The Cannes Film Festival ends and with it the escapades of a film publicist, journalist and producer. See Part One and Part Two and Part Three. 3,614 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing.
The next morning, American film publicist Erika Marks sat down with Crimea star Hanna Lee Hedson in the luxurious Carlton Hotel on La Croisette and said, choosing her words carefully, “Do you want the film to win the Palme d’Or?”
“Why else would I have shown up in this fucking country?”
“We may have a little obstacle. The French like low-budget art films and this is a budget-busting Hollywood movie. We’d like you to do a news conference today. This will be the last one, I promise. But you’re a fifteen-minute appearance at the Palais away from winning the Cannes Film Festival. With that, you can do any picture you want.”
This thought penetrated deeply into the soft tissue of actress Hanna Lee Hedson’s ego, the place where she lived most of the time. What Erika didn’t tell Hanna was that her film career probably would never recover from all these Crimea press conferences demonstrating her lack of compassion for minority groups. Or that the actress definitely would lose a large chunk of her gross-profit participation revenue when the movie tanked at the box office.
But neither Erika nor her PR boss Larry Moulds cared. They were still focused on ensuring Crimea didn’t win the most prestigious festival award. Or any Cannes award, for that matter. “The Armenians could picket the event. It’d be great pub,” Larry said to Erika an hour later.
“We don’t want overkill. These people get very excited. They could do something really stupid,” Erika reminded him.
“I don’t know. Some crazy could take a shot at her.”
“So? Could you buy that type of ink?”
In spite of all her years in the business, Erika never ceased to be amazed at what people would do to promote a movie. Kill off the star? Why not? The movie was in the can, and they had all the loops they needed. So who needed Hanna?
“Larry, getting her killed would just make a martyr out of her. The French would rally around her. And around her movie. I say we keep her under wraps after the press conference until the Red Carpet on Saturday. The security needs to be airtight.”
Ever since Erika Marks had woken him rudely overnight, bottom-feeding online journalist Jack Kemper knew he needed to let her know that he hadn’t done anything with the story. And wouldn’t. Though it was a big story, it would be an unloved story. The French would hate it. The idea that the coronation ceremony of the crème de la crème of film festivals was corrupt would be indigestible to them. Jack thought something very strange was going on with Erika. Her clandestine meeting with Cannes jury president Matthieu Brioche, her moving into the no-class Hôtel Charlemagne, her diatribe in the hallway… and now this PR Chernobyl involving Hanna. The actress was now at the center of yet another anti-Armenian protest a few days before the voting for the Palme d’Or. Jack’s bullshit meter was registering in the red zone.
He was sitting in the breakfast room of the Hôtel Charlemagne, thinking about Erika — specifically, about his diminishing chances of cashing in any rainchecks from her — when the publicist walked in. She gave him a look pregnant with ambivalence, then took a seat at another table ten feet away, and began to run emails on her iPhone. Putting down his paper, Jack cleared his throat and said, “Bonjour.”
Without looking at him, she responded: “I’m not talking to you.”
“All right, you don’t have to talk to me. But you could at least let me have my day in court. First of all, I wasn’t chasing that story. I’m not working for anyone here who would be interested in it, believe me. My press credential is from a third-rate blog. The truth is, I’m a little at loose ends in my life at the moment. I’m not entirely sure why I even showed up here. Nostalgia, maybe — I don’t know. I used to come every year. But I have this problem,” he went on. “I’m incurably curious. Pathologically curious. I need to know why things happen. Which is why I needed to know why you were having dinner with Matthieu Brioche at an out-of-the-way restaurant behind the cathedral. Okay, it was more than just idle curiosity. I admit my motives were entirely dishonorable. I was interested in finding out who my competition was. Not in knowing why a publicist representing a movie in competition would be spending time tête à tête with the president of the festival jury.”
Even though she was concentrating on the iPhone screen, he knew she was listening.
“You’d think at my age, I’d stop doing this kind of thing," Jack went on. "So here’s what you need to know: I have told nobody about your intimate dinner with Monsieur Pastry. The story, if there is one, dies with me. And I just might die. Soon. Unless, of course, you want to forgive me…”
“Jack, you are so full of shit.”
“Yes, but it’s sincere shit.”
Movie producer in need of money Charlie Berns stashed Nigeriian email scammer Prince Freddie’s bag with the half-million euros inside the dirty underwear in the mustard yellow armoire in the filmmaker’s room at the Hôtel Charlemagne. Then he dialed his nephew Lionel in Studio City who usually wrote all night and slept till noon. On a good day. So the screenwriter was groggy at nine a.m. local time when Charlie called him from Cannes.
