Reality Road Kill (work in progress!!!!)

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The reception area is done up like Whoville from the Dr. Suess book, with twisting furniture and paisley walls. Paul is nervous, but prepared. He wears chino pants and a clean dress shirt, with a new baseball cap on his re-bandaged head. He even shaved twice to eliminate any hint of beard -- the younger he looks, the better.

Before driving over, he downloaded some trade articles about Joel Cuvney and the ABS Producers Lab. It’s a satellite company the Fox network established to give “total creative freedom” to young producers “destined to re-invent the medium of television.” That scares Paul. “Total creative freedom” means the company has been given no real money. That’s the trade-off; the network gives them nothing substantial to risk, but they have total freedom to waste it however they like. He hoped the job would pull down at least a union wage, but now he knows they’ll pay him far less per hour than what they paid the designer to do the lobby.

What intrigues him the most however, is a line from a Hollywood Reporter article that said Joel Cuvney is teaming up with Dwight Werner on a “network special.”

Dwight Werner is a documentary filmmaker loved by critics, his films are shown in film classes around the country, but he has never been a commercial success except maybe back in the 1980s. People consider his work either hard-to-understand masterpieces or the Emperor’s New Clothes. So why is he doing a network special?

Paul remembers only one of his films, Daytona, a plodding three-hour exposé of college spring break at Daytona Beach, Florida. He remembers it because he had just been to Daytona on spring break himself and had gotten drunk on mescal, stoned on pot, high on ecstasy, laid by a redhead from Michigan State, robbed by Townies, survived on waffles and Spudnuts, was beaten up by roadies from MTV, then got laid again by a brunette handing out free cigarettes on the beach, all in seventy-two hours, and he had only foggy memories of any of it. He’d gone to the movie Daytona hoping it would trigger some memories, but Dwight Werner’s film was about the local Daytona soda delivery boy and how hard he worked while all the college kids were partying, which was so boring Paul fell asleep. He found out later that the documentary had won awards at several film festivals and he contemplated renting it to see if he’d missed the point.

Paul sinks back in the lobby sofa and stares up at the bowling pin clock mounted on the ceiling. He’d been there thirty minutes already. Were they blowing him off? A door shaped like a cello opens and a male model in black slacks and an ironed Gold’s Gym t-shirt strides across the carpet and shook his hand.

“Paul? Scott. Please, come this way. Joel and Dwight are in a meeting with the head of production, they’ll be right in.”

Paul steps through the cello door into a regular office. As Paul trails Scott through the maze of Dilbert cubicles, he shakes off the creeping fear that he too is destined for a cubicle like the rest of humanity. He is glad to get to Joel’s room where he can sit on another couch and stare out the window.

“Would you like some coffee? Tea?”

“Just water.”

“Easy enough,” and Scott opens a small refrigerator by the desk and hands him

an Evian bottle. Scott disappears and Paul sips.

How many of these offices has Paul been in? For script pitches, maybe...fifty? Then he lost his agent. For production jobs, maybe another...forty? Lunches were far fewer. The suits considered him worthy of that tax deduction for only about three months, when his short film was still hot.

Joel Cuvney and Dwight Werner suddenly are in the room. Paul jumps to his feet to shake hands but they only brush palms before Joel slides behind his desk and Dwight plops down in the easy chair next to him.

“Paul, thanks for coming in. I see you took one of my waters,” Joel says.

Paul stands alone with egg on his face while Joel paws through his stack of pink messages from the receptionist. I should’ve asked for coffee, Paul thinks.

Paul sits back down across from Dwight. He is a squat man in his 50’s, built like a fireplug, with sandy grey hair in a Caesar haircut. His whole body is rigid except for his right leg, which shakes like a piston on the ball of his foot. The rest of him is frozen, staring at him. This man is a famous filmmaker, but he looks like an angrier version of Paul’s own dad.

Joel moves around and sits next to Paul on the couch. Joel is younger than Paul by maybe two years, with a plain long face and thinning black hair, but he has a confident casualness of someone born to a high station in life. Paul figures his family is well off, because he is far too young to have moved up from the mailroom. This job was bestowed upon him. Joel has his own nervous tic as well -- an Omega watch he keeps twisting on his wrist, unhooking and hooking the metal clasp.

It’s hard to figure out their relationship. Does the famous Dwight Werner truly answer to the younger Joel? Or is Joel the tiny obligatory leash the network put on Dwight, who intends to do what he wants anyway, as long as he comes in on budget?

Joel opens first. “Paul. Tell us about yourself.”

“I’ve done audio with Big Andy for years. I can work a mixer and hold up a boom for ten hours straight without a break.” Paul claps his hands, full of energy.

“If Andy referred you, I’m sure you’re qualified. What we want is for you to tell us about you. Your hopes and dreams,” Joel says with a straight face.

Damn, Paul thinks, it was a trick question. He decides on the short version.

“I’m from Andover, Massachusetts. I grew up watching a lot of TV, and then as a teenager I’d go to the movies three or four times a week. I still do.”

