Author, Journalist, Filmmaker

Misdirection

The night of January 9th

 

Adrienne lit one of Jonathan’s cigarettes and slid open the glass door to the terrace. As she staggered out into the cold damp night, crying and shaking, she left a pale blue ghost of smoke floating behind her.

So, now what? Life had been so blissful, waking up warm and in love beside A.J. this morning. But now she had to fight to keep herself together. It was strange. Whenever she faltered on one of her film sets, challenged by an actor or surrounded by her crew waiting for direction, she always knew how to come up with the right decision so morale didn’t collapse into the contempt that was always there, waiting: “Yeah, typical woman, she don’t know what she’s doin’.” But now, standing high above the city, all alone, she had only one decision to make, and she couldn’t do it.

She should be preparing for a war of wits with the police. They’d be arriving any minute. But maybe there was a better way to settle things once and for all, one that felt oddly seductive in its simplicity: don’t over think it, don’t delay, just walk across the terrace, stand on the parapet, and jump. Go ahead, she told herself. Give the media their lurid show business tragedy to smear across the tabloids and websites. “Award-winning film director Adrienne Monet died last night after she either jumped or fell from the terrace of the Central Park West penthouse of actor Jonathan Lehane. With three films to her credit…” Of course every story would say that her third film flopped at the box office and she hadn’t directed another for over ten years. Maybe some Hollywood entertainment reporter would write that her fourth film, starring Lehane and scheduled for release next year, was rumored to be her finest work, just so he could say something like, whoa, even that wasn’t enough to keep her from jumping off a building, like, what went wrong here?

She swung a leg over, straddled the parapet, and sighed. It could be so easy. Go ahead. Do it. The ultimate not-give-a-fuck. She crouched forward, got her knees beneath her, the granite surface ice cold and slippery under her trembling hands, and slowly raised herself up.

Down below, Central Park lay vast and silent, the trees and fields covered with freshly-fallen snow. A solitary walker appeared in a pool of light on a walkway then vanished back into the gloom. She spread her arms like wings and fluttered her fingers, buffeted by wind, with nothing to hold on to, fragile as a sparrow one hundred feet over the city. What goes through people’s minds in those last seconds? Goodbye? Suppose it was, Oh God – plunging faster, spinning, clothes fluttering, the pavement rushing up – I changed my mind!

She put her cigarette between her lips. Arms out like a high-wire walker, she slid one foot forward. Okay, it was okay. She took another step. Suddenly a gust of wind blew her hair in her eyes and she pitched sideways balanced on one foot. She wobbled out over the abyss, her pulse punching in the pit of her stomach, arms flailing, terrified and yet feeling cheated out of the choice of whether to jump. Then the wind relented and she landed back on two feet, relieved, but still stuck with a decision to make.

She took two more rushed steps and grabbed the wrought-iron fence at the neighboring terrace. She leaned against the fence, took off her glasses, rubbed her face and neck, and combed her hair back with her fingers. The wind chilled the sweat on her temples, on her neck and under her arms, and sent cold shivers down her body. She put her glasses back on and zipped her leather jacket up to her chin, the turned around. Again? Why not?

Slowly, she edged forward until somehow she was back at the center of the parapet. Now? Okay? Don’t think about it anymore, just say ‘Fuck it,’ turn and surrender to gravity. But she still had half a cigarette left, what a shame to waste it. You fucking wuss. She sat and hung a leg over each side, and took a deep drag. C’mon, make up your mind! Drop the curtain on this farce, or figure out fast what to say to the police. Then, inexplicably, her need to decide between life or death faded and she became fascinated by a different take on the moment.

Interesting scene we have here. How could we shoot it? How about 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. That would be steadier than a drone in this wind.

            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 cliff of tall apartment buildings dissolves into the mist.

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

            As we push slowly in toward the elegant façade, out strolls Mickey the doorman, in a visor cap and a long greatcoat with shiny buttons. His eyes flick back and forth in that sly 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, expressing his opinion of the residents of the building who look down their noses at him every day.

            Now there’s music, cellos, 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 framing a quick vignette of the people living in this cold haughty fortress for the rich, doing things sublime, touching, disgusting, noble, silly, decadent, careless, farcical, the whole human comedy.

            Ten floors up, the camera holds on a medium shot of 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 shine in her eyes. Her face blurs as the shot moves past her, across the terrace littered with dead leaves, over ice patches on the terra cotta floor and sooty snow on the furniture, then beneath a yellow and white striped awning on a rusty steel frame. The shot dissolves through the glass door.

            INTERIOR: A dark living room. The foyer light throws a bright wedge down 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 dark room to the last image, Jonathan’s hand lying on the floor holding a chrome revolver, the rest of him in shadow.

For Adrienne, imagining a great shot was easy; but to actually capture it she needed truck loads of equipment, a location deal, a skilled rigging and lighting crew and talented camera operator, and the determination to do it over and over until they got the perfect take. Ten window vignettes would have to be choreographed, rehearsed, then timed and played perfectly! The challenge and excitement of achieving memorable work, a story with more life than life itself, arose in her for a bright, bracing moment, then faded, leaving her feeling sick and scared again. Too late now, she sighed.

