“Where am I?” asked Stirling.
“A Towering Inferno,” a voice behind him sniggered.
Stirling turned. A bellboy with a face like a chimpanzee stood behind him, his yellow smile an ear of corn. Something about it was disconcerting, so Stirling chose to ignore the remark.
“It’s damn hot in here,” he said.
“Oh yeah,” nodded the bellboy. “Damn hot.”
Stirling frowned at him, and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. There were knots tied in it. He wondered why. Had he forgotten something? What was he doing in this stuffy little elevator anyway? He could feel it dropping down and down, all the blood in his body sinking into his loafers.
A sullen note, which was both sharp and flat, rang out. The elevator shuddered to a halt.
“This is your floor champ,” said the bellboy with a wink. “Say hi to the fellas for me.”
“What fellas?” Stirling asked.
The bellboy shoved him out without replying, and Stirling watched the doors slide shut and heard the lift take off again, with even more of a sinking feeling than before.
He turned around. At first he thought he was in a warehouse, but it was far too hot. Lot of commotion. Plenty of lights and cameras and cumbersome pieces of rigging and scaffolding strewn about. Young guys fiddled with props while several self-important looking men argued with each other. It was utter pandemonium.
Stirling immediately relaxed. He knew where he was now. This wasn’t a madhouse. Just a film set. He was right at home here.
Hadn’t his agent phoned him just the other day? A favour being called in? A project languishing? Needed him to doctor the script before reshoots became a necessity. or something like that. He stared at the knots in his damp handkerchief, but couldn’t recall the specifics.
Nonetheless, in situations like this Stirling knew that it was all too easy for the voice of the writer to be lost in the cacophony. Once the final draft was typed up, the producers and director usually ignored you; charged ahead like bull-headed fools, totally missing the bare truth of the narrative.
Best course of action was to puff out your chest and shout louder. Try to steer them back on the right path.
Stirling grabbed a passing runner and dragged him to heel like an errant dog. Hot coffee spilled over the rim a cardboard cup.
“Listen sonny,” said Stirling as it dripped onto the floor, “The studio sent me to fix this shitshow. Where’s the director?”
“Which one?” asked the runner blankly.
Stirling stared at him. The spotted youth looked eerily similar to the bellboy. It was actually uncanny.
“What do you mean ‘which one?‘” asked Stirling. “The only one. The definite article. Where is he?”
The runner pointed at the group of arguing men, whose voices were rising to a crescendo. Stirling sighed. Too many prima donnas on one picture. Same old story. This was going to be Poseidon all over again.
“Beat it,” he growed at the runner, and marched towards the squabble.
A man with long, dark hair was screaming in a strange accent at a bald Asian guy, while another attempted to interject from the sidelines
“I cannot have zebra looking like this, okay?” yelled the first man. “Scene needs zebra to look tougher! Needs more muscles! I want bigger zebra!”
He turned to nearby peon, who was nodding and scribbling notes on a clipboard at the same speed as a hummingbird beating its wings.
“Get zebra to gym. Make it work out some, okay?” the long-haired-man ordered. “Otherwise nothing good will happen with us here.”
“This is is bullshit Tommy!” screamed the bald guy. “We can animate the zebra. I can do it in two minutes. This whole thing should be 3D! That’s what the kids want-“
“We’re not loving what the little kiddies want today!” shouted Tommy, “Little kiddies and their superhero joking isn’t funny to me!”
“I cannot work!” cried out the third man, a portly guy with a soul patch. “Non finiremo mai di girare questo film!”
The tight circle broke apart, and each of the three men began hissing at their cringing assistants.
Stirling went up to the chubby Italian and boldly stuck out his hand.
“Hi, I’m Stirling,” he said.
“Claudio,” answered the Italian.
“The studio sent me,” Stirling said. “I think they said you were having trouble.”
Claudio lit a cigarette and drew in a deep lungful of smoke.
“Oh dio. Più disordine,” he muttered, before saying in English: “There is no problem with the project, we just disgreeing, si?”
