|Oct/Nov 2019 Fiction|
It is said that the camera cannot lie,
but rarely do we allow it to do anything
else, since the camera sees what you point it at:
The camera sees what you want it to see.
The language of the camera is the language of our dreams.
—James Baldwin, from "The Price of the Ticket"
Act One, Scene 1
There is light.
There is sound.
That's all there is, really, being projected onto the movie screen in front of you while the jet you're on rumbles high above the ground towards the East Coast: artfully manipulated images combined with a carefully synchronized soundtrack. The way the lead actor's features are illuminated in this particular close-up, for instance, ads a certain amount of cinematic heft to his expression, a level of gravitas he's been unable to achieve in his other roles.
You've done this a hundred times—flown to a strange city, set up camp in a hotel, and gone to work filming a movie. This time, though, you're not an A-list director. You are slowly coming to grips with the fact that the public wants its brown skinned filmmakers to be more controversial than you are. They want you to wear your race consciousness on your chest like a badge while you cudgel them with images of white oppression and black suffering. But to you, your own African American ethnicity is an abstract ideal—or at least it has been, up until now.
"People," your father told you once, back when you were a teenager, about to head off to college, "are always going to try to lump you into a group. Been trying to put me in one my whole life. Black doctor. Minority surgeon. Nigger rich." Then he held up his hands in front of your face. "These allow me to define my own existence. Mine and yours."
It has closed in on you lately, though, in spite of all your father's efforts, in spite of your own, this envelope of blackness, of African American-ness, that seems to have come out of nowhere, and it has been gnawing at you ever since.
But here you are, almost 40 years old, and for the first time in your life there seems to be an almost imperceptible undertow of some kind working against you, a force just strong enough to make you have to pay attention to keep your balance. It should be a minor inconvenience, but the effort you have to expend to oppose this force, these minute exertions necessary to keep your balance, subtract something—exactly what you're not sure, but it is a something enough to affect your consciousness, a something enough to alter how you approach the world.
By the time the plane begins its descent, you are thinking about the hundreds of directors from every decade whose names are never mentioned, whose efforts to blaze new cinematic trails have all gone unnoticed and unheralded. It's moments like these when you are most afraid you will join them.
Act One, Scene 3
Ish, your old agent, has never been one to do you any favors. This is why six months ago you had stared at the two guys who walked into the diner in Orange County you frequented as if they had lost their minds.
Plates clink as the busboy rinses stacks of dirty breakfast dishes. Your favorite waitress leans over and taps you. "These are the guys I told you were looking for you earlier." She scowls at them until you nod your head at her.
"You're Ward Graven, right? Ish Rabinowitz told us to give you a call," the smallish, wheatish colored one in the Versace silk shirt says to you. He turns out to be Ravi, a first-time film producer.
"It would have been a lot cheaper than flying to Irvine." Ish was better known, at least to the state of California, as Irving Ishmael Rabinowitz, which was the name affixed above "Plaintiff" on the two lawsuits for breach of contract yellowing in the trunk of your car.
Ravi tries to appeal to your vanity. "Ward, you are a legend," he says, his eyes flashing. "When I lived in Mumbai, I used to work at a place where they dubbed American movies. We used to watch your films without sound. Your camera movement, your cuts... ahhh!"
As you reluctantly take the bound sheaf of paper from Ravi, the tall one, who turns out to be named Baron, pipes up. "We already have almost all our funding."
"How much is almost?"
"Our... how you say... 'bud-get'... is four million. We have two and a half now. In the bank. We will be filming it in Atlanta."
Okay—here were two idiots handing you a stack of somebody else's wet dreams, and they'd already had 60 percent of the cash to shoot it. On their first film, no less. Damn.
Your cellphone rings right then, a sign if there ever was one—don't do it—until you look at your phone. It is your ex-wife's number. She is calling to see why you haven't sent her last two alimony checks. "So worst case you need to raise another mil to make this happen?"
"Yeah," Baron and Ravi nod.
"Here's my number. If you don't hear from me in a week, call me."
Act One, Scene 4
Buckhead. Pampered skin shines. Brand new clothing shimmies over rows of aerobicized hips. Italy's finest calfskin straps caress throngs of slender ankles. Fresh pannini loaves, virgin butter, and the charred remains of prime beef waft through the air. Hordes of open flower blooms and newly sawed wood complement the aroma of just washed hair. Jack hammers, car horns, delivery trucks, and MARTA buses all contribute to the cacophony of sound in the heart of Atlanta's high rent district, the mecca of the Deep South and your home for the next six weeks.
The Sunday before shooting starts, you begin to get we're-making-a-movie-here edgy. Your coffee curdles in your stomach, and a bagel is all you can get down. You chain smoke fat black cigars like they were Kools. You are standing outside the entrance of Tower Place, smoking your lunch at the corner of the high rise, when the sliding glass doors at the building's entrance open. You hear the click of new leather heels on the granite tiles of the outside mezzanine.
"Can hear me now?" It sounds like Ravi. He jabbers into his cell phone as he strokes his neck-length hair. "Uncle, uncle, you not understand. Too hard a sell, a movie about Iranians. The Middle East too much controversy now for Iranian family comedy." It is Ravi. Arrogant, charming, snotty, cajoling, ever hopeful Ravi, who always calls you before his ideas are fully formed, working out the kinks in them as he speaks, hiding his lack of a next step in the elusive patter of broken English he slips into whenever he needs time to think on the fly.
