Isaac Nabwana's RFP studio has made more than 20 films despite having very little money and inconsistent electricity. Can he make the world care about them?
In late 2011, Alan Hofmanis sat in an East Village bar opposite an old friend, trying to sort out his life. Two days earlier, his girlfriend had dumped him right after he'd bought her an engagement ring. Before that, the 41-year-old had spent more than half his life working in film, but he hadn't followed any one path, instead immersing himself in cinematography, art direction, and sound editing. At 17, he'd slept in a Queens subway station in order to intern as a personal assistant on a television show. In his 20s, he drove to the Adirondacks and slept in his car for a month to be a part of the Lake Placid Film Festival. He eventually settled into organizing film festivals himself, but with a sense of unease. Now, approaching middle age, he had no fixed career goal, little hands-on experience with digital film technology, and no girlfriend.
Hoping to cheer Hofmanis up, his friend, an NGO worker who had spent time in Uganda, pulled out his smartphone and played a trailer for a film called Who Killed Captain Alex. Produced for about $200 by Isaac Nabwana, the founder of Uganda's first action-film company, Ramon Film Productions (RFP), it's a gloriously bonkers movie in which commandos target a ruthless gang of drug dealers called the Tiger Mafia, using martial arts and a variety of heavy munitions. When shot, characters erupt mists of CGI blood, like video-game fatalities. It made Hofmanis think of Buster Keaton, set in Africa.
The trailer for 'Who Killed Captain Alex'
"When you're dissecting a film, especially one you don't know anything about, there are two things you're looking at," Hofmanis said. "What are they trying to do, and how are they doing it? Often you see something that's really slick but not very interesting. What you hope for is the opposite."
After watching 50 seconds of the trailer, he decided he was going to Uganda. He had saved $16,000 for a wedding and honeymoon, had twice that in available credit, and had stockpiled frequent-flier miles and vacation time from his film-programming job. That night he bought a ticket to Kampala, Uganda's capital, for $1,450.
On his first day in Kampala—a congested city of about 1.2 million—Hofmanis wandered Owino Market, a vast, umbrella-shaded bazaar far off the routes of Western tourists who pass through the city on their way to safari. His plan was to find Nabwana, but he needed some time to get oriented before starting on the hunt. He had no idea where Nabwana lived and wasn't even sure what he would want from a meeting if he did find him.
Suddenly, amid the throngs of people, he spotted a distant DVD seller wearing an RFP shirt.
He's in the end zone, Hofmanis thought. And I'm on the 50-yard line.
He dashed down narrow stall lanes to reach the mysterious stranger, who in turn—thinking a charging mzungu (the local term for a white Westerner) could mean only trouble—sprinted in the opposite direction.
Hofmanis cornered the man, and after mutual assurances (that the seller wasn't peddling pirated DVDs and Hofmanis wasn't an Interpol agent), the vendor admitted that he knew where Nabwana lived. The two then set out on a boda-boda, a motorcycle taxi, through the snarled flow of Kampala traffic.
Hofmanis arrived at Nabwana's house, called in through the open front door, and shouted to him with a concise sentence he'd practiced on the harrowing motorcycle ride: "Hi, my name is Alan, I'm from New York City, and I'd like to talk to you." Nabwana, a soft-spoken, genial man of 38, greeted him with a nonchalant handshake, as if mzungus popped by the house every day.
And indeed, Hofmanis discovered that two French documentarians had arrived just before him (they were working on a film about African cinema and had stopped by the house as a courtesy call). As the four men made awkward small talk in the studio, Hofmanis was annoyed that the Frenchmen used the phrase "indigenous film" to describe Nabwana's work, as if Captain Alex were interesting only as an anthropological footnote, not as cinema.
When the men left, Hofmanis and Nabwana talked film. Hofmanis peppered him with questions about his equipment, distribution, aesthetics, and influences. He was shocked to learn that Who Killed Captain Alex was one of more than 20 films that Nabwana had made under the auspices of his production company (because Nabwana didn't have the software to archive his films, he'd lost count of his own filmography long ago). Hofmanis realized that RFP, the entity behind Captain Alex, was a full studio.
His first ten action flicks, for example, used cow blood as a special effect. He switched to food coloring only after actors complained of stomachaches.
