On shooting day 42 of 59, we find Britney behind a white shower curtain in LA General’s ER, her saline-tubed arm wrapped around a black pelican case of walkie talkies. The Prius her parents cosigned for is a mangled installation of metal and smoke and craft services at the bottom of the spitless LA river. The new Air Jordans she’d been flexing at crew call on shooting day 41 of 59 are missing their treads, have been shoved into a plastic bag with her name on it hanging at the end of her hospital bed.
“She growled at us!” the tattooed nurse with the fresh undershave says. He laughs and licks at his clear retainer. “She said they would fire her if she didn’t bring them back to work tomorrow. Who are they? Is it you? Are you they?” He rounds Britney’s bed to the wall of machines keeping her stabilized and hydrated. He writes down a few numbers and continues the story, “I was like, girl, you got a busted collarbone, fractured hip, and subdural hematoma the size of my ass. You’re not going to work tomorrow. You’re not going to work next month. The only place you’re going is online and to PT. That’s when she lost it. She started growling and crying. Like a fucking hyena. I said girrrrl—” an incomprehensible page crackles over the hospital intercom—“I said girl, you howlin’ at a deaf moon. But…the others and I…we felt bad and were like okay, whatever, we’ll let her keep them in the bed if it chills her out. Once we told her that—” he brings his hand down onto the clipboard like an anvil, “boom!—good night. She’s been down for—” he checks his notes, “twelve hours now?”
We thank him for his assistance and compassion for Britney. We compliment him on his nightingale forearm tattoo. When he leaves, we take the walkie talkie case and speed back towards our shooting location Santa Monica. We make it to set ten minutes before crew call, open the walkie case. We are speechless. The radios are all charged and ready to go, which means they must have been plugged in at the hospital, which means Britney did exactly what we’d trained her to do.
The first time I stayed up all night to see the sunrise, I was ten.
I played Pee Wee’s Big Adventure over and over on the 13” Magnavox in my room. My senses magnified as the night wore down, the TV taking on a fifth dimension. The whine of the VHS rewinding in the player became a song with hidden lyrics. I watched and rewatched the scene where Pee Wee and Simone huddle in the mouth of the T-Rex and wait for the new day to come. I wanted to see those impossible colors—the dawn’s fiery entrance.
Just before daybreak, a fog moved in and blocked the sun. Everything looked flat, desaturated, compressed to death like an old television show. I fell asleep at my desk before lunch and dreamed I was on a train to Hollywood, part of a massive search party looking for Pee Wee’s stolen bike. Everything was technicolor. Everything was beautiful and worth investigating. I woke up to the lunch bell and decided a world of color is the only kind of world worth living in. I needed to figure out how to relocate to that world, to harness its light and orchestrate its soundscapes. I needed to discover how to bring that world to the colorless one, to make them one.
I needed to learn how to make movies.
On shooting day 45 of 59, I let the Best Boy Electric call the martini shot and spin the dials because he is pretty to watch and after twenty hours on set, words are cotton candy silliness in my mouth.
“That’s a wrap,” he says, eight times, once for each department channel on the radio.
The Actors are the first to leave and take their entourage of hair and make-up artists with them in the transpo van back to base camp where they will undress and hang their wardrobe and prop bags on the back of the trailer door. They will fall asleep in the passenger seat of the sleek black Suburban escort back to the hotel and will return before the union-mandated 12-hour turnaround is up. The producers have done the math. Forced calls cost less than adding days to shooting schedule.
I wait for the Best Boy—Juergen—at the lowered lift gate of the 18-wheel electric truck parked behind the talent trailers. He is hunched at a makeshift desk towards the front of the shipping container, purple LED lights spilling their psychedelic confetti over his black hair. He is filling out the electric department paperwork that he will give to me so I can enter it into the production report that I send to the office each night. The crew parking lot is empty except for us, a condor, and a long line of two-bangers, honeywagons and work trucks. The sun is about to rise over the Pacific Ocean.
Juergen takes his time with the pen and paper, fills each little rectangle on the matrix with a whole number and fraction to the closest twelfth. He knows I can’t leave without his calculations—without him.
He means to keep me here, but he doesn’t mean to keep me up. Fatigue isn’t a weapon we use against each other, not on these marathon-style gigs.