"No, no, let me explain. Everybody now want make money on rap music. So, I have different script. A new director. He film many rap videos." Ravi's pacing takes him in ever widening circles, so you can only catch portions of the rest of his call.
"...director we could get..."
Is he talking about you? You've only shot one rap video, and that experience was a disaster. You puff harder, the ashes crumbling onto your shirt.
"...ten million in box office to break even..."
If they handle the pre-release marketing even halfway right, this is a doable number in the first six weeks. If it opens on enough screens, and if they can keep it in the urban theaters for eight to ten weeks, it might gross 15 to 20 million.
Your gross points are starting to look better and better all the time.
Act Two, Scene 2
The precipitous degree of sway in the high-rise building's superstructure has unnerved you from the moment you walked onto the set. You have to close your eyes periodically to regain your equilibrium. Everyone around you assumes you are in deep thought.
"Okay, guys," you say, opening your eyes, "we're going to read this script, from page one to page 91, without stopping. If you have any ideas about improving your lines, hold them until after lunch. Okay?"
The actors in the semi-circle flap their scripts, sighing in concert as they see the highlighted sections in their booklets. You've got a white-skinned black woman from Indiana, a blond-haired Indian, a round-eyed Korean, a hayseed negro from Alabama with a fake New York accent, a middleaged Jew who can barely count to ten, an Arab who grew up in Cambridge and wears Brooks Brothers suits, a 50-year-old, part-time male stripper, and a man with the ugliest face this side of the Missisippi.
Did the Bad News Bears grow up? Who is the casting agent—oh, shit, it's Teresa Holtz. She's probably still pissed about the bonus she never got on your last film.
So this is how she fucks you back.
"Okay—everybody ready?" you say, looking at your PA. "BEGIN!"
The dialogue kicks in from there, and for the next hour and a half you hear their voices being projected at you. You turn around and look out the window, your back facing the actors' chairs as you continue to listen.
Monologue, dialogue, it's all the same—the words the actors say are supposed to mean something, are supposed to give the audience an idea of the internal struggle within, of the part of the iceberg that cannot be seen. But a young Asian actor you were directing in Japan, when you explained this to him, told you your method, this method, a belief underpinning practically all of modern film theory, was no longer valid. "There is nothing inside of me," he told you. "I don't believe in anything I can't see. I don't care about anything I can't touch."
The ensemble reading of the script creates a silent movie in reverse, a picture-less talkie, the voices louder and surer with the turn of each page as you stare at the empty blue sky. You begin picturing each scene from the camera's point of view, your mind's eye zooming in and panning out when the action dictates. "You need to concentrate on projecting the buoyancy of youth," you will tell them later. "Show your audience," you will say, with the finality of a eulogist, "that you believe nothing can hurt you."
For the first time, you can visualize the entire movie from beginning to end. Thirty, maybe 40 percent needs to be totally rewritten. Totally. The rest will have to be improvised on the fly.
An hour later, back in your room, you get a call. The guy who wrote the original story, Willie Cameron, is flying in tomorrow afternoon to help with the rewrite. Dinner will be at The Palm, at eight.
Act Two, Scene 4
"That's a filet, medium, no salad, nothing on the potato, and hit me with another Jack on the rocks."
Willie Cameron, you have noticed, is very particular, especially about his food. You glance around the table. Baron and Ravi are sweating, your PA looks like she's about to fall asleep, and Willie appears to be well on the way to doubling the dinner tab with his bar bill alone.
"So how much of this stuff really happened, Willie?" you say. Willie gulps down the rest of his drink.
"I couldn't put half the stuff I wanted to in there. Tank would straight up kill me if he thought I dimed on him."
"Alright, then. Baron, I'll run down the list of scenes. Let's see which ones Willie thinks are essential, and which ones he really doesn't care about."
Baron shuffles in his briefcase for his folio. He hands a three-ring binder to each of you. The title "Bulletin Board—The Motion Picture" is emblazoned on their covers. A nosy woman at the next table cranes her neck.
"Let's see," you say. "The intro's been shot, and we've already done two morning meetings and a conference call. Do we need the fight scene?"
"Gotta keep it. Shows character motivation. Conflict."
"Strip club #1?"
Willie lowers the glass from his lips. "It opens the newbie's eyes to how biz is done in the city"
"Strip club #2?"
"Strip club #3?"
"We can skip it." Willie twirls his fork through a bank of mashed potatoes.
"The Kentucky Fried Chicken scene?"
"Shows the hunger and poverty of the brokers."
"Rio Bravo scene?"
"Conflict between their firm and other chop shops."
"The shoeshine man as the building drug dealer?"
"Shows a perversion of the penny stockbroker life."
"The white shirt scene?"
"Gotta stay in."
"The internet company pitch scene?"
"Secondary storyline—can be cut if necessary."
"The afterwork coke party scene?"
"Okay," you say, "pretty much everything else happens in the office—we've got that for six weeks. Oh yeah, Willie—while we've got a minute—this scene where the brokers come to work in white face—you know how much I liked it—the symbolism, the irony, the sheer audacity of it—but the more I think about it, it's just a little too Shaka Zulu."
