20 Jul 09

Star and Scribe, Chapter Two

Edmund Cartwright had just settled in for the morning. Or rather, he’d had a shower after staying up all night and was now back at his desk. He hadn’t bothered to dress, and was still in the oversized bathrobe he’d permanently borrowed from his suite at the Bellagio the last time he visited Las Vegas. The sky was still dark, but a few faint pink streaks of dawn were beginning to creep over the hills. A bit of damp clung to his hair, but he could feel the warmth of the day coming on.

His writing studio had been converted from the guest cottage. It was just far enough across the lawn from the house to provide him with the appropriate sense of isolation, was well lit and neither too hot nor too cold. A steaming French press sat steaming beside him with black tea leaves whirling violently inside, and his iPod was loaded up with enough angry music to fuel his effort to doctor an appallingly bad script for a film that was set to begin principal photography in less than a week. He shook his head, trying to avoid wondering how he had gotten sucked into this mess.

Jack Lee, a snot-nosed action star turned Bruckheimer wannabe with a passion for pointless explosions, showoff martial arts stunts, and insulting the dignity of the English language had managed to become the studio head’s new directorial darling after shooting some rather good music videos. “Good” meaning a hodge-podge of shots full of explosions and gyrating thighs lasting no more than 1.5 seconds each.

The idiot had managed to wrangle a greenlight on Earthbound, a film with a budget of three hundred million dollars, four A-list celebrities, and a story line so flimsy that it was likely to be mistaken for a big screen adaptation of a video game. The most substantial portion of the current version of the script were lengthy action sequences, with barely enough dialogue to fill twenty minutes. The production had ground to a halt, with the studio heads giving a Lee deadline of two weeks to come up with a script for a movie that would pull in at least 200 million dollars in domestic box office returns.

That was where Jane had struck the deal with Edmund. Three million to doctor the script, plus five percent of the box office returns, and no credit as a writer on the project. That and she agreed to let him have the entire summer to himself at the house in Bermuda. No phone calls, no contact, nothing. He felt he’d gotten a good deal out of it, but writing under the gun made him even more irritable than rewriting other people’s rubbish scripts.

Edmund couldn’t think of Lee’s broad, moronic grin without pulling a sour face. After dozens of meetings with him in just a few days, Edmund had begun to worry that his new expression of irritation might become permanent. He rubbed his temples for a moment. He had won two Oscars, three Golden Globes and any number of Emmys — he couldn’t recall the number, precisely — for absolutely first rate writing. And that was on top his pile of BAFTA wins. He considered how easily a bit of emotional leverage had persuaded him to sully his antique Underwood typewriter with this steaming pile of mindless action movie rubbish. He could easily write something from scratch that would make Stand and Deliver look like Plan 9 From Outer Space. But it was a true test of his skill to see if he could transform Downtown Thunder into a flick that could make obscenely large piles of money and avoid insulting the intelligence of even the average moviegoing idiot. He sighed and hoped it wasn’t too late to convince the producer to leave his rewrites completely uncredited.

His fingers hovered over the gleaming black buttons on the typewriter. A better line, a better line . . . Big Chinned Action Hunk needs something to say that didn’t sound like just another catch phrase. What wouldn’t Schwarzenegger say? He reached out and slowly pressed the plunger on the French press. The vortex of dark leaves descended as bubbles shot upwards through the rich ruby colored tea. I need something like . . . His fingers flinched, ready to type.

His telephone rang, buzzing obnoxiously as it vibrated against the mahogany-topped desk. It blared the ringtone: You wake up late for school man you don’t wanna go! The idea slipped into oblivion. The mobile rang, and continued to ring. He tried to focus on the tea leaves again. You missed two classes had no homework! The idea didn’t come back. Edmund closed his eyes and reached for the mobile. You gotta fight for your right – he pressed the flashing green button and took the call.

“Hello,” Edmund said in a dull voice.

“Did you get my e-mail?” Jane demanded.

“Just,” Edmund sighed, opening his laptop to look for the e-mail in case she asked him to repeat back to her whatever was in it. She was his least favorite cause of writer’s block. How had she gotten this number?

“How is the writing going?” She was trying to sound chatty and casual. She was failing.

“Good, I’m trying to pound out the problems with the second act.”

“Oh, so sort of like, developing the characters?”

Edmund hated it when she used language that implied she understood anything about writing. “No, that bit’s already been done, this is more the actual story.” He found Jane’s e-mail at the top of his inbox. It was obscenely long, and looked like her usual odd mix of sweet and sour efforts to get what she wanted.

“Have you written anything interesting?” she asked in a demanding tone. “We start filming the day after the awards.”

“Awards?”