“Lionel, there’s a new backstory in Over There. Geoffrey and Austin are still involved in the love triangle with Gwen. Except it’s a different triangle now. Instead of their both being in love with Gwen, they’re both in love with… each other.”
“You mean they’re like boning each other?” Lionel enthused. “Brokeback in the trenches? I’m on it.”
“Anyway, I think there’s a good chance that the original writer will want to take his name off the script when he sees the rewrite. And, Lionel, I’m going to actually pay you for this job.”
Charlie Berns skimmed 500 euros off the top of the bag in his closet to take his film’s Canadian periodontist investors to lunch. He booked a table for six on a tree-shaded private patio. The dentists arrived at one o’clock sharp in Lacoste t-shirts and linen trousers, sunburned and bleary eyed behind their Ray-Bans.
“So, Charlie, do we have our money?”
“The Prince ponied up, ey?”
“Three million. Here’s the thing, guys. We’re going to do a little reshooting on the first and last parts. The Prince wants this film to win an Academy Award, and he’s willing to put up the money for just some story tweaking, nothing major. We’re making it a little more contemporary.”
He didn’t tell them about the new gay scenes. Instead, Charlie asked for the check.
Jack Kemper turned into the rue Robespierre from the rue de Mimont, reflecting that he had just forty-eight hours left in Cannes and he hadn’t managed to get either a story or laid. He hadn’t even seen a movie. It wasn’t easy spending ten days at a film festival without seeing a foot of film. He could pitch that story – “Cannes Without Movies: One Man’s Exclusive Story.” Accompanied by full-color photos of the Hôtel Charlemagne.
He had done a number of less-than-noble things in his life, but this time he was innocent. He hadn’t run with the Brioche story. That morning in the breakfast room, he had poured his soul out to Erika. And she’d walked out on him without so much as an au revoir. Jack returned to the hotel, entered the lobby, and saw Erika. She walked ahead of him in the narrow hallway towards her room, her backside looking better than he remembered, Jack’s blood began flowing away from his brain. He couldn’t help it. It was in his hard-wiring.
On the third floor, in front of her door, she stopped and said, “I’m still not sleeping with you.”
“I didn’t ask you to.”
“Yes, you did.”
Erika didn’t have time for Jack right now. She was exhausted, running on cappuccinos and sublingual vitamin B12 tabs. All she had to do was get through the Red Carpet screening for Crimea tonight and the closing ceremony tomorrow. There were Armenians in the streets of Cannes after Hanna’s latest press conference. There was no way the film festival jury would vote for something anti-Armenian, would they?-
Erika had to walk from the Charlemagne to the Carlton in her $1,800 Donna Karan dress, carrying the Jimmy Choos and her makeup in a shopping bag. She found Larry Moulds in her former room dressed in tuxedo pants and an unbuttoned shirt. They had less than an hour to assemble at the Palais. Cannes Film Festival director Gilles Goître was not happy with Crimea. The film had, after all, been given the coveted Saturday-night screening slot, the final one before the jury convened to vote. The Red Carpet walk was as ritualized as a wedding procession, and anyone with a major film in competition was expected to participate.
Erika made sure everybody was properly attired and on time. The fact that Larry Moulds was an Ativan or two south of catatonia didn’t make it any easier even if she succeeded in accomplishing her core mission of making sure Crimea didn’t win a Palme d’Or. Larry had agreed to walk the carpet with her, and she managed to get him downstairs and into the car for the limo crawl to the festival offices, where they had set up an improvised green room for last-minute hair and makeup.
The blue jackets, as the attractive young festival workers in aqua Cardin sport jackets with CANNES stitched above the breast pocket were called, ushered everyone to the limos. There were three stretches for the six of them to travel two hundred yards around the corner to the steps. This was the most sacred rite of the movie world, the hajj, the fifth pillar of The Business. At least once in your life, you had to walk the Red Carpet at Cannes.
Goose bumps freckled Erika’s arms and legs. She felt her Arrid Extra Dry quit on her. The limos pulled around the corner onto the Square Merimée, where the crowd was waiting. On either side of the roped-off approach to the steps, guarded by uniformed police, were hundreds of fans and photographers. A roar went up as the first limo, carrying Hanna Lee Hedson, stopped dead center at the foot of the stairs. As she had been instructed, Hanna waited for the accredited photographers to take their positions, then emerged to a barrage of flashbulbs and camera phones. In the next fifteen seconds, gigabytes of digital space were expended on the actress. She provided an extended photo op, turning right and left, doing a little runway twirl, before walking up the steps.