We have sex in the passenger seat of his yellow X-Terra. He tells me he loves me for the first time. I tell him I have to finish the production report and give him a playful kiss on the neck.
I’m so tired I accidentally assign the camera department meal penalties in the grip department and forget to enter the mileage for our stuntman, who drove 160 miles roundtrip to set because he is terrified of flying. Two hours after Juergen called the last shot, I click send on the production report email.
I drive home full of Juergen and Red Bull and panic. It’s 5:30am. The 405 is less parking lot, more drive-thru, and maybe that’s why I almost miss the exit and cut too hard into the off-ramp. The retaining wall pinball-paddles me up over the embankment and back across five lanes of red and white lights. I come to a stop upside-down beneath a CBS billboard and a cement sky, suffocate into a colorless sleep.
In 1965, a 17-year-old boy stayed awake for 264 hours for his science fair project. On the eleventh day, he slept 14 hours and 40 minutes. The doctor supervising his high school science experiment reported no lasting physical side effects.
Within days, he could run a sub-7 5k and split half a cord of oak.
The conclusion? A body can endure. It can recover.
A person can survive without dreams.
After I fall asleep at the wheel, Juergen builds a living room set inside my bedroom closet. I wake up to him sitting in a director’s chair beside my bed, the crackle of walkie talkie chatter everywhere.
“What’s going on?” I look down at the filleted meat of my arms, the cadre of stuffed animals at the foot of my raised trundle bed, the center of which includes a fluffy orca spouting a satin banner with the words: “Life blows sometimes. Get whale soon!”
Our goateed Key Set PA, Edwin, emerges from the closet with a gift basket full of reusable hot and cold packs, trail mix, highlighters, and organic muscle balms. He parks the awkward boat of miscellany on top of my computer desk. “From the producers,” he says and then disappears behind the palisade of blazers and college sweatshirts I’ve meticulously hung and organized by season.
I turn to Juergen, who is enthusiastically scraping the bottom out of a yogurt cup. “Orcas are dolphins.”
Juergen draws the spoon across his tongue. “Huh?”
“Get ‘whale’?” I say, pointing at the black and white toy. “Orcas. They’re fucking dolphins.”
Juergen swallows hard and sets the empty cup on the floor beside his director’s chair. “Then why do they call them killer whales?”
My bedroom door opens. Our A Camera Operator and her First and Second Assistant Camera crew members pass the foot of my bed with coffee in paper to-go cups. Marcy, the Second Assistant Camera, gives me a cheeky wave before disappearing into the closet.
“Juergen, what’s going on? What’s happening?”
“You can work from home now,” he says. “No more commute.”
“What about the company moves to the Malibu house? What about the exterior shoots on days 30 to 37?”
“Rewritten. The producers didn’t want to lose you,” he says. Then, “your dad doesn’t mind. He even helped the construction set up the flats for a few of the club scene interiors. Your closet is much bigger than you think it is.”
I’m twenty-seven, but I’ve been living with my parents in Venice Beach to save money for a down-payment on a bungalow in North Hollywood. I’m not sure how Juergen got here or managed to fit eighty-five crew members and their gear between the secret library of R.L Stine books and a Ponderosa my dad and I built when I was eight, but I’m actually more concerned about Juergen seeing the shameful artifacts of my later childhood—badminton trophies, unfinished crucifix lanyards, a paper shrine devoted to Leonardo DiCaprio and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet.
He knows too much now.
I go to can’t afford to lose this assistant directing gig. I need the union days. I can’t afford to lose my health insurance. Especially since the arrhythmias started. Who can afford to pay out-of-pocket for an EKG every month? On no income?
A small part of me holds out hope that if I can make it through the next few weeks of this shoot, I might have enough reserve to take a month off and finish my feature script. I might have time to make it good, to get it agented, to land something that could get me out of these brutal, endless, grinding days of platforming someone else’s dream.
“Oh my god,” I say. I grab the clipboard Juergen has placed by my pillow and scan the call sheet I don’t remember completing but must have because—there it is—my signature at the bottom. “My parents are going to kill me.”
