Monday, May 2, 2011

Story special: PICTURES

© 1978, 2011 by Skip Press

    From the beginning, Nathan had a fascination with pictures. Moving pictures, not paintings or photographs. Not billboards or magazines, but films. In the theater. On television.

    When he was very small, before grade school and daily interaction with other children, he spent solitary hours away from home, running along quiet residential streets, playing games of his own creation. He was a World War I pilot, dogfighting over the skies of France. Or dog-faced Buster Keaton, scurrying away from a horde of bumbling cops on his heels. He would imagine himself a tired rider, wearily sliding off his horse as he looked for the nearest saloon.

    Nathan not only assumed identities: he saw the surroundings and the other players in complete, minute detail. And, as he grew older, the fantasies, instead of diminishing, flourished, grew, accumulated and were catalogued in his mind. Observing him, noting his behavior patterns, it might have seemed he was out of touch with reality—he had few close friends, and none that he might maintain over a lifetime. But then, is that so unusual to the human condition?

    They lived in a small town in north central Texas that year, his father working at the local cotton gin and feed co-op. His mother found Nathan one evening, sitting on the back porch, watching the night sky as if some magical display was taking place, unseen by normal eyes.

    "Mom," he said quietly. "If you could have your life so any way you wanted, how would you have it go?"

    He asked the question without turning around. He knew she was there, watching. She had long since abandoned the idea of trying to come upon him undetected. It was more than just "eyes in the back of his head."  The boy was frightening, a growing matrix of awareness who could read your intentions and, more often than not, what you were thinking.

    She looked out over the long backyard, toward the creek which ran across the property, as she considered the question. "I never gave it much thought, Nathan. I guess I gave up wanting things to go exactly how I wanted, some time back."  She watched him closely, knowing that he always granted the courtesy of never implying that, most of the time, he knew the answer before asking the question. "You've been making up pictures again, haven't you?" she asked.


"Mind me asking what they're about this time?"

"Spaceships. Another world with cars that float on air, and people wearing suits that ..."  He laughed aloud. For a moment she thought he was joking. "The suits look like they're made of aluminum foil!"

     She laughed for a moment, then stopped as she noticed "the look" in his eyes. She had no other words for it. It was merely "the look," his strange, distant gaze when his fascination with pictures was evolving into deeper involvement. She shivered a little, watching his face.

    "Last night I did something new," Nathan said quietly, his face glowing, as if burning with an inner flame. "I projected the pictures, on the wall in my room. All the lights were out, and I projected the pictures. It was like..."  Nathan hesitated, turning to her with a smug smile. "It was like my own home movies, Mom! Want to come see tonight?  I can do it again!"

   She looked at him and shuddered, not understanding. She was past understanding, past a desire to understand. He is fourteen years old, she thought. Only fourteen.

   The next day, she called a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist visited the school counselor, and they both were sitting with the mother when Nathan was called to the principal's office. She knew, as soon as he came in the door and realized what was going on, that she had made the greatest mistake of her life. His features were a mixture of surprise, anxiety, revulsion, pain and disbelief. And, of course, recognition. With half a smile, Nathan disappeared from the door with the swiftness of a greyhound, and the determination of a hunted animal. She never saw him again. Never got a letter, or a phone call. And the police never found a trace. After a couple of years of heartbreaking searches, they presumed him dead.

   He hitchhiked to the only logical place, as far as he was concerned. Southern California, where they made the movies. He survived on his own, somehow, as anyone survives who is not beaten down by abandoned dreams. He was resilient, full of energy. He passed himself off as eighteen, washing dishes in restaurants on his way to the coast. Finally, he got a job on an excursion boat that ferried Los Angeles tourists twenty-six miles across the sea to Catalina Island.

   Nathan tried to experience as much of life as possible, but stopped short as he watched illegal drugs replace alcohol as the intoxicants of choice. One experiment showed him that drugs jumbled his memories, making it hard to recall a certain scene he had envisioned for a bigger, future creation. He never chastised anyone for their drug use, but he drifted away from them quickly. Watching someone take drugs, he felt, was like watching a spiritual flame dying.

   Nathan concentrated on his dream world, and worked his way into films. It began with helping a girlfriend who made TV commercials. He moved up to production manager, and quickly got work on independent feature films. Soon, he had a position at a studio. He picked his friends carefully, and began moving up the ranks. Before long, he tried his hand at writing. It was easy for him — he simply projected the pictures on a blank wall by his desk, and described what he saw.

