Not all filmmakers want their best work to be seen publicly. For good reason. 3,364 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
After 10 years, he ruled as the most sought-after director in Hollywood, but he remained a complete unknown. No critic could tell you his name, no double-dating teenager had ever glimpsed one frame of his work. But a small powerful sliver of the Hollywood elite worshipped him, and the private screenings of his movies were always packed with moguls. Sometimes the Auteur wondered how that perverse A-list cabal initiated new members of the A.V. Club – that was what they called themselves. His movies might be the only jolt of reality these strutting Bel Air toy tycoons ever saw.
The Auteur smiled, thinking of it, as he adjusted the lights and added a blue filter. He checked his supply of film stock – Kodak double X, rated for tungsten light. He hadn’t shot a scene in daylight since his last Reebok ad. He checked his watch: the young woman would be arriving in less than an hour.
The Auteur’s own mainstream film career had never amounted to much – some commercial work, and the occasional NCIS or Law & Order episode. After a few years of teaching film at UCLA, the industry had dismissed him as a festival circuit one-hit wonder who’d retreated into academia. It was an acceptable way to give up, and it had turned him into the ultimate invisible man: the Hollywood filmmaker without ambition. He wanted nothing and he had nothing to offer anyone but a passing grade in Post-Production Sound or Experimental Media.
He had never used one of his students in any of his own films — though he had been tempted often. It was too risky: the first time would have to be the last. So he played it safe, choosing 21-year-olds he met at bars, or roller skating at Venice beach or waiting on line for Jonas Brothers tickets.
He had found Carla McGinnis at the Formosa Café two weeks ago. She was getting drunk waiting for her boyfriend Richie. The Auteur bought her a round, and then another, telling her he was a movie producer-director. Like everyone else in Hollywood, she turned any stray conversation into an audition. She told him her credits; small parts in some basic cable series, a local commercial, some equity waiver work. She knew there were dangerous people out there, but she felt safe because she had a big agency behind her and a powerful agent guiding her career. Nothing had happened yet, but … she faltered a little.
“What?” he said.
“Oh, nothing. It’s just …I don’t want to talk about it,”
“You know … if he doesn’t get you work in 90 days, that voids your contract. You can just walk away. Legally.”
“Contract? I’m supposed to have a contract?”
Then he understood. She was a hip pocket client, never officially signed to the agency, just strung along and used until she was used up. At least the Auteur would actually put her in a movie, a starring role that would be seen and appreciated by the power brokers of the film industry. Her first big part and her last one, but dying young had always been a great career move in the entertainment business.
The auteur was long gone before Richie appeared, but the guy must have suspected something because he showed up with her this morning. They were both standing in front of the metal door of the warehouse, caught on the surveillance camera, looking for the bell.
The Auteur stared up at the video monitor. The sight of that big dumb boyfriend set off a chemical fire in his cortex, sent it racing along his nerves and synapses. This had never happened before. This changed everything: he would have to abort.
The buzzer sounded – two long electronic groans and then a short one.
He didn’t want this day taken away from him by some over-protective, ignorant oaf… He had to think. The buzzer sounded again. He was out of time. But he had an idea, an inspiration. Panic opened into calm like the mouth of a Venus fly trap. He needed to make some quick preparations.
“Just a second,” he said, pushing the intercom button. He rummaged for his cell-phone jammer, pulled out the ladder and removed the filters from the lights, and made sure the hidden cameras were running. Then he pushed the button to release the exterior lock downstairs, and braced himself for the next few minutes.
The soundproofing meant he couldn’t hear the buzzer below, or their feet on the stairs or even the big steel door slamming. But he could imagine them examining the industrial green paint and the caged lighting fixtures against their image of a movie studio. Just the thought of that testosterone case tramping onto his sound stage made the Auteur physically ill, as if he had just eaten a bad hamburger. But how to get rid of him? Every minute this creature spent snooping around multiplied the danger exponentially.
The Auteur heard a fist pounding on the door. “It’s open,” he called out. They eased inside, checking out the high ceilings, the scaling paint on the cement floor, the living room set with its walls that stopped eight feet up, giving out to the banks of halogen lights and metal brackets above like a neat garden wall holding back a jungle.
