I'll Tell You How I Got My Start In Films


I'll tell you how I got my start in films.

After the war of the Sevens, once the fires had burned out and the buildings had fallen down, the dust had settled, the dead were buried and the wounded, raped and terrified had gotten back to the tattered remnants of their lives, I was assigned to the War Crimes Trials. Now, the war criminals were not the famous ones, the top tier -- I was not the sort of star who could command that kind of role! -- they were a second or third layer, the senior officers, military men who had carried out the orders to kill and destroy and so forth. My role was complex; I would be both a reporter or investigator and a prosecutor. And I was to be an actor as well, because we were going to make a movie out of the trial -- not a standard, old-time documentary, either, or a historical fiction, but the sort of performance-enhanced fact-based verité in which the real world plays the most important part, for when we tried the war criminals, they would truly be tried, and when we condemned them to death, they would truly be executed. This is common enough today, but we were among the first.

I found that the trials had been set up in a nearby neutral nation, in a old, now disused cinematic compound near the capital, which included a large movie theater, several modest sound stages, an open area with some deteriorated outdoor sets, and a number of offices. The compound, as a whole, occupied a city block in an outlying, largely abandoned industrial zone. Most of the personnel, including me, were assigned small trailers or huts to live in; some of the important persons stayed at the hotel. Imprisonment needs were met by a loan of a few of our Government's portable high-security prison modules, which we were very fortunate to get. The technicians bringing in the modules (which actually contained the prisoners) also were able to completely yet unobtrusively secure the area, "wired, ringed and gated" as they put it, in a few hours. When I complimented them on their efficiency, the chief engineer -- a old but hale fellow in the regulation khaki -- twinkled through his steel-rimmed glasses, and said, "Yes, we can turn just about any place into a high-security prison in a day or less. We've had plenty of practice lately!"

The director of the trial and the film to be made from it was Lydia Tybalt, whom I'd met a few times several years before when we were both starting out in the Service. She'd done quite well for herself in the Department since then: now, she was a businesslike woman in vigorous early middle age, well dressed in very businesslike garb, usually dark blue, at the top of her form. Even her body had filled out into a very respectable solidity. The trajectory of her career was rising sharply and I felt privileged to work with her. As was evidently her custom, her preferred method of direction was from behind a desk or table, giving the participants the general, comprehensive plan and outlook of the action, and letting everyone find their own path to the objective. For this she had assembled people like myself who were capable of a variety of roles, both in actual life and in film, with a good capacity for thinking and acting indepently in extended detail, given a set of parameters under which to operate. On our first day on location she gave me a copy of the master document which had been put together for the trial and film and told me to read it through quickly to get a general feel for the proceedings, the big picture. I was advised that the details might change, and change they did.

In the master document, I found that many of the very tedious procedural matters which have traditionally been associated with such trials had been simplified so that the film, and trial, would cover the important issues without getting bogged down in technical minutiae. Nevertheless, the rights of the defendants would be fully protected by ensuring that they would receive plenty of good camera and good dialog, and adequate time and coverage to "speak their piece", whatever it might be.

After some shuffling of personnel at the startup, it turned out to be my job to work with none other than General Harnak, to coach him for our scenes where I would play the investigator and later prosecutor of his crimes. He didn't always understand what we were getting at. For example, it was important, obviously, to show that his crimes were committed under the influence of the vicious ideology which had been inculcated in him by the enemy dictatorship. But he would say, "I don't have any ideology, I was just doing my work, the Army is my life, I did what I did because it was what I had to do" -- that sort of thing, which can be so tedious. So I pointed out to him several times that that was an ideology, and finally he settled down and did his best to cooperate. We couldn't expect him to rave and rant, he didn't have a talent for it, so we rewrote the book a little and I filled in with passionate, graphic descriptions of his crimes while doing my prosecutorial passages. I think the general appreciated my taking up the slack for him in this way.

A few weeks into the project, I was about to discuss the progress of his case with Lydia one evening -- we usually had these conferences after each day's work -- but she interrupted me before I could begin. She had just made some coffee and poured a cup. She handed it to me.

"I want you to take this coffee to Harnak," she said, "and tell him that he will be executed tomorrow."

"Executed? He hasn't really been tried yet, much less sentenced," I said, a bit surprised.

