The Free Memoir: A License to Thrill

 Principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each
particular thing ask, “What is it in itself? What is its essence?”
The Silence of the Lambs

Vivian Gornick says that memoir is “a genre still in need of an informed readership.” I agree.

A first step to better reading would be recognition of the different types of memoir, which have proliferated in the last three decades. Most of these types have been labeled plain memoir, a term that has resisted customizing. We have made do with one heading—as if shoes were simply shoes, instead of slippers, flats, oxfords, sandals, high heels, boots.

Stuart Dybek has said, “I, personally, could care less what anybody calls anything. I just care about the character of the piece.” I wish I could say labels don’t matter, but not everyone is as clear-sighted as Dybek. Some readers need help. What you call a narrative can prime them with the right assumptions and tamp down the wrong ones, preventing certain irritations and disappointments.

In reading a memoir we need to ask, What kind of shoe am I slipping onto my feet?

One type of life story is the free memoir, a form of nonfiction that, in presenting the past, deviates from factual and literal accuracy. This play of truth distinguishes the free memoir from the memoir per se, the word “free” meaning what it does in free translation, that is, “not literal or exact.”

Writers have on occasion been called to account because the nature of the free memoir isn’t understood. Sometimes readers apply the wrong convention, truthfulness, and free memoirs are lambasted as deceptive. Even writers themselves sometimes fail to see what sort of thing they have written. I suspect that James Frey got into trouble over A Million Little Pieces because he didn’t grasp just what kind of narrative he had composed.

Well, maybe I’m projecting my personal doubts onto Frey, who is certainly much more crafty than I. My own book Girl Rearing is a free memoir. Before the book’s publication, I had discussions with the publisher about giving readers a heads-up. I wanted to hint at the nature of the book in the subtitle, and suggested A Memoir of Girlhood Gone Astray. That would have left ambiguous whether it was the girlhood or the memoir that had gone adrift. (The publisher was not impressed by my idea.) Doing it all over again, I would just title the book Girl Rearing: A Free Memoir.

The nature of the free memoir’s infidelity to fact is clarified if we think of movies that are “based on a true story” (BOATS movies—there’s another useful term), among which the biopic is closest to the free memoir.

Moviegoers don’t worry just because biopics stretch the truth. Most audiences are untroubled by a tightening of the subject’s life and a heightening of its drama, the invention of scenes and characters. Audiences expect as much. They want as much. They don’t care if Ray portrays the true Ray Charles so long as he’s a blind black singer-pianist and the movie tells a good story.

In other words, with creative works like these, the accuracy of the facts is not a criterion of evaluation.

This doesn’t mean BOATS movies are never panned for inaccuracies. But such accusations often emerge from the motivations of the viewer. Argo, which portrays American diplomats’ escape from Iran after the Iranian Revolution, is a perfect example. The film critic for Maclean’s, a magazine out of Canada, complained that the movie minimized the role Canada played in the diplomats’ escape.

The film’s director, Ben Affleck, who understood the essence of the particular thing he had made, responded, “Because we say it’s based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we’re allowed to take some dramatic license. There’s a spirit of truth.” Making use of its poetic license, the movie invented a thrilling effort by the Iranians to catch the escaping diplomats’ plane as it taxied down the runway for takeoff.

In that same spirit, the spirit of the free memoir, my own story in Girl Rearing begins, “I was born in an alley.” I did not write, “I felt like I had been born in an alley,” which would have been more factual, but less satisfying, the impact of the sentence diminished by the qualification. I was not born in an alley, but that’s what the story of my birth felt like. Nothing better captured the truth of my situation in my family. The alley, its poetics of space, was where my story began.


The Things We Carry

Class assignment: Take an inventory of your bag, pick three telling items, and let them tell.

1. Pencil

In the back pocket, a green Michigan State University pencil, sharpened at a steep angle, with a fresh eraser the color of a garden pot. It came in a pack of fifty, bound with a thick rubber band, purchased at the campus surplus store, and given to me by a student named Harold. It was our last day together, and pencils were needed for course evaluations on mark-sense forms.

