Archive for September, 2011

30
Sep
11

Story Structure Day 4: Dracula (1931)

Director: Tod Browning
Writer:
Hamilton Dean & John L. Balderston, based on the play by Garrett Fort, based in turn on the novel by Bram Stoker
Cast:
Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Solan & Francis Dade

Plot: The mysterious Count Dracula and his unwitting slave, Renfield, travel to England. When the ship is arrived, the entire crew and passenger manifest is dead, save for Renfield, who has gone mad. Dracula takes up residence in an abbey near Renfield’s sanitarium, and mysterious sightings and deaths occur, spurring the noted professor Van Helsing to confront the Count, and expose him for what he truly is – a vampire.

Thoughts: I’ve been waiting for this one. The Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, more than any other film or piece of pop culture, is what has helped to inform our current perception of the vampire. (Because the things in Twilight are not vampires, damn you Stephenie Meyer.) A lot of people don’t even realize how many of our current tropes come from this film or its sequels or imitators – the explicit connection of the vampire to bats, for example (where in the past – and even in this film – vampires could transform into bats, wolves, mist, and other things), or their aversion to sunlight. As important as those things are to current vampire lore, they didn’t come from the classic lore. (Which raises the question – if the Universal pictures depiction of the vampire hadn’t made him allergic to sunlight, would Meyer still have felt the urge to make Edward Cullen sparkle as an aversion to that trope? Hmm. Okay, I think I need to stop talking about Twilight now.)

Lugosi pops in with his tuxedo, his cape, his pendant, and those convenient beams of light that always seem to fall across his eyes and he absolutely owns the room, mesmerizing whoever’s on screen with him and whoever happens to be watching him. He may not be overtly sexual in the way that writers have tried to make vampires since the rise of Anne Rice, but he’s clearly seductive in a way that defies explanation. Even without the supernatural powers of the vampire, Lugosi’s presence would command anybody.

Other classic horror character tropes appear to be in their infancy here as well. Renfield, once Dracula has possessed him, is extremely effective. Dwight Frye has a madness in his eyes that spreads throughout his entire face. As he smiles and peers up the staircase of the ship at the camera, you find yourself absolutely chilled to the bone – he’s a madman, and he’s coming after you next. The Renfields of this world may come second to the Igors as the horror movie second bananas, but when played right, I’d be more scared of a Renfield any day. The atmosphere of the film is powerful as well – the scenery is fantastic, and the scenery is the stuff of every classic haunted house.

As masterful as Lugosi and Frye’s performances are, however, some of the other elements of this 80-year-old film just don’t hold up as well. Granted, you’ve got to make allowances for the special effects limitations of the time, but the scene towards the beginning where Renfield leans out of his carriage to see a bat flying in front just yanks a modern audience out entirely – it looks as though someone is dangling a rubber bat from a fishing pole, which probably isn’t that far from the truth.

You can’t blame age on stale performances, though, and Lugosi and Frye are really the only memorable actors in the film. The women are mannequins, and Edward Van Solan’s Van Helsing is forgettable at best. David Manners as Jonathan Harker is just plain bland, vanilla, and utterly unexciting.

The climax of the film, however, is what really hurts it. After so much tension and so much buildup, the ending just doesn’t excite. Van Helsing simply marches into Dracula’s lair and stakes him – off-camera at that. Again, I’m trying to make allowances for the time period. There wasn’t going to be any gory close-ups or a fountain of blood (like in the painfully weak Mel Brooks comedy, Dracula: Dead and Loving It), but at the same time, I can’t help thinking there could have been more. In truth, I think it speaks to how the still-evolving language of film hadn’t really been solidified yet. The film is based on the stage play based (legally, unlike Nosferatu) on Bram Stoker’s novel, and in 1931 they were still filming movies as if they were stage plays. I actually worked backstage on a production of this play several years ago, and I know how effective the final scene can be when done properly, but film is an entirely different medium with different demands.

The same goes for the novel – in the book, a great deal of the tension and fear is internal. It’s a lot harder to do that in a movie. You need to give the audience something to look at, something to see and fear. This is one of the reasons I’m not a purist when it comes to film adaptations. Sometimes, what works great on the printed page just doesn’t work on film. This is a case where the screenwriters should have found a more dramatic way to stage that final moment between Van Helsing and Dracula, some way to get the audience more engaged, than just waltzing in and driving in the stake.

I look back at these comments and I start to feel a little worried about myself. This film is a classic of the genre, isn’t it? I sure as hell haven’t endured for 80 years, do I really have the right dismiss something that millions have found frightening? Worst of all, what if I’m falling victim to the same mindset that I so often accuse my high school English students of having? What if I’m unable to divorce myself from my modern mindset and appreciate the film for what it was when it was created?

A terrifying thought.

But then I look at the next film on my list, a film released in the same year as Dracula, and one that I do consider a masterpiece of cinema. And I think, “Maybe Dracula simply doesn’t hold up the way Frankenstein does.”

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

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29
Sep
11

Story Structure Day 3: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Director: Rupert Julian
Writer:
Walter Anthony & Elliot J. Clawson
Cast:
Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin & Norman Kerry

Plot: As new owners take possession of an Opera House, they begin to hear tales of a Ghost that inhabits its walls. The Phantom, as he calls himself, begins leaving threatening notes, telling them to place Christine Daae in the lead role of their performance of Faust. When they fail to comply, a curse is brought upon the house, the Phantom abducts Christine, and a chase for her life and the survival of the opera house ensues.

Thoughts: This is the last of the silent films I’ll be watching for this little experiment, but I think it’s easily my favorite. To begin with, it’s just extremely well made. The sets are elaborate and well-constructed, the performances aren’t quite as over-the-top melodramatic as many silent era performances tended to be, and the work of the immortal Lon Chaney as the Phantom is truly extraordinary. It’s said he did his makeup himself, and that it was hidden from the audiences until the premiere of the film. Contrast that to the movie trailers we get these days, that give away the entire damn movie in 90 seconds. Chaney, friends, was a true showman.

