“So I was on another job—a commercial for shoes—when I got the call: ‘Can you come back?’”
Cynthia leaned back like someone had just slapped her. “I was shocked. How? How are you going to complete the movie with the star dead?”
Her jaw hung open and her eyes were wide with shock as she relived the moment. Twenty-five years as a script supervisor, and she had never encountered a problem like this before.
After months of uncertainty, confusion, rumors, and obfuscation surrounding the film “Blackbird,” suddenly, it was back in production. The mother of Jeffrey Chen—the now-deceased “Blackbird” star—had settled out of court. One of the concessions made was the film would be finished and released; as she pointed out, her son gave his life for that film. To let it die, too, on the cutting-room floor, was not something she would accept. Now, the producers were faced with a new dilemma: how to finish a film without the star?
“So what did they say?” Kitty asked.
“There is new technology in special effects,” Cynthia answered. “They can put his face on a body double with computer imagery. But they need clear and specific shots of his face. So, as the continuity person, I came in and went through the footage with Frank—frame by frame—looking for the right focus.”
She took a breath.
“It was really hard—I mean, really hard, emotionally—not the work. The work actually was fascinating. To see how they could do it: that’s what fascinates me. But looking into his beautiful young face over and over again, into his eyes … and he’s gone. That’s … we failed him.”
“What do you mean, you failed him?” Kitty pressed.
Cynthia looked Kitty directly in the eye and shrugged, looking away and shaking her head. She realized Kitty would never understand, and there was no way she was going to try to explain it to her.
“You know, finishing the film was … there were some who didn’t come back,” Cynthia told. “I don’t blame them. But it was important to Jeffrey to finish it, it was important to me that I finish it, and … it’s a good movie. I’m proud of it.”
Cynthia had seen the rough cut. For months, now, Kitty had been dogging the production, trying to see dailies or any reshoot footage. Without press credentials, no one was letting her on set, especially after what had transpired with Jeffrey’s death and subsequent events.
“I didn’t think we could.”
Cynthia lit a cigarette.
“But to see the work that could be done now with body doubles and the imaging…
“You know the movie his father was working on when he died? They finished that without him. It doesn’t look anywhere near as good. But this? It is hard to tell where it isn’t him because it’s his face. I can tell because I know. But the audience?” She shook her head. “It will look seamless to them.”
“So how did they do it?” Kitty asked. “The imaging, I mean. How did it work?”
“There are two body doubles,” Cynthia explained. “One, I think you’ve met—Hank. They go way back—he and Jeffrey. You can tell, too. They have a lot of similarity in movements. It must be from the training at the same dojo. It’s not identical, but you can see the similarities.”
Cynthia gazed into the distance as if visualizing the way the two men moved.
“Anyway, a lot of the shots … you know Jeffrey did almost all of his own stunts? Which is almost unheard of for a star. But be insisted and he was good—really good. Let me tell you: In continuity that is tough to get stunts or fights to look right again and again.”
She shook her head.
“In a weird way, it really is a form of cheating death, I guess…” she said while pointing at Kitty with her cigarette. “Because on film, he is forever young. And even after his death, his face, his image went on and finished the film.”
She blew out a stream of cigarette smoke.
“Of course, I didn’t realize at first it was part of the court settlement,” Cynthia continued. “They had to finish the film; they were obligated to do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Go look up the documents—apparently, the terms of the out of court settlement included the producers and Frank agreeing to finish and deliver the film. She didn’t take any money for herself; she just wanted them to fulfill their financial obligations to her son.”
Cynthia took a deep inhale of cigarette smoke and held it in her lungs.
“I can understand it and, frankly, I agree with it.”
Kitty suppressed saying she was an investigative reporter who already had gone through the documents exhaustively. Someone was finally talking to her; she needed to keep her mouth shut and not alienate them. For Kitty, it was harder than it looked.
“So you say people didn’t come back?”
“Yeah, what’s her name that played the girlfriend? She didn’t come back, along with a couple of crew people, but most people did. For me it was important.”
“Because he gave so much for this movie. He gave his life for it.”
Cynthia shook another cigarette loose from the soft pack.
“Don’t get me wrong, it was hard. Hard to walk back into that sound stage. Hard to look at it all. Hard to see everyone—it was like you didn’t know what to say.”
She trailed off again and looked down at her hands.
“But it was important, important to finish. Important for it not to be in vain. He was such a wonderful actor and a lovely human. And it was so horrible. We all wanted that for him, for Ashley…”
She turned her face away from Kitty and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.
“They were going to be married right after we wrapped. Just weeks away.“
She shook her head.
“Damn it,” she whispered.
“Have you met her?”
“Yeah, of course. She was on set a lot.”
“Did you like her?”
“She seemed nice enough. She responded if you spoke to her, but she didn’t get into it with anybody, really. She was very wrapped up in him.”
Cynthia paused, considering.
“I think she was a little uncomfortable with watching him kiss the other actress during filming. That kind of thing. It has to be hard to get used to that with actors.”
“So what happened? Where were you?” Kitty asked again. She knew every inch of that night, but she hoped asking Cynthia would shake lose a new detail that hadn’t been shared.
“I was 10 feet way. Wilson the medic was sitting next to me, and he vaulted that table to get to him. I mean vaulted like the goddamn Olympics,” Cynthia answered. “I hate method actors.”
Cynthia pronounced the non-sequitur with such violence Kitty recoiled in surprise.
“Hate them. I have no respect for it at all. It’s because I have seen the best at work. I remember working with Nicholson, and let me tell you, the actors who really understand their work, they don’t need that shit. I’ve seen it.”
Not knowing what else to do, Kitty just nodded. She began thinking about the part in the settlement that stipulated all film of Jeffrey’s death be destroyed. If it was no longer needed by the police if they were not bringing charges, Jeffrey’s mother wanted it destroyed.
“Do you know how they destroyed the film?” Kitty asked Cynthia, trying to steer away from the method-acting landmine.
“Probably dissolved it in acid.”
“Can you even imagine if some struck an extra print at the lab?”
Cynthia shook her head.
“Jesus! That would be terrible—some sick fuck would sell it to ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ and it would play on television over and over again.”
“No, his mother did the right thing: insisting upon that.”
She pointed the end of her cigarette square at Kitty. “That is the strength and power of a lady right there.”
Gwenyfar Rohler is encore’s fact-or-fiction writer for 2018. Her serial story, “Singing in the Dead of Night,” follows the death of a young movie star and the emotional aftermath that follows, as local media try to uncover the events leading up to the high-profile “murder,” which takes place while filming in Wilmington, NC. Catch up on previous chapters at encorepub.com.