It took the combined efforts of Rich and MacPherson’s maid to pour the little man into his clothing. They shuffled him out the door braced between them. The windows were smothered in the thorn bright fire of bougainvillea. There were pepper and bottlebrush trees, a too-high cypress hedge, a fish pool with lotuses around which fat Japanese carp slivered a sloshing yellow. MacPherson walked on a driveway wet from the fog of the night before as if on ice skates.
The southern California sunlight sucked the color out of everything, orange no longer quite orange, leaving all nebulous, each object acquiring the vague unmoving quality of a thing shimmered to stillness and in the distance lending a cool desert clarity to the sun-baked Santa Monicas. The morning diamond-bright but milky, mint odorless here, a senseless place, a landscape washed out like a canvas, shadows off, displaced. It didn’t sit right with Rich, this unreality of deserts abutting oceans.
MacPherson was laid out with care across the backseat of Reisman’s silver baby Bentley. Two young Mexicans stopped work to watch the smoothing out of their employer. They had been spreading fertilizer on a lawn green as Astroturf.
“Golpe los. . . hojas,” grunted MacPherson.
“No entiendo,” said the maid.
“This is a person is wanting to make a movie in South America?” Reisman nodded confidentially at the gardeners. “You suppose these boys are legal, Mac?”
“You suppose ah give a crap?” said MacPherson, trying to subdue his seatbelt. “Country wis built by immigrants, so ah hear.”
“Best not to mess with the INS,” said Reisman. “Country’s been built for a while. It’s a touch up job now.” He turned the ignition over. “It got finished in the seventies.”
The producer backed out the long driveway, on either side banks of red geraniums and gillyflowers and chrysanthemums in symmetrical beds. The leather of the car seats was sticky-hot and smelled wonderful. Implausible palm trees loomed in the street. The sign on the hills made Rich think of Peggy Entwistle. Which letter had she climbed? Could a suicide climb an O? Which would he choose?
A hand pinched his shoulder, frightening him.
“Ah only came oot cause mah sister Aimee wis here.”
“I didn’t know you had a sister, Mac,” said Reisman.
“Duffy’s a definite, by the way,” said Reisman.
“How’d you manage that?” asked Rich.
“Oh, it wasn’t hard,” said Reisman. “If your star likes one thing more than money it’s parts that can win Academy Awards — crazy people, psychopaths, idiot savants, the differently abled.”
“Drooling crippled loonies,” added MacPherson. “There’s a surefire winner.”
Reisman looked at Rich. “Don’t ever forget that movies began as entertainment for illiterates.”
“Is it the Pole right enough then?”
“Aw, Christ oan a bike.”
“Just you behave is all, Mac. It isn’t too much to ask.”
“Yes, it is,” said Rich.
The office was white. The carpet white, curtains white, desk white. Chairs of white wood, lamps of white crystal, a blizzard of a room, a creamy cube but for the incandescent redness of the quarter-moon glasses of wine on the white tray, like apples half-buried in snow, and the insistent prickly green of the cacti.
The cacti were taller than the humans.
The executive whom Rich presumed “The Pole” wore tight black jeans, a work shirt and cowboy boots, which did not complement his thin paisley tie and oval sunglasses. He perched spraddlelegged atop his desk. He had very outgoing teeth.
The development girl had a pinkish big mouth, a jot pinched, straight bangs and square-rimmed glasses. It was her job to seat the visitors and circulate the wine.
Reisman greeted him. “How’s that divorce coming then?”
“Which one?” said the Pole, with no trace of accent. He pointed at their wineglasses. “Part of the settlement. Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac ’96. It sports mineral aromas of mint and black currant and…” He looked at the ceiling. “…its silky texture lingers in the mouth.”
“It’s good,” said Reisman.
“I don’t drink anymore,” the Pole declaimed. “I got myself clean.”
There followed an awkward silence.
“Big doings at MCA, eh?”
“What you hear?” The Pole leaned in. “Something good you got?”
“Stadler to Vice-Executive, Kellerman out. Jimmy T to Warner’s.”
“How’d he pull that?” The Pole frowned, removed his glasses and squinted at the lenses, put them back on. His eyes had been like cut glass. “Makes you wonder who you have to screw to get off this train.”