Far below, she heard a siren getting louder and saw flashing lights getting closer, coming up Central Park West. A blue and white police car pulled to a stop in front of the building.

She swung herself off the parapet, and headed back to the glass doors. As she got closer, details emerged from the shadowy living room — a bent knee in blue jeans, a wave of gray hair, Jonathan’s eyes, open, and dead as glass. She stepped into the terrace light and suddenly her reflection in the glass door was superimposed over the carnage in the living room. She turned left, then right, inspecting her profile. In middle school, before she grew into her face and body, her classmates ridiculed her skinny looks with the hated nickname The Little Crow. In a casting director’s database her description would be “pretty, nerdy, emo-gamine, looks older in close-up” — a petite brunette with sharp cheekbones, a pointy nose, a small mouth with pouty lips, her mop of raven hair the usual spiky mess. She was wearing black jeans, a black tee shirt, black framed eyeglasses and a slim black leather jacket. That’s what she put on before work that morning, so that’s how she would look in a few minutes to the police and the media, either inside on the killing floor in the penthouse, or down on the sidewalk in the snow.

 

The phone call came last August on a hot sticky Friday afternoon, offering a rewrite job 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 corner office at Alpha Bitch Pictures, her production office in the Brill Building. The venetian blinds on the windows overlooking 49th and Broadway blocked the sun that baked the crowds milling around down on Times Square in a sizzling blue haze.

She was in a depleted, pleasantly masochistic state when exhaustion felt good. She should have been able to sleep, but her mind wouldn’t leave her alone, because she kept obsessing over how she behaved during last night’s shoot. That morning at daybreak she wrapped principal photography on the final episode of her reality TV satire Men Are Dogs, after shooting six days a week through an endless scorching summer that left her and her exhausted crew staggering like zombies. The filming dragged all night and 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 on camera he choked and became tongue-tied and seemingly deaf to her direction. He refused to do full frontal nudity and he froze up in bed, forcing his on-screen hookup, another man’s cheating wife, to improvise like mad. Then he couldn’t even talk about sex in the scene with the other husband after they’d unwittingly fucked each other’s wives and were supposed to share all the funky details. The episode was supposed to be the season climax, and so far it was a limp dick.

On the last shot, Adrienne, tired of this jerk and with berating herself for casting him, 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? What’re you, used to women making a fool of you?”

“Fuck you.”

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

“Y’know, I’m getting really sick of you—”

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

Adam looked around, steaming, then turned and threw a punch at her. She knew it was coming and dodged. 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. Her crew kept all three cameras rolling the whole time.

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

Outside the hospital doors, she sighed, “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 in Jersey City the trucks were packed and ready to go. She slouched into the passenger seat of the director van and they pulled out and started back toward Manhattan. Within minutes, inching forward in early rush hour traffic at the Holland Tunnel, she was vaguely ashamed of her treatment of Adam, necessary though it was. That gave way to mourning the end of shooting, and to feeling a desperate dread of the days to come 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 grimaced at 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 sighed.

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 bruises to heal.

What would she do with herself every day? Men Are Dogs was embarrassing junk TV, but it had put her on the street directing a film crew for the first time in years. Now that the collapse she’d fought off for weeks was here, she finally allowed herself to start feeling the stress burnout of her mind and body. She changed glasses to her dark Wayfarers and closed her eyes, and started to cry. The breath caught in her throat and she sobbed, her shoulders shaking, embarrassed but unable to hold back. She felt comforting hands from behind gripping her shoulders. Tony her driver reached over and took her hand in his rough, hairy paw.

As they crawled toward home in heavy traffic, she shuddered, took a deep breath, dried her eyes, and slumped back. Desperate to feel better, she tried counting her blessings, but she really couldn’t think of any. Okay, they were finally wrapped, that was one good thing. Money? Almost gone, still existing month to month, gig to gig. Romance? She was still sore over Nadia Gummo, a relentlessly hustling and druggy 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? The money, the fame, the workaholic life, the high places and beautiful lovers, those brief intoxicating years, were only tiny dots in the rear view mirror, smaller with each unsuccessful pitch, each door closed in her face or phone call not returned. A year ago, months behind on her rent, she tossed off a script for a lowbrow trash TV show and called it Men Are Dogs, and to her amazement her agent sold it to a cable network. At the time she scoffed at their bad taste, but now she couldn’t believe they were actually predicting after audience testing that the show might be a hit. Yes, thank God, she’d finally make some money, but she’d also have to pretend to be proud of a show her dark side coughed up almost as a joke.

Her phone played a jazzy piano riff, announcing a call from Marshall, her agent. That was never a good sign so early in the morning. Marshall liked to unload bad news on her first thing in the morning, so the rest of the day he could concentrate on clients that he actually made money with. At this stage she was lucky to even have an agent, even this buffed, glib, up-coming young brat. She let the call go to voicemail. She often wondered what mutant mixture of genes produced dudes like Marshall, 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. They’re gonna pass on producing ‘After Lena.’ I guess you probably expected that though, right? Anyway, if you got any others you want me to pitch to, lemme know.” Translation: he’s done trying and from now on she’d have to push him.

