Author, Journalist, Filmmaker

Misdirection

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The night of January 9th

Adrienne lit one of Jonathan’s cigarettes and slid open the glass door to the terrace. She left a pale blue ghost of smoke floating in the living room behind her as she stepped out into the cold damp night and began pacing back and forth, smoking and shivering.

So, now what? Whenever she felt unsure of herself on a film set, working with a crew member or an actor needing direction, she knew how to appear decisive so their confidence in her didn’t collapse into the sullen contempt she knew was always lurking: “Yeah, typical woman, she don’t know what she’s doin’.” But tonight, standing on Jonathan’s terrace above the city and needing direction herself, she had only one decision to make, and she couldn’t make it. Waking up beside A.J. this morning, so warm and so in love, life had been pure bliss. But that life was over now, and she was painfully, dangerously stuck.

The police were on their way, and she knew she should get ready. But she was intensely aware of a whole other action she could take, wickedly seductive in its simplicity and its promise to end all her worries: don’t over think it and don’t delay, just walk across the terrace and climb up on the parapet, and jump. Go ahead. Give the media their crummy show business tragedy. “Award-winning film director Adrienne Monet died last night after she jumped or fell from the terrace of the Central Park West penthouse of actor Jonathan Lehane. With three films to her credit…” And at that point, every story would dredge up the fact that her third film flopped at the box office and that she didn’t direct her fourth film until last summer, ten years later. Even if some Hollywood industry reporter wrote that her new film, starring herself and Lehane and scheduled for release next year, was rumored to be her finest work, they’d still say, whoa, even that wasn’t enough to keep her from jumping off a building?

Far below in Central Park, vast and silent with freshly fallen snow covering the trees and fields, she saw a solitary walker step into a pool of lamplight on a walkway, then vanish back into the dark. For a moment she felt a sudden yearning to be down there and not up here. Then, impatient with her indecision, she swung a leg over and straddled the parapet, in a blithely self-destructive mood. Enough of this shit. Do it. It could be so easy. The ultimate not-give-a-fuck. She scrambled forward, the granite surface ice cold and slippery under her trembling hands, got her knees under her, then her feet, and slowly stood up, with nothing to hold on to. She put the cigarette between her lips. Made it Ma! she thought, echoing Jimmy Cagney in White Heat. Top of the world! She raised her arms like wings and fluttered her fingers, fragile as a sparrow one hundred feet over the city. What goes through people’s minds in those last seconds, plunging faster, spinning, clothes fluttering, the pavement rushing up? Goodbye? Suppose it’s, Oh God, I changed my mind!

She slid one foot forward. It was okay. She took a second step, and a third. Okay, okay. Then a sudden gust of wind blew the hair in her eyes, tugged at her jacket, and tried to push her off the icy ledge. On one foot, arms flailing, pulse punching her in the stomach, for one endless second, she teetered at the edge of the abyss. Then the wind relented, and she was back on her feet. She could’ve hopped back down on the terrace, but now she was juiced. It was wrong to surrender the choice of life or death to this reckless game, but this excitement, to be this close to death without dying, was better than the gray fog of indecision, and she was too psyched up to back down now.

She took a few more steps on wobbly knees to the end of the parapet and grabbed the neighbor’s wrought-iron fence. She leaned back against the bars, took off her glasses, rubbed her face and neck, and combed her hair back with fingers numbed by the cold. She put her glasses back on and zipped her leather jacket up to her chin. Again? Why not?

She let go of the bars and stepped back into space. Slowly, she slid forward, inch by inch. For a moment, she marveled at the view down Central Park West all the way to the bright lights of Times Square, where she had her office. Then she arrived back at the center of the parapet, high over the sidewalk and street. Okay. This is it. Don’t think about it anymore, just say ‘Fuck it,’ turn, and dance into the void. But she still had half a cigarette left.

Far below, she heard a siren getting louder and saw flashing lights coming up Central Park West. A blue and white police car pulled to a stop in front of the building. She lowered herself down and hung a leg over each side and took a deep lungful of smoke. C’mon, make up your mind! Pull the plug on this farce or figure out what to say to the police. Then, suddenly, her mind was seized by an incongruous but fascinating question.