   "Good writers are like platinum, Nathan," said Benson Davies, the Vice President in charge of production at Argus Pictures. Davies paced on the thick carpet of his office, which looked out from the black tower at the studio, offering a view of the San Fernando Valley, and the studio golf course, just across the Los Angeles River. He waved Nathan's script in the air, enthusiastically. "This piece you have here is...very good, actually. To be perfectly honest with you, I haven't seen a script like this in five years."

  "Five years?" Nathan inquired, pleased by the response. "What script was it, then?"

   The VP smiled. He pointed to a framed movie poster on his wall. "Game Rules," Davies said proudly. "That and a couple of other projects I directed got me all this."  He sat down, smiling as he spread his arms wide, like a used car dealer extolling the virtues of a ten year-old Chrysler. "Now let's talk some business. The scene you sent me, the one you shot from your script. It wasn't bad, but those people you used were unknowns. We can't do a picture like that. I mean, the guy you used who looked like Clark Gable was interesting — get him from Celebrity Lookalikes?—but he's still unknown, you know?”

   Nathan shifted in his seat and looked out over the Valley, then back to Davies. "So what are you saying? You want to buy my script without my making the movie?  I insist on making it myself."  He noticed the startled reaction. "Unheard of for an unknown, right?" 

   The VP cleared his throat, then rose from his chair and leaned forward on his desk. "Kid, I'm about to offer you a deal that will set you up for the next five years financially — if you play your cards right—so don't get too ambitious on me."

   Nathan smiled. "The look" his mother would have said. "I'll go home and think about it. He rose from his seat and walked toward the door, pausing as he opened it. "By the way, I can turn it in, edited, in two months," he told the astonished VP. "Think about that."

   The VP stood there, intrigued. But it was ridiculous. No one could shoot the kid's script and turn in an edited version, even a "rough cut," in two months. He laughed to himself, nervously, as he paged through Nathan's script. He tossed it on his bookshelf and sat down to make some calls. He looked toward the door, then swiveled and craned his neck, gazing down to the street below. He watched Nathan emerge at the bottom of the building.

"Crazy," he muttered to himself.

   To the executive's surprise, Nathan finally relented and sold the script outright, with the odd provision that all copies of his sample scene be returned. The film, compulsively altered from the original script by the director, did well nonetheless, and Nathan was offered a chance to direct his next script. To the entire studio's amazement, he turned down the offer. Unbeknownst to them, he now had what he most desired—mobility. For once, he could work on a project the way he wanted, with no worry over whether it was "commercial."   A bank account in the black and a roof over his head were no longer pressing problems.

   In time, a small notice surfaced in the Hollywood trade publications about a new multi-picture development deal with Nathan as both writer and director. Some eyes were raised, but not many, although it was the subject of a few Saturday morning conversations at Nate 'N Al's Deli in Beverly Hills. The deal roared to life with the release of the first picture produced under the deal. It was a fantasy love story that brought a famous writer from another age into present day. Not such an unusual story line, but what had the critics frothing was the imagery, the visual emotional impact that communicated with such quality, along with the strange facts that the writer was listed only as himself, and all the other actors were completely unknown. The Screen Actors Guild demanded information, but Nathan cryptically insisted the writer was played by himself, or his image, anyway. The film was gone over repeatedly by the best computer-generated image experts in Hollywood, who all insisted that though CGI was now amazingly like reality, these images had to be real people. Nathan would only say that the picture was made out of the United States, and since the film had the IATSE exhibition stamp of approval, SAG could do nothing.

   Writers rarely enough become public personalities, screenwriters even more rarely. Directors are luckier. With the uproar over Nathan's first film, his face soon graced a score of magazine covers, and Nathan exiled himself to the French Riviera to prepare his next film. These events helped make his second picture a greater success than the first. Set in France, it was a period piece about Benjamin Franklin's amorous liaisons while in France. Again, all the actors were unknowns but, since the film had obviously been made outside the United States, the uproar was not so outrageous. The critics couldn't stop marveling, however, at the uncanny acting ability of the actor playing Franklin. Of course, no one knew who played Franklin, and no one came forward. Nathan maddened reporters with the statement that Franklin himself played the part. The trade publications were amused, saying Nathan had such a good sense of humor they hoped his next piece was a comedy.

   When the third picture premiered, it created the greatest stir of any film of the decade. Audiences loved it. It was a big band movie, set on another, futuristic planet. Special effects wizards were interviewed on television, estimating that the film must have cost $200 million. A network news show investigated, and could find no evidence of location permits, or studio rentals. No one could be found who participated in the editing. And again, the actors were complete unknowns, except the villain, whom the credits listed as "Benny Shaw". About 30 years old, Nathan said in interviews, sort of a combination of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

All in all, it was as if the film had been shot on a different world.

