Making a Book Trailer (6): Filming the Grim

With the gun dropped from the script, we needed to find other images that would represent and express Joel’s death. Pillai in response turned to some gothic scenes that I wouldn’t have expected from our gentle director. Indeed, filming took a turn toward the macabre during a Sunday session of shooting—the “grim day,” Tim the cameraman recalled with relish, “the day we were going to use blood.”

Often Tim and Pillai hatched an idea as they walked about the yard and talked, and I was absent from the strategy session that inspired the haunted images of that Sunday. My only immediate contribution was to supply the red food color they used to simulate blood. I like red velvet cake, and I had on hand a bottle of dye big enough to remake The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The first applications of color went onto a hydrangea that struggles up an arbor—the wooden arbor that’s in the opening shot of the trailer. Pillai and Tim set the camera up close and filmed droplets of red as they fell from leaf to leaf and saturated the vine.

The Mystery

This was, I learned later, Tim’s idea. Bottle of dye in hand, he asked Pillai, “Do you want to drip it on the leaves?” It was pure fun, not the sort of thing Tim gets to do as a news photographer, and they let the red flow free. They poured coffee down the vine too, just to see how that would look. Immersed in the technical aspects of capturing the drops, everyone had a pretty good time, and Tim ended up with blood on his shoes.

From inside the house I watched them at work, having no grasp of their purpose. Pillai was dripping red food dye, Tim was catching the splatter. But why? Why were they recording these shots?

Heading outside to see what they were up to, I felt a little clenching in my chest. I was not a participant, yet I felt pulled into the scene—an uncanny involvement of the sort that Companion to an Untold Story describes. It’s appropriate that the image of dripping liquid in the trailer accompanies these words in the voice-over, drawn from the Companion: “Terrible things can happen in which I am implicated.”

The tightness in my chest, I now understand, expressed a loss of control, and that is what the “grim day” means most for me. Any writer whose words are converted into a visual account must experience a sort of vertigo as the written images on which she has spilled her labor and love are translated into visual terms. The images in this new version are at one and the same time hers and not hers. It is a body in which her heart beats, yet directed by an alien force.

The translation from one medium to another, this giving over of authorship, resulted in scenes in the trailer that I would not have come up with myself. The clearest example is the director’s conception of the sequence in the bathroom, the visual account of Joel’s death.

There will be blood

Pillai and Tim spent most of the day’s session filming it, with Richard acting as set dresser. Pillai and Tim shot the reflection of a red flowerpot in a mirror, which allowed the camera to catch the lights that run alongside the mirror, followed by a refocus to the out-of-doors. In itself, it is a peaceable image. The truly grim stuff in the bathroom was what Pillai called his “homage to Psycho.”

With hot water going full so as to steam up the glass and with droplets jetting down, Pillai used an ear syringe to dribble a bit of red in with the falling water. Tim caught the action, the diluted blood swirling round and down the drain, and then, a few seconds later, the dark red stream drifting down the glass on the right side of the frame. The filmmakers felt that this last little shock might be a bit gory. So in the next take Pillai omitted the drops down the glass and just swirled the blood in with the draining water. It was still pretty creepy though.

I didn’t realize just how central Psycho was for Pillai in this scene until I learned that he asked Richard to move his arm in and out of the shower, much as I moved my hand to pick up the top of the egg coddler, creating shadows. The shadows, I’m pretty confident, came to mind because Pillai recalled the dark shape of Norman Bates seen through the shower curtain, one of the more disturbing elements in the famous sequence in Hitchcock. (Having watched it lately, I think the gruesomest part is the sound of the knife as it mushes poor Janet Leigh’s flesh.)

Getting the grim right

Three main factors came together in motivating the trailer’s shower scene. First, we needed images that illustrated Joel’s death in the bathroom, as narrated in the voice-over. Second, Pillai had in mind this passage in the Companion: “I cry in the shower, the tears I shed flowing down the drain and underneath the city streets to the river, which runs to the lake and perhaps some sea. I can curl like a fetus on the cold floor, leaving no residue of turmoil. In bathrooms every­thing is washed away.” And then there was Pillai’s memory of Psycho.

I admire Hitchcock, but he is not a muse for my own style, which is by turns more lyrical and more reportorial. His movie shocks the viewer as hard as it can—the trailer is pure restraint in comparison. Even so, would I have thought of a scene showing blood in the shower? No. I made no contribution to it, other than what I wrote about a drain.

This sequence is Pillai’s visual accompaniment to the words “on that day he died.” I am not the author of this sequence, but its interpreter. Is it too much, too gothic?  I’ll leave that question for other interpreters to answer. I myself find the sight and sound of water in the shower stall a powerful frame for my ironic claim: “In bathrooms everything is washed away.”

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