“You’re looking good but,” offered Reisman. “Working out you must be? Look at this man will you?”
“Know what I’m into now?” said the Pole. “Dahn yoga. It’s changed my life. It’s all about the breathing. I never knew about breathing. It’s all the good stuff they don’t tell you. You go through life, man, and you’re not even breathing. You just get the body positioned right, see, then work the postures.” He duly demonstrated, pushing down on his knees. “There are five big ones. The stretching helps you release stagnant energy in the lower abdomen.”
MacPherson whispered in Rich’s ear. “Back in Glesca we call that farting.”
“Here,” said the Pole, pawing his stomach, “is the Dan Jeon, the energy center. I haven’t been the same since I got synced with my Dan Jeon. You guys should try it, seriously.”
“I might do that,” said Reisman.
“Get yourself in touch with your second Chakra.”
“I’m hearing you.”
The Pole extracted from his pocket a set of black and gold cards, which the girl distributed. “There’s centers all over the Hills now. That’s the best I’m giving you there. What you got in your hand is invite only.”
They all studied their cards politely.
“’Awaken the healer within. Develop it. Master it. Heal yourself, your family, society, and the earth.’ Sam M. tells me Dahn is this Korean cult. But you just take from it what you need. It’s yoga, right? No need to get all bent out of shape about it. Hey, see that hat over there?” He pointed at a fedora hung on a peg dead center on the wall. “Jack Nicholson gave that to me.”
“The actor?” MacPherson asked, malevolently.
“Yes, the actor.” The Pole offered MacPherson his gash of a mouth. “Good to see you, Mac. Love your work. An artist at the top of his game. That’s the consensus. I was just saying how ‘Whack and Smack’ is a movie that keeps giving and giving.”
“Amazing film,” added the girl.
“Variety says this man here is the best director working,” said Reisman.
“Ah widnae go that far,” noted MacPherson. “But ah’m definitely in the top one.”
“And that last movie…” said the Pole, “…the Zombies…zombie flick.”
He looked at the girl, snapping his fingers.
“Nightwalkers,” she said.
“It’s shite,” said MacPherson.
“You know the bit when the kids gets trapped in the S.U.V. and the zombies smash in the windows and make that wugawuga noise? Shit-scary. Wugawuga.”
“It’s a massive pile of shite,’ MacPherson. “Chophouse schlock.”
The Pole consulted a sheet scotch-taped to his desk. “40 million budgeted, world wide grosses of 150? Wugawuga man. Wugawuga.”
“What Mac means is he doesn’t rate it with the new work,” Reisman said.
“Well, I’m here to hear is why I’m here.” The Pole inclined his head towards the girl. “You read it, dollface, right?”
The girl had Rich’s script in her lap. It was dog-eared and blue-penciled.
Suddenly the Pole exploded off his desk like a gymnast off a pommel to commence rummaging in a cupboard. He extracted a tall aluminum stick embedded in a light wooden base. There was a toy, resembling a woodpecker, at the summit, wobbling. The Pole prodded with his finger at the bird, causing it to rock and so begin a downward course, its tiny tin beak pecking at etched holes in the pole each step of its descent. It emitted a hollow clinking. Rich reckoned it would take ten minutes for the bird to reach the bottom. That was what they had. It was starting to make sense. Now he knew what the pole was.
“Action,” the Executive said.
“Action is the word. Action-adventure.” Reisman blurted the words with startling rapidity. “Also an odd-couple buddy job. Set in South America, historical, but in the positive swordfight way. Premise: European soldier-adventurers set out to take over the Isthmus of Panama. Buccaneer types, think Pirates of the Caribbean, sail from Scotland on a ship called The Rising Sun.”
“Scotland?” queried the Executive.
“It’s this place in the North of Britain, near Norway,” muttered MacPherson.
“Rising Sun. I like that. Name of the movie?”
“No,” Rich said.
“Who are you again?”
“Co-writer,” said MacPherson. “Seeing as how ah’m functionally illiterate.”
“Maybe,” interrupted Reisman. “It could be called Rising Sun.”
“That has been used,” said the girl. “A prior taken.”
“Anyways,” resumed Reisman, with a glance at the woodpecker, “our crew get to this colony in Panama, only to find it deserted. Ruins. No one. Nothing. Mystery.”
