony Kramreither and mutual friend John Hunter about producing. They said sure and a year later "A Sweeter Song' was in the can.

See how much easier life was before Telefilm, Cavco and government supervision?

Anyway, that film launched Allan's directing, writing and producing careers; careers that have taken him around the world. And luckily for all of us, allowed him to parlay his other degree in Political Science into something more useful than a seat in the House of Commons.

Though still working, Allan now spends every available moment he can cadge traveling to places where, for some reason or another, he hasn't already been shooting on location.

This week, he had to turn back from an expedition to Everest because of the conflict in Tibet. The following is a letter he wrote me from the Tibetan border that he has agreed to share. No doubt it will become a chapter in his soon to be published travel journals.

You can find that book's first chapter at and I hope you'll share my feeling that this is a travel writer with a difference. Few of those can link working with guys like me, Grizzly Adams and John Wayne into the same anecdote. Nor do they come to the craft with an understanding of politics, history and a director's gift for turning the surrounding chaos into a focused story.

I got started in the blog world because Will Dixon published something I'd never intended to make public. And hopefully this post will inspire Allan to bring his stories online as well. He's got a lot of personal and professional insight to share and we'd all be better for the experience.

Herewith: A Dispatch From The Borders of Tibet

The locals call them “The Him-all-yahs”, not “The Him–a-lay-ahs.” Live and learn…

I’ve made it into Spring here up in the mountain village of Manali – hope you North Americans and Europeans are getting some of that too…it really is lovely, bright golden sunshine, trees budding with vivid blossoms, the snow still glinting hard white from the surrounding peaks…air so fresh, it knocks you cold after a walk. We’re about 10,000 feet here, 3200 meters, and about 100 K from the Tibetan border.

The town is full of Tibetans, local settlers but now also refugees from the Chinese crack down. About 50 of them are on a week long hunger strike in the main square here to protest Chinese rule. I sat in with them for an hour.

The political situation of Tibet is a little vague – it wasn’t recognized as a state through its long isolation from the rest of the world though it was clearly an autonomous area for centuries under the benign leadership of the Dalai Lama. After the Chinese Revolution, Mao’s troops marched in during the early 50’s, said “IT”S OURS!” and have occupied it ever since, forcing the Dalai Lama into exile here in Himchal Pradesh, where I am. The Chinese essentially want it as a buffer zone between themselves and India and there have been border skirmishes ever since.

Like everywhere under its military control, Beijing rules with a heavy hand. The Free Tibet movement is called a terrorist organization and China warns the outside world not to interfere in its “internal affairs.” They’ve moved many ethnic Chinese into Tibet and given them certain economic advantages so not the least of the native Tibetans grievances is that they are 2nd class citizens in their own country. The recent protests have been ruthlessly suppressed by the Chinese Army and many Tibetans have been killed.

It is a very interesting leverage that the Tibetans are using now. China wants to manage this summer’s Olympics in Beijing as a showcase for the new modern, economically powerful, Chinese State. Their PR clearly matters to them. What the Tibetans are exposing is that the Government is no different from the Totalitarian Monolith that gunned down the student Democracy Movement in Tien’anmen Square 19 years ago.

I remember the powerful feeling of Big Brotherism in China from my visit there 2 years ago. Soldiers everywhere, large parts of the net blacked out, massive censorship, the warning that your hotel room may be “under surveillance.” The fear of the inhabitants. This is still a Police State, and therefore a Gangster Government like the Nazis and the Stalinist Russians.

I know the West wants the cheap Chinese goods in Wal-Mart and too many powerful Corporations are getting mega richer outsourcing to there, but I do hope that the Tibetans’ brave stand against Beijing will be recognized and supported by the World at large and China humiliated at their big show.

Delhi was the most different place I’ve seen in India. New Delhi, built by the colonialist Brits is a green, leafy metropolis of wide avenues, no cows and seems a modern world City. Old Delhi still is a bazaar and is fun like all of those in India.

My old friend and collaborator, the actor Maury Chaikin was in town doing a part in Deepa Mehta’s new movie so we spent a nice Sunday hanging out before he flew back. We took pedal rickshaws to visit the Red Fort and our western bulk on these flimsy vehicles was a source of amazement and amusement to the pedestrians on the thronged sidewalks.