Richie was tall and thin, with big sensual features – wide eyes, strong nose, thick-lipped mouth. He needed a haircut and a shave. He approached the Auteur, coming much too close with his suffocating body heat, the stink of sweat and sweet cologne glazed with the reek of cigarettes. He stuck out his oversized paw. “Richard Hardesty. Glad to meet you.”
Carla was watching them. He shook the oaf’s hand. “Adam Bissinger.”
“You shoot all your movies here?”
“Just the interiors.”
“Right. So – ah … where’s the crew?”
“I don’t use a crew, Richard. All my cameras are set in place and controlled by remote. I get all the coverage I need and edit it myself. The magic happens in the editing room.”
“You’re the editor, too?”
“I like to preserve my vision.”
“What do the unions say about that?”
“I’ve never asked them.”
Richie wandered deeper into the soundstage, toward the bedroom set, studying everything, picking up a prop lamp. The Auteur followed, with Carla lagging behind. Richie studied the underside of light, then set it down. ‘’You have everything wired for sound, don’t you?”
The Auteur smiled. “That’s right. In fact, you’re being recorded right now, Richard.”
“So no boom operator, no techs, no mixers.”
‘I try to keep it simple.’
“Well, the unions don’t like that either, chief. They could close you down in a heartbeat, they found out.”
“They could try.”
Richie walked to the bedroom set, noticed the handcuffs dangling from the wrought iron headboard. “This is kinky. You make kinky movies in here?”
“Richie — ” Carla began.
“No, no, you oughtta know this stuff going in. That’s why you brought me here today.” He turned back to the Auteur. “What do you pay your actors, anyway? And where are they? Where’s the rest of the cast?”
The Auteur smoothed his hair back from his forehead. He knew it was a nervous gesture – a tell. But he could feel the situation slipping out of control. Richie was putting things together. Did anyone know he was here? There was no way to be sure. Coming back to this place was out of the question now: the Auteur would have to break it all down and walk away. Rage pulled at his nerves, yanking everything tight inside him. It wasn’t fair. He took a breath. Both of them were watching him. Control, control: he had to fix this situation first, somehow.
He released the air from his lungs and said “Let’s take those one at a time, Richard.” His voice sounded squeaky in his own ears. He pitched it down a little as he went on. “I pay my actors SAG scale, plus one percent of the profits. And there are no other actors here right now because today’s scenes involve only Carla and myself.”
“Just the two of you. So you’re an actor now?”
“Actor, writer, director. I also compose the music.”
Richie wasn’t listening. “You using the handcuffs in this scene today?”
“As a matter of fact I am.”
“You’re putting Carla in handcuffs. On a bed.”
“She gonna be dressed?”
“She’s going to be naked.”
The two men stared at each other.
“Wait a second…”
“It’s all in the name of art, Richard. You seem intelligent enough to appreciate that.”
"Richie," Carla said. “We’ve talked about this — ”
“We talked about you shooting a movie with some weirdo you met in a bar. We didn’t talk about this. Handcuffs on the bed and nude scenes and … plastic on the floor. What the fuck is that about?”
“It’s getting late,” said the Auteur. “I think you should go.”
Richie turned on him, took a step forward, skidded on the plastic, grabbed a bedpost to steady himself. “What the fuck are you doing in here, man? You planning to kill someone? That what this is about?”
The Auteur forced out a sniffling little laugh.
“Well, if you must know … I’ll tell you a little about the movie. But no internet spoilers, Richard! Yes, in this scene Carla is captured by a serial killer. But he underestimates her. She’s as devious and deadly as he is. You could say, the killer has met his match – when Greek meets Greek, as it were. She outwits him and escapes. Then the real battle begins. It’s quite politically correct, Richard. The woman is every bit as smart – and as dangerous – as the man. I haven’t even decided who wins yet. I don’t like knowing the ending in advance.”
“So … it’s just a movie.”
“Well, obviously. Remember that old trailer – ‘Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie.’ Kind of like that.”
“I don’t know. I don’t like it. Carla doesn’t need this. She tried out for Laura in The Glass Menagerie last week.’
“At some equity waiver theater in Studio City,” Carla said. “Anyway, I didn’t get it.”