“I told you,” Juergen says, “Your dad’s cool with it.” Then, “It was tricky to figure out crew parking and where to put the work trucks. Your neighbor with the surfing Jesus sculpture screamed at Lily in Wardrobe because her Jeep was blocking the view of oncoming traffic and almost got T-boned by the Sound van rolling up. But it’s all good now. Locations and Production secured a basecamp three blocks away, in the old Blockbuster parking lot.”
Shooting day 48 of 59. Juergen says the producers don’t want me to have a walkie talkie. Really, it’s doctor’s orders. They say a surveillance in my ear will make the head trauma worse, which will slow recovery. Even though he isn’t in my department, Juergen has been assigned to communicate between me and the crew. He creates a small working desk out of my pink six-drawer vanity in the corner of the room by clamping some black lights to the mirror and using my exercise ball as a chair.
“I can’t work like this,” I say.
“You don’t need to work. It is all being done for you,” Juergen says, bouncing and smiling at me in the mirror.
I’m in bed, but I don’t sleep.
Shooting day 31 of 59. I see things. Shadow puppets in my peripheral vision. Crew members I don’t know. I tell Edwin to bring me a sticky note with the day players’ names on it, and he disappears into the closet for hours at a time, only to return with C-47s (clothespins) clipped together in varying configurations of voodoo dolls and effigies.
My hands flicker like a television screen. Here they are. There they go.
Nine hours into our day, and two hours since I dismissed Edwin and his evil art creations, Juergen comes in from the hallway carrying a sandwich on one of my parents’ stoneware plates.
“Your mom sends her best—and your favorite sandwich,” Juergen approaches the bed and holds out the plate.
“So now you know,” I say.
“Liverwurst and pickles. She asked if I wanted one,” he says, “but I told her I only eat animals from the chest up.”
“So by that logic you’ll eat brains but you won’t eat thighs?”
Juergen leans in close and whispers, “Do you know what a liver does?”
I swipe the plate from Juergen and set it by the glass and brass touch lamp on my side table. The room ripples like a pond in a breeze, a little bit of color escaping into the closet with each successive ebb.
“You okay?” Juergen asks.
“The set PA who crashed her—” I stop. Smoke is wafting in from the closet door.
Juergen catches my gaze, “They’re prepping the dream sequence where Meredith kills Dolores so that she can have Herman all to herself. Jimmy’s going a little wild on the fog machine, so I’m thinking of tripping a fuse on him.”
“What am I even doing, Juergen? What is going on?”
“You’re working. Recovering and working.”
“I’m sitting in a twin bed. The twin bed where I lost my virginity to Brian Thum and fingered Kelsey Milhouse.”
Juergen grins. “Liverwurst aside, the more I learn about you—”
“There’s an eighty-person film crew making an entire season of episodic television inside of my closet, and I’m just sitting here with a clipboard I can’t read and disappearing hands.” I look at him, “Why am I here? Am I here? Am I asleep? Is this some kind of experiment to see how much they can fuck with me before I totally lose it and fold?”
Juergen looks at me with genuine confusion. “Just what you said. We’re making a show. You crashed your car, and Randy decided to bring the show to you. To be safe. To get it done, too. But mostly to be safe. I don’t know. Maybe they also want to avoid a lawsuit. Actually, now that I think about it—”
“This isn’t real. None of this is real.”
“Remember when we did the telenovela gig down in San Diego?” Juergen asks. “We used our housing stipends to buy all that speed and ended up in Vegas with only our phones and wallets? We laid on the floor of the Bellagio, under those huge glass flower sculptures they had on the ceiling, people walking around us in their Louis Vuittons, holding martinis and shit, until security came?” He laughs. “You kept telling them ‘none of this is real.’ You kept repeating it, over and over, all the way back up to our room where we sat in the shower for like two hours. Those security fuckers were laughing at you, but I knew you were talking about something else…”
“I repeat myself when I’m smashed,” I say.
“Maybe,” he says. “Or maybe the truth caught you with your guard down and was trying to make itself heard.”
He unties his size fourteen Wolverine work boot and pulls out a small bottle of Becherovka, which I haven’t seen since I broke my foot behind a frozen church in Hradčanská, Prague. He puts the green glass to his lips and smiles.
“I’m losing it,” I say. “None of this makes sense,” and then, “Where did you get that?”
Juergen inspects the bottle, as if seeing it for the first time. “You know…I don’t know. Props department? To be honest, weird stuff like this has been happening to me a lot a lot now.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
He shrugs and takes a careful sip, “Not really.”
