It becomes clear that the scheming student filmmaker’s only talent is for blackmail. 2,602 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
As the evening was drawing to a close, Danny Shields began to question his plan. Would he ruin his chances of being accepted at the USC School Of Cinematic Arts in the traditional way in the event the admissions office came to their senses and recognized his genius? If he replaced his cousin Chuckie with real actors, Danny was certain his movies would more than hold their own with the early works of notable auteurs.
It was now 9:30 p.m. and many of the alumni and a few of the prospective students were beginning to leave. At the buffet, Danny reached for the last of the salmon and maguro sushi that had been exposed to the air too long. It was that precise moment when Danny caught J.T. Quinn’s mirrored reflection approaching in a stainless steel tray. As Danny slid a few inches sideways, the Admissions Office executive absentmindedly stepped behind him, hovering only a few inches away, still indecisive on whether he would indulge himself with the picked-over platters.
Danny was on autopilot since he had envisioned a version of this very scenario at least fifty times from twenty different angles when he initially hatched the idea. He took out his refurbished iPhone and held it over his shoulder, as if he was casually photographing the gathering in a master. Danny reversed the lens, pivoted to his left, pressed record, then suddenly stepped backwards into Quinn, as if momentarily losing his balance, squishing his face in victim mode, the same way he had been rehearsing on the bus. J.T. reflexively mumbled, “Excuse me” and wandered off. Danny hit pause as Quinn steered his wife to the door, oblivious to what had just happened that would change his life forever.
Like a filmmaker from the past who needed to have his film developed before evaluating his footage, Danny waited until he locked the door to his apartment before he had the courage to review his three second film. Eureka! It worked better than he expected since, taken out of context, the iPhone video clearly looked like J.T. Quinn was humping a young male student. And the aggrieved look on Danny’s face clearly indicated that the body contact was unwelcome.
Danny copied the video and texted it to his cousin Chuckie in New Jersey with the caption: FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. If anything happens to me, alert police to the pervert J.T. Quinn at USC.
Chuckie was three hours ahead but awake and reading Shakespeare when the text arrived. Not that Chuckie read Shakespeare often, but since he hadn’t, he thought he should, although he quickly abandoned the plays for the Bard’s shorter sonnets. Since Chuckie was accustomed to the way his cousin operated, he figured that Danny’s accompanying video was a teaser for a film he would eventually be asked to star in.
The next morning Danny got back on the bus and headed to USC. He told the guard at the gate that he left his iPhone there and since his name could be called up on the computer, he was granted permission to return to the scene of the crime. No one he asked knew where J.T. Quinn’s office was but then he spotted Debbie Quinn entering a building where he soon spotted her husband’s name on a directory.
Danny climbed four flights of stairs. Two students arguing over the propriety of taking the “A Film by” credit pushed past him. Danny turned right, and walked slowly down the hallway. Posted notices advertised visiting filmmakers scheduled to deliver talks. He scanned the engraved names on the grey nameplates next to each door, hoping J.T. Quinn’s room number would contain a 2, 3 or 5, his lucky numbers. Two doors down from the end of the hall he found #23 on the fifth floor. The door was open but no one there. Danny entered anyway, overwhelmed by the smell of fragrant tea tins which Chinese students had given J.T. as gifts.
What Danny saw surprised him. Beside the requisite diploma, and an unflattering picture of a younger Debbie Quinn looking like she was about to audition for Olive Oyl, hung mounted movie posters for Barbarella, Roman Holiday, Wigstock in a veritable pantheon of celebrated gay cinema. This pleased Danny enormously. All useful backstory, he thought. He took William Goldman’s Adventures In The Screen Trade off the shelf, sat down and waited.
While absorbed in an application, J.T. Quinn walked in and almost tripped over his uninvited guest.
“What are you doing here?”
“I applied to the school. I’m here for my interview.” Danny spoke with unusual confidence, following a script he had written and revised countless times.
“USC doesn’t interview prospective students unless we generate the request.” If Quinn anticipated that his statement would succeed in pushing Danny out of his office, he was sadly mistaken.
Instead, Danny smiled and stepped forward into his close up. “I think you’re going to want to talk to me. You know, I’ve applied five times, which may give me the record for rejections.” And with that Danny kicked the office door closed, took out his iPhone, and pressed play.