Or come directly from someone's imagination.

   Living high in the Hollywood hills, up winding streets best navigated in a powerful sports car, Nathan was the media's greatest enigma. He had passed the stage of being the hot new writer/producer/director. Now he was legend. His lightness and flippancy in interviews enraged some and delighted more. After his third film had grossed $200 million, he gave his first press conference, at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

"Mr. Nathan," asked the reporter. "What's your last name?"

"I dropped it," he replied. "I like things simple."

   The reporters stirred with comments and questions, and the television cameras were silent counterpoint to the incessant flashes of still cameras.

"Well, what we're dying to know," the reporter continued. "Is exactly where you shot your latest film and why it is there are no credits other than your own. Could you please explain?"

"No, I can't," Nathan replied. He held up his hands to quiet the shouting match that ensued. "Have any of you uncovered any impending lawsuits?" he asked.

   The news people looked among themselves, exchanging quick whispers, murmuring and spewing confusion.

   "Good," Nathan said after a moment. "Then let's not worry about it. I'm here to tell you about my next film. It's an epic story of a war that took place in Asia several hundred years ago. For any other production company or studio the costs would be prohibitive. However, Nathan Productions finds it...well..." He smiled that self-confident smile the public now knew so well. "Let's just say it's within our means." The room broke into a cacophony of shouts and demands, but he held up his hands and stood up. "That's really all I have to say for now, folks. I'll be issuing more statements as I feel necessary."

  Ignoring anxious shouts, Nathan stepped quickly from the room and into the waiting cordon of rented bodyguards. He was whisked to a waiting limousine outside the back entrance, and was home in half an hour, behind locked gates on his estate overlooking the Hollywood Reservoir. With the phones turned off, he watched the melee on the news, laughing at the national story, the conjecture as to his methods, and the crazy German producer who told the renowned woman interviewer that he knew all of Nathan's secrets and could prove that the last film had been shot in Belarus with the voices dubbed in. The German stammered and became embarrassed when asked to produce written and/or pictorial evidence substantiating the claims.

  Then a cameramen on the show, a lifetime veteran of the business, recognized one photo in the movie as being from an MGM studio library, which had nothing to do with any scene from Nathan's film. But no one cared about that apparent non-sequitur.

   Nathan got up from his favorite deep plush chair, padded across the carpet, and went down the stairs to go to work. Opening the door of the darkroom slowly, he pondered for a moment, reflecting on the solitary nature of his existence, thinking of a woman he had once loved and been hurt by. Then the moment passed and he stepped inside.

  It was a projection room that had been lighted like a photo darkroom. At the back of the room, just under the projection booth portal, some of the seats had been removed. A platform had been built there, with one lone seat stationed on top. Next to the seat was a wooden table, and on the table a 35 millimeter movie camera, along with a stack of unexposed 35mm film. Three rolls, Nathan noted. He put one of the rolls in the camera, took of the lens cap, and sat down. Turning the camera on, he closed his eyes and went into deep concentration. Suddenly, he snapped his eyes open, looked fearfully around the room, but saw no one. Feeling a need to get on with things, he forced his eyes closed and drifted back into his trance-like state.

   Soon his eyelids fluttered, a brief smile crossed his face, and a glow seemed to emit from his body. Focusing itself and radiating in a cone toward the far wall, a great still picture began to form. Gradually the image achieved clarity and definition, and the picture began to move, panning across a landscape that could only have been China. The image now was of an army of thousands of Orientals. Nathan opened his eyes as the images continued. As the camera turned beside him, the pictures on the wall proceeded, developing, growing, with dialogue being heard. Then, something he did not expect, or plan for his newest film.

  A scream.

   His mental processes snapped. The pictures on the wall faded away entirely, as Nathan vaulted for the light switch on the wall. Flicking it on, he felt a furor building that he had not experienced since that day when he was fourteen. Standing there against the door, cowering, was a woman. A beautiful blonde woman, but an intruder nonetheless. He rushed to his feet.

"How the hell did you get in here?" he demanded, holding her wrist in a vise-like grip.

"That light ..." she stammered. "It...came from you, not the booth. My god."

  He tightened his grip slightly. "Answer my question. Who are you, anyway?"

   The pain of his grip brought tears to her eyes. She looked pleadingly from her arm to his face. His eyes softened, and he let her slip from his grip. She began rubbing her arm.