But I think something else that helps this film appeal to me is that it feels more modern in the telling than the other movies I’ve watched. It’s still silent, of course, but I’m starting to see a lot of the language of modern storytelling begin to appear. This film is not merely a filmed stage play, the way so many early films are. There are different angles, different cuts, different ways of telling the story we didn’t see before. It’s not as drastic as the cinematic evolution we’d later get in Citizen Kane, of course, but it’s definitely there. There’s a scene, for instance, where Christine (Mary Philbin) and her lover (Norman Kerry) fall down in the midst of an angry mob. Instead of watching them overwhelmed, the camera stays with them while the mob runs around it. It’s not an unusual shot at all by modern standards, but by the standards of the time it was a really clever trick.

In terms of horror, we’re seeing the monster beginning to evolve as well. The Golem was literally a lifeless beast, propelled by the whims of its creator. Count Orlock in Nosferatu was evil for evil’s sake – which can be terrifying, but lacks some depth. Erik, the Phantom, progresses cinematic monsters to the next level by giving him an actual motivation: love. Granted, it’s a sick, twisted kind of love, but let’s be honest here, so are half the relationships you see on screen these days. (It is arguable, for example, that Erik is any worse for Christine than Edward is for Bella in the Twilight franchise.) Erik is a madman, of course, and a multiple murderer, but by giving him that warped love for Christine as his motivation, we’re given for the first time a monster that we can really understand.

Aside from his motivation, the Phantom’s methods also start to hint at the evolution of monsters in modern cinema. We see him employ a lot of the techniques that become familiar in later years – not just the secret passages and the skulking in the shadows, but the methods of abduction, of leaving the bodies of his victims in rather theatrical poses to best terrify the survivors, and the use of deathtraps. I really liked the deathtraps, in fact – rooms of mirrors, hotboxes, tricking Christine into starting a flood that threatens the life of her lover… these are the trademarks of later monsters and mad scientists, everybody from the Joker to Jigsaw, and it all seems to begin right here.

Once again, though, I’m forced to deal with what seems to be a piecemeal print of the movie courtesty of Netflix. The film is dark, moody, atmospheric – all kinds of great adjectives you want applied to a horror movie. Then, out of the blue, a scene in the middle of the film is in full color. It doesn’t quite look as oversaturized as most colorized movies, so I’m forced to wonder if the scene in question is actually taken from another film and wedged in here – but all of a sudden we see the monster waltz into a ballroom scene wearing a bright crimson costume with a skull mask. The lighting is bright, the scene could be in broad daylight, and the effect is ruined. The only thing that makes me less than 100 percent certain the scene is plucked from another film is that Chaney arrives in the next scene – once we’re back in the proper black and white milieu – wearing exactly the same mask.

The ending is the biggest deviation from the original novel, and it seems we’re given here an early example of focus groups altering a film. The original ending filmed, like in the novel, featured the Phantom dying of a broken heart when Christine leaves him. Test audiences apparently felt it wasn’t dramatic enough, so a new ending was shot featuring the Phantom fleeing from an angry mob that finally manages to overwhelm him, beat him, and throw his body into the river. You’re even left with a nice shot of bubbles rising to the surface, leaving the lingering question of whether the Phantom died from the beating or drowned once they had him down.

More so than the other two silent films, in this one I’m really starting to see what we recognize as a horror film today. And I’m really enjoying that.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

28
Sep
11

Story Structure Day 2: Nosferatu-A Symphony of Horror (1922)

Director: F.W. Murnau
Writer:
Henrik Galeen
Cast:
Max Schreck, Gustav Van Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach, Georg H. Schnell

Plot: A wizened old man seeks a new home and becomes obsessed with the wife of his real estate agent. As it turns out, the mysterious Count Orlok has a much darker agenda than finding a castle to call his own. This unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is rightly considered a classic.

Thoughts: You don’t often see a movie that resulted in the bankruptcy of a studio considered one of the greats (except, of course, Cutthroat Island), but here ya go. The estate of Bram Stoker refused to allow permission for F.W. Murnau to adapt Dracula in a movie, but showing the kind of spunk and sass that have made the Germans so beloved throughout history, Murnau just changed the names, abandoned some subplots, and made it anyway. Stoker’s estate sued, Prana Film went out of business, and an attempt was made to destroy all copies of the movie. Fortunately for us, that attempt failed, and the movie is now in public domain.

This film, a silent movie of course, is incredibly successful at creeping you the hell out, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to Max Schreck as Count Orlok. Although he doesn’t really fit into what we not think of as a classical interpretation of Dracula (although the “classic” Dracula is really Bela Lugosi’s interpretation), he’s become an archetypical monster in his own right. Orlok’s body is incredibly slender, almost unnaturally so – his limbs, his torso, his head all look like they’ve been stretched out. The  extremities, on the other hand, are all pointed and sharp – his fingers, his nose, his chin, his ears. Add that to his sunken eyes and you can see monsters from throughout the 20th century. The long body stirs up images of H.R. Giger’s Alien, the pseudo-zombies from the 2007 I Am Legend, any manner of creeps and crawlies, all the way up to the new Slender Man urban legend. In the introduction to this little project, I talked about the unknown being one of the pervading human fears. I didn’t mention one that may be even a little stronger – the manipulation of what is known. Orlok’s body is supposed to be human, but the little tweaks and alterations that define the character make him something even worse than what we don’t know: it makes him into what we should know, but don’t.

Think of it this way. We turn on the news, we hear terrible stories about things done to children by some nutjob or psychopath. I don’t feel the need to elaborate here, you guys know as well as I do what some human-shaped monsters are capable of. We hear these stories, and we think it’s terrible. But how much worse is it if the monster isn’t some random stranger, but someone the victim knows, someone they thought was a friend, maybe even a member of their own family?

