Making a Book Trailer (5): The Gun

In my last post I mentioned that fortunate shots happen in filming: great images are sometimes captured through good luck of the lens. As we worked on the trailer, I also learned that there is bad luck of the lens.

In our discussions of what to film, Pillai and Tim floated many ideas on possible subjects. If the trailer project is an indication, a lot of creative thoughts in filmmaking don’t pan out. Some of ours floated away unnoticed; some we dismissed as soon as suggested; some seemed promising, but stayed forever promising, not acted on. With other objects, we took steps toward recording, but didn’t manage to put the object in front of the camera. Still others were filmed, but the results weren’t right for the trailer.

Concrete examples of these different outcomes emerge from the list of possible objects to film that Pillai sent around after a couple days of shooting:

1. Death certificate
2. Stamps
3. Microscope
4. Worn-out tire
5. Gun
6. Birds
7. Spoon(s)
8. Clock
9. Buddha [the one that sits before the front door of the river house]
10. Flower vase [the red flowerpot]
11. Sunflower-like piece on the wall [in the kitchen]
12. Dog(s)
13. Bed (high angle, revealing the outdoor green)
14. Pan over the books
15. Car
16. Backpack or leather bag of a teacher on the passenger seat of a car

Four of these items, the stamps, spoons, vase, and dogs, play a role in the final version of the trailer. But most of the objects never reached the filming stage. Tim did record footage of the death certificate, deliberately overexposing it so that only the parts in shadow were readable. He liked the results, but the certificate didn’t make it into the trailer.

The microscope, in its “blond coffin of a box,” as the Companion puts it, was among the items Joel delivered to us in his last visit. Richard hauled it out of the basement, and Tim took some shots. But the images weren’t very interesting and didn’t create the mood Pillai wanted.

Among the objects that we didn’t get in front of the camera—and in this case our efforts displayed a comic futility—was item number 5, a gun.

In the Companion I wrote about several gruesome details of Joel’s death: the bathroom where he killed himself; his tool of self-destruction, a .38 revolver; the path of the bullet; the disposition of the body. In my first stab at a script for the trailer, I included a gun in the visual stream. I imagined the camera lightly panning over it as it lay on a counter.

I am not a gun owner; I’ve never touched a gun, never entered a gun store. When I learned that Joel had used a .38 revolver, no informed images were ready in my memory bank. So fine was my ignorance, Richard suggested, that philosophers who hypothesize states of knowing nothing—Locke with his blank slate, Rawls with his original position—would have found me a useful subject in a thought experiment.

In preparing to write the Companion, I did some research, looking at the websites of gun vendors. I was surprised by how expensive guns can be—some were more than two thousand dollars. Putting aside my fear of these weapons, I saw that some were pretty—odd as that might sound. Perhaps pleasing would be a more appropriate word. Some of the revolvers were small, compact, and shapely. I imagined their weight in the palm of my hand, felt their appeal as material things. They were objects of beauty and terror, of the sort Edmund Burke studied in Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

I never picked up any depth of knowledge about guns, but when Richard, watching an old episode of the police drama Homicide, pointed out that Detective Kay Howard packed a snub-nosed .38 revolver, I nodded wisely. It fits nicely, I thought, in a woman’s small hand.

No one ever knew Joel to own a gun prior to the one he shot himself with. Part of his death plan was figuring out what kind of gun to buy. It was a crucial part of his story, as crucial in its way as the bathroom where he died, and yet I wasn’t sure I wanted to include it in the trailer. I didn’t want to avoid the truth; nor did I want to overemphasize the physical act. The sensational has many temptations. How do you make a trailer about disturbing material without being tawdry? Is there a right way to disturb?

After discussions of these questions, the creative team wasn’t sure whether gun footage would be right for the trailer. In the end we decided to give the gun a try, see what images we landed, and make a decision later.

The hard part of putting this decision into practice was finding a gun, which isn’t a popular item in my circle of acquaintances. Richard’s brothers own pistols, but they live in California. The man across the street has guns, I suspect, but I didn’t want to involve him in the trailer project.

Pillai mentioned that a colleague at Michigan State had a student, Brett, who included a gun in a film. I got Brett’s email address and sent him a message, saying I’d heard he had a pistol: “Is it possible for me to use it briefly? Swarvanvel Pillai is making the trailer and we just want one image of the gun lying on a counter.”

Brett wrote back: “Of course you can use my gun. I have no problem with that. I am, however, concerned about how we are going to exchange the gun. I’m not in East Lansing, and I’m not sure the next time I can get up there. It is against federal law to mail any type of firearm, so that won’t work. I’m in Rochester Hills if anyone is close to there.”