Willie laughs. "Ain't that some shit?"
"I don't think you understand what I'm saying. It's not the whiteface, it's the attitudes these guys are going to have, the body language they're going to display on the screen. That medium shot, where they're all massed together in front of the company's VP? I just don't like the tension."
Willie clenches his fists. "Ward, this is our chance—your chance—to say something about us. About black people who can count, can run a business."
"But they ultimately fail in the end?"
"Do they? Do you really understand the heart of the story? They all got to look into the mouth of the abyss. By the end of the script, these no name, nobody, ragtag group of niggers who would otherwise be out in the streets, living down to society's expectations, have learned how to print money. Legally. They will never be the same again."
Maybe you'd missed that. Maybe you were more distracted than you thought.
Willie frowns. "I mean, the other movies you've done may have artistic merit, but what does that mumbo jumbo shit say to the world? That 'everything is nothing and nothing is everything?' Why not break some new ground and make these motherfuckers heroes?"
"It'll end up being a propaganda piece, Willie. Don't you see why I can't do it that way?"
"Yeah. I can see it alright," Willie says. "As my boy Charlie Chan says, 'elaborate excuse seldom truth.'"
It hits you as you take another look at the scene schedule—this is a roman a clef. Do these clowns have any budget for legal? Is there anyone who can pop out of the woodwork and cause problems once this film is done? You get most of your fees when it's in the can, but just in case this thing grosses better than expected, you don't want to spend four or five years in court waiting to get your share.
Act Two, Scene 6
You look at all the heavy makeup Cynthia, your lead actress, is wearing and immediately demand she remove it.
"I can't," she says.
"My skin—it's bad."
Cynthia won't answer. She looks terrified, as if you've asked her to strip naked or confess she'd had an abortion.
"Cynthia," you say, "do you remember the movie Coal Miner's Daughter?" Nothing on Cynthia moves. Not her eyes, not her lips. "All right, maybe that was before your time, but the star was a woman named Sissy Spacek. I don't think she wore a speck of makeup in the entire movie," you say, although you have no idea whether this is true or not. "Every flaw she had—her crooked nose, her acne scars, her sallow skin color—was right out there on every scene, including the close-ups. For this, she won an Oscar."
You try the opening entrance to the office scene several times after the makeup people strip Cynthia's face of all their hard work—this will be Take Number 9. Your cameraman hears the muffled voice of the assistant director counting down ""3... 2... 1... NOW!" from inside the door, whereupon he smoothly turns the camera from the hallway back to the door just before it opens to reveal a pale-faced black woman in a tailored grey wool business suit.
Your cameraman begins to smile, this is it, everybody has hit their marks on the money this time, nobody has flubbed a line, the lighting is calibrated correctly, and in about 30 seconds he can put this heavy-as-hell SteadiCam down.
"Cut!" you say.
Everyone on the set lets their shoulders slump—except the cameraman.
"Cynthia," you say, "your chin was pointed too high in the air. I don't want to see that much of your neck." You get her to stand up. You turn her skull to show her the angle you want. Her hair is soft beneath your fingers. Her skin looks a little dry under the eyes. Other than that you can see nothing, no blemishes, no acne pits—just a dead white cast to her flesh that makes you forget that she's black, the same way her eyes do, the same way her nose does.
"Okay," you say. "Everybody ready? Let's run this again."
Your cameraman groans.
Act Two, Scene 9
What you come to like about Willie is his total misunderstanding of the way things are supposed to work. He is your "no" man. You can count on him to disagree with you on every topic, every point of fact, every insignificant bit of trivia.
"Look Willie," you say one night when the two of you are back in your room, your third drink in hand, your cigar fading out. "There were only a handful of black directors—hell, there still are only a handful of black directors—but the guys before Gordon Parks had to do it on their own. Oscar Michaux, Ralph Cooper, William Foster, those cats were pretty much it in the early days. But the movies they made were... were bad. At the same time they're hauling the bullshit they called films around the chittlin circuit in the trunks of their cars, you've got Welles coming out with Citizen Kane, you've got Lubitsch coming out with M, and then there's this... this bullshit. Tragic mulattos, cheap gangster remakes, gospel extravaganzas—what the hell is that?"
"What about Body and Soul, with Robeson? You can't at least appreciate what Michaux was trying to do?"
"Robeson was miscast, the lighting was all wrong—"
"But the story—"
"What story? Boy meets girl? No subplot worth talking about? Sheeit!"
"I bet you didn't like The Color Purple, either."
"It was too clean."
"Looked like a god damn Disney version of Celie's struggles. How the hell do you tell such a dark story with so much light?"
"Maybe he had a different interpretation."
"He should have changed the ending. Not enough suffering at the end. Everybody was just happy and nappy."
"So what would you have done?"
"I wouldn't have made it."
"Just say you did. How would you have done it?"
"I would have used a different type of film—hell, a different film speed altogether. Something grainier. I would have gone with handheld cameras. Made it more personal, you know. Really got up on the actors, until you could see the uneven stitches in the handsewn clothes, see the crust around their mouths when they woke up, see the way Mister's hands flexed just before he beat Celie—"
"Dude, nobody woulda gone to see that. That woulda been too harsh."