It’s an extreme example, but the same principle that makes Orlok so creepy. Fortunately, trapped as he is on the movie screen, it’s a hell of a lot safer than the psycho on the news.

Anyway, on to a bit lighter fare. I haven’t included many silent films in this project (just one more after this one), but this movie really illustrates the need for a good print of these films. Nosferatu, of course, is in public domain now, which allows anybody to do whatever they want with it. In some ways, that’s a good thing – look at the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, about the making of Nosferatu, in which Willem DaFoe plays Max Schreck as a real vampire. It’s a great piece of work that couldn’t have been made were it not for public domain laws. (Which is funny, when you think about how Nosferatu was made in the first place, but there ya go.) The problem is, this allows people to put out really bad versions of the film. This was one case where I didn’t think I would need to turn to NetFlix for my hit, as I already happened to have a DVD set of many, many vampire films, Nosferatu included. As I started the movie, I realized that this version had actually changed all the title cards, replacing the names of Orlok and company with the original names from the Dracula novel. I realize, logically, that this shouldn’t have impacted my enjoyment of the movie, but I had a gut-level reaction that rejected the entire thing as wrong and bad and evil!

I turn into a purist at incredibly strange times.

So I did turn to NetFlix, where I found Nosferatu: The Original Version, which did in fact have all the classic names right where they belonged. This was much more acceptable… but in a few minutes, I found a flaw with this version as well. The music. Dear lord, the music. Old silent films we watch today don’t have any soundtrack except the one tagged on by whoever releases the DVD, and whoever put out the “original Version” of Nosferatu included one god awful super-synthesized soundtrack that went from happy, chirpy music at the beginning to a better (but weak) score towards the end. You’ve got to have the right music for these silent movies to make them come across properly. NetFlix also has a listing for Nosferatu: The Gothic Industrial Mix which, frankly, is a prospect I find horrifying.

While I can appreciate the artistry of these old silent films, I do have to admit, it’s hard to connect with them. I’m used to a completely different kind of filmmaking, and although there’s a definite style to telling a story I this way, it’s not my style. Only one more film from the silent era, and then we’ll move on to the talkies. Come back tomorrow for 1925’s Phantom of the Opera.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

27
Sep
11

Story Structure Day 1: The Golem-How He Came Into the World (1920)

Directors: Carl Boese & Paul Wegener
Writer:
Henrik Galeen & Paul Wegener          
Cast:
Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch, Hans Stürm, Max Kronert & Otto Gebühr

Plot: In 16th century Prague, the Jewish people are being oppressed by a vindictive emperor who blames them for the death of Christ and accuses them of engaging in black magic. To protect his people Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück) creates a Golem (Paul Wegener), a powerful creature made from clay. Löw summons the demon Azaroth for the magic word needed to bring the Golem to life, and brings him to the Emperor’s court. During a display of magic the people of the court break the one rule they’re told to obey – don’t talk or laugh – proving that people in horror movies have been unable to follow simple directions since the beginning of the medium. The Golem goes on a tear and the Emperor agrees to pardon the Jews if Löw saves them. All is well, until Löw bothers to read the next page in his magic book, where he learns that Azaroth is going to come back and turn the Golem against him. No problem, though, he simply removes the amulet with the word of life from the Golem’s chest. It looks like things are fine, until Löw’s assistant gets jealous that the girl he desires is running around with someone else. He brings the Golem back to life, and he goes on a tear that threatens the entire city, forcing Löw to step forward and fight his creation once more. In the end, the Golem escapes Löw, but is defeated when he befriends a little girl, who simply plucks the amulet from his chest.

Thoughts: I didn’t know it when I chose this film to begin my experiment, but this silent German classic is actually the third film in a trilogy. The original The Golem was released in 1914, and its sequel, The Golem and the Dancing Girl, came out in 1917. This concluding chapter is the prequel to the other two, though, and is the one that is best-remembered today, and for good reason. First of all, it’s the only film in the trilogy that survives intact. More importantly, even at this incredibly early juncture, it’s easy to see in this movie a lot of the horror movie tropes that are so familiar today.

Beginning with Rabbi Löw himself, the character visually evokes both the archetypical pointy hat-wearing wizard, and the lab coated mad scientist of the likes of Victor Frankenstein. In fact, even though this film predates the most famous version of Frankenstein by eleven years, it displays a lot of the themes and ideas that we most clearly recognize as part of that franchise: the Golem himself is the creation of man, a giant creature of incredible strength that is turned to dark purposes against his will. Even his interaction with the children at the end seems to feed the later scenes of the Frankenstein monster playing with the famous little blind girl.

This film is considerably darker than Frankenstein, though. While Vic’s monster is usually portrayed as the misunderstood beast, a gentle giant of sorts, the Golem is no benign creature. He’s angry and surly from the first, and seems to revel in the destruction he causes. In fact, in the scene where he carries Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) down from the tower where he kills her lover, there’s a truly disturbing hunger in his eyes. When he lays her down on a table and runs his hands over her body, there’s a second there where the clay beast actually raping the young woman seems like a distinct possibility. Then there’s the demon-summoning scene itself. When the creature’s head first appears, it’s a jump-out-of-your-seat moment. It snaps into frame, this ugly face with bulging eyes that seems to be looking down at Löw with terrible glee. Once the shock passes and the camera  zooms in at the head, you start to appreciate it for the prop that it actually is, but by then you’re already invested in it as a creature of darkness. Smoke billows out of its mouth, and you question just what the hell kind of Rabbi Löw actually is, if he’s willing to deal with a beast of this nature. Today, you know the head would be CGI and the smoke would probably billow with the shapes of Hell itself, and you know that it wouldn’t be a tenth as effective as it is in this simple scene.

