Guest Post – Howard Kaplan

In February 2015, I landed early in the morning in Casablanca, during the third week of the seven week shoot of my thriller, THE DAMASCUS COVER. The novel had first been published in 1977, risen on the Los Angeles Times best seller list for several months, and been translated into seven languages. I’m not sure if it was harder to believe the book was actually before the cameras, or the low-budget film had drawn Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the lead as well as Sir John Hurt, and an international supporting cast including the German actor Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot); Navid Negahban, who played Abu Nazir in Homeland, and who would explain several days later that he had been born in Teheran; and Igal Naor, the Israeli actor who starred in the mini-series The Honourable Woman.

A good number of years before, I’d gotten a call from an old acquaintance. She’d given THE DAMASCUS COVER to a director friend of hers, Dan Berk. She explained he wanted to make a Middle East picture, had read the novel, and wanted to meet me. We met at Peets Coffee in Beverly Hills. He envisioned raising money in Israel and shooting there, but little about the project turned out as he had originally envisioned. After failing to secure financing over two years in Israel, Dan showed the script to one of the producers of Gosford Park. She’d made several films in Morocco and jumped on board.

As I write this on a rare rainy morning in Los Angeles in September, Dan’s in town for a week from post-production in London, and we’re meeting this afternoon at our spot, Peets Coffee, to catch me up on the film’s progress.

In the Casablanca airport, I still had trouble believing any of this was true; I thought that some catastrophe, from either God or man, would scuttle the production, if it even really was happening.  As I came out of baggage claim, there was a driver waiting with my name. A small, silly thing, but it excited me. 

I’d flown overnight from New York and arrived at the Sheraton Hotel at 8 am, where both the crew and cast were staying; my room, requested to be ready by the production staff, was not. The desk clerk suggested their sumptuous breakfast. I sat by myself and ate and at nine called the third assistant director who said he was just coming down to breakfast. It turned out he’d been told I was some kind of writer but did not know my connection. He was a fabulous Brit and gave me the day’s Call Sheet, several pages that list what scenes are being shot that day—typically two per ten hour day—and who was being picked up at the hotel and when. They were leaving at ten and he asked if I wanted to rest or go out to the shoot. For me, that was a ridiculous question since I hadn’t flown from Los Angeles to sit in the Sheraton. He asked if I minded going out in the film crew van. Not me. Soon Dan came downstairs, noticed me, and though he knew I was coming, surprise lit his face. Every time I’d seen him before, save for one when the project was a go and he bought me lunch, we’d only met at Peets. He joined us.

That morning, they shot in a carpet factory, a scene straight from the novel. Dan got me a shooting script, since he’d been making copious changes until the night before the cameras rolled. Soon I met Jonny, as Rhys Meyers insists everybody call him. He was fabulous both on and off camera, passionate, and particularly gracious with children on the set.

The producer told me after several days I’d be bored with the slow pace of filming and expected I’d decamp to more exotic locales like Fez and Marrakech. I went out all seven days with the crew and was moved throughout. To my surprise, the scenes directly from the novel were hard for me to watch. I kept thinking that I should have written them better. The new scenes were a delight, but their responsibility was not mine.

HOWARD KAPLAN, a native of Los Angeles, has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. At the age of 21, he was sent on a mission into the Soviet Union to smuggle a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm to London. His first trip was a success. On his second trip, he transferred a manuscript to the Dutch Ambassador inside his Moscow embassy. A week later, he was arrested in Khartiv in the Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and and two days in Moscow, before being expelled from the USSR. The KGB had picked him up for meeting dissidents and did not know about the manuscript transfers. He holds a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley and an MA in the Philosophy of Education from UCLA. He is the author of four novels.