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

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Paul stares out the window as the bus flies down Wilshire, across Western, and into the buzzing neon lights of Koreatown. He locked his car in Maggie’s garage and changed the outgoing message on her answering machine to tell the creditors that he is“on location” for six weeks, which wasn’t a lie considering how little time he’d have off.

They cross Alameda Boulevard into no-man’s land and he rings the “stop requested” bell. He is the only person left on the bus.

“You sure you know where you’re going?” the driver asks.

“I got an address. TV location.” Paul steps onto the pavement.

The driver smiles. “Have fun slumming.” The pneumatic doors hiss shut and Paul is left standing in a cloud of diesel dust.

Paul looks around. The neighborhood is so empty there aren’t even cars on the street. It’s just past nightfall and the lights of the skyscrapers behind him glow orange. He hears the distant rumbling of the freeway, the ubiquitous noise of Los Angeles. He spots the building a block away -- a three-story cement warehouse with a faded mug of beer stenciled on the side -- the abandoned brewery. He walks over.

A solitary white panel van is parked across the street, so he knocks on the door. A screaming face with a gun appears at the window.

“Get away from the van!”

Paul steps back, his hands in the air. “I’m Paul! I’m the new audio guy!”

The van’s back door flies open and spits out a short muscular man who grabs Paul’s hand. He is in his mid-40′s, in great shape, with a full head of black hair. “Victor Nadyze,” he says with a Russian accent. “Cameraman. Sorry about the gun. It’s to scare off the poor crazy people.”

“Is Dwight around?”

“He went to get us food. The kids are still asleep.”

Paul looks up at the three-floor cement building. It’s dark, and all the doors and ground floor windows are boarded over. “Do they really live in there?”

“It’s not that bad. Where I come from some people live much worse. Many times, they freeze to death in the winter, the conditions are so terrible.”

Victor spits and shakes his head at the memory, begging Paul to ask the question. “Where in Russia are you from?” Paul asks.

“Moscow. But I’ve been here fifteen years. I defected from Afghanistan.”

Paul waits to see if Victor will now ask a question about him. Nothing.

“Were you a soldier, Victor?” Paul asks, to keep the conversation going.

“I was in the Soviet Army, Special Forces. I served five years in the mountains outside Kabul.” He looks Paul hard in the eye, demanding respect. “Near the end, we were losing badly. Our battalion was surrounded and couldn’t retreat, so I abandoned the struggle and sneaked into Kabul alone at night. Because I was an officer, I knew I could trade information for freedom with the CIA. But I had to find the Americans first before the Mujahedeen found me.”

Paul smiles and nods while Victor studies him with blank eyes, which makes Paul wonder where Victor put his gun. Then Paul feels the warm summer wind on his face and he can smell jasmine even in the heart of downtown, standing in an abandoned street at sunset with an angry Russian war veteran. Another movie moment, he thinks, and files it away.

The wind blows up a dust tornado. A trash can fire flickers on a corner a few blocks down and Paul can see people creeping on another warehouse roof a few hundred yards away. The night people are coming out. Maybe it’s a good thing that Victor and his gun are around.

“How did you end up on this project, Victor?” Paul asks.

“I started first as paparazzi. I was the best. You remember Cher?”

“Sure do. Very talented actress.”

“For a year I followed her, never stopping, using my military training to track her, to hide, and to take photos. Her boyfriend tried to run me down in her Ferrari and crashed the car. Those were my best pictures.” He pulls up his t-shirt to reveal a tattoo of Cher from Moonstruck on his shoulder. “Cher made me a lot of money. Now I shoot video.”

Big Andy’s truck rounds the corner and stops.

“That’s my gear. I’ll be right back,” Paul says, glad to be able to walk away.

Andy and Paul meet at the tailgate and dab fists. “Nice buzz cut,” Andy says. “The scar makes you look mean.”

“I can’t complain. It helped me get the job.”

Andy motions towards Victor, who is glaring at them. “Who’s the psycho?”

“The cameraman. I think he killed the last audio guy.”

Andy opens a silver carrying case and pulls out the gear -- black graphite microphones, cables, a boom pole, headphones, transmitters, tiny radio microphones batteries, and a small metal box with a lot of knobs -- the mixer that controls everything.

Then out comes the blue bag that will hold all of it. Paul watches as each piece of gear fits into its own Velcro spot in the bag, with slots left over for nine-volt batteries, black sharpie pens, a micro-tool kit, a tiny metal flashlight, sticky tape in black, white, green, red and grey, and an extra set of stereo headphones. Then Andy hands Paul his harness -- a shoulder-to-waist contraption that will hold the bag in place across Paul’s hips and chest. This leaves his two hands free so he can hold the boom pole.

“This is all your gear, plus the metal case,” Andy explains.

Paul blinks at it all, unable to move. “I hope you’re getting a good rate on this stuff because it’ll be completely ruined by the time I’m done with it.”

Andy pushes the bag towards him. “We’re an hour early. Just practice taking it apart and putting it together a dozen times. You’ll be fine.”

Andy is right. It’s not that different than what he did for Andy in the mixing studio, only it’s small and compact and runs on batteries.

Paul puts on the harness and attaches the blue bag. He feels himself gain thirty pounds. He tries extending the boom pole and gets tangled in his own wires, then the bag shifts slightly and pitches him forward into the street. Andy barely catches him. Paul glances at Victor, who shakes his head and goes back into the van.

“In ten hours, you’ll be an expert.”

“I’m supposed to be an expert already. They think we own this rig together.”

Paul takes all the gear off and lays it on the tailgate. He shakes, mostly from fear.