"Exactly! It's supposed to be a harsh story. Where are the broken blood vessels in the eyes? The dry, cracked skin? People used to sleep in their clothes back then, especially field hands. I would have put 'em in hot boxes to get that weary, heat-exhausted look—"
"So you're saying he didn't give an accurate picture of being a turn of the century sharecropper."
"Come on, man. Spielberg is cotton candy. The movie needed more dirt, more sweat, more—"
"So now Ward Graven is the authority on poor niggers in the Deep South? Do you remember why people go to the movies, Ward? To be entertained. To see a story. To feel like they've gotten their money's worth."
Act Three, Scene 2
You wrap shooting for the day. You call Baron on his cell. "Baron, when's the rest of the money coming in?"
After Baron came up with an additional $150,000, he has been silent about his fundraising efforts. Your last tally shows $2,400,000 in expenditures. The account shows a balance of $450,000. You know that the difference between a bad low-budget flick and a good one is about $1,000,000 for reshoots, extra film processing costs, the feeding and hiring of enough extras, a halfway decent looping studio, and all the other bullshit that can and will happen along the way.
"Rest of what damn money?"
"The rest of the money we need to finish this film."
You can hear Willie in the background, laughing. From the way the music and acoustics sound, they're probably at Maggiano's across the street. The sounds recede—Baron must be walking towards the bathroom.
Baron's voice blares from your phone. "I'm pitching some asshole right now."
"For how much?"
"Two hunnert fifty thou." Baron sounds pleased with himself for having unearthed a new prospect.
"What do you think?"
"The shit might fly," Baron says, "if this asshole could just use his imagination."
"Is that Willie howling at him?"
"Actually, he's howling with him—the guy seems to like Willie."
"Baron, just close the deal and get the cash wired in."
Act Three, Scene 5
You have done the first fight scene twice, but something is lacking. It's hard for a beginning actor to stand around getting to know his coworkers for a week, and then stand in front of the camera and do a believable job of threatening these same guys' lives. "Take five, everybody," you say. "Marc, come over here for a second."
You and Marc amble over to the floor to ceiling window.
Marc looks bored. You grab a gaffer's tube and drape a square of light diffusing gauze over it lengthwise. "Marc, you keep thinking of yourself as an actor. Forget that. Use your imagination a little.
I want to see a hungry tiger licking his lips," you say. "Better yet, a matador. A fucking bullfighter. And this set," you say as you wheel around him, weaving the tube as you turn your body to make the fabric dance through the air, "is the middle of your ring."
"You have to play to the crowd even while you keep your eyes on the bull. You can feel the heat of his breath," you say—Ravi blows an exaggerated breath at you as he passes—"can hear the pop of his tendons, can feel the flecks of musky sweat spraying from his flanks. Being this close to such a huge, unrestrained animal does something to you, mixing your courage and skill with just enough fear, just enough terror for the crowd to pick up the slight tremor in your arm as the sword wavers in your hands.
And if the bull is crafty, if he begins to snarl and twist his head as he rushes at you, if he is lucky enough that he nicks you with one of his horns—"
Ravi, taking your cue, grazes you with his shoulder as he passes.
"—so that you are bleeding, bleeding, and yet still smiling while your eyes widen in pain, the crowd is yours. You own them."
You drop down on your hands and knees, slump to the floor, and roll over on your back before you continue. "And if you bleed to death in front of them, they will swear to God when they retell this story that they now know what it means to die. That's how I want the audiences for this film to feel when they leave the theater—that they know what it's like to be a young black man in America."
Act Three, Scene 6
You usually want to be alone at night when you're on a tight shooting schedule, but Willie starts showing up at your door without invitation. Tonight, after a couple of drinks, you open up to him about your father.
"I wasn't his son," you say to Willie. "My father owned me. And his practice owned him."
"You felt like you were a slave?"
"No, not like that. Just that these two things—my father and medicine—were pervasive throughout my childhood. Everything revolved around him or it. He had to go to bed early so he could be up for surgery. He couldn't be disturbed because he was putting together some research for a paper. He had to go in for an emergency at the hospital."
"Are you serious?"
"So now you're going to blame your pop. Being privileged screwed you up. You needed to see more of life in the raw to be a real man."
"Something like that."
"Bullshit. You know what I think? I think you hate it that he was able to rise up from nothing and make himself somebody. He came up from nothing, right?"
"You've never seen him sweat. You see him fully formed, a successful doc, renowned in his field, and you think that he's some kind of superman. Or super villain, according to you, because he didn't come to your damn Little League games—"
"I never played Little League."
"You know what I mean. He's busy all the time, stacking up cheese so you can run around with your little Super 8 movie camera and film butterflies and shit, but he's done you wrong."
"Dude, let's call it a night. I don't need any psychoanalyzing tonight."
"No, you don't need any psychobabble. You need a kick in the ass. All these black guys out here who don't have a father, a lot of 'em never even seen their fathers, and you feel like you didn't have a chance because your father made too much money? Because he didn't show you how to change some god dammed spark plugs? Hot wire a car?"
Willie is breathing hard, his eyes getting pink around the edges. You pull a cigar out of your desktop humidor and slide the plastic sleeve off of it. "I'm about to smoke one. Want a stick to take home?"