“The awards are tomorrow. Principal photography commences the day after tomorrow. And we still don’t have a script.” Jane exhaled with annoyance.

Ed poured a cup of tea to steady his temper. He spoke in a level tone as he focused on the ritual of it all. Pour. Sugar. Milk. Stir. “I couldn’t say yet. I need to write and get my ideas out on paper and then sort them out.”

“Did you add lots of funny parts? Jack wants it to be funny.”

He pinched his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. “I’ll put that down as a note. But the script has a lot of problems apart from not being funny, and I have to look at those first.”

“What are the problems that you’re fixing?”

Shut up, Jane. Edmund sighed and rubbed his temples, then spoke slowly to protect himself both from saying anything he’d regret and from having to hear her voice five seconds sooner. “Well, first off, it’s an alien film. Which already means it’s likely to be some ridiculous premise, having no regard whatsoever for the laws of physics, biology, or the space-time continuum. Then your director bollocksed up the story by recycling every catch phrase ever heard in a Die Hard movie and ended it in a manner so cliché that McG is liable to sue us for plagiarism. Lucky for your career, someone in the producer’s office finally worked up the gouts to point out that it’s complete rubbish.”

“So it isn’t good yet.”

“It’s not Pride and sodding Prejudice, is it?” He snapped as the last of his patience broke. “You may have blackmailed me into fixing this mess, but you can’t expect perfection when I’m working on such short notice.”

“I didn’t blackmail you,” she laughed, dismissing the accusation as if it were a joke. Ed snorted in reply. She sighed, beginning to sound bored. “When will you be done?”

There was a brief pause. Edmund inhaled, then exhaled.

“I can’t really say when I’ll be finished. Right now it’s about just getting some good material down on paper and trying to keep ahead of the shooting schedule.”

“Don’t you have thirty pages for act two yet?”

“Yes, but we start with rather more material than what we need, because there’s a considerable amount of editing that goes on when you write a script. We also need extra lines and scenes so the director has options when editing it.”

“Wouldn’t it save time to just write exactly what you needed?”

“Yes, well, that’s what the writer did the first time round, Jane,” he explained, trying not to get touchy. “And that’s why the script is, to use the vernacular, putrescent.” He reached for his mug of tea. “We also can’t forget that viewers expect deleted scenes on the DVD, and these have to be good or they’ll be annoyed.”

“But we just need the part of the script to shoot with. And me and the rest of the cast should probably read it ahead of time so we can memorize it.”

Edmund let out a cold, tired laugh, then silenced himself. He wasn’t going to go over the painfully obvious fact that when you wrote a story, sometimes you had to move things around or change them, so he couldn’t simply churn out tomorrow’s shooting script without considering how it fit into the larger story. “The cast couldn’t learn their lines if it meant saving the world. Believe me, Jane, you’ll get on just fine with prompts from the shooting script on Monday. Besides, you’re starting off with the part of the story that’s all about you running around a spaceship shouting and shooting. No lines to learn.”

“Well, it’s just . . . I just spoke with Dr. Floyd and he told me that I needed to prioritize, so maybe you could do that too,” Jane intoned helpfully. She paused to wait for his response. It didn’t come. He was busy writing down a pithy quip for Beefcake Comic Relief Sidekick to say to Jane, who was set to play the Tough As Nails Yet Unnaturally Hot Action Heroine — Well, for once you didn’t pack more than we needed.

“Ed? Can you prioritize with me?”

Edmund’s attention was dragged back to Jane. “What are you on about?” he snapped.

Jane sighed, radiating benevolent patience. “Dr. Floyd says that my anxiety has been directly tied to this project, so I really need to know that you are making this a priority.”

“I’m sitting here working on it right now. Or rather, I would be working on it but instead I’m talking to you,” Edmund growled. He was going to need something stronger than tea if this conversation carried on much longer. Why couldn’t she call him and speak just about work, or just about their relationship, instead of always muddling the two in a way that made it impossible to know what she was referring to? “You can take it for granted that I’m doing this for you. This script is rubbish, and I’m only fixing it so you’ll have a blockbuster on your résumé and not a flop because neither of us want your twenty million per film career bollocksed. And yes, I’m giving you plenty of lines and not marginalizing you as a female prop to a male action hero.”

“It’s just that I really don’t feel that I’m a priority to you lately. You’ve really been showing disregard for my wishes -–”

“Must we have this discussion again?”

“Yes, Ed, because you can’t just say you’re sorry.”

“I’m not sorry!” he roared.

“You had the gardener put those nasty ferns where my rose garden was going to be!”

“You decided to play pretty princess queen of the garden for a day, made a ten-foot crater in the grass, broke three pipes, and then abandoned the project when you realized it would destroy your manicure. And then I had to deal with it.”