Harold was a Vietnam vet with a slim build who wore wire-rim glasses and held a job on campus. He often brought me small items of the sort needed by those of us who work on paper—erasers, pens, paper clips.

I wasn’t the only recipient of his gifts. He gave little things to his fellow students, too. He baked cookies with macadamia nuts and brought them to class in a special tin. He was always thinking of ways to encourage the others.

One afternoon the class was discussing the writer’s voice. A compelling voice, I said, isn’t always pretty. Behind a strong voice is the character and power of a lived life. It’s a sound you want to listen to, but it doesn’t have to purr. “Like Bob Dylan,” I said.

The students, decades younger than I, groaned. En masse they agreed that Dylan’s voice stank. Once they got up a head of steam, they couldn’t say enough about just how awful it was.

Harold spoke up: “If you think Dylan can’t sing, listen to Nashville Skyline.” The next day he arrived with Nashville Skyline burned on a CD.

Harold’s own voice expressed a self-deprecating humor with the softness of a dove.

“You walk into the room with a pencil in your hand,” sang Dylan in “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Years later, Harold’s pencils still roll when I pull open the top drawer of my desk.

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2. Chalk

The assignment was to write a poem in imitation of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I wanted students to write their imitations on the blackboard, have them cram together at the front of the room, fitting their lines between others. How stuck we are in our seats! Wedged into little desks hour after hour, looking at screens, while all our energy drains down to our feet. I wanted to get back to basics, to chalk and words, to the slant and length of the letters, the indentations of lines, to scraping the letters onto the blackboard, like a wet, black bough.

I wanted to read the poems out loud again and again, until the students became poets, accustomed to hearing poets’ voices in a classroom, speaking their poems—to fill the boards with the electric colored words, and to leave them there for those who came next.

My plan required colored chalk, so I went to Office Max. I found the stubby kind for sidewalks, but not the thinner sticks that are easier to manipulate. After searching in vain, I located a clerk and asked where I might find chalk.

“Chalk,” he said, as if dimly trying to recall his days in second grade. He led me to an aisle I had already searched, and examined the shelves, filled with the accoutrements of digital techno-wizardry. He soon gave up, pulled his phone from its holster, and called back to the stockroom. Another clerk came out to help.

“This lady is looking for chalk. Do we have any?”

“We don’t carry much chalk anymore. People aren’t using it because, you know, PowerPoints and whiteboards,” the second clerk said. He walked me back to another aisle I had already scoured and pointed to a small, solitary box hanging from a display hook. The box was empty. Someone had stolen the chalk.

“I’ll check the storeroom,” he said.

I looked at Pilot V5 fine-point pens for a long time. At last the clerk reemerged, carrying the jewel in the Office Max firmament—a tiny box of chalk.

“It’s the last,” he said, “the very last.”

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 3. Book

Wild is Cheryl Strayed’s story of saving herself from addiction and despair by hiking a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. In preparation she stuffs her backpack, which she calls Monster, with thirteen books, including four of my own favorites: The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor, and Dubliners by James Joyce. After finishing a book she burns it, shrinking the Monster on her back.

But the Dream she carries all the way to the end, reading the poem “Power” at night like a prayer (“her wounds,” says Rich of Marie Curie, “came from the same source as her power”).

Cheryl carries the Dream all the way because she cannot reach the end of her venture empty-handed. Her bag must not be exhausted. There must be something to find at the conclusion, something to discover, the journey’s revelation and truth, the truth of her story of rescue, the conversion of wound to power: a book.

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Raylan! Raylan, Come Back! Mother Wants You!

The sixth and final season of Justified has begun. I’m not happy about it. The final part, that is.

The show’s creators say they’re breaking it off because they don’t want to overstay their welcome. I say take your shoes off, stay as long as you like. The creators say they don’t want to repeat old tricks. If they don’t make new episodes, I’ll watch the old ones. What do I care if they repeat a few tricks?

