Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I get a part in a movie. I act every once in a while, small bits in small films whenever I know the producer or the director. This time it’s the director.
“Hey, wasn’t my doing!” laughs the director, as we confab briefly after the happy news. “They loved you in that audition! You—character!” He claps me on the shoulder, and I grin like a praised schoolboy. “Great to have you on board, guy,” he declares huskily. “Just, though, you should know, once we’re on location—I—I kind of change. Into a different person.” He clears his throat. He sniffs.
I remain, I freely admit it, curiously naïve, a snooty dabbling amateur, even after a fair while out here from back east under the hard-bitten tinseled palms. Still I am wise enough to the ways of movie work not to ask: What does that mean?
Behavior on location notoriously gets out of hand.
“Got ya,” I reply, simply. The director stares at me, long and serious and searching. A professional stare. Then he chuffs my shoulder. “Yeah, gonna be great,” he says, all smiles again.
For me, it will be great, whatever happens. I’m broke. I’m chronically badly broke. I’m one of those non-scriptwriting, artiste-bohemian writer types, snuffling nevertheless at the table scraps of the movie world, getting by, just, on my droll but harmless sarcasm about the “shallow” culture, on my quirky little “literary” tales which somebody options, modestly, every once in a while.
Just keep the old nose clean, I tell myself, forewarned. And know the old lines. The latter shouldn’t be too hard. I have two brief scenes as “Dr. Crawley,” an overwrought scientist. Scene One, a lab interior: “You’re either a genius, Prof. Heckenstecker—or you’re mad! Or then again….” Scene Two, many pages later, much the same, only now outside the lab, in a driving rainstorm.
Just don’t overact, I warn my amateur self.
Then I set to calculating how much my per diem should be, and what percentage of it I can hoard against upcoming sublet rent pressures.
I tramp down from my crummy hotel room in what was apparently a logging community once up in the northern nowhere of the state, and locate the film production office next to the hotel utility room. I open the per-diem envelope and that’s the first jolt. My calculations are way off.
“Hey, this is low-budget,” the shoot accountant croaks behind the wormy ash of her cigarette. “You fancy actor types should read the fine print in your contracts!”
“I’m not an actor!” I blurt back, and immediately I’m aware how bizarre my disavowal might sound. I hesitate, then feel obliged to continue, to save face: “I’m a writer, I only act sometimes.” Thereby sounding even more like a sad sack.
But the accountant isn’t listening. “Hey, you don’t let those movie reviewers get to you,” she admonishes, leaning across the desk to deliver stern clueless comfort.
The next jolt comes with the new version of the script at my door.
It’s in Japanese.
“Hey good people,” says the cover note from the second assistant director. “As you can see, we’ve had some big changes! Cause for celebration: They’re called New Investors, yea! Course we don’t expect everyone to learn Japanese overnight (though if you managed some basics that would be super!). Generally, just keep delivering your lines as you’ve been doing, we’ll loop it all later (try to speak slowly, but slurring if you could; easier for dubbing). Good luck all—and welcome to Further Adventures in Independent Filmmaking!!”
I discover my character’s new name: “Dr. Nakamura.” Below which are listed various “Handy Phrases.” Then an ominous prim final note: After tonight, all further production communications and instructions will be in Japanese.
I blink. I lift my head and gape at the nubbly curtains of my room.
I rush back down to the production office, and in the corridor, I run smack into the director.
He’s with an ample young woman clutching a script binder into her cable-knit sweater (his assistant?)—clearly preoccupied with a thousand urgencies.
“Oh, kon nichiwa,” he greets me, with the briefest of smiles. “Choosuki wan nan-ji desu ka—hai?”
I gape again. I start to speak; stammer. I wobble my head, at a complete loss. There’s an intense, off-kilter pause. The director and assistant stare at me. Then they burst out laughing. They roar, and turn to each other, and roar some more.
“Told you he’d fall for it!” bellows the director. “Didn’t I? ‘What time is breakfast served?’—that’s what I just said!” He points at me with a jabbing finger. His fleshy middle-aged cheeks are startlingly red from mirth.
“The things people will believe on location!” howls the assistant, cheeks ablaze too.
