CHAPTER 24 -- A LIGHT IN THE TUNNEL
Paul is worried that the plot he invented is too much of a stretch. The kids really did everything in each of the scenes, so he is confident he has the material. But he is not only changing the order of events, he is also altering the meaning of everything that happened. Would it be believable?
Then, miracle of miracles, he finds a way to make all of it work -- reaction shots. With the right kind of reaction shot from one of the kids, he can change the scene into anything he wants. He pastes a shot of a listening tribe member over a shot of another one talking, and gets busy. He can shorten or lengthen what they are saying, and make the other member of the tribe seem happy about what is going on, or angry, or sad, or indifferent.
Since the kids were homeless, they never changed their clothes and they did the same things again and again. It was tedious during production, but it’s a gold mine in editing. For this, he had to thank Dwight, the director. Dwight had directed every pancake encounter, for instance, as if it were the turning point of the film. Duncan hated him for it in the field, but in the edit bay he is thankful he had so many long lingering shots of each of them staring, laughing, crying, smirking or saying nothing.
Is Duncan is picking his nose or eating his earwax? No problem. Paul just jumps to tapes shot on a different day but in the same location. He looks for some other reaction shot of Duncan, completely out of context -- perhaps Duncan looking sick, or looking sad with a knit brow because Trent is yelling at him, or Duncan staring into space. He then steals the shot and drops it into the scene, and it works.
In one scene, Duncan tells a joke in the pancake house that no one thinks is funny, so Paul scours the dozens of other pancake house tapes and finds some other scene where the tribe laughs uproariously for some other reason. Paul cuts it in, and Duncan is funny.
The biggest challenge, however, is finding them saying nice things about one another. For his version, Paul wants them to be a cohesive family, but in the footage, they are often cruel to one another. Paul knows that Dwight is putting all their flaws and warts into his version. You might not know whether you like the kids or hate them when you see it, which is how Dwight wants it. And that’s how it was during production -- sometimes you liked the kids and sometimes you just hated them.
But Paul can’t leave anything ambiguous. He must make sure the audience is always rooting for the main characters. He scans hundreds of tapes to find Trent and Jodi holding hands, Ilima kissing Duncan on the cheek, Trent slapping Duncan on the back like a good buddy, and the one time every three weeks when they shared a group hug.
But the show is coming together. Sure, it looks rough and choppy. The camera shots sometimes swing all over the place and the edits are often abrupt and jumpy. But it adds a “documentary” feel that make the melodrama seem real. Paul even leaves in some rough stuff on purpose, especially when he sneaks a shot from a different day into in a crucial scene.
And all the loose ends and all the ambiguity drop away when Paul adds music. Dwight never uses music in any of his pieces except during the opening and closing credits, and it’s always classical music or simple guitar. Paul, on the other hand, uses wall-to-wall music to sell his plot. If there’s a moment of confusion about what the audience is supposed to feel, Paul hits them over the head with the right music cue: right now, you should feel angry, sad, happy, scared, or inspired. Especially inspired. He puts in soaring music as often as he can, and the kids look as brave and strong and tragic as dying soldiers in World War II, or a tribe of Sioux braves riding their war ponies across the Great Plains.
At least that’s what he tells himself to get the work done, and half the time it works, although it’s cheesy. That’s when a deeper truth hits him with startling clarity -- with every long stare and every heavy music cue he adds, he is transforming homelessness into a cloying and overwrought soap opera.
Exhaustion returns. In production, he had aching thighs and no feeling in his feet and hands. In the edit bay, it’s a different kind of tired. His eyes itch and burn, and after hours of sitting his lower back shoots pain down his hamstrings. He works longer and longer hours, surpassing the sixteen hours of day he did in production, making it to eighteen hours a day, not including his commute.
During his last three days, he never goes home. He works for Dwight during the day, then edits on his own until five, then grabs a few hours of sleep on the couch. At eight in the morning he staggers into the bathroom, splashes water on his face, wipes the smell from under his arms with wet paper towels, then gets a huge dose of coffee.
