Archive for category fiction

A Hard Day’s Night at the Opera

When I was about 22 or 23 years old, a half lifetime ago, I had this mash-up idea one night that stuck with me for years. I saw the bits of it that I saw clearly very distinctly in my head, but the rest was fuzzy, whenever I tried to develop and finish it. Yet, tonight, it comes back again, and I still remember it. One of those ideas you only get when you’re that young, that open, that high, and that inspired. That I remembered it even the next day is pretty fancy a feat; that I remember it 20 years later is weird indeed.

It was decades before they even invented the term “mash-up” to describe a creative synthesis. This was a mash-up of three of my most favorite things: the Marx Brothers, the Beatles, and Mozart (as incarnated, specifically, in my favorite movie, Amadeus). It was called “A Hard Day’s Night at the Opera.”

There’s a scene in Amadeus where Mozart hears his music being played, and runs full tilt down a palace corridor, that reminded me of the Beatles running full tilt away from screaming fans at the beginning of Richard Lester’s movie. The Beatles were compared to the Marx Bros. in the film A Hard Day’s Night, which Lennon in an interview later dismissed (“There were four of them, and four of uz, so that’s why they said it, that’s all.”).

There was to be a Sig Rumann character, a jealous composer (the Salieri character); and a Margaret Dumont empress.

Then there were to be the four of them, incarnated as composers. I wrote, once, in a notepad (that is somewhere, but I know not where), a scene in which they introduce themselves.

JOHN: I’m Beethoven, John Winston Beethoven. This is James Paul McMozart. Over there is the silent one, George Harrison Bach.

George honks a horn in a four-note Bach melody.

JOHN: And Ringo.

RINGO: Hullo.

There was a scene in which, like in the Amadeus scene, they take a mediocre ditty of Salieri’s and start riffing on it, building it up, and it becomes an orchestral “Hey Jude.”

I always loved this idea. It probably would only stretch long enough to make a 20-minute short, but a great one. Any longer and it would grow thin. Any shorter and why do it?

It would still take a considerable budget to pull off, what with being a costume historical, and requiring a talented composer/arranger and musicians to do the score, and actors who could be the Beatles and the Marx Bros at the same time.

And a script that conquered the idea and followed its logic to a height worthy of all of these guys.

Never did it. Twenty years I’ve been carrying it around in my head, occasionally taking it out of its box to say, “Isn’t it pretty and shiny and fun,” then parking it again.

I have so many impractical ideas, but I do love some of them so.

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Mozart In America

It is a curious fact of history that Mozart was at his most active contemporaneous with the American Revolution. As Lexington and Concord waged, so did concertos and opera tours across Europe. Which leads me to the alternate history idea: that should Mozart have lived, he would eventually have come to tour the new United States. Mozart in America, 1804. A tale worth telling.

Or pondering how to tell, at any same rate.

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Sixgun Nightmare Part 6

Sixgun Nightmare Part 6 – I Ain’t Drivin’

I spent the next couple of days in a grim mood, contemplating whether I should raise my concerns with Scott. Then came the weekend, and there was a large flea market event downtown called the City-Wide Garage Sale. One of the actors in Krone used to be in charge of it, and I thought I would browse for props and maybe say hello to the guy if I saw him.

At this point, Scott hadn’t given me any funds yet, so I thought I should be careful about spending my own money just on the promise that he would at some point reimburse me. I brought some cash, telling myself that spending any more than $60 was unnecessary. Then, stupidly, I ended up spending $80. I bought a bunch of fabrics — large, colored curtains, a large crocheted quilt, and some random items that looked like they could serve as tablecloths or floor rugs or wall hangings. That was all pretty good, but it cost more than I expected, because some of the pieces were $5 each, and some were $5 a pound, and the crochet was really heavy. $40 went away right there. I could have said, “Whoa, wait a minute. I didn’t mean to spend more than $25 here.” Then I should have put some of them back.

Then I really got swindled on some old tintype photographs. I thought I needed authentic little photos like that for the movie, but ultimately there were other places to get them for less. Or, doing a Google image search and some laser printing would have been a lot cheaper. It also became clear that the lady who was selling the pictures could have been haggled way down. When I replayed our whole conversation, it became clear to me that the pictures really weren’t worth very much and should have cost a couple of dollars at most, but instead I spent nearly $40 on them. As I drove away from the City-Wide Bad Deal Swindle, I felt slightly wiser and a lot cash-poorer.

