by Elizabeth Sims
©Elizabeth Sims 2010
A hairy forearm mashed my face. I gurgled "No!" but couldn't scream. I scuffled, keeping my footing, trying to find some leverage, my hiking boots scraping the dry earth. If I don't break his grip soon, I'm dead. But he held me tight from behind, now thrusting his hip into the small of my back, forcing me backward, further off balance.
I smelled his astringent aftershave and the Altoid he had popped just before he came at me.
Why, why, why?
And that's what he wanted to know, as he suddenly released me and asked, "Am I supposed to be trying to kill her or what?" He wiped his face with the crook of his sleeve and looked toward a patch of shadows beneath a tree.
I picked up my script where I'd dropped it.
"Daniel, it's a dream sequence," an urgent voice answered from the dappled darkness, as if that explained it. "It's ambiguous what your motivation is. Mostly the scene is from her emotional perspective."
"Because if I'm supposed to be sexually assaulting her"—
"No, this attack transcends sexual assault! You and Rita are supposed to turn this sequence into a sort of dance. A sexual dance, but still a dance. I realize I need a choreographer. Let's go on."
Daniel, my best friend, turned to me. "You OK?"
"Yes, you supported me just right."
Some unknown bird squawked irritably.
The urge to laugh came over me, and I coughed to cover it, avoiding Daniel's eyes.
The bare dirt of an overused picnic area in Griffith Park was a stand-in this October Saturday noon for a wooded dell in the Pacific Northwest. The dry leaves on the eucalyptus trees rattled in the wind.
"Let's move ahead, OK?" said the voice.
"OK," said Daniel. He turned aside and muttered, "Jesus, Rita."
We turned pages and went on to some dialogue.
"I want to find my center again," I said, reading from my perfectly formatted script, putting a 'languid' tone to my voice, as the script needlessly called for. "If I can do that, I'll be safe forever." Odd how, in the film business, where everything begins with words on a page, a pretentious ball of cheese like this can be made to look just as clean and professional as a new BMW.
Daniel responded 'hollowly', "Your center isn't there anymore."
I turned to him. "Did you take it?"
"Where is it now?"
"I put fangs on it and set it free."
It's customary to do a script read-through indoors, seated at a table in a studio, or in somebody's living room if the project is low-budget. But the writer-director in question, Kenner de Sauvenard III, insisted we do this outdoors. He'd lured us to the park by pointing out that my six-year-old son Petey could play nearby while we worked, thus eliminating the need for a sitter.
Boy, yeah, save twenty or forty bucks on child care, what a think-ahead guy. He did spring for sandwiches from Fat Slim's, though, plus a cooler full of juice drinks and bottom-shelf Chablis, which he was withholding until we'd gotten through the first act.
Why the forbearance? Why were Daniel, a successful TV actor, and I, a busy law student, spending this pretty Los Angeles Saturday in submission to the lousiest lines I'd ever read, including student scripts based on tortured poetry while in acting school a decade ago? For no pay, no contract, no nothing?
Because Kenner's brother Lance de Sauvenard was dating my sister Gina, that's why. They sat on a blanket, fingers entwined like tenth-graders, watching us sweat in the afternoon sun. Gina had read in some earlier scenes, and every so often Lance made a note on a yellow pad. His job would be cinematographer.
I'd done some acting in Hollywood, commercials and voice-overs and the jobs around the edges you take when you're trying to hustle a career. I was putting most of that behind me as I studied for my law degree, which I wanted for security for my little boy and me—and because I'd been bitten by the crime and punishment bug a couple of years ago.
Life in California had agreed with Gina, a relative newcomer. Her skin glowed, the sun had touched her chestnut hair with copper, and her waist was trim from organic eating and the occasional spin on my bike around our West Hollywood neighborhood.
She and Lance looked good together, I had to say. He was beefier than his older brother, in a playground sort of way, enthusiastic and cheerful. Wavy auburn hair and a quick smile, great teeth.
I appreciate good cheer in a guy.
Reflexively, my eyes scanned the picnic area for Petey. He climbed and swung from tree to tree like a gibbon, viewed by an awed group of little Mexican girls and their mothers, who were spreading tablecloths for a birthday celebration.
He spotted one of the mothers holding a piñata uncertainly beneath a tree, and scrambled over to help.
"Use a buntline hitch!" Daniel called to him. Daniel, my best friend, had been teaching Petey knots on their frequent climbing and bouldering excursions in the San Gabriels.