This isn’t the first horror movie ever, of course, although it seems to be credited as being the first ever horror franchise, and I think that’s fair enough. It also gives me a chance, very early in the process, to make an important point: although I’m looking at film in this project, it would be a terrible mistake to pretend any art form exists in a vacuum. Movies can be influenced by novels, can influence comic books, can later be influenced by comic books, can feed influence back into novels. The film is based on actual Hebrew legend, but the filmmaker presents the legend in a way that’s very evocative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818. The actual framework, though, as is the case with so much supernatural horror, comes from a religious stance. Regardless of your own personal religious faith (or lack thereof), it would be foolish not to recognize religion as part of culture, and as those things we find scary come directly from our culture, religion plays a vital role in deciding that. If anything, that’s only going to become more obvious as this little adventure continues.

Come back tomorrow and we’ll look at what may be the first vampire film of all time, the 1922 classic Nosferatu.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

26
Sep
11

Story Structure: HORROR (an introduction)

Fear is subjective. We need to agree on that right now or there’s really no point in continuing. What scares you and what scares me are likely to be very different things. And that’s normal, because those things we are afraid of, like those things we desire, are based on our collective life experiences. But there are some fears which are almost universal. The unknown, for example – something unfamiliar, something outside of our realm of experience can be full of great potential, but also great peril. A fear of the dark is largely an extension of our fear of the unknown – anything could be lurking in the shadows, and anything that spends so much time on the lurking part probably isn’t doing it because it wants to give you a big, warm hug and a kiss on the cheek.

And of course, we fear the monsters of this world, both literal and figurative, real and imaginary. And sometimes, we even fear with reason.

Despite that, though, we like to be scared. For thousands of years, we’ve gathered around camp fires to hear the stories of the Things in the woods around us, the vampires and werewolves and cannibals and madmen that creep about in the dark. For the past hundred years or so, we’ve gathered around a different fire: the bulb of a movie projector, allowing modern storytellers to terrorize us in new and different ways. We scream and we jump, we feel that jolt of adrenalin that comes with such fear and we laugh with relief when that fear passes.

We love scary movies for the same reason we love thrill rides and roller coasters – we get that rush of fear that can be so intoxicating without putting ourselves at any genuine risk. It’s remarkable what we, as a species, have devised to scare the crap out of ourselves.

But if what’s scary changes from person to person, how much does what is considered scary change over time? Look at the early icons of horror cinema, the Universal monsters. Dracula, Wolfman, and the Frankenstein monster were envisioned as chilling figures, but by 21st century standards they’re so tame they’ve become beloved by the smallest children. When I was growing up in the 80s, the Big Bads were Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, and my parents steadfastly refused to let me see their movies. In retrospect they were right. I was a nervous child and I grew into a nervous adult, and I can only imagine the image of Kevin Bacon being impaled from beneath would have necessitated an entire ring of incredibly hot stage lights shining under my bed at all times, an effect which really should be reserved for the likes of Charlie Sheen. Today, though, watching those films doesn’t phase me in the slightest, nor do Freddy and Jason haunt the dreams of children today who are of the age I was then. And it’s not because they’re unaware of the monsters – kids these days are more aware than ever. It’s because, like Dracula and Doc Frankenstein’s bouncing baby boy, they no longer find them frightening. The horror icons of the past now walk a line between being macabre clowns and anti-heroes.

And new horror icons roll in, like Jigsaw, while old ones are recycled in sequels, remakes, reboots, relaunches, whatever it’s in vogue to call them today. And so it continues, because horror evolves with culture.

That’s what this little project of mine, Story Structure, is really about: the evolution of stories and story tropes over time. I want to look at stories of a kind and see how the telling changes over the years, and see if I can’t parse out why, and I’ve decided to start with horror movies as part of the most ambitious Evertime Realms Halloween Party of all time. With the help of my lovely girlfriend Erin (herself a horror fan much longer than I’ve been) and a few other friendly suggestions, I’ve complied a list of 35 of the most significant horror movies ever made. I don’t claim this list necessarily represents the best of all time (although many of these films would deserve a spot on that list as well), or even my personal favorites (some of which were lost when I pruned the original, much longer list down to 35). I do think, though, this represents a good cross-section of horror since the birth of cinema, with each film being a cultural milestone in one way or another. As I write this, on May 31 (yeah, I started that early) I’m planning to start watching these films in the order in which they were released, and discuss my thoughts on the film with you. Why is this movie important? Where did it come from? How did it influence the films that came later? And was it ever really scary?

If nothing else, it makes for a hell of a discussion topic, don’t you think?

At the time I did this project – spring through fall of 2011 – all of these movies were available via NetFlix, either streaming or on disc, so if you’d like to play along, throw ‘em in your queue!

And I’ll see you tomorrow, when the terror begins with the 1920 silent classic The Golem. Happy Halloween!

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

25
Sep
11

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 238: Geek TV 2011

Blake is alone for this week’s short episode, in which he talks about the last few weeks of Geek TV! He gives an opinion on the last couple of Doctor Who revelations and chats about the season premieres of Community, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother. In his double-picks this week, he approves of Scott Snyder‘s Batman #1 and the new take on Star Trek coming from IDW! Contact us with comments, suggestions, or anything else at Showcase@CXPulp.com!

Music provided by Music Alley from Mevio.

Episode 238: Geek TV 2011

23
Sep
11

Read the first chapter of THE BEGINNER for free!

Hey, everybody. As I’ve mentioned once or twice or twelve times, as of this week my thriller novel The Beginner is available for sale in Amazon’s Kindle Store for only $2.99, the Smashwords bookstore (also for $2.99), and in print via CreateSpace for a mere $13.99. But many of you may never have heard of this one before. Not to say that Other People’s Heroes is world-famous or anything, but The Beginner doesn’t quite have the same profile as that earlier project.

So for those of you who are undecided, today I’m going to share with you the full, unabridged first chapter of The Beginner, followed of course by handy links to where you can buy it, should you be so inclined. And if you’d be so good as to pass this page along to your friends, I’d be much obliged.