I was really mad at myself, and then I decided to get mad at Scott instead. There was no reason at all that I should be spending my own money on this movie. None at all! In fact, why hadn’t Scott given me any money yet? Why hadn’t he told me where to go to buy props yet, if he thought he knew where I should go? Not only that, but he’d mentioned that I was supposed to get paid for the work I did before the shoot. Was that ever likely to happen? My mindset had flipped completely, from generous volunteering and extra effort to wondering where the hell my money was, and why should I do anything if I wasn’t getting reimbursed to do so?

Late on a Friday afternoon, Scott called and told me that they were going out to Willie Nelson’s ranch right away, so if I wanted to come, I should meet them in 20 minutes to a half an hour. I said okay. I grumbled a bit about the short notice. Fortunately, the meeting point was less than 10 minutes from me, but Scott didn’t necessarily know that. Depending on where I lived, at Friday during the start of rush hour, it could theoretically have taken up to an hour to get there.

I was the first to arrive, and I spent the few extra minutes nurturing suspicions. I had happily driven Scott the long distance to Tommy’s house and to the restaurant where we met Dale, but that was before I started thinking critically of the whole deal. In particular, I suspected that Scott was going to show up and tell me to drive. Well, ask me to drive, but with that assumption already in mind. I so strongly suspected this that I didn’t park in the parking lot where he said we would meet. I parked around the corner down the hill, and then walked to the parking lot, so that he wouldn’t be able to see my car. I didn’t want to give him the option of saying, “Look, your car’s right there.” I suspected he wouldn’t be springing for gas this time, he just wanted me to play chauffeur. Don’t take me for granted! I thought, grumbling.

The first to show up for the trip to Willie Nelson’s ranch, and the Western town set that’s built on the property, was Phil Curry. Phil is a quiet man, in his 50s, with a missing tooth on one side that you notice when he grins, which is seldom. That’s not because he’s ill-tempered, in fact, he’s extremely mild-mannered and patient. He sports the ponytail of an aging child of the 60s, has a bit of a hunch to his shoulders, a big truck of grip and lighting gear, and decades of experience lighting and shooting movies. If you work on movies in Austin for a little while, you will probably meet Phil Curry. In fact, I had already worked with him once myself, way back in 1996, which I reminded him when I shook his hand that afternoon.

“We’ve worked together before, actually.”

“Huh,” he mumbled. Phil mumbles. He has a very characteristic mumble. One grows fond of it.

“On Sanity, you remember that one?” I said. Phil had been the gaffer on that shoot — really a rough one, probably the toughest and most problematic movie I ever worked on. A story for another time.

“Ah yeah,” Phil mumbled.

“I was the sound guy on that,” I said. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Phil on that shoot, even though the only location was this one small house. I was the sound mixer, so I was always hidden in a different room from the one the camera and actors were in, connected by a cable to the boom operator. Phil would often be puttering around outside, setting up lights to shine in through the windows.

“So you’re doing sound on this?” he mumbled.

“No, actually,” I said, self-consciously laughing. “I’m going to be the Art Director.”

Phil chuckled. He shrugged his hunched shoulders. Sound guy doubling as art director. “Why not?” he mumbled, amused. He’d come across weirder combinations before. You never know with these tiny independent productions, his reaction seemed to say.

Later, after working with him for a few weeks and this time actually getting to know him a bit, I would realize that Phil Curry really, really loves making movies. I mean, that’s why it’s what he does with his life. Making movies is often a really crummy affair, especially at the low-to-no budget level. Phil works on big shows, medium shows, and small shows, in all sorts of conditions, and it’s because he loves it. One of the hardest and longest days we had, where Phil barely had a break for 13 hours, and there were all sorts of problems — at the end of it, I saw him walking around with a huge grin on his face, pleased as punch. Making movies! That’s what Phil Curry loves to do.

You gotta love Phil Curry.

Anyway, about ten minutes after Phil showed up, Scott and Scott Rhodes showed up in Scott’s white minivan. For a moment, I thought, oh dear, I was suspicious for nothing, because Scott had brought a vehicle big enough to take everybody.

“Hey,” said Scott.

“Hi,” I said.

“So, what’s the situation with your car?” Scott asked, looking around for it, and oddly not seeing it.

“The situation with my car is I’m not drivin’,” I said punchily.

“Ah — okay,” Scott said.

“What’s wrong with your van?” I asked. Seriously, what was wrong with it? It was disappointing to believe I had been right about my suspicions after all.

“Well, it’s having an overheating problem,” Scott said.

Hrmph. Well, that’s an excuse, I guess, but not a particularly convincing one. “Well, turn the air to the heater and crank it up,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess,” Scott said, disappointed.