Interesting scene we have here, she thought. How to shoot it? The greatest way would be one long continuous shot, no cuts. We get the Sky Cam, a motorized camera that glides on a cable, a God-like eye floating through the world. It would take a lot of rigging but in this wind the SkyCam would be more stable than a drone.

            EXTERIOR: A winter night. We move the camera slowly, ominously, up Central Park West. The bare tree limbs arc above the sidewalk. The parked cars lay buried under snowdrifts. Looking uptown, a massive wall of tall apartment buildings dissolves into the mist.

            We slowly pan left and hold on an establishing shot of the building. Strings of tiny Christmas lights the color of champagne are still left circling the evergreens flanking the glass doors. Passersby huddled in their heavy coats swipe across the screen, left, right, under the building’s dark green awning, whose lights warm and brighten the sidewalk for those rich enough to live here.

            As we slowly zoom in toward the elegant façade, out strolls Mickey the doorman, in a visor cap and a large greatcoat with shiny buttons. His eyes flick back and forth in that sly New York doorman’s all-seeing way, then, sure that no one is watching, he clears his throat and spits right into the shrubbery, a little man in a uniform with a carefully nurtured contempt for the residents of the building who look down their noses at him every day.

            Suddenly a police cruiser stops out front. Two uniformed officers get out and hustle into the building.  

            Now there’s music, cellos in a minor key, an undercurrent of dread as the shot slowly rises up the front of the building. We peek into window after window, each one framing a quick vignette of the people inhabiting this cold haughty fortress of the rich, doing things tender, disgusting, noble, brutal, silly, decadent, careless, sexy, farcical, despairing, the whole human comedy.

             Ten floors up, the camera holds on a medium shot of ‘Adrienne,’ our distraught heroine, straddling the parapet, hugging herself and shivering, cigarette butt in trembling fingers. We slowly zoom in on her profile. She grows bigger in the frame. Tears gleam in her eyes.

Her face blurs as the shot moves passes her and continues across the terrace, over ice patches on the terra cotta floor littered with dead leaves, over sooty snow on the furniture, under a yellow and white striped awning on a rusty steel frame.

The shot dissolves through the glass door.

            INTERIOR: A dark living room, except for the light from the entrance hall in a bright wedge across the carpet. On the floor at the point of that wedge lies A.J.’s bare foot in an expensive slip-on. The camera pans slowly across the wedge of light to the last image, Jonathan lying on the floor in shadow, his hand in the light holding a chrome revolver.  

Well, sure, she thought. Imagining a great shot was easy; but to actually capture it she would need truckloads of equipment, permits from the city, really great actors, about one hundred crew members, location deals with the building management and ten apartment owners, a skilled rigging and lighting crew and talented camera operator, a pile of money, the patience of the studio suits, and the determination to do it over and over until she got the perfect take. But think of it – ten voyeuristic moments, choreographed, rehearsed, then perfectly timed and cued and played! And at the end, a woman in tears, two dead men on the floor, and a gun. The excitement of achieving work with more life in it than life itself arose in her for one bright, bracing moment, then it died. Too late now.

She wondered how long it would take for the police to come up. She swung off the parapet, preparing herself to face what lay in the living room. As she got closer, details emerged from the shadows, a bent knee in blue jeans, a wave of gray hair, Jonathan’s eyes, open, and blank as milky glass marbles. She got closer to the terrace light and suddenly her reflection in the glass door appeared over the scene inside. She turned left, then right, critiquing her image, tonight she was the tough bitch with a cigarette dangling from her lips. As a skinny middle school girl, before she grew into her face and body, her classmates had ridiculed her with the hated nickname The Little Crow. In any casting director’s database, her description would be “pretty, nerdy, emo-gamine”—meaning a petite brunette with high cheekbones, a pointy nose, a spiky mop of raven hair, a small mouth with pouty lips—“looks older in close-up”—meaning that behind her glasses and around those deep dark eyes were tiny wrinkles she didn’t tried to hide. She was wearing the same black jeans, black tee shirt, and tight black leather jacket she’d put on for work that morning, so that was how she would appear very soon to the police and the media, as a body down on the sidewalk in the snow, or opening the door and welcoming them into a scene of blood and death.