“A plague?” said the Executive.
“Something picks them off one by one? Like in Predator?”
“One of them is a war hero, making a new start, sick of the killing, like Eastwood in Unforgiven.”
The bird oscillated down the pole, clunking methodically.
“Turns out the Spanish have blockaded the bay. Bad guys. Inquisition, auto-de-fes, all that jazz. We see a torture scene. Nasty lot. Make Jigsaw look like Mother Theresa. Hero figures when they land the Spanish will attack. He’s a cool cat though, advised by this old guy, odd couple thing, jokey in the Gibson-Glover way, before they went mental, says they have to attack, take the enemy by surprise. He doesn’t want to fight, but sometimes a man just got to, right?”
“Right,” said the Executive.
“Like the Coward of the Country,” noted MacPherson.
“So he marches into the jungle, allies with the Indians, who have it in for the Spanish too on account of their habit of making them slaves and all. Scots and Indians battle the Spanish, spectacular, like Last of the Mohicans, only with more decapitations.”
The Executive looked bored, offering a flat stare at the descending bird.
“They rebuild the colony. But the bad guys blockade them. No escape. No supplies. Surrounded. ‘End up eating rats’ type of siege. Hero is wounded. They surrender. But they’re such brave bastards that the Spanish let them march out under their flag. Bagpipes. Hero refuses to surrender though, slips past the Spanish cruisers in a canoe. Suspenseful, right? Gets home, everyone’s upset, but he up and addresses parliament. Makes this massive great speech about…”
“That it?” the Executive yawned cavernously. “I’m not seeing this. There’s no hard concept.”
“It’s like Braveheart meets Unforgiven,” Reisman summarized, raising two fingers. “With a bit Apoclaypse Now mixed in.”He added a third digit.
“They wear kilts? These scotch people?”
“They could. If you think it’s a selling point.”
“It’s a love story too but,” said MacPherson, taking his turn as rehearsed. “See they jist don’t huv an alliance wi’ the Indians. They live wi’ them. Go native. Yir man hooks up wi’ an Indian wumman. Gorgeous as hell. He’s never had that raw animal thing. First time they do it, she ties him up. He’s got the crap oan. Then she gits nekkid as a jaybird and crawls ower him wi’ a knife, holds this blade tae his throat, ither parts of his anatomy. Man’s never been that turned oan. Sex and death that close opens him up. Then the two of them go at it like demented bunnies. Same thing happened tae me in Vegas last Christmas.”
The Executive was more interested. “I want you to know,” he said, “that we must have naked breasts in this kind of movie four times.”
MacPherson clouted Rich on the knee. “The Indians wander around naked, he contributed. “They are close to nature. I mean, they are savages, but into the rhythm of the universe. They’ve all found their energy centers.”
The Executive nodded sagely.
“They’re connected to the earth, trees, dirt. They swim naked in limpid pools. They know how to breathe right. They suck in the universe and the stars.” Out the corner of his eye, Rich saw Reisman frantically motioning him to stop.
“Plus them being buttnaked saves a fortune oan costumes,” added MacPherson.
“I’m still not seeing this,” said the Executive. “It sounds like ‘The Mission.’ Remember ‘The Mission’?” He shook his head sadly. “Peter Horner got canned. It had Bobby De Niro too. Even Bobby couldn’t save that turkey. ‘Even I couldn’t save that turkey,’ he says to me. You can’t make a prestige movie like this without a star, people.”
“We got one,” said MacPherson.
The bird ceased pecking and rolled over, as though mortally wounded. It was connected to the pole by some wheel mechanism.
“Sir Terry Duffy’s on board.”
“Duffy? You’re blowing sunshine up my pants here! What I’m getting pitched is a small movie. 15 million projected.”
“He’s doing it,” shouted MacPherson. “He’s a patriot and he wants tae do it for me.” The little Scotsman, green eyes ablaze, looked frighteningly messianic.
“I think part of the hesitation here is we have to assume that no star is willing to spend up to three months in the jungle,” proffered the girl.
“It’s in the jungle,” said the Executive. “What the hell? The jungle? Why didn’t someone say? Let me see that.”
The girl handed him the script. He stared at the first page.
“What’s EXT again? I can never remember.”