“Seriously, that works,” I said. “I got through Death Valley doing that once.” That was back in college. I had a car that was prone to overheating, but when I turned the heater on full blast, it sucked that heat away from the engine, and kept it just cool enough for the car to keep moving. Then I opened all the windows and stocked up on water and gatorade.

In any event, I didn’t want to fucking drive. Scott opened the van and we piled in.

“We must be crazy,” Scott said as we pulled out of the parking lot. “Friday rush hour, and we only have an hour to get out there.”

“Yeah, that is crazy,” I said.

“Enhhmn, shouldn’t be so bad, maybe,” Phil mumbled.

In fact, as luck would have it, we avoided all of the traffic and zipped pretty quickly out Highway 71 to the ranch location. I think when Willie Nelson bought the ranch property originally, it was way, way outside of town. These days, with Austin having grown so much, it seemed actually not so far away at all. We even got there early.
We waited outside the gate until someone showed up to let us in. The guy that did so was not someone who works for Willie Nelson, but a Tae Kwon Do teacher. Willie Nelson’s tae kwon do teacher, I believe was the story. This fellow, whose name I never caught, had decided to make a low-budget martial arts movie on digital video — same camera I used for my movie, and same tiny budget. He used all of his students as actors and stuntmen, and some of his students had connections to get all sorts of fancy things in the movie for free — helicopters, jets, guns, I’m not sure what all else. When they were done, they decided it was good enough to show to some investors to get some money to redo it in high-definition video. They had also managed to convince Willie himself to be in it. Willie in turn volunteered the use of the Western set on his ranch. Phil Curry was hired to be the D.P. on the martial arts shoot, which would be in July. Thus, this was how Scott had managed to wrangle a deal for doing Sixgun there.

So, sure enough, there’s a Western town set on Willie Nelson’s ranch. Although we called it Willieville, it purports to be a town called Luck, TX. There’s a church — services every Sunday, led by Willie — a saloon, an Opry House, a bank, a feed store, a munitions store, a pharmacy, stables, and assorted other buildings. There was one super-nice building, the World Headquarters, which is actually where Willie Nelson’s private recording studio is set up, as well as a career-spanning stash of memorabilia. We weren’t allowed in there, that’s Willie’s private turf. It was kind of neat that it was there, though. It reminded you of the fact that you were honest-to-goodness on Willie Nelson’s ranch.

Scott hauled out a video camera and started racing around, planning shots. Some colleague of his had just shot a movie here a year before, and Scott remarked on how you could have three different directors shoot this same set of buildings, and it would look like three different towns. It’s all about where you put the camera.

I systematically poked around. I took the longest look inside the saloon, which was the most finished building in the whole town. Most of them were empty buildings, there merely to sport the facades. The saloon had a full interior, with a full bar, a few tables, a mirrored wall, animal head trophies, and a staircase leading up. There were some holes in the roof, and the windows were blown out. There was shattered glass on the floor, a zillion spiky triangles and slivers. Scott ran excitedly in and I had to warn him about the glass. It was already on my mind that I would need to clean up all that glass, and that I was going to feel responsible if anyone cut themselves on it.

It was dusty and grimy. There were some bottles behind the counter, but not that many of them, and they were filled with disgusting liquid.

The rest of the town didn’t have much to look at. Everything was extremely weathered, baked and warped and splintering after years of Texas summers. I tried asking around about when it was built, and heard different answers every time: for Barbarosa, for The Red-Headed Stranger, for who knows what. In any event, it was probably already 30 years old, and hadn’t been maintained. It was repaired or patched in certain places, evidence of another production having shot there and needed just one thing to be refurbished just enough to be useful. The rest was going to seed, with holes in the roofs and planks curling away from the sides of buildings. Rusty nails and dangerous, sharp screws poked out and jutted up and generally looked hazardous.

It was going to be interesting, all right.

A bony-looking guy with salt-and-pepper stubble and a black t-shirt emerged from a trailer home parked out of sight behind some trees. That was John, one of the ranch caretakers, and the overseer of the Willieville set. In a Scooby-Doo mystery, he’d be the — well, you know. So, John comes out there, pretty friendly, shakes hands all around, gets peoples names — (“Hi, I’m Rob.” “Hi Bob.” “No — Rob.” “Sorry. Rob? Ok.”) — and tells us that Willie Nelson’s daughter is the person you really need to get permission from. He gave Scott her number. Then he told us the gate code to get in if there’s nobody else around. He was very casual about it. I don’t think he expected anyone would remember it besides Scott, who wrote it down in his little notebook, but I remembered it. That would almost get me in trouble later on.

To be continued.

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