 

The phone call came last August on a sweltering Friday afternoon, offering a rewrite gig on a screenplay that Adrienne tried to turn down. It came while she was trying to sleep, tossing and turning on the sofa in her office at Alpha Bitch Pictures, her production suite in the Brill Building at 49th and Broadway. The venetian blinds shaded her office from the sun baking Times Square in a sizzling blue haze.

She was exhausted.  She should have been able to sleep, but her mind wouldn’t leave her alone. She kept obsessing over her behavior during the previous night’s shoot, ashamed of herself one moment, trying to shrug it off the next. That morning she and her crew wrapped principal photography on the final episode of Men Are Dogs, her reality TV show for The Lilith Channel, after working six days a week through a scorching summer that left them staggering like zombies. It was the last shoot for the series and filming didn’t come alive until dawn, when one of the husbands, a short heavily muscled cuckold named Adam, went berserk. He had auditioned well, but once shooting began he choked and became tongue-tied and resisted her direction. When the scene came for him to do full frontal nudity he refused and turned pathologically shy in bed, forcing his on-screen hookup, another man’s cheating wife, to improvise like mad. Then in the scene with the other husband, after they’d unwittingly fucked each other’s wives and were supposed to cluelessly share all the funky details, he couldn’t even do guy talk about sex. The episode was supposed to be the season climax, but so far it was a limp dick.

Finally, in the last scene, tired of this jerk and annoyed with herself for casting him, Adrienne ridiculed Adam’s bad acting in front of the whole crew.

“Hey Adam! Kurt just called your wife a hot little piece of ass! Said he had a great time fucking her, and…what? You have nothing to say? I guess you’re used to women making a fool out of you.”

Adam looked around, steaming. “Fuck you.”

“You’ll never get that lucky.” The crew around them laughed.

“Y’know,” he whined, “I’m getting really sick of you –”

“We’re all sick of you,” she said. “We’ve been laughing at you behind your back this whole episode. Right, people?” Titters and chuckles from a few crew members.

He lunged and threw a punch at her. She knew it was coming and dodged, falling back into the arms of Tawana Barber, her 1st A.D. He grabbed a chair and smashed it on the floor of the cramped little studio in Jersey City. Set security wrestled him down, pepper-sprayed him, handcuffed him, and stuffed him in the back of a 15-passenger van. The crew kept all three cameras rolling.

She grabbed Gabriel, her director of photography, and Bobby her sound recordist, and they piled into the van as it was pulling out. She kept taunting Adam all the way to the medical center. As Adam writhed and kicked and cursed her and fought the security guard holding him down, Gabriel shot it all with the Redcam while she and Bobby shot cell phone footage. As the van pulled up to the emergency room, Adrienne was exultant – suddenly she had a season finale gifted to her by the gods, a few minutes of very hot cinema verité. Three male nurses forced Adam into a wheelchair, but before the hospital security guards pushed her and her crew out the door, they got a vivid close up of his blinded, contorted face screaming that Adrienne was an evil cunt.

Outside the hospital doors, she deadpanned, “I knew he had at least one good scene in him.” Gabriel laughed so hard Bobby had to hug him or he would have dropped the camera.

Back at the studio the trucks were packed and ready to go. She slouched into the passenger seat of the director van as they pulled out and started back toward Manhattan. Within minutes, inching in early rush hour traffic into the Holland Tunnel, she began feeling ashamed of her treatment of Adam, necessary though it had been. That soon gave way to mourning the end of production, and a desperate dread of the days ahead not structured by a shot list, pages to shoot, and a crew to work with, her basic requirements for a potentially happy day.

She turned and crooned sadly her exhausted comrades. “The party’s over…”

Silence. Then Sharona, her droll makeup artist, yawned and said, “Yeah… we’re all so-o-o sad.” That sent a quiet, tired laugh rippling through the van.

“What am I gonna do without you guys to torture every day?” Adrienne pretended to whine.

A few of them grinned wearily. Let the boss have her fun. Others gave her a blank look. After a long summer of Adrienne demanding more than they could give, furiously disappointed if they fell short, they needed longer for their bruised feelings to heal.