As the cameras continued to click, chanting became audible from the crowd of flag-bearing Armenians. Erika tried to make out what they were saying.. And then, as it got louder and more insistent, she realized they were shouting, in heavy Armenian accents, “Get over it!”
And just then, an unidentified flying object sailed over the photographers’ heads and landed on the carpet two feet in front of Hanna. The actress did a perfect take to camera right while everyone else fled. All around, people dove for cover, trampling each other to get away. The gendarmes were in the crowd, going after the bomb thrower.
“Incoming,” Larry Moulds screamed, as he hit the floor of the limo and assumed the fetal position.
The gala screening of Crimea was delayed for an hour and a half, the time it took for Le Brigade Explosif to defuse and remove the bomb and for the cops to track down the perpetrators. Who turned out to be not Armenian but French trying to make a point about the extravagance of the film festival. The authorities were not amused.
The show went on — ninety minutes late but, in spite of the security incident, well attended. It was SRO in the Salle Lumière screening room for the opening helicopter shot of the aftermath of the Battle of Sebastopol.
Larry Moulds was not in the theater. After the bomb was thrown and he cowered in the limo, he then demanded to be taken back to the Carlton and insisted that security search his room for terrorists.
At the screening, the movie was not easy to watch. Crimea was slow, talky, and painstakingly accurate in its historical detail. There also was blood and gore everywhere. Erika could hear the squirming in the seats, but nobody dared to leave. This was cinéma. This was art. The Crimea after-party at the Moulin de Mougins was the last big gala of the festival. Hanna Lee Hedson was holding court. Erika stood by, knowing there was no one from the jury at the party so it didn’t make a difference what the actress said anymore.
Erika felt a growing sadness. She was all dressed up with nowhere to go. She was suddenly overcome with the realization of just how alone she was — not only at Cannes, but in her life as well. She was past her sell-by date. In ten years, she’d start getting hot flashes. Twenty years, and she was looking at social security and senior discounts at the multiplex. After that, it was dental implants and osteoporosis. As these dark thoughts overcame her, Erika started doing the one thing she knew she shouldn’t: guzzling champagne. She had less than forty-eight hours left of babysitting Hanna and the movie, so she needed to keep her wits about her.
Out of every hundred people in Cannes, ninety-nine of them were chasing a guy with the checkbook. This year Erika had met only one person at Cannes who seemed to be there without a clear agenda. He had offered her a good time, no strings attached, and she had turned him down. Her feet hurt; her dress was too tight. The drunker she got, the better he looked. She knew what she wanted now.
Standing in his room at the Hôtel Charlemagne, Jack Kemper was recycling his underwear and counting the hours until he got out of town. He had seen Erika Marks during the bomb scare and knew she had excaped unscathed. After eleven days in Cannes, he was still obsessing over the publicist. Too bad he had fucked things up with her. They could have had a hell of a time, ordering oysters out of season and drinking non-vintage rosé. With no tomorrow.
The hotel was unusually quiet for a Saturday night. The sun wouldn’t be up until seven-thirty. Jack closed the blackout curtains. Ten minutes later, on the brink of falling asleep, he heard a loud knock on his door.
“Jack,” a female voice came through the door. “It’s me.”
He knew who it was. He managed to get vertical. Erika Marks was in his doorway, in a Donna Karan that even backlit by the dismal hallway lighting more than did her justice. She pushed him inside and closed the door behind them. Seconds later she was on top on him, her panties on the floor.
Erika Marks had taken only one precaution: she’d shut off her cell. She was off duty one way or the other. And now she woke the next morning to find herself wrapped around Jack Kemper. Her nose against his shoulder blade, she inhaled the mélange of sex and sweat. It had been a long time. She had forgotten the morning-after aroma. If only you could bottle it. She wanted to preserve the moment, forestall the inevitable sharp focus of full consciousness that would reveal that they were two virtual strangers indulging in casual intimacy. Eventually the bubble would break. But not now. It was as if all the anxiety of the past eleven days had been drained away and replaced by an overwhelming peacefulness — as if she had been soothed from the inside out. She was finally over her jet lag.
