By Rodger Jacobs
Trace could smell the desperation on the two men when he walked into the restaurant. A vaporous cloud of wretched hopelessness hung over their table, the detritus of their failed careers taking the form of a black storm front that threatened to explode with violent fury at any moment.
If I can see it, Trace thought, surely their investors can see it, as well as their wives, friends, and their associates in the low-budget film community. Their children can see it. Their bill collectors can sense it. Even their pets probably shied away from them for fear of that loathsome smell wafting from their human frames.
Trace knew that Jack Smalls, sitting to the left of Gray Hubler in the booth at Marie Callender’s, had been living off credit cards and bank loans for two years now. He knew next to nothing about Gray Hubler except for the basic facts: He was a camera operator for “Gunsmoke” in the Sixties and then he gravitated toward the low-budget indie market, slaving as director of photography on over 200 instantly forgettable pieces of schlock with laughable titles like “Mistress Dracula’s Blood Orgy.”
“That was back in the days when we had drive-ins to take our product,” Gray explained to Trace when they first met a week prior. “Today all of the low-budget stuff is direct to video. I was in Blockbuster the other day and saw five of my movies on the shelves, still renting after all this time.”
Somehow Smalls and Hubler had parasitically attached themselves to “a group of Beverly Hills investors” who wanted to invest in a package of $300,000 horror films.
“It’s real money,” Jack told Trace.
Trace was three weeks behind on his rent at the hotel. Smalls and Hubler were offering him $500 against $7,500 for a horror screenplay that they could take to their investors for a greenlight. First, however, Trace had to write a treatment – a concise synopsis of the story and all of its dramatic beats – before they could approve the concept and send him away with a check for $500 in his briefcase and a momentary reprieve from the wolves howling at the door.
Hubler was leaning heavily toward a concept of his own.
“A vampire story set in a concentration camp,” Hubler suggested to Trace. “That way we get two horror elements in one: the vampire and the horror of the concentration camp.”
Smalls nodded his head in eager agreement. He always deferred to Hubler.
“So, you’re thinking ‘Stalag 17’ meets ‘Dracula’?” Trace offered.
“Exactly! But with less of the humor of ‘Stalag 17’.” Hubler beamed and turned to Smalls. “You’re right. This guy’s good.”
Trace wanted to crawl under the table but as long as that $500 lure was in front of him he was going to stay put. A writer for hire never walks away from a job prospect until the money fails to materialize.
Jack Smalls took a long swallow of his iced tea and leaned forward excitedly.
“This is really great because the victims of the vampire can be the camp guards. The audience will be all – ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ – to see them get killed.”
There were practical reasons that Hubler and Smalls were sold on ‘Stalag Dracula.’ Hubler had access to an affordable location, an abandoned camp for wayward youth on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert. Further, Hubler’s biggest box office smashes had been sex and blood soaked vampire tales.
This means that Hubler is riding his own coattails, Trace calculated, banking on his past successes to compel those Beverly Hills investors to scribble out a check for three hundred grand. It didn’t feel right. It never did with guys like this. It suddenly struck Trace as funny that the hustle and con of the low-budget horror market seemed to be a man’s game. One rarely met women down this dark alley in the slums of the film industry. Women seem to have more sense than to dick around with a waste of film that was only going to net them a few grand in the long run. Give a woman a shot at producing a motion picture and she wants to make the next “Terms of Endearment”, not “Stalag Dracula.”
Trace sat on the edge of his bed that evening and cleaned his gun while watching an old VHS of “Stalag 17” for inspiration. William Holden in his prime, before the ravages of drink transformed his face into a Dorian Gray-like visage of cruel mockery. The critics and film historians said the former matinee idol had developed “character” in his rugged face as he grew older but what he really developed was a fondness for alcoholic binges that was written in the crags and crevasses and wrinkles and the deep-set hollow of his eyes.
Trace spent the next two days writing the movie treatment, enticed by the promise of that check for $500, invigorated by the prospect of paying his rent and having one less financial monster looming behind the door.
The story was pure simplicity: Gestapo High Command is frightened by a series of brutal murders at one of their POW camps for captured American officers. Someone or something is viciously and systematically murdering the camp guards, draining their corpulent Germanic bodies of blood. The buzz going around the camp is that a vampire is responsible for the heinous slaughter so an undercover agent is sent in to investigate.
“Not just any undercover man,” Trace explained to Hubler and Smalls when they met after the treatment was complete. “This guy is a descendant of the great vampire slayer Van Helsing. He knows his blood-sucking fiends.”
As soon as those words slipped from Trace’s lips, the deal was dead.
“Universal released that ‘Van Helsing’ movie last summer and it absolutely bombed,” Hubler said.
Jack Smalls nodded his assent and sipped his iced tea.
“So, we change it from Van Helsing to just any old vampire killer,” Trace offered, feeling the $500 floating away into the ether – or into that black cloud over the heads of Smalls and Hubler.
Hubler shook his head vigorously. “No. You set it up too well. It really, really works. This movie can’t be done without Van Helsing and no one will touch