But like it or not, the producers have made their decision, and I’m left with wondering how Justified will end. How will the battle between U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and his childhood friend turned criminal, Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins), be resolved? Raylan chose the law, Boyd chose to blow things up, but the line that separates them is thin. They are pitted against one another, yet they often join forces against a shared enemy.

There are women involved, of course. There’s Ava (Joelle Carter), who had a romance with Raylan and then took up with Boyd. She’s going to be pivotal in the resolution to come, whatever it is. Raylan might join his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and his baby daughter in Florida after he completes his last task—put Boyd Crowder behind bars.

Catching Boyd may mean Raylan gets himself killed. It’s hard to imagine Boyd going down without pulling Raylan with him. The question for this last season is Who will get out of Harlan alive? Many viewers seem to want a shoot-out, a final duel between Raylan and Boyd. Many believe it will be Raylan whose luck runs out, as his past wrongs catch up to him.

What are the possible resolutions of the plot?

  1. Raylan puts Boyd in prison with help from Ava, or Boyd is killed, maybe hoist with his own petard. Then what? Raylan could ride out of Harlan and settle down with Winona. But this can’t be. For one thing, I don’t want Boyd to get caught in one of his own blasts, even if poetic justice would be done. And we haven’t seen anything of Winona lately except on Skype. She can’t hold her own against the claims of the flesh-and-blood characters. And really, is Raylan going to start changing diapers?
  2. Boyd kills Raylan, and he and Ava head off into a fresh start. Can’t get invested in that one either. I don’t want Raylan buried in a plot out back of his father’s house. And redemption for Boyd after all the killing and blowing shit up? Can’t see the show giving him the last word.
  3. Ava sets up a deal in which she gets rid of both men and takes over as queen of Harlan County. There’s some justice in this scenario. Both men have used her for their own purposes at times. But would the show end pleasingly with such a bitter tableau? I don’t think so.
  4. Raylan and Boyd kill each other, and Ava dies too. This is a variant on number 3, except no one gets out of Harlan alive. As for the men, one can’t live without the other, just like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty going over the falls together. This may be the actual conclusion. It stays true to the story lines of the five seasons beforehand, and to a core story—how their fathers doomed Raylan and Boyd.

I don’t like any of these endings.

Here’s what I want. I want Raylan and Boyd to live. The show must end, but the characters don’t have to. They must depart Harlan after all the harm they’ve done. I accept that. But if the show wanted me to take seriously a domestic future for either man, the writers had to do a whole lot more with Winona and Ava. The screen goes blank when I imagine Raylan or Boyd in some kind of home life, even with a half-empty bottle of bourbon on the table.

What if we look to the law of genre for help? Justified is a late western. Raylan’s a marshal and wears a cowboy hat, shoot-outs are part of his job description, and Harlan is the law’s frontier, a modern-day Dodge City. So maybe the final scenes in iconic westerns will lead us to the right conclusion.

There’s John Wayne framed by the doorway at the end of The Searchers, restless and alone, but with a measure of peace that he has won by completing his quest. There’s Paul Newman and Robert Redford in freeze frame in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, seconds before their death, in their own way as immortal as figures on a Grecian urn.

Justified needs a combination of these, a mash-up of restless motion without satisfaction. I think we need to add another western model, Shane.

Shane picked up the gun he had vowed to holster forever, rode into town, and killed the hit man and every other bad guy. He made the town safe but killed his last chance for domestic companionship and peace. His brand is violence. He must ride into the mountains, alone. I am the kid who ran after him, calling, Mother wants you . . . Shane, come back.

That’s how it must end, Raylan and Boyd, in eternal, restless wandering, but together, moving into the fog of an uncertain future.

Or is there a more satisfying outcome I haven’t thought of?

No matter how it ends, I’ll mourn Justified. The hills of Harlan County will echo with Raylan! Raylan, come back! Mother wants you!

Making a Book Trailer (10): Conclude with Music

Music on the sound track or not? That was the last major decision to be made on the Companion trailer, although the preparations required to make it took months.