At the closing ceremonies, in the area reserved for journalists and publicists, sat Erika Marks and Jack Kemper. At this point, Erika was just waiting for it all to be over so she could move forward into whatever adventure she might, or might not, have with the man beside her. The ceremony started more or less on time to accommodate the unobtrusive TV cameras. Back in Los Angeles, if you wanted to see it live, you had to watch at noon on a French-speaking satellite channel. Apart from the hardcore channel surfers and the French cinephiles, the only other people watching the broadcast live in L.A. were gathered behind the closed doors of Vivian Rakmunis’s studio office. She and her marketing staff were holding off on locking the press kit until they found out definitively that they’d lost. There was a lot of flop sweat in the room.
It was pretty much a two-horse race for the Palme d’Or, between the big budget Crimea and a tiny film called The Diet Of Worms, and there was a lot of sentiment for both features. Vivian sat at her desk, ten milligrams of Xanax to the wind, and went over her out package. She’d demand at least two years’ severance and a boutique production deal.
“Le gagnant du Palme d’Or du soixante-deuxième festival de Cannes est… Crimea.”
There was a half second of disbelief, then a mixture of polite applause and not-so-polite hissing. “Oh, shit,” Erika muttered.
The next day, Erika’s last official duty as publicist and babysitter would be to get Hanna Lee Hedson and Larry Moulds on the flight to Paris. After that, they were on their own. Erika had no plans, beyond the spontaneous one that she and Jack Kemper had made at three a.m. the previous night: to get off the plane in Paris and check into a hotel room in an unfashionable arrondissement. She felt remarkably good. As if all the stress of the past two weeks was gone. In her luggage was a Palme d’Or. Since nobody else seemed to want it, she’d keep it. Use it as a doorstop.
Crimea opened Memorial Day weekend on 3,264 screens. The reviews ranged from snotty to scathing. By midnight that Friday, it was dead in the water. CEO Vivian Rakmunis went down with the ship. She was given a parachute generous enough to be contested by the studio’s shareholders.
“You get the money?” Jack Kemper later asked Charlie Berns as they sat having one last beer together in Cannes.
“What’d you have to give him? West African distribution rights?”
Charlie smiled, shook his head. “Couple of script tweaks.”
“So the trip was a success?”
Charlie Berns nodded vaguely. The two men sat watching the desultory late-afternoon activity on the rue Robespierre. Erika Marks turned the corner from the rue Mimont. Jack Kemper smiled. It wasn’t something he did very often, and Charlie read the tell. Kemper got up and walked to meet the publicist.
Charlie ordered another beer and sat for a long time, thinking about the future. He would have a lot to do when he got back. Talking the director and actors into the love scenes that Freddie wanted, getting another shopping bag full of euros to finance shooting the war footage back in France, cutting and finishing the picture. Then finding distribution for the film, advertising, and publicity. It wasn’t the movie he’d set out to make, but then it never was.
At the moment it all seemed daunting, if not overwhelming. He was tired. He didn’t know how much longer he could keep all those balls in the air. Next month he would be sixty, an age at which he should either be clipping coupons or living off his kids. All he had was a shopping bag full of euros.
At eight-thirty a.m. on Monday morning, 500-euro bills stashed everywhere in his luggage, wallet, and underwear, Charlie Berns checked out of the Hôtel Charlemagne. He walked out to his waiting taxi and said to the driver, “Airport, and step on it.”
The airport was a madhouse. There were major flight delays, and the airlines were scrambling. Lines snaked around one another. Pissed-off passengers barked at harried airline clerks. Charlie Berns inched his way toward the check-in counter, pushing his bag full of euros and his film cans in front of him. In spite of everything he’d gone through, he felt a grudging fondness for this country he was about to leave.
Over There was partially reshot, recut, and retitled Geoffrey And Austin. It opened in Los Angeles and New York in December in order to qualify for Academy Award consideration. Charlie now was focused on some hedge fund managers in Seattle with tax-sheltering needs. He’d put his screenwriter nephew Lionel on the new film’s script.
Jack Kemper got to the airport late. He was taking with him a new story about the unsuccessful campaign of a Hollywood studio to sabotage its own picture’s chances for a Palme d’Or. It could be a Pulitzer. But he wouldn’t write it unless Erika Marks signed off. Seeing her tottering in her Jimmies made his heart do a salsa step. He was too old to mistake great sex for something more than it was. But he wasn’t too old to get off an airplane in Paris with very little money, no future prospects, and a woman he had known for only a couple of days. He walked across the terminal and said to her, with a cock-eyed grin, “Better late than never.” That week, Erika Marks emailed her resignation to Larry Moulds from Paris. She and Jack Kemper spent a month drinking rosé in bed and taking long walks. Their only rule was not to talk about the future.