A writer and a studio mogul continue their conversation – with unpredictable results. 2,136 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Of course, the exploding head hung over their meeting like a burning air ship, coating everything in sparks and glowing shrapnel and flames, impregnating every exchange between them. Nero knew that the writer Richard Blow knew that the matter simply would never come up for discussion.
Blow had been summoned, through his agent, to Nero’s secluded Bel Air lair the very next day. The enormous butler escorted the writer without ado down a winding hallway that led to a large high ceilinged chamber deep within the house. A smartly dressed young woman with red hair sat just outside operating a conference phone that was lit up like an alien spacecraft. She pressed the buttons with one hand, opening and closing and merging lines, transferring calls to distant area codes in outer space, controlling the console without looking at the keys.
With much aplomb, and perfect posture, her eyes never leaving the computer screen, Regina connected a man’s voice, a West Coast voice.
Man: “The California financing is pulling out. The Texas money is hung up in the Suez. The French fuckers are getting cold feet. The Asian thinks he’s gonna be left holding the bag. “
Nero: “I’m sending someone to Hong Kong to hold his hand.”
Man: “Gonna take more than hand holding at this point.”
Blow waited in the wings, playing the part of the fly on the wall as he indulged this rare opportunity to observe the maestro at work. To the untrained ear, the sounds would have been indistinguishable from the unholy din at any big production company or agency where an army of self-important hacks rolled call after call in a ham-fisted attempt to throw a million gallons of shit against the wall and see what stuck. But, in the span of a few minutes, Blow witnessed a dozen films born, the master tossing together the critical elements of directors, writers, actors, locations, producers, budgets, second act cliffhangers as quickly and deftly as Picasso applied his palimpsests of Cubist black magic onto virgin canvasses.
Then Nero saw the writer. Perhaps he’d been aware of Blow’s presence the entire time. Movie moguls were preternaturally self-aware and in total control of every aspect of their environment.
Nero was seated on a throne of sorts.
“Mr. Blow, please, do not be shy,” he said. “Regina, hold my calls.”
Without looking, Regina pressed a button, plunging the console’s display into darkness and sending the orbiting calls to God knew where.
Blow felt naked, as if Nero could see straight through him. “You’re wondering about the exploding head,” the studio head said.
“That’s the only thing anybody’s talking about,” Blow admitted.
“What do you tell them?”
“I repeat what’s in the official report. Unknown cause, possibly spontaneous combustion.”
“They think it was me who caused it.”
“That’s one of the theories,” Blow conceded, reluctantly. “Supernatural powers, so on and so forth. Not given any credence, of course, by the more enlightened-”
“I don’t know about supernatural. I will say this about it,” confessed Nero. “There are some human beings who are endowed with extraordinary electromagnetic fields. This is why I never touch a computer, or a phone. May I get you something from the bar?”
“Two fingers of Laphroaig,” Blow said without hesitation.
The writer had learned over the years that it did not pay to be coy with a titan like Nero. The slightest indecision, even basic politesse, was considered a weakness, and so was bad taste. Requesting some exotic mineral water would have been the safe choice, but Blow had to assume Nero knew the writer was no mineral water man and that the choice would simply have been a calculated attempt to gain approval. Lesser mortals were flattered by these crude attempts to mirror their preferences and habits. But Nero admired authenticity above all things.
In many respects, Nero and Blow were like night and day, the mogul the apostate bon vivant, having renounced the pleasures of dust and dice for the discipline of purity and self-control (although he retained a well known taste for the fairer sex),, while the writer continued to pursue the rogue’s life of strong drink, impulsive wagers, random encounters (the occasional dalliance with an anxious divorcee or hard luck barfly), lost memory, lost money and lost time.
As Blow started to sip the single malt Scotch in a cut crystal Glencairn glass, Nero indulged his own curiosity and asked, “So what have you heard about me?”
“That you are the exemplar of a new type of super-creative who sits at the top of the pyramid, seeing everything through an all-seeing eye and conjuring entire worlds through a wireless headset, destroying the universe through a speaker phone.”
“Your characterization is flattering, but what separates this new super-creative from the Irving Thalbergs and Louis B. Mayers? They micro-managed the creative process long before I came on the scene.”
“Excuse the irreverence, but those men, though great orchestrators of money and talent, though shrewd stewards of story and bellwethers of popular taste, are but tadpoles, caterpillars, walking catfish, middle species filling the gap between an evolutionary leap…” said Blow, indulging his own penchant for hyperbole but unable to finish.
“The studio head has always sat at the top of the totem pole. It is not, essentially, a creative position,” interrupted Nero, enjoying the banter. “I am a businessman. I have a talent for making money. No matter what the era, selling a story is no different than selling a tractor or a Barbie. It is about making the right decisions. The die was cast with Thalberg and Mayer and we’re all still trying to fit the mold.”
“This suggests that you are simply biding your time.”
“The time may come sooner than everyone thinks. What they forget —the press, the wagging tongues, even the board — is that when it comes down to it I’m still calling the shots. While I’m still sitting in this chair, mine is the only decision that truly counts.”
“Are you suggesting that there might be a sudden shift in direction?”
“At the risk of tipping my hand, I can only say that the time for the climax may be sooner than anyone would have expected. Surely you’ve heard the rumors?”
“I must admit, there has been some talk about a changing of the guard. I of course dismissed it as idle hearsay.”
