The two women indie filmmakers now must find a cinematographer. 3,224 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Rachel and Stacey rehearsed Escapade for weeks, a luxury that no studio production could afford. At the same time they were making travel plans and renewing their passports. They wanted to organize the whole film in advance, but there wasn’t much they could accomplish until they actually arrived in Paris. They were set to leave April 1, and booked the others two weeks later. Outside the travel agency, with all the tickets clutched in one hand, Rachel threw her arms around her friend. "We’re really going, now. It’s official.”
The week before they left, Rachel threw a dinner party for the cast and crew. She wanted everyone comfortable with everyone else before they started shooting a low-budget film at close quarters in a foreign country. It was an enjoyable afternoon – volleyball on the beach, an early cook-out, people having fun. The only disturbing moment happened with Emily. Again.
They were outside in the deepening evening. A cool wind was blowing in off the ocean and Rachel was getting hamburgers onto buns before they burned. Emily slipped beside Rachel as she worked.
“So what am I feeling now?” Rachel asked her.
“Suspicious. Uncomfortable. Annoyed. It’s just something I can do. I wish you trusted me more. I could help you. I want to talk about… ” Emily looked around and lowered her voice, “Rafe DeMarco. He isn’t what he seems. You should get away from him.”
“I’m leaving for Europe with him in less than a week.”
“He’s trouble. I just think you should get as far away from him as possible.”
Rachel stared at her. “Where am I supposed to find a new DP who’ll fly his whole crew to Europe on four days’ notice?”
“You don’t have to find him. He’ll find you. Relinquish some control, Rachel. Let the accidents happen.”
Rachel felt a headache coming on.
As it happened, she had a lunch meeting scheduled with Rafe two days later. He had a lot of technical stuff to talk about. They were eating at Ago where Rafe was a regular because there was an outdoor patio where he could smoke. Rafe was already there, sitting in the shade out on the patio. She was the director: they should sit inside.
He stood up and shook her hand. Rachel suggested, “Can we see a menu? I’m starving.”
“I already ordered for you. It should be here. This waiter’s a new guy. Looks like an actor wannabe. Probably calling his agent on his cell phone. I hate that shit. Anyway, I got you risotto with lobster.”
No one had ordered for Rachel in a restaurant since she was nine years old. She didn’t like it. “Sounds like it’s the most expensive thing on the menu.”
“Don’t worry, I’m picking this up. You can get the next one, partner.”
Rachel leaned back. His cologne was strong. “Partner?”
“Absolutely. We’ll get through this together.”
“No, no – the movie. Talk to Jim, he’ll tell you. I mean, hell – I basically directed his Promiscuity. I ran that shoot from the ground up. I mean the Director of Photography. And when it comes to movies, that’s the whole deal.”
“What about acting? And writing? And editing? And sound? And everything else?
“It’s all secondary to what you see.” Rafe grinned at her. “This is gonna be fun.”
Rachel sipped her wine, thinking that wasn’t the word to cross her mind. Irksome might be closer. But then the food came and it was excellent and Rafe started briefing her on the technical side of making her movie. She started taking notes, but he had a manila folder for her with everything typed up already. “Something to refer to later,” he said. She glanced through it as he talked. There was a table of contents, footnotes; even an index. Rafe was organized. In fact, he was much more organized than she was, which made her a little nervous.
Rafe’s first concern was the video format. He was used to shooting on NTSC, which was industry standard in the United States. But Europe used the PAL format. It ran at twenty-five frames a second which was close to film and would make the eventual transfer easier. It also had better resolution. They talked about aspect ratios and cameras. Rafe preferred using the DVCPro, which was faster and more stable than the Sony DVCAM. It was also more expensive. He wanted to meet with the production designer and was somewhat alarmed to find out that there wasn’t one. Rachel was planning to wing it, using actual locations and interiors. Rafe wasn’t too happy with that.
“You shoot in real rooms, you wind up with a lot of close-ups,” he complained.