I briefly considered commissioning a score, but there are no composers among my friends or colleagues who might donate time and talent, and I had no budget to hire someone at market rates. That meant using extant music. But music of what sort, and of what century?

My first thought was premodern classical music, which would allow us to avoid legal barriers. I do have a friend who’s a professional pianist. He was willing to record the chosen piece, and that way we’d avoid problems of copyright.

A search for the right music, however, did not turn up good prospects. The works that Richard and I listened to would, in the trailer, sound rarified, highbrow, and stuffy. I wanted quiet exposition, lament, and resolution, not a requiem for a fallen giant.

An example is Bach, who was at the top of our list, since Joel played his keyboard music on the harpsichord (see the entry “Manhattan” in the Companion). Despite his varied output, however, Bach wasn’t right. The controlled passion, onward drive, and profundity that make him the composer of choice for movies from The English Patient to The Beast with Five Fingers (now there’s a trailer with gusto) were not in the mood we hoped to create.

By chance, however, Bach did lead us to the right music. After we heard the St. Matthew Passion performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale two years ago, Richard signed up to receive the Chorale’s promotional emails. On a recent program appeared a contemporary composer not familiar to us, Nico Muhly.

Having listened to some of his compositions, Richard sent me a link to “A Hudson Cycle,” a piece for solo piano about three and a half minutes long. He liked its quiet forward motion against restraints, and thought it would bring pace to the trailer. I was unsure at first, but as I listened more, the music grew on me. Reading about the composer, I was surprised by his youth (born 1981) and pleased to learn that his father is a documentary filmmaker, like Pillai. After a hiatus of a couple of weeks, I listened again to the piece and announced, “It’s perfect.”

In the meantime Richard had emailed an address on the composer’s website, asking about purchasing a license. Somewhat to our surprise, an answer came back from the St Rose Music Publishing saying yes to a two-year license, and at a reasonable cost.

We still weren’t sure we’d use the piece, but if we did, we wanted the trailer to have a longer life. Richard wrote back to St Rose:

We are hoping that the trailer will be a work of permanent value (to its creators, if no one else!). It would be unfortunate to lose the ability to present it after two years. Would it be possible to include in the agreement an option on our part to purchase a permanent license after the initial two years?

No response came for week, for two weeks, three weeks. Richard called St Rose and left a voice mail. No response. What had happened? Had our efforts at negotiation turned off the professionals on the other end?

We needed to find another option. Wandering around YouTube, Richard chanced upon another name new to us, the tragic Lhasa de Sela. How stunning “Love Came Here” would sound under the credits! This was the sort of thing movies did a lot of—a jumpy number as the credits roll.

But we wanted music for the body of the trailer, not just the credits, and Lhasa’s strong vocal personality would clash with, maybe overwhelm, the narration. We couldn’t afford to pay for two pieces of music, and so our Lhasa craze faded.

And then St Rose emailed, offering a license of five years. We had our preferred musical option back on the table.

When the editing was almost complete, the time came to make a decision on the music. The various members of Team Trailer had different opinions. Pillai seemed to believe that the whole was already complete, that the trailer should should stay “dry” (so goes the lingo). Richard was music’s main advocate. He had invested effort in finding the right work and obtaining a license, so I was inclined to defer to his wish to experiment with it on the soundtrack. Pillai was quite willing give it a try.

The trailer has two halves, four segments, divided by fades to black. To put things schematically, the first two segments are Joel’s history and his death, the second two my response and an affirmation. Pillai proposed starting the music with the second half.

Richard jumped on this idea and emailed Pillai:

It occurred to me to begin the music at the same spot you suggested, after the blackout following “And on that day he died.” It would thus represent movement forward in the aftermath.

The music could play continuously below whatever other sounds occur, and end with the word “companion,” the last word of the narration.

Pillai’s response:

I do feel the same way about the music as you do—using it after the bathroom sequence, starting it during the fadeout and the sequence beginning with the egg coddler, and layering it till the end.

