I wish I could say this was working with a major motion picture director and screen writer, but no, I can’t say that. Still, it’s been an education on how they work.
Some months ago, I told a friend who is a motion picture production major at one of our local universities a story. The next thing I know, he’s asking if I’d actually write it up for him to look at. I had written it several times up in various forums and such, but recently, when I started work on “The Lawman”, I’d decided it was a perfect story for Jonesy and Will (two of my central characters) to have experienced together.
So, before I start telling you how interesting it was to work with this man, here’s the story. This way you can start seeing some of his issues and limitations. This is from the chapter titled “The Last Supper”.
I kept an eye on my watch, turning the steaks at four minutes. Some I’d segregated. They’d be the medium well steaks. The others were well done. Either way, within ten minutes we were fishing potatoes and corn from the grill and had all sat down at the picnic table to eat. Overhead, the stars stood out hard and cold, incredibly distant and eternal.
As we sat eating, the wind came up and there was a sudden cry that echoed through the trees. Almost everyone looked up from their meal. Andy actually stood up, his hand moving to the butt of his pistol. Almost everyone stiffened except me. I just kept munching on my corn.
“What the hell was that,” Kari asked, her tanned face going a little white under the light of a million stars.
“That” I answered while dabbing at some steak juices with a slice of break, “Was La Llorona
“The what?” Andy asked.
“The crying woman,” I explained, and then chuckled at their discomfort. I looked at them and realized they didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. “It’s a ghost story.”
“A ghost story,” Jonesy gasped.
Jewell picked up the story. “It’s a legend of the South-West. It seems there was a woman who lost her children in a flood. She also died in the flood, but at the gates of heaven she was unable to account for their whereabouts, and was denied entry. So now, her ghost wanders the rivers and streams looking for them, and she cries as she goes about.”
“What a terrible story,” Annie said.
“Well, that’s just one version,” I said, not in least put off by the unearthly cry. I’d heard it before. “The other version says she drowned the children herself. And her punishment haunts the streams and waterways looking for them.”
“There’s another story,” Jewell said, her voice going a little quiet. “That the cry also signals the approach of a death.”
I shrugged. “Let’s hope not,” I said.
The wind blew again, and sure enough, the cry echoed through the mountains. Obviously it was just a fluke of nature, but it was just enough to brush against that ancient part of our minds and cause the hair to stand on the neck.
“Well, you and I have had out close encounters with ghosts,” Jonesy said.
Max sensed the story coming. “What do you mean?”
“Remember that Iraqi airbase we were all camped outside of during the ceasefire?” Jonesy said, looking at Max.
Max nodded. “I remember when they finally blew it up. One of those rounds that cooked off impacted within a matter of yards of my Humvee.” He looked at the puzzled civilians. “They told us where they expected stuff to come down, and gave us a line that we were supposed to be on the other side of. Guess they figured wrong. We put another half mile between us and the dump really quick.” He paused and looked at Jonesy. “But Jonesy, back to your story. I don’t think I’ve heard this one.”
Jonesy dabbed some grease from his lips. “And you shouldn’t have heard it now, except I’ve got a big mouth. Will and I swore it never happened, but here goes. That homicide we had while we were out there, actually plays in a little into this.
“Remember everyone was dog tired from the war and all the guard duty. Like Max said, this place had a huge ammo dump, and we were going to blow it up. But till that happened, we were keeping a 24 hour watch on it.
“Will and I decided to make sure some folks got the night off. Besides, we were curious. In the course of our investigation, we’d conducted several interviews. All said something was out there, but no one seemed to know what that something was. So we both said we’d run one of the guard posts. That meant driving out in our Humvee, and parking at one corner of the ammo dump. There were other teams out, and while we were stretched pretty thin still, we had good coverage, good visibility, and not much was going to sneak past us. Besides, we were maybe a quarter mile from our camp, and if we ran into trouble, a lot of help was close by.
“So we went to our station, checked the radio, made sure our weapons were good to go, that the NVGs had fresh batteries, you know, doing all the soldier stuff. After the Sun set, we sat up on top of the hummer, talking quietly and watching things. We had excellent fields of visibility and fire, and nothing was getting past us. I remember it was a moonless night, but the sky was like tonight. Plenty of stars. I thought the skies were beautiful. Will said they were terrible for an Astronomer. While most everything was pitch black, our NVGs made the night like day. We used them sparingly though. No sense in killing the batteries too fast. It was a quiet and beautiful night.
“It was getting along about 1 in the morning and we’d just finished munching on some MREs where we heard footsteps. It sounded like someone was walking away from us down a road that we were parked near. I turned on my NVGs, and looked but couldn’t see anything. Will had done the same, and he said, “I don’t see anyone”. We were both thinking the same thing. That someone had slipped past us somehow. But then the footsteps stopped, we could hear someone turn, and then they were walking towards us, still on the road. But we couldn’t see anyone. I slipped down off the Humvee, and whispered up to Will, “Cover me”. He slipped behind the 60, and was pointing it towards the sound. I ran to a position where I still had concealment, hoping to surprise whoever it was.
“The footsteps got closer, passed in front of me, and then walked away. They got about a hundred meters down, turned, and started coming back, and passed me again. They sounded like they were close enough for me to have grabbed whoever was making them, but there was no one there. Even without NVGs, I should have been able to see him, but nothing. No person, no shadow, just the sound. I said ‘screw this’, and tan back to the Humvee and told Will what he already knew. ‘There’s no one making them!’”
