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When I was about 25, I worked as an assistant editor on a feature film. It wasn’t a big budget film but it was a Hollywood studio project and that, was something. I was in charge of all the shot film as it arrived in the edit room and made its way through the editing process.
The job vacillated between the glamour of hanging with the film’s several name stars, and the daily grind of organizing thousands of feet of footage. It was exhausting, it was fun and I had never been involved with anything like it. It was kinda cool for a kid in his mid 20’s.
Besides being a budding editor, I was also a budding writer. I had read and re-read the film’s script and tracked how each scene went from words on a page to become the images I saw before me on my edit bench.
As the editing of the film progressed, our small team – myself, the editor (a friend who brought me onto the project), the apprentice, and the writer-director, became aware that we needed additional voice-over narration to amp up the characters’ attitude here and there. And maybe clarify a few plot points.
Evenings at home, I began dabbling with some lines of narration. The film’s story was told from the point of view of the female protagonist so I wrote the narration in her voice. I didn’t think of this work as anything more than an exercise, but it was fun to add my creative two cents – even if it was only hypothetical.
The director knew I was doing this and encouraged me. He was a Hollywood bad boy, but he was also the type to support this sort of aspirational behavior from his underlings. And, he seemed to like my work.
Filming had long since been completed and our female star had moved onto her next project. She was somewhere in the South, in some backwoods mountain town, shooting her new movie.
So it came to pass, when the director convinced the Studio that more narration was indeed needed for our film, he volunteered me to fly out and record the very lines I had written for the female star. Me. I was to direct her.
This was a tremendously exciting prospect on several levels. They were trusting me with an important task. Perhaps the success of the film was at stake.
I would fly to a remote location. I would arrive - a young outsider, a stranger, showing up on special assignment. I would meet privately with the movie’s star. We would conduct important business and then I would depart into the night.
This was an exciting image to project on oneself. Hey, it beat being cooped up in a room all day logging film footage.
Also, even though I had traveled a lot since childhood, I had at this point in my mid-twenties, only flown a handful of times. I was still excited about the idea of flying on a plane. (Full disclosure: even though I’ve now flown maybe six - seven hundred times, I still get excited at the prospect of flying).
So there it was. Plans were made for me to take a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago and from there I would fly a small regional airline to a little airport in the Ozarks. That small airline was called Piedmont. I had never heard of it but that didn’t mean anything. I was just excited. Period.
And Then Came This News
Now just around this time there was a tragic aviation accident. Several members of the band, Lynyrd Skynyrd had perished in a plane crash, somewhere in the south.
The band had been flying on a private, chartered aircraft when it went down. But, somehow our director got it into his head that the band had been flying on Piedmont, the airline I was about to take.
As the day for my departure approached, the director would make certain allusions about my future chances of survival, seeing as how I would be flying this suspect airline. According to him, my chances were slim.
We were scheduled to have a studio screening of our film in several weeks. As we huddled to discuss the necessary logistics, the director would resignedly nod my way and sigh to the group, “Well… Lapidese won’t be around to help with that. He’s going down.” He pointed to the apprentice, “You ready to fill his shoes?”
Everybody thought this was very amusing. But it really didn’t bother me. I was just excited about my upcoming adventure. And, I figured, chances were, I probably wouldn’t die.
Now, I’m not saying the Director intentionally mislead me about Piedmont. I really don’t know. I didn’t do any research about the incident – like read the papers. In fact, I didn’t research any of this until all these years later, preparing for this post. That’s when I finally learned the band hadn’t been on Piedmont but rather, a private plane. This really surprised me.
We go about our lives assuming certain facts and stories are just the way things are. But should we find out some assumption – big or small – is not what we’ve been believing, it can kind of rattle our reality cage.
This news about the wrong airline was a little like finding out I’d been singing the wrong lyrics to a rock song, say, “Sweet Home Alabama”… for several decades. How did I get that wrong for so long? And was I the only one?
Time To Check In
Anyway, on the big day, my roommate drove me to the airport. Armed with my script and instructions to introduce myself to the director once I arrived at the location, I boarded the first leg of my flight with a sense of mission.
This was my first business trip. But unlike my fellow passengers, I wasn’t heading out on a routine sales trip, or a junket to an industry trade show. No, my mission was to save a movie. A Hollywood movie. At least that’s what my walk said, as I strode down the aisle to my seat.
The two flights east were completely uneventful. Even the one on the “death” airline. I landed in Tennessee, got my rental car and headed for Kentucky. Juggling paper maps, I drove through some beautiful country, descending onto smaller and smaller roads - Federal, State, County…
Until, I rounded a bend and saw up on the road ahead, smack in the middle of nowhere, a fleet of sleek semis, all with the Hollywood studio’s name painted along their sides. This was the place.
I made a beeline for the set. There, in a ramshackle structure, in the middle of the Ozarks, I found myself in a complete Hollywood movie studio in action. There was the female star. There was the director, the camera, the lights and the crew. There were dozens of extras. Hair and make-up people were tending to the star.