“It’s going to be intimate.”
“You shoot on real location without permits, you wind up with a lot of hassles.”
“We’re going to be ingenious.”
Their meeting went on and on. He had tips for preventing timecode breaks while shooting, and rules for handheld shots. He was paranoid about crossing the stage line even with a cutaway. He knew a film recording company in Switzerland called Swiss Effects which was expert at increasing the resolution of PAL video and transferring it to a 35 mm print. There was more. He was meticulous about keeping logs and painstaking about his lighting set-ups.
“The main thing I need from a director is patience,” he said at one point.
“Okay,” Rachel demurred. “The main thing I need from a DP is cooperation.”
As the waiter cleared the main course, Rafe was waving his hand to make a point and hit him. It wasn’t hard enough to hurt, but it made the waiter stumble, and his tray tilted. There was a fraction of a second when the dishes almost slid onto Rafe’s lap.
Rafe snapped at the waited. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
The waiter hurried away.
“Unbelievable,” Rafe huffed.
“He didn’t do anything wrong,” Rachel said. “You practically knocked him over and he managed not to drop a single dish. I think he deserves a prize. Or at least an apology.”
Rafe changed the subject. “One more thing. No actors at dailies. And I don’t even want them checking out the playback monitor. It makes them self-conscious. It’s bad news, trust me.”
“Rafe, I appreciate your concern. But that’s really not your decision.”
“Hey, I have to shoot these people the next day.”
“No, I have to shoot them. You have to help.”
“So I’m just your ‘helper’?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Do I go for coffee, too?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You know what I mean. You’re doing an essential job that I can’t do myself. But I’m the boss.”
“Okay, boss.” He gave her a mock military salute. “Whatever you say.”
After that, they had an uneventful dessert. Rachel was about to rate the meeting as a moderate success, when the waiter spilled the coffee.
“I’m sorry, sir – I didn’t mean – “
“You didn’t mean to spill hot coffee all over me? You sound like a fucking child! How about this? Mean to do your fucking job.”
“This is ridiculous! All he did was –- “ Rachel interjected.
“I can handle this. So stay out of it,” Rafe ordered her.
He paid the check, stiffed the waiter and stalked out of the restaurant. She gave the waiter a twenty dollar bill and apologized before she left.
“You’re fired,” Rachel said to Rafe outside by valet parking.
“You can’t fire me, you need me! You’re leaving for Europe in two days! Where are you going to find another crew in forty-eight hours?”
She shrugged. “I’m going to let the accidents happen.”
Now they had no DP. It was like being halfway across a tightrope; they had to just keep moving. It was obvious they were going to have to hire people in France. Until they got there, it was useless to worry. The most important thing was that they were going to make a movie. They had their equipment and their new luggage and their passports; they had their script and their cast and their schedule.
Nevertheless, sitting next to Rachel on the plane as its wheels left the runway two days later, Stacey still was worried. "I can’t shake the feeling that this is the world’s biggest practical joke," she said. "We’re going to land back in L.A. an hour from now and everyone I know will be standing there laughing at me.”
Rachel looked down at the diminishing hive of Los Angeles, feeling much more than the city dropping away from her. The life she had been living was falling away also, the frustrations and anxieties obscured first by smog and then by masses of cumulus clouds as they banked in a long curve. She felt lightheaded leaving it all behind She hadn’t realized how much she needed simply to escape her life until this moment.
When they stepped out into the weak light of the Boulevard Derain, there were dark masses of cloud hanging over the low roofs of Paris. A cool unseasonal wind was blowing from the east, carrying the mingled scents of car exhaust and baking bread. Rachel put her suitcase down and buttoned her coat up to her neck. She and Stacey jumped into the cramped dirty back seat of a taxi and Rachel gave the driver the address of the Hotel du Progres on the Rue Gay Lussac. The words felt odd and misshapen in her mouth. Rachel sat back, rehearsing the sudden reality of a foreign language.