Since the company was founded in 2005, Nabwana's films have been seen by hundreds of thousands of African viewers. Even though the film isn't available outside Uganda, the YouTube trailer for Who Killed Captain Alex has garnered more than 2 million hits. Making films for big audiences on minuscule budgets has forced Nabwana to develop some innovative techniques. His first ten action flicks, for example, used cow blood as a special effect. He switched to food coloring only after actors complained of stomachaches. One developed brucellosis, a nasty zoonotic bacterial disease, and spent a week of delirium in the hospital. For another film, Bad Black, Nabwana and his crew raided a local clinic and outfitted the set with bloody gauze and used syringes.
The two men spoke for five hours. At one point, Nabwana told Hofmanis of plans for a future opus in which President Obama visits Uganda and gets kidnapped by cannibals. The theme was in line with RFP's other work, but the project was evidence of Nabwana's expanding ambitions: It would require real helicopters, even though one hour of flight time costs more than the budget of an entire RFP film.
"You know," Hofmanis said, "Coppola had problems with helicopters in Apocalypse Now."
Nabwana smiled and asked, "Who's Coppola?"
Last November, I visited Nabwana in Uganda. Wakaliga, the Kampala neighborhood where he lives and works, is bisected by Sir Albert Cook Road, a main artery clogged with minivans, trucks, and boda-bodas. The stench of diesel is overpowering. On the unnamed lane that leads to RFP, vehicle exhaust abruptly gives way to the smells of a slum: smoke, garbage, sewage. An open trench runs parallel to this road, snaking through the neighborhood until it splits into tributaries of liquid filth, some of which must be crossed on rickety planks.
His compound sits in one of the lowest and most flood-prone sections of Wakaliga. Nabwana built the main house himself, using bricks he baked by hand (he inherited the property from his grandfather). Just outside the back entrance is an open-hearth kitchen. Nabwana and his wife, Harriet, share the bedroom with their three young children, and in-laws and tenants dwell in the remaining rooms. All dozen people on the property share one outhouse. There is no running water.
Beyond the home a small parcel of land holds a rehearsal space, a recording studio, four back rooms for tenants, and a small shack that sells scrap metal. Across from this tract is the dump—a repository for dead animals, soiled diapers, and medical waste—where a patch of green cassava leaves offsets the slum's dominant colors of red and brown. Past this, in the far distance, stands Mutundwe Hill, a wealthy neighborhood that is rumored to house a Ugandan prince. In a needlessly cinematic touch, this hill always has electricity, while Wakaliga suffers frequent power outages.
Nabwana greeted me at his house, a one-story brick cottage that is the same shade of russet as the surrounding dirt. His closely trimmed goatee hides a boyish face, and heavy-lidded eyes make him seem weary. After several minutes of hearing him talk, however, I understood that this is a man who has tapped into an unlimited reserve of confidence. Even his attire marks him as a tireless self-promoter. Every morning during my visit, Nabwana dressed in a fresh blue-and-white RFP polo shirt. The studio's slogan—"The Best of the Best Movies!"—perfectly reflects his buoyant self-assurance.
We stepped through the door of his home to escape the fierce equatorial sun. Power had been out for days, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the shade. He seemed defiantly cheerful about the outage.
"There are other challenges," he told me. "At least nowadays, power is stabilizing. You can have it for a week!"
The clutter of his studio surprised me. Several dilapidated sofas faced desks overflowing with computer parts, books, hard drives, clothes, random pieces of broken equipment, and many unrelated objects destined to become props in his films. There seemed to be just enough room for his Acer computer. The windows of the house have bars inside the glass, and he always sleeps with his video camera and CPU under his bed.
"During the day, there are no problems. At night, that's when we have problems."
On a stack of papers near the computer, I noticed a toy assault rifle still in a plastic wrapper reading rapid gun. It was a gift from a stranger; people often come by to donate toy guns that are then used in his films. The studio has a footlocker full of fake weapons, battered and cracked and slightly pathetic from years of action scenes.
"If we make them heavier, it's very easy for the actors to show that it's real," Nabwana said of his preference for using metal guns as props. "But if you make it light, no. That's why nowadays we don't use the plastic ones. We buy them to get the models. Then we copy and modify them." From molds based on cheap toys, the studio crafts its own metallic gun replicas. Nabwana mimicked the kick of a heavy fake weapon. Having actors pantomime this gesture with inferior ordnance is an unnecessary chore.