“The wind of change is blowing. I can feel it like a diseased harlot’s breath, making the hair stand up on the back of my neck,” Nero said.
“Certainly they wouldn’t consider unseating a legend over one unfortunate incident. These things happen all the time in this business.”
“They will say it is one thing, or many things, but it’s more than any of that. It’s more than any man or number of men can decide. It’s a course of destiny mapped out in the stars.”
“Even with the failure of that film, the studio still made money, won multiple Oscars, Golden Globes. In the end it was still an enviable year.”
“When the tide turns against you, your history is erased. The idea itself seizes us, all of us, like a tsunami that sweeps away everything in its path.”
“At some point, every great man contemplates his final statement to the world, his swan song,” Blow noted.
“More and more, I have come to believe that the ultimate creative act is the destruction of one’s creations. For unto dust thou shalt return.”
Blow fixated on a large framed picture on the wall behind Nero’s head of the Led Zeppelin Hindenburg Disaster album cover, fire in black and white.
“Considering a turn toward a more subversive art?” Blow suggested. “Might I inquire about what will certainly be a formidable second act?”
“Ballooning,” the mogul said, with almost childish innocence. “I’ve taken a great interest in it of late. It’s an avocation with a rich history, full of colorful characters, feats of daring, inventions of the most breathtaking ingenuity. Now, I really must return to the business at hand.”
“We haven’t talked about my project yet,” Blow countered.
“See, you’re still sticking to the script,” Nero said. “Just close your eyes and listen.”
Nero had closed his eyes and seemed to withdraw into himself. Not wanting to be the odd man out, Blow closed his eyes as well, letting his mind run wild. But all he heard was the soft clack of Ms. Regina’s fingers on the keyboard. He shot a glance at Nero.
“It’s okay. It will come to you in time,” the mogul said, his eyes still closed. He opened them.
Regina interrupted. “This call’s important,” she said.
Nero nodded. With much aplomb and perfect posture, her eyes never leaving the computer screen, Regina connected a man’s voice with a fast New York clip which crackled from the speaker phone in Blow’s presence.
Man: “We’re ten days behind schedule. The rain is killing us.”
Nero: “Shut it down. Shoot the whole thing on a sound stage. Right on the lot.”
Man: “These are desert scenes! What about the sand?”
Nero: “We’ll bring in so much sand you’ll think you were in Death Valley. Fill it with tumbleweeds, scorpions, gila monsters. You can even drill for oil.”
Man: “All right, all right, we’ll be there in two days.”
Nero nodded at Blow. Regina killed the holding calls.
“Time to discuss business. I was thinking about a Superman idea,” said Nero, carefully peeling a blood orange and pulling apart the sections. “There’s something there.”
“I used to be a huge fan of the DC series,” said Blow. “I still have a lot of my old comics in a box somewhere."
"You want to make a Superman movie?" Nero asked.
Blow became preoccupied watching the butler through the window as he dipped a mesh net into the pool, fishing out debris. The pool was shaped like the cross-section of a natural pearl, round with organic undulations. And the water was a perfect teal blue, reflecting the sun like a fun house mirror, alternately compressing and stretching it out, and losing none of the luster. Blow zeroed in on the net, trying to figure out what was in there, but it was too far away.
Blow snapped back to the mogul’s question. “Lex Luther buys up all this worthless real estate in the desert. Only it’s not so worthless because he hijacks some nuclear bombs and sets them to go off right on a major fault line, which would make all of coastal California fall into the ocean, turning all that worthless desert into priceless beachfront real estate.”
“In effect, bringing the ocean to the desert. Only in my movie, it’s the reverse,” Nero suggested.
“Bringing the desert to the ocean?” asked Blow.
“That’s for you to figure out.”
“I’ll start working on some ideas.”
The butler had moved closer, still fishing debris out of the water. Blow watched him out of the corner of his eye.
“Just so I’m clear, this isn’t a comic book movie,” said Nero. “It’s not about Superman. It’s about THE superman.”
“You mean from philosophy, Nietzsche and all that?”
This time Blow could make out what was in the net — a butterfly, its iridescent markings glinting in the sun, its wet body fragile and lifeless, as the butler dumped it into the trash can. But there was more.
“I can work with that,” Blow said, refocusing on Nero. “This is a tremendous opportunity. I’m flattered.”
The next object scooped from the pool was a leaf, then a cigarette butt. But something was glinting from the bottom like a submerged star, Blow couldn’t take his eyes off it. It was all he could do to stay in his seat and not dive in after it. Blow watched the butler’s net plunge deeper into the water and return to the surface, the tiny glinting object nestled within the mesh. It was small, metallic, and with an irregular shape. Blow knew it could only be one thing, a silver amalgam filling which had once belonged to someone. Then another appeared. And another. Until a person’s entire mouth had been emptied.
Nero’s phone rang. Regina put it on speaker.
Men: “It’s Heller and Bax. We’re in Death Valley with the location scout. Our camper has stopped now and we’re walking around on the sand.”
Nero: “How does it look?”
Men: “We may have a slight problem. Turns out it’s some kind of toxic waste dump.”
Nero: “How toxic?”
Men: “Like, nuclear.”.
Nero: “Tell me more.”
With that Blow left, only to discover once he was in the sunlight again that he was still holding the crystal glass of Laphroaig, which he sipped judiciously on the drive to wherever he happened to be going next. Which was as far away from Nero as he could get.