“Get your heads down!” warned the driver.
After a night of illicit research in some of the darker corners of New York City, Sir Ian the movie director and I were both well-lubricated and trying to get back to our mid-town hotels. The unlicensed taxi we’d picked up in deep East Harlem had been pointed south when we’d encountered three armed hombres owning the center stripe of the road. Instead of braking and doing a four-wheel about-face, our driver had decided the shortest distance between two points was through the impromptu blockade. So he just hit the gas and ordered us to seek cover.
My first fear was for Sir Ian. He was way drunker than I. As I slinked down into the seat, I grabbed at the director’s shoulder. I remember his face. Only moments ago, a silly smile humming to a salsa beat. Now in the dimness of the moment I saw that formerly happy face stretch into a fright mask.
The driver, having aimed his vehicle down the dividing stripe, briefly flopped across the center console. I held my breath and fully expected the windows of the Impala to explode inward as we were strafed with gunfire.
As I write this I’m reminded of The Red Dot Club, a book I read recently by my friend, Robert Rangel. In it Robert chronicles the memories of brave police officers caught in gunfights. Each was able to describe in pain-staking detail the entirety of the event—as if mere seconds had stretched into a slow motion lifetime. Well, that’s how I remember that blaze in—micro-moments. What lasted little more than the time it would take to drop, rock a single pushup and return to position one, felt like a full minute. I recall staring, my eyes scanning upward, cataloguing the color temperature of each streetlamp as they eased past the windows. I could read the shapes in the cloud ceiling, low and in shades of gray reflected from the city’s ambient light. I even catalogued the linen weave on Sir Ian’s jacket.
I. Saw. Everything.
Everything but the actual bullets penetrating the Impala’s safety glass. That’s because none did. Nor were shots of any kind fired. The expected violence was oddly replaced with the low drone of road noise vibrating from the Impala’s undercarriage. At last I saw the driver return to his position behind the wheel. I crept upward until I could peer over the backseat and allow my widened peepers a view out the rear windshield. In the receding flare of taillights, I saw those three haunting figures melting back into the darkness. Gone as if they were ghosts.
But were they? Just because I wasn’t as drunk as Sir Ian didn’t mean that I wasn’t impaired.
“Close one, eh?” giggled the driver, revealing a relieved smile under his wide eyes.
I really didn’t know what to say. Nor did Sir Ian. The director did though throw in a couple of extra twenties when he tipped out the driver at the curb in front of the St. Regis.
“Let’s talk in the afternoon,” said the suddenly sober-sounding director. “That was a some adventure, yeah?”
As the booze wore off, my nerves became that much more exposed. Sleeping proved difficult. The sun was just slipping through the mid-town high rises when my slumber finally arrived. After my alarm went off at noon, I scarfed a light breakfast, and left word at Sir Ian’s hotel. He finally returned my call just before six.
“Sorry,” said Sir Ian. “(The Biggest Movie Star in the World) won’t leave me alone. That and he’s not keen on the girl I want to cast. That and girl I wanna cast doesn’t wanna get naked with him, so…”
“So those are what I call ‘quality’ problems,” I said.
“Some night last night, huh?” I segued.
“Wow, yes,” cued Sir Ian. “Loved East Harlem. But listen. I’ve been thinking. How difficult would it be to fake it on a Hollywood back lot?”
“Fake East Harlem?”
“Exactly. Hollywood doubles New York all the time.”
“You can’t be serious,” I said, without tempering my sudden incredulity.
“Studio back lots are so much easier,” said Sir Ian. “So much control over your environment.”
“Can’t imagine what it would cost to cheat East Harlem,” I said, suddenly recalling that Fox had recently removed the iconic Hello Dolly elevated train tracks and station in lieu of a spanking new office building. “Plus why would we want to fake something when the real thing is right here. In New York City. Already dressed and ready to go.”
“Dunno if you ever experienced it,” said Sir Ian. “But shooting a movie in New York can be a real bitch.”
Excuses, I thought. Actually, I didn’t think. I knew. Last night had spooked Sir Ian and he was looking for a quick escape out the back door.
We went back and forth on the stupid issue of shooting in New York versus a dumb, Hollywood back lot. But it was academic and fruitless as hell.
“You know what?” I finally relented. “You’re busy prepping another movie. Maybe when you wrap you’ll give the script another look and feel a bit differently.”
“Good idea,” he said. “I’ll phone the studio. Let’s talk in four months when I no longer have (The Biggest Movie Star in the World) dogging my every fart.”
Distance, I thought. Give Sir Ian a few thousand miles and four months of getting his teethed kicked in by the Biggest Movie Star in the World and he’ll be jonesing for an experience that reeked of the authentic. He’ll remember our night of music and club crawling with a certain, thrill-seeking affection. That salsa song he couldn’t drum out of his head will return to him and demand to be heard on a soundtrack.
A day later I was back in Los Angeles. My phone rang and it was the movie’s producer.
“What the hell happened in New York?” yelled the producer.
“It was great,” I said. “Maybe there was a moment or so of too much excitement. But yeah. Pretty great, I’d say.”
“Great huh?” pissed the producer. “Sir Ian is out. His agent just called the studio to say as much.”
“Oh…” was all I could summon, instantly feeling the familiar sting of a setback. “Maybe he got scared.”
“Scared of what? Manhattan?”
Though I explained how our night out had ended, we never truly found out the cold truth. Sir Ian had bailed out of my movie without a parachute. He was gone baby gone. And not long after, so was the studio’s interest in the movie.
Like so many films, once the director departs, the studio goes into a scramble-dash, wondering what could be wrong with the script. Otherwise why would the director have hit the door? They eventually tinker too much until all enthusiasm for the project dwindles to a whimper.
As much as I argued my theory that Sir Ian abandoned ship due to an unexpected dose of the xenophobic heebie-jeebies, the studio decided to trust the instincts of the departing director over those of the original scribbler. Namely me.