Nabwana grew up during the brutal regime of Idi Amin, who, from 1971 to 1979, presided over the killing of 100,000 to 500,000 Ugandans. When the British government broke all diplomatic relations with the ruler, he added the abbreviation "CBE" to his title, for "Conqueror of the British Empire." Yet Nabwana, whose grandfather was a farmer who owned the land where RFP operates today, was spared most of this violence by sheer luck.
Nabwana's first knowledge of warfare instead came through American television shows. Growing up near Wakaliga, he would raptly watch Hawaii Five-0 and Logan's Run at night, on his family's TV, when electricity was off-peak and thus more reliable. As an adolescent, he sketched Chuck Norris—an actor he knew of only from a street mural—fighting alongside famous Ugandans. The first film to capture his imagination was 1978's Wild Geese, a British action-adventure about aging mercenaries in Central Africa. But he never saw the movie, Nabwana explained, instead hearing his brothers passionately describe the plot over and over again. It was cinema as oral history.
After Amin's ouster in 1979, TV stations ceased showing late-night programming, instead closing the day with a speech by Milton Obote, whom Amin had deposed eight years earlier. Obote's second reign would come to be defined by a brutal civil war waged by Yoweri Museveni, who led a coup against Obote in 1986 and has ruled since. Though Nabwana's family was again spared any direct violence, his grandfather was accused of supporting the rebels, and the Nabwana family nearly went bankrupt. As a result, Nabwana had to dig sand to pay his school fees. In these lean years, he witnessed government soldiers patrolling Kampala, gleefully posing for one another, emulating Arnold Schwarzenegger with real guns.
"I tell you," Nabwana said, "every Ugandan wants to act in an action movie."
Nabwana had always seen himself as an artist, and his entry into film was organic. The economic hardship of his teenage years had made him fiercely self-reliant, and he found it easy to master practical trades like welding and bricklaying. After his marriage and first child, he came to see film as an opportunity both artistic and financial. There was no epiphany. He simply grasped the twin advantages of his position. One, he had all the mental resources needed to direct. And two, there was an untapped market for non-formulaic Ugandan cinema—specifically action and horror—operating far outside the shadow cast by Nigeria's dominant "Nollywood" fare.
"I tell you," Nabwana said, "every Ugandan wants to act in an action movie."
At 33, he signed up for a six-month computer course. Knowing he could afford only a month, he audited other classes and assiduously pored over textbooks. After his month was up, he continued solo, scouring the internet for video tutorials. He bought motherboards, processors, and power supplies and learned how to assemble his own PCs and how to use a green screen.
Nabwana spent his mid 30s helping produce and shoot music videos. In 2009, he decided he could no longer wait to make his first full-fledged action film. He gathered actors by word of mouth, finding it easy to cast the mental script he'd prepared. News of the production spread quickly, not just in Kampala but in outlying towns and cities and across different tribes.
For Who Killed Captain Alex, actors supplied their own costumes, often buying them piecemeal in public markets. Nabwana drew on a spirit of constant improvisation, using house paint for alcoholic drinks and a modified car jack for his video camera's tripod mount. If he didn't have enough people for, say, an assault scene, he would place a mask on one of the actors and reuse the same person in a different shot. Filming with toy guns made passersby understandably nervous, and he learned to shoot quickly when on location. The entire film was shot and edited in January 2010.
The gun violence in Captain Alex—as in all of Nabwana's films—is meant to be comedic. Any Western viewer would be able to grasp this within a few minutes. Although he occasionally references the military scenes he glimpsed as a teen, his own influences are cinematic: Western action and Eastern martial arts.
Not that much of his local audience would catch any Obote-era allusions. The median age in Uganda is 15.5 years, and Nabwana specifically targets younger viewers. Most Ugandans (including every RFP actor except one) grew up long after the violence of Idi Amin and the civil war. Before Captain Alex, Ugandan action films had never been attempted because of cost—not because of any wish to avoid reliving old traumas.
At the time of my visit, Nabwana and Hofmanis were rushing to finish a remastered, English-language version of Who Killed Captain Alex to coincide with a Kickstarter campaign they hoped would bring in desperately needed capital. The campaign would ask for $160, just enough money to produce Nabwana's next big project, Tebaatusasula: Ebola. But the deliberately meager amount was both a clever publicity ploy and launching point for, they hoped, a significantly larger sum ($265,000 would get the studio land, equipment, vehicles, and the general means to function without interruption). It was all part of Nabwana's ambition to transform RFP from a relatively small operation into a global player with Hofmanis serving as the company's "ambassador to America."
