TV FICTION PACKAGE: An adventure channel crew reconsiders after a scary encounter. 2,347 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
After the monster bit our boat, we got the hell out of the river.
Our star, Dr. Grady Jackson, laughed as we climbed up the bank and made our way in the dark to the van. Nothing seemed to slow him down. Not even an evil villain sent straight from hell. Less than an hour ago, we were standing knee-deep in a Central American river filled with horrific hungry creatures big enough to eat us. At night. So we could shoot dramatic footage in the dark with Grady as he caught a few of the bigger beasts. In small rubber boats, no less. Me, I almost saw the headline flash before my eyes when he went under the water: “REAL LIFE ACTION HERO KILLED MAKING TV ADVENTURE SERIES.” People do die making our shows.
Top that, Hollywood.
“Pura Vida!” Grady said.
“Or Aloha,” I said. “Whatever.”
Helping Grady was exhilarating, but for me it represented a new low point in my career. I was glad to be outdoors, shooting video in an exotic location. It sure beat smoking crack next to our headquarters in the middle of downtown Washington, D.C. on my lunch breaks every day. But this was getting too weird. Even for me. No, I don’t really smoke crack. It’s a metaphor. My job now was chasing killers more ruthless than any of the other wild creatures I have spent thousands of hours watching from the safety of editing rooms.
Once upon a time, the noble institution I work for assigned brilliant, bold and talented photographers, writers, and discoverers to journey to remote locations all over the world and study interesting wildlife, reveal scientific mysteries, or document unusual lifestyles. All to help us understand human cultures or natural curiosities that we might never begin to imagine. Along the way, in their unique magazine, they allowed the members that subscribed to their exclusive club to see some of the true wonders of the universe. Like our first adult female breasts. Along with the tired-looking old mamas, there were occasionally shots of beautiful brown girls going through difficult teenage rituals. We also saw other things that took our breath away thanks to remarkable men like my personal hero: photographer, writer, filmmaker, diver, sailor, scientist, navigator, naturalist, linguist and mountain climber, Anthony Martin. Or Jacques Cousteau, the underwater explorer who practically invented scuba diving. Or Sir Edmond Hillary, the first white person to climb Mount Everest.
The organization’s first shows offered the kind of quality usually seen only in theatrical films and created huge audiences for Public Television. One special was narrated by the great Orson Welles.
Now, for those huge Nielsen ratings, we were merely following around a wacky herpetologist for huge Nielsen ratings using handheld cameras and trying to be ready for anything. But we were just doing another reality show, really. And there was a trick to just about everything we did.
Confession #4: All nature films are fake.
The drama is created in the editing room. The protective female critter and her cowering little babies never saw that big bad wolf outside. We just cut them together. The eagle that flew down from the sky and grabbed the snake from the water was trained by the photographer for a year to get it do that. In the editing room, when I slowed our famous shot of a bat swooping down on the water, I could see the bait stabbed on a stick under the water on a set in Central America. The tried and true methods that ran professional wrestling seemed to be the standard now for nearly every program on television, including ours. And I wasn’t handling the transition very well. We used to aim a lot higher. For years, our motto had been “titillate and educate.”
Confession #5: Some of the danger you see onscreen is real.
The Discovery Channel’s Crocodile Hunter star is dead now. And the last gigantic creature that Grady snagged nearly caught him. My job title was not as glamorous as it sounded. In TV, if you write it, you usually have to produce it and direct it, to see that it’s done right, and that can mean shooting footage, or editing, or even narrating the piece. Granted, it was kind of exciting to be out here near them in the open. But the creatures we were hunting? I detested them almost as much as I feared them. But our scientist was still singing the praises of the fiend we found as he toweled off beside the van and put on a pair of dry khakis.
“She was a giant.” Grady enthused. “That bitch was huge!”
“How do you know it was a girl?”
He shot me a comical look. “Because you said she reminded you of your ex.”