"I work for someone at a studio," she began, sliding down into the seat where she'd been hiding.

"Which one?" he snapped.

"Argus. Benson Davies."  She looked at him defiantly, now that she was getting over her initial shock.

   Nathan studied her, pondering his next move. "Davies, huh?  Never gives up, does he?  I believe I asked you your name?"

"Delta. Delta Wilson."  She rubbed her arm again. "To answer your next question, I climbed over your fence and through an open window. Your security system is pretty lame."  She recoiled a bit, afraid to be too friendly after what she had just witnessed. "I followed you in here."

"I see."  Nathan watched her, his brow furrowed. He sat down. "Now I suppose you'll want to know how it's done."

"That might calm my nerves a little, although it's not why I came up here."

   He raised an eyebrow, the only sign of concern on an otherwise calm countenance. "Then go ahead and tell me why you're here," he said softly.

"Tell me how you did it first?"

   He smiled at her insouciance. "What you saw is a natural ability I've developed since I was very young. I imagine it's similar to telekinesis, and other phenomena, but that doesn't really matter. The mind is expressed in mental pictures. I found I can harness, recompose, and project those images. It's basically simple, actually."

  She stood fascinated, transfixed, her mouth slightly ajar, eyes bright and alert.

"Well, go ahead, Ms. Wilson. Tell me the purpose of your visit, while I figure out what to do with you."

   A chill ran down her spine. She swallowed and caught her breath. "I have a feeling your life might be in danger," she said quietly. "A conversation my boss had with a...or should I say the major producer at the studio. They want to know how you're making your films, and they'll go to any lengths to find out. Know what I'm saying?"

   Nathan laughed. "Do you think that's something I don't know? Would you mind telling them that I am the only one capable of producing films like this? I mean, at least as far as I know. That's why I only make films I want to make."

"They'll never believe it," she answered. Delta stood and walked slowly around the room, stopping at the front and back, looking for hidden levers and slots, hoping for the possibility that what she had seen was a hoax. He chuckled, as she completed the circuit.

"You really should believe me, Ms. Wilson."

"Call me Delta." 

"Well, Delta, for your own sanity, if nothing else, I should show you something to illustrate I'm telling the truth. I was quite amazed myself when I first learned what I could do. Come on. I'll give you a demonstration."

   He stepped to a cabinet and opened it. He pulled out an ancient Polaroid camera and handed it to her. "Let's go to the living room," he said. "Where it's more comfortable."

They sat in the middle of the living room, the camera between them on a glass-top table.

"Think of some experience from your past," he told her. "Preferably, something vivid and pleasurable." 

  She smiled suggestively. "Anything?"

"Anything at all," he said with a smile. "Close your eyes and dream away." 

   She watched his face for a moment, then did as instructed. Her eyes moved under their lids as she slowly recalled a pleasurable moment. She peeked and discovered his eyes were closed in concentration, and she quickly returned to her own thoughts, trying to make the picture as vivid in her memory as possible. She heard the camera on the table click and whir, and when she opened her eyes, a photo was emerging from it.

"Here," he said, waving the picture in the air as he handed it over. "See if this is anything you recognize."

   She gasped and dropped the picture. She turned to look out the window, not believing what she had just seen. Outside was a splendid view of the Hollywood hills, the Hollywood sign, and the reservoir. What a life he lived.

"Any doubts now?" she heard him say.

   Delta turned and picked up the picture again. It was her favorite dog from childhood, Puffy, who had died after being hit by a car. A tear rolled down Delta's cheek. She looked at him and shook her head.

"You're incredible," she whispered. "Incredible."

"Precisely," he said, sitting next to her. He put a consoling arm on her shoulder. "In-credible, unable to be proven easily. Now do you understand why my methods must remain absolutely secret?" 

   Her eyes followed him as he rose and walked behind a bar. She heard the clink of ice in a couple of glasses. He looked at her with a piercing gaze.

"Club soda would be fine," she heard herself answer.

He chuckled. "Funny. Did I ask you if you wanted a drink, or were you reading my mind?" 

   A warm rush came over her, encapsulating her entire body. It held for a heartbeat or two, then dissipated. "You're right," she said. "Maybe I did know what you were thinking. Could I have Perrier instead?"

"Well, look at that," he said, holding up a glass of Perrier with a wedge of lime attached. "I almost mispoured!"

   They talked all afternoon. He gave her a tour of the grounds, opening up his life in a forgotten way. Her sincerity was her finest quality, he decided, and told her. Her beauty was readily evident, too. He noted to himself how much he liked the way her golden mane was highlighted by her blue-green eyes.