When Richard and I visited the lab to watch the version with music, however, Pillai and Drew had placed it much later. The trailer concludes with a few seconds of the river rippling in the sun, a dissolve to the book cover, and then the credits. The music began with the rippling water.

What had changed Pillai’s mind? The piece had too much momentum, he said, and made the trailer “too strong.” The very quality in the music that had appealed to Richard—its ready pace—clashed with the rhythm of the trailer prior to its final scenes.

Yet the music was right for the resolution of the story. It smooths out and unites the concluding sequence, Pillai commented. Although some of us handle silences well, he said, much of the audience would be carried along by the music. In the end there’s “a kind of redemption,” and the music bears this feeling forward.

The music was in.

Still there were fine adjustments to make. Fade in with “the sparrows were up and swooping”? No, the birds sing in a different key. Accompany “the sun is up,” or join “ablaze with light”? Fade in how fast, and fade out how slow? We chose precisely how the musical river would flow, and on what slope.

Only after all my own decisions on the music were made did I read Daniel Johnson’s analysis of “A Hudson Cycle”:

The primary rhythmic figure—a restless polyrhythm of two beats in the right hand for every three in the left—should recall the onward rush of the titular river, which very much represents “home” for the composer. (There it is, out his window.) … its relentless rhythms propel the piece as a river of sound, dark and liquid.

Here ends this series of posts on the making of a book trailer. Here exit the river (there it is, out my window), the river house, the stamps and coddler and things, the bon creative crew, Pillai, Tim, and Drew, and the “unknown man whom we knew.”

The trailer is made.

Making a Book Trailer (7): Recording My Voice; or, The Goldilocks Script

Should a trained actress read the voice-over, or should I narrate the script myself? That was the question we needed to answer before recording the oral story in the trailer. A professional like my friend Rose Portillo would certainly give a better reading than I, more polished and more detailed. My untrained voice would exhibit deficiencies in timbre, control, and emotional tone. At the same time, there were advantages to its flaws, strengths in its weaknesses, rooted in the nature of the trailer.

We were not in pursuit of a commercially smooth product starring a glossy persona. Companion to an Untold Story is nonfiction. Though singular in structure, it is factual and based in my personal point of view. Pillai’s orientation in filmmaking is likewise documentary, and while the trailer isn’t a documentary, it borrows a style from lyric films like Bresson’s Pickpocket and Malick’s Tree of Life and applies it to nonfiction. An actress reading the voice-over would push the trailer toward fiction, toward simulation and performance. The flaws in my voice are at least my flaws, and they connect directly to the real struggles presented in the Companion.

So the rationale for hearing my voice on the trailer seemed compelling, and that was the option we chose.

When the filming of visuals was almost complete, it was time to record the narration. On another hot, humid day in a parched summer, Pillai came to the river house for that purpose, bringing with him Drew Seymour, the trailer’s editor, who was to capture bird sounds while Pillai worked with me.

I confess that I dreaded this recording session. My voice—the material instrument and the symbol of self—has a tangled history, which I’ve written about in Girl Rearing. Let’s just say that, early in life, some damage was done to my voice, and that it troubles me. Not all the sounds that birds make are beautiful and pleasing, yet I accept them with a generosity I cannot grant myself.

We recorded the narration at the river house because in that environment my voice would sound more natural than in a studio. The technical results were, I think, good—the spoken words in the trailer are clear and alive. This is so even though sound was the most gremlinized part of the whole project (on that subject, see the coming post on editing). But getting these results required a passage through a crisis caused by old baggage I carried and couldn’t put down.

The green bench

Pillai positioned me on the low green bench facing the fire ring and the river behind that, with the house at my back. He and Drew set up their equipment, which, as I had discovered in prior visits, takes a long time. Everything has to be just right, and there’s always something missing or not working properly. Improvisations have to be made. The sun was bright, beating down on the white sheets of paper I held before me, bleaching out the words and glaring back at my face. My neck felt hot, and I sweated.

When the equipment was ready, Pillai said, “Imagine you are talking to someone here before you. You are trying to explain to them what happened.” He didn’t want me to be reading a script. He wanted intimacy, as if I were telling an old friend about a disturbing experience.