The van entered the Holland Tunnel and finally picked up speed, hurrying her toward what was already shaping up to be a pretty lousy day. Despite herself, Marshall’s message unrepressed her passionate hatred of the Goldhammers. Two weeks ago she’d put her history with them aside and asked Marshall to send them her screenplay for After Lena, a film based on a mother’s memoir of coping with her teenage daughter’s suicide after the girl was harassed and cyber-bullied by an ex-boyfriend. In her apartment, Lena sat at the top of her pile of screenplays, originals and adaptations, all shopped over the past ten years, and all rejected.

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

Her rent-stabilized apartment was in an old building on a quiet, leafy block in Chelsea, a one bedroom floor-through with a little galley kitchen and a café table and chairs at the window end. 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.

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

At 8th and 23rd she caught the C train to 49th Street and rode the elevator at 1619 Broadway up to her offices. With shooting finished and another network check due, she could pay some of the rent she owed on her offices and apartment. Fueled by caffeine, she dove into a hard day’s work with her editors in their dark cave. They all laughed at Adam cursing at the camera.

“He’s screaming at me,” she 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.” 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.”

But seeing the footage brought back the hangover of guilt and embarrassment from how she’d treated him. 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, and while she could probably bum an Adderall from one of her office assistants, she never risked her health on anything more stimulating than strong coffee and the occasional cigarette. She 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. Eventually she stopped feeling so bad about how she treated Adam, because it didn’t matter if her cruelty had been necessary, or if she’d just felt like beating up on the schmuck. Her editors would work their usual magic. She pulled a sleep mask over her eyes, unzipped her jeans and put a hand down between her legs, and imagined herself melting into the cushions.

 

Megan’s hand gently shook her shoulder, interrupting her light, troubled sleep. Marshall was on hold. Urgent.

Adrienne dropped into the chair behind her desk, pausing for a yawn that shook her down to her toes. She grabbed the phone.

“Yo,” Marshall said, “I just got another call from Lenny and Juno.”

She woke up, fast. “They changed their mind about Lena?”

“No, they got a rewrite job they think you’re perfect for.”

“Oh, come on.” The Goldhammers were notorious for hiring writers then forcing them to sue to get paid.

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

“Gee” — she kept her voice neutral — “that’s too bad.” Marshall knew Lenny and Juno were her most painful memory. What was he trying to do?

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

“Gee, that is a problem. 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 and his 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 branded a sadistic misogynist even by mainstream critics. But the two movies grossed nine hundred million dollars world wide, and made him a celebrity and a Hollywood player before the age of thirty. Then, apparently out of fresh ideas, 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, like, begged me to call you, can you believe that shit?” Marshall said.

They begged? She hoped they squirmed in shame. But that was unlikely, because Lenny and Juno Goldhammer were shameless. Didn’t Marshall know they were reaching out because they thought they could get her cheap? She worked for years with a therapist to try to stop blaming them for the crash of her career, and it didn’t work. When her insurance stopped paying the therapist because she wasn’t making progress, she developed her own fantasy exercise in which she imagined using a flamethrower to burn the Goldhammers alive. That brought her tiny bit of peace. The reason she had Marshall pitch “Lena” to them was simple: after a series 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.”

“Yeah. Vaguely familiar.”

“It’s heavy, all about loss and mourning and grief and shit.”

“9/11. Not exactly a fresh idea.”

“They read Lena and they think you have a way with painful material.”

This was getting to be an unfunny joke. “Oh, they do? So why didn’t they ask me to direct?”

“Yo… Adrienne…”

“Tell you what. Call ‘em back. Tell ‘em to go to hell. Let’s see how they handle painful material—” And fuck those motherfuckers, those—cool it, Amy Jean, she told herself.

“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. If the movie works and makes money, Swift and the producers will 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, really. But I can’t afford another failure.”

Ten long years ago, a betrayal by Lenny and Juno, stupid marketing, and one box office flop had killed her career in feature films. The summer after the film was yanked from the empty theaters she woke up every night in the wee lonesome hours, sick at heart, angry, and rteaching for the flamethrower.

“Yo, this is could be an opening to make features again,” Marshall said. “You know you need the money.”

That blackmail landed right on her sore spot. But she was too tired to debate with Marshall 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, they actually did.”

“About me?”

“Yeah.”

“Uh, wait a second.”

She put him on hold. She knelt in front of her 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?”

“Yeas, I’m fine.”

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

“Think about it, Adrienne,” he said, trying a calmer approach. “This is the best thing to happen to you 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.”

“Not if you’re a woman. 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.

“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 reach out to her, she thought. She was angry enough to throw away 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, waste as much of their precious time as she could, make them wait while she pretended to decide whether to take the job, then turn them down and flick them away like dead flies off a windowsill.