Rochester Hills is on the outskirts of Detroit, about an hour and a half drive from home. Richard and I talked over whether it was worth traveling there to pick up a gun we weren’t sure would be used in the trailer. Was it even legal to transport a gun for which I had no permit? On the other hand, there was a Patti Smith exhibit in Detroit.

I emailed: “I appreciate your willingness to loan me the gun. So weird, I just have to say that. I’ve never held a gun or been around guns, so this is out of my comfort zone. Would it be convenient for me to drive to where you are this weekend sometime to pick it up? I was thinking of seeing the Patti Smith exhibit at the Detroit Institute of the Arts anyway. I could stop by afterwards if that suited. The museum is open on Saturday and Sunday.”

Brett replied, “I’m not going to be able to get to Detroit over the weekend because I work all day every day. I know I’m not being very helpful, but I don’t have any free time over the summers. … The only option is MAYBE Sunday night in Detroit. I’ll have to check my schedule. Again, I’m sorry I’m being so difficult, I just have a real tight schedule.”

I hadn’t meant for him to drive to Detroit, but for me to drive to Rochester Hills from Detroit. However, it didn’t matter because, as he added, “It’s not a real gun. … It is an airsoft gun, so it fires, but not live rounds. …Another option, if you want, is to go to Dick’s Sporting Goods and purchase one yourself. They are around 50 dollars.”

Fifty dollars was less than the cost in time and gas of a trip to Rochester Hills. So the next day, a July scorcher, Richard and I drove to Dick’s Sporting Goods at the Meridian Mall. A cheerful young woman wearing a brown Dick’s employee uniform was standing near the entrance, ready to help customers find their way around the big store.

“Hi,” Richard said. “We’re looking for airsoft pistols.”

There was a momentary fleck in the young woman’s eyes that said, You don’t look like the sort of people who buy airsoft pistols. Who is this for? Is it for your grown-up son? Why doesn’t he come into the store and buy the gun himself?

I flecked back, It’s stranger than you realize. We’re making a book trailer.

Following the young woman’s directions, we took the escalator and located the selection of airsoft weapons. There were pistols, but no revolvers. That was okay—we were not literalists about the gun. But the pistols didn’t look very realistic, even to my ignorant eye. Big letters on the side said “Magnum.”  Even if it had said “Colt” or “Smith & Wesson,” this was all wrong—it’s the sort of thing you plaster on the side of a toy. Worse, the tip of the barrel had a small projection in unmistakable plastic optic orange.

I guessed this was a design strategy to make sure that any would-be robber who waves an airsoft pistol in the face of a bank clerk will get a chuckle, not cash.

Richard, doubtfully turning the plastic package in his hands, said, “Maybe we could paint the tip black.”

Still, the pistol was cheaper than expected, $39.99, and we could return it to the store if Pillai said it was no good. Clutching my receipt, I followed Richard out to the very hot parking lot of Dick’s Sporting Goods. We got into our very hot car.

The car wouldn’t start. The battery was dead.

We are longtime members of AAA in good standing, but we have never made use of the club’s convenient roadside assistance. Now at last our prudence was going to pay dividends, with a jump-start just a quick phone call away.

Except that neither of us had brought along his cell phone. (The male pronoun here feels so right.)

Richard proposed that I walk home to call AAA while he waited with the car. I hustled the mile and a half through the heat and, good and sweaty, phoned AAA. The kind woman on the other end sounded concerned, and she carefully gathered information about the location of the vehicle, the nature of the mechanical problem, and other pertinent facts. She had just dispatched the rescue truck when Richard walked in the front door, having gotten a jump-start from the security staff at the mall.

The next day, when I showed the plastic pistol to the crew, Tim couldn’t stop laughing over how seriously wrong this gun would look if you tried to film it, and Pillai for the first time showed a fleck in the clear glass of his faith in me. They’d want a close-up of the gun, not some long shot from far, far away that would disguise a toy. It would jump off the screen that this was a fake.

We took the gun back to Dick’s. And that is the complete story of my pistol ownership.

We gave up on filming a gun, for I had resolved that I didn’t want the image in my trailer—it didn’t fit with my sense of restraint. Pillai moved on to other representations of Joel’s death, which I’ll describe in the next post.


One Comment on “Making a Book Trailer (5): The Gun”

  1. Checked out the trailer.
    ‘What would I do if I had seen his intent?’ Compelling question.
    I like the rain effect during the discussion of the moment of his death.
    Luscious imagery.


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