Lights, Camera… Buffet!
Andrew Worsdale bites into the world of film catering and talks to Ron Mull, a chatty industry veteran who has been feeding casts and crews for forty years.
Catering for a dinner party is stressful enough, but imagine preparing and serving two meals a day for hundreds – sometimes thousands – of diners every day for months on end. That’s the world of the movie caterer.
Just like an army, a film crew marches on its stomach and dealing with sixteen-hour days, ravenous film crews, sometimes inhospitable and remote locations, and the pressures of producers, time and finance make movie catering one of the most demanding areas of the cooking trade.
Sixty-five year old Ron Mull is an old hand in the business, having started nearly forty years ago and becoming the country’s first specialised caterer for movie production. Mull has obviously benefited from feeding movie people – he’s a roly-poly, warm-hearted, cheery kind of guy who’s full of stories about feeding film crews.
He grew up in Johannesburg’s Bertrams across the road from Ellis Park and when his father, a chef on the railways, was laid low with tuberculosis his mother, a waitress at Turffontein racecourse, started her own catering business geared towards the Jewish community. She would organise the food for Barmitzvahs, weddings and funerals and the young Ron used to tag along as an ‘intern’ – peeling potatoes, laying tables and generally helping mum out.
After work on the trams, as a bus conductor and a driver he accidentally moved into the high-pressure world of movie catering. His mother had catered for producer/director David Millin’s daughter’s Batmitzvah and the prolific filmmaker was so pleased with their quality and economy that he approached them to provide food for the shoot of his latest epic – a big-budget remake of the landmark 1916 flick, Die Voortrekkers. That was 1973 and Mull charged R1.25 per head. Within a year he had established himself as South Africa’s pre-eminent film caterer, if only because he was about the only one.
In 1974 he became the first person to cater for a 150-person film crew one mile underground when he serviced the Peter Hunt movie version of Wilbur Smith’s tacky adventure thriller Gold! Two years later flamboyant Brit producer Michael Klinger would use Mull again to service another Wilbur Smith piece of movie hokum – this time it was Shout at The Devil and Mull found himself having to cater for over 700 people in a remote spot near Port St. Johns in the Transkei. This was long before toll-roads and motorways – fresh food had to be flown in by light plane every day to service the movie in the ‘ritzy’ style that the gaudy Klinger demanded.
This was a time when fine wines and imported beers were served at lunch, when a makeshift ‘apartheid’ system existed at the buffet table – with certain items reserved for the white members of the crew. Mull remembers some of the strange requests, “Klinger wanted cucumber sandwiches, served up in a silver tea-service (which couldn’t be hired) by a busty blonde waitress – I sorted it out for him at a cost of R10 000, he was flabbergasted, but it was a test to see if I could deliver. Which I did, and he paid without flinching.”
On Tigers Don’t Cry in 1976 Anthony Quinn insisted on having jelly and cooked pumpkin on call whenever he was on set and on Zulu Dawn in 1979 Peter O’Toole insisted on a fillet steak with a half-fried tomato whenever the urge kicked in. Mull does say, however, that most of the stars he’s worked with are not prima donnas, “I think the more professional they are, the more down to earth they are.”
The one exception was Val Kilmer whom he reckons is the most difficult actor he’s ever had to feed. It was on the set of The Ghost and The Darkness about the man-eating lions of Tsavo which was filmed in Mpumalanga. After numerous outrageous complaints from the Hollywood star Mull organised him a personal chef, “We were feeding 1,740 people a day but were constantly being harassed by one little asshole who didn’t want his eggs cooked this or that way.” Not even Kim Basinger who refused to eat any local produce and had all her food and beverages flown in from the US on the big-budget I Dreamed Of Africa was as self-important or demanding as Kilmer.
Possibly Mull’s greatest challenge was the epic production of Zulu Dawn about the battle of Isandhlwana which was shot near the small town of Babanengo in the northern reaches of Zululand. For the large-scale battle scenes the production had 720 redcoats (extras playing the British army), 420 crew and main cast and 3,600 Zulu extras. The redcoats and the Zulus were all housed in large tents and basically had to be fed three times a day, which meant preparing 15,000 meals from scratch every twenty-four hours.
The Zulu ‘army’ were given half a loaf of bread and cocoa or tea in the morning, two litres of sour porridge for lunch and every night each group would get a cow to slaughter – which meant supplying 30 cows a night for ten days. Disaster struck the production when financiers pulled out and it looked like it would wrap early. There wasn’t even any finance to buy the necessary cows; fearing a riot, the producers decided to sacrifice the oxen they were using as props in order to feed the marauding extras.
After nearly four decades in the business, including a period during the tax-driven boom time of the 1980s when Mull’s company was servicing seven feature films at the same time, he has come up with a mathematical formula to serve a cast and crew in the most efficient way possible, “Time affects the budget and producers don’t want long queues at lunch or food that is not ready in time. I have a system that we’ve perfected. It takes seven minutes per 100 people to feed, that’s from first crew member to the last P.A.” He says when it comes to one thousand or more mouths to feed – they just expand the delivery line and kitchen staff to keep to the equation.
A crew of four normally services a film – a person who deals with crafts (tea, coffee, water, juice, biscuits, snacks throughout the day), a salad person, a head chef and an assistant – then according to the scale of production additional temporary staff might be brought in. Their typical day begins around 3am as they have to prepare breakfast long before the usual call time of 6am when a ‘walking’ or ‘staggered’ breakfast is served over two hours to allow for all crew and cast members depending on their arrival time on set.
Then there’s roughly four hours to prepare for lunch – the most important meal of the day – that’s because it’s much more than just a meal, says Mull, “it’s an important mental moment for the production, something they look forward to and where they need to feel pampered and coddled in some kind of way. Many crew members are used to a certain degree of quality and service, they have expectations that have to be met, otherwise they’ll blow a fuse.” To prevent that Mull is generally on site for the meal even though he admits, “I’m not a chef’s backside”. He learnt that on Shout at The Devil when producer Klinger received complaints about the food, “He said to me I had to be there when it was served. He told me ‘You must be on set, because you make the food taste better’.”
His underlying principle behind feeding film people is to keep it simple but admits that one of the greatest challenges is to create a variety of cuisine, especially on a long shoot like a television series (he is currently providing the food for the new SABC hospital show Hillside, which is shooting in and around Pretoria). “Imagine you had to eat at the fanciest restaurant in the world, winner of three Michelin stars. How would you like to eat there every day for three months, I’m telling you no matter what – you’d get gatvol. Two months in and you’d be dying for a Big Mac!” Mull has twenty-four set menus that he rotates in order to address the problem, “So basically what you eat today, you’ll eat again in a month’s time.” If it’s a long shoot he also rotates chefs from time to time and even changes table-cloths or shops for specials and has a spit-braai or roast beef as a treat for the production.
In an ideal world where budget is no problem he would split his chefs and catering staff, using different personnel for breakfast and lunch and would farm out some of the days to other caterers like restaurants ranging from Nandos to Ocean Basket; but with fuel and food prices rising at an extortionate rate at the present cost of roughly R120 per head it’s simply not possible.
With the rise in film production, competition has become fierce, and a caterer’s reputation and industry word of mouth is what secures future jobs. Mull’s standing in the industry is indisputable, next time you’re on a set that he’s feeding make a point of greeting him and let him regale you with his garrulous ways – just make sure you’re back on set in time.