"I can film around that. We have enough material for his trial, from the preliminary hearing. I just need the execution. We're getting a bit behind schedule -- we had to do the verdict and sentencing scene for Zumwal four times before he got it right. And as you know Harnak is hardly providing us with compelling material. I've scheduled four executions for tomorrow. I just hope the crews can get started on time."

"Well, I think Harnak may react rather emotionally to this," I said. "Are you planning to film it? How will it fit in?"

"I'm not filming. He won't react much," said Lydia. "It's the sort of thing he believes in, isn't it? He commanded the massacres in the Iron Square, you know. Men, women and children, dogs, cats and mice I suppose. According to him, all traitors to his country. At least, that's what the documents and our script say. Killing and being killed -- it's his métier, is it not?" She turned to other business.

I found out she was right. A few minutes later, when I brought the old general the coffee and told him the news, he merely nodded impassively. After meditating a moment or two, he looked up. "And so good-night," he said evenly. "I take our work together is over. It has been a pleasure, and if I do not see you again, farewell and thank you for your kind attentions," he added graciously.

"Is there anything I can do?" I asked, thinking of last requests, messages to the family, that sort of thing. He only shook his head gently, smiled, and sipped his coffee. As Lydia said, there was nothing worth filming and I left. I went back to my trailer and began reading up on my next case; my attendance at Harnak's execution was not in the script.

It was only a week or two after this that Lydia took me into her office, shut the door, and told me somewhat excitedly that an unusual opportunity had arisen which we both might profit from. The then well-known movie actress, Ziella Adora, who you may recall had a certain connection with the enemy, had been offered to us, had offered herself in expiation one might say, to provide the possibility of a romantic thread to what was, after all, a rather dreary set of episodes so far. I was quite thrilled for Lydia; her film might now achieve significant notice, which would certainly advance her career, and could not but be helpful to those who, like myself, worked for her. However, I did not see how the good fortune particularly touched on me.

"I see you as one of the romantic leads," said Lydia. "Besides being an investigator , you will be a wronged husband or boyfriend; Miss Adora will, so to speak, cheat on you with the very man you will be investigating, Derek Engen. Besides being a war criminal with a striking record of atrocities and daring terroristic exploits, both as a commander and a front-line fighter, he has also very much the demeanor of a ladies' man, if not a demon lover, which certainly shouldn't be wasted. Perhaps he has already romanced Miss Adora on one of her visits to his country, eh?" she chuckled. "In any case, he'll have what may be yet another opportunity for romance, and so, of course, will you, assuming you can get into a mood of husbandly bliss with Miss Adora, under the proper circumstances. Given her prominent attributes, I would not think that would be too difficult! Yet when you investigate and prosecute Engen" -- her voice now rose into a kind of poetic tenor -- "you will be sternly just and yet scrupulously fair, thus winning back the heart of Miss Adora, and demonstrating the superiority and integrity of our way of life, even to such as Derek Engen!"

I was so shocked by this development I didn't know what to say. To appear on screen with a major star like Ziella Adora, as she was then, in any role, to say nothing of being a romantic lead, was far beyond anything I had imagined from the project.

"Of course, I'll have to film it backwards," said Lydia. "Engen is due to be executed in two weeks. It'll be a whirlwind affair!" she laughed. And after that, we'll have plenty of time for some scenes of before-and-after languorous domestic bliss between you and Adora. Well, onward," she said, gathering up her papers. "I don't know exactly when Miss Adora is due to arrive, but I do have a scene set up with you and Engen tomorrow, so we can proceed with that."

"I haven't prepared to examine him," I said.

"Oh, this is the other thread," said Lydia. "You're going to meet Engen in a movie theater. Our theater, the one right outside, While you're watching a picture starring Miss Adora, which I've been able to obtain and edit so that it appears to portray the very scenes of her infidelity to you with Engen! Don't worry -- you won't have to do much talking. Be here tomorrow at 8; I want to get an early start."

The next morning I went over to the theater, a seemingly low, factory-like building, yet surprisingly large, dark, and cavernous inside. A sort of "audience" of a dozen or so extras had been collected and were seated at random in the back. Towards the front of the orchestra the gloom was broken by a small camera, lighting and sound crew, Lydia, Engen, and a couple of people I supposed were guards. Lydia got right down to business.

"This scene is very simple," she said. "Engen has invited you to meet in the theater. You expect him to try to buy you off -- in the film, he hasn't been arrested yet -- and you want to see if you can get more evidence against him. Instead, he challenges your fortitude. You know that he has spirited off Adora for an affair. He tells you that if you can withstand what he's going to do to your hand and arm with his knife, he'll tell you where he's hidden her and bow out. You will endure all in silence as he performs this torture. Finally, defeated, he'll give up in disgust and walk out!"

