A semi-successful film director has a burning desire to reach the next level. 1,983 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
This movie was going to be his claim to fame. Frank O’Leary was no Scorsese or Tarantino, no Spielberg or Nolan. But he wasn’t exactly a hack. His films garnered good reviews as often as not, and while he hadn’t won any Oscars, he had several nominations from the Golden Globes, the Director’s Guild, and the People’s Choice Awards. His mantelpiece might be bare, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
His problem was that he had no personal vision. He would be brought into projects developed by a studio or some actor’s production company, and they knew he would turn out a solid film on time and on budget. Several of his films had been big hits, although it had been a while since the last one. Audiences didn’t have a clue who he was, and the announcement that he was attached to a project never went beyond the trades. Who cared about “A Film By Frank O’Leary?” Even fanboys were hard pressed to name his last big hit, though it had topped $200 million worldwide. Unfortunately, most of that came from overseas as the film had tanked in its U.S. release. Bad luck it released the weekend that the U.S. President was removed from the White House in a straitjacket. O’Leary couldn’t blame anyone. It was the biggest spectacle since Election Night.
His latest was Firebug, a thriller that would mark the film debut of Jon Petroni, a pop star whose last three albums had gone platinum and fan base was in the millions. The so-called bad boy of the tweens and teens, he had a few tats and a ring through a pierced nipple that got prominently displayed in every video he did. He had an exclusive recording deal with Galaxy Entertainment, whose film division had looked for a project that would take him to the next level. In Firebug, he was playing a disturbed young man, Dante, who sets fires, leading to a massive manhunt. However, the script made him a sympathetic figure: abused as a child, he tried to avoid hurting anyone. His goal was to destroy property, not people.
As far as O’Leary was concerned, it was all claptrap. If the director had developed the script, the character Petroni played would be a psychopath, and the hero would be the investigator who brought him to justice. There would be a fiery climax all right. It would be Dante burning in the electric chair.
However, when the studio brought O’Leary onto film, the script had already been set. It called for Dante to turn himself after setting a fire of such force that it shocks him into the realization that what he’s been doing is wrong. O’Leary never heard of such a thing. Arsonists did not have sudden changes of heart. But the scene let Petroni not only repent but sing the title song over the closing credits. Galaxy execs thought they had a real possibility for an Oscar for Best Song.
No one thought O’Leary would do anything other than his usual competent job. And that’s where he wanted to fool them. The director had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the great movie fires and how they were created. He had seen the early silent films where double exposures overlaid fire on magical creatures. He knew how David O. Selznick used the decrepit Babylonian sets still standing from D. W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance to fuel the burning of Atlanta for Gone With The Wind. He watched The Towering Inferno and Backdraft. He didn’t sneer. It was the best they could do at the time. But he could do better.
Before filming began, he called his production team together and told them he wanted to go beyond anything that had ever been done.
“I don’t simply want to see a building in flames. I want to see a conflagration. I want the audience to feel the heat of the blaze coming off the screen. I want to create an inferno so destructive that they’ll have nightmares for weeks to come. Remember how the public freaked out over demonic possession when The Exorcist came out? That’s what I want.”
One thing to ask for it. Another thing to get it. What he needed was a special effects house capable of stepping up and doing a groundbreaking job.
O’Leary didn’t have the clout to delay production while he searched for the right people who could give him what he wanted. After this film, if done right, he would have that power and get kicked up to a whole new career level. RIght now, he wasn’t treated like an artist but more like a traffic cop, moving the actors in front of the camera and getting the film shot. So as filming continued, he met with various production houses who pitched themselves for the job. Every week, O’Leary spent an afternoon in the screening room watching special effects reels.
“Let it roll,” he said to the projection booth via the intercom.
Flames shooting out of hidden gas jets.
Computer-generated fire lapping at the walls.
Flames consuming an actor replaced by a wax dummy.
Any of these scenes would have been adequate. But O’Leary wasn’t interested in adequate. If he were, then the critics would focus on whether Petroni could act. O’Leary wanted them talking about him and how he had taken a pedestrian script and a tyro actor and created a thriller of such intensity that the viewer felt his eyebrows singe.
Time was running out. He was nearing the end of principal photography. Sure, film editors could intercut special effects footage with the actors to make it seem as if they were there. But to be truly effective, they needed a few shots where Petroni and other stars were clearly in the shot with the flames. O’Leary needed to lock down the special effects now.
His calls had gone out to every special effects house in town, the state, even outside the country. It was yet another Friday afternoon and, as the director had done for weeks, he sat in a screening room watching the sample reels. As soon as he pinpointed what effect they used, he’d shout into the intercome, “Next.” He’d been abusing the poor projectionist for months. O’Leary would,find out what the guy drank and send him a case with a thank you note.