We sat and watched the others work after our death-defying shoot. Jesus and Juan, the two Costa Rican biologists assigned to help us, were under orders from their government to give us anything we wanted. They were helping our cameraman Dave transfer the camera equipment and other gear from the boat ino the van. Dave had to be careful not to bump his head as he methodically put batteries away in the large gray plastic case. Just an hhour earlier, his camera had been rolling when Grady got pulled underwater. What could have been evidence would now just be another clip for the next Christmas party.
With some grunting and lifting, they stacked the rubber boats up onto a large double-decker trailer and towed them to the local office that employed Juan and Jesus. Then we all headed back to our temporary home base in the nation’s capitol city. Before we got on the main highway, Juan made a quick stop for two six-packs of Imperial, the national brew. We immediately popped the cans open. Everyone onboard felt a need to celebrate.
“Here’s to dry pants,” Grady roared.
“And to dry land!” Dave chimed in.
If the shape of Italy can be likened to a boot, then Costa Rica is a shoe that straddles the Pacific and the Atlantic. We were zig-zagging across the middle, going from the instep on the western coast to the capitol on the ankle. To get to either coast, we crossed mountains on steep terrifying highways with tight turns for a couple of hours. Finally, as we rounded a sharp turn on one of the volcanic mountains and had a view of all the lights in San Jose with the entire valley lying beneath us.
Dave whistled. “Beautiful. What a great shot this would make.”
Juan said. “Next, I will show you heaven. At the Hotel X.”
“Hotel X?” I asked.
“Heaven?” Dave asked.
“Jesus must go home to his wife tonight,” Juan explained. “But the rest of us will go to the bar called the ‘candy store.’ I also made arrangements to move you there for the rest of your stay.”
Grady leaned over the front seat and put his hand on my shoulder. “Frank, the first two girls are on me. After that, you guys are on your own.”
Hotel X was the nickname for the Hotel Excelsior, a tall salmon-colored building with ornate Spanish colonial-styled white trim right in the middle of downtown. The bars inside Hotel X were considered legendary by many international travelers, and I would soon discover why.
At the front door, two tall stocky guards with brick-colored faces and buzz cuts greeted us and blocked our path. Then they raised their arms outward to indicate that we should assume the security surrender position. A sign on the wall behind them said “No Weapons Allowed.” Finally, the guards motioned us inside, and uniformed porters rushed forward to help us with our gear.
The lobby was a large bright tiled room with a high ceiling, wide columns and leafy palms in large planters, as if we were at a grand plantation somewhere in the tropics.
There was ripe female flesh everywhere. The place was packed with attractive young women of all possible sizes, shapes, races, ethnicities and hairstyles. The standard outfit seemed to be long hair, little skirt, bare tummy, low-cut halter and high heels. I noticed quite a few ladies had enormous breast implants.
Sizing us up as potential customers, one of the women openly assessed us from head to toe as we went inside. None of the others seemed to be curious about the stack of bags and cases we had brought with us. They were accustomed to seeing film crews by now since a lot of movies had been shot here. The floor traffic circled the bars and the casino. a sea of beauties walking around us or lined up against the walls near us, and they were all here for one common purpose- to have sex with us for money.
TV’s Gator Guy was captivated. Grady began to politely interview a chestnut beauty in a form-fitting green satin dress. No cameras were rolling, but she smiled as if they were. In Spanish, she told Grady her name was Lili and then she asked his name.
“Buenisima!” he said in Spanish, and bowed from the waist still wearing his wet safari jacket. “Te gusta tomar?” Turning, he translated for me. “Would you like a drink?” She smiled and nodded. “Uno momento, por favor,” Grady told her.
He turned back to me. “That’s all there is to it. Here.” Pretending to shake my hand, he slipped me some money. He did the same thing with Juan and Dave. “That’s three hundred apiece. I certainly owe you more than that for hauling me out of the river.”