In a minute the piñata was dangling at the precise right height for the diminutive girls and their sawed-off broomstick.
"Gracias!" called one of the little girls as Petey swung away.
"OK, gracias!" he called back.
Everybody smiled. I was proud of my boy.
Daniel and I went on reading, and when Kenner stopped us again to give me some bit of micro-direction, I said, "Kenner, you know, this is only a read-through."
"I know, I know," he agreed quickly. "And I'm really grateful to you two for doing this, your skills are really amazing. You're amazing people, Rita and Daniel, you are amazing to the max."
That sounded like suck-up bullshit, but then he said, "I am fortunate."
He said that sentence with such quiet feeling that I forgave him the whole thing. I could even overlook the fact that his safari shirts were monogrammed. That was Kenner: he'd act like a self-important boor, then he'd open up this little door to the sincere good guy inside, and you'd regain your respect for him.
We were, however, doing this read-through solely as a favor to Gina.
Daniel and I gamely worked to bring the proper gravitas to this hyper-grim art film that Kenner expected would 'go big at the festivals.' The script was studded with montages like, "Flower petals, pinecone symmetry, Christopher and Ingrid feeding each other raven meat."
As we read the existential-angst dialogue, I felt increasingly uncomfortable as I realized that Kenner's hopes were rising by the minute that Daniel and I would actually do this movie.
Then I turned a page and saw a stage direction calling for the character of Ingrid to be bathing in a 'Stygian pond' the next morning, and immediately my nude-scene radar activated. Sure enough, after a few more lines: "(She rises, moving smoothly to the shallows where Christopher waits, also free of clothing.)"
Which marked the end of Act I.
I looked at Kenner, who was watching me hopefully.
I said, "You know I can't actually do this picture, so there's no point in me telling you I don't do nude scenes."
He shrugged in a good-natured way.
I helped Gina spread out lunch.
"So, what do you think of Night For Dark?" Kenner asked, sipping Chablis from a plastic cup.
I had to admire him for that, having the guts to ask such an open-ended question about his own script. Most beginning writers are too cowardly to be that frank. Instead, they'll prompt you with something like, "Do you think it has potential?" or, yet more craven, "Which of its strengths do you like best?"
Which of course you can always answer something nice to, because even a blank sheet of paper 'has potential', and even a dismal, cliché-ridden piece of crap 'has strengths', if you count that if placed under running water, it will hold together better than the leading facial tissue.
Kenner perched on a picnic table, his legs crossed like a thoughtful talk show host, awaiting our answers. He was built like a tomato stake, great vertical presence without much visible flesh on him, very different from his stockier brother. He looked as if he existed on vegetable broth and high-fiber crackers.
"He's by far the healthiest guy I've ever known," Gina had told me before I met him. "No tobacco or alcohol, no croutons from a box, you know? Lance is a little more normal, which is why we get along so well. He likes Tater Tots."
Kenner, with his spirited green eyes and whirl of jet-black hair, possessed the pale, translucent skin of an artiste. That kind of skin works well on a woman, but a guy can look creepy with skin that pretty, unless he has a strong jaw and a wide smile, which saves him. Kenner had those attributes.
His script was about a repressed architect and his slutty girlfriend who go to the woods to search for a shaman who's supposed to lead them on a vision quest to heal their lives or die trying. There was also a primitive chanteuse-type character who was to help guide everybody along by singing harmonically inverted Gregorian chant.
Gina was going to star in that role. Who knew if she'd be able to execute harmonically inverted Gregorian chant, but she could do a killer rendition of "I Fall in Love Too Easily."
My sister was clearly in love: relaxed and happy, unable to find fault with much of anything. Which was nice. We should all be so in love at all times.
Sitting at the picnic table thinking all this as I encouraged my skinny boy Petey to eat at least the turkey slices he'd suspiciously pulled free from the zucchini coins and spiced cheese in his sandwich, I realized the right thing to say to Kenner.
"It's a very ambitious thing you're going after," I told him sincerely. "A full-length feature film as a first effort."
"Yes," he agreed. "Even Serge Oatberger had to start someplace."
I refrained from pointing out that the legendary Oatberger had begun as a director of public service commercials for FEMA.
"And on a shoestring," Gina put in. She flipped her hair. "Was that a mosquito? Are there mosquitoes here? I hate mosquitoes."
The day had been warm and sunny, though as the afternoon waned, the cool breeze strengthened, and I felt autumn giving way to the opening credits of winter. The wind carried the zesty aromas of the park's assorted shrubs.