But, of course, I was reading a script: “The Companion is about the suicide of my friend Joel …” Neither Drew nor Pillai, absorbed in technical tasks, betrayed a reaction to my disturbing experience. No one nodded in understanding or said sympathetically, “I see” or “My, that’s terrible!” I was manufacturing a voice and mood in an artificial situation. I could feel the pulse in my throat, in my face, the strain in my posture and gestures. I hurried ahead, wanting the discomfort to end.

Slow down, pause, Pillai prompted gently. The more he urged me to take it easy, the tighter I got. And that is an old story. Coaxing me to relax makes me strain harder. It’s comical, really, though none of us around the fire ring was laughing.

After several rough efforts, we took a break and marched upstairs to watch the results on the TV in our bedroom.

The person who appeared on screen wasn’t me. She didn’t match my imago, my air-brushed photo. The blasting light and heat hadn’t been flattering, let me say that. My face was slick with perspiration, and my hair stuck to my head like cooked spaghetti thrown against a wall. Every imperfection was magnified. I twitched—my eyes, my lips. I tossed my hands out like fishing line and reeled them back in. Who knew my mouth was so small and that, when uncomfortable, I did little grimaces with it. Could I not open my mouth and speak like a regular person? Not to mention the sound of my voice.

I was not a welcoming presence, gathering listeners round to hear the story of my friend. Too much quivering emotion—too pained and serious, too tortured. No one listening to me would want to read my book!

As the playback continued, I left the bedroom to stand in the hallway. I could still hear my voice, but at least I had escaped my face. Suddenly I returned to the room and in a rather hysterical tone proclaimed, “Under no circumstances should these images work their way into the trailer!” Pillai looked startled by my outburst.

Directors are more than technicians. Directors have to handle the emotional tempests of their performers, and Pillai wisely realized that one way to get control was to fix problems with the script. It was now some seven minutes long, and I had stumbled over passages that looked great on the page but, spoken aloud, were too long or literary. We needed more direct expression, turning back toward the first version of the script.

The four of us, Pillai, Drew, Richard, and I, worked away, trimming passages that were empty, clumsy, or airy: “Joel worked as a substitute teacher in a school district south of San Francisco, riding on the lip of indigence just ahead of flat broke.” The verbal phrase that begins with riding was too ornate. Cut it.

“We did not see the subtext beneath Joel’s extraordinary behavior, but I ask myself what we would have done if we had.” Subtext was professor talk. Cut the sentence.

“When almost nothing was left in Joel’s apartment, he sent the remainder to me. On November 17, a package arrived.” The precise date in November is, in the Companion, part of a detailed exposition that allows the reader to understand events and actions. In the script it was a fossil. Cut it.

The red chair

After much more such editing, we went back outside. This time Pillai sat me down in a red chair on the back deck. Here we made several more recordings. I felt dizzy from the heat and stress, but I did better. Do directors sometimes break actors down, doing a scene over and over to get what they want? That was Bresson’s method, I recalled.

The material of the script remained sad and painful. There was no way to make it easier to say or hear, no way to add lightness. I felt exposed—my emotions displayed for everyone to see. My impulse was to pull back, to spare myself.

We took another break, and Richard and I talked about my complicated feelings, the need to express feeling without suffocating under it. “You need to be both personal and impersonal,” Richard suggested. “Like the book.”

Sure. No problem. How much does Meryl Streep charge for a short voice-over?

Back we went to my performance. It was late in the afternoon now and Pillai wanted to record inside to try a different quality of sound. We set up in the dining room, Pillai directly in front of me with his camera.

The black chair

I realized that the slow pace and the pauses made me sound weary and sad. I had too much time to think. So in the last takes I picked up the pace. I wouldn’t call it brisk, but it was faster and cleaner. I started improvising—dropping certain parts, or just a word here and there. I felt my voice change. I no longer worried about speaking into the microphone. I started to explain myself to a friend.