But after a week the power was still out. Nabwana had made no progress on the Captain Alex edits. Torrential rains had filled the lanes leading to RFP with great pools of brown water, indistinguishable from the nearby sewage trench. I had come to see an action studio in full flourish but instead was witness to a scene of clichéd domesticity: kids playing, a mother scolding, dad in the den.
"When we have power, we feel invincible," Hofmanis told me when I met him in his quarters, one in a series of tin-roofed storage-locker spaces behind the Nabwana house. Inside, the room was dark without power, smelling like the cell of a man who has been unable to bathe in a long time. At night, rats use the overhead crossbeams as an overpass, stopping to gnaw on garbage in the darkness, occasionally dropping bones onto his bed.
Hofmanis has lost 40 pounds since his first trip to Uganda, three years ago. He has mad-scientist hair and rumpled clothes and resembles a man shipwrecked on a desert island. Drunks have lectured him in the street about his sloppy appearance. He has long since maxed out his credit cards and vaporized his savings. By the time of my visit, he didn't have enough cash to buy a bottle of Coke.
After charging his laptop at a nearby hair salon, he showed me what he'd been working on for the past few weeks: adding a so-called VJ track to the English-language version of Who Killed Captain Alex. Any doubts I'd had about the film's comedic intent were firmly laid to rest by the track. In Uganda, VJ stands for "video jokers," a concept native to Ugandan cinema halls, the shacks where audiences gather to watch films and soccer on modestly sized TV sets. Many halls feature a video joker to talk over Western-language films with a mic that can cut out the main audio track. The VJ is translator, emcee, roaster, booster, and travel guide in one. Hofmanis compares VJ tracks to the title cards in the silent comedies of a century ago.
In slow scenes, Bbatte blurts: "Action is coming, I promise you!" "One hell of a movie!" "Now expect the unexpectable." When the action gets going, he howls in triumph: "Warrior!" "Commando!" "The movie's on!" "Movie! Movie! Movie!"
The video joker for Captain Alex is Emmie Bbatte. His track interrupts the film's audio like a berserk director's commentary. His observations exhort, mock, and implore the characters and viewer simultaneously. In slow scenes, Bbatte blurts: "Action is coming, I promise you!" "One hell of a movie!" "Now expect the unexpectable." When the action gets going, he howls in triumph: "Warrior!" "Commando!" "The movie's on!" "Movie! Movie! Movie!" Sometimes he chortles, or hiccups in a James Brown grunt. It is Mystery Science Theater 3000 as narrated by a man who sounds like he's on bath salts.
Five minutes in, Bbatte is riffing the inner dialogues of different characters. After he jokes about a female reporter hitting on a policeman, Bbatte says, in his cop voice, "Eh, I prefer men." Hofmanis told me that he debated removing the joke. As of my visit, Uganda's brutal anti-gay laws were in flux. With one set of rules struck down by courts, a new law, still in draft stage, would criminalize any advocacy of "unnatural" sexual practices. Would Bbatte's joke be viewed as promotion of homosexuality?
The flip side was also risky. Outside Uganda, the joke could be perceived as homophobic. Captain Alex's rejection by several American film festivals had shocked Hofmanis, who'd helped prepare the applications. In hindsight, he believed that the studio would need to factor in the intense international backlash against Uganda's anti-gay political culture. It didn't help that the film could be seen as promoting violence in East Africa. Nor did the film's failure to conform to existing stereotypes about "African poverty films." Hofmanis recalled one festival programmer advising him—as if RFP were his studio, and not Nabwana's—to make "another Bicycle Thief."
Throughout my visit, it was hard to pin down Hofmanis's exact role at RFP. Like Nabwana, he wears many hats. At times he is clearly the bridge to the West; at other times, he is clearly Nabwana's protégé. Where Nabwana begins sentences with "I am telling you," Hofmanis says, "I tell ya." His most consistent role is that of booster, someone both amused and awed by the work he does. It's hard to imagine that Nabwana has a bigger fan than Hofmanis. With such unfailing zeal, the overall impression he gives is of a mix of Western visitor archetypes: He might dress like an NGO worker, but when Hofmanis talks, he is all missionary.