After Danny left the office, Quinn couldn’t budge from his chair. He lowered the blinds, looked around and wondered if what had just happened did happen. Then he imagined the unsavory image from Danny’s iPhone prancing around the office. J.T.’s first instinct was to share this heavy-handed attempt at blackmail with his superiors, but he quickly decided against drawing negative attention to himself due to the current climate on the USC campus. He then ripped the posters of Wigstock and Roman Holiday off the walls and stuffed them in his recycled trash.
He left his office but quickly returned and removed the crumpled posters from the garbage. He walked over to the faculty room where he shred them in pieces and deposited the remains in the covered trashcan.
He went to the Title IX office but left when he realized the perpetrator was not an official student. He then hurried across campus to his wife’s biology lab. After he told Debbie the story twice, she dropped her eyes and muttered, “This will reflect poorly on me as well.” With that, J.T. pivoted and bit down on his anger. Debbie, not knowing quite what to do, followed him to the student union.
Settled in a private space in the plaza, she with her Kombucha, he with his cappuccino, Debbie was the first to break the silence. She looked J.T. in the eyes for the first time in a long time. “How’s his portfolio?”
“The kid blackmailing you. Maybe you can evaluate it in such a way that he deserves to get in.”
Her husband laced into her. “So, now I’m not only a pervert, I’m a deceitful one.”
“I need to tell you something that might inform your next decision.”
“I had a girlfriend tell me she had a boyfriend who she suspected was gay, and then I told her that you also were unsure back when you were in boarding school.”
Quinn turned red. “You told her what I told you in confidence?”
“It made her feel like there was hope in her relationship.”
“So now if that video comes out she can volunteer information that corroborates circumstantial evidence to convict me of a crime I didn’t commit?”
“She won’t say anything.”
“You don’t know that!” J.T. yelled. A table of students looked over. He then quietly said, “You owe your allegiance to me, not her.” He waited until the students, not used to seeing professors argue in public, turned away. “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”
Debbie didn’t answer. “Stupid” was the worst insult you could call a career academic. She rose and said, “Be more careful and keep your distance next time.” Debbie walked back to her lab, her long black dress rippling as she stared down at the pointed shoes she regretted buying.
J.T. sat there, wishing his cappuccino were hotter. He and Debbie hadn’t had sex in two years and now probably never would again.
Two weeks passed and Danny Shields still hadn’t heard from USC. He had read that in Hollywood, after you pitch a project or submit a script, there was a waiting period of minimally two weeks. That became his mantra. Two weeks. Two weeks. Two weeks more of pulling pork at Danny Trejo’s Hollywood taco joint.
Danny was revising his latest screenplay – 13 is a lucky number – when he received the email. USC had accepted him for the fall.
A celebration was in store that night, but Danny had no friends, even after eight months in L.A. It’s difficult to meet people if one sits in the dark watching movies every night. Of course, if his cousin Chuckie were here he would have been up for a night on the town, but even that had a caveat since Chuckie always complained about Danny’s films, and not only the one that had left him a cripple. After a dozen or so collaborations, Chuckie knew that Danny had decent ideas but lacked the patience to put them together in a digestible form for an audience. Although there was something to be said for Danny’s camerawork, all of his films had plots that resolved themselves through coincidence or deus ex machina.
So Danny wandered alone down Vermont Avenue, past the vintage Los Feliz theater and stopped at one open-air bar after another, progressing from beer to margaritas to zombies, his favorite drink in high school.
At around 1 a.m. Danny could barely focus on what was in front of him. He got on a bus going down Vermont in the wrong direction, away from his apartment and towards USC. He was unaware of the man who was still wearing the same barely legible “Guns & Roses” t-shirt sitting behind him. Fifteen minutes later Danny puked and a chorus of disgusted passengers screamed at him to get off the bus. The driver pulled over where it was near pitch dark. Danny slid on his own vomit out the side door, followed by the man with the faded “Guns & Roses” t-shirt.
Danny Shields would never be heard from again.