After the stark flat landscapes of Los Angeles, the massed intricacies of the Parisian architecture felt something like breaking a macrobiotic diet with a steak dinner and chocolate mousse. There was history here, that was part of it. Not just national history but the organic history of generations of ordinary people back to the Middle Ages. The streets were lived in, worn down, rubbed smooth. Los Angeles was supposed to be a "decadent" city, but arriving in Paris at dawn made Rachel realize just how false that idea was. Decadence required a history; L.A. had nothing to decay from. Nothing anchored it in her mind; it was vanishing already, blotted by Paris imposing itself on her, obviously and effortlessly the most beautiful city in the world.
When the driver pulled up in front of the hotel, the rain was letting up a little as they dashed across the pavement into the dim lobby filled with steam heat, fading floral wallpaper and frayed rugs. Inside their room, Stacey walked over to the window, watching the rain on the roofing tiles of the gray building next door, and the gray city beyond it.
“I always knew we’d come back,” she whispered.
Rachel joined her at the window. The street was flooded. Traffic was clogged. “I love this feeling of having miles and miles of Paris around me. I don’t feel like doing a thing. Maybe I’ll just have a nap."
They lay down on the too soft bed. Stacey laughed. "That sounds like the best idea yet."
The next morning at ten o’clock, Rachel and Stacey were sitting at a table in the Cafe de Cluny, watching the city stream past. There were car horns and angry shouts from the street; somewhere in the distance toward the Bastille a siren oscillated between buildings, urgent but fading. The cafe itself was over-crowded and overheated. Rachel enjoyed shocking the waiter by ordering cafe complet for two and a pair of omelettes.
"They think we’re crazy to be eating eggs this early in the morning."
Stacey muttered, "They may be right," well into her jet lag and third cup of espresso.
Rachel had started the morning with the best of intentions. At nine o’clock she had called the Centre National de la Cinematographie. After verifying that she was licensed to film in France, juggling the paperwork and the phone, she got a list of people who were available on short notice. Everyone wanted to work on an American film. Things became more formal when she explained that it was a small independent feature. She was told that the union did not differentiate between types of productions and she would still have to pay full wage for the full term of employment.
She took down all the names and numbers. Most of them weren’t home, several were out of the country. Several she woke up, and they weren’t happy about it. One told her he would never work with an American again. One only worked on religious projects. Two agreed to meet with her. One of them told her he hoped she was as beautiful as her. She didn’t want to deal with that. The other one wasn’t free for several weeks.
Stacey and Rachel were about to leave the café when a man with horn-rimmed glasses and a two-day growth of beard stopped by their table. He was wearing a raincoat open over a tattered UCLA hoodie; corduroy pants; and high-topped basketball sneakers. His face had a soft-edged sweetness to it despite the stubble. He smiled down at them uncertainly, and the women couldn’t stop themselves from smiling back.
"Hello," he said in slightly accented English. "Would either of you ladies care to buy me a cafe creme and I will tell you all about Paris. Glad to meet you. I am Hector Passy."
They didn’t know it yet, but the accident had arrived. He grinned at them eagerly. His smile at its widest showed his gums and for a moment he resembled a large dog sitting in front of a stick, tail beating the grass, inviting them to play.
"So tell me," Hector was saying, “what are the two of you doing in Paris? I know you’re not tourists."
Rachel and Stacey glanced at each other for one nervous moment, still a little uncomfortable with the reality of their mission, the strange presumptuousness of it. Stacey wound up answering. "We’re here to make a movie."
"It’s an independent feature," Rachel added quickly. "We’re trying to get everything organized before the cast comes over. Right now we’re trying to put together a crew and find ourselves a decent cinematographer. We were hoping to avoid the unions, but it seems like that’s impossible."
"Have you tried the film schools?"
Rachel hadn’t thought of that. It was a brilliantly obvious idea.