He looked around at his audience. Everyone was watching him, trying to imagine the scene. Jonesey sipped at his drink, and then went on.
“Well, Will says, ‘cover me’. He goes out and makes absolutely no effort to hide himself. Instead he stands right in the path of where the footsteps sounded like they were coming from. He’s got his weapon up, pointed right at them. Of course we were both wearing NVGs. We could hear the footsteps, and we could see everything except whatever was making them.
“I heard the footsteps stop, turn, and start coming back. They approached Will, and I saw him tracking the source of the sound with the muzzle of his gun, and then put the weapon down. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and walked back to the Humvee. He climbs up to the top with me, and we just sat there watching and listening.
After a while, it dawns on us what it sounded like. It sounded exactly like someone walking a guard post. About half an hour later, the footsteps faded away and the rest of the night was quiet.”
“And when morning came,” I said, “it got even weirder.”
Jonesy nodded. “We went back out and the only footprints we found were our own.”
Everyone was quiet for a few moments, and finally Andy said, “Wow. How did it figure into a homicide?”
“That’s one heck of a story,” Max said.
I chuckled. “Yeah, well, that homicide is a whole other story, one that will take hours to tell. Jonesy didn’t finish this one though. When we got back to our camp, Cpl Mac came up to us. He’d run the team the night before us, and he asked, ‘did you guys hear anything odd last night’?
“Such as,” I’d asked.
“He said, ‘like someone walking a guard post, walking back and forth’?
“Only there was no one there?”
“He’d nodded and Jonesy and I both said at the same time, ‘of course not’.”
In a nutshell, that’s the story I told him. A few days later, he came back and asked if he could write it into a script for his class. I told him to go ahead.
That’s where the fun begins. Some of what I didn’t know about script writing was “You should never give your actors direction”.
When you’re writing a story, you not only direct the actors, but you determine everything about them, to include physical characteristics, habits, and so on. When he showed me the original draft, he actually asked about the characters from the story.
“Will,” I told him is about 6’4” 210 lbs. He’s a marathon runner, well educated, and would be one of the last people in the world to call himself a bad ass. Jonesy, on the other hand, is black, a power lifter and a martial artist, and while articulate, is nowhere as near well read as Will. There’s years of history between them, all of which meant having each other’s back. They tend to think of each other as brothers.
When he added that into the story, it took it in a slightly different direction. You suddenly had two men reacting to the unknown in two different ways. From the story, we see where I had Will sling arms and walk back to the HumVee. From my perspective, it spoke volumes about Will. He’d looked at an unknown, and determined that whatever it was, it wasn’t in least bit interested in him, and therefore was not a threat.
But that was considered giving the actors direction. Let the actors fill in the blanks was what his instructor said.
That mere act and attitude was considered direction. I had to let the actors and the actual director fill in the blanks on how they acted, and felt. And without the knowing Will’s background, it didn’t make sense. So we had to find a way to show he was a thinker, whereas Jonesy was a bit more impulsive. I helped him write a scene where Will and Jonesy are talking. They are talking over a game of chess in their tent. It’s clear that Will is the player, he’s slowly cornering Jonesy. He has plenty of pieces while Jonesy has been reduced to just a few. We also see some of their personal effects. Will has several books on science (especially math and astronomy, though his Bible is obvious). Jonesy has on the other hand books on martial arts, and magazines on body building.
This helped separate the two characters, and it allowed their dialogue to help move the story.
Another place that we had to expand on was why they were sitting out in the middle of nowhere. While I could get away with saying an “Abandoned Iraqi airstrip’, he had to show it. That involved describing it and so forth. He also had to write in that we weren’t alone. That this area was occupied by at least a company sized element.
He also had to make it clear that they were guarding an Iraqi ammo dump that would be blown up within a matter of days.
Both instances presented some rather difficult shooting options. To show a whole camp translates into money. You have to have the material (in this case it meant tents, vehicles, showing some infrastructure, and above all, people. This being a military camp in Iraq at the close of the Gulf War meant uniforms and weapons. Very little of that comes cheap.
We ended up covering it all with background noise and dialogue. The sounds of vehicles moving about, people talking, and general ambient noise helped building the impression that there was a lot more than just a tent out in the middle of nowhere. We also had the characters help paint the scene by saying things like “Let’s go to Mess Tent and grab some coffee.” Or, “I need to go to supply,” or “Over to the Medics”. In fact, we had to use dialogue to cover a whole host of money we didn’t have.
The ammo dump actually turned out to be simple. Along with talking about it, we located a potato warehouse that was partial buried. It had a chain link fence, and the owners were more than happy to allow shooting a short film there. Add an abandoned guard shack, and some signs, and it might have been perfect except for the background. There were plenty of trees about and snowcapped mountains in the background. You’d have to be really careful with your shots, or the illusion would have been destroyed.
I also had a bit in the story where Jonesy talks about getting ready for the night by checking equipment and etc.. That all got shortened to one three second shot. The HumVee in the foreground, the sun setting in the background, and one of the M60 machine guns being handed up from inside the vehicle to be placed on the mount.
Unfortunately, this little film probably won’t get shot anytime soon. Just not enough money to make it happen. But by the time there is, I should have “Echoes” completed and maybe then we can just make the whole film rather than just a few scenes.