CHAPTER ONE

 Fade In

Curtis noticed the first disappearance on the third day of shooting. Although he and Tom Henshaw already had one movie together under their belts, Wild Take was the first time they did a film with actual studio backing. Everything was on the Climax Pictures dole, from the sets to the costumes to the food, so when different people were manning the catering table that morning, Curtis didn’t know whether to think it was unusual or not. In fact, Curtis may not have noticed the change at all except that, on the last day anyone ever saw her, Tom Henshaw made eyes at the redhead serving lunch.

She was attractive enough — the green eyes and splash of freckles across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose were exactly Tom’s type, but he didn’t even manage a “hello” before she vanished back into the catering van and left him holding a turkey sandwich and chips. Curtis plopped down next to him at one of the picnic tables set up for the cast and crew. A thin smile, the most Tom Henshaw ever seemed to allow, cracked his lips. Curtis returned it.

“Why are you so happy?” Curtis asked.

“You saw that food service babe? She digs me.”

“And what, pray tell, do you base this hypothesis on?”

“I could tell,” said Tom. “It was in her eyes. It’s always in the eyes.”

Curtis shrugged. “Well, you do know she can handle cold meats. That gives her leg up on the competition.”

“Wiseass. Just wait, she’ll be back.”

“I’m still waiting for the windfall of ‘she’ll be back’s you promised in high school.”

“You weren’t a big-name director in high school.”

“I’m not a big-name director now.

“Give it some time, Dupré. Once they see this movie every second-rate actress in Hollywood will be trying to get on your casting couch.”

“Funny, Henshaw. And always subtle.”

Tom nodded and sank his teeth into his turkey sandwich. A blob of brown mustard squirted from the other end and spattered his plate, and he casually dabbed the end of his bread into the stain. “The first batch of dailies looked pretty good, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely, they look great,” Curtis said. His eyes wrinkled as he said it.

“What’s wrong?”

“You do know that I have no idea what I’m doing, right?”

“I count on it. Gives the universe stability.” He dropped another gob of mustard and began rifling through the papers on the clipboard he’d taken to carrying. The paper still managed to get bunched, however, because he stuffed the entire thing in the gray backpack he’d carried around since ninth grade like a security blanket. “I’ve been getting phone calls from the Timberton Charger. They really seem to want an interview.”

“The Charger?” Curtis asked, biting into his own roast beef club. “We’re not even doing any filming in Timberton Parish.”

“I know,” Tom said, “But I think the editor is on some ‘local boy makes good’ kick.  they want to do it this week.”

“Fine,” Curtis sighed. “Do I have a random five minutes open tomorrow we can set aside for her?”

“Consider it done,” Tom said, scribbling. “Now about the call from Climax Pictures–”

Curtis raised a hand and cut him off. “Whoa — don’t look now, Henshaw, but your girl is back.”

Tom took a glance over his shoulder at the craft services table. “So she is,” he said. “And she’s talking to your girl.”

Curtis felt the blood collect in his cheeks. He couldn’t believe he missed that. He had followed Rachel Gleason’s career for years, long before he had one of his own to consider. When he got word that she not only saw his first movie, Cover Story, but listed it as one of her favorites in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he somehow conjured up the vertebrae necessary to send her agent the script for his next film. He had written the lead with her in mind, but never even let himself entertain the notion she would agree to do it.

Rachel usually made the sort of crappy teen movies that ended at a senior prom. At 26, she still looked young enough for the casting directors to pass her off as a teenager, and so to combat that she was trying a slightly different, older look for Wild Take. Her raven hair was cut down from its usual length near her shoulders to about chin-length, and she had refused the concealer Diane Heinberg, the makeup girl, was trying to slather on her face.

“You’re going to look like an old maid,” Diane grumbled. Rachel merely raised an eyebrow at Curtis.

“Can we get a verdict, chief?” asked Gloria Whitty, the assistant producer assigned by Climax, who was too worn down from arguing about the haircut to put much heart into the makeup debate as well.

“I think she looks perfect,” he said. After a brief, pregnant pause, he added, “for the part.”

Now at lunch, Curtis looked over at her talking to the redhead from craft services and giggling. The redhead laughed with her and Curtis felt a minor green tinge at being left out of the joke.

“She’s not my girl,” he said. “She’s an actress. A consummate actress, I’ll have you know, and she’s here for a role.”

Tom chuckled. “Consummate? What was the name of that movie you saw her in?”

That could be any of half a dozen films, but Curtis knew which one Tom was talking about. “Dancing ‘Till Dawn.

“Right. Didn’t she actually play someone named Dawn?”

“Yes.”

“And didn’t you say that any movie that names the main character after a cliché in the title was–”

“Stop saying things.”

“I still can’t figure out what it is about her that gets you hot, man. I mean, she’s doing a fine job around here, but…”

Curtis frowned. “Look, I’m not saying it was a good movie, I’m just saying she had some sort of… quality in it. It was like she knew it was a bad movie and she was trying to make it better. And if she can do the same to my crappy movie, we’ll come out ahead. My interest in her is purely professional. I’ve got enough to worry about without dropping some female into the picture.”

“Was that a bad pun?”

“Is there any other kind?” Curtis popped a corn chip into his mouth. “Your little redhead isn’t bad, though.”

Time Lapse

But the next day, the little redhead wasn’t there at all. When Curtis called for a lunch break his eyes went immediately to the craft services van, waiting to see if Tom would gravitate towards her and make one of his trademark moves. There was a train of people serving food — a black woman, a pasty guy with bronze streaks in his hair and goatee, and a graying woman  who reminded him a bit of his mother, but the redhead never made an appearance. Once he was satisfied that he saw everyone who was entering or exiting the van, he went up to the black woman and read her name tag.

“Excuse me, Vivian?”

She gave him a warm smile. “Yes, sir? Can I help you?”

“I won’t keep you long, I just wanted to ask if that redhead was coming back today.”

Her eyebrows furrowed. “I’m sorry, what redhead?”

“The one who was working here yesterday. I’m afraid I didn’t catch her name.”

She shrugged. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Were you here yesterday?”

