Jon’s initial plan is to smear a teddy bear with dog food and drag it through the streets of Kilyos. The town is full of stray dogs, so he hopes that by the time we get back out into the countryside we’ll have a comet’s tail of mongrels chasing after our two cars. We’ve come to Kilyos to help him make a film for an art show he’s putting on in London. The film will be only be 30 seconds long, like a car ad, and it will also have the glossiness of a car ad, except for the frantic dogs. There are six of us in the crew – me, Jon, Jesse, Samara, Ali and Mihda – plus Esteban, Mihda’s dog. Esteban is theoretically still a puppy, but he’s already so huge that when he treads on your foot it feels like he might have broken a few of your toes. Apparently his breed was developed to hunt wild boar. His white coat matches the colour of Mihda’s dad’s car, a four-wheel-drive Porsche Cayenne, and whenever we leave him on his own even for a second he gets into the driver’s seat and sits up with his paws on the wheel looking like Rick Ross. Esteban is not here to act in the film. But he’s not just a shark-eyed mascot either. We think of him as key grip.
Kilyos, a resort about 15 miles north of the centre of Istanbul, has had most of the life sucked out of it by the local mafia. The satellite dishes on the roofs here are so brown with rust that they make me think of oversized forest mushrooms. We find that there isn’t nearly enough manoeuvrability on these little streets to do our Pied Piper act, and also the dogs are already so well fed that they may not have much interest in our meaty decoy, so instead we just eat some spinach börek and then carry on to Gümüsdere Beach. On the way, alongside the cabbage fields and cemeteries and go-kart tracks, there are fences which have repeating patterns of blobby holes cut out of their struts, as if eaten away by some meticulous weevil. Jesse explains that the wood must be the interstices from a type of automated woodwork called CNC, so these struts are like the leftover dough that you guiltily cram in your mouth after you’ve stamped out a dozen heart-shaped biscuits. There are also so many strays by the side of the road that when we pass a few cows for the first time there is a terrifying moment when I take them for gigantic horned mastiffs.
After a while we come to a stretch of beach that looks about right to Jon, but all the beach resorts here are privately run, so they all have gates, and the gates here are locked. They do look a bit rickety, but there’s a CCTV camera nearby, and Jon doesn’t want to do anything that might get us arrested. Ali goes to speak to some old men in a café nearby, and they tell him that the guardian of the gate is somebody called Mr Hasan in the village. I was excited to come on this trip because Jon said we’d have to pay a lot of bribes and I’d never paid a bribe before. Surely, I think, Mr Hasan will be our first bribe. But when we eventually track his son, he tells us that he can’t unlock the gate for us but we’re very welcome to break in if we want. I wonder if there’s any chance we might be permitted to bribe him anyway, just for the experience.
After Jon has wrenched the gates open, we have the beach to ourselves. The row of holiday homes further up the slope are all identical in their architecture but in various stages of dilapidation, so from the rear they remind me of one of those anti-drug posters showing the slow decline of a meth user. We’d hoped we might be able to swim for a while, but the grey sea is far too cold. The Bosphorus has a one-way system that changes direction every 12 hours, and by the time we leave so many ships will be queuing up on the horizon that they look like a manufactured coastline. Jesse, Samara and I walk up the beach to look for some stray dogs. Our progress is slowed a little by Samara’s scavenging. Her art is full of creases, furrows, and stains, so she’s finding a lot of treasure on the beach that she wants to take home with her. In this briny wind, everything erodes at the speed of a time-lapse video, so the half-buried tarpaulins and plastic buckets look as if they’ve been here since the Hittite era. Eventually, we do come across three fairly photogenic strays, but just as we’re making our first shy advances with a bag of sliced sausage, two teenagers from the riding school nearby come cantering across the beach, and the dogs go straight for their horses. They really seem to think they have a shot at taking both horses down like cheetahs against gazelles.
We don’t have a hope of catching up. So we’ve failed to assemble a cast of unknowns. But of course our star has been right in front of us all this time. As a test, we tie a length of twine to the teddy bear and dangle it in front of Esteban to see if he’s interested. The teddy bear has a disconcertingly Lolita-type posture and when squeezed sings ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ Esteban is interested. Esteban is very interested. Esteban is so interested that it soon becomes clear that wrestling the teddy bear out of Esteban’s mouth between takes will constitute a full time job for at least one member of the crew (I remember reading that the same was true of Jack Nicholson during the filming of The Departed). Afterwards, I grope the muddy bear again, hoping to hear a slurred and atonal rendition of its little song, like a damaged robot’s, but evidently it’s been traumatised into silence.
Jon has a shouldermount for his camera, but the spring is too weak, so whenever he tries to use it the camera lolls around like a concussion patient. Instead, he’s going to steady the camera by hand. Since I have nothing in particular to do, I join him on the cargo bed of the second car, from which he’ll be filming the action. The sun is setting, and we are entering what’s called the Golden Hour, that divine burnishment which has inspired filmmakers with its fugitive beauty since the very advent of Technicolor: perfect conditions, in other words, to get a few takes of a big dog running after a cuddly toy. Communicating with walkie-talkies between the two cars, we begin filming. The teddy bear is dragged at high speeds behind the Porsche like Hector’s body behind the chariot of Achilles. With three bodies in independent motion, this feels like something between exceptionally complex stuntwork and a total farce. Esteban seems to be having the time of his life, presumably assuming that this entire game has been arranged for his benefit. I find myself wishing that being a novelist involved a bit less sitting alone in small rooms and a bit more riding in the backs of pick-up trucks at high speeds.
By the time the dog finally tires, Jon has come to accept that we aren’t going to get the smooth 30-second take he was hoping for. But he’s got quite a few shorter takes he can edit together. As we’re packing up the equipment, we see that at least one other party has taken advantage of the gate we left open. A guy in one of those stubby, top-heavy delivery vans has driven on to the beach and is now attempting to do donuts on the sand. It’s like watching Esteban practising pirouettes. After a while the guy gets out of his car for a cigarette, so Jesse and I decide to go over to say hello to him. It’s only when we’re within a few paces that I realise I’m still carrying the filthy, ruined teddy bear on its noose of twine like some sort of avant-garde handbag. The guy looks at the bear and then looks at me. I look back at him. Nobody says anything.