“That director was an asshole. Fuck him. You’ve got an agent. He’s big time. You should let him get you work.”
“Well, he hasn’t so far,” she said.
“That’s what I keep trying to tell you, honey! This town is so –”
He stopped, sniffing the air.
“What’s that smell?”
The Auteur knew the smell. It wasn’t one most people could recognize.
“We had a gas leak a few days ago.”
“That’s not gas.”
Richie reached behind himself, dug into his waistband, under the tail of his Hawaiian print shirt. Carla had time to shout “Richie!” and then there was a gun in his hand, a mean-looking North American Arms Black Widow. The Auteur recognized the gun; he owned several of them himself – a single action five shot mini-revolver with an impressive one-shot stop rate. The oaf obviously knew firearms. And he knew how to shoot. He had already shifted into the Weaver stance. The gun was aimed at the Auteur’s center of mass. The gun’s combat sight made it unusually accurate, not that he’d even need it at this range, and the small-caliber round would be bound to take out one organ or another. It was a nasty way to die.
“Whoa – hold on there, friend. Do you have a license for that gun?”
“Actually, you don’t. In fact, no civilian – even retired military personnel — can get a concealed carry license in this town. You’re a criminal, my friend.”
But the oaf didn’t take the bait: smart move. “Put your hands in your pockets. Now,” he ordered. “Turn them out first. I want them empty.”
The Auteur obeyed, mind racing. He had a syringe of succinylcholine, the fast acting poison he used for emergencies.
“What the hell is that?” Richie said.
Think fast. “Insulin. I’m a diabetic.”
“Give it.” The Auteur handed him the needle. He removed the rubber tip, sniffed it, threw it aside. “On your knees, against the wall.” He advanced on the Auteur, staying far enough away to make an attack impossible. “I was in the military,” Richie said. “453rd Engineer Construction Battalion, 8th US Army, Seoul, South Korea, 2000. I worked in the mortuary so I know the smell, chief. I know the smell better than the smell of my own sweat."
Then Richie addressed Carla, “We gotta get out of here.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” the Auteur said. He was still two steps ahead of the oaf – if he could be led in the right direction.
“There’s only one use for that shit – preserving dead bodies. You got no corpses, you don’t need it. Who the fuck has a corpse on a movie shoot? He’s making snuff movies, Carla. This guy was gonna kill you. Isn’t that right?”
“Calm down,” the Auteur said. ‘Do you know how crazy you sound right now? I had my scout troop in here last week, dissecting birds. There’s a merit badge for that.”
Richie ignored him “Carla – call 911. We gotta get the cops in here.”
“I’m a scout master,’ the Auteur pushed on. ‘I can prove it. My own uniform is in the closet. I even pinned some of my merit badges onto it. Look for yourself.” Richie backed slowly toward the bedroom closet, gun still trained on the Auteur’s chest. He yanked open the door and pushed through the hangers with his left hand, glancing at the clothes sideways.
“Do you see it?” Carla called out.
“No, not – yeah, there it is.” Richie pulled the jacket out of the closet, studied the lapels for a few seconds. “Merit badges in bird study, first aid, crime prevention and – leatherwork?”
“I make a mean pair of moccasins.”
“He makes moccasins, Richie. Come on.”
“I don’t buy it. That’s a costume. Wait a second.” Richie edged closer to the closet and the Auteur realized his mistake. He had allowed himself to show off with his improvisations. Now Richie’s full attention was on the worst possible target. There was nothing to do and nothing to say.
"Hey," Richie said, "there’s some kind of metal drawers in here."
This was the Auteur’s moment. He started to pull his hands free; but Richie sprang out again, like a jack-in-the box. “Don’t even think about it, Bissinger.” The Auteur felt like a runner held on first base by a vigilant pitcher. The sound of the drawers opening, rolling on their oiled bearings – then: “Holy shit! He’s got scalpels in here, and knives and some kind of battery pack with cables and electrodes and … acid, different kinds of acid. What the–? It’s some kind of miniature acetylene torch. Oh no, he has ball gags! Ball gags, Carla. He puts ball gags on people. You got a merit badge for that, Bissinger? Oh shit, he has whips, too, with knots in the leather, and – that’s it. We’re outta here.”