“Yes sir, I’ve been here since the first day. I’m certain that nobody with red hair has done any work with craft services on this set.”

This time it was Curtis’s turn to raise his eyebrow. “But I’m sure… no, I’m sorry, I’m sure you’re right.”

He smiled and spooned a helping of potato salad onto his plate so it wouldn’t look like he was just there to harass the craft services personnel, and joined Henshaw at what was becoming their regular lunch table. “I’ve got some bad news for you, friend,” he said.

“Rachel rewatched your first movie and decided she wants out?”

“Jerk. No, it’s about your little redhead — it doesn’t look like she’s coming back.”

“What are you talking about, man?”

“The redhead.” Tom’s face stayed blank. “The one you were watching yesterday. They’re telling me nobody with her description ever even worked here.”

Tom shook his head. “I have no idea who you’re talking about, Curtis.”

Curtis had to force his mouth closed. “The redhead. Green eyes and freckles. We sat at this very table and watched her talk to Rachel. We had a whole conversation about her.”

“Are you sure the pressure isn’t starting to get to you?”

Curtis let out a breath. “Of course. That’s it.” There was a tinge of sarcasm in his voice.

Tom reached into his pocket and produced a pack of Camels. “Cigarette, man?”

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“Yeah, but if you’re ready to begin losing your mind, now would be the perfect time to start.” He flipped out his lighter and took a long, slow pull. “You’ve got an interview with the Charger in 20 minutes, by the way.”

“There you go, Henshaw, earn your keep.”

Cut To

Ellen St. Christopher was old enough to be a fixture with the Timberton Charger, but young enough to still raise Curtis’ eyebrow when she met him in front of his trailer that afternoon. Her skin was deeply tan and her eyebrows kept a slight almond shape that made Curtis suspect an exotic ancestry. Her hair was dark, pulled tightly against her head, except for the shoulder-length ponytail that frizzed out almost as soon as it left her scalp. If she were to straighten one of those curls, it would certainly reach her waist, if not halfway to her knees.

Her accent betrayed her as a native of Louisiana, though, if not of Timberton Parish itself. “Curtis Dupré, right?” she asked. “Nice to meet you — I really loved your first movie.” Although she tried to disguise it, her diction frequently drifted to the realm of elongated “U”s and dropped “R”s. Without the effort put forth to disguise it, it would have come out, “Luved yuh fehrst movie.” As it was, she managed to change enough so that only someone like Curtis, who fought the same accent himself, would have noticed.

“Nice to meet you too, Miss St. Christopher.”

“Ellen,” she said. “People who make movies that run four days a week on the Independent Film Channel get to call me by my first name.”

Curtis led her into his sparsely decorated trailer, where he had a short couch that he napped on when he needed it, telling Tom he was going in for a “conference.” They sat together and Ellen placed a miniature tape recorder on the coffee table.

“Do you mind?”

“No, not at all. Um… where would you like to start?”

“How about the basics?” she said. “Where you came from, how you got where you are…”

“Right. Well, I was born in Timberton Parish, in Cooper, to be precise — of course you already know that, and I graduated from South Timberton High seven years ago.”

“Uh,” Ellen said. “Stop making me feel old. Now you did go to college, right?”

“At Caufield University,” Curtis said, “Same as everyone else at STHS who didn’t get a scholarship to LSU or something.”

“What did you major in?”

“Computer Information Systems.”

“Sounds exciting.”

“Excruciatingly so. That’s probably why I dropped out after four semesters.”

“Okay, that’s five years back – but that leaves three years before you released Cover Story. What did you do in the meantime?”

Curtis laughed. “Bookstore coffee bar. I went from exciting to moon-launch levels of anticipation. I’m not trying to disappoint you, Ellen, but I’m afraid there isn’t that much exciting about me.”

“We’ll see.” Ellen tapped her pen on her notepad. “Okay, I saw your movie, there must be something worth telling in there.” She clicked the pen and the ballpoint extended from the tip. “Let’s find out what makes you tick.”

Time Lapse

Curtis never thought he was the sort to do an enormous amount of ticking, but somehow his conversation with Ellen St. Christopher went through fifteen minutes of questions, notes and personal revelations before she had what she needed. She gave him a warm smile and slipped him her card. “If you think of anything else you’d like in the article, just give me a call,” she said.

“Something else?” Curtis said. “I’m astonished that I conjured up as much as I did.”

Curtis was about to open the door to his trailer to let her out when a quick rapping came from the other side. Ellen raised an eyebrow. “Expecting someone?”

“It must be time for Rachel’s daily question,” Curtis said. “She’s quite the method actress.” He pulled the door open and smiled at Rachel Gleason, right arm raised and about to tap the door again.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Am I interrupting–”

“We’re done,” Ellen said. “But I’d like to ask you some questions later, if that’s all right.”

“Of course,” Rachel replied .

“Good. You guys may be out to make Curtis a big star in Hollywood, but if I have anything to say about it, he’ll be a star down here first.”

“Well, he deserves it,” Rachel said. She and Ellen switched positions, Rachel entering the trailer as Ellen left, and Curtis closed the door.

“Aw, that was sweet of you.”

“Nah, just honest of me,” she said. “Have I told you how much I like this script?”

“Frequently,” Curtis said. His lips curled into a smile. “So what can I do for you?”

“I had a question about today’s pages.”

“I rather suspected,” Curtis said. After the first read-through, Curtis announced to the cast that his door was always open if they had any questions about the script. Rachel had taken more liberal advantage of that offer than the rest of the cast. Every day Curtis had seen her since then, she arrived with questions in hand.