“Can I see the script?” Stirling asked, undeterred.
The Italian nodded at his PA, who handed Stirling a dog-eared sheaf of papers. He glanced at the working title:
[Untitled Movie About A Zebra]
This did not bode well. He leafed through the script while Claudio smoked, but it seemed to have been composed in a kind of pidgin English:
ScENe 12 (INt) kiTChENn
I KEpT sAyiNg yOU daRLiNg, I WiLl nOt bE The eatINg oF mEat aNyMoRe. I aM vEGAn. THiS sHit sTiNKs.
wHAt? YoU hoMo? EaT MY sTEAk or i cHop It OFf!
I tIghTenINg tHe beLt so i noT fEel tHe hUngeR pAinS.
YOu shitTIng On dINNeR! I WOn’T ALLoW it!
ThINk aBOut fAt iN yoUr blOoD. ThiNk abOut cHoLeSteRol. ThiNk abOut tOxIN!
(ZEbRA wAtcHeS THeM.)
ThEy eAtiNg him! THeN thEy eaT mE! Oh MY GooooOooooOOOD!
“Who wrote this crap?” Stirling asked, “I can’t make sense of it.”
The Italian’s face went beetroot.
“I write it!” he exclaimed. “If you don’t like it, fuck you too!”
He stomped away, spitting foreign curse words. Stirling folded the script, put it in his pocket, and approached the bald man next.
“Hi, I’m Stirling,” he repeated mechanically. “The studio sent me. I think they said you were having trouble.”
“I’m not having trouble,” the bald man snapped. “All these other losers are the ones having trouble. They don’t know what you can do with special effects. When I directed my second feature, there was this scene in a bus where-”
“Well it’s nothing a couple of rewrites won’t fix,” Stirling interrupted. “What’s it about?”
A glossy expression that Stirling had learned well to fear came over the man as he launched into an explanation.
“It’s about this guy, right, this software salesman. Really handsome, everyone likes him. He meets this girl. Really gorgeous girl. She’s a supermodel, and an astronaut, and a doctor, and he takes her out, but she thinks she might be fat, so she gives up pizza, and she loses ten pounds, and the guy is happy, so he buys a new Camaro, and they go dancing, but she falls over, but she isn’t hurt too bad, and then the zebras come.”
Stirling blinked at him.
“The .. the zebras come?” he said.
“Uhuh,” the bald man said. “Millions of them. They come out of the ground and stampede and breathe fire because of fracking. It’s, like, a metaphor.”
Stirling wet his lips, opened his mouth, and felt his tongue turn to granite. What happy fucking camper had greenlit this?
“Okay,” he said eventually, “So it’s a disaster movie. A disaster movie and a love story.”
“It’s all in the script,” said the bald man. He handed Stirling a loose collection of pages that added up to little more than a pamphlet.
“Um, this copy is different to the one I have,” said Stirling.
“Don’t read their scripts,” the man glowered. “Mine is the real movie. Yes?!”
A runner tapped him on the shoulder and pulled him away. Stirling read a few pages of the script and began to feel ill.
SCENE 8 (INT) RESTAURANT:
Baby I just got some great news…….. I got a promotion!!!!!!!
That’s great baby!!!!!! I just got some great news too ………………… I’m going to be on the cover of Playboy next week!!!!!!!
That’s great ………. you’re really great.
Yeah sure …………………………… I feel really great about my business.
Of course ……. OH EM GEE BABY!!!! Look!!!!!
(A dirty, angry, snarling, ugly, stinking, zebra is eating up the guts of a waiter. There are blood and guts everywhere. The blood and guts fly out of him and hit the walls. The floor is covered in blood and guts and sick and poop. Also the waiter is dead.)
Help John I’m scared!!!!
JOHN: Grab that gun baby!!!!
Christ alive. This wasn’t just a disaster movie. It was a disaster movie.
Stirling went to the long haired man, who was now being shown glossy pictures of steroidal zebras by a deputy. His outfit was bizarre. He wore a v-neck sweater, cargo pants, a black sport coat, two belts, and a thick set of sunglasses.