When the press got hold of the story of a missing USC student-to-be who was last seen at a bar only a few miles from campus, they went crazy with the usual concerns about an unsafe campus that bordered South Central L.A. The campus was overrun with cameramen shooting B roll near Tommy Trojan. Five different news stations interviewed J.T. Quinn. He said how the application of this student, a filmmaker with demonstrable genius, had stood out from the pack and how the school would honor him by screening a retrospective of the films Danny Shields had submitted in his portfolio. It was to be the highlight of the new graduate student orientation.
That night Quinn was feeling a lot of pressure, especially after he nearly ran over a deranged pedestrian near campus. It was the man on the bus with the “Guns & Roses” t-shirt now banging his fist against the hood of J.T.’s Prius, doing an impression of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, although it was unlikely the vagrant had ever seen the movie.
Quinn detoured to Santa Monica Boulevard where male prostitutes walked the street. He didn’t make eye contact and, rather than stop, he accelerated jerkily and got pulled over, only to receive a polite warning from the cop. J.T. overheard a police bulletin come over the squawk box: Danny Shields’ body was found underneath a garbage dumpster two miles south of the USC campus, his middle finger gnawed off.
When he arrived at his Pasadena mansion, Quinn was riddled with guilt and remorse but wasn’t sure what he had done wrong. He tried to hug Debbie but she wasn’t having it. Instead, his wife greeted him with the news that she was leaving on a yoga retreat to Big Sur for the weekend.
The next day J.T. drove to USC, sat at his desk and typed out a confession. He told the true story, as he knew it, beat by beat, although he left out the details about his film posters. But when it came to signing his name, he wiped the document from his computer. There would be no confession.
Four months later, on the first day of USC graduate student orientation, it took but two minutes into the first Danny Shields’ film screening for students to fidget and check their cell phones. After the third movie, they realized the same actor with the same limp was the protagonist of every film and started to giggle. The moviemakers of tomorrow deserted the room in small clusters before a minor technical glitch invited a stampede to the door. But Danny’s cousin Chuckie stayed rooted to his seat, inhaling the fumes of his oversized presence on screen.
Two hours after the retrospective began a title card came up that read: USC admit Danny Shields, R.I.P. (1989-2018).
J.T. Quinn also stayed till the end. This was to be his penance for a sin he did not commit yet needed to expunge. He rose to his feet, scrunched his toes to get his blood circulating, flipped on the lights and walked slowly toward the exit. Two steps from the door he heard a now familiar voice address him.
“So, what’d you think?” Chuckie smiled and waited for a response. The wrong answer could mark the end of J.T.’s career at USC.
“You should apply to our drama school.” Quinn meant it as backhand criticism but Chuckie took it as a compliment.
“You think I could get in?” Chuckie held up his iPhone. The three second video would be the final film in the Danny Shields’ retrospective.
Quinn glanced around, confirming the room was empty. “I believe I could accommodate you.”
“Start now. I need a place to stay and I saw you live in a mansion.”
Six months later Chuckie would reject J.T.’s sexual advance, unbeknownst to Quinn that it was a full six weeks after Debbie had invited Chuckie into her bed. When J.T. discovered his wife’s dalliance with Danny’s cousin, he set the house on fire, confident it would be blamed on faulty wiring. At his murder trial no mention was made of Danny Shields’ three second video. But It was prominently featured a decade later in the student Academy Award-winning film short made by USC female grad student, Yaxu Cong, who publicized her infamous film with a heavily promoted jailhouse marriage to J.T. Quinn despite his having another three decades to serve on his lifetime sentence. Like any good screenwriter, the new Mrs. Quinn did selective amounts of research and thus took dramatic liberty in recounting the sex life of her husband, the incineration of Debbie Quinn, and especially the depiction of Danny’s films as far more entertaining than they actually were. Her fictional dramatization of the death of Danny Shields at the hands of South Central L.A. gang members was so graphic, it was eventually purchased by a right-wing PAC group.
For the record, it should be noted that J.T. Quinn shook hands with Danny Trejo in San Quentin when the actor visited the prison where he was formerly incarcerated. Shields’ name never came up in their brief conversation.
And Chuckie? A little bit burnt around the edges but no worse for wear, he played himself in a series of low budget horror films. They did well enough at the box office that he was able to franchise the first Danny Trejo taco stand on the East Coast.