Jane was unmoved. “I was going to put roses in. I don’t like ferns.”

“When? After three weeks? It’s a gated community, Jane. Digging bloody great holes to China in the front garden and then failing to fill them with something aesthetically pleasing is frowned upon.”

Jane made that terrible silent sound for a few seconds. Edmund was going to get it now.

The next few minutes passed as they usually did. Screaming, crying, petty accusations and petty counter accusations. Edmund bit his mobile, jumped up and down on his sofa, and pounded the walls to keep himself from saying anything until he could come back to a place that allowed him to manage, rather than perpetuate, the eruption. Seven and a half minutes later, Edmund was curled over his desk, pounding his forehead slowly against his laptop. The typewriter had been removed to a corner of the room, where it was safe from flying objects.

“Yes, you’re right. I should have consulted with you first,” he said, in a tone so well rehearsed it sounded genuine.

“Well, thank you. If you really want to show that you can make me a priority, you can come to the after party with me tomorrow night.”

He looked up and stared at his collection of awards on the shelf across from him. He briefly pondered whether the Oscar or the Golden Globe would be better for to knocking himself unconscious of it were to fall directly down on his head.

“No.”

“Ed, I need you to.”

“Jane, you know I hate those after hours events. Nothing but teenagers with too much money getting smashed and all picking fights with one another over who gets the most camera time. I was already planning on not going to the awards, and I certainly can’t go to any parties because I’ve got to meet with Jack and the producers to go over the shooting script.”

Jane remained silent. Edmund waited, but he knew he would not get an answer.

At last he cracked. “How many parties?”

Jane cleared her throat. “I’m confirmed for four,” she said sweetly.

“Ha!” Ed laughed sourly. “Absolutely not.”

“One of them is the Playboy Party. I promised Hef, Ed. We don’t have to stay long at any of them, just walk in and be seen. And I’ve already made arrangements-–”

“Hef will survive, and Vanity Fair gave my last novel a bad review,” Edmund grumbled. “They can get stuffed.”

“Look, either you show up with me or it’ll be in the tabloids. ‘Jane Mills and Edmund Cartwright — Marriage Doomed.’

Edmund knew she was right, but he wondered for a moment if he still cared anymore. The effort required to keep up their ruse of a happy marriage was enormous, and he was beginning to forget what the benefit of pretending was.

“Fine, but I’m setting a fifteen-minute timer the moment we walk through the door of each party. I went to university so I could stay up all night drinking and staring at empty-headed women in skimpy dresses. That was twenty years ago, and now if I want to look at beautiful women I’ll never sleep with we’ve got the Internet for that. And I absolutely must be back here by eleven o’clock.”

“Thank you, Ed,” she sang out.

“Cheers.”

He slammed down the receiver and buried his face in his hands. That woman. He looked at the corner of his desk, where for some reason a framed photo of her still remained. It was taken right after they met, and her dark hair tumbled around her face as she beamed happily at him, through a camera lens pointed at her seven years ago. Ed stared at her face, hating it for being so lovely.

The script would have to wait. He was completely distracted with frustration and there were only available options for calming him down: about fifty laps in the pool or half a bottle of Jura 21. He chose the latter. He didn’t have time to change, swim, shower, and get dressed for a second time today. He was already so far behind. Edmund retrieved a Waterford Crystal decanter filled with a copper-colored tipple from the red oak cabinet behind his desk. He removed the stopper, stared down into the seductive-looking liquid, and then replaced the stopper. Ten o’clock in the morning was a bit early, and he had a meeting at with the production team at one.

“Bollocks,” he growled, setting the bottle at the edge of the desk. The golden letters on the glass gleamed as if to taunt him. He stomped to the corner of his office to retrieve his typewriter. He slumped back into his chair and stared at the blank page poking limply out of the Underwood’s carriage. He reached down to the floor and snatched up a page of the script. It was covered in his handwriting, giving it an odd, graffiti-like appearance. His eyes peered through his notes to the original text.

EXT. SPACECRAFT — MORNING

Soldiers surround the wreckage of the alien space craft. SGT. CHUCK ROCKWELL is directing his troops into the area. Large convoy vehicles close in and soldiers jump off left and right, bringing very futuristic-looking technology with them. PVT. HARPER, 19, brings a clipboard to SGT. ROCKWELL.

HARPER
Here’s the preliminary report, Sarge. Looks like she landed like a bat outta hell, sir.

ROCKWELL
Yes, but which circle of hell?

HARPER
What do you mean, sir?

ROCKWELL
I dunno, but I got a funny feeling about this one.