Becherovka is a secret bitter. Vintage enough to seem exotic, but not ancient. As he continues to sip, the centuries-old breeze of cinnamon and clove stirs memory from my body and projects it on the back of my bedroom door: Me, standing on the Charles Bridge, peering into the scintillating brilliance of the Vltava. I don’t have a camera or a phone or a motive. I don’t need to capture the moment’s simple beauty by suffocating it into artistic preservation. I am simply present. Ambitionless. Relishing the bitters burning through my empty stomach, the fiery colors of the world I thought had abandoned me that night when I was ten.
Juergen sees the projection, too. He climbs into bed next to me, and we watch the POV shot play out. He doesn’t know it is my vision, but it doesn’t matter. That’s the subjective magic of film. The suspension of disbelief. The reason we are here.
He holds the bottle under my nose and rolls the wet glass across my lips. He strokes my hair while I sip myself into the past. The bedroom corners soften into merengue. Panic, the ever-ticking clock in my chest, lifts into the atmosphere. The gentle, flickering water montage on my door continues its interminable dance.
Juergen rises like a kite, tapes a blue gel over my bedroom window. Venice Beach becomes the Challenger Deep.
“The sun can pretend it’s the moon now,” Juergen says, sailing back to me, sweeping over the narrow shore of my body.
Everything is water now. We kiss the soft sand of each other’s stomachs. We drown beneath blue sheets.
Hammers and power tools and periodic laughter indicate that the crew inside the closet is erecting a fourth wall.
Juergen slips his thumb into my mouth and drags his teeth across my chest. We listen for open radios, try to gauge how much time we have before they’re ready to shoot the scene.
“You’ll miss the safety meeting,” I mumble into his neck.
I can’t stop saying the things I am being paid to say. Thousands of hours on set will do that. It’s not the art that replaces the person, it’s the monotony. But there is still this humanness pulsing between my legs, feelings being felt without words to flatten them into comprehension. A library of feelings waiting for desperate researching. And Juergen does that. He crawls up inside of me with an eager mind. He opens the secret door to my inner home and peruses the bookshelves of my soul. He trips and falls through the threshold separating my living room and kitchen and pores over the secrets I keep hidden in the expired condiments in my refrigerator door. He lies naked in my bed, masturbates to the sound of me laughing, and then runs a bath until it overflows and I’m flooded from the inside out.
When he leaves, the emptiness feels different. Lived in.
When he leaves, I open my eyes and see that I am alone and the bedroom door is just a door. The memory has passed. Everything is quiet.
I can’t remember the last time I had company over.
I can’t remember the day I stopped living inside of my body.
A 37-year-old Boom Operator in Phoenix, Arizona, collapses in the middle of a take on the seventh day of shooting the remake of the fifth installment in the Saw series. The Unit Production Manager, trying to make a comeback after two failed Tom Arnold pilots, tells two Dolly Grips to carry the woman out to the empty field behind the sound stage so that the Set Medic can do compressions until paramedics arrive. The UPM hands the boom pole to the production assistant who was, unbeknownst to her, just out behind the generators doing whip-its with Craft Services and the Props Master.
As the actors reset to their starting positions, the UPM leans over to the Locations Manager. “Is there a way for us to contact the ambulance and ask them not to use their sirens?” she whispers, “Actually, if you don’t mind standing down the street so you can flag them down, we catch the trucks before they get here, and that way they won’t ruin the takes we need to get in before lunch.”
Juergen puts his mouth over mine. Everything tastes like cinnamoned pine and blood. A voice crackles through the soft plastic surveillance piece dangling from his ear: “Five minutes until picture.”
“You know that means ten minutes,” he whispers. “Kevin will forget to jam the slate. Bonita’s going to ask Roberto to give her a line read again. We have time.”
There’s only so much time for us to do what we need to do. The black gaff tape he uses to fix me to the headboard is paper thin, so I am very careful not to struggle or reach for him. We both know my bondage is one part illusion, two parts compliance, but I don’t know if Juergen can feel my growing unease.
“Do you remember Charles Shaughnessy?” I ask. Juergen wraps my left wrist to the bed frame one more time and throws a glance at the closet to see if anyone from the crew is spying on us through the open sliding doors. “He was the dad on The Nanny. The British guy?”