The director claps me on the back, taps a pudgy fist on my chin. Still chuckling, he swings off around the corner with his arm around the cable-knit assistant. His wedding ring glints under the frizzy sprawl of her hair.
Well, forewarned is forewarned! That evening some of the cast and crew come over in the hotel bar, grinning, and add their claps to my back. “Hey, Dr. Nakamura,” they tease. The Japanese script has now become part of the movie’s lore. I grin at all the attention. What’s more, I’m treated to drinks, so my meager per diem is left untouched. A thirty-ish actress is on hand (Prof. Heckenstecker’s discarded mistress) who’s a bit too blonde for my regular typology of interest, but with a little game flicker in her eye, maybe? Maybe something to investigate, at some point?
I realize the director has put me at ease with his prank, has broken the ice of being a new arrival on a shoot in progress.
My first scene, the next day, goes fine in the laboratory, which has been set up in a local former wood-pulping facility. I deliver my line and a half without the star of the picture demanding what business I have being on camera. I’d always thought of the star (a strapping much-traveled B-lister) as a pompous ass, when I saw him on screen. But in person, he turns out to be entirely approachable; bland even; boring. For lunch he has just salad and an egg-white omelet, and produces this gem of wisdom:
“Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.”
The director gives a wink when I come back on set to catch some of the afternoon’s shooting. He’s sporting a ludicrous party wig. A giddy, reckless air hovers around him. It’s a very low-budget movie, I reflect: the stresses on him, and the gall to his career ambitions, must be intense. He’s letting off steam. I note further that whenever he confers with the assistant, he always has his arm around her, his nose in her frizzy lode of hair. Toward the end of the day a scene of their own erupts: the director snatches her big fringed leather purse and prances around the set with it in his dopey wig. The assistant gives chase, squawking and laughing. Then just when her protests are about to turn unplayful and hurt, even angry, the director stops and thrusts his arm into her bag. And yanks out a bouquet of goofy fake flowers. Which he presents to her with a flourish, going down on one knee, to the hoots and applause of the crew.
Wonder what his wife would make of all this, I think, looking on primly; not to mention the producers. Lots of boozing happening, that’s a sure bet. I have a bit of a prim streak, at times, I admit. Perhaps out of shyness, and from being intimidated by such open displays of swashbuckling whoopee.
The next day there’s a schedule change owing to the availability of a herd of sheep that need to be dyed for the big bio-accident scene. (Or, considering the film’s budget, the “big” bio-accident scene.) My on-camera time is pushed back a day. This is fine with me, more paychecks even if they’re meager. I scrawl a few notes in my room, for a possible behind-the-scenes article, discreetly amusing, about low-budget movie-making on location. I take a mushy walk in the pine woods that press in all around, like shaggy low-growing hair on a simian forehead. I mull whether or not to give the actress a call in her room. Whereupon I bump into her.
We arrange to meet in the bar for an early drink. The day’s shoot is running long, everyone is still off in the pines somewhere with the dyed sheep. I’ve decided, on second thought, not to really try my luck with the actress. She displays the over-earnest thespian gene, yet with a hard-boiled edge lying in wait. Not to mention the narcissism (though, admittedly, look who’s talking). In other words: an actress, as I put it to my amateur self. I’ve always shied away from the breed.
But, on the other hand, she read one of my stories once, she now informs me. This inclines warms me up. As does her refill of her Chardonnay. Women who drink tease my blood.
“So what you think?” I ask now, with a suave little leer. Is the director making hanky-panky with the frizzy-haired assistant?
“Heck, honey,” drawls the actress, producing a startlingly perfect Southern accent at the drop of a hat, “ain’t we all here on locayshun?” She grins. She leans forward, her eyes narrowed and twinkling. “And I hear,” she says, voice natural now and lightly confidential, “I hear he wants some of us to stay on afterward—shoot some kind of private bondage footage. You in on it?”
I blink. “Bondage footage?” I repeat thickheadedly.
The actress regards me. Then she bursts out laughing. “You are such a pushover, Dr. Nakamura!” she hoots. “It is so much fun having you on location!”
I grin down at my nursed beer, shaking my head.
“It’s the director’s fault,” she sighs. ‘He’s such a bad influence with his jokes.” She pauses, then adds, grinning, professional blue eyes a-play: “Or maybe I wasn’t joking, just now.” She lifts her eyebrows. So do I. I finish my beer.
