by Scott Jessop
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“What are you doing?”
It was my boss leaning over my shoulder, grabbing my arm. “Stop. Just stop.”
“You told me to break down these takes and sync them,” I replied, raising my hands off the Moviola flat-bed editor to show him that I had indeed stopped.
“This isn’t film school. You don’t sit at my editor for drudge work.” His grip on my shoulder eased. “Come on.”
We left the editing bay and walked down the hallway of the aging building to a back room near the soundstage. The place smelled of wet plaster and dust. The corridor with its hanging lamps that looked like props from an old Humphrey Bogart movie creeped me out. Tim — or Telly, as everyone called him because of his bald head — took me into a dark room with two, old, upright 16mm Moviolas and a 35mm.
“Sit,” he said pointing to the stool. “Feed goes here and the take up there. Use the foot pedal to control the advance. Play with it while I go get the workprint.”
I hit the pedal. The motor immediately came to life, pulling the leather cords that turned the take-up reel. The tiny screen illuminated with life. The other 16mm machine had footage cued up, and I was about to step on the pedal to view it when Telly came in.
“Hey,” he said with a start. “Don’t touch that.”
“That’s old silver nitrate film. Very brittle. The machine was here when Paul and I took over the place a couple of years ago. I keep meaning to fix it up and put it out in the lobby,” he said as he caressed its green, lead-painted metal surfaces. “It’s an antique.”
“Nineteen-twenties or thereabouts.”
Hell, it belonged in a museum next to a sarcophagus and a package of Beemans. “And you found it here just like this?”
“You ever look at the footage?”
He took a step back from the machine. “Just once. Some old, silent western.” Yellow light spilled into the space as he opened the door. “You smoke?” he asked taking a Marlboro from the pack he kept in his sport coat.
I waved my hand. “No, thanks.”
“Good. Nitrocellulose film is explosively flammable. Like dynamite. So no smoking in here.”
I gave him a salute as he left and went back to my task. Prior to getting bit by the film bug, I had never really finished anything: not Boy Scouts, not confirmation at church, not college, and certainly none of the half-dozen jobs that left me feeling like a giant fist had been thrust up the chutney tunnel. After working on a couple of local TV spots as little more than a strong back, I had found my passion.
Eight hours later, there were five crushed cans of Coke and a crumpled Funyuns bag in the trash. I craved real food or at least a burger. Across the room, the other editor made a rattling noise as if the gears were turning in the machine. I figured I had forgotten to turn it off.
After spending a day working one of these old upright machines, I had developed a touch. A few feet wouldn’t matter. My foot depressed the pedal and the black strip of film flowed over the sprockets, the loop bouncing to hold a single frame for just one twenty-fourth of a second, then advancing to the next frame, creating the illusion of motion.
It was a scene of a beautiful, young woman in her early twenties riding a bike on a path near the creek not far from the studio. She turned, her eyes peering into camera, and in a way that so few modern actresses can master, looked through the lens and connected with the viewer. The corners of her mouth curled into a smile a lover gives her mate and, instinctively, I smiled back.
That was enough. I lifted my foot and shut off the editor. Cool stuff. I wondered who the actress was. She had Mary Pickford’s lustrous locks, Dorothy MacKaill’s full lips, and Loretta Young’s tigress eyes, and she knew how to play to the camera. So why did I not recognize her from the hours and hours of silent films I had watched in my freshman Film Appreciation class? I went home, searched movie reference books for hours, and found nothing.
* * *
The next day, I was packing up equipment for a shoot on Thursday; mostly large cases of lights and heavy C-stands. Nowadays, they make these things from aluminum and steel, but the guys I worked for insisted on using the cast-iron crap they found warehoused when they took over the building.
I was handing the stuff to the key grip. He was grumbling about the boys being cheap bastards while blasting out farts every time he lifted something. Ishmael was a great guy, but he had serious trouble with his bowels.
“How late were you here last night?” he asked.
I shrugged, “Not long. Maybe seven.”
“Don’t stay here too late. The studio is haunted, you know.”
“What do you mean, haunted?” I heaved a case of Mighty Moles up to him. He grabbed it and promptly shit his pants. “Jesus, Ish, what do you eat?”
“Sorry. Too much fast food,” he said.
“Ugh, just stick to your mama’s cookin’,” I said waving the air. “What do you mean, haunted?”
“I was here after midnight last winter, breaking down the Arri BL in the camera room. Suddenly the door just shut.”
“The wind,” I said with a dismissive wave.
“Really? From where? An open window in the middle of February?”
“Maybe it was one of your farts,” I said with a self-satisfied giggle.
“Ha-ha,” he said, “You’re a real funny guy. Real funny. Help me lift this shiny board case.” We grabbed the corners of the large, thin, wooden box and lifted it to the back of the vehicle. Ish slid the box into the space on the far left of the truck under the shelf that held coils of electrical cable. He stretched a bungee cord across the back and secured it in place. “As I was saying, the door closed, so I opened it and went out into the studio.”
“Oh, that’s right. Your ghost story.”
“I was alone,” he said looking me in the eye. “Then the door slams shut behind me. I tried to open it but it was locked, so I jiggled the knob and knocked.”
He leaned down to where I was standing and said in a loud whisper, like it was a secret, “Someone knocked back. I just came out of that room, Shaggy, and I was alone, so who was knocking?”
I grinned. “That’s pretty cool.”
“That whole place gives me the creeps.”
“Maybe your ghosts got into the camera room through another way, like a ventilation shaft or something.”
“Ghost. I think there’s just one, and there is no other way in. The room used to be the film vault, where they stored the silver nitrate raw stock. That stuff is a fire hazard.”
“So I’ve heard,” I said. “By the way, what’s up with Telly?”
“Do you mean why is he such a prick?”
Ish jumped down from the back of the truck and closed the door. “His girlfriend left him, his dog died, he’s a no-talent director stuck in Colorado Springs doing commercials for banks and shopping malls when he wants to be directing the next Star Wars movie in Hollywood. Who knows? Who cares? Just do what he says, when he says to do it.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Scott Jessop