Once the caffeine smashes into his brain stem, he goes to the other edit bay and powers through two hours of assistant editing work to help Dwight prep for his day. It’s interesting to see how different the two shows are. Dwight’s version is slowly coming together into a story that is sometimes brilliant but often boring. Yet each day the boring parts get shorter and tighter and sometimes disappear, and Paul figures that with enough time Dwight would end up with something compelling and original. Maybe that’s what Dwight is plotting for -- an extension. If he can get something good enough by Friday, Joel will see the light and give him more time. He may have used the same strategy with all his other shows and succeeded. He just doesn’t realize yet that Joel has already countered Dwight’s secret plan with his own secret plan.
He finishes the first cut of his show on Friday morning at three a.m. He blinks at the computer screen, amazed. He leans back and watches the show as the computer lays it down to videotape, but he is too exhausted and too familiar with every edit to know whether it’s any good or not. None of the music cues or emotional moments move him at all anymore, and he falls asleep halfway through.
He wakes up during the last five minutes of the show, just as Duncan carries the sick Ilima out the vats. Duncan stands in the street as the camera sweeps around him, revealing the paramedics racing down the street to rescue the sick girl.
The scene seems new and dramatic and he feels a twinge of emotion, but just a tug. It’s not enough to change his emotional state too much, but enough to make him want to keep watching. It’s the same feeling he has at the end of most hour-long TV dramas, just before he switches channels. It seems like a real TV show. Paul had succeeded. His version isn’t brilliant, it’s not original, but it is like everything else on TV, which is exactly what Joel wants.
He feels his exhaustion lift. All he has to do is drop the tape in the outgoing box downstairs for Joel’s runner to pick up for home delivery, and he can go home and rest for three days until network notes came back on Monday. But deep down inside, he knows that he had hit the mark and there would be very little for him to do. Paul labels the tape and puts it in a manila envelope, seals it shut, and writes on the outside in black sharpie pen, “TO: CIA Bureau Chief, Rome. FROM: Field Agent XXX. STATUS: Urgent, Top Priority.”
Paul backs up the project, shuts down the computer system, turns out the lights, grabs his jacket and walks out of the room. It’s only 4:30 in the morning so most of the building lights are off. The red fire exit signs glowing at the end of the narrow hallways guide him to the front of the building.
Soon he’ll be back in bed with Maggie, a full hour before the sun comes up. In two weeks, they’ll be in Hawaii and this whole experience will be a distant memory. In four weeks, his life will be his own again. He finds the outgoing runner box at the front desk and drops the tape in.
“What are you doing here?”
Paul whips around. Dwight stands in the shadow of the staircase.
“Dwight, you scared the shit out of me. I didn’t know anyone else was here.”
“I’m behind on my editing. What’s that?” Dwight nods at the manila envelope that Paul just dropped in the outbox.
“It’s something I’ve been working on, on the side.”
“At four thirty in the morning? What is it?”
“It’s a music video I’ve been editing for my friend Andy. It was his gear you wrecked on the shoot. He’s tight on money until the insurance company pays off the claim, but he needs this music video finished, so I’m helping him out.
Paul amazes himself with that lie, but he can tell Dwight believes him from the way he sighs and hangs his head. “Where are you working?” Dwight asks.
“I made friends with another editor on the other side of the building. He said I could edit my stuff on his system, as long as I did it at night after hours.”
“Why didn’t you ask me? You don’t have to edit on someone else’s system in the middle of the night. You can edit on my system any time after eight p.m.”
“I knew you were swamped. Plus, I didn’t want you to know that I was moonlighting while working on your project. But I guess you caught me.”
Dwight steps out of the shadows from under the stairwell. Paul can’t help but think that no one would stand there unless they were hiding. Maybe Dwight knew he was coming and was lying in wait.
Dwight pulls out a pack of cigarettes. “I usually don’t smoke, but nicotine keeps me awake when I need to pull an all-nighter.” He pulls one out and offers the pack to Paul, who takes one. It would keep him awake now, but not smoking with him might be the bigger risk.
“Is that why you’re down here? To sneak a cigarette?”
Dwight nods. He pushes open one of the glass doors, and lets in a rush of cold autumn air. He kicks off one of his shoes and sticks it in the door to keep it from closing all the way, and gestures for Paul to follow him outside.