Visitors to Los Angeles cannot detect our seasons, but after you've lived here a while you become attuned to them. Fall is the driest season, of course, and the jacarandas have blown out long ago, and you miss their mists-of-avalon purple. The city's random irises are as forgotten as New Coke, and the scarlet bougainvillea are struggling along, dropping their papery flowers which skitter along the sidewalks until they meld with the stomped hamburger wrappers and automotive chaff. Sycamore seeds—don't talk to me about sycamore seeds. All waiting for rain.
And you get a bit of a shudder when you remember the Santa Anas, which you've completely forgotten about, because the collective memory of Los Angeles forgets the Santa Anas as soon as they stop blowing. Just as you forget the feeling of a numb mouth until the dentist creeps up behind you with that syringe.
"Hey!" called Lance. We turned to see him standing on his hands on a neighboring picnic table like a high diver preparing to do one of those Olympic type somersaults, daring us to dare him to flip off.
Petey sprang to his feet. "I dare ya!"
Lance flexed his arms and launched himself. His body formed a graceful arc as he brought his feet down, and he landed easily, coming up laughing.
"Wow!" said Petey. "I want to try."
"I'll show you," said Lance.
"Finish your lunch first," I ordered. "No breaking your neck on an empty stomach."
"How much of a shoestring?" Daniel asked Kenner. "What's your budget for this one?" Even he was trying to be kind to the day's auteur, with that addition of "this one."
"Thirty," said Kenner quickly.
"Thirty thousand dollars?" Daniel's trained voice remained neutral, but his skewed smile said it all.
"I'm really challenging myself. Lance'll do the camera work, there'll be no other crew, we'll use all natural light. The cast will be responsible for makeup and wardrobe. Post production will definitely eat up the money." He tried to act casual, but the light of obsession burned in his eyes.
I'd known Kenner and Lance were serious guys when it came to the environment—Kenner, especially, had gotten behind some effective programs, including the Great Plains Ungulate Habitat Restoration Project, and, overseas, he'd thrown himself into the difficult situation of toxic agricultural runoff in developing countries. I'd checked him out on the Internet, and he really was the main guy behind the Ungulate Initiative.
I respected him for acting on his principles, but realized he must be a horrible manager of his own money, not to have more at hand to make his film. Obviously he hadn't gotten any of his rich relatives or pals to pony up money to help him make Dark for Night. Even they could tell it's a dismal, self-indulgent vanity project.
"So you two—Rita, Daniel." Kenner drew himself into a tall, respectful posture. "I think—especially after today's work—very highly of your skills."
Daniel coughed lightly.
"Very highly of you both," Kenner went on, "and I know you've said no, OK, I have ears, I heard you. But I have something else for you. In addition to three full days at SAG scale, plus travel expenses and a forty-dollar per diem, which where we're going is more than enough, believe me, I'm offering you…"—he paused for effect—"one percent of the gross… apiece."
The swallows had begun their late-day swooping after insects, so graceful, so clean.
"Kenner," Daniel said, "even if you get this movie all the way to completion—editing, production, package design—you know if any distributor picks it up at all, it's going straight to Japanese DVD, don't you? And it doesn't even have any porn in it—"
"That's why I put in that nude scene," Kenner interrupted lamely, not meeting my eyes.
"You're not even gonna recover costs," said Daniel, relentlessly.
Kenner's posture broke a little, and he struggled to retain his composure. "It's just so difficult, when you care so much about something."
There was that affecting side of him again.
He looked up from beneath his eyebrows like a pleading puppy. "Please think about it, OK? Could you at least promise me you'll think about it? When this film comes out, all of L.A. will be at our feet!"
Daniel looked at me, and I looked at him. I forced myself to say what I had to say. "Kenner, we can't."
That night Daniel phoned. "What a joy that was," he said. "Is Gina mad that we told Kenner no?"
"Hell no, she's in love, she hasn't been mad in weeks. Not that she doesn't have a temper, believe me."
"Her temper could never be a match for yours, though."
"Why, thank you."
I said, "I'm just happy our ordeal in the north woods is over."
"Yeah, and we never had to go deeper into the forest than Griffith Park."
A quick darkness passed over my heart just then, like the shadow of a hawk or falcon that momentarily startles the primal shit out of you. I paced the apartment, checking the windows.
FIRST CHAPTERS AND EXCERPTS:
The Rita Farmer Mysteries
The Lillian Byrd Crime Series