"Go ahead, sit in the dark and smoke your cigar. That's all you want to do anyway—sit in the dark and rearrange the world 'til it looks the way you want."
"Willie, just go home."
He comes over to where you're sitting, his mouth hard, and grabs a handful of cigars.
"Hey! Those were hard to get!"
"Just like everything else in this world, Hollywood."
Act Three, Scene 7
"Mr. G, there's someone here trying to get on the set."
You turn around to look, and a young black man steps through the door. He stands six-two, about 240 pounds, with a clean-shaven head and a mouthful of white teeth gleaming at you. As you step closer, you see the scars around the eyes, the broad, roughened knuckles, the battle-weary shoulders. By the time he takes his second step, you know exactly who he is—the original model for your main character.
"So you're Mr. G."
"And you are?"
You look at the two of them—similar build and height, almost identical head shapes—but Marc doesn't have anything on Tank in the electricity department. "So what can I do for you, Tank?"
His snarl relaxes. "I hear you making a movie about me. I just want to make sure you keep your lies straight."
You notice he's rocking forward on the balls of his feet, imperceptibly easing into an attack stance as he talks.
"If you were Willie's manager, you had to be the main character," you say. "From what I could see, most of the action revolves around you."
Tank's eyes dance as he smiles, but he continues to lean in towards you. You try to remember how many steps there are to the door. But isn't this what you were about to lecture Marc about? Isn't this the kind of menacing, dangerous, explode at any moment tension that you want to show to the audience?
"Tank, how does your schedule look for the next couple days?"
"Don't have to see my parole officer until next week."
"I think I've got a job for you, buddy."
Act Three, Scene 9
"I've only shot a couple more scenes since you've been here," you say to Willie, "but they felt wrong. What did you see missing?"
"The one thing I remember about the business is everybody always talking. Talking on the phone, talking to each other, talking to themselves. But not regular conversations. They were all conversations with a purpose.
"Talking about what?" you ask. "Stock analysis?"
"Stock analysis?" Wille snorts. "You were supposed to probe your prospects, or your customers, enough to find a hot button. Then you built a story around it. You explained why it made more sense to buy something when it was cheap. When the company was small and unheard of. When the stock traded only 60 or 80 thousand shares a day.
The way Tank used to put it, you stuck just enough meat between the bread to get a sucker to see it was a sandwich. Then you told them why a lot of meat wasn't good for them. That the world was trending towards meatless sandwiches, but of course no one would expect you to go cold turkey. And of course, cold is better than hot—it's more nutritious. So by the time you're finished, this guy was handing over steak dinner money for a baloney sandwich. And if you really did your job well, his cousin would call you in a couple of days to see if you had any more of those baloney sandwiches left.
We weren't really in the stock selling business. We were in the money gathering business. That's what we really did—raise money and move it around. Whack a little off for ourselves, a little off for the firm, yep, every time that money moved. Screw the guys who wanted to be investment gurus. Go work for Merrill. Us, we move a million, we whack 'em for seven, eight, ten percent. A hundred "G's" in the bag, firm takes their cut—"
"Sounds a lot like Cotton Comes to Harlem." You click your triple flame cigar torch as you look at Willie across the small table on the balcony.
"More like Hell Up in Harlem." Willie pauses to sip at his drink.
"So Tank was good?"
"Tank had it all. He could smell easy money through the phone, he had a clear voice that could sound white if he wanted it to, and he always knew when he ran into someone's hot button."
"This Tank is a chameleon," you say, wondering if Willie's script captures enough of Tank's personality. "Ghetto one minute, Wall Street the next, white boy cool in between. Alright—if he was so good, what happened to all the cash he made? He looked a little run down yesterday."
"You saw him?" Willie stops drinking. Exhales hard.
"I hired him."
"Fuck!" Willie gulps down the rest of the liquor. "Fuck!"
You know what he means. There is definitely an untamed tiger in this Tank.
Act Three, Scene 10
"Okay Tank. We're glad you could make it today."
Hiring Tank, you have decided, was a bad decision. But telling him you've changed your mind might be worse. He's always late. Not 20 minutes late. Half a day late. And he always has a different, wide-eyed woman with him.
"Mr. G," he says, licking his ashy lips, "This is Lakeshia." Yesterday it was Dawn. The day before it was Triniece. All stripes, all sizes. All of them star struck, awed by your cheap rented cameras and the yards of black electrical wire strewn everywhere.
But Tank as an acting coach is almost worth the aggravation, communicating with Marc, the actor who plays Tank in the movie, the same way he used to pitch star stockbrokers, back when he was trying to get them to come over to his firm...
"...don't look too happy, Marc. Smile slowly. Let your teeth ease into view. DON'T MOVE YOUR DAMN ARM SO FAST! Keep your shoulders stay open and relaxed. CADENCE, CADENCE, CADENCE. Don't rush the words, just lay it out there like you give people $25,000 signing bonuses every day..."
Today Lakeshia is a distraction.
"Tank," you say, pulling him aside. "We're working here. I'm not paying you to wine and dine your, your... girlfriends."
"What's wrong with my hoes? You gonna miss two damn donuts? A fucking sandwich?"
"Send her home, Tank."
"You's a buster, you know that? A buster-ass nigger."