“Yeah, I gaffed a life insurance commercial with him in Rancho Cucamonga.”
“He saved me from electrocution once.”
“Only once?” Juergen runs his lips from my wrists down to my chest.
“We were filming a pilot about a yacht club.”
Juergen looks up, holds my face in his sturdy hands, “This is exactly why you can never go back to low-budget shows. If I’d been there, it wouldn’t have been an issue.”
“No, no. It wasn’t an electrical department issue,” I tell him. “If anything, it was a locations issue. We nearly capsized when a pod of blue whales breached nearby. I fell overboard into a school of electric stargazers. Charles jumped into the tender boat and came back to get me. He was a hero, but the script was terrible.”
Juergen kisses my forehead and looks into my eyes, “This is what we do. It’s crazy, but it’s life. We live for this shit.”
Before the famous actor shot and killed the up-and-coming cinematographer on a low-budget western outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the camera department protested the producers’ decision to deny them housing, forcing them to gamble with their exhaustion and commute hours to and from set on a desolate stretch of road. The Producers, modern-day Narcissuses powered on lithium batteries and viral Tik Toks, ordered black long-sleeve shirts with the phrase “You can sleep when you’re dead” silkscreened across the front.
The morning of the murder, as the Camera Crew were collecting their lenses and monitors and preparing to disembark the runaway train of a production—for their dignity and humanity and livelihoods!—the Executive Producer paces the equipment staging area, bundle of burning sage raised high, and chants a mantra he purchased from @nativemedwogoddess, a supposed Dakota Nations medicine woman on Venmo, the night before. When he finishes the smudging ritual, he circles the dispersing Camera Crew, mumbling and scrolling his phone, “You feel that? You feel those low vibrations just evaporating right out of here?”
Day 50 of 59. My vision is crowded with floaters. Translucent cobwebs and tiny shadow puppets all using my corneas as a dance floor. I can’t read the small text on the call sheet anymore, so Juergen sings it to me, line by line.
“Production notes: No open-toed shoes. Forced calls no longer prohibited. Meal penalties as needed. Must start-work-finish all principals today. No open radios on set. Safety meeting to be held thirty minutes after call. Must wrap out of location by 5am. Submit your NCAA brackets to Sammy by noon. Don’t drink and drive.”
The bedroom ceiling light flickers and goes dark. The plastic stars my parents bought me during our trip to Lick Observatory when I was eight form a harrowing constellation across the flat white sky. Two words:
The Segment Producer from The Daily Show is someone I know from film school in LA. I slept with her boyfriend before he was her boyfriend, took his virginity before I knew he was a virgin. I liked her a lot when we were in the same Punch-Up Techniques for TV Comedy Writing class. She had the dirtiest jokes and the stealthiest callbacks. She is Canadian and married to a cybersecurity expert who works from home and takes care of their 4-month-old daughter. I know this from browsing her Instagram posts, which she strategically adds to maybe once every three months.
I run into the Segment Producer from The Daily Show on a weekend trip to New York City to watch a one-man stand-up show I’ve been asked to help produce as a web series for a new streaming service. I’ve just left the staged reading and am headed towards my Airbnb in Chelsea, rewinding the tape in my head, feeling anxiously committed even though the topical jokes about abortion and gun violence and #metoo drew more ire than laughs, when I hear a woman call my name from across the intersection. It’s a pleasant chance encounter. Organic and far enough removed from the film school days that I can set aside any shame or guilt I might still have over the regret I felt every time I saw her with the man whose virginity I took and didn’t realize I’d been in love with, until it was too late.
“Congratulations on becoming a mom,” I tell her.
“Oh my god, shhhh!” she says, ducking between me and a cement apartment staircase. “You’re going to get me fired!”
“What are you talking about?” I look behind us, genuinely convinced that she had seen someone materialize out of the ether at the mention of motherhood.
My friend rises slowly, smooths her beige suit jacket down over an impossibly flat postpartum stomach. “Ever since our post-production supervisor was fired for having twins, we’ve decided not to talk about Skylar until she is in kindergarten.”
“Me and my husband.”
“Kindergarten. That’s like five years, Debbie.”