“How many more, Gus?” the helmer asked.
“That’s it for today, Mr. O’Leary,” came the response over the voice box. “No, wait, there’s one more. Don’t know how I missed it.”
On screen, an office building burned. O’Leary didn’t recognize what film it was from. The camera went inside offices as flames licked open filing cabinets, the manila folders adding more fuel to the greedy tendrils. People ran to the exits, but O’Leary concentrated on the blaze. The image cut to a small cafeteria which had a propane tank attached to a grill on an outdoor deck. The fire raced across the deck, consuming the furniture on its way to the tank which abruptly exploded.
In the clip, people rushed for the stairs, but the camera waited as the elevator doors opened. No car, only a wall of flames which ascended the cable and walls and burst through the doors on each floor to spread the fiery destruction. The film cut to an exterior shot as panes of glass bursting along the building, with fire belching from every new opening. It spread to nearby trees while debris tumbled atop cars and trucks below. At street level, an oil truck was making a delivery to an apartment house across the street, its driver was trying to disengage the hose and escape the danger. But burning furniture plummeted and punctured the tanker, which burst into an explosion that momentarily blinded O’Leary. When his vision cleared, the sample reel had ended.
“Gus, could you run that again?” O’Leary asked, suddenly subdued.
This time he still couldn’t figure out how it was done, but he broke out in a sweat as the destruction spread. This is what he wanted and thought he would never find: a fire to end all fires. Was the footage already out there, or had it been created specifically for this test reel? He prayed for the latter.
There was little information on the reel’s maker: a return address for Abigor Productions & Effects, a company unknown to O’Leary. His online search turned up nothing. Unusual, but not entirely unheard of. Likely a start-up looking to get its first big break. Now, O’Leary needed them to deliver.
Abigor Productions had offices only five minutes from the studio. With no phone number listed, O’Leary went over to find out more about them. He had no appointment, but knew they would drop everything to accommodate him.
He drove up to the building and found a parking spot right in front. Clearly, this was meant to be. He rode the elevator up to the thirteenth floor and located the Abigor offices. The unassuming reception area was downright bland with no decorations or even a potted palm.
A pleasant young woman behind the desk looked up as O’Leary entered.
“Hello, I’m Frank O’Leary…”
“Yes, of course you are. You’re expected.”
“I am? I don’t have an appointment.”
“Didn’t you get the production reel we sent over?”
“Yes, that’s why I’m here…”
“Seth thought you’d be impressed. That’s why he came in this afternoon to await your call.”
“Mr. Abigor, the head of the company. In fact, the whole company. I just handle the mail and the calls.”
The receptionist picked up the phone and tapped a few keys. “Mr. Abigor? Mr. O’Leary is here to see you. Yes, I’ll send him right in.” She hung up and turned to O’Leary. “Seth will see you now. Just through that door.”
O’Leary walked to a door marked, “Seth Abigor.” Odd name. The inner office was more luxuriously decorated but with the same lack of movie posters or pictures of the company’s principal with celebrities.
Behind the desk was Seth Abigor: tall, thin, with blonde hair and a goatee. He wore a black suit and red turtleneck which was a bit unusual. Perhaps Abigor wanted to make a fire-related fashion statement.
Abigor rose, and a big smile crossed his ruddy complexion. “At last we meet,” he said, taking O’Leary’s hand. “I’m hoping you got to look at our sample reel.”
“Indeed, I did.”
“And I take it your presence is an indication that you liked what you saw?”
“Yes, I did.” O’Leary had no reason not to admit it. It was, after all, why he had come.
“I’m so pleased. I worked very hard on it.”
“You take a personal hand in the production?”
“I’m the only hand in the production. Just like Ray Harryhausen. He didn’t need hundreds of people, and neither do I.”
“Well, I’m all the more impressed then.”
They sat near a glass table.
“Then you’re here to engage Abigor Productions for your movie?”
O’Leary smiled inwardly. Good. No twenty minutes of chitchat before getting down to business. “Yes, that’s my intention. Assuming you’re able to work within our budgetary constraints. I don’t know what your sample reel cost, but we do have an upper limit…”
“Frank — if I may — let me make you an offer you can’t refuse. I’m not interested in the money. I know that there’ll be certain requirements to make the studio lawyers happy, but the actual figures don’t concern me.”
This was not what O’Leary expected to hear. Doing his best to keep a poker face, he said, “You’re entitled to a fair profit. You don’t have to take a loss to get your name on the film.”
A version of this story appears in the anthology On Fire (Transmundane Press).