I looked around and didn't see any special-effects equipment. "He's actually going to cut my arm?" I asked.

"Of course!" said Lydia. "Everything in the film is real, is the truth. Your arm has to be really cut, just as Derek Engen is going to cut it, and betray you, later but in advance of this scene, with Adora!"

There was nothing I could do but comply. I got into the indicated seat and sat down. Engen was seated next to me; the film started, as one could see quite crudely edited with Engen jerking in and out of picture, almost at random. Then our cameras started rolling, and we went through some dialog briefly to get up to the torture sequence. I was somewhat distracted by the film; it was one of Ziella's more revealing roles, shall we say, providing a suggestive context into which Engen on the screen popped in, scowled and grimaced, and popped out; Engen next to me uttered the dark threats and promises in his script, and then it was time for the knife.

"All right, now let's get into it," said Lydia, more enthusiastically than necessary, I thought. She was uncharacteristically close to the action, right behind a cameraman. Engen drove the knife into my hand and I almost fainted with pain. I could feel the metal of the knife scraping against the bones. It was all I could do to keep from crying out, but I did. I began sweating profusely and someone wiped my brow; however, blood was allowed to accumulate and drip from my hand. Engen followed the initial thrust by cutting my arm, and this pain, too, was remarkably intense. Somehow I neither made noise of any kind, nor fainted. The torture seemed to go on forever, yet it must have been only a few minutes. Suddenly, at a signal from Lydia the action stopped, to my desperate relief. I thought I had made it through to the end, but I was wrong.

"Let's do that again," said Lydia. "I don't think that take's going to look right." She had the makeup man put some kind of paste over my hand which made it look relatively unharmed, although it caused a savage burning on top of the intense pain which remained from the knife. There was a lot of blood on the seat, my legs and the floor, but she didn't notice or maybe didn't care. However, Engen had done a careful, knowledgeable job, avoiding nerves and major blood vessels and thus the possibility of my losing consciousness.

"Derek," Lydia said, "this time a bit more slowly and carefully, please. Don't rush it. Remember that you're testing this man, you want him to fail, and at the same time you're enjoying what you're doing for its own sake." She seemed quite excited. Engen nodded and smiled. "Of course," he said, "but this is a child's play. We could do many much more interesting things."

"Please, I need him around here for some other work," she laughed. "Come on, let's get on with it."

Incredibly, we went through the whole business again. This time, I think I did faint. When I became aware of myself, my whole arm seemed to be on fire, sweat was pouring down my face, and I was shaking. The take had ended, and Engen was holding up the bloody knife and contemplating it with a look of satisfaction on his face.

"That was a lot better," said Lydia. "However, I'm going to need some closeups. Move the cameras up, patch him, and let's go through it again."

Once again I submitted to the torture; it was worse than anything I had yet experienced and was drawn out very slowly for the benefit of the unblinking lens. Finally, after the fourth or fifth time through -- I lost count -- Lydia decided she had enough. She seemed quite pleased with the way the shoot had gone and flirted a bit with Engen, who was about to be led off by the guards, telling him she might come around later to "work on his lines." He smiled broadly. At this point I interjected banteringly, "Don't forget, you're supposed to turn Ziella over to me now." Engen looked at me. "You are an idiot," he laughed, and strode out followed by the guards, with Lydia and the camera, lighting and sound crews following close behind.

I was left alone in the darkness with my shredded hand and arm; I suppose Lydia assumed I could get back to my trailer on my own and bind up my own wounds. It was clear to me then that both Engen and Lydia had the utmost contempt for me, that they had enjoyed what they had done and even savored it. I wrapped a hankerchief around my hand; my arm still hurt badly and my blood dripped slowly on the floor. I sighed I looked up at the screen. Above me, the film of Ziella continued to run, but now, instead of being crudely intercut with scenes implying infidelity, she was looking out at me with affectionate passion. It was something I could believe in.

"To overcome, you must undergo", I thought. I slowly turned around and peered into the darkness behind me. There, among the few who were still watching, I thought I made out General Harnak, and as if he had heard my thought, he slowly nodded his head.

And it was so. Now they are all gone, all of them, and I alone remain.


Copyright © 2003, 2007 Gordon Fitch )|( all rights reserved