“It goes so much faster than you think,” she says with more joy than despair. “How about you? Do you have any…?”
“I don’t even have a person, Debbie,” I say.
The Daily Show producer’s face relaxes into sudden disconnect. She checks her phone and starts drifting up 8th Avenue. “I have a meeting with the censors in twenty minutes and need to go. It was so great running into you. Let’s get together the next time you’re in the city!”
“Hey, Debbie,” I call. “Why did they fire her? Did she miss days at work? Stop showing up?”
“She was falling asleep in the sound mixes. And at the spotting sessions. And at the studio screenings. They said it was sleep deprivation and blamed the babies.” She gives me a knowing look. “You know who they really blamed.”
Shooting Day 59 of 59. I’ve forgotten the color of sky, the elevation of dreams.
“Striking!” The closet casts a rectangle of cold gray light across the bed. The sheets are soaking wet and smell like asphalt and gasoline.
The traffic noise escalates into a rainless thunder.
Juergen and I are separated by three lanes of traffic. He is a small figurine standing by the miniature closet door in my now infinite room. He cinches his work belt and waves at me. Even at this distance, his body is the exact shape of my longing.
I start to cry.
“What’s wrong?” he shouts. Two U-Hauls and a funeral procession pass between us.
“I don’t think I’m sleeping,” I say.
“It’s all sleeping and being awake. It’s always been like that.”
“No, this is different,” I say.
The bedroom door opens, and two paramedics walk in and set two duffle bags on the floor by the open closet. They wait for a break in the traffic and jog over to me, immediately begin to tear me free from the headboard.
The Female Paramedic takes me under the arms, the Male Paramedic grabs me by the shins, and on the count of three, they hoist me off the bed and lie me on the glass-and-aluminum-littered asphalt of the freeway median. The Female Paramedic sprints to the exit shoulder and hands the defibrillator power cord to Juergen, who plugs into a black electrical box at the foot of the dresser right next to the closet door.
Juergen, looking into the closet, into the cool gray light, speaks confidently into the surveillance microphone, “Tell Rick we can power fucking Beijing if he needs us to. We’ll get him a second sun, simulate a forest fire, whatever the fuck he wants.”
“You dozed off,” the Male Paramedic says. His eyes are shiny nickels that flash blue as someone turns the key light towards him. Desi from Hair and Makeup flies in, dabs a little paintbrush across my lips and blows a tear stick into my eyes to moisten them up.
“Looks are good,” she says into the surveillance microphone clipped to her romper. She winks at me and jogs away, smacking her gum and zipping her fanny pack as she goes.
“What’s happening?” I manage.
Someone dips a boom mic over my head. “Can we get a sound check real quick?”
The Male Paramedic lifts his mouth to the shotgun microphone and sings the horn solo from “Tequila” by The Champs.
The Boom Operator, a day player I don’t recognize, gives a thumbs up and the Male Paramedic turns back to me, smiling, “We’re about to get going. Just waiting on the defibrillator to charge.”
A colorless sun crests over the CBS billboard, casts its gray beams across my totaled car, the morning traffic.
I’m not struggling to breathe, but the Male Paramedic places an oxygen mask over my face anyway. I can hear the First Assistant Camera person call the shot to my left, but I can’t see her—“Episode 59, Scene 7, Take One. A and B, common mark—soft sticks.” A gentle clap indicates she’s clapped the slate.
There’s a brief pause. Someone calls out, “Set!” The Director says, “Action!”
I start to cry, “Am I dead?”
The Male Paramedic strokes my hair with genuine concern, his previously blue eyes now haunting daguerreotypes of silver and milk. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. You just hang in there, okay? We’re gonna get you back up and running in no time. I promise.”
“But I’m not…”
The Female Paramedic enters screen left with the charged defibrillator, hits her mark so that she’s a shadow perfectly backlit by the rising sun. “Charged to 900,” she says.
“900 volts?” I panic as they continue to talk around me.
“Good God, we’re losing her,” the Male Paramedic cries, quickly taking up the paddles.
“Are we clear, Jack?” the Female Paramedic asks.
The Male Paramedic pauses, feigns intense reflection as he remembers his line. He looks deeply into my eyes until he finds it. “Damn it,” he says finally, standing up, pulling a white shower curtain closed between us. “We’ve lost her.”