The nicest man in the whole of Mexico

February 23, 2016


I'd been a frequent visitor to Ensenada in Baja California, Mexico since I was a youngster. My very first stay was in Hussong's trailer park on the beach where a retired friend of my father spent his time surf fishing. He was a Hemingway-esque character for whom I had a great affinity. After that first visit, we always stayed next door at Quintas Papagayo where you rented a one or two bedroom house preferably on the beachfront. I carried on the tradition into my adult years.

When I began preparations to make my movie Fait Accompli, I knew I would be shooting most of it in Los Angeles and Palm Springs where we would have free run of the Canyon Hotel. I felt I wanted an additional location and I was getting tired of the trek to Las Vegas, so I decided to shoot in Mexico and reserved some houses on the beach at Quintas Papagayo. There were about twenty of us and I drove down in a new, white Corvette that would be used on screen by the two main characters--a harmonic of the old Route 66 TV series.

We shot in the houses at QP and all around the city of Ensenada including some memorable scenes in the Bahia Hotel, a pool hall that dated from way back and even aboard a cruise ship that was docked for the day in the port. One evening, as we were wrapping at the Bahia, a gentleman in a suit, who had been respectfully watching from a distance, introduced himself. He was from the local film commission and wondered if the production had taken out a film permit. You can guess the answer to that question and I assumed we were in for some amount of trouble. When he learned that we had not, he invited us to his office the next morning where he would arrange the necessary paperwork for us. He politely declined an invitation to dine with us but he had the permits ready the next morning and the fee was nominal and without penalty. He could not have been nicer.

Later the next day, as the Corvette followed the camera car--a pick-up truck with a shell--through the streets of Ensenada, we were descended upon by a swarm of Mexican police cars. A casual observer might have thought that a major drug ring was being apprehended. They asked to see our shooting permit, which was duly tendered. In response their senior officer gave us a most solemn salute and, in a flash, they were all gone leaving us to wonder if it had really happened. I hate to think what might have developed had we not met the nice man from the film commission the previous evening.

An ex-patriot, Italian New Yorker had invited our entire cast and crew to dine with him in his restaurant. He hosted us at a long table and recounted stories about his New York involvements for which the statutes of limitations are still running to this day. As a thank you, I wrote a scene for him, which we shot in the restaurant and he ended up with a small part in the movie. I think it pleased him no end for his regular customers to see him be attended to by our make-up lady. He said that if there was anything I needed in Ensenada, he could arrange it for me with his special friend, the Chief of Police. What about a shoot-out scene in front of his restaurant? Given his background, he liked the idea.

Unfortunately, our new friend was out of town for a few days and we couldn't wait, so I went to the police station and asked for the Chief. He wasn't in and no one else understood the nature of our request. We were advised to visit the naval base south of town where such requests could be received. When we arrived at the base, the officer of the watch heard me out. We want to shoot a scene for our movie where the characters engage in a shoot-out. We had some 9mm handguns and a shotgun--all rented from the Ellis Merchantile prop house in Los Angeles--along with blank cartridges.

The officer of the watch asked me to wait while he left us. He returned with his immediate superior and asked that I repeat my request, which I did word-for-word. The superior asked me to wait while they both left us. They returned with the superior's superior and I was asked, once again, to repeat myself. I did so. I was asked again to wait as they all left. When they returned it was with the base commander for whom I, yet again, repeated my story. The base commander exchanged significant glances with his men and then turned his attention back to me. He asked me if we had the weapons with us. Yes, I said, they are locked in the trunk of one of our cars.

"Mr. Mitchell," he said amicably, "you were not here and you did not see me and you did not talk to me or my men about shoot-outs or 9mm guns or shotguns. Because, if you had done any of these things, I would have to arrest you and you would go to prison for longer than you can imagine." We spent a few more minutes talking with him about movies, fishing off the Baja coast and other things I can't recall and then we took our leave.

It occurred to me as we drove away from the base that I had just encountered the nicest man in the whole of Mexico.