‘Slow down, take your time.'
She flushed hot under the lights, the staring, judging eyes. She was too big, she knew; she couldn’t finger the real wound. You had to be immune—that was all you needed to be a good actor: immune to judgement, to hatred, to solicitation, to cold looks, sniggers, humiliating silences after a take while the director turned away to watch the playback and they checked the gate; trying to hold still, hold the bead, the dwindling bead of emotion in place. The second AD handed her a robe. She flung it over her bare skin and turned her back on the room.
The great professionals could just turn it on and off like a light switch, then joke with the crew. She had to avoid moving or speaking, or thinking about what she’d just done; what she was about to do. Try not to think at all. Not to get scared. It was like holding onto an orgasm, not letting it go, delaying the sensation, walking the line, heart and groin in sync.
She had read the script a dozen times at least, but that hadn’t taken her close enough to her character, and they had gone to the desert first, into the middle of the film, so she was not yet where Jane needed her to be in herself, that much she knew. But she was as close as she would be today, and if he didn’t come back and call for another take soon, it would all spill away. She jangled like coins, waiting to leap, to lie and weep. But her performance was bold, not nuanced, she lost her delicate hold on it and just flew in and then couldn’t do it again. She could see it in the way the director pushed his heavy square spectacles, his geeky Buddy Holly spectacles, up the slightly sweaty bridge of his nose with the tip of his middle finger that she hadn’t got there yet, that he wasn’t happy. She would show him she could make him happy.
A driver had picked her up at the airport yesterday. He had introduced himself as Paul, said he’d be taking her out to the desert. She smiled but wasn’t in the mood to talk. In the back, she put on her iPod and looked out the window. She listened to Leonard Cohen to get herself into the right frame. In six hours she’d be standing before the camera, expected to turn her insides out while fifty people watched.
They drove east out of Los Angeles on the highway, just over two hours to the Mojave and Joshua Tree. Once the houses and the suburbs disappeared, the road grew longer and the ground flattened and the edges of everything seemed to become more sharply defined than she had ever seen them: the brown sands of the earth; the granite rocks; the gnarled yucca trees, arms in the air, waving, as if trying to flag you down. The ground baked. The enclosing, domed blue sky was enormous. The driver glanced back at her occasionally. Once they caught eyes in the rear-view mirror.
After that, she had put on her Ray-Bans and kept her head tipped against the window and imagined the journey down this same empty road that she would make with J in a baby-blue Karmann Ghia set on a low-loader. She could detect paths in the sand along the edges of the road, perhaps footprints, perhaps animal tracks, perhaps the patterns made by hot winds, blowing low and sweeping high like a broom, sweeping away every trace. She could see Casey Affleck and Matt Damon shuffling, shuffling, step after painful step through the white saltpans in Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, one of her favourite films. The clear, painful sound of Arvo Pärt’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ and step after step, one long shot, seven minutes without a break, trudging, trudging through the wind-rippled sand. Matt Damon killing Casey Affleck, strangling him softly to a constant, simple child’s piano tune, mourned by a single violin and then walking on.
She had Arvo Pärt on her iPod too and the song she always used, the song they’d played at her father’s funeral. She was too young to remember it, but her mother had given her a tape of it when she was older and she had been carefully preserving it, from cassette to CD to iTunes. She liked to keep it with her. She had never told anybody about it, how she used it, but she would listen to it just before a scene when she needed to cry. It always worked.
The driver pulled up to a property marked by ten white trucks, just outside the village of Joshua Tree, a five-acre desert plot with a single-storey family home, framed by the edge of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had foreclosed on it and sold it to the production company for a $13,000 song.
The director kissed her distractedly and made bad jokes about the fact that there seemed to be sand blowing over everything. Still, it was cheaper to buy this foreclosed property outright than to rent somebody else’s house or pay the $500-a-day permit price for shooting in the national park and have to haul everything in and build the set out there. The set was still only half-built. The producers were using the family home as the production office and the art department was constructing an old 1970s shack out the back to use as Leonard’s best friend Hank’s house. It was a real jackrabbit bootleg homestead, walls of desert stone and mud-brick, a tin roof, and empty wine and tequila bottles for stained-glass windows. Chippies were running all over the place and bits of wood being sawed, and the clang of planks being dropped and piles of rocks and lights being tested by the gaffers and no way to gaffer anything onto the sand.