By the final take we had cut the time of narration roughly in half. I had worked weeks on the script, adding fabric, building the length from two minutes to seven or eight minutes, as if sewing an ornate costume. Then in an afternoon we stripped its sleeves and skirts, and it was much more attractive.

Too short, too long, just right. Like Goldilocks finding a chair that fit her.

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.”

Making a Book Trailer (3): Finding New Images

Pillai’s first ideas about the trailer and the script were derived from reading Companion to an Untold Story and from our discussions. He hadn’t yet visited my house, which sits above the Red Cedar River—a shallow creek in a summer of drought—within a grove of maples and oaks. Cedar-sided and stained a rustic red, the river house is wide but not deep, its aspect dominated by windows. From inside, in whichever direction you look, you look out on water or woods.

Before visiting the house to check out its possibilities for filming, Pillai had contemplated various scenarios, as I said in a previous post. What he saw at the house changed his thinking and set him on a path that determined the evolution of the trailer. Gone was the idea of filming me driving a car and hitting a boy. In this environment, Pillai was moved by the flow of the river, the experience of light, the sun striking and shifting through the tall trees, the window-framed views. He wrote: “It is inspiring to think of the visuals for our trailer because of the spacious windows and the descending landscape, and the play of light and shadow because of the greenery around, and the stream of water.”

Early in our discussions Pillai had recommended I watch some films by Robert Bresson. I couldn’t bear to see the cruelties done to the donkey—O black beauty!—in Au Hasard Balthazar, but I did watch Pickpocket, about a man driven by a self-destructive compulsion to steal. Bresson builds his story out of images of things: hands, doors, door knobs, the stairs ascending to the man’s room, the movements of a wallet that is spotted, fingered, nabbed, lifted, shifted, hidden, transferred, emptied, dropped, abandoned, dead.

Our trailer would likewise tell its story through views of things. Pillai commented, “The more I think of the narration, the more I think of a minimalist Bressonian style as far as the visuals and the voice-over are concerned—music could be sparse and used for simulating/complimenting affective sound effects, like the occasional chirping of the birds, the sound of the flowing stream or the wind bristling through the leaves, or fluttering of the pages/papers, as you rightly suggested. [In my first version of the script, a breeze ruffles the papers on a desk.] In a Robert Bresson / Terence Malick style we can use the sounds, apart from the main voiceover, minimally so that they are noticed.”

At the time I had no good sense of how such a visual and auditory style would be realized. While I had given up the idea that my script would prescribe what scenes would be filmed, I still had a rather literal notion of transferring an image from page to screen. Words about birds and bottles, I thought, would coordinate with visuals of birds and bottles, an assumption that led to some anxiety on my part. We had discussed filming in a bathroom, for example, since that is the room in which Joel died, but the bathrooms in my house bear no resemblance to the one described in the Companion: “Viewless, bookless, laid with cold linoleum, at once the most ritualistic and impersonal room in the apartment, stripped down to its dull tiles …”

In the process of filming, however, we found—Pillai found—new objects, ones not mentioned in the book, to carry the trailer’s feelings and themes. We weren’t going to rattle and roll a bottle down the hill; there was already a river flowing downward for us. Joel’s cherished roses, an iterated image in the book of love and desire, don’t grow in the filtered sunlight that comes down through the forest around my house. But I had red geraniums, red flower pots, and lots of red food coloring, which Pillai in filming would set in contrast to the cold purity of water running down the sides of my shower and down the drain.

A swing in my backyard that hangs on a single rope from a high branch suggested children to Pillai, for Joel was a teacher, involved in their education and play. Two lawn chairs, drawn next to one another, implied my friendship with Joel but, empty and disused, also expressed his loss and absence. An overturned canoe across the river hinted at capsize and suicide.

I learned an art of visual improvisation from the director, who, able to imagine a scene from the book by mining the materials at hand, was gifted in serendipity, in finding new images to convey the emotional terrain of a book that we couldn’t literally film.

I discovered, when we began shooting, just how flexible and accidental filmmaking can be.