The human mind has many methods for coping with a crisis. Some people lose focus and go to pieces, crying, screaming and generally making their problem everyone else’s. They are the lucky ones. For example, on the set of “Blackbird,” at the moment Warren the medic was giving Jeffrey Chen chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth to keep his heart pumping blood, a makeup assistant was giving her best re-enactment of a chief mourner at a Roman funeral. Her wailing verged on ear screeching.
“Can someone shut her up or get her out of here?” an angry assistant director snapped. “Shh, shh.” Several women from craft services and makeup quickly circled around the stricken assistant and led her away. They were grateful to have something to do, anything to do, that would be helpful.
It felt like an eternity since the gunshot had crackled through the air—like time had frozen as they all watched Jeffrey Chen enter, say his line, and crumple, the squib of fake blood detonating, right on cue. But he didn’t pop back up to laugh at his assailant. Instead, Warren, the onset medic—usually a quiet, thoughtful man, who aimed to stay out of everyone’s way during chaos of filming—vaulted the script table with his medical bag swinging in an arc behind him. Forty people were too stunned to move.
“Jeffrey! Jeffrey! I’m right here, man.” Warren knelt beside the unconscious actor. What was happening? The onset medic was the source of Band-Aids and aspirin. When did he learn to move like a kung-fu fighter or take over a film set?
“Call 911! Everyone, clear the set—back against the wall!” Warren barked.
The bubble snapped, and the realization of what was happening collectively overtook the soundstage. Actors cleared the set, people began fetching supplies for Warren, 911 was called, and a path to the soundstage door was cleared for the stretcher. Low-level murmuring filled the crowded room with anxiety. Seconds ticked by, marked with the beeping of the portable heart monitor Warren hooked up to Jeffrey.
“Stay with me, man. Come on, Jeffrey, help is on the way. We’re going to get you out of this…” Warren chanted, barely above a whisper, as if he could almost will Jeffrey to wholeness again, or incant a charm or spell around the stricken actor.
Meanwhile, James Green did his job. He couldn’t help Warren. He couldn’t get the ambulance here any faster. He wasn’t going to fall apart and cry. But he could do his job with a camera. He had been a camera assistant for 10 years—and a good one. He unloaded the film reel, carefully placed it in a film canister and put a lid on it. He labeled it with a piece of tape in his deliberate, precise script. It was what he did repeatedly, everyday of his professional life. But this was different.
He stared at his handwriting, took a deep breath and pulled a long piece of tape off the roll. It’s like wrapping up a gift for Pandora, he thought. Then he heard his grandfather’s booming voice, “The point of a liberal-arts education is to make the inside of your head a good place to spend your time!”
“What does that mean?” Kirby, the newest electrician, asked when the monitor’s beeping turned into a long, sustained noise.
“Don’t ask,” the Gaffer’s voice cracked. “Don’t ask.”
When beeps started again, the whole room exhaled.
“Where the fuck is the ambulance?” the director finally exploded.
The assistant directors and production assistants snapped into action, to make phone calls and inquiries on walkie-talkie: “Where is the ambulance? Has anyone seen it? Can we get an ETA?”
The movie studio’s thin metal buildings were the bane of the sound department—who, in their right mind, built a studio at the end of an airport runway with a police department firing range on the other side. Between planes landing and taking off, incessant street noise from the highway and gunshots from the officers practicing, getting a usable sound take was a nightmare. For once, no one complained about being so close to the highway. People’s eyes gravitated toward the door in hopes the EMTs would enter soon. Someone propped it open with a sand bag; the siren’s faint wail began to penetrate the soundstage.
Usually when hearing a siren, it strikes fear into hearts of people old enough to really understand human mortality. They stop and do a quick inventory of where their loved ones are and which direction the siren is headed. It is not a sound of hope. For 40 people on a soundstage on a cold Easter night, it was truly music to their ears. A serenade of life—if it could just arrive fast enough.
Then it stopped: that horrid beeping and even worse, silence between beeps. The lack of sound ebbing from Jeffrey’s body, leaking into the cold night, reverberated louder than the beautiful sirens of hope. walkie-talkie cackled and scratched, and belched out almost indecipherable news from the studio’s front gate.
“It’s held up at the gate, the security guys won’t let the ambulance on the lot,” an AD announced.
“What do you mean they’ve held it up?” the director demanded. “Get it here now!”
ADs furiously screamed into Walkie-Talkies, to berate and beseech the security guards to let in the ambulance. “Errr, Brian, take the boys, and get the ambulance here—if you have to saw off the goddamn arms of the gates,” the key grip issued to his crew.
The director and his department huddled in front of the camera, and continued their losing battle with the gate staff. Suddenly, the sounds of argument were punctuated by shouts and a two-stroke engine revving over the walkie-talkies.
“What’s that? What’s going on?” the second AD shouted into her Walkie.
“It’s OK, love, it’s just me boys cutting the arms off the gates,” the key grip reassured her. Her head snapped around in shock and horror.
“That ambulance will be here in a jiff,” he added confidently.
“Ted, this needs to go in the safe.” James Green greeted the producer as he walked back onto the soundstage. Warren and Jeffrey Chen had been loaded into the ambulance, which was speeding away toward the hospital. The camera assistant’s request took a moment to register in the producer’s shocked and preoccupied brain. They had 15 days of filming left on principal photography.
Ted Wood was mentally busy moving around second-unit work and scenes (which didn’t involve Chen) on the calendar. It seemed a safe estimate Jeffrey would not be available to work for at least six weeks. Even with the second unit, they would have to interrupt filming and send other actors home. Would this be covered by production insurance?
“Ted, this needs to go in the safe,” James repeated and indicated the film canister in his arms.
“What is it?” Ted inquired distractedly.
“It’s the film of—it’s what just happened,” James answered. “This needs to go in the safe in the production office.”
Ted nodded, noncommittal, and picked up his clipboard from his chair.
James took a deep breath and let it out, then another and drew himself up to his full 5 feet, 8 inches. “Ted, I need you to walk me there. We are both going to sign the tape, then we are going to put it in the safe together. Right now. Ted, this is important.”
Ted’s head whipped up to stare at James in surprise. Producers were not used to getting talked to like that by camera assistants—not even a photography director or department head, but a lowly camera assistant from the back water of North Carolina.
“Ted, you are going to need this for any insurance you have to file.” James started talking quickly in hopes of getting the producer’s attention. “The ambulance just left. The police are going to be here shortly to investigate the accident. They are going to want to see this. It is evidence.”
“Evidence?” Slowly, recognition dawned. “OK, James, let’s go right now.” Ted stood up and held out his hand for the canister.
James hugged the canister to his chest like it was a shield or most sacred possession. In the moment, he wasn’t sure which. Ted paused, his arm still outstretched, frozen in surprise by the camera assistant’s refusal. He weighed pulling rank, then decided there might be merit in letting the CA handle the film. He nodded, and the two men fell into step to thread their way across the cluttered soundstage. Ted noticed the “Filming in Progress” light outside the building was still bright. No one had turned it off amid the chaos. He reached his hand into the building to pull the switch. Every penny counts now more than ever, he thought. As he calculated what six weeks of filming would cost in losses, his night was shattered again by the sound of gunshots.
James pulled Ted to the ground. “That’s not the police firing range, it’s too close by!” he screamed.
The shots continued one after another with a pause between each long enough give the men hope the attack was over. But each time they started to stand up, the next shot would come, relentlessly—and close enough to smell gunpowder.
Gwenyfar Rohler is the 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. You can read other chapters here.