Making a Book Trailer (8): Starring Omar

In the fullest version of the script, produced in response to Pillai’s request for a beginning, a middle, and an end, the final lines of narration, borrowed from the Companion, mention a location for a symbolic burial: “I have found a place where I would have liked Joel to be buried. It’s a small sanctuary called La Resolana, meaning reflected sunlight. I had no right to say where Joel would be disposed. But I have rights to where I imagine him, what I do to keep myself alive and lay him to rest.”

As a conclusion to the voice-over, these words would have brought the narrative arc back to earth in a good spot. But they did not satisfy me. For one thing, they refer to a locale that couldn’t be filmed, a real place at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. We trailer-makers were not going to get footage of La Resolana, and I couldn’t imagine a visual substitution, though that technique worked well in some parts of the trailer, as when red geraniums stood in for red roses.

Furthermore, the ending was wordy, introducing ideas that are important in the book but can’t be developed in a voice-over of a few hundred words. Like some other passages in the long version of the script that I discussed in the previous post, it was good on the page, not so good on the ear.

While the filming was going on, I was brewing another idea for the conclusion, built on the word companion.

Omar in the “cradle of light”

Dogs have been the companions of my life, in relationships deep and abiding, untroubled by the wounds human beings sometimes inflict upon one another. When Joel came for his last visit in the October before his death, he folded himself into our ordinary daily lives, and that meant spending time with our dogs. They accompanied us everywhere, and there was no escape from their intimacy. As Larry, our golden retriever, rested nearby one night, Joel said, “It must be a great comfort to have him lying at your feet.”

His remark, which at the time seemed casual, though tinged with melancholy, has stayed with me. Joel was a being unaccompanied. The preceding April, he had written to say that he might move to the East Bay and get a dog, which he couldn’t have in his apartment in San Francisco. He had a plan—maybe no more than a fantasy—of building a new life in a less densely populated area. He would not live alone as he had for many years, but have a companion.

After Joel died, I asked myself what I could have given him that might have made a difference in his life. He had turned down our offer to relocate to Michigan and stay with us while he found work. He wouldn’t have accepted money, had we any to give. It was impossible to see him with a wife and children, a deep network of friends. But I could imagine a dog. I wanted to end the trailer by portraying such a companion.

Who else better in the role than my own Omar? He was born to be a matinee idol.

Watching the day’s rushes with Pillai and Tim one evening, I suggested this new ending. I wanted a shot of Omar running toward someone unseen, suggesting the absent Joel. Pillai agreed that it would be good to conclude with an image of life, energy, and light. Omar is almost white in color, a bounding image of light.

Our plan was to have Omar run from the house and down the flagstone path toward the river. A walnut tree that threatened power lines had been felled by Consumers Energy and lay across the path. Omar would have to jump over it on his way to the river, run past the fire circle, and go down steps, from which he would leap into the river.

It was the last sequence we filmed that day, a day full of challenge and invention. Pillai and Tim had filmed pages of drafts of the Companion scattered in the ferns and greenery; filmed through binoculars; torn sheets of stamps and set them afloat upon the river, casting away grief and hurt. It had been an exhilarating day, and then came Omar.

Pillai didn’t know what to expect from Omar, who had no training as a performer, but I had faith he would do well.

Pillai and Tim set up the camera by the river in order to capture Omar running toward it. We didn’t want his handlers to be seen—it had to appear that he was heading toward the river on his own. Richard hid behind the deck stairs, holding him back until Tim was ready. I stood near the fire ring and, when the moment came, called Omar. The first couple of takes didn’t work because Richard was seen in the background. But Omar repeated his part perfectly, bounding over the tree and past the camera and down toward the river. At last Tim managed to get a take he liked.

Omar hits his mark

After that segment was captured, we let Omar continue on and jump in the river. He swam out to the middle, chasing a stick. Tim was using a tripod that didn’t allow easy tracking, but Omar walked to the right-hand edge of the camera’s view and stopped right on the mark, then turned to us for his bow. It couldn’t have been choreographed any better. A star was born!

I felt happy during this final day of shooting. The sequence with Omar embodied a spirit I tried to convey in my book—my desire to accompany Joel, to give something back to him, to give something of him to others. To be a companion.

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