Kaitlin pulled up in her Mercedes coupe wearing a gold velour stretch suit. She handed her keys to the valet. A phalanx of assistants and creative executives and hair and makeup boys swept Kaitlin up toward her trailer, but she stopped in the midst of that small hateful flurry and pointed at me.
“Hey, sweetheart,” she said.
“We’ll have some time later, no?”
I nodded, perhaps not enthusiastically enough, because her astounding eyes became even wider, her mouth opened a tender degree and she tilted her head sympathetically.
I nodded more enthusiastically. I bucked up. I am embarrassed that she saw my sadness. The truth is I’m luckier than most around here. I grinned. Kaitlin brightened, winked, sparkled bodily for a moment, and then allowed herself to be swept back up into that powdery entourage.
The director made me watch Night of the Hunter. “The bunnies, the river: that’s the old tank at MGM. Cape Fear: tank at Universal.” That I remained unconvinced did not matter. We would not shoot on Lake Titan in the Adirondacks, where my story takes place. We would not find a suitably similar body of water in the High Sierra. For the most important and personal scene of my film, we would build Lake Titan in the tank by the Blue Sky on the Paramount Lot.
“Complete control,” the director assured me. He was slight, smart, and entirely bald: not even eyebrows. “The whole film, the whole world. Our manufactured reality, our haunting truths, our vision, perfected.” Roberta, the producer, offered to fly us all back to Lake Titan, one final attempt to convince the director we could shoot on location, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re making this in LA,” he grinned. “My way. In LA.”
The director made a point of having me nearby whenever Roberta was nearby. He played it as an act of generosity. I saw it as a form of pernicious cooptation. He instructed me to consult with the production designer on the surface of the raft, the foliage on the distant shore, the specific grain and color of the sand. The production designer, a former landscape architect named Tom, approached the question of Lake Titan with the utmost sensitivity. He was kind. Tom was something of a lake connoisseur, and we sat in the Design Trailer for days: reminiscing, fantasizing, building in composite the idea of an Adirondack lake that would inorganically take form in the City of Los Angeles, where there are no lakes.
At the Watertower, Paramount’s café, Tom asked me everything about Lake Titan. He asked about the elevation, the shore treatment, vegetation, geological history, wildlife; he grilled me about the scene, would there be stunts, were we filming day and night, would we film in the water? I insisted on buying the coffee and listened quietly until Tom had finished asking all of the questions he could think to ask. Then we began.
“It’s smaller than Titicaca.”
“I should hope so.”
“The surrounding granite is not so worn as, say, Ontario’s Temagami. We couldn’t drink all the water, and the blueberries weren’t so large.”
“I’ve paddled Temagami,” Tom sparked. “You could lean out of the canoe and drink to your heart’s content. No Giardia.”
“No Beaver Fever.”
“But Titan has granite? Titan has blueberries?”
“Titan has granite and blueberries in moderation. And a sand beach.”
“It’s not a pond.”
“Larger,” I said, “than Walden, and less wooded.”
“Do you like it less wooded?”
I thought about this for a while. I supposed that I do like it less wooded. I was reminded of the Tenants Harbor quarry, and Tom showed me how one bank of granite could be raised so the teenagers in my story could jump from the rocks. “Reinforces how precipitous the moment is, how life-altering,” Tom said. I liked that.
“Kaitlin,” Tom paused, “does she really look like Olivia?”
“Olivia was even more beautiful,” I told him. And she was.
Tom kept notes from our lake analysis sessions in perfect hand on graph paper. We met again that afternoon. Suddenly in his trailer there were volumes of lake photography from Taschen, Aperture, Abrams, Rizzoli, Chronicle Books, Phaedon. We tacked up color photocopies of specific lake features we adored, borrowing waves from Michigan and Huron; rainbow trout from the Weminuche Wilderness; cold, particulate blue water from the glacial Talkeetna Mountains; oily serpents from the Nueces River; monsters from deep Scottish lochs; duckweed off the murky surface of an Alabama swamp; the great shock of sky from Baikal; and the true green pines from the lake where Tom and his wife were engaged in Iceland. The wall was a perfect dazzle of lake. So when I finally showed Tom my photograph album from my summer at Lake Titan, shot on 110 millimeter film with a plastic submersible camera in 1988, when we came to the single photograph of Lake Titan, with its heavy sand, its shrubby shores and the rotted-wood raft a quarter mile out into the float-rope swimming area, it seemed that the magic I saw at 16 would pale next to the magic that Tom and his team were about to create.
Omniscient Roberta, the producer, must have sensed my sadness. In the late afternoon, she had her assistant, Ferooth, bring me lunch by the tank, where I sat as Tom helped one of his crew members back a truckload of sand (borrowed, I gather, from Huntington Beach) into position. A wiry New Yorker who’d been in LA all her life, Roberta was largely responsible for my presence on the lot. She had instructed the director to maintain a high degree of open communication with me, fed me regularly, and, most importantly, had championed the screenplay for the past four years.