The two men stare.

Documentaries, Paul thinks, I must mention documentaries.

“I’d see comedies, dramas, foreign films...and especially documentaries.”

Dwight perks up. “You like reality?”

“I love reality.”

“What do you like?”

Paul should remember something, quick. His memory bank kicks out a list:

“I like Harlan County, USA... Roger and Me... My Brother’s Keeper... Paisan...Titticut Follies...Daytona...”

“You liked Daytona?” Dwight asks.

“It was wonderful. It was a side of spring break no one ever sees.”

Dwight stares at Paul. What does that stare mean?

“How’d you end up on the West Coast?” Joel asks.

“In college, I did a short film. It’s called Breakneck Speed, and it won a lot of festivals in the short film category.”

“Which ones?” Dwight asks.

“Chicago, Black Maria, Mill Valley...”

“You won the best short film at the Chicago Film Festival?” Joel’s eyes widen...

“Yup. And then I came out to Los Angeles and I’ve been here ever since.”

“Have you written anything?”

“Seven screenplays. I optioned two, and sold one erotic thriller that never got

made. So, I decided I’d just make my own feature, like I did with my short film.”

“Don’t tell me,” Joel teases, “you’re doing Breakneck Speed 2.”

“I wish,” Paul laughs, “because maybe it’d be done by now. It’s called Liars Dice, and it’s about a man and woman who work as thieves, and they meet and fall in love, only they can’t trust one another. I shot a third of it and then ran out of money, so I cut a trailer and now I’m showing it around town trying to raise the money to finish it.”

“You’re one of those guys you read about who makes a movie with credit cards and gets catapulted to fame and fortune.”

“Except right now, my credit cards are all maxed out.”

Dwight’s leg stops shaking and Joel stops playing with watch. Paul can’t decide if that’s a bad sign or a good sign.

“What about audio?” Dwight asks.

Paul feels the sweat dripping down his neck. I should have talked about audio, he thinks. Your hopes and dreams must fit the job they’re offering.

“I shoot too, but I prefer doing sound. It carries so much of the story. I go into each job thinking that the sound is just as crucial as picture,” Paul says.

“Do you own your own rig?” Dwight asks. A good question; ownership indicates how serious one is about their craft. Paul decides to lie.

“I co-own one with a friend. Joel knows him -- Big Andy. Our kit has a Shure mixer, three Sennheiser microphones, three lavs, and four Lectrosonic wireless microphones. Between the two of us the rig is always out working. We do junkets, industrials...but mostly entertainment news. And docs. Lots of docs.”

Joel and Dwight nod. Maybe they like what they’re hearing.

A tingle of regret goes up Paul’s spine. Where did that lie come from? He prays for the questions to stop.

Joel and Dwight lean back and look at each other and trade a secret message. Joel speaks first. “Paul, you’re fantastic. You’re a filmmaker in your own right, and you own a business. You’re a one-man operation, which is how you have to be today.”

He’s buttering me up, Paul thinks. Now he’s going to bend me over.

Joel gets up and moves behind his desk to distance himself. “But we’re really looking for someone younger who’s just starting out. This project is a lot of work with many hours in the field, and it sounds like you’re already gone through that stage in your career.”

“I thought this was a network special,” Paul says.

“It is. But it’s a new documentary-reality hybrid, and we’re inventing it as we speak. And, like a lot of hybrids, it’s fragile, and we don’t have the time, money, or resources a regular network special commands.”

Paul oversold himself -- he is too qualified, and he didn’t even know audio. He considers brown-nosing Dwight about what a privilege it would be to work with such a famous filmmaker, but he knows the drill -- be gracious, get out, and cry in the car.

“I completely understand,” Paul says. And if you guys have any trouble finding someone, just call me and I’ll pass on some names.” They shake hands and Paul leaves.

He stops after six steps. Parking. He must get validated or he’ll be stuck with a ten-dollar parking bill he can’t afford. He turns on his heel and walks back into Joel’s office with the parking stub in his hand...and both Dwight and Joel stare at him open-mouthed, as if he’s naked and painted blue.

“I’m sorry to interrupt. Do you give stickers for parking?”

“The back of your shirt,” Joel whispers. “It’s covered in blood.”

Paul stretches to see over his shoulder. The back of his white dress shirt is stained red down past his shoulder blades. Then he sees the red stain on the couch where he’d just been sitting. He sits back down and slowly pulls off his hat, and the new bandages fall off with it. Paul lets everything drop to the floor. He doesn’t care anymore.

Dwight peers down at his scalp. “You need stitches. Why didn’t you go see a doctor?”

“I’m broke. That’s the damn fucking truth.”

Joel peeks too. “Yuck. How did you do that?”

“I was shooting video at a movie premiere, someone punched me and I had to dive to the pavement to save their camera.”

“Did you save it?” asks Dwight.

“Yup. And I only made fifty bucks.”

Dwight smiles. “Joel, I think we found our guy.”

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