"Maybe I am a buster," you say. "But I've got what you want." You hear him walk her to the door. Then you feel a hand tap your shoulder.
"Yo, Mr. G. You ain't really no buster. Know whut I'm sayin'?"
"No, I don't know what you're saying."
"You ain't got to be like that, Mr. G." He pauses. "Mister Graven, sir." His eyes plead. "Look, can you spot me twenty? Lakeshia ain't got no ride home."
Act Four, Scene 2
Cynthia's voice sounds different over the phone than it does on the set—now it is muffled and tender. It has always fascinated you, this difference between the image an actress projects for the camera and the one she inhabits off the set.
"Call me Ward."
"Ward, there are... there are some things the cast has concerns about. Is it okay if I come up?"
This is pretty easy. You don't even have to make the first move. "Tonight?"
"Well, if you're busy—"
"Give me ten minutes."
She is somber when you open the door. The way her hair is pulled back makes you think of a scene you did years ago showing a married woman going to confessional after committing adultery. But Cynthia's lips are angry, not guilty. You offer her the couch and seat yourself in the easy chair across the coffee table from her. "Anything to drink?"
"Well, I will." You pour yourself a splash of Jack Daniels and retrieve a single ice cube from the refrigerator before returning to your chair. "Okayyyyy—"
"Sissy Spacek didn't win an Oscar, did she?"
"Who told you that?"
"Nobody. I just got the feeling you said what you had to say to get me to... to do what you wanted."
"As a matter of fact, Cynthia, she did win an Oscar. You can look it up on my laptop over there. Just go to Google and type in 'Sissy Spacek Oscar.'"
Act Four, Scene 3
The local news rag interviews you. Deep brown twists dangle all over the reporter's head. She looks to be in her 30s. The name says Africa, but the face says African American—high forehead, narrow cheekbones, medium sized lips, eye sockets a little too close together, sepia-toned skin. She gets on your bad side right away. "Mr. Graven, you were ceremoniously dumped two years ago by Miramax for delivering a final cut to them that was composed mostly of flashback scenes. Do you think the mainstream movie industry is less likely to take a chance on you these days?"
"Everything since then has been an effort," you counter, "to work my way back to those days where the artifice of the business was stripped away, when only perspective mattered."
This morning the copy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution you get in the lobby has your name in bold below the fold, announcing a profile on you in the Living section.
Graven's latest effort fails to deliver. Thief mugged by poor directing effort. Graven's lack of ability to tell a universal story translates into box office failure.
"True artists," the local reporter writes in conclusion, "create new realities. They explore new paradigms. But Ward Graven is really a glorified technician who needs to tell the same story, over and over, until he gets it right." The Mafia couldn't have planned a better hit.
Willie calls at 7:00 AM. "You saw the article?" he says.
"You care what they wrote?"
"I'll be over there in two minutes."
Willie splashes whiskey over ice. "Nice breakfast."
You stare at the wall of your room.
Willie licks his lips. "Man, I didn't know they blackballed you in Hollywood."
Blackballed. The VPs in charge of new development, those VPs were the ones you had thrown things at during parties. The ones you had left long, disgusting messages for on their home answering machines. The ones you had lambasted in Sledge Hammer, your cinematic send up of the insider culture that ran Hollywood. The ones you had lectured at length about your refusal to be pigeonholed into making "black" movies.
"You had the right to be an idiot," your ex-wife had told you later. "I'm just glad it wasn't on my watch."
Act Four, Scene 6
Perspective is eluding you, stealing away from your grasp. There are times, like now, when your vision collapses everything, even real life, into two dimensions, with your subjects looming in the foreground of your vista. "Which take was that?" you say to your projectionist.
You love the smell of just-developed film. The frames on the screen leap out at you now—shadow and light, movement and sound. The images that flit across your cerebellum are not binocular but kaleidoscopic, a collage of bodies and objects continually being shifted and skewed, their actual positions merely baselines for the way you and your film editor will manipulate these strips of celluloid that have captured the actor's likenesses.
You listen to them all—Willie, Claire, even Tank—stop breathing when they see the way the first image hits the screen.
"Run it again," you say when you hear the tap tap tap tap of the film leader beating against the projector. None of the black actors are pretty boys. The grainy film you've selected camouflages their large pores, veils their darkened scars, obscures the rough texture of their hair. Most of the close-ups are washouts. Their faces are lit from below whenever possible to cut down on the harsh shadows from their features. You do not want them to be niggerized before the audience gets a chance to start caring about them.
Someone is knocking on the door of your makeshift screening room. The cadence of the tapping signals it's Ravi, in the same sing song rhythm of his accent.
"It's going how? Very good, right?" The stinging sands of his homeland desert carved Ravi's serenity into his face long ago. He cannot be flustered.
"I don't know," you say. "Twenty more pages to shoot, and we're ready to put it together."
"How fast you can get them done?" Ravi asks.
"I thought we had ten more days?"
"No more money," says Ravi. "Five days these pages can be done in."
"What about the rest of my fee?"
"I knew this going to be problem," says Ravi, stretching himself out to his full height. "My books say conflict on set is number one problem a producer will face to get film finish."
"Yeah," you reply, "well, keep reading."
