The director makes the hottest film of his life – at the expense of everyone else’s. 2,157 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
If the goal was to keep film director Frank O’Leary intrigued, then Abigor Productions & Effects had already succeeded. Apparently, Seth Abigor was rolling the dice to impress him. Not that he would let Abigor know that. As a company with no track record, the helmer figured he should be able to get its services for a song. Fair is fair. The effects house would cash in after Firebug was released and everyone was blown away by its work. O’Leary simply had no reason to pay top dollar for it.
Abigor removed a gold cigarette case from his jacket and offered O’Leary one of its contents. The helmer passed but examined the case. He’d only seen such things in old movies. Placing a non-filtered cigarette between his lips, Abigor snapped the thumb and forefinger of his right hand together and lit it with his fingertip.
O’Leary responded with a nervous laugh. “You’re quite the magician.”
“Nothing magical about it, Frank. Haven’t you guessed who I am?”
The director glanced at the door to make sure he had a direct exit in case the situation got any stranger. “Why no, Seth, who do you think you are?”
Abigor answered with a thin smile. “I have many names, and many of them don’t translate well. You may know me as Satan or Lucifer. Some called me Beelzebub or the Prince of Darkness. I like Seth. It allows me to fit in more easily. And you can stop looking at the door, Frank. You’ll be able to go when our business is concluded.”
O’Leary broke out into a sweat, and it wasn’t from the temperature in the room. No way this was the Devil Incarnate, but this nutcase might well be the real life version of the pyromaniac in Firebug. “Okay, um, Seth, so what is it you’ll need? My soul? Will I have to sign a contract in blood?”
Abigor blew a smoke ring that, as it expanded, seemed to have horns. “Frank, where did you get that idea? Have you been watching old movies? The only reason I take someone’s soul is that they have nothing else that I want. But you do.”
“My deals are always straightforward. I give you what you want and, in return, I get what I want. In this case, that turns out to be the same thing.”
O’Leary’s fight-or-flight instinct relaxed. He honestly couldn’t say that Abigor was the strangest person he’d ever had to deal with in this business. “Okay, I’m all ears. What’s the pitch?”
“It’s very simple. You want to stage a fire that surpasses anything ever seen in the movies. And that’s what I want to do, too. I could have made my own movie, but to be attached to a major motion picture with an A-list director and big stars is something else entirely. In making your dream come true, you’re allowing me to make mine.”
O’Leary couldn’t believe what he was hearing, but he wasn’t going to argue. The effects reel had blown him away, and whether it was through state of the art gimmickry or the supernatural forces of the Underworld didn’t really matter. Since Abigor wasn’t going to haggle over price, the helmer would come in under budget and still make movie history. No downside.
O’Leary put out his hand. “Seth, you’ve got a deal.”
During the climactic scene, Petroni’s character is arrested by the film’s heroes but refuses to say where he planted a bomb. The seconds tick by, but there would be no last-minute rescue. He would pay for his crimes and show penance before the final fadeout, but the audience would not be denied one last orgasmic ball of flames. The producers managed to find an entire city block scheduled to be razed for new construction. In the center was an office building wired to implode and collapse — the capstone to the sequence. Abigor’s crew worked overnight setting up the pyrotechnics.
When edited, the sequence would begin with the final ticks on the countdown, then a brief pause as if something had gone wrong, and finally a whoosh of fire. That material had already been shot. What they needed now was the big picture.
O’Leary looked in the viewfinder of Camera One, focused on the entranceway of the building. He was taking no chances with this and had a dozen cameras set up around the block. The filmmakers were only going to be able to do this once, and the helmer wanted maximum leeway in the cutting room. Satisfied, he went to his director’s chair, at a safe distance, and turned to Abigor.
“Are we set to go?”
“Ready when you are, C.B.,” he said, referencing an old Hollywood joke about director Cecil B. DeMille.
Ordinarily, O’Leary would call for quiet, but he was shooting without sound. The appropriate noises would be added to the soundtrack in post-production.
“All right, then. This is a take, everyone. Action.”
Around the block, filming began. Abigor stood in front of a small table set with an array of switches. He flicked one, and a blast of fire shot out of the front of the building, shattering glass and sending plumes of smoke into the air. As more windows exploded, the blaze entered upper stories and raced through interior hallways. Even from a distance, O’Leary could feel the heat. He brushed his hair with his fingers and found it singed.
The inferno spread to neighboring buildings.
“Let’s let it go on a bit longer, then we’ll bring down the building,” commanded O’Leary.
A separate demolition crew controlled the implosion — the city insisted it be handled by professionals and not a special effects house — and Seth had offered no objection. Abigor flicked the remaining switches at his table as additional fireballs emerged from adjoining stores and apartments.
This was bigger than O’Leary ever could have imagined. The smoke spread across the afternoon sky, and snow-like ash from the vast plume covered them.
“Okay, let’s take her down.”
The demolition guy turned a knob on his separate controls. With a tremendous roar, the inside of the office building was torn asunder and collapsed in upon itself. When the filmmakers could see through the smoke, dust, and ash, the entire city block was clearly consumed in flames. This would take some time to put out.