Richie reeled out of the closet. “Make the call, Carla. 5355 Cartwright Avenue, North Hollywood.”
“Look – Richard. I can explain everything. I’m making a film about a serial killer. Of course I’d have all the — ”
“I can’t get a signal,’ Carla said. She was poking numbers into her cell phone. “I got no bars. It says, no service, Richie. I can’t get through.”
“He’s blocking the signal. He’s got a jammer. Want to explain that one, shit bag?”
‘I like to be uninterrupted when I’m filming. Think about it. It makes perfect sense that — ”
“Nothing makes sense here, pal. Listen to me, Carla. You gotta get out of here. Once you’re outside the phone’ll work again. Call the cops, give them the address. I’ll stay here so he doesn‘t get away. Prop the loft door open so I can hear you down there. Okay? Carla? Now go. Go!”
That last barked syllable seemed to wake her up. She scurried away from them toward the front door.
“You’re making a terrible mistake, Richard,” the Auteur began.
Richie cocked the gun. “Shut up.”
With the loft door propped open, they could hear her feet on the stairs, then banging, and a shout of frustration.
“What is it?” Richie shouted.
She called back, "The door’s locked. I can’t get it open.”
Richie glared at the Auteur. “Open it.”
“There’s a code pad on the wall. Next to the thermostat,” the Auteur began, rising, getting one foot under him.
‘No. you stay there. What’s the code?”
“Jesus Christ. You sick fuck. All right, whatever.”
The Auteur braced himself. This was his one chance, if he’d rigged everything properly. He tucked his head into his chin and jammed his eyes shut as Richie worked the buttons. Nothing happened. "Press enter,” the Auteur said. Richie punched in the last button and the room exploded with light from twenty halogens. Richie screamed. It was like acid in the eyes. The gun fired, but the shot went wild.
The Auteur got his feet under him and launched himself like a torpedo at the sound of Richie’s voice. He hit just under the solar plexus and the oaf went over backward, tripped by the edge of the bed. The Auteur fell himself and took the fall on his right shoulder, ignoring the flare of pain.
Richie was scrambling to his knees.
The Auteur pushed off from the bed post and landed a solid punch on the point of Richie’s Adam’s Apple. The gun skittered across the floor.
The Auteur had the advantage now: he knew every detail of this sound stage. The exact distance to the closet. He could hear Carla downstairs, beating on the door and screaming. He had never tested the sound-proofing against the high-pitched shrieking of a terrified woman. If anyone passing by in the street heard the muddled banging and the cries for help, he was finished. But he couldn’t worry about that now.
He was almost there, feeling for the third drawer down, when Richie grabbed his ankle and started pulling. The Auteur hit the floor on his elbows and kicked backward. He connected with something on the second kick and his ankle was freed. He used the open drawers to pull himself up, slowing down to pick through the top drawer carefully, despite his screaming nerves. The last thing he needed to do now was cut himself.
He touched the handle of a scalpel and snagged it. When Richie grabbed him again, the Auteur pushed off from the bank of drawers, adding his own weight and momentum to Richie’s pull. He twisted around, landed knees on chest, and felt the air blast out of Richie’s lungs.
One stroke of the scalpel and it was over.
He reared back, but too late: a geyser of blood hit him in the face, hot and sticky. He staggered to his feet, slipped, fell backward against the wall and felt for the key pad. He killed the lights and pushed himself up straight.
The Auteur found Carla on the stairwell, sitting hunched by the locked front door, whimpering quietly. She had given up. Lucky for him.
The Auteur would have to pixillate his own face, edit out the mentions of his real name. And of course he’d need to key out the color in post, fool around with the opacity slider – one whole section of the movie would be impossibly over-exposed. It would never look perfect, never match the rest of the film, but that might be a good thing. The fight would have the ghostly pallor of a dream. Everyone would assume he intended it that way, and the sequence would further burnish his reputation.
He had often promised himself to wire the stairwell for sound. Now he cursed his procrastination. He would never be able to duplicate that helpless keening once the filming began. Well, he’d remember that lesson when he moved into his next facility.