Every one of these lines had been vigorously crossed out with a red pen, but Edmund still pinched his face in disgust. Chuck Rockwell. Why can’t American action heroes with big chins have normal names? He tossed the page to the edge of his desk. It wobbled on the edge and fell to the floor. Edmund snapped up his mobile. It rang only once before Barb answered.

“Good morning, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Barb, can you have Rosa bring round some breakfast?”

“Certainly. Toast and more tea, or would you like something else? Coffee?”

“Uhh . . .” Edmund sighed and began to pace back and forth. “Let’s say an omelet. No cheese, loads of mushrooms and spinach.”

“Salsa, ketchup, or brown sauce?”

“Salsa, thanks.”

“Right away.”

Edmund tossed his phone onto a nearby recliner and moved to the glass wall that looked out toward the garden.

It’s always a beautiful day in L.A., he thought bitterly. He rarely missed the weather in Britain, except on days when he was in a spectacularly foul mood. The sky was blue, the smog was low today, and the palm trees towered with abrasive cheerfulness over the lawn. The pool sparkled, beckoning him with its ninety-one degree water, which would feel ideal against the seventy-six degree air. Being trapped indoors on a day like this was awful. Script. Meetings. Script. Why couldn’t the sky have obliged him with some nice drizzling gray clouds?

He returned to his desk and stared at the decanter of single malt. “Not now,” he said, as if he were promising a child that he’d play with her later. “But I definitely deserve a beer later on. Or seven.” He returned the decanter to its shelf and closed the cabinet. He walked over to the script to collect the scattered pages from the floor. As he rose, a fleeting shadow in his peripheral vision caught his attention. He returned to the glass wall that ran along the front of the office. There was nobody outside. He opened the door and stepped cautiously out, not even sure of what he should be cautious about.

“Hello?” he called in a firm voice. There was nothing — just the smooth ripple of the Santa Ana winds tousling the leaves of the Birds of Paradise that ringed the lawn. He stepped toward the pool and looked down at the deep moss-colored bottom, mottled by rippling shadow and sunlight from the surface of the water.

There was a slight noise behind him, like that of a creature gripping hard as it moved along a tree branch.

Edmund turned, hoping to see a raccoon and fearing it would be a mountain lion. On the roof of the office, staring at him, was someone — something. At first he couldn’t make it out. It was as if someone had cut a hole in his vision and subtracted the object that he was trying to look at. He stepped backwards and forced his eyes to focus. The thing was crouching and had something — perhaps a weapon — pointed at him. He blinked, and the object shifted violently, pixellating in his line of sight as if he were viewing a computer screen gone wrong. What the–- but the thought was never completed. He stumbled backward and let out a cry of alarm as he fell into the pool. He struggled, surfaced, and stared. There was nothing there. Had he imagined it? What was that? And how on earth could he explain its bizarre appearance? What was that thing?

“Mister Edmund?” sang out Rosa’s musical voice. She was standing beside the pool, holding a silver tray and staring at him with the same look of wonder that he had fixed on the roof of his office. “I got your breakfast.” In as dignified a manner as possible, Edmund clambered out of the pool. His clothes clung to him, releasing a torrent of water onto the lawn.

“Everything ok?” Rosa inquired timidly. Edmund looked down and realized that he probably looked like a madman. His robe continued to drip in a rather undignified manner, and his eyes were wild and unfocused.

“Yeah, Rosa, thanks,” he said, running his fingers through his hair in an artificially cool manner. He looked up to see that, unfortunately, Barb was moving across the lawn at a remarkably fast clip, considering that she was wearing stiletto heels and a pencil skirt. She had the security radio gripped tightly in her hand.

“Everything okay?” Barb called out. She and Rosa locked eyes for a moment and the cook gave a silent expression of concern. Edmund pretended he hadn’t seen it.

“Sorry, I thought . . . I tripped. Clumsy me,” he muttered awkwardly. He couldn’t bring himself to wring out his sopping robe, so he tightened the belt in as dignified a manner has he could manage. “Can you set up the breakfast in the dining room instead? I’ll go and just dry off then.” He nearly sprinted toward the house. Rosa followed after him with the breakfast tray. After all, he thought, this isn’t the most unusual thing she’s caught me doing.

“No trouble, Marcus,” Barb murmured into the radio. But she did not immediately follow the others into the house. She stared at the pool and then scanned the treeline before turning slowly and walking inside.

“All that chlorine on the grass is not gonna make the gardeners happy,” Rosa muttered to Barb, trotting to keep up with her long strides.

Around the corner of the office, a shadow moved silently away through the shaded juniper bushes behind the gnarled limbs of a California oak.

© 2009 Stella Quinn


Star and Scribe — a novel by Stella Quinn
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