"Forget the Edhec Institute. It is all rich boys who want to direct fancy movies and play with expensive toys and grow up to be Claude LeLouch. The place to go is the Ecole Jean Cocteau. It’s full of poor hungry students who love film. I live nearby. I could take you there."
"That would be great."
"I have seen posters in the neighborhood about a festival of student films. It would be like window shopping on Avenue Foch. Perhaps you’ll see someone’s work you admire. "
"If they’d be willing to work with us."
The Ecole du Cinema Jean Cocteau was a rundown old building in the Vincennes district, which like the rest of the neighborhood was undergoing constant and more or less futile renovation. Hector led them inside along a dingy corridor of scuffed linoleum and down a flight of stairs to a basement screening room. The place was deserted and quiet.
"Are you sure they’re having a film festival?" Stacey asked.
"Ah, they mean well but they are quite disorganized. I must go and goose the projectionist. He is no doubt waiting for the rest of the audience."
Hector vanished. In a couple of minutes the lights went out and the first film began. Ten minutes into it and both Rachel and Stacey knew they had found the cinematographer they wanted.
Half an hour into it, Hector sat down next to them. "Good work, eh?"
Rachel nodded in the darkness. "It’s fantastic." She had her pen and paper out when the final credits rolled, but she didn’t need them. The DP was Hector.
"Why didn’t you just tell us?" Stacey asked.
"There would have been no amusement in that. And, besides, a good cinematographer must have a sense of drama and the first law of drama is: show, don’t tell. Then I am hired?"
"When can you start?" Rachel asked.
"I think I have started already."
They walked for a long time after the movie. As they angled down across the Boulevard St. Martin and towards the Tuileries, Hector started talking about movies. "We completed Les Rossignols for ten thousand dollars. We did it by being very frugal and using the school’s equipment. I think we can do the same thing now."
"I’m good at being frugal," Rachel said, "And I have my own equipment.” She went through the inventory: the DVCPro camera, the DPS Velocity turnkey editing system with the SCSI drive array, the various microphones and connectors.
Hector was staring at her awestruck with greed and excitement, like an orphan with rich new foster parents. “Americans always have the best stuff,” he said when she was finished. “But very expensive. So I have an idea. Pay me nothing aside from living expenses. All I want is ten percent of the profits. Perhaps fifteen. That way we will manufacture tremendous incentive for me."
“What if the film sucks and makes no money?” Stacey asked.
“But this is exactly what I mean,” Hector replied. “We won’t let that happen. Because we are motivated.”
Rachel turned to Stacey. "Fifteen percent?"
"It’s pure fantasy, but it’s fine with me."
"But this is the fantasy business, yes?” Hector reminded the women. “We will make them all come true. We will be rich and famous, just like in the movies."
Rachel told Hector the plot of the movie, promising him a script as soon as she returned to the hotel. He made notes.
"Lights may be a problem,” he said. “But we can use reflectors most of the time, and besides, we’re not trying to do anything glossy. But we must have the best transfer possible. The Eclair lab in the Avenue George Cinq will do the work for us. That will be expensive. It means no rushes until we get back to Paris."
"What do you mean, ‘back to Paris’?" Stacey asked.
"Your notion of shooting the nude beach scene in the south of France and more or less commuting to Paris, this cannot work. It’s a nice idea but the reality very bad. I think instead you should consider Greece. There is a wonderful nude beach on the island of Hydra; we could start there and work our way back by way of Italy. A friend of mine has an uncle with a villa in Tuscany that he can’t afford to keep up. I’m certain he would rent it to us for a week or two. Then we shoot all the Paris material at the end. All the equipment will fit on Bertrand’s truck."
"Bertrand?" queried Rachel.
"Oh yes, you must also hire Bertrand and Maurice and Jean who are my friends and a superb three-man film crew. Of course they are not in the union yet. But I’m sure you can keep a secret. So what do you think of my plan?"
Stacey shrugged; Rachel grinned.
Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow.