The gaffer sighed and looked around at his crew. This was going to be a tough day of work.
“Alright, lads,” he cleared his throat. “I know it’s been a while…”
He trailed off and started at the gravel parking lot. How many predawn mornings had he begun out here? Getting the generators started, so the catering could make coffee, and hair and makeup could get going with blow dryers and wax? He looked at his crew; they looked dismayed—dismayed to be back here, haunted even by the events. The death on set. It was so hard to think those words: “Death on set.”
For almost a decade, he had worked with many of these guys. Some had come down from Earl Owensby’s place in Shelby, NC, when they heard Giovanni was opening the studio and would need (somewhat) experienced crew.
Owensby spent his family money to build a low-budget movie studio on his land outside Shelby, to make grindhouse pictures that mostly played the drive-in circuit. He hired crew from the area. There wasn’t a lot happening in Shelby, so Earl quickly became one of the bigger employers in the area—certainly the one with the most cache. Who wouldn’t rather work making movies than in a factory?
Earl and the crew were figuring it out as they went along, so when they arrived in the Port City to get jobs with Giovanni’s, they slightly were more qualified than other young hopefuls hanging around the gate. At least they knew the names of the equipment. The gaffer could still chuckle at the memory of trying to drill Italian film vocabulary into them so they could work with Giovani’s Italian camera crew. Everyone lined up in the parking lot in front of the trucks.
“Stringi, stringi,” he would say over and over, making motions with his hands to indicate the changing direction of the light.
“Strangey, strangey,” the guys would parrot back to him with their Appalachian foothills accents.
Though Giovanni and his camera guys were long since gone, the gaffer stayed. He liked it here. The kids were in school and doing fine. Compared to night exteriors in Canada in February, this was great. Now it felt like a pol hung over the studio.
“It’s been a while,” he resumed. “I know most of you are back because we need work, and the bills don’t pay themselves. I don’t blame you. But we do have work to do and I appreciate you all being here. We will do our best work.”
He looked at the line of electricians in his lighting crew and wondered what he would do if any of them had been responsible for a death like Jeffrey Chen’s. It was an image he knew he would carry for the rest of his life—an image that wouldn’t go away. Unfortunately, it played like a high-budget horror film, complete with sound.
“So hump some cable! We have miles to go before we sleep! And, remember, this movie can be saved with arc lighting!”
He chuckled to himself. Arc lighting, right—that was the last thing they needed after everything else that happened. But the DP who insisted the light from arc lamps lingered longer upon actresses faces … well, apparently he didn’t realize there were two standards of measurement in the universe, and one was the speed of light.
Well, you don’t get to be a DP because you have a science degree or high reasoning skills. Being temperamental seemed to be the entry level skill, he thought. Yeah, being difficult.
He looked around the parking lot at the white metal buildings, the catering tent; the security gate had a new arm. The old one was removed and dropped off by the side for someone to scoop up while doing a dump run. He strolled down the back lot to make some plans for the day.
Why hadn’t I pursued gaffing the courtroom drama series that filmed in town? That would have been good, steady work, he reflected.
Instead, he wanted to move up the film ladder and make big-budget spectaculars. The set-dressing crew was striking the Detroit look from the back lot. He got ready in his head for kids’ puppet movie lighting because in a week it would be populated by people in furry animal costumes and others with puppets, talking about the importance of sharing.
It was Kirby, his newest and most inexperienced electrician.
“Tom sent me over to you to see what you need and want.”
Tom was his best boy. They worked together for almost eight years. The gaffer knew Tom was planning to get out of the movie business, to move back to upstate New York to his family’s hardware-store business.
But getting out of the movie business is harder than getting into it, the gaffer reminded himself.
“Sure, Kirby. Well, let’s get started wrapping up some cable, shall we?” He bent down and disconnected the ends of one cable from another. Kirby began wrapping.
“What happens next?” Kirby asked.
“We wrap the next cable.”
“No, I mean with the movie?”
“For us, we finish striking. Then we look for other work.”
“You mean we aren’t going to finish the film?” Kirby asked in disbelief. It was his first real movie on a studio set.
It couldn’t just not get finished, he thought.
The gaffer looked at him in surprise. “The star is dead, Kirby,” he said. “Movies have gotten canceled for a lot less.”
The gaffer shook his head.
Jeffrey Chen was dead and they all watched it happen. Christ on a cross, they watched it happen.
“You know, one of the first movies I worked on has never been finished or released,” the gaffer shrugged. “It happens. It’s part of the business.”
“What movie was that?” Kirby asked.
“It was about a killer bed,” the gaffer responded. “It was a low-budget ‘70s horror flicks.”
The gaffer grinned at the memory. It was the first time he smiled all day.
“It wasn’t brilliant, but it was a lot of fun, and we were young and enthusiastic and willing to try anything.”
He paused then looked at Kirby.
“I’m sorry your introduction to the business was this and not something like that.”
He shook his head.
“I’m sorry this is what you got.”
His blue eyes clouded with tears and he turned away from the young man to compose himself.
“Kirby, how about you take this cable to the truck?” the gaffer asked.
“Yes, sir!” Kirby grabbed a coil and tried to run to the truck with the heavy cable.
The gaffer started to call after him to slow down and pace himself since it was a long day ahead.
But no one can tell the young anything, he reminded himself. He will figure it out for himself. Or he won’t. Those are pretty much our choices in life.
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.