O’Leary had all the footage he could possibly use and more.
“And cut. Great job, everyone.” He turned to the associate director. “Tell them they can start the hoses.”
The last embers were extinguished in the late morning of the following day; O’Leary and a team of editors were already going through the wealth of material they had shot, an embarrassment of riches. He had enough film for three sequels, not that they were expecting any to this one-off. But if the box office broke the right way, no telling what the studio suits upstairs would approve.
When the film was ready for previews, O’Leary grabbed passes for people he wanted to thank, like Gus the projectionist. He suspected the last thing Gus would want to do with his evening off was watch more movies but was entitled to see the results of those weeks of test reels.
O’Leary also mailed passes to Seth and his receptionist, but the envelope was returned with “No such address” stamped on it.
O’Leary drove to the building that had housed the Abigor Productions & Effects offices. The building remained, but the company wasn’t listed in the directory and the elevator didn’t stop on a thirteenth floor. O’Leary walked out and shivered — a somewhat inappropriate reaction — before pulling his car out of the lot.
The Firebug previews turned out to be a sensation. Word of mouth was spectacular. The studio even pushed up the opening date, announcing it was to capitalize on the buzz surrounding their new star, Jon Petroni, in his motion picture debut. But the truth was the suits wanted to profit from the amazing special effects, which were rumored to redefine the state of the art.
But there was one other story associated with the movie. People around it started disappearing.
After Galaxy Entertainment film studio head Randall “Randy” Matson arranged a private screening, no one could explain why he was no longer there when the lights came up. Instead of confessing that the mogul simply vanished, a publicist said Matson was on an extended trip, examining the growing Asian market. Meanwhile, Galaxy’s newest movie star was out on a concert tour in front of thousands every night. However, his agent, Sandi Glauber, had been replaced by a team. What was new about this move was that Glauber had simply vanished, gone up as if in a puff of smoke.
The oddest development, however, involved Harry Lafferty who had once been a big star in goofy comedies, action films, and serious dramas. Audiences marveled at his talent, his good looks, and his protean ability to clown in one movie, then play heroic in the next, then evoke tears in another. Lafferty had it all but then success went to his head, as did a cornucopia of drugs. He was quietly removed from the A-list and put on the one marked unreliable. But now he was back in Firebug in the key supporting role of Petroni’s father. In the meantime, he had gone through rehab, come back in some TV roles, then taken a long meeting with O’Leary to make clear he wouldn’t let the director down. He didn’t. His was a great performance. With some flashes of his old humor in the early scenes and a subtle dramatic in later action, the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor was no surprise. Yet he was nowhere to be found for media interviews or job offers. He simply vanished.
On Oscar night, Hollywood gathered for what everyone predicted would be an awards sweep for Firebug. O’Leary had been nominated for Best Director, Petroni and Lafferty for acting nods, and the movie for Best Picture as well as editing and cinematography and special effects nods. Ironically, one of the few nominations it didn’t get was for Best Song.
O’Leary took his aisle seat behind Petroni at the front of the Dolby Theatre. He searched for Lafferty and instead found Seth Abigor, or whatever his real name was, down at the other end of the row. Seth smiled and gave a little wave, but before O’Leary could react the show began. As the award was to be given for Best Visual Effects, a clip was shown from Firebug. Thunderous applause accompanied a faint whiff of rotten eggs, which by the time O’Leary had identified the smell had already wafted away.
On screen was a clip of the climactic fire. But to O’Leary’s expert eye, the scene seemed oddly different. As he had shot it, the initial explosion of flames had led to a panicked exodus from the building. Now, however, some people ran into the flames. One of them seemed to be Harry Lafferty, and that woman next to him looked a lot like Sandi Glauber, and that important executive might be Randy Matson? O’Leary didn’t recognize the others running towards their doom, but he’d bet that the Missing Persons Bureau of the L.A.P.D. would.
The clip ended, the envelope opened, and a golden statuette pressed into the hands of Seth Abigor, who suddenly appeared on stage. He cut an impressive figure wearing a stylish tux set off by a fiery red bowtie. He stared directly at O’Leary as he began his remarks.
“Hollywood is called the dream factory, and Frank O’Leary had a dream: to depict the greatest fire in motion picture history.” Abigor raised the statuette and waved it in the helmer’s direction. “I had a dream, too. To use this movie to settle some debts. Oh, don’t worry, Frank, we’re square. I meant what I said. But there are some others here who owe me, and it’s time to pay up.”
With that, the film clip ran again and this time fifty more people ran into the inferno on the big screen. Inside the Dolby Theatre, a whoompf, whoompf, sounded as yet another star or filmmaker or professional disappeared from the audience. The room grew warm. Some people screamed. Others rushed for the exits.
Seth, still in the spotlight, said, “After this break, we’ll have the award for Best Director.” Then as he clutched his Oscar, an official escort led him into the wings.
O’Leary was readying to make a run for it. But then he retook his seat. He might as well wait for his category. And, come to think of it, his next project was about an erupting volcano. As two veteran stars announced the winner for Best Director, O’Leary wondered if Seth had any experience with lava.
A version of this story appears in the anthology On Fire (Transmundane Press).