“Roberta said to tell you it’s going to be great.”
“Thank you, Ferooth.”
Lunch was grilled tuna on a bed of baby greens.
“And thank Roberta for me.”
Ferooth said he would and then he sat next to me on the restraining wall like a thin and overlarge bird of the Ganges, and we watched the sand as it began pouring from the truck. I filled my mouth with fish and lettuce.
“You have time to write? Now that you’re, like, on set?”
“Every morning,” I lied, for I had not written in weeks. “That’s how you got to do it, Ferooth.”
Ferooth smiled. Ferooth stood, beaming.
“Yeah,” I said. “Anytime.”
Ferooth thanked me again, and returned to the production office.
On the raft, it was night, quite cold. Olivia pulled herself out of the water. I was on my back, on the faded felt, my hands felt the grain of the old boards, then my hands and a thousand tiny drops of water were bracing Olivia’s body. She wore nothing but a crucifix on a thin chain; it had affixed itself to her right breast. How she lowered herself onto me, a quicksilver shiver and rush, and that was all.
The lake was already a foot-and-a-half deep by the time Tom and his team brought in the greenery: hydrangeas, six varieties of pine, and laurel. I can’t tell you how much laurel. The director turned to me, and I gave him a thumbs-up. He was all smiles: “Fuck yes, guys! That’s Lake Titan!”
Impressed as I was with Tom’s careful planning and meticulous work, it was not Lake Titan. I’m not currently speaking of a lake. That thing, that body of water growing in the parking lot with all its artifice and means was by no account a reasonable substitute for a lake, and it was anything but Lake Titan. But the water rose. A scenic painter climbed off the wall of plaster granite he was painting, sat in the shade, lit a cigarette. The water was coming higher.
They were hanging the backings, some were hand-painted, some were translights salvaged from other films. For the most part, they obscured the parking lot, the stages, the executives on their golf carts.
The beaver guy showed up at noon. He was in his fifties. His handlebar mustache ill concealed very buck teeth. He looked out at the half-filled lake and whistled softly. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Like ta toss some beaver in there.” He winked at me. “Your idea, floating beave?” The director shook the beaver guy’s flat hand before I could answer that it had in fact been the director’s idea, that in four consecutive summers in the Adirondacks I never once saw a beaver.
“What have you got for us, sir?” the director asked. The director believed in allowing his collaborators the opportunity to speak first.
“I don’t wanna put any more than three beavers out there. Your walls,” he gestured out at the increasing mass of laurel obscuring the backings and translights, “won’t keep the buggers from breaking out, and I ain’t paying a dime if my beaver eats your Porsche.”
There was good-natured laughter. The beaver guy was not smiling.
“Three beavers is all we need,” the director assured him.
We all stared out at the lake.
“Roberta said you have loons.”
“I can get loons. I can get duck. Duck and chicken-duck. A deer, too.”
“I’d like some loons.”
“You’ll have your loons, mister.”
“My loons don’t coo.”
“Silent. Specially with beaver about.”
“We can ADR the loons later, it’s not a problem.”
“I believe in telling everything up front.”
“Great,” the director concluded. “Three beavers and some silent loons it is.”
The beaver man wasn’t done. He leaned down and put his paw in the water.
“That’s a bit warm.”
“It will cool down. We’re just shooting in the evening and at night.”
“Okey-dokey.” The beaver man gazed out at the lake. The water was coming up on the rockwork, and the unpainted plaster of one section began to break up.
“Plaster, eh? I’m gonna have to tie them up. At least Jonas.”
The director did not respond.
“Jonas I’m going to have to anchor.”
Kaitlin and I had dinner. We ate at a small tapas restaurant not far from Paramount. She wore sunglasses until we were in our booth, and then she shed the disguise. The candle danced double in her pupils.
There were martinis, then wine. Spicy little potatoes and the most garlicky shrimps. Kaitlin asked with tremendous sincerity about my writing process. She had read several of my scripts, and spoke intelligently about them. And then another course came and went and there was a lull.
“I wanted to tell you,” Kaitlin started, halting, soft. “The lake scene, on the raft.”
I refilled our glasses. “I never had that experience.” Kaitlin swallowed some wine. “I mean, I lost my virginity, we all know that, but I never had … that. I wasn’t aware. It wasn’t at all like you describe. I mean, I’ve been fucking since I can remember, right? But that first time. That’s what I wish I could remember. I wish I was like you.”
There were several thousand things I wanted to tell her just then: that it was pure fiction (this would have been a lie); that the story I wrote so personally was a fabrication of a middling imagination (a lesser lie); that it wasn’t an experience other people could have; that it wasn’t the lake; it wasn’t the raft. Olivia was born with hammer toes. The tendons were cut when she was an infant, and as an adult her toes were monstrously long. Olivia was the most beautiful woman in the world and I was 16, thin, a bit cold, I never quite caught my breath, somehow Olivia took my breath, and then I never quite caught it again.