“I have to get a hat,” he lies. “Without any hair, I’m freezing out here.”

Andy sees through it. “Relax. You’ve shot enough video to know what the audio guy does. Just get the sound and stay out of the cameraman’s way. If you get good sound on tape, no one notices you. The minute you screw up, that’s when it’s all your fault,” he warns. “And when in doubt, fake it. You know more than they do, remember that.”

“I’ll remember.”

Andy pulls out his keys, ready to go. “Are you going to be okay?”

“I’ll be cool. Just wear your pager, please.”

“I’m available, 24/7.” Paul and Andy punch fists and Andy climbs in his truck and drives away, leaving Paul alone with gear worth thousands of dollars.

Paul walks back over the white panel van. Victor opens the back door and waves for Paul to come look. Inside are monitors, cameras, a microwave transmitter and receiver, carpeted wooden shelves stacked with replacement parts, camping chairs, a couple of coolers and a foam mattress. Paul wonders if Victor lives in there.

Paul spots Dwight from a block away, carrying two paper sacks. Head held high, he walks with firm purpose, telegraphing his point -- others might drive, but he walks in Los Angeles. And he buys his own lunch. No assistant, no catering, no big production for him, Dwight likes his crew small, and he likes doing it all, because he’s an artist. He arrives and nods at Paul.

“Good evening. We have about ten minutes to fuel up before we go in. I hope you like burritos.” He hands Paul his dinner.

“Before we start, let’s go over a few of the rules,” Dwight says between wolf-size bites. “First, I’m a purist when it comes to documentaries. I’m the first to admit that we alter “reality” the moment we walk into a room with a camera. But my goal is to alter it as little as possible.”

“I appreciate that,” Paul says in mid-chew. They are all rushing through their meal in five minutes. Does he eat every meal this way?

“We’re like wildlife documentary filmmakers in the bush -- if our behavior is systematic and repetitive, then the animals we’re filming grow acclimated to our presence and return to how they naturally behave. That’s true with lions, elephant seals, bears and humans. Our goal is to become a regular, predictable part of their lives. Right, Victor?”

Paul looks over at Victor. The Russian preps his camera gear in total concentration. Paul imagines him prepping his weapons with the same intensity, just before tumbling out of some mud hut and sweeping down upon a band of unsuspecting Afghans. Victor starts barking back the rules, his eyes never leaving his work.

“The rules are: One -- we never talk to the cast. Two -- we never display emotion while in front of the cast. Three -- we must wear dark neutral clothing. Four -- we shoot four half-hour tapes then take a ten-minute break. During the break, we retreat to a neutral area where we can change batteries, check the gear, and drink water. There is a Porto-Potty on the side of the building for us to use, but only us. Five -- we only eat during meal breaks, which are every six hours. There is no snacking, and no showing food or drinks of any kind to the cast. Six: We cannot give money, even show money, to the cast.” Victor slams a thirty-minute tape into the camera and stands up. Locked and loaded, ready for battle. Paul is surprised that Victor didn’t salute.

Dwight smiles, proud of his soldier. “Any questions?”

“Where will you be?” Paul asks.

“In the van.” Dwight points to a large white baton strapped to the side of Victor’s camera -- a microwave transmitter. “This sends the TV signal to the van, where I see everything Victor shoots. Victor wears a walkie-talkie with a headset, so I can tell him what to shoot. Your job is to get the audio and to watch Victor -- stay out of his way, and any direction from me will come through him.”

A buzz came from inside the open van. Victor walks over and turns up the volume on a speaker. A voice came through -- “Come on Trent, you owe me those smokes!”

“Jodi’s awake,” Dwight says.

“Where’s that coming from?” Paul asks.

“I hid microphones inside, to hear them.” Victor says.

Paul looks at the two men. Dwight is the general, and Victor is his soldier of fortune. They are in synch with each other and Paul is not…yet.

“Another thing,” Dwight says. “You’re new and they’ll notice you and talk about you. Just follow the rules and it will pass.” Dwight looks at his watch. “Let’s move.”

Dwight steps into the back of the van and crouches down next to the monitors. How can he direct like that? Paul wonders. Victor shuts and locks the back door of the van, lifts the camera on his shoulder and darts across the street. Paul scrambles to gather his gear, tripping over his own boom cable as he chases after him.

Paul sees no way to get inside the old building -- every opening is nailed shut. But there is a fire escape. Victor puts his camera down, steps back and then runs and hits the wall high with his shoe, gaining just enough height to catch a dangling cord tied to the last step of the metal stairs. He cantilevers the ladder down to the ground, pulling the staircase into range.

The metal structure sways under Paul’s feet. Five, maybe six bolts prevent the whole structure from shearing away from the building like ice off a glacier. Paul remembers how nervous Dwight had been on the fire escape during Duncan’s interview, and how calm and collected Duncan seemed.

At the first landing, Victor lifts the ladder back up, then pushes at the plywood sheet covering the first window. It swings open, revealing a dark cement hallway inside.

Paul is excited, and it surprises him. He hasn’t felt this kind of exhilaration in a long time, especially not during the grind of the last year. It’s a rush, like how he felt when he was in that speed-metal band in college and they first walked out on stage, or at his first film festival just as the lights dimmed. Or when he first made love with Maggie, when their clothes came off and they both knew there was no going back. The rush means that he is on the edge and great things or dreadful things are about to happen, and he doesn’t know which. That edge is where he is now, and it’s raw and glorious, and full of the thrill of the new. He realizes how much he misses it.

“You ready?” Victor asks. Paul nods and they step through.

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