Hofmanis has been back and forth between New York and Kampala six times in the past two years. On one of his trips home, while working on his laptop at a coffee shop, he struck up a conversation with a young Columbia University student reading a book on African history. "You wanna see some African history?" Hofmanis asked, showing her the Captain Alex trailer on his laptop. The student watched the clip and asked, "How can you sleep at night?"
The implication was that the trailer glamorized violence in Africa. Yet while all five of its neighboring nations have seen their share of atrocity, terror, or war—including two genocides in as many decades—urban Uganda has been a stable, functional society since 1986. Even the rampages of Joseph Kony and his child soldiers were confined to northern towns and hinterlands. Nearly all the actors in Nabwana's films have grown up in a secure civilization where economics, not violence, defines their struggles. This, perhaps, is why RFP films are so popular—the country is ready to laugh at violence because, for the first time in its recent history, violence is foreign and far away.
Eventually the power came back on, though no one seemed to think it would last. I sat on the front porch and discussed distribution with Harriet, Nabwana's wife. While her husband projects a weary resolve—an iron determination to persevere—Harriet seems nonplussed by the challenges of Wakaliga. Every time I saw her, she was elegantly dressed and quick to laugh at some perceived joke (or faux pas). Besides raising three children and taking on as much editing side work as she can get, Harriet handles all the bookkeeping duties.
As with nearly every other aspect of Nabwana's filmmaking, RFP's distribution is homegrown and entirely original. No theaters have shown their movies. Instead, the actors themselves provide distribution, hawking DVDs in the street and sharing profits with the studio. Each film sells for between 2,000 and 3,000 shillings (between 70 cents and a dollar), depending on where and to whom it is sold. The profit margin is around 15 cents a disc.
If a film sells 10,000 copies, as many do, then the studio clears a total profit of $1,500. Rescue Team, released in 2011, cleared 8,000 copies in its first month, and Who Killed Captain Alex has sold 10,000 discs so far (ten times as many with piracy). But this yield has to cover losses when more discs are made than sold, as well as all filmmaking costs. Nabwana has longed to buy portable DVD players for each seller to show potential customers what they would be buying. But the cash just isn't there yet.
The studio also covers travel expenses for sellers going "upcountry," meaning west or east, but not north (northern Ugandans speak Swahili, and Nabwana's actors speak Luganda). Upcountry sellers usually travel for a week or so, offering their discs "man to man" (Nabwana's term), and send back RFP's cut using Mobile Money, a phone-based digital-wallet service. Harriet keeps track of their inventory and burns more discs when needed.
Because of piracy—a rampant problem in Uganda—new RFP films have a one-week sales window. After that, customers can buy a knockoff for cheaper than the original, and sales dry up. Some pirates just sell blank discs wrapped in RFP covers. Recently, copies of larger Western and Nigerian films have popped up, selling for 500 shillings (about 17 cents). This was a mystery—blank DVDs cost 800 shillings, and the economy of scale wouldn't offer any deep wholesale discounts for pirates, who must grub by on their own low capital and thin profit margins, like all other subsistence merchants in Uganda. Eventually, the studio came up with a theory: Local NGOs worked hand in hand with film pirates, paying for professional bootlegs that included short public-service announcements for AIDS awareness.
And some markets proved too stubborn to crack. In Tororo, a town in the far eastern part of the country, Swahili speakers bristled at the idea of paying 70 cents for a film in Luganda. In a different eastern village, outraged residents chased RFP sellers out of town. They hadn't had electricity in more than a month.
For the next couple of days, despite power being restored, stormy weather made filming impossible. So many of the cast and crew had to come from far away, and transportation became much harder in the rain. This wasn't much of a crisis, as Nabwana was primarily focused on tasks surrounding the Kickstarter rollout, and the scenes they'd planned to shoot were promotional, not part of ongoing projects. I sat in his studio as he peered intensely into his computer screen, working out the finer points of exploding a car's windshield using computer-generated imagery.
The shattering windshield was a tiny detail in a new RFP production logo, a miniature film in itself. In the logo sequence, a helicopter drops several Ugandan commandos into New York's Times Square, then fires a missile that magically destroys Katz's Delicatessen on East Houston, three miles away. Hofmanis had told me that this was one of the few high-resolution photos he'd been able to find of Manhattan that didn't involve actual terrorist hot spots (it was also, I suspect, a fitting farewell to his old life on Ludlow Street).
