A famous actor and renown director find themselves in a terrifying scene together. 3,867 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Lew Baird removed his suit jacket and hung it in the closet, pleased to find actual wooden hangers, the kind that most hotels are afraid the guests will steal. He thought of removing his pants as well, just to keep them from wrinkling, but on the off chance that a maid popped in and found him in his BVDs, he decided against it. She’d probably sell the information or post it online and his Twitter account would explode with the pros and cons of his underwear choices.
Picking over the fruit and cheese basket, he decided to sample neither. The cheese would give him stink breath and the pineapple fiber might get lodged in his teeth. He had brought neither a toothbrush nor floss to the film junket. Of course, he could always ask some publicist to run out to a drugstore and get some. Seemed like an awful lot of trouble; not the act of dispatching someone to CVS, but rather the effort of having to summon a flack and convey his wishes.
Hang in there, just one more interview and the day will be over, he told himself as he eased into an armchair, shut his eyes and took a few of those deep relaxation breaths which Bo, his trainer, had taught him. If Lew could only think of a way to blow off that meeting tonight with Alice and her investor and ask Greta up for dinner. They could have Chinese or Italian and watch one of the Academy screeners gathering dust on the shelf of his home screening room. Then he remembered that his assistant had flown home for a family emergency. And since Lew didn’t travel with a posse, he had no one to pick up take-out from Mr. Chow or Spago. He couldn’t very well expect Greta to bring her own food; and he certainly didn’t want to be seen in public with her. The relationship was too new for that.
Before he could think on it further, he had fallen asleep. He was awoken by a meek looking woman. “Mr. Baird,” she said in a supplicant tone. “Sorry to disturb you, but we’re ready for your 4:15.”
“Your hair’s gone flat,” Alice Rundgren’s manager complained to the director, who merely shrugged. If Quentin Tarantino and Michael Moore can do interviews looking like they’ve been eating sausage rolls in bed, why should Alice be held to a higher standard? But the manager rushed down the hall to see if she could borrow Julia Roberts’ hair and makeup person. They were junketing in the same hotel, and Julia had mentioned that she’d be through by three. Okay, Alice thought, as long as the makeover was charged back to the studio.
Until Catharsis, her breakthrough film, Alice had barely worn makeup and always kept her hair either close cropped or pulled back into a ponytail. Now, after twenty years of directing mostly low-budget thrillers and horror titles, she was an overnight sensation; the first woman to be twice nominated for Best Director. If the hype held up and the new film did decent business, she could be up for a third nomination for the stark military drama Exhibition.
She’d snared A-lister Lew Baird and extracted a credible performance from the man she regarded as “meat with eyes” – albeit charismatic meat. The camera lens fondled him, and he had a facility for spouting superhero aphorisms or droll comedic one-liners. Getting a naturalistic line reading out of him, however, had required finesse. And any time he was supposed to appear pensive or troubled, he tended to squint.
She was saving some of the better stories about working with Lew for her memoirs. She heard that he’d been going around telling journalists that the tight-butt he flashed in the film’s shower scene was his own. “I run six miles and do a hundred squats a day,” he proudly told the scribes who gushed over his glutes.
Lew’s actual rear was puny and flat, which would shatter the illusion that he “looked twice as good out of clothes as in,” as his romantic interest in the film remarked.
Calvin, the stunt butt whom Alice hired, had bent over backwards with inferences that he would like to bend Alice over backwards. She was certainly tempted. Male directors had been availing themselves of such propositions for decades. But she was already years behind in the self-respect department. Giving herself to a blatantly ambitious newcomer was hardly a step forward.
While Alice waited for the 4:15 joint interview with Lew, she reviewed her presentation for the evening’s meeting with Ali Monsour, the filthy rich sultan’s son and ubiquitous reveler. Ali managed to snare invitations to every premiere and private party in town, and the wretched excess bashes he threw at his aerie atop Sunset Plaza Drive were the orgiastic equivalent of Fight Club. The first rule was that no one talked about them. And the second and the third.