Rachel’s character, an angry young woman named Carla Gutierrez, was planning to simultaneously rob an armored bank car and break her boyfriend out of a police transport, then take off on a road trip to evade the police. It was the trip that was the bulk of the film, but since both the opening scenes and the climax took place in southern Louisiana, Curtis was filming all of those scenes first before doing a few location shoots in Texas (he wanted a Western feel for some of the middle segments) and finishing up the film in California. At first the questions seemed like the sort of thing Curtis expected from a professional actor trying to discover her character — “Why does Carla want to take Joey with her?” “When did they fall in love?” “How did she learn to tamper with the traffic signals to make the transport and the armored car to stop at the same intersection?”

Curtis managed to fast-talk something about her father having been an electrician with the Department of Public Works, so Carla watched him set up traffic lights all her life, but as soon as he’d answered that question she asked the first of many questions that started off surprising him but now were becoming unusually common.

“How could someone who was color-blind know what color the traffic light was?” she said.

Curtis was surprised at the question. “Carla isn’t color-blind,” he said, wondering what in the script he may have written to give her that impression.

“I know,” Rachel said, “I was just wondering.”

“Well… I guess color-blind people just have to remember that red is on the top and green is on the bottom.”

“What if they were dyslexic too?”

Curtis held in a chuckle at that one. “I don’t think dyslexia works quite that way,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

He opened his mouth to answer and realized that, in fact, he wasn’t sure. This was exactly the sort of thing he would be looking up on the Internet if he ever wrote a dyslexic character, trying to discover limitations and abilities and how best to use them in the story. In fact… now that he thought about it…

“Hey, Rachel? What if Carla was color-blind?”

“And dyslexic?”

“And dyslexic. I’ll bet that would make it hard for her to read a map, don’t you think?”

“Probably so,” she said.

“And I’ll bet the scene where Carla and Joey get lost would make a lot more sense if it was because she couldn’t read a map than because the sign got knocked down.”

Rachel thought about that for a minute. “But if she’s had this problem her whole life, wouldn’t she have learned not to trust herself to read a map?”

“What if she didn’t want to read it? What if Joey made her?”

“Why would he make someone with dyslexia read the map?”

“Oh, yeah.” Curtis was about to dismiss the whole thing when he felt something in the back of his head — an almost audible click that accompanied an idea that clarified everything. “But you’re a — I mean, Carla is a proud girl. She’s the sort of girl who wouldn’t tell someone she loved that she had that sort of problem…”

“Because it would make her look weak!” Rachel said.

“So she makes Joey read the map,” Curtis said. “But she harps on him because he doesn’t seem to know where he’s going either, he gets fed up with it and shoves the map in her hands–”

“And because she doesn’t want him to know she’s got a problem, she tries to fake it!” Rachel said, finishing almost to the word the thought Curtis began. “That’s great!

“I’ll rewrite that scene tonight, Rachel. Think you’re up to playing a colorblind girl?”

“I think I can handle it,” she said, and for the first time he saw that glitter in her eye, as though a lightning bolt just fired off in front of her retina, and he knew they had something good.

Curtis winked. “Wundabar,” he said, scribbling down as much of their tandem planning session as he could before it slipped his memory. “You keep this up, Rache, and I’m going to have to give you a co-writer credit.”

She giggled like an April rain. “All I’m doing is asking a bunch of questions.”

“Yes,” Curtis said, but you’re asking all the right questions.”

“I’m glad you think so,” she said. “Most directors I try to talk to this way treat me like some uneducated cheerleader.”

“I’d never think of you like that.”

“I know,” she said, “But I feel bad, the way I monopolize your time. Isn’t there anything I can do for you for a change?”

Curtis had to force back a shocked, braying laugh. “How is it possible for you to not know how much you’ve improved this project?”

“Have not,” she said. “Come on, there’s got to be something.”

Curtis was about to protest again when his eyes fell upon a stack of (antiquated, he would admit) compact discs he kept in his trailer to listen to when he was doing a rewrite. “Well, if you insist, there is one thing I’d like.”

“Name it,” she said.

In the back of his mind Curtis could hear Tom Henshaw pointing out the various opportunities such a dangerously open-ended offer afforded him, but he suppressed it. Instead, he rifled through the CDs until he found the jewel case he was looking for. It was, as he suspected, embarrassingly close to the top of the stack.

“If it doesn’t lower your estimation of me to ask something so outrageously fanboy-ish,” he said, “would you do me the honor of an autograph?”

As soon as Curtis put the CD in her hands, Rachel exploded with laughter. He was asking her to autograph the soundtrack album for Dancing ‘Till Dawn.

“I can’t believe you bought this!” she squealed.

“I can’t believe I’m showing it to you,” he said.

“You know that’s not really me singing, don’t you?”

“You sang backup on Run Away and Hide,” Curtis said. Her jaw dropped and her eyes unmistakably conveyed the question, “How on Earth did you know that?” Curtis chuckled. “I’m the sort of geek who watches the behind-the-scenes features on a DVD,” he said.

“You have the DVD?”

“Oh, just sign it.”

She opened the case and removed the insert so she could inscribe something. “You’re cute when you blush, you know,” she said.

Curtis felt himself turn an extra sixteen shades of red when she said that. His mind quivered to come up with a response when Tom, who had impeccable timing and had never learned to knock, stuck his head in the trailer.

“Hey folks,” he said, “You have no idea how sorry I am to interrupt this, but do you remember that movie we’ve been talking about? Some of the other people and I were under the impression we were going to try to make some of it today.”

Rachel handed Curtis the autographed CD. “Sorry, Tom. I guess we got carried away.”

“I’ll bet,” Tom said, following Rachel out of the trailer. Curtis moved to join them, but before he stepped out, he glanced down at the CD in his hands to see what was written there.

“To the most deserving director I know. Love, Rachel Gleason.”

Deleted Scene

“Just – just call me when you hear this, dammit.” Mark Rourke pocketed his cell phone, disgusted, and glanced back at the seafood restaurant he’d just been expelled from. Talking too loud… God, this was Los Angeles, not Bite-My-Ass, Louisiana or wherever the hell it was Rachel was filming this week. It had been two years since her agent, his aunt, introduced them, and to be honest he couldn’t figure out why he was still with the girl. It’s not like she was going to be Julia Roberts or anything, dating her wasn’t going to get him any headway in his career – especially as long as she insisted on staying with Aunt Shannon instead of letting him manage her himself. The way he saw it, he was doing her a favor – who else would want to be with her after watching some of her lousy movies?