Baron is scared. He refuses to talk to you. Tank returns to the set daily, even though you no longer need him. Tank's smile never leaves his face, even when he finally runs into Willie on the set.
Tank takes a step away from you and stands, hands on his hips, his smile becoming more menacing as his dimples deepen. Willie is drawn to him by some sort of unseen force. He holds his hand out gingerly until Tank grasps it, the scarred black paw of Tank's dwarfing Willie's slender, tan colored fingers.
"Willie's been telling me a lot about you, Tank," you say.
"Oh, yeah? Like what?" Tank still has Willie's hand firmly in his, as if he is going to jerk him off his feet if you say the wrong thing.
"He said you were a force of nature."
Tank's shoulders droop, but he still holds Willie's hand as he inches closer to him. All of a sudden, he throws his left arm around Willie's shoulder. Willie flinches. Tank laughs. "What's the matter, Willie? Thought something was 'bout to pop off?"
"I always toldja all that readin' wasn't good for ya, Willie." Tank drags Willie with him when he turns to face you. "Know what I used to call this four-eyed sumb ba bitch?"
"Negrodamus!" Tank laughs so hard, Willie's body shakes along with him. He lets Willie go, then falls into the chair closest to him. "Negrodamus knew all kinda shit 'bout the markets. But he couldn't sell a stock to save his fucking life."
These guys are crazy—hustlers, shysters, con men, dope heads, pussy hounds—but they're the same kind of people you work with back in Hollywood. They couldn't live the straight life if they tried.
Cynthia has been of some solace, although the intrigue is wearing off. She still sees in full color, in three dimensions—your past, right now, and our future... together. You've reduced everything about the two of you down to the basics—naked and not naked, sated and not sated, dark skin against damned near white flesh.
Act Four, Scene 8
The actors are sullen and disgusted this morning. You want to tell them that the demeanor they have achieved is perfect for the scene you're shooting today, but you know exactly why they look like this—there is no food. Empty donut boxes from yesterday are stacked by the trashcan in the corner. You don't have to ask Ravi—you've seen this before. The catering people have not been paid. Neither has the film lab, which is holding your dailies hostage. If their checks begin to bounce, or stop being issued, the actors will go AWOL.
To get a movie in the can, all you really have to do is get the actors to hit their marks while film is rolling, kind of like following the directions on the back of a box of Betty Crocker cake mix. But to get a movie that people will pay money to see, you have to manipulate all the details—tone, lighting, sound, perspective, point of view—in a way that gives a script life.
There are times during this shoot when you go for it, POW POW POW, quick, muscular cuts from vibrant image to vibrant image, just a straight shot of cinematic adrenalin that doesn't give the viewer a chance to dwell on an individual shot for more than the time it takes their retinas to process them, intense visual compositions with enough resonance and heft to alter the way the audience sees the broker world.
The "money shot" you are blocking on the set is an interior scene shot from inside and outside the glass walls of the 17-story office space. It focuses on a climactic fight between the brokers shot from outside the windows, intercut with interior footage from a second camera shooting the same scene simultaneously from a track above the glass.
The amount of light blazing in from the west will throw off the color temperature of the interior scenes you want to shoot tomorrow. You start to run down the filter choices and f-stops to use when your PA's voice interrupts.
"Willie's in the hospital."
You are snatched back from your lighting calculations by a sliver of a conversation you had with Willie a few days ago.
"...you always had the feeling Tank could kill you if he forgot you were on his side. "
The emergency room doctor says Willie will be okay, with rehab.
"Is that you under there?" you ask.
"Hummp." The wires in his jaw are covered by the bandages. A yellow notepad is on his lap.
"At least he didn't break your left hand," you say.
"Did you press charges?"
Willie snatches the notepad up and scribbles furiously. When he throws the pad at you, "are you crazy" is scrawled across the lined paper.
"Why, though?" you ask.
Willie's hand slowly marks the pad. "He said I talk too much."
Act Five, Scene 2
"Forty acres and a mule? I want 40 floors and an elevator!"
You know when Tank is on the set. The guys who should be getting familiar with their new lines, the lines that didn't exist until yesterday, gather around him downstairs whenever he shows up, watching him chain smoke cigarettes, listening to him ramble on about how fucked up the world is.
Today Tank is on the set solo, in a pair of very well-cut slacks, a silk t-shirt, and alligator shoes. His head is marble smooth. The mustache and the goatee are gone.
"Hey, Big G," says Tank. "Can I holler at you for a minute? Whenever you get a chance."
The lingo is intact, but his normal loose and lazy vowels are taut. His body ripples underneath his clothes, muscles flexing, tendons popping. Something is up.
"Give me five minutes."
He sits, looking at his phone occasionally, until you are free. "Hey, Mr. G. How's the movie business treating you?"
This new voice doesn't go with the body in front of you. Flat vowels and well spread pauses between consonants create a dangerous tone of voice that makes you pause.
"Just trying to wrap this shoot up."
The glossy brown skull lowers in closer. His eyeballs stalk your own. "That might be kind of hard to do when you can't pay your people."
You are annoyed. "They're working on it."
"They who?" The tiger in Tank is back. "A dipshit Arab who can barely speak English, and a nigger you haven't seen in a week and a half?"
"I don't have time for this, Tank. It happens all the time on shoots. Sometimes we wrap, sometimes we don't."
His flat tenor returns. "What if I told you I have a way to make you a hero?"
"You're going to make me a hero?"
Tank ignores your sarcasm. "How much you think you need to finish this?"
"Probably 800 thousand, maybe a mil at the most."
"What if I told you I could get it for you? Right here, in cash." Tank rears back in his chair. You've seen that move a hundred times. You've watched Tank coach Marc on how to do it, but this is the real deal. The ex-broker appears to be back in business. You wonder how much of a cut he's going to get. You can't imagine what kind of pitch he used, or how many times he made it, before he walked in here. The skin under his eyes is threatening to collapse. He's probably been up all night.
You have learned something from all the stories Willie has told you, though. Four of Tank's ex-clients each wire 250 thousand dollars to your personal bank account. Ravi and Baron end up with 800 thousand dollars in cash. They sign four promissory notes that total one million dollars. You and Tank do not waste time with any fancy long division—the good old "one for you, one for me" still works just fine. The buffet is back, the overdue dailies are delivered all at once. You figure the final cut will be ready a couple of months after the shoot is complete.
Act Five, Scene 4
You are obsessed, as a director, by the power light has to reveal, conceal, and illuminate. Everything you see now is black or white, right or wrong. Cynthia wants to see how you make the scenery look like it's just about to jump out of the screen. You explain to her how camera placement can exaggerate an image, adding or subtracting from its power, depending on the height of the tripod or the speed of the dolly.
"Ravi doesn't know what I'm doing."
"You think you're going to get away with it?"
"Probably. The less raw footage Ravi's got, the less options he's got to change anything. And he doesn't have enough money for any reshoots. So I'll get what I want. Whether or not he can sell it is the question."
"Most of your shots of Marc were with the camera below his shoulders," she says.
"I want Marc's character to be a heroic figure."
"But didn't you say Willie was really writing about a nigger like Tank?"
You look at her the way your old film professors used to do. "Niggers need heroes, too, baby."
Act Five, Scene 5
It has all come down to this, the film's seminal moment of manufactured emotion—the "money shot"—the final fight scene. A final assault on a viewer's senses before the house lights—and reality—are turned back up. Your cameraman will focus on the climactic fight between the brokers. It will culminate in a broker being thrown out of one of those 17th story glass windows to his cinematic death.
"Willie attempted to capture the energy and bravado of the penny stock broker's life," you say. "But 35 mm film wasn't really designed to capture fast moving action. I've got to have your energy come through on the screen, but with as little actual motion as possible." You turn to where most of the actors are gathered. "What I want you guys to do when you are in front of the cameras is visualize yourself as a kettle on a stove."
A few titters come from a group of crew members leaning on the wall.
"I want you to picture the kettle at full boil, the bubbling water inside rumbling, the scream of the whistle its only means of letting someone know that it is hot." Your cast is impressed, for once—this is how they've always imagined a movie director is supposed to act.
Once the cameras are rolling, you lose interest in what is happening in front of you. In the time it takes until one of your actors screw up their lines, your mind flashes through 50 different thoughts, flitting from film to physics to dramatic theory to the aging process of bourbon to the construction of a musical chord to a Freudian interpretation of your childhood to the correct method of washing linen shirts to the mechanics of a double back flip and back to film theory, a few aimless moments of hyperactive mind wandering that you experience every time you say ACTION!
Act Five, Scene 7
The money shot is on the money—your most creative shot ever, a tribute to the ingenuity Hitchcock used to use on his early films.
Ravi stands beside you as the first rough cut of the film comes to an end. "Wonderful! Wonderful! We have final product now!"
"Ravi, between cutting and dubbing, it might take four or five more months to get it in the can."
"That okay," Ravi says. "No more shooting! No more rental camera!"
Baron is present but silent, slunk into a chair. Tank's solution to their funding problem seems to have reduced his level of participation. Considerably.
Act Five, Scene 8
Willie can sit up now, and the nurses have taken most of the bandages off. "I want a drink," he writes on his pad. A pained "hmmmph" emanates from his throat.
You watch him, later, sucking the smuggled whiskey through a straw, wincing in pain. In half an hour, he will sleep through the night for the first time in days. Tank, you imagine, will be up for days, in a plush penthouse somewhere, surrounded by a multi-colored harem, fortified by illicit narcotics, telling them about the movie business and how he made you a hero.
And the movie? You can sense it in your bones—the final cut will be a colossal box office failure.
Act Five, Scene 9
A director's own exit from a project is, unlike the carefully crafted, highly evocative final scenes in a film, usually mundane. You pack your toothbrush. You get stuck in traffic. You have to remove your shoes in the security line at the airport. Your plane takes off without incident. Your books—the technical manuals, the film speed guides, the lighting references—will all arrive back in California in a day or two by UPS.
"Whaddya having today, honey?" the waitress asks you at your regular breakfast joint, the one just around the corner from your condo back in Irvine.
"I don't know yet."
"We hadn't seen you for a while, honey. Where'd you go this time?"
You unfold the latest issue of Variety to check the news. "Atlanta."
"Way down South, eh?" she says. "You know, I've seen Gone With The Wind twelve times. That Clark Gable..."
Everyone, you have slowly come to understand, has their favorite movies. And their own heroes.