Like so many spoiled heirs, what he really wanted was to be a movie producer. An Academy Award for Best Picture was the end of his particular rainbow, he’d confessed. He viewed the multi-generational gangster saga In The Land Of Nod as his golden ticket. Known around town as the “Jewish Godfather,” the project had a powerful script by Biff Greenwood, who nabbed last year’s Oscar for best original screenplay. Lew was aboard for the Michael Corleone-ish role. Though Alice hadn’t planned on working with him again so soon, she had capitulated when Ali promised to fully finance the project pending Lew’s attachment.
Tonight’s meeting was to discuss other casting possibilities, including that of the patriarchal protagonist. Ali was obsessed with Warren Beatty for that role. When Alice argued that he wasn’t the right fit, Ali countered, “Why not? He played Bugsy Siegel and he was Jewish.” She was not surprised to hear that Beatty’s reps had passed on the project. The actor probably stopped reading the script on page three where the screenwriter describes the character as “a once attractive man wizened by age and stress.”
“The limo is downstairs to take you to Ali’s compound,” Alice and Lew were told as they were air-kissing Katie Couric goodbye.
“Already?” Lew complained. “I was hoping to go home and change. I live halfway up the hill and this way I’ll have my own car.”
“Look, the man’s dangling fifty million in front of us. So bite the bullet,” Alice countered. “I promise to get you out of there early.”
“I hope he’s not serving falafel and hummus and that kind of stuff,” Lew said, his nostrils curling. “It doesn’t agree with me. I’m strictly a meat and potatoes guy.”
“Neither of which are healthy for you,” Alice mentioned as they got into the elevator. “It would be great if you could lose ten pounds before we start shooting.”
“If you said that to an actress, she’d have you up on charges,” Lew yelled to Alice as he stopped in the lobby to sign an autograph and pose with a fan for a selfie.
“That’s rarely a problem,” Alice replied when he caught up to her. “I usually have to force-feed them so they’re not carried off by the first gust of wind. I make sure to take out insurance against bulimia and anorexia.”
As they reached the limo, a tall swarthy man bowed graciously and opened the rear door. Lew peered in. “Where’s Ali?” he inquired.
“Did you really think he was going to personally come down and pick us up?” Alice sniped, pushing Lew into the back seat.
“Salaam Alaikum,” Lew said, beaming at the driver. “Did I pronounce that right?”
The driver barely acknowledged the remark. Lew poured himself a Scotch from a crystal decanter in the car bar, turned on the TV set and began flicking through the channels.
Alice sighed and stared out the tinted side window and mumbled the words of her presentation.
The limo was coursing through Beverly Hills when it made a sharp left and descended into an underground garage.
“What’s this?” Alice asked.
“We must change cars,” the man in the passenger seat replied.
“Now?” Lew said, annoyed, since he was at a climactic moment on a CSI rerun and the killer’s identity was about to be revealed.
“At Mr. Monsour’s request,” the passenger seat man said, with emphasis.
The limo stopped behind a Toyota SUV and the man politely asked everyone to disembark. The Toyota pulled forward just as the limo turned the corner and disappeared up the ramp.
“No way,” Lew said, glancing into the Toyota. “There’s no bar in here. No TV.”
“Lew, let it go,” Alice said.
The driver of the Toyota got out and opened the back door for Lew. The swarthy man extended his hand to Alice on the opposite side.
As they were about to climb in, the two men suddenly grabbed the actor and director, forced their hands behind their backs and slipped hard plastic cuffs onto their wrists. In mid cry, Lew was dealt a blow to the side of his head. His lifeless body was thrown into the back seat beside Alice, who was also unconscious. Blindfolds were placed across their eyes.
When the blindfold was removed, Lew was on his knees in the dirt twenty feet downhill from the Hollywood sign. Alice was positioned several yards away.