The strip was characteristically busy for sunset, with the tourists and rubberneckers retreating to their respective hidey-holes and hotel rooms and the other half of LA, the Night People, beginning to come out. Mark preferred the Night People; they had fewer pretenses. They knew what they wanted, be it a John or a cheap trick or a line of coke, and they went for it. Mark prided himself on being able to pick their desires at a glance – it was a skill that came in particularly handy as a manager.

Tonight, though, there was someone new. Not that Mark was on a first-name basis with the Night People, but it was easy enough to tell who was the junkie, who was the dealer, who was the tourist that was out too late. This man, though, this Dark Man, didn’t fit into any category. He leaned against the corner of the restaurant that no longer desired Mark Rourke’s patronage, black coat, black pants and midnight hair. Mark tried to make out the Dark Man’s features, but it was like trying to stare at a double-exposed photograph, only multiplied a dozen times. Layers and layers until Mark could comprehend nothing but a pair of obsidian eyes, somehow actually glowing black.

The man’s face was pointed down, aimed at his laceless jet shoes, not even really pointing in Mark’s direction, but somehow he knew those damn eyes were boring directly into him.

Mark shivered. It was 87 friggin’ degrees outside, he was wearing a three-piece suit, and those eyes were all it took to spike him with a chill like he’d never felt before. It wouldn’t even be sufficient to say it felt like someone was stepping on his grave… somehow, it was far worse.

Shivering again, Mark pulled his suit coat tight across his shoulders and resumed moving. If he didn’t look at the Dark Man, then maybe the creepy bastard wouldn’t pay any attention to him. He glided past the corner of the restaurant like he’d done a hundred times before, not looking back, not sparing a thought for anyone else until the Dark Man slipped past the corners of his peripheral vision and he was stupid enough to think That’s it, I made it. And then the voice said his name and everything ended.

“Mark Rourke.”

His own name had never given him a start like that before. The voice grated like a pair of steel-toed boots on gravel, scrambling down an incline, not intending to stop.  He wanted to keep walking, to pretend he hadn’t heard the voice. He couldn’t.

“Forty-seven years old,” the voice said, and for a second Mark relaxed. He was nearly two decades younger than that, surely this man had mistaken him for someone else.

“You’re lifting weights in your garage,” the voice continued. “You just hired a new secretary. She’s young, sweet… and your wife is never around anymore. You’re up to pumping 150, planning to call her to come over, when the blood vessel bursts in your brain.”

Mark turned. Dammit, he turned. The man was fiddling with a black leather cord wound around his right wrist. It trailed back into his sleeve, connected to some weight Mark couldn’t see. And damned if that son of a bitch wasn’t looking right at him now.

And smiling.

“Are you talking to me?” Mark managed to squeal. The gravel voice answered.

“I’d like to have a word with you, Mr. Rourke.”

Dissolve To

It was well past midnight when Rachel made it back to her hotel room. The shoot had ended at 5 p.m., “before the sun gets too low and the mosquitoes get omnivorous,” Curtis said, but she wound up in his trailer again. They were there for six hours, Curtis typing the entire time, save for a pizza break at about eight o’clock. Sometimes she’d ask him a question, less frequently she would make a suggestion, mostly she just watched over his shoulder as the words flowed from his fingertips to the screen of his Dell.

The color-blind angle wound up working out even more spectacularly than either of them had suspected. Far from rewriting a couple of scenes, Curtis had to go back and make changes to nearly every segment of the film. She could already imagine Bradley Hemingford, who played Joey, complaining about having to learn something new. They would have probably worked all night if Tom hadn’t shown up asking if Curtis wanted to see the dailies before the American Film Institute tried to preserve the prints as part of a historical motion picture project.

So she got back to room 203 at the Boutte Comfort Inn – not nearly the level of luxury she was used to in Los Angeles, but nice enough on its own merits — and planned to relax until morning. After she took a particularly long, particularly hot bath, Rachel slipped into a hideous yellow T-shirt she’d had since she was 17 and refused to part with.  She took out her cell phone, intending to plug it in and allow it to charge overnight, and saw a blinking icon indicating a new voicemail. The phone had been turned off when she was in Curtis’s office, she didn’t even know she’d received a call. She tapped the screen to play it, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror as she did so. Even wet, she thought, her hair did look better short. She might keep it this way for a while.

“Rachel, it’s Mark,” said the voice on the machine. “Christ, are you still shooting? How late is that no-talent pissant going to keep you every night?”

There were a couple of voices in the background and Rachel’s caller began shouting. “What? No, I’m not going to keep it down. I’ve got a – What? What? Fine, you squirmy little prick! You hear this, Rachel? They’re throwing me out of Stingray’s!” He sighed – an angry sigh, not a sad one – and spat out, “Just – just call me when you hear this, dammit!”

There was a beep and a computerized voice announced it was the end of her messages. Rachel frowned. She didn’t like the tone of her caller. He was rude, he was abrasive… and now that she thought about it, she didn’t even know anyone named Mark.

She shrugged. Maybe she’d ask Curtis if he had any idea what that was all about tomorrow. She turned off the bedside lamp, slid under the blanket and fell into a warm, dreamful sleep.

——————————————————————————————

Well there you have it, my friends, the first chapter of The Beginner. What’s going on here? What happened to the craft services girl? Who’s the creepy little guy who approached Mark? And why doesn’t Rachel know who he is? All very good questions. You want the answers? They’re all in The Beginner, on sale now.

The Beginner will also soon be available for the Barnes & Noble Nook, the iPad, and in print from Amazon.com. I’ll let you know as each new format becomes available.

And don’t forget, my other two books are available in multiple formats as well:




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