MacPherson covered his face with his hands.
“Quit that,” snarled Reisman.
“It begins ‘ext, jungle, night. Jungle? Monkeys and shit? That means rain people. You can’t get in and out. Nightmare logistics. Budget-buster.” The Executive sucked air through his teeth. “I don’t want ever to see ‘ext, jungle, rain, night.”
“We’re slipping it to you early,” said Reisman. “See, there’s interest from Paramount. Danny Alvarez.”
“That slimeball would be interested,” said the Executive, darkly.
“You guys creamed them last year.”
“We handed them their ass in a sling. That Russell-Crowe-as-a-master-chef-thing tanked. I could have predicted that.”
“I bet you could,” said Reisman. “See, Danny is looking for a prestige project for next Fall. Plus with the action element. . .”
The Executive was thoughtful. “That place is so needy, man.”
“I have questions,” interrupted the girl, brightly. “I’ve read the draft script a few times now.”
“Shoot,” said Reisman, looking jittery.
“Well,” she began, “It needs a serious character polish. I don’t see the character’s psychological journey mapped. I like the last scene when he makes the big speech. It’s Capra-esque, old-fashioned but moving. But unprepared?”
“We’re talking a limited treatment here,” said Rich. “Once the other writers…”
“I think we need to see the seeds of character change earlier. I see the three-act structure, the beats and rhythm, but the second act crisis never gets resolved. And the bad guy — the Spaniard captain — never gets proper payoff either.”
“You know, that’s exactly what we’re revising right now,” Rich lied.
The room went quiet for a moment. A white clock ticked.
“What is Crapperesque?” asked the Executive. “Say, Jasper Lillee will not be a consideration for shooting is a given, right?”
Reisman gave MacPherson a desperate pleading look.
“Best DP oan the planet. This is a dreamlike film. Ah need his color palate. Cannae do it withoot him.”
“The man’s in rehab again,” yelled the Executive.
“We’ve talked for years aboot shooting this oan digital. He’s up for it.”
“Digital? Your dick-ass would be shooting on digital.” The Executive addressed the girl. “Digital films do not have the lush quality of celluloid,” he declaimed.
“I don’t think Mac is serious,” said Reisman.
It was then that MacPherson, less than serious, contrived to knock over his wine, which pooled on the white rug like a spreading bloodstain.
“Shit,” screamed the Executive, watching the puddles of bright crimson spread.
“That Chatto LaFeet makes a hell of a big mess,” said MacPherson, looking around the office. He bent to examine a stain. “This wan looks like Italy.”
The men walked dejectedly to the lot where the Bentley was valet parked. The girls who passed wore identically cut suits of taupe and celadon. Each had one piece of carefully chosen jewelry, a bracelet, a thin gold necklace. It was a look. The complex sprawled on the Burbank side of the Hills and Rich thought how perfect it would be if the smog were to settle now, another dullness layered upon the dullness there. But it didn’t. It was one of those bright days when the smog recedes and palm trees with jagged fronds stand like paper cutouts under a sky of such cloudless blue that the candy-colored buildings all around them seemed lit and pretty as a child’s dream of chocolate cake.
“Russian Tea Room?” asked Reisman.
“Someone going to tell me what happened?” Rich asked.
Reisman chewed at a cuticle. “I thought it went excellent. If it went badly, he’d have said no in the room.”
“Positive thinking, eh? Learn that at yir damn yoga class? Desparate Dahn, eh? Gonnae go looking for yir Don Juan?”
“I’d have to say I didn’t hear a yes,” Rich noted.
“Already you’re discouraged? That suit is an irrelevance. I was working on the girl. There’s a regime change coming. You can smell the fear in there.”
The car was pulled up to them.
“Shotgun,” yelled MacPherson. “Ah bags shotgun.”
Reisman draped an arm around Rich’s shoulders. “Don’t forget what Mencken said: there are more morons collected in Los Angeles than any other place on earth.”
“I’ve seen nothing to suggest otherwise.”
The producer looked delighted. “You could have a career in the U.S., Richard. I mean that sincerely.”
Rob McClure Smith’s fiction has appeared in Chapman, Gutter, Barcelona Review, Versal, Warwick Review and other literary magazines. He was a previous winner of the Scotsman Orange Short Story Award.