“Magic hour,” proclaimed a man holding a digital camera several feet in front of them.
Disoriented, Lew asked, “Who are you?”
“I am your DP,” he replied with an amused grin. “Your director of photography.
“What’s happening?” Lew cried, struggling against the plastic cuffs that were chafing his wrists. He turned his head at the sound of feet tramping through the underbrush. Looking up, he saw a tall masked man holding a scimitar and felt a sudden jolt of fear. He turned to Alice and they locked eyes. Suddenly, they understood.
“I don’t get it,” Alice shouted to the cameraman. “Why us?”
“Very simple. He is one of the biggest stars in the world. And you are a woman who thinks she is a man.”
“Hollywood is the Great Satan,” the masked man proclaimed. “But to be fair, you have taught us a great deal about event marketing. And this will be our biggest coup. Perhaps instead of releasing it for free, we should go out pay-per-view."
“I can’t believe that Ali Monsour would…” Lew said, in an unusually calm tone.
“Oh no,” the cameraman said. “Monsour is… no longer with us.”
The cameraman approached and pressed the rewind button on his camera. He thrust the small LCD screen in Lew’s face. A naked Ali Monsour stands on the roof edge of his hilltop home, his body covered in bruises and welts. The masked man appears and forcefully pushes Ali off the roof. The camera follows the trajectory of his body down the steep embankment.
“Oh my god,” Lew gasped.
“Death to the infidel, as they say,” the cameraman chortled as he replayed it for Alice. “What do you think of the lighting and the camera angle? Not bad? I am self-taught. From watching the films of Vittorio Storaro, Emmanuel Lubezki and of course, Roger Deakins who has never won the Academy Award. It is criminal, don’t you think?”
“They’re going to cut off my head?” Lew cried in disbelief and began wailing for help.
“It will do no good to scream for help,” the cameraman said. “We have cars blocking the road. And even if someone hears you, by the time the police are called…”
“I fucking hate you,” Lew spit at Alice. “I could have been home tonight in my screening room and maybe I would have finally gotten into Greta’s pants.”
“You’ve been dating her for two months and you haven’t slept together?” Alice asked.
“She said she wanted to wait and make sure we were serious,” he groused.
“I didn’t think women like that existed anymore,” Alice said. “And you’re okay with that?”
“Kind of relieved, actually,” Lew admitted. “I’ve slept with so many women. They’re always expecting, you know, Marvel superhero. It’s a lot of pressure. But what does it matter. Because of you, I’m going to die. I’m only twenty-eight. It’s so unfair.”
“I’ll tell you what’s unfair,” Alice fumed. “The video this guy’s going to shoot of you will probably get millions of hits. And maybe ten people will bother to watch mine. This will make you a legend, another major star cut down in his prime. Like James Dean and Marilyn.”
“Hmm. You really think so?” Lew said, pondering the idea.
"Books will be written about you and biopics made,” Alice continued. “And all of it based on a few mind-numbing action movies, a pleasant romantic comedy or two, and one half-decent dramatic performance in my film.’”
“Half-decent?” Lew said, outraged. “I worked my ass off for you.”
“Precisely my point,” said Alice. “Trust me, you’re going to look back on today as a great career move.”
“If I’m so terrible, why did you beg me to do In The Land Of Nod?”
“Because Ali said he wouldn’t finance it without you. I figured if I surrounded you with good actors — the Robert Duvalls, the Tom Hardys, the Michael Shannons of this world — some of it might rub off on you.”
“What, and you think you’re the world’s greatest director? Let me tell you….”
“Maybe not the greatest. And certainly not when I started out. But over the past twenty years, I have elevated some pretty crappy material. I have the reviews and the grosses to prove it. But did anybody give a shit? No. They were more interested in some film school brat who shot a precious low-budget indie that got half-decent reviews at Sundance and did no business. One after another, these brats leaped ahead of me based on nothing more than the fact that they had a dick.”