He put his hand on my shoulder again. “Frank, most of the girls here only want a ‘Cien,’ one hundred, and they are thrilled to get that. Pimping is illegal, so everyone’s a free agent. But don’t be cheap. Take the time to buy a few drinks. We’ve got rooms reserved so hold out for someone special. Now, GO!”
Grady waived us away, and left with the pretty Dominican, holding her hand.
Confession #6: It wouldn’t be the first time someone paid my way in a whorehouse.
The infamous Green Dolphin bar ran the length of the right hand side of the lobby, and it took up part of the casino as well. “Black Betty Bama Lam!” was pumping out of giant speakers that hung from the ceiling. It felt like I was at some sort of bizarre Sadie Hawkins Day dance, so I opted for an open space at the bar.
Juan and Dave grabbed the stools on either side of me, and I ordered a round of Martinis for us. We sat there for a minute, just taking in the sights. When the drinks arrived, Dave asked, “Besides Grady’s survival, and our film, what else are we celebrating tonight?”
“My third divorce,” I volunteered. Unfortunately, it was true.
“How about you, Juan?”
“I am celebrating my extra dollars,” he said with a broad grin. After working on our TV show, he might even get a promotion.
“I’ve been here before,” Dave revealed. “Grady gets generous every time he comes to this place. You don’t even have to save his life. Maybe it’s his way of squaring it with himself. I guess life is different for TV ‘personalities.’” He made quotes with his fingers. “I’m sure he can easily afford it. Thanks for the martini.”
Dave told us a secret. He was never doing this type of work again. “I’m a freelancer,” he said, over the booming music. “And the father of two little girls. Next time they call me about one of these dangerous shoots, I’m gonna say I’m booked.”
He turned to Juan and patted him on the arm. “I meam, this is a wonderful country, and you guys are doing great work down here studying and documenting the animals and all, and it looks like Paradise. But I just want to shoot ordinary people for a while. I’ve had it with the piranhas, and the crocodiles and the snakes.”
“Be careful,” I joked. “The real carnivores are in Washington, D.C.”
“True,” Dave admitted. “They’ve slashed the budgets. When we used to shoot film, I had an AC and a lighting grip plus a director and a line producer looking out for us. You have your hands full.”
I tipped my glass his way. “I know what you mean. The other day, I was composing a shot when I realized that what one of the long-toothed sons of bitches was about to bite was me!”
“See?” Dave said. “You are probably still in shock and don’t even know it. I don’t want any more of that kind of danger. No jungle work,” he snorted. “Back a few years ago, I was doing this interview at the White House when Bill Clinton was President. And I heard he had a ’65 Mustang just like I did once. So I went out and got a book with pictures of the cars and gave it to him. After the shoot, he sat down and looked at it with me, and we were just two guys talking about Mustangs. I want more of that.”
I tried to look thoughtful. As if he read my mind, Juan clinked his glass with mine and said, “Well, here’s to your third divorce.”
“I’m a Catholic,” said Dave. “I just can’t imagine it.”
“It’s very easy to get married more than once. Too easy. It’s just really painful to go through the divorces. I really like women. I also don’t like to be alone. I also like the romance. Very much. “You know how it is when you are first together? I expected that to continue.”
Dave and Juan laughed.
“I know. Silly me.” I continued my routine. “What do you call a critical, difficult, high-maintenance woman that goes out of her way to avoid sex with you?”
“Wife?” Dave asked.
“Girlfriend?” Juan guessed.
“History,” I said, and drained most of my martini.
Confession #7: I am not as tough as I sound.
I spotted a lovely young woman smiling at me from the other side of the room and tried to imagine how my idol, Anthony Martin, would handle this type of situation when he was traveling around the world. I slid off the stool and turned to give the lady a closer look. Red hair, fair skin, and a slender torso with dangerous curves. Like the trophy that nearly got Grady killed, she appeared flawless. A record-breaker. Like my last ex. The one that got away.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season