“Hi-I’m-Stirling-the-studio-sent-me-I-think-they-said-you-were-having-trouble,” Stirling declared, without bothering to offer his hand.
“Hello yes, I’m Tommy. I’m needing the zebras,” the man said, in an accent doing a full tour of Europe without ever stopping for gas. “I need this movie to be Jurassic Park.”
“Yeah yeah, it’s good,” nodded Tommy. “The zebras are a phenomenon, they are life, they are us. We’re all having Zebras inside that want to kill people, and when people see that, they will know that they can’t be alone also.”
Stirling rubbed his temples.
“What? What the fuck does that mean?!” he said. “What’s it about!? I can’t seem to get a straight answer out of anyone.”
“Okay, so man owns horses on farm,” explained Tommy enthusiastically. “He work hard and no-one appreciate him and his neighbour is real mean guy. His girlfriend, she is cheating on him, and he decide to raise zebras instead.”
Stirling nodded. This was more hopeful.
“Then the girl’s mother, she gets cancer, and then her father gets the AIDS, and the zebras are all sick. Jonny works so hard to make it right, but then neighbour starts painting his horses to look like zebras and making them kill people, so Jonny kill him and kill girlfriend and flies away.”
Stirling stared at Tommy, who stared right back at him.
“He … he flies away?” said Stirling.
“Uhuh,” nodded the long-haired-man. “He was vampire all the time. It is metaphor, yeah?”
“Right, a metaphor,” muttered Stirling. “Do you have your own script as well?”
“Don’t read theirs,” Tommy said. “Please see this as real movie, okay? The world must see this. It’s beautiful story.”
He reached into a large satchel, and pulled out a thick doorstopper of a script, marked with various annotations and highlights.
SCENE 11 SC ENE 12 SCENE 14 [must please have less scenes]
slutty sexily puts Jonny breakfast on table and stomps her foot on the carpet tile ground.)
Promotion! Promotion! That’s all I hear about. Here’s your
coffee latte tea cocoa coffee and English muffin and burn your mouth.
ZARA WHY ZARA? WHY DO YOU DO THIS TO ME?? WHY? WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY
WHY [No] WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY? WHY? YOU HURT FEELINGS OF ME!
I hurt your feelings did I? [Have Zara bending over and showing ass.]
Fed up with these zebras honey they take everything from
us me. They killing Jimmy, blow up New York and now I read newspaper.
(JONNY throw papers at ZARA
feet toes legs soles slippers shoes.)
It is momma. The zebras sex her. They sex her face clean off [dramatic] and now her skull is eggs!
It’s bullshit! [more intensity here for scene]
(ZARA sit on Jonny
cock dick face lap and take off top and naked. They are climbing onto table and soon making out on breakfast. Zara shows booby and Jonny is putting him in her butt.)
I love you Jonny!
And you my
cherry babydoll little girl!
The heat had become stifling. Stirling shuffled over to a quiet corner of the set. He found a place to sit and read through each script, cover-to-cover, quickly and carefully. None of them gelled into a coherent whole, in terms of pacing, story, theme, tone, or genre. The only ubiquitous elements were a man, a woman, and a zebra.
Time slipped away from him. It was a meaningless concept when you were on set. Beads of sweat slid down the back of his shirt collar. Runners brought him coffee after coffee, and he jotted down notes in his notepad as he shuffled pages, trying to wring some sense out of the lunacy.
After much blocking and rewriting, Stirling requested a typewriter and a desk. He sat beating the keys, mashing out the script in a tin shop percussion fuelled by caffeine and adrenaline. He felt like a plastic surgeon working on some hideous burn victim, trying to shape the deformed into something halfway passable.
“Let me guess friend?” someone beside him asked. “The studio sent you?”
Stirling jumped and turned. Leaning against a wall was a square-jawed man with thick brows, smoking a cigarette. He was unremarkable aside from his attire: a pink angora sweater and matching beret, a white satin blouse, a dark pencil skirt, and a pair of high-heeled pumps.
“Yeah,” Stirling said. “Stirling.”
“Ed,” said the transvestite.
Stirling chose not to draw attention to his clothes. He’d seen some sights, living in Bangkok for the last few years. Cities like that made you open-minded.
“What do you do Ed?” Stirling asked. “Wardrobe department, or-?”
“HA!” barked Ed, with a melodramatic flick of his head. “Hardly! I was the director, and this was my picture … at least until the rest of these amateurs showed up.”
He shot a look of cold venom at the other would-be-auteurs. Stirling noted with dismay that they seemed to have multiplied, like fungi.
“They’ve got some nerve, showing me up like this,” said Ed. “This was supposed to be my big comeback! This was a pet project for me friend. I had a whole vision for it.”
“Oh yeah?” Stirling said, “What was it about?”
Ed sat beside him, rummaged in a dainty handbag, and pulled out a flask. He took a long gulp before offering it to Stirling, who gratefully swigged before it disappeared for good. The hot whiskey did little to quench him. It was so damn hot.
“We open on a hippodrome in ancient Rome,” Ed regaled, framing the scene with his manicured fingers. “Every day these horses are ridden for Caesar’s pleasure. But there’s one horse, the slowest and lamest, who knows he’s different. A thing apart from the others. And his rider’s hiding a secret too: she isn’t a man at all. She’s woman in disguise!”
“Okay,” said Stirling carefully.
“So when he’s harnessed to his rider’s chariot,” continued Ed, “He decides to impress Caesar. He gallops and gallops and wins the race, and he’s brought before the emperor, and he rises up, and transforms into a beautiful zebra!”
“Huh… You know, that’s not actually half-”
“Then the Martians show up,” Ed carried on. “They’ve got death rays and sun bombs and particle crossbows and they invade Rome, so the emperor climbs onto the zebra and rallies his legions and fights em off. Bella was going to play Caesar.”
“Uhuh,” mumbled Stirling, head in his hands.
“It was a metaphor you know,” said Ed.
“Of course it was,” replied Stirling.
“They ought to show me some fucking respect!” Ed suddenly snarled. “I was the first. I was a pioneer. Millions of people have watched my films. They’re repeated on TV. Played at festivals. My masterpiece was showing every midnight while these bozos were in diapers!”
He took another drag on his cigarette, before strutting away.
“God help us,” he muttered, “In the future.”
More time passed. Workers rushed to and fro. More arguments broke out over the slightest minutiae. Meanwhile, Stirling dropped into the script. He could feel the story taking shape, becoming a living organism instead of a freakshow. He just needed to knit the disparate threads together.
It felt like a night and a day had been and gone when the script was finally fixed. It wasn’t going to win him any awards, but it had a beginning, middle and end, and some jokes thrown in for good measure. They’d credit it the whole mess to that critical darling, Alan Smithee. Stirling wouldn’t be surprised to find him down here too.
There was still a lot of commotion. The long-haired-man and the bald guy seemed to have reached a compromise on the Zebra issue, and now Tommy was buck naked and painting himself with black and white stripes.
“I’m playing zebra now, okay?” he told the others, “I work out a lot so I do the part my way. No Mickey Mouse stuff.”
Stirling shook his head and tapped a guy who was adjusting a camera on the shoulder.
“Hey,” he said. “I need to speak to a director. Any director.”
“Yeah I’m the director,” the man replied gruffly, “What do ya-“
He turned around. Stirling was shocked to see the state of his legs: even under his baggy pants, he could see they were misshapen and twisted like bent branches.
The man’s weathered face broke into bright smile of recognition.
“Stirling! What are ya doing here buddy?”
“Do I know you?” asked Stirling, as the man took his hand and cranked it up and down.
‘“Do I know ya?‘ he says!” laughed the man, “Oh that’s rich! If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here myself!”
“I’m sorry,” said Stirling, feeling his arm go numb, “I meet a lot of people and I don’t always-“
“Harold!” the man said grandly, “Harold Warren! We met at that coffee house when you were filming Route 66.”
Memories, at once cringeworthy and hysterical, floated like soap bubbles to the surface of Stirling’s mind. Memories of a conversation with a bragging salesman.
A challenge. A wager.
“Remember me now?” grinned Warren, his firm as tight as a clamp on a hubcap. “I couldn’t believe I was talking to a Hollywood bigshot.”
“Yes,” said Stirling slowly. “You sold … fertiliser?
“Correct!” beamed Warren, grinding the bones of Stirling’s hand. “I said that making a spooky movie was easier than selling manure, and you disagreed with me. So-“
“So we made a bet, and you made a movie,” croaked Stirling. He pulled out his handkerchief to mop his cheek, and wasn’t surprised at all too see that the knots had untied themselves.
“Wrote the story treatment on a napkin right there and then,” nodded Warren. “Made the whole thing for just under 20 grand.”
“I remember,” said Stirling. “What was it called? Mangos: The Cans of Fruit?”
“Manos,” said Warren firmly. “Manos: The Hands of Fate. Everyone laughed. First they laughed at the script, then they laughed at the reels, and then they laughed when I said I’d fix it in the edit.”
“Yes,” said Stirling. “There was a faun or something, and a lodge, and-“
“They said I couldn’t polish a turd,” said Warren. “But I always say: making movies sure beats shovelling shit. Am I right?”
“But you… you died in ’85,” said Stirling, his mouth now as dry as burnt toast. “I got a letter from your family.”
“Yeah, I kicked the can,” said Stirling. “End scene. Fin. Now I’m stuck in on this feature, mucking out the horses. Zebras. Whatever.”
“I-I don’t understand,” stammered Stirling. “I’ve been sent by the studio, I think. To doctor the script or … or something. I need to speak to the director.”
“Oh I’m the director,” said Warren. “Don’t listen to those other guys. This is my baby, pure and simple.”
Stirling wrenched his hand out of Warren’s grip.
“Where’s the executive producer?” he asked wildly. “I wanna speak to someone in charge!”
“Why, speak of the devil,” said Warren. “Here is is now.”
Stirling spun around. A man in well-tailored clothes grinned a simian grin at him. His face was identical to the bellboy’s, to the runner’s, to the many other set dressers working feverishly all around him.
“Hello Mr Siliphant” smiled The Producer, “Come with me please. Your time’s up here.”
He put his arm around Stirling and turned him aside.
“Hey, Stirling!” Warren cried after him. “If you ever need any compost, for your back yard or whatnot, give me a call, all right?”
Stirling mumbled a feeble reply as the producer led him away.
“We had someone like you down here before you know,” The Producer drawled. “Mr Alighieri. He was just passing through too.”
He was guiding Stirling towards the elevator. Even through the fabric of his suit, Stirling could feel his fingers on his shoulder. Like ice. Like death.
“Don’t worry about Warren,” The Producer whispered in his ear. “Or Wood, or Wiseau, or any of the others. They’ll get out of here too.”
“When?” asked Stirling.
“As soon as they finish the picture,” said The Producer. “Or, at any rate, when they finally make something worth watching. That’s the deal.”
“Monkeys,” Stirling shuddered. “Monkeys doing Shakespeare.”
Tommy was rearing up on his back legs, painted like a beast, his yawning mouth braying a shrill whinny. The other directors were screaming at him: a cursed mob vainly cursing. The Producer regarded the damned contentedly.
“Pride,” he said. “The daddy of all sins. That’s why they’re here.”
As the doors slid open, Stirling could still hear them bickering in the blistering heat. Someone wanted to change the zebra into a turkey. Apparently it was a metaphor.
“Poor bastards,” sighed Stirling. “They don’t have an ounce of talent between them. It’ll go on and on forever.”
The Producer pushed him into the elevator, and pushed the button for the top floor.
“Well,” he chuckled, “That’s why it’s called development hell…”