Well, yow… I think, as I turn in early for my very early set call. This location business sure brings out the hijinks in everyone! Maybe I should get in the spirit and deliver my first take tomorrow in, say… Japanese? But can I do fake Japanese? Well enough not to sound perhaps crudely offensive? And then perhaps I’d be overstepping things, given I’m only a bit player? The actress sure was testing something, with that bondage footage business… Though probably best not to have pursued it… But then again…
I fall asleep, grinning.
I’m woken by a tapping on my door.
I struggle up in the bedclothes. How can they be calling me already, what time is it? It’s only 2:30.
“Who is it?” I call out thickly.
No answer. More tapping. The thought flares suddenly in my half-asleep brain that it’s the actress, who I left drinking at the bar. She’s finished the bottle and now she’s after some of the monkey shines she alluded to.
“Open up for Chrissake—it’s me!” growls an urgent and low voice.
It’s the director.
He lurches in when I open up.
“Lock the door,” he says. He stands swaying in the dimness on the mangy carpet, panting bestially—like some kind of sci-fi monster that’s wrenched itself from the depths of a primordial bog in a raincoat and logging company stocking cap.
“You gotta—help me—” he gasps, reeking of alcohol. “I’ve done something terrible,” he blurts, his voice veering into a childish whine.
“Sheep dye…?” my stunned brain murmurs, at the dark, glossy blotches on the raincoat and the hat box or prop box he is carrying.
“You gotta take this, take it on the plane with you in the morning,” he pants. “Dump it out at the beach, or somewhere, I don’t care. Whatever you do—don’t look inside— ”
I blink—yet again, stunned. “But I got my scene in the morning,” I point out lamely.
“Forget your fucking scene!” hisses the director. Haggard, truly a wild man. Besmirched with some kind of stains. “Is it the damn money?” he rasps. He sets the box on the carpet with a heavy thud and starts flinging things out of a pocket. Money. The writer stares at the crumpled strewn bills, which in the faint parking lot light leaking passed the edges of the badly fitted curtains seem at least the equivalent of two weeks of on-screen work, with a healthy per-diem added.
“Don’t you understand, you snot-nosed parasite!” the director snarls. “I’ve done something—so evil—” He jams a fist into his mouth. “Going on location, you get so mad,” he burbles around his knuckles, in anguish. “So insane—” His voice breaks. He starts quaking, wracked with sobs. Or…
“You’re—joking,“ I cry. “You’re—you son of a bitch!” I shout. “You’re joking, right?”
I grab the director, who wrestles free and topples over onto the bed and wallows there. Sobbing. Or laughing?
“Tell me!” I cry. “Tell me!”
“Just don’t look in the box, don’t look in the box,” the director bleats, over and over. My eyes swivel and fasten on the object in question. In the pale dimness, a tuft of spindly filaments peeps out from a corner of the box’s taped sodden lid.
A chill of demented horror closes over me:
“What’s in the box?” I stammer. “Are you having me on? What’s in it?”
It’s seeping now, onto the carpet.
The stained mass on the bed wallows on, bawling—in agony or mirth, who can tell? I sink half to my knees, hands trembling toward the box—then pulling back—there with the money littered around on the mangy carpet, away in the boondocks far upstate, deep in the night in the primordial pine forest on a rinky-dink film shoot.
“Tell me you’re joking?” I whisper to the director. Pleading with him, in helpless amateur despair. “Oh please, please…tell me you’re joking?”
Writer-performer Barry Yourgrau is the author of books of brief stories, such as Wearing Dad’s Head and The Sadness of Sex, in whose film version he starred. He’s written a memoir, Mess, and the mean-spirited Nastybook, for kids. He and his fictions have appeared on MTV and NPR; he was invited to the Sundance Theater Lab with his book, Haunted Traveller. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Vice, Story, Bomb, Monkey Business International, and forthcoming in the NewYorker.com. He’s also written for the New York Times and New York Times Book Review, New York Review Daily, and The Baffler. Born in South Africa, he lives in New York and Istanbul. “Dr. Nakamura” is from his Gangster Fables, which has yet only appeared in Japan, in translation.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.