  They were both enchanted, and knew it.

   She moved in not long after that, after giving notice to Benson Davies, not letting on who or why. With Nathan, she felt like a key in a familiar old lock. Her devotion to his work increased his ability and art. Until someone recognized her, she became the mystery woman in the tabloids, and was never photographed without sunglasses on. When an old boyfriend down on his luck sold an old picture of her to the Enquirer, it was the hottest story of the day. Benson Davies, who had his suspicions all along, left a message on Nathan's machine, furious as to how he felt betrayed.

   They left the city late at night, escaping undetected by the media. A month's rest with her family in Montana was everything they needed, and the highlight was a small civil wedding ceremony. It inspired Nathan endlessly. He talked of creating a Western with every major cowboy star who had ever been in the movies, all in their prime. She made him promise to put her in the film, too, right beside Gary Cooper.

   Nathan went back to Hollywood a week before his new bride, unannounced, successfully evading the press. The big house in Hollywood was empty, not even a security guard. He wanted to start his next film in solitude. Something told him, he confided Delta, that it would be his most dramatic to date.

   She was three months pregnant when she into Los Angeles. For some reason, he could not be reached, and hadn't met her at the airport. Her sense of shock and alarm grew as they neared home, until it felt like her world was about to explode. And that it did. She and the chauffeur found Nathan in his projection room, his body limp, his clothes wet with perspiration. Her sobs were still reverberating through the big house when the police arrived.

   A doctor gave her a sedative and tried to console her. The coroner pronounced Nathan dead, though he was still uncertain as to the cause of death. Some alcohol was in the body, but nothing lethal.

   The old police captain offered a suggestion. "I saw people die like that in 'Nam," he said. "The Congs had an odorless, tasteless poison that left no trace. The victims always sweated a lot, just like that."

"We'll do an autopsy," the coroner responded.
(Out of the Past/RKO Radio Pictures, 1947)

   Delta came back to the projection room when the body was gone, strangely composed now. The detectives were going over every inch of the place. With a great air of certainty, she pointed to a disposable 35mm film camera. No one, apparently, had thought twice about it. "Please get the film in that camera developed," she told the men. "I think you might find some clues there." 

   The police asked questions, but followed her suggestion. A day later, they were all back in the small projection room, watching a film which held their complete attention. In successive pictures, they saw Nathan's front door open. Benson Davies entered, followed by someone who looked to be nothing more than a strongarm.

"I've seen that face," said the chief of detectives. "Benson Davies. Head of Argus Pictures. Mrs. Nathan's former boss."

  Delta said nothing as the tableau continued to unfold. Nathan offered the men drinks. An argument ensued, followed by Davies losing his temper. Delta could scarcely watch the subsequent struggle, and the pouring of a packet of white powder into a drink which was forced down Nathan's throat.

   The screen went dark for a moment, then came something which sent an emotional shock wave through the room. The credits read:

by Benson Davies

   The detective turned off the projector and turned on the lights. "How do you explain this, Ms. Nathan? Who took these pictures?"

"If I told you how the film was made, would it make any difference, as far as evidence goes?" 

  The detectives looked at each other and shook their heads.

"Fine," she announced. "Then why don't you arrest Benson Davies. I'll be happy to explain everything at the trial." 

  The detectives agreed, and at her request left her alone in the room. They knew her travel schedule; they’d checked with the airline. She couldn’t have been there to take the pictures, and with Nathan in some of the shots, obviously someone else had been there. The police were stunned, trying to figure how anyone could have left the camera behind.

  Delta switched off the lights and turned on the projector. Some letters began forming on the screen, hazily at first, then clear.

"Watch for my next creation," said the message onscreen. "The Prodigy. I love you very much, Delta."  Then the screen went black.

   She sat in the dark, tears cascading down her cheek. She clutched her stomach lightly, feeling the child growing in her body. Taking a deep breath, she rose to her feet and turned to leave the room, a soft smile of recognition on her lips. She'd be waiting, and watching.

Skip Press ( has edited a Hollywood entertainment magazine, produced and directed plays, been a staff writer for a UPN kids show, published young adult novels, and taught an online screenwriting course. He has published almost 40 books, including four editions of the Writer's Guide to Hollywood, four editions of the Complete Idiot's Guide to Screenwriting (including one in Russian). His most recent books are This Is My Song: A Memoir, by Patti Page with Skip Press and the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Making Money with Craigslist. His most screenplay consultations often achieve results like a director getting his first feature film deal in 2010. He lives in Burbank, CA.