As they crawled toward home in heavy traffic, Adrienne changed glasses to her dark Wayfarers. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and on a soft sweet rush of relief came the tears, embarrassing but impossible to hold back. What would she do with herself every day? Men Are Dogs, embarrassing junk TV for a minor streaming channel, had put her on the street directing a film crew for the first time in years. Now she’d lose the daily energy rush of shooting for the tedium of post-production. The collapse she’d postponed for all those weeks of twelve-hour workdays was coming, and she was starting to devolve and give in to the stress burnout of her mind and body. She felt comforting hands from behind gripping her shoulders. Tony her driver reached over and took her hand in his rough, hairy paw.

Shooting was finished, so at least the network would be happy, and the first episode was scheduled to drop tonight at nine. Desperate to feel better, she tried to count her blessings, but she really couldn’t think of any. Money? She was still existing month to month, check to check. Romance? She wasn’t quite over losing Nadia Gummo, a relentlessly hustling, charismatic magazine writer and night life blogger, who’d dumped her and broke her heart in mid-summer after Adrienne wouldn’t put her in the show. Her feature film career? She preferred not to think about that. The money, the fame, the passionate workaholic schedule, the high places and beautiful lovers, slowly her life drifted away from those intoxicating years with each unsuccessful pitch, each door closed in her face, or phone call not returned.

A year ago, horrified that Donald Trump was elected president after he’d bragged on video about grabbing women by the pussy, she’d pounded out a pilot concept mocking lowbrow trash TV. To make it as in-your-face as possible, she called it Men Are Dogs. She sent it to Marshall her agent and forgot all about it, assuming its contempt for men and risqué material made it a hard, if not impossible sell. To her amazement, he actually sold it. At the time she scoffed at the Lilith Channel’s bad taste, but privately she wondered if she’d misjudged the public appetite. She was obligated to write, produce and direct it, so she went ahead and made 22 episodes of disposable trash, and now the network suits said audience tests suggested the show might be a hit. She’d finally make some money, thank God. But she’d also have to pretend to be proud of this crude hairball that her dark side coughed up, half as a joke and half as a Fuck you to the vulgarity of American society.

Her phone played a jazzy piano riff, announcing a call from Marshall. First thing in the morning, that was never good, so she let it go to voicemail. Whenever there was bad news, Marshall liked to unload it on her early, so the rest of the day he could concentrate on clients that he actually made money with. At this stage in her career she was lucky to have an agent, even a buffed, glib, up-coming young brat like Marshall. She often wondered what mutant mixture of genes produced dudes like him and his peers, aggressive, head-driven, fast talking young men who felt right at home in a business where envy, vanity, contempt, and Schadenfreude were the daily emotional weather.

“Yo, it’s me. Sorry about this, but I just got a text from your favorite people, Lenny and Juno Goldhammer. So, they’re gonna pass on producing ‘After Lena.’ I guess you probably expected that though, right? Anyway, if you got any other producers you want me to pitch to, lemme know.” Translation: he’s done trying and from now on she’ll have to push him.

The van finally entered the dark Holland Tunnel and they picked up speed, hurrying her toward what already felt like a pretty crummy day. Two weeks ago, she’d put aside her pride and her history with them and told Marshall to send the Goldhammers her screenplay for After Lena. The film was based on a mother’s memoir of coping with her teenage daughter’s suicide, after the girl was harassed and cyber-bullied by a sick fuck ex-boyfriend that she’d rejected. This morning she should be celebrating the end of shooting for Men Are Dogs, but Marshall’s message reignited her hatred of the Goldhammers and set all her old grievances replaying in the back of her mind.

At 20th and Eighth, she got out and waved to her crew. “I really love you guys. See you at the party.”

 

For nearly twenty years she’d hung on to her rent-stabilized apartment in an old building on a quiet, leafy block in Chelsea, a one-bedroom floor-through with a little galley kitchen with a café table and chairs, and good windows front and back. When she moved there in 1998, she’d covered the floor with gray industrial carpet and whitewashed the walls and installed her crammed bookcases, wide screen TV, and posters of her films in various foreign languages. Now as she passed her desk, she gave a reassuring pat to the screenplay of After Lena, at the top of her pile of screenplays, originals and adaptations, all shopped over the past ten years, and all rejected.