I was ushered to the director, who was welcoming and told me to say “Hello” to my director. I immediately wondered, ‘Do all directors know each other?’.
Being the mysterious stranger from outside, the production gave me the VIP treatment. Someone brought me a chair and I sat near the director, watching the shoot. I ate lunch with the ‘above the line’ people – the director, the guy from the studio, the producer, the actors, and I was re-introduced to the female star. She…. sort of remembered me from ‘our’ movie…. I think.
Plans were made to meet with her and the production’s soundman, the next day, a Sunday.
When shooting movies on location, the stars are put up either in a big hotel suite or sometimes a private residence is rented for them. As this location was miles from any luxury hotel suite, a pretty home was located in the area and rented out for the star.
The next morning, the soundman and I met and walked down a gravel road to the star’s residence. There, some assistants and the guy from the studio greeted us. This guy from the studio was pretty easy going and really wasn’t that much older than me. In fact, the female star also was just a few years older than me. But they were all clearly living a different sort of life. I’m pretty sure they weren’t driving an old VW Beetle as I did.
Still, when the star appeared, there was a lot of easygoing banter. The guy from the studio told us how he, the star and a few others had been jumping around on the beds in the house. They had started some kind of game and had been jumping from bed to bed, carrying on like kids - much like my cousins and I had done when we were young.
My mind went back to my grandparent’s apartment in Brooklyn. They had twin beds, like you saw in 50’s sitcoms. My four cousins and I would bounce like beach balls between the two beds until our grandparents came in and yelled at us. We would giggle, sit quietly for a moment and then start up again. This routine went on until dinner.
Hearing about the bed bouncing felt both familiar and startling. But, it had the effect of calming me down as I was clearly nervous in my role as director. On my flights and also early that morning, I had studied and re-studied the script and imagined the star’s delivery of the lines as I prepared to direct her.
Now, seeing these Hollywood elites all giggly and goofy, I felt empowered and ready to take charge. The soundman, the star and I retreated to a room by ourselves. As he got his gear ready, I went over the material with the star. I explained why I had written these particular lines and what their intent was.
She nodded and silently read them. Then she looked at me. The soundman looked at me.
“Well Ok”, I said, most likely to myself. And the tape began to roll.
I made my first directorial decision. I had her start reading the lines from the top of the page and then continue down, to the bottom of the page.
Her read was… all right. But, it wasn’t as good as the way I had imagined it. So, I told her that everything was great. Then I took a breath and asked if she could place a little emphasis here, pause over there and hit this other particular word hard.
I tried to re-create the scene in the movie for her, to put her in the right emotional frame.
She looked at me. Her face expressionless. Had she found me out? Did she already pick up that I didn’t belong here amongst Hollywood players and stars?
“Ok”, she nodded. And then she did just what I had asked of her. The read was much better. Encouraged, I handed out a few more directing tips. She continued again, down the page.
I looked at the soundman. He nodded in approval. We were good. And that was it.
I felt the little package of recorded tape secure in my jacket pocket as I drove back to the regional airport. I was feeling accomplished and confident. After my solid directorial debut, it seemed impossible that some obscure airline could possibly doom my new progress.
Nevertheless, I still gripped the armrest as we taxied down the runway in the little plane. This is always a moment of faith for all of us. We can either freak-out or ignore it completely as we read the in-flight magazine, but it is still always a moment of faith.
We landed at night, at O’Hare in Chicago. O’Hare is a big place with lots of runways and taxiways, so I guess one can’t entirely blame the pilot for getting lost. On the ground.
Somehow, he drove us down the wrong taxiway and I suppose when he realized his mistake, he did something unusual. And, later I found out – illegal.
Jets have a device called a thrust reverser that slows the plane down upon landing by directing the engines’ thrust forward. What our pilot did was, he stopped the plane and turned on the thrust reversers, pushing the plane backwards. He then executed a perfect three-point turn, as you would with your car in a residential street. Then off we went in search of the correct taxiway to get to our terminal.
I thought this was very clever of him. But then, I’m not with the FAA. In any event, this was the only “incident” of the journey. After all the noise and scare tactics, Piedmont still delivered me safe to Chicago.
In no time I was wending my way through the bright, noisy maze of the giant airport, looking for my connecting flight. This would be a bigger plane on a bigger airline.
I don’t remember the particulars but somehow on the return flight I ended up in first class. Perhaps I gave off a first class vibe. Again, this was my first time in the front of the plane.
I was still on assignment. I had done my job well. I deserved a drink. This is what one did in first class. And they were free so I kept them coming.
Arriving back in L.A., my roommate was there to pick me up. The first thing he said was I stunk from the booze.
How little he understood all that I had been through and all that I had accomplished. It had been a successful mission. I had saved the movie.
This called for a drink.
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