“Oh, boo fucking hoo,” Lew railed. “You think I didn’t pay my dues?”
“You starred in your first hundred-million-dollar grossing film when you were twenty-two. When exactly did you pay these alleged dues?”
“When I was just starting out. And some of it was pretty sick, too.”
“Well, one time, I had to get on all fours and bark like a dog until I was hoarse. And I didn’t even get the part. Apparently, some other guy had a better bark.”
Alice was unable to stifle a guffaw. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“You should be. I was really looking forward to working with you again. Now I’m not so sure.”
“It’s no longer an issue. Get ready, kid. You’re about to become a legend,” she whined. "And I’m going to be hitched to you for all eternity. I’ll be your Moscone.”
“Who the hell is that?”
“Remember Harvey Milk?”
“Of course. Sean Penn,” Lew shot back.
“Close enough. Well, I’m from San Francisco, and did you know that the same day Harvey Milk was killed, so was the city’s mayor, George Moscone? Good family man with a great future ahead of him. Could have become a U.S. Senator, maybe even President. Now he’s a footnote.”
The tall man with the scimitar tore off his mask. “Shut up. Both of you. Ungrateful idiots. When is enough enough for you?”
Alice arched her head back and stared up at the man. “I knew your voice sounded familiar. We’ve met before. I’m sure of it.”
The man shook his head and fumbled with his mask, trying to put it back on.
“Yes, you’re… from the auditions for Commando Squadron. Right?”
“You remember?” the man said, flattered in spite of himself. “It was five years ago.”
“You read for the part of the mullah. You were terrific. You had real fire.”
“Then why did you not hire me? And worse, why did you cast a Greek man instead of a real Arab? It was insulting.”
“I told you the reason. Your character had a ton of dialogue and your English wasn’t good enough. Otherwise, you were my first choice. You really had something,” said Alice.
“Well, I did as you said. Studied English for three years. Did me no good. I read for terrorist roles and didn’t even get those. I had to go on the welfare and my wife left me. I was so depressed that I started with the internet and became what you Americans call ‘born again.’”
“I’m so sorry,” Alice said. “I wish…”
“Save your wishes,” he growled. “It is too late.”
“So do you really believe in what you’re doing, or is the whole religious fanatic thing just bitterness?” Lew said with a sneer.
“Yes. I believe. My cause is just, and I will be proud to die a martyr.”
“Oh, the whole seventy-two-virgins thing?” Lew snorted. “I’ll buy you seventy-two virgins. I can afford it.”
“What good are seventy-two virgins?” the man sneered. “I want maybe five women who know what they are doing in bed.”
“Well, in that case, I can deliver them to you within the hour,” Lew said.
“You are an obscenity,” the man growled.
“Yeah?” Lew snapped. “Well, takes one to know one.”
“We are losing light,” the cameraman complained.
The man nodded and sighed with frustration. “Which one first?” he asked.
“The movie star,” the cameraman replied.
“Of course,” Alice complained.
“No!” Lew shouted as the swordsman replaced his mask and moved forward.
“You’re not going to do this in a two-shot, are you?” Alice asked the cameraman.
“Yes. I want to get the Hollywood sign in the background. Otherwise, it’s just a hill.”
“I get it. But you don’t have a strong enough lens. It’ll come out all grainy. I’d go for a single. You can always drop in the Hollywood sign in post.”
“That is a good idea,” he said, as he changed his angle and positioned himself in front of Lew.
“Have you lost your mind?” Lew said, his eyes bulging. With the camera pressing down on him and the sword looming over him, he began to tremble. “Is this really happening?”
“I’m afraid so,” Alice nodded. “No cavalry in the third act here.”
“I can’t do this,” Lew said, trembling.