“I mean,” Kaitlin, against my silence, “I know the scene isn’t about my virginity, I’m supposed to be the mature one, the guide, I’m what, 21 to his 16? The director thinks it’s James’s scene. But it’s not just about James. What was she thinking then? What did it mean to her? I have to know. I don’t see how I’ll ever know.”
Tom could see I was disappointed. I started to walk. The director made to join me, but Roberta froze him in place with a small gesture of her hand. I walked the circumference along the laurel-bound circumference path. The pine needles beaten into the trail sent up a fragrance with every step I took, and by this fragrance, despite myself, I was transported. Stage 11 disappeared and in its place there was a hill leading gently down to us, to Lake Titan; and on that hill there were seven canvas bunks for the boys and seven canvas bunks for the girls; there was the dining hall, the art barn, the stable and corral; I might have heard the lunch bell; I might have heard the children running down for free swim; there were tears in my eyes now, and I could see Olivia walking slowly down the hill, in her lifeguard bikini, with her towel in her hand, a flock of girls spinning around her, coming down, breathless, to our … lake.
“Sorry.” One of Tom’s guys was mulching the laurel. I nodded, shook the mulch off my shoe. “No worries.” Through a break in the greenery and flats, I could see Kelsey Grammer on his large golf cart—the fastest, finest, biggest golf cart on the lot save Tom Cruise’s—and Kaitlin was with him, she was driving, all laughter, in her bikini.
By the time I had circumnavigated the lake, Kaitlin and Kelsey were admiring Tom’s handiwork with the director and with Roberta and the cinematographer and several studio executives and passersby. Kaitlin waved to me and then charged into the water to ringing general applause. She dove elegantly when she was up past her knees, and emerged several yards out with her hair streaked back and the sun in her eyes. My God, she was beautiful. Kelsey by now had stripped to his boxers and splashed in after her, and the applause he got was even louder.
I edged closer to Tom, who bit his lip against the insulting possibility that Kelsey Grammer was at this moment peeing in his opus. Tom put a hand on my shoulder to confide: In Night of the Hunter,” he whispered, “the haunting silhouette of Mitchum on horseback, Bob Boyle says it’s really a midget on a goat.”
“The pine needles,” I said. “The smell.”
“I could see it all,” I said. “It’s good.”
Tom smiled, that was all I needed. I waved to Kaitlin and to Roberta and to the director as I went for my car.
Two days before the shoot, the lake is complete. The kid they cast for the part of young James flies in from Colorado, and the director asks me to spend a little time with him. I am 33 years old, and the events I describe in my film occurred half a lifetime ago, when I was very much the boy who stands before me. His mother is lunching with Roberta and the director. Except for one groundskeeper, the crew has cleared the set. Ryan Clarke stands beside me, looking out at the lake, and the hillside with its canvas bunks. The loons are already moving silently through a stand of cattails.
“It’s pretty,” Ryan says.
“They did quite a job.”
Several dragonflies zip by. There is a certain wildness today; the lake has started to breathe.
“This should be cool.”
I say, “You have any questions about the scene?”
Ryan finds a flat round stone and skims it across the lake, seven, eight, nine skips.
The director invites me to sit in on the rehearsal, on the shore the night before we shoot. “Maybe James can set the scene for us,” the director says before we start.
The moon has just come up above the East Gate of the studio and plays across the rippled surface of the lake.
“Well,” I begin, “I generally got to the lake before she did. That night, one of her girls was having a bad time, so I swam out to the raft and waited. There was almost no light, but she was wearing a white tank top and I could see her moving down the hill. Her tank top looked blue. Everything was blue. I guess the world has been blue ever since.”
Kaitlin’s eyes are fixed on me. Ryan Clarke stubs out his cigarette.
“Fucking A,” the director says. “All right, guys,” Ryan and Kaitlin look at each other with their rehearsal restraint, a form of rehearsed restraint, an absence of affection, the patient fatigue of experience beyond their years. “Let’s give it a go.”
We get to our cars and I make a small show of touching my pockets. “Left my cell phone on the beach.” I say goodnight to Ryan Clarke, his mother, and the director. I walk back to the lake.
Paramount is a ghost town now. There’s a light up in Roberta’s office; she and Ferooth will be working most of the night. There’s a light on in Kaitlin’s trailer. I sit in the sand and look up at the backings, which are dark and imprecise now. I think I hear a fish jump in the water, but know that there won’t be fish till tomorrow. In the morning, they’re going to drain it one more time, touch up some of the granite. They’ll refill it before mid-afternoon and bring in the beavers and fish.
I take off my shoes and feel the cold sand. Half a lifetime. I was with Olivia for three months; there were a handful of letters after that. I never saw her again. A helicopter moves overhead, flying north, toward the Hollywood sign. I stand. Pull off my shirt. Step out of my pants and boxers. Wade into the shallows. The light goes off in Kaitlin’s trailer, I don’t need to turn around, but the light is no longer reflected in the water. The warm water. The solid click of Kaitlin’s trailer door closing. Then I’m under, lungs tight, gliding fast to the middle, to the raft.