Dwight stands there with one shoe on, pulls his leather jacket tight around him and lights his cigarette, then lights Paul’s. Dwight breathes deep and exhales blue smoke. Paul takes a light puff.
“Who’s in the music video?”
“This new hip hop group that Andy produces. XXX-Tra. You ever heard of them?”
“They’re pretty good. I think they’re going to make it.”
“I’d love to see it. Maybe I could help. Give you some notes.”
“That’s okay, I know you’ve got a cut to finish.”
“Hey, the whole music video is what? Three minutes, right? I need the break anyway, it’ll be a change of pace.” Dwight pats Paul on the shoulder, all smiles.
“I told Andy I’d leave it at the front desk for him for early pick-up.”
“It’s not even 5 a.m. yet. We could play around for three hours before anyone else even shows up, then do another output.”
“That’s okay, I’m sick of it right now.”
“Let me look at it, then. I know a lot of music video production companies. I could put a good word in for you. Get you more directing and editing work.”
Paul takes one last drag on his cigarette and drops it. Dwight is calling his bluff and he has just the amount of time it takes to snuff the butt out with his shoe to decide what to do about it.
“That’s so cool. Thanks, Dwight. Let me go get the tape.”
Paul pulls the door open and walks back inside. For a moment, he considers kicking the shoe out of the door and locking out Dwight. He could sneak out the back and get the tape to Joel on his own. But then Dwight would know that he’s being betrayed. Paul has visions of Dwight kicking in office doors until he finds the secret edit room still full of tapes, and destroying the entire computer system and project. Then there would be no show at all, except the one VHS low resolution dub he’d just created.
Paul grabs the envelope from the outbox, steps back outside and hands it to Dwight, who looks at the writing on the outside and laughs.
“CIA Bureau Chief, huh? And I guess you’re Agent XXX?”
“We’re just kidding around. Andy and I have been obsessed with spy movies ever since we were kids. I’d love to work in that genre.”
“That’s cool. I know a few people who work on the Bond films. I can pass your names on to them.” Dwight says. He turns the package over in his hands, as if he were trying to see through the envelope.
“I’m exhausted, I have to go. I want to get a few hours of sleep before I come back in,” Paul yawns. “Can you tell me what you think of it when I see you again at ten? I’d be in better shape to absorb your notes.”
“You don’t have to come back in, take the day off,” Dwight declares.
“What about your cut? It’s due today. Don’t you need help with the output?”
“I can handle it myself. You’ve been working hard.”
“Will I still get paid? Sorry to ask,” Paul says.
“I’ll make sure of it.”
“Can I call you in the edit bay at 10 to get your notes then?”
“Sleep in, I’ll watch it and then call you.”
“I’d love to hear what you think about the speed of the edits. I edited out of step with the music. I’m a drummer and I picked a 5/4 pace for the edit, so I’m behind the beat, then I catch up, and then pass it, and then it catches up to me. I think it’s cool, so I hope you like it.”
“I’ll keep my eye out for that,” Dwight says, holding up the package. Paul can tell that Dwight is tired of talking to him.
“Thanks, Dwight.” Paul smiles and starts walking away. He stops and turns back. “Oh, can you do me a favor?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“After you look at the video would you put it back in the envelope, tape it up and leave it downstairs for me again? I think there’s packing tape in the drawers behind the receptionist’s desk. That way Andy’s runner can still pick it up on time and I can do your notes on the next pass.”
Dwight holds the envelope up. “No problem. I’ll do it right after I watch it.”
“Thanks Dwight. And thanks for passing my name on to the music video production companies and the Bond people. I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Paul waves an awkward goodbye, then keeps walking. He rounds the corner of the building and stops. He exhales slowly. When he hears the glass front doors of the building close, he leans down and peeks back around the edge of the building. Dwight is back inside the closed glass lobby. He watches Dwight walk over to the outgoing box, and drop the manila envelope back inside without ever opening the package.
Dwight called Paul’s bluff, and then Paul called his. As Paul watches Dwight walk back up the stairs toward his edit bay, Paul knows he’ll probably never hear from Dwight again.