Drugs, Knives and Light Meters at the Hotel Murray

Article excerpt

It was October 2001. I was in my last year of a BA in Film & Television at Curtin University, WA, and I was directing our graduation film, Method Writing, which I had written the previous year. It was a comedy-drama about Oscar, a struggling writer who overcomes his stifling lack of life experience by acting out everything he wants his main character to do, but in real life. The problem is, he's writing about a young gangster who rises through the ranks, meaning that his 'research' becomes riskier and more outrageous as the character develops into an assassin. The climax involves Oscar holed up in a restaurant toilet, attempting to shoot a local politician.

Due to some unfortunate circumstances (i.e. having producers who refused to produce), I wound up handling production duties during shooting. As a result, I was spending my spare time organizing extras, schedules, equipment and, most painfully of all, locations. Nothing frays the nervous system like trying to find a location you're supposed to be shooting at in two days, especially when everyone's saying no; it seemed as if I'd never find a useable toilet in time, but finally, the day before the scenes were scheduled to be shot, the perfect place came along.

One of the crew mentioned a place called the Hotel Murray, a small hotel on the outskirts of Perth city centre. It was a long shot, but I decided to go down and take a look, and instantly fell in love with it. A grubby, almost art deco place that seemingly hadn't seen a lick of paint since television was a novelty, it gave exactly the right foreboding atmosphere for the background to Oscar's grim task (in fact, it felt a bit more like a hostel than a hotel ...). Better still, the toilets were awful; grimy, grim and painted a gruesome shade of light blue that seemed to glow fluorescent in daylight. If you had to shoot a politician, you could easily imagine having to do it in a room like this. The whole place was perfect; in fact, it looked like a film set already.

The owner was nice, if a little eccentric. Well, weird. Unshaven, dressed in a sweater a man freezing to death would throw away, eyes that seemed to have trouble focusing on anything ... but nice, and really keen to have us. It was quickly agreed; we'd come in and shoot the next day. Even better, he reassured us that we wouldn't be disturbed; the residents were always out during the day (we hadn't seen a single one during our visit) and the building would be 'Pretty much deserted'.

And so came about probably the weirdest day I've ever had as a director. The first sign came the next morning as we were driving up to the place; our First AD gave me a nudge and told me to look up. I followed his gaze to the front of the building where the large sign saying 'HOTEL MURRAY' was bolted. For the first time--and probably because this was the first time I'd really had reason to examine it--I noticed that there was a gap between the letters O and T. Another letter had been there, its outline still visible where it had protected the wall against years of weather and grime--a letter S.

HOSTEL MURRAY.

Normally, this wouldn't be strange--lettering falls off walls all the time--if it wasn't for the fact that it was called 'Hotel Murray' in the phone book. I was naturally bewildered, but put it down to another of the owner's many quirks. I just hoped he hadn't bent the truth too much further. We walked inside and found out.

It started off well; cast and crew alike loved the look of the place. But then Half-Truth #2 kicked in: the place wasn't 'pretty much deserted'. It was packed with residents, and they made the owner look like a High School history teacher. The good ones were insane: the rest were on drugs and insane. Every two or three minutes some smelly, unshaven derelict, with pupils so big you could reach right in, would stagger up and ask if he could 'be on TV'. Either that or they'd just hover around, looking at nothing with great interest. …