“Listen to me, Lew. You can’t show fear. That’s what they want," said Alice. "This is your money shot. It’s how you’ll be remembered by millions. Some sick fuckers will probably even use it as their screen saver. You’ve got to go out strong. Defiant. C’mon. Dazzle me. You can do it. I know you can.”
Lew nodded. Alice was right. He was a star and needed to go out like one. He took a deep breath. “Like this?”
Alice shook her head. “What have I told you about squinting? Eyes wide. And don’t look at the camera. Look through it,” Alice instructed.
Lew sucked in his gut and thrust his chest forward and, with his periwinkle blue eyes, pierced the lens. “Better?”
“Perfect,” Alice cried just as the scimitar whooshed through the air.
“Beautiful,” the cameraman cried as he reviewed the footage. “Oh, thank you so much. You are very good director.”
Alice collapsed into herself. Lowering her head, she began to weep softly.
“Quickly. The sun it setting,” the cameraman said to the masked man as he filmed Lew’s disembodied head.
Standing over Alice, the masked man again raised the scimitar high into the air. “One moment, please,” the cameraman implored as he got into position. Looking through the lens, he said, “is this how you want to be seen? It would be a shame. Your hair is all in your face. And truthfully, it is not your best profile.”
Alice nodded. Tossing her hair back as best she could, Alice moistened her lips with her tongue and tilted her head. She summoned a faint smile and blinked almost flirtatiously at the camera.
“Very nice,” the cameraman said. “You are a good-looking woman.”
“That’s very kind of you to say,” she replied, her smile broadening.
“I would not say it, if it wasn’t true,” the cameraman replied. “I would love to have asked you on a date.”
“Thanks, but trust me, you don’t want to date a director. Our work schedules are insane.”
At that moment, the scimitar swooped down, its sharp metal tip catching the last glints of the setting sun creating a flare across the camera lens and ruining the shot.
Preview audiences expressed displeasure with the story’s downbeat denouement and the author was asked for revisions, which he fought – as writers often do – complaining that his vision was being compromised. He eventually capitulated.
After dreaming he had just viewed Alice’s decapitation from his own disembodied head, Lew was awoken by a meek looking woman.
“Mr. Baird,” she said in a supplicant tone. “Sorry to disturb you, but we’re ready for your 4:15.”
“Yeah,” he said, startled by a sense of déjà vu. “Just give me five. I’ll catch up with you in makeup down the hall.”
While his face was being pancaked and his hair shaped and gelled, Lew tried to shake off his midday nightmare and decided he would no longer watch the news. The world was much too upsetting. He also made a note to hire a full-time bodyguard and not just for public events.
Lew struggled to make sense of the disquieting dream and had an epiphany. Life can be fleeting and perhaps it was a signal for him. To settle down. Start a family. He considered asking Greta to marry him. She had a good head on her shoulders, he reasoned, and didn’t seem to be overly ambitious or competitive. She might even be willing to give up her career to raise the kids, who would certainly be swimming in an attractive gene pool.
And he could probably get a pretty penny for the wedding pictures.
After they finished the Katie Couric interview, Alice and Lew were ready for the meeting with Ali Monsour. On the way down to the limo, Lew asked Alice, “Did you cast me in Land Of Nod only because Ali insisted?”
“Do you want the truth or the Hollywood version?”
“The truth, I guess,” he said with a wince.
“You sell tickets. Lots of them. You’re a big star.”
“But not a good actor?” he argued.
“You mean good as in Daniel Day-Lewis good? No. But your persona, the blue eyes, the perfect nose, the strong chin, the broad shoulders, those amber waves of grain atop your head – and especially the smile – they’re your calling card. Women swoon. Men, too. Even the straight ones.”
“Looks fade. I want to be doing this when I’m eighty. Maybe I should take acting lessons,” Kew opined.
“Be careful. Don’t mess with success,” Alice warned just as they arrived at the limo and a tall swarthy man opened the back door and bowed.
Lew looked inside, “Where’s Ali?’ he inquired.