The studio credits czar finally comes face to face with his comeuppance. 1,651 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The numbers for the weekend were in and they were bad. The big fall release was a big bomb. A stinker. Guaranteed to cancel out any profits for at least a fiscal quarter. It was like planting a lawn and watching mud come up. Whoever thought that a film about a beautiful girl lost in the woods being chased by a mutant bear was a winner must had been smoking way too much of the recreational stuff. The mechanical bear turned out to be a better actor than the star. When the script called for the character to be injured, she couldn’t even manage to whimper with any authenticity. Jeffrey had heard children’s talking dolls that sounded more real. So it was another loss after the studio had just taken a half-billion dollar write-down in the last quarter on three heavy-effects movies that "underperformed.” Like that gentle phrase could somehow tidy up another red ink disaster.
What Jeffrey knew immediately was that everyone needed to be sprucing up their resumes because the people in charge always figured that cutting overhead was the way to solve the mess they’d created. Jeffrey wondered why they never thought about firing themselves. Instead, some bean counter ran his finger down a list of names and salaries and decided: this one in, that one out.
Just like what he did on credits.
Jeffrey opened yet another binder of the crew deals. This one in. That one out. He checked the spellings and any strange credit requests. That morning, a dolly grip wanted to be credited as Jim "Jimbo" Smith. But Jeffrey hated nicknames and that was why Jimbo’s was gone. The pen’s tiny flick. The black line. The small gesture. Not even a second’s thought to deny the credit. Goodbye, Jimbo.
Jeffrey had to stay focused because it was too easy to just move on. A lack of mindfulness was how mistakes slipped in. There could be no past and no future only this name right now. He had to say each one aloud and spell them, too, one letter at a time. Not like when he’d had an assistant two lay-offs ago.
Now he was on his own; a dangerous place to be.
Jeffrey felt like one of the hardest working people he knew; the best student, too. After coming to Los Angeles, he’d spent all his time writing scripts, taking classes, churning out the pages. He joined workshops to make the screenplays salable. At least three promising romantic relationships had been destroyed by all his hard work. "You don’t have any time for me," the women said. Or, "You don’t have any room for me." Or, "You don’t have any use for me." He submitted his script samples to a hundred agents by pretending to be a messenger and hand-delivering them. No one was interested. How could that possibly be? Was his writing simply awful? He wrote scripts in every genre and no two sticks together produced any heat no matter how hard he rubbed. To wake up every morning with the same message from the cosmos – You have failed — nearly sent him drinking.
The other kind of crippling was his wife’s kind. "You think you’re so special," her people said to her as if this being special was something to avoid, to run from, to pray away. "You think you’re so smart," another major flaw. They made it clear that pride was a sin, that being smart was a fault, that she was in no way, any way, special at all.
The thing about his wife was that she was special. She was smart, much smarter than him. With a little encouragement and support at a young age, she could have been a field producing the bumper crop. But while he went to MIT and graduated at the top of his class, the best she could muster was one year at a small local school. Then she dropped out, got married and lit out for points west. In her mind, there didn’t seem to be any good reason to put in the effort because, as her people emphasized to her every day of her life, she wasn’t destined for anything. Maybe some man, no smarter and no more special than herself, would meet and marry her. They’d have a few unexceptional children who would be raised to understand that people had levels and stations in life and that any thought of rising above was doomed to fail.
Yet was it all really out of their hands? Some faceless functionary sat in an office, crossing out names, and his actions decided the future for so many. The credits czar. The bean counter. Who else was crossing off names on a list? Even Jeffrey could see the irony.
The studio had six films in post-production giving Jeffrey plenty to do. Another list of names. Another binder. He dove back in. Before he knew it, the afternoon receded; it was six p.m. and he could go home.
A few days later, at lunch, someone, obviously a crew guy, kept staring at Jeffrey. The scrutiny was unnerving, like prey being watched by a hawk. The crews all looked as if they’d just gotten out of Soledad with their wiry frames and legion of tattoos. The man staring looked no different. He was small and rough with stringy hair and his own set of needled decorations on both arms. Though his eyes were hooded, his dark pupils burned.
Jeffrey thought he had never seen him before, but it was hard to be certain. There were dozens of crew members who looked just like him. The lot was busy. Jeffrey could have walked past the guy many times and never noticed because his attention to the outside world sufficed to prevent bodily harm like getting run down by one of the forklifts or the electric carts.
Carrying a white clamshell box of salad, Jeffrey started back to his office and the crew guy was still staring. Three buildings later, Jeffrey was about to turn down the walkway to the entrance. Somehow the crew guy was there. Like a plot from one of the studio’s movies, things would have gone this way: If a comedy, the crew guy would be the husband of a woman Jeffrey’s character was seeing and didn’t knew she was married. If a thriller, the guy was the local contact with information about the target. If a drama, he was the old school buddy strung out on heroin who wanted Jeffrey’s character’s help to get clean.
The sky shifted at that moment as a white cloud passed overhead. On this part of the lot, the winds that often whistled through the streets arrived. With the sun blotted, Jeffrey found himself suddenly cold.
When the guard found him, Jeffrey was propped against the wall of his office building like a drunk who had fallen. Jeffrey was missing a shoe though he could see it dangling off the walkway and in one of the planting beds. He couldn’t breathe very well and he thought maybe his nose was broken. There was a lot of blood on the bottom of his face and on his shirt, splattered on his pants. His eye hurt, already starting to swell shut.
The last thing he remembered was the crew guy taking a step toward him, saying something about being a grip whose name Jeffrey would remember, a flash of light, and then the guard bending over him and asking if he was all right. Jeffrey heard a siren and then saw the cart from the medical department rushing towards him, red light revolving. Jeffrey tried to stand even as the guard stopped him.
When Jimbo Smith found out he wasn’t getting credit on Snuggle Bunnies 4, he wasn’t pleased about it given how much bullshit he had taken during the shoot. They’d had him on his hands and knees moving dirt and dog shit so the dolly track would lie flat. He’d done what he was told and only grumbled softly so no one could hear. For that, shouldn’t he get his name on the film?
Jimbo tried to get the key grip to intercede, then the director of photography. He was rebuffed and not that well-liked because he was somebody’s cousin and that had gotten him on the crew. He was promised more work, but the credit was out of their hands. The credits, though, were in Jeffrey Baummann’s hands, and when Jimbo found out, he wanted Jeffrey to know exactly what he thought about that.
As the medical staff attended him, Jeffrey lay back and breathed as best he could. The world seemed set off at a distance. His mouth hurt bad. He thought one of his front teeth was broken. He had played a part in a movie, it turned out: a simple revenge genre.
When he was a boy in Massachusetts, there were no fences in the yards below his house. They were up on a hill and if you threw your sled down, you could get going pretty fast for nearly a quarter of a mile run. All afternoon the kids raced down and walked back up. On what was the last run of the day, Jeffrey headed down and hit an ice patch at the bottom. He tried but couldn’t turn in time and couldn’t make the small gesture that would have sent the sled into a tree. Instead, by accident he claimed, the sled ran into the younger brother of one of his friends and cut up the sibling’s face. The boy was screaming, more from fright than pain.
Jeffrey took his hand and walked him back home, ready to face the parents and whatever was going to happen. He just wished he had swerved.