The helicopter portion of the sequence is pure comedy, but the destruction of the deli seems far more plausible. Many of Nabwana's midlevel special effects, especially explosions, are no worse than anything seen in any given Syfy Channel original movie. Shocked that a Ugandan filmmaker could produce such images, locals have called Nabwana's cell phone and accused him of being a witch doctor.
Nabwana switched back to the initial helicopter shot as a child walked in, whimpered for attention, and then waited for her dad's full attention to start crying. He is adept at working around such distractions. His studio room has no door, and the front of the house is left open throughout the day. Once, a chicken wandered in and laid an egg in his chair. He seemed to view such interruptions with amusement.
"Editing is sometimes monotonous," he said with a light chuckle.
Over the course of the next few days, Hofmanis seemed to age rapidly, furiously working through each night as he tweaked the multiple audio tracks on Captain Alex—the final cut of the film that had drawn him to Africa in the first place—struggling with every new problem. Should the VJ track drop in or fade in? Were the intro fonts correct? Hofmanis wasn't even sure whether he himself should receive on-screen credits for his labor, not wanting to complicate the film's status as something entirely Ugandan.
The self-imposed deadline for the studio's ambitious Kickstarter campaign was still two weeks away, but with intermittent power, meeting that deadline looked more and more improbable. On one of his breaks, we discussed the many challenges the studio would face if the Kickstarter campaign were successful. If Nabwana ever received proper backing, how would he respond to deadlines, or studio notes, or loss of total creative control? His films were tailored to urban Ugandan audiences, people who want to see their lives on a screen, any screen. How would these films translate to foreign audiences?
And no matter the outcome, the Kickstarter campaign would dramatically raise the stakes for the entire operation. The studio's funding total would be public. In the rumor mill of a Ugandan slum, another zero or two could be added to this amount. Nabwana and his family might become targets. In their current, shoestring incarnation, crime isn't a major concern. But if the studio met its wildest funding goals—buying a small parcel of land outside Wakaliga, building their own facilities—how would they handle security?
Then there are even more sobering eventualities. Nabwana is 42, and the average Ugandan lifespan is 58 years. He is in seemingly good health, and his own grandmother (to whom Captain Alex is dedicated) is going strong in her late 90s. But in a land where middle-aged men do not get prostate exams, cholesterol checks, or dental care, it isn't realistic to expect decades of output. Could anyone take over RFP after Nabwana slows or retires? Although Hofmanis sees a lasting curatorial role for himself, he is not going to direct any Ugandan films. Even if he learned Luganda, he would always be a mzungu, an outsider.
Hofmanis looked back to the work at hand. "This workload is horrific," he said, chuckling.
Sunday brought charged equipment and clear skies, and I was called upon to do a green-screen death scene for a promotional video. I protested in the way someone does when he's unsure whether he should do something he's secretly excited to do. The screen was a long, washable sheet of felt, pinned to the side of the Nabwana house and rolled down over two small carpets to cushion falls. Local kids seemed oblivious to the hubbub. Six-year-old Phillo, a boy from the neighborhood, did a cartwheel and left several muddy footprints on the pristine green cloth. Five minutes later, he finally noticed the smudges and loudly chewed out his playmates. Thunder rumbled, but the rain never arrived. I was going to die.
When the time came, I did my best to perish with flair. After several takes, I was asked to do some killing. It seemed like a bait-and-switch, but I was apparently the only one concerned about the optics of a white American mercilessly gunning down an unarmed black African. I was handed "Maria"—a gas-powered turret gun, modeled after the gun in Predator—and I annihilated my friend Apollo (and then awkwardly apologized for killing him).
They needed one more death, this time with a squib, a miniature explosive device used to simulate gunshots. Nabwana is a regular at the local Red Cross, where he gathers free condoms (and is thanked for his work promoting safe sex in the slums). These condoms are then filled with red food coloring, crazy-glued to a washer attached to fishing line, and taped to the chests of actors in death scenes.
Nabwana yelled "action!" I was shot, the line was pulled, and my shirt exploded in a splatter of bright, sticky liquid. Everyone laughed and applauded, and someone suggested that I might not want a blood-drenched shirt in my luggage on the trip home.