Maury is the first familiar face I’ve seen for almost 4 months so that was pleasant and it was totally great to just sit around and shoot the shit with someone you’ve known for a long time. We had lots of laughs recalling movies we’d done together, especially our long period in Croatia doing "Race For The Bomb". Maury played General Leslie Groves, the engineer who built the Pentagon and was placed in charge of the Manhattan Project, working with Robert Oppenheimer to build the Atomic Bomb.

That was a great shoot, despite some bizarre production decisions – I was co-directing with the insane French director Jean Francois Delassus, shooting both English and French versions and we got along about as well as Clinton and Obama – the best thing about it was the superb cast from Canada, US, France, UK, Italy and Jugoslavia. I thought at the time it was the best young cast in the entire world.

I still keep many close friendships from that 6 month shoot including the redoubtable Pier Paulo Capponi in Roma, the tragically lost Denis Forest, Tom Rack, Geza Kovacs, Ironside of course, not to mention falling in love with Cintija, getting married and becoming a father. Memorable.

Maury and I had a lot of laughs remembering people and events – my AD, Jimmy Kaufman would use the same circular hand gestures to describe anything he was trying to explain to Croatian service staff – a pot of tea, grilled lamb chops, a diet coke. Maury used to mock him unmercifully.

In old Delhi, I stayed in a really funky neighborhood called Karol Bagh. For three days there, I didn’t see another western face so that gave me a dumb sort of feeling of accomplishment, like I really had escaped the beaten path. The whole area is a vast market and I got adopted by the guys at the Juice Stand I frequented who steered me to all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies.

The 2nd part of the trip up to Simla, also spelled Shimla, was on one of the famous “Toy Trains” – a very narrow gauge railroad, about 28 inches, that more or less just climbs straight up the mountains, gaining 7000 feet in altitude in its first 30 or 40 K of travel. Built about a century ago, this is a truly amazing engineering feat and a marvelous trip. The rails run along the narrowest of ridges on the highest elevations all the way so out either side you are looking at a 1000 foot drop and across miles of verdant valley.

I had a wrong mental picture of the Himalayas. Because of the benign weather here in the subcontinent, a great deal of the mountains are lush and green and the valleys are dedicated to growing mangoes and apples so we would occasionally roll through forests of blossoms. The tree line goes up to beyond 10,000 feet so it is only later and much farther North where you start to see the snow capped peaks, now getting up toward 20,000 feet.

The weekend I traveled was the Hindu festival of Holi when most people paint themselves with vivid red and green and purple colors and dance in the streets. They also attack everyone they see with handfuls of paint powder and buckets of water so pretty soon, you too carry and abstract Mondrian design on your clothes and skin.

I caught one particularly sneaky attack through the train window and arrived in Simla with my white shirt now bright red and purple and orange and green streaks on my face. It kinda washes out although my shirt now looks like a tie dye relic from the 60s.

Simla is a cool town that slants down the side of a mountain range. It reminds me in some ways of Valparaiso in Chile – the same 45 degree living. I stayed in Clarke’s there, a 110 year old Grande Dame wooden hotel and prowled the exotic back streets where Kipling had Kim learn his spy craft.

Tomorrow, it is back to Simla – 8 hours by car – then back to Delhi the day after to catch the train for Varanesi, the center of Hindu life on the banks of Mother Ganges where the pilgrim must bathe in sacred waters and the funeral pyres return the departed to the ash that floats along the river to the sea.

My expedition to Everest is clearly off because of the political troubles in Tibet so after that, I guess it’s on to Darjeeling and Calcutta (Kolkata).

India remains the most fascinating and diverse of places but one of the nicest things about Johnson’s Hotel here in Manali is that a great portion of their restaurant menu is western – fresh trout, roast chicken, porridge, pasta, baked potatoes, ice cream in hot chocolate sauce…I’ve always loved Indian food but I got to say that after 2 months of nothing but, I may never eat it again once I leave here…


Ken said...

I too go back a ways with Allan. Through the proverbial grapevine I've had the pleasure of reading a couple of his earlier dispatches, and it was a delight to see this one turn up.

Brandon Laraby said...

Oh man, I would so love to be out there and experiencing this... The highest I've ever been was when I was in Colorado, up in the Sangre De Christo mountains... that was about 13,000 ft or so and blisteringly cold in the heat of summer.

I would love to travel like this...