There were sandbags and a lot of yelling and the brute masculine energy of the construction crew. She always felt in the way at these moments, like she’d landed in the middle of an emergency room and was caught between doctors and nurses pushing gurneys into surgery. The director was in no headspace to direct her elsewhere. He was sweating profusely, distracted by all that remained undone, by the day’s schedule; they were already behind schedule and over budget though they hadn’t begun, although he’d never say that to her. D knew it anyway by the number of amendments they had sent her yesterday, whole scenes deleted. Scenes she’d already invested in, scenes she had wanted to make real, frames she had wanted to fill.
The second AD, a young, nervous man named Alan who was really excited that she was here, guided her to her air-conditioned Winnebago, her home for the next four weeks.
Inside, she sniffed the air. It smelled canned and sandy and slightly over-deodorised. No matter how modern these trailers were inside, they were modern in a cheap, homogenised way, cleaned like a motel between uses, and D always felt like trailer trash living in them. She unpacked, hung her clothes; she lined up her toiletries on the bathroom shelf. She inspected the toilet and put down strips of toilet paper on the seat to sit on and when they fell into the bowl she hovered one inch from the seat and peed. She didn’t ever sit on toilet seats in public and she always avoided it the first time in a new place, because it still felt public.
Through the open blinds she watched two prop-makers carrying a claw-footed bathtub across the sand and her chest fluttered, and she realised the night scene, where she would have to lie in the bath with the sharp light of the deep desert stars reflected across her pale, entirely bare skin, had not been cut.
She checked the fridge, saw that it was full of the things people had told other people that she liked to eat: raw almonds, grapes, bags of celery to crunch, raw broccoli, a juicer and, in the crisper, bags of organic apples, pears, oranges and fingers of ginger. She didn’t have the heart to tell them that, just like most people, what she liked to eat changed from time to time. Six months ago, yes, she ate a lot of grapes. But she was a bit over her grape phase now. It was always strange to her to discover there was a whole network of people saying things about her to other people when she wasn’t there. Don’t give her chocolate; she gets weird on chocolate. Actually all sugar. Make sure she eats, she tries to avoid eating and then she has sugar and crashes and gets these stomach pains and has to lie down for an hour. She’s totally neurotic about her food, there can’t be any garlic in anything or she won’t sleep … I dunno, but she says she ends up awake all night drinking water if there’s garlic … Even a smidge; yes, even cooked. I know, but at least I’m warning you, hey? She’ll bring a lot of her own stuff with her, she carries around a ton of teas and vitamins, lemons. She’s obsessive about lemons, likes a lemon squeezed with warm water first thing in the morning. If you have that delivered to her first thing she’ll love you. This was why people brought their own assistants. To make sure that the people who said things about you to other people were saying the right things and not some rumour that related only to some fad you had once toyed with. To make sure the things you wanted to eat today were the things you would find in the fridge.
She tried to feel excited about being there, on this new job out in the desert with new people, but she only felt unsettled and anxious. She tugged at her hair and yanked a few strands out from the root. She was always anxious on the first day and wished she hadn’t said yes to the role. Even knowing her co-star J would be arriving at some point didn’t stop her desire to flee. She just wanted to go home and hide on the couch with her book.
She would make sure she was really diligent this time, that she made an effort to learn everybody’s name, ask people about themselves and act really interested in their kids’ photos and their dog photos and didn’t go all self-contained and reserved. She could get that way when she was focused, when the role was uncomfortable and kind of ugly as this one was, but then people thought she was stuck up. No, she was just working. She had to remember to get enough sleep because she started to get those funny little bags under her eyes when she was stressed and tired and it was really hard to get rid of them when you were waking up at four every day and the makeup artist had to bring out her Anusol; seriously, they dabbed haemorrhoid cream under your eyes if they were too dark-circled or puffy. And if they were mean, those girls, they made little jabs while they had you there, trapped in their chair, peering at your every flaw from an inch away, seeing right to the damaged core of you. ‘Please try not to cry at night, it makes my job so much more difficult.’
‘Okay, we’re going to go again. Places!’ She was cold, he thought, watching her shed her robe. Not skin-cold under all those 2Ks, but totally unreachable, distant, defiant. He didn’t know how to talk to her, felt shy in her presence. It was a mistake to have cast her because she reminded him of those girls in school who wouldn’t look at him even if he had paid them his weekly allowance. She made him shy, and then he grew resentful; he lost his place in his thoughts when she stared at him, searching for direction. He was thirty-eight years old and this was his second feature, the budget twice as big as the first, and if it didn’t work because he was overcome with shyness in the face of his lead female he was completely done for, might as well be plotting life as a corporate video-maker, one a week, until he threw himself from a bridge.
The makeup artist hurried over, insisted on powdering her face again, stood back and adjusted the long cascade of butter-coloured hair extensions that draped over her shoulders and fell to the middle of her back. Even with the cool breeze, the desert night was so hot under the lights that the thermometer hovered around eighty and sweat dripped steadily, filled the room with armpit fumes, the wet mildew of towels. The boom operator stepped in; the DOP leaned down. The gaffer switched on the blondes again (blondes and redheads … why were lights named after women?). The second AD carried her robe away. She turned and faced the room, totally naked, but for the hair that spilled over her breasts. It was all out of order, the way they had gone to the desert first. She had to seduce him again, her husband’s best friend, before she had even made love to her husband. It was often this way; you had to do everything out of order; you had to be prepared to take a single ember of emotion from a moment between two people and ignite it, despite having not yet experienced the circumstances, the unique set of problems and questions that would bring that moment about.
You had to cry before you lost anything, you had to find it again before you cried. She thought of all the experiences of life she’d never have, both good and bad—shooting a gun, saving somebody’s life, surfing a wave, staring down a snake, wrestling an alligator … having a child perhaps, flying in a hot-air balloon. There was something sad about the small parcel of experiences one did have, repeated again and again, while so many possible others remained distant, untried, at best only simulated in this way. Was to simulate something to experience it? She would have others believe that it was, but inside, she remained unconvinced.
She looked out to the desert that surrounded them, but it was black against all the light flooding her face, against the wall of crew standing around and joking, chewing the splintered ends of their wooden coffee stirrers, sucking Altoids.
She knew them all, the types: the short, muscled grips from months of lifting, taking too much cocaine on their days off, bonking the extras and the production assistants; the wiry female loaders, weighed down with utility belts, three rolls of gaffer tape dangling around their thighs; geek-girls with their hands in the black bag, in the room they insist be dark out of superstition, as they twist and untwist the rushes onto the spools. The loitering execs in boomer casual wear and the forty-something continuity woman hovering near the monitor, a human huddle around the director, hunched over in pain and suffering, back-humped. ‘We need to get 50 per cent of this furniture out of here to get the camera in!’ The sighing, audibly exhaling art director, who’s seen his clear, perfect vision of the scene totally ruined by the laying down of the tracks over the Persian rug. The room he spent all night arranging, pulled to pieces before they’ve shot a frame.
There were the people who only communicated by sighing, or those who did the exaggerated tip-toe across the room strewn with taped-down cables and those who believed the only way to move on a set was by darting and sprinting. Like stand-by props dashing in to move a glass of water an inch to the left, then dashing back again. The makeup artist girls who scurried on just as the director was about to shout ‘Action’, pushing in with their powder, telling her how lovely she looked, insisting on reapplying lipstick even though the film was being shot with a twelve-millimetre lens. The murmuring focus puller who stared at her, whispering to the camera operator from the top of the lens, making her feel paranoid, and then, without smiling, walked straight at her, pulling the measuring tape in a line to the tip of her nose, calling back: ‘275!’ The camera operator with his light meter, hand in the air, waiting for the clouds to pass. ‘It’s coming, clearing, clearing …’ The bossy first AD, who was basically a human clock. ‘Okay, let’s walk this through, people! We shoot in ten minutes!’
‘Ahh, I have to check that with the head of department.’
‘I am the head of all heads of department …’
Out past this mass of unionised humanity was the silence of cold sand, broken only by tussock and yucca and rock, and the occasional herd of big-horned sheep, whispering to itself. A vast plain of nothingness. She could see nothing. She might as well have been in a studio.
Standby props doused the fresh firewood in lighter fluid. The black boom hovered over her head. This is what she did with her days. This was how she made her living. She stood naked in a room of strangers. She simulated a life lived out of order, a life where 2K lights were named after women. Her eyes caught the eyes of the guy playing her lover in this scene. She wanted to know if he knew it too—as he squatted, ready to snap twigs and build a fire they’d just put out between takes—that the ruse was up, that it all meant nothing, but his look was blank. He would feed the flames while she walked up behind him, unclothed, surprising him with her desire. He wasn’t attracted to her in the slightest, she could tell. It was just as well really.
‘Action.’ Though he needed fifty people to hear it, the director never yelled this word, but whispered it, alchemical, as though he believed the ghost of Kurosawa spoke through him.
She looked down and recited her lines. ‘I’ve been raped once—not in a take-it-to-the-courts kind of way but something I thought I’d try because all my friends were doing it … you know, go out and pick up a guy and get some drinks and let him fuck you.’ She still saw them laid out down the middle of the script page; they had not yet transformed in her; they were not yet her words. He turns from the fire, gazes at her naked body. ‘Is that what you’re doing, Jane? Asking me to rape you?’
When she looked up again, the director was staring at her strangely. Behind him, the crew checked and fretted.
‘Shall we print it?’
The camera operator whispered to the focus puller: ‘I think it went soft when she moved over there.’ And the focus puller snapped, ‘Nobody told us there was going to be a second position.’
The director stepped over, intimate, and she hoped he would place a small, simple, secret direction in her ear. They sometimes did that, so nobody else knew exactly what was coming, but instead he touched her bangs hanging over her eyes and yelled for somebody to bring him a pair of scissors.
‘Was it soft, was it soft?’
‘Okay, checking playback, checking playback …’
He leaned close then, the silver blades snipping just over her eyelashes. His hand shook. A clipped strand of hair fell onto her lower lid and touched the white of her eye. She blinked and it watered; she couldn’t brush it away with his hand there.
She could smell the garlic chicken he’d had for lunch. She tried to ignore him, to stay tuned to her inner self. ‘I’ve been raped once …’ Her eye kept blinking where the stray hair touched it, like glass to a wound. It was all wrong, this fiddling.
‘Okay, check the gate …’
She saw herself like a small blue sailboat on a large lake, facing the oncoming wind. Her eye was burning. She could hear the rest of the crew without things to do, bored, whispering among themselves. The crew, who didn’t want anything to happen, didn’t want the actors to move or do anything unpredictable because it made their job difficult, who would be happy if this were just a still photograph.
The director stepped back and assessed the newly clipped line of her bangs, then half-smiled, crooked, gummy, with a high incisor his childhood braces had failed to shift. ‘He’s brought her here, to his half-built house,’ he said, ‘but he doesn’t know why now; and he can’t go through with it. Jane needs him to.’ Then he turned away, stepping behind the camera. Why was she forever playing women who had to convince men to love her?
‘Gate’s clear … print it!’
‘Okay, places everybody, we’re going again …’
The boom operator stepped into position. The sound mixer donned his headphones, checked his levels and nodded. The focus puller leaned down to the lens, poised, ready.
‘Camera! Speed! Mark it!’ It was like some slapstick routine from the 1920s they’d never gotten over. The clapper loader sprinted in with her clapboard. That was the sound she dreaded most, that quick, startled slam, like a gun at the starting line.
‘And … Action.’ She closed her eyes, trying to find Jane.
An hour later, dressed again, while shooting an eye-line, she turned and caught J watching her. He’d just arrived on set for his first day at work, and was casually leaning against the movable wall at the back of the room, smiling slyly when he saw her see him. She floundered and felt instantly that she was betraying him, that he was watching her betray him, and she forgot her next line.
‘Strike the set, we’re moving to scene 15, scene 15, Exterior Desert. Exterior Desert, everybody …’
Later, when they’d wrapped, she turned again to find J gone. She and the other actor had gotten stoned and laughed embarrassedly, finally, at their enormous pantomime. One sex scene down, she’d joked, only two to go!
But then she couldn’t sleep. Jane’s awake. Her mouth parched with the aftertaste of pot smoke. Her heart thrumming with 3 a.m. sugar, the chocolate bar the munchies made her eat that she’d regret in the morning. Her new ‘husband’ would be back on set with her tomorrow and they would be married by lunch. Her eminently famous, laconic, heart throb of a movie-star husband, playing Leonard Cohen as a young man, lying back on the bed of the Chelsea Hotel for Janis Joplin in an earlier scene; her first choice of a mate, in both movie and life, though she didn’t know it that night; that casual boy with the hair flopping into his brown eyes, how he kept brushing it back, how he held back on smiles, then delivered them unexpectedly, like a 2K turned onto the world. This was the thing about real stars (and when she spoke of them, she didn’t count herself one of them, for she was small and gentle and able to mould herself into a role, unseen; she did not shine when she entered a room, and that was why he would be Leonard, already famous, and she would be Jane, the unsolved muse), they just ‘had that thing’, inexplicable, that inner light the camera saw first, and then the entire world. How they could walk in and your heart stopped. There was nothing you could do to get it, you either had it or you didn’t, and he did.
For herself, she felt it best just to work the crafting of moments as she could, trying each time the clapboard sounded to become like water, still, reflective, rippling, chameleonic; what she was really best at was reflecting a brighter star’s light. That’s why they hired her. She was okay with that. They always said her eyes never lied. She’d make a good witness in a murder trial, especially if they filmed it.
© Emily Ballou 2012