Art Imitates Life, or Vice-versa
Memories of teenage movie making and its consequences.
The sickening crunch of glass and plastic replays in my head as I step onto the hot pavement. The sun hasn’t quite set but the new sodium streetlights have turned on, casting an eerie criss-cross of shadows on the scene. Nobody is hurt, thank god, but the guy in the other car looks pissed. He comes at me with his hackles up, ready to read the riot act, but he stops in his tracks. He stands, mouth gaping, trying to make sense of this kid in a white NASA flight suit with a gray Santa Claus beard who just rolled through a red light.
This isn’t my first fender bender. In fact it’s the fourth one in three years since getting my driver's license. First time in the Vega, however, after putting Dad’s Mach One in the junkyard for good. That was too much car for me, they said. But this piece of green tin didn’t do me any favors, either. I’m going to have to make that phone call that I’ve come to hate. It’s Joseph. I did it again.
It’s been a weird day. My next-to-last day in New Jersey. I got up early, wolfed down a couple of corn toastees, and packed up my Bolex camera for another day on location. It’s August, and I’ve been splitting time between maintenance jobs at the apartments, seeing my girlfriend Leslie, and making a short movie. The job was a total bore, simply a way to earn some bread. I liked Leslie, and together we scratched our respective itches. But the movie… that’s where I lived.
I started in junior high with tabletop epics of stop-motion GI Joes and plasticine dinosaurs, graduating to 20-minute comedies and dramas — cast with clueless teenagers in ill-fitting adult roles. They were more impressive technically than dramatically, but I’d won some awards and acclaim, and convinced my parents that I needed to go to film school. That took longer to get on the schedule, so in the meantime, I kept making movies in the backyard.
Today’s call sheet was for Timeline, a sci-fi extravaganza written by, directed by and co-starring yours truly. It was a derivative potboiler about two astronauts who crash land on an asteroid and end up fighting each other to survive. Forget about meaning or character development, this was just an excuse for spectacle and special effects. In that way, we were ahead of the curve. And having seen Star Wars six times that summer, we were sure that was enough.
I pickup Ron, cameraman and makeup artist, and Pete, my co-star, and head off to The Pits. While half of the film was being shot in a cardboard and masking-tape space capsule built in the basement, the exteriors were comparatively grand. At the junction of two major thoroughfares lie a couple of acres of bulldozed clay earth, cracked and fissured by spring rains and summer sun — and most crucially, completely unattended. It was this terra cotta wasteland that would offer the most convincing dimension of our film.
At The Pits, we meet Ralph, our special effects guy, and set about to work. “Work” involves filming Joe and Pete running back and forth through the gently sloping canyons, while keeping the distant telephone poles and billboards out of the frame. Ralph had built a beautiful model spaceship - the USS San Francisco Bay, which appeared embedded in the clay. Later that afternoon, Ron would put the camera aside and get out the old age makeup, so that I would appear to have spent the rest of my days alone in this crashed hulk.
It’s remarkable how difficult this simple screenplay was to write. I wanted to say more, to provide meaning, to tell a bigger story. And the clues to my motivation are there in the broad strokes — about men cut off from the world, struggling to survive. The “twist” in the story was something about how the astronaut’s training and programming had worked against him. It’s pretty obviously the work of an angry, alienated teenager, but I couldn’t see it. Most people can’t see the air they breathe every day. It just is.
We wrapped shooting around 6pm and stopped at Roy Rogers' for roast beef sandwiches. As producer I had to drop nearly $12 to feed the cast and crew, but it was worth it. Driving home my mind was racing ahead to the next day — and the days after that. Moving to California. Going to film school. Cutting Timeline and designing the special effects. I was getting out of town and going west. No telling what lay ahead.
A bronze Chrysler LeBaron, that’s what was ahead. I made eye contact with the driver as he coasted past my windshield. Hitting the breaks, I managed to avoid t-boning his car and merely nicked the rear bumper. The sickening crunch of glass and plastic makes me wince as the car stalls out and shudders to a stop.
The guy is looking at me in full costume, still in my old-age makeup, trying to reconcile my greasepaint wrinkles with my youthful voice. I would rather be back on set, in control of the action. But I’m here now, in real life, having to explain how I could be so careless as to not see that the light had changed at the intersection. How did I end up on this planet — with this life — when I so clearly need to be somewhere else? How do I get out of this? My training and programing had once again betrayed me.
There’s a phone booth across the street at the 7-11. Guess I’ve got to make that call.
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