During my time with OShea Dangerous Reptiles/Big
Adventure, Ive travelled to many remarkable locations and
seen Mark OShea complete truly great herpetological quests.
From California and Arizona in the USA to the southern point of
Patagonia in Argentina. Not forgetting Costa Rica, Baja California,
mainland Mexico and Brazil, I consider myself truly privileged to
have watched OShea in action. But none of these expeditions
prepared me for the experience of being responsible for a quest
that if successful, could save, potentially, hundreds of lives each
||9 December 2001
|| Taj Exotica Hotel, Bentota, Sri Lanka
||Fourth World Congress of Herpetology
Professor David Warrell sat back into his wicker
chair, sipped his Beaujolais and with a hint of mischief announced,
Chasing colourful frogs in rainforests is all well and good
but what about a documentary that really makes a difference?
A typically loaded statement from the worlds finest snakebite
expert and even though all our films have a solid scientific core
at their heart, it was one taken on the chin by OShea and
myself. I turned the tables and struck gold. Give me the story
and well make it.
Is OShea undergoing a) wrinkle removal
treatment; b) a religious transformation; c) snakebite treatment,
or d) auditioning for the part of Cleopatra ? Ans: The ancient Ayurvedic
medicine boat treatment at Polonnaruwa was a last resort for comatose
Within four weeks, my colleague, Associate Producer
Matthew Catling, was in Sri Lanka investigating the story of the
Russells viper and the less than effective Indian antivenom
that is used to combat the estimated 30,000 bites from the snake
on the island each year.
Marks quest would be simple collect
healthy specimens for a venom research programme instigated by Prof
Warrell in collaboration with Colombo University Faculty of Medicine
in the Sri Lankan capital. The venom from the collected Russells
vipers would be used to produce a fully effective antivenom specific
to Sri Lankan Russells vipers.
You know when you have a strong story: everything
begins to fall into place quickly. This project was researched,
signed, sealed and delivered to the broadcasters within a five-month
period probably a record for an OShea /Big Adventure.
I think the film speaks for itself so Id
like to detail a taste of the build up to filming an OShea
Big Adventure. We had a solid story foundation to build on for this
film but that said, we realised it would be a very tight turnaround.
The initial research period highlighted a seasonal hotspot for Russells
in early March. This is when the paddy fields
are being harvested and barefoot agricultural workers are bitten
by Russells vipers and killed on a daily basis. Its
the optimum time for venomous snake activity in the northern dry
zone where we were planning to film. We had to go for it.
After we returned from a Christmas break, the
team had one month to prepare for Matthew Catlings research
trip, confirm crew, appoint on-screen/off-screen contributors, initiate
film and wildlife permits, plan travel arrangements, oh and not
forgetting the actual development of the story, the planning of
film sequences and the completion of a shooting script.
At this stage the team comprised of myself, Matthew
(Associate Producer), Edwina Sheridan (Production Co-ordinator),
Sue Edelson (Production Manager). We were guided and supported by
our Executives Pauline Duffy and Elliott Halpern. Mark OShea,
of course, is fully involved in all stages of production, monitoring
and injecting his own special expertise into our research and reconnaissance
plans. Gerry Curry works in our travel office and prepares probable
travel routes from our planned shoot schedules and we employed a
production company in Sri Lanka to help with permits and translation.
I always start by pinning a map of the target country onto my notice
board. It becomes a focal point for conversations and development
of ideas between the Associate Producer and the Producer/Director.
Matthews main responsibilities are story development, finding
the right people to meet on his research trip and fixing permits
with Film Location Services, our Sri Lankan production company.
My role as Producer/Director concentrates on fine-tuning the storyline,
planning sequences from a technical and editorial perspective and
juggling the budget to make all of this work.
Matthew travelled out twenty-four days in advance
of the first shoot day for the research trip. I joined up with him
twelve days before the start of the shoot for my reconnaissance.
By this point, the story should be nailed down and the prep is geared
towards technical planning. But no matter how well youre organised,
this never happens and the research and prep continues right up
until the day of shooting. OShea arrived two days before the
shoot with the cameraman (Mark Stokes) and soundman (Terry Meadowcroft)
arriving the day before filming began.
The research trip undertaken by the Associate
Producer is probably the most critical stage. Here, the director
hears for the first time how things really are on the ground. Matthew
communicated with me at least once a day by telephone. Every three
or four days I received a detailed update document via e-mail.
My final days of preparation in the Leeds office while Matthew was
conducting his research trip were quite bizarre. He would contact
me from the most unexpected place. I remember him calling me from
Bibile in the central eastern Sri Lanka. We discussed hotel logistics
as he stood atop a giant boulder looking down into a valley where
wild elephants were obliviously crashing through the dense jungle.
On another occasion hed stumbled across a carving of a Russells
viper, on the fringe of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. A hundred
or so Macaque monkeys surrounded him I could hardly hear
him detail his progress.
The most enjoyable time for me as a director is getting on the plane
for the reconnaissance knowing (or hoping) that everything is in
place. At that point, you know youre up and running and no
time-consuming office responsibilities can get near you any more.
The adventure is about to begin. The three weeks of on the ground
planning and preparation on location before filming starts are when
you can really see the film take shape.
And what an adventure flying over Sri Lanka
piloted by the countrys most decorated helicopter serviceman
from the Sri Lankan Air Force (his Huey helicopter was peppered
with bullet holes from its years of service in the civil war).
Watching Green turtles lay eggs at night on a beach in Hambantota
during my reconnaissance trip. Petrified as a rogue elephant looked
set to charge our group while searching for Russells vipers
in a remote paddy field in the small hours. Not to mention the hair-raising
experience of actually coming face to face with wild, aggressive
This film was unlike any other Id been involved
in. We decided from the very beginning to make a departure from
the usual OShea documentary. I wanted to focus on the humanitarian
angle of the story as well as the adventure that is always guaranteed
when Mark is around. For me it was essential we highlighted the
torturous pain thousands of Sri Lankans had to endure each year
when bitten by Russells vipers and treated with the Indian
To make sure I could cover this side of the story,
Id worked the budget to allow me a second cameraman (John
Pinkney). John camped out at Anuradhapura General Hospital and followed
the progress of Russells viper snakebite victims as they begin
to fill up hospital beds during the peak of the paddy harvest. It
was an experience that I know took John to the very edge; an experience
Im sure he will have difficulty in forgetting for the rest
of his life. Disturbing, distressing but essential if the film was
to be successfully completed.
I also had a very traumatic time before filming
even started. On the second day of my reconnaissance trip, Matthew
took me to a rural community near Hambantota on the Southern coast
of Sri Lanka. I was still suffering from the long flight and hadnt
prepared myself for the emotional experience that was about to unfold.
Before I had time to think, I was sat in the open
living area of a modest family home. The mother had her two-year-old
son clinging to her. As the translation unfolded, I was hit by the
story of the mothers other eight-year-old son who had been
bitten by a Russells viper only yards from where I was sitting
less than two weeks before. The family, almost without any noticeable
distress, explained how the boy died of heart failure less than
three hours after the bite.
I walked from the home dazed and nauseous. Im
not ashamed to say I cried in the vehicle on the journey to the
next location. Our Sri Lankan translator tried to explain the lack
of emotion seemingly shown by the boys family only days after
his death: Children die here every day, it is a part of normal
I hope the film does make a difference.