She pulled down the shades, peeled off her sticky clothes, rolled out her yoga mat on the living room floor, and slowly practiced the Sun Salute over and over, hoping to relax enough to sleep. She padded to the bedroom and wrapped herself in a cool sheet and got in bed, but all she did was squirm irritably, stuck in her chronic blame loop about Lenny and Juno. Finally, she gave up trying to sleep. She got up and blasted herself fully awake under a cold shower and ate an apple for breakfast. She dressed in black jeans and a cotton blouse, kicked her bare feet into black Vans, and combed the wet hair back off her forehead to let it dry in the heat of the day.

At 8th and 23rd she caught the C train to the West 50th Street station and walked over to 1619 Broadway and her offices. Fueled by caffeine, she drove herself through a hard day’s work in the dark editing cave with her editor Layne McPeek. They laughed at Adam cursing at the camera.

“He’s screaming at me,” Adrienne said. “But cut it so it seems like he’s screaming at his wife.”

“At least that’ll offset the rest of this boring shit,” McPeek grumbled, then she cringed. “Sorry.”

She sighed. “His whole performance is a disaster, but it was too late to recast, or maybe I was just too tired, I don’t know. Anyway, try to make something out of it. Keep the language in and we’ll bleep it. People can read lips.”

By late afternoon she was mumbling, and her vision was a blur. She used to work round the clock and never get tired. But she didn’t have that kind of energy anymore. She could probably borrow an Adderall from one of her office assistants, but when she turned forty, she swore to never risk her health on anything more stimulating than strong coffee and the occasional cigarette. She left McPeek to keep editing, crept to her office, and told her assistant Megan to send her calls to voicemail. She turned off the lights, closed the venetian blinds, and fell back on the sofa. Seeing that morning’s footage brought back the hangover of guilt and embarrassment over how she’d treated Adam, though she knew eventually she’d stop feeling so bad about it. Besides, it didn’t matter anymore whether her cruelty had been necessary, or if she’d just felt like beating up on the dude. McPeek would work her usual magic. She pulled a sleep mask on, unzipped her jeans and put a hand down between her legs, and imagined herself melting into the cushions.

 

Megan gently shook her awake. Adrienne sat up, surprised she’d actually fallen asleep. Marshall was on hold. Urgent.

Adrienne dropped into the chair behind her desk and yawned so hard she shook down to her toes. She grabbed the phone.

“Yo,” Marshall said, “I’m getting all these calls from Lenny and Juno.”

“They changed their mind about Lena?”

“Nah, they got a rewrite job they think you’re perfect for.”

She was too tired to laugh and too wise to be interested. “Oh really.” The Goldhammers were notorious for hiring writers who had to sue to get paid.

“They got a problem with this thing they’re producing.”

“Gee, that’s too bad.” Marshall knew Lenny and Juno were a painful memory. What was he trying to do?

“They’re ‘way into prep, and now, I mean, like, today, their director tells them the script needs a lot of work.”

“Who’s the director?”

“Egon” – Marshall said it slowly, for effect – “Swift.”

“Oh wow,” she said, “Egon… Swift,” mocking Marshall’s awe. Was he crazy? She hated Swift’s films, ultra-violent psycho-thrillers derivative of Hitchcock, De Palma, and Tarantino. Swift’s signatures were his showy camera style, his disturbed male characters, and their female victims who were always graphically, cruelly killed. His first two hit films so glamorized violence against women that he was accused of mainstreaming sadistic misogyny by critics whether they were male or female, left or right wing, respected scholars or nobody bloggers. But his two movies grossed nine hundred million dollars worldwide and made him a celebrity and a Hollywood player before the age of thirty. Then, his imagination apparently drained, his third film was a strained mélange of his over-used ideas and it bombed, or, as studios sometimes liked to say about their precious male directors, it “underperformed.”

“They begged me to call you, can you believe that shit?” Marshall said.

They begged? She hoped they writhed in shame. But that was unlikely, because Lenny and Juno Goldhammer were shameless. Didn’t Marshall know they wanted her because they thought her career was so shaky they could hire her cheap? For years she’d seen a psychiatrist, trying to forgive them for the failure of her last film, but it didn’t work because, they were largely to blame. When her insurance stopped paying because she wasn’t making progress, she was forced to develop her own fantasy exercise, forgetting any attempt at forgiveness, in which she imagined using a flamethrower to burn the Goldhammers alive. That always brought her a few moments of peace. The reason she had Marshall pitch “Lena” to them was simple: after a string of rejections she reached the bottom of her list of producers, and there they were.

“Marshall,” she sighed. “How can you think I would write a script for Egon Swift? You know the kind of stuff he makes.”

“It ain’t like that. It’s based on a play about 9/11 called Out of The Sky. It’s this big Off Broadway hit.”

“Sounds vaguely familiar.”

“It’s heavy. All about loss and mourning and grief and shit. And, y’know, 9/11, uh, not exactly a fresh idea. But they read Lena, and they think you have a thing for painful material.”

“Oh, they do? So why didn’t they ask me to direct?”

“Yo… Adrienne…”

“Tell you what. Call ‘em back. Tell ‘em I’m unavailable. Let’s see how they handle painful material –” And fuck those motherfuckers, those –

“Adrienne –”

“The director is stumbling. Piles of money are burning. The producers are desperate. You know what this is? It’s a glue trap for any writer dumb enough to go for the cheese.”

“Oh, come on.”

“If the movie works and makes money, they’ll take all the credit. If it flops, they’ll blame me and my script.”

“But that’s like, years from now. How do you know what’ll happen?”

“I don’t. But I can’t afford another failure.”

Ten long years ago, when Lenny and Juno wouldn’t fight the stupid studio’s marketing of her third film, her one box office flop killed her career in feature films. She wished she could erase the memory of that bleak summer, the vicious reviews, the film getting yanked from the empty theaters, waking up every night in the wee lonesome hours, sick at heart, angry, and reaching for the flamethrower.

“This could be an opening to make features again,” Marshall said. “And you know you need the money.”

That blackmail landed right on her sore spot. But she was too tired to debate it anymore. “I’m leaving for two weeks rest I desperately need. They have to wait ‘til I’m back.”

“No no no… They want you to see the play tonight, go talk with them and the director, and do a rewrite, like, immediately. They’re looking for a savior. They think you’re it.”

She couldn’t keep her astonishment out of her voice. “Did they actually say that?”

“Yeah,” he said, “they actually did.”

“About me?”

“Yeah.”

“Uh, wait a second.”

She put him on hold. She knelt in front of the couch and began pounding it with her fists, cursing and crying. Get out of my life, you fucking bastards!

Megan came to the door. “Adrienne? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

When she was able to sit up and wipe her tears, Marshall’s call was still blinking on the phone.

“Think about it, Adrienne,” he said, trying a calmer approach. “This is the best thing we got since Men Are Dogs. If you go in, do a rewrite, and save the day, it’ll improve your brand.”

“I have directed three films, y’know.”

“You’re only as hot as your last film. You know that.”

“Then why is it that his last film bombed two years ago and he’s already making a new one.” Marshall kept quiet. “Just tell them ‘no’.”

“Maybe the writing gig will start something we can leverage to get them to produce ‘Lena’.”

“Why is it men are deaf to the word ‘No’ when it’s spoken by a woman?”

“Look, okay, I get it, I really do,” he said. “You don’t wanna do the writing, fine okay. But will you at least go see the play? Please? So, I can get them off my back? They call me every fifteen fucking minutes.”

The nerve of those two. They were really asking for it. She saw an opportunity here, twisted and vindictive, and she didn’t care.

“All right. Tell them I’ll go see it.”

“Great!”

“Maybe the play won’t suck,” she said. “And I can use the money, even if it’s only Guild scale.”

But it wasn’t really about money. How dare those two, reaching out to her? It made her so angry she was willing to spend a couple hours of her life to teach the Goldhammers a painful lesson in good manners. She would see the play, pay for her own drinks, pretend to be nice to them, and try not to talk through gritted teeth. She would raise their hopes, make them wait while she pretended to decide whether to take the job, waste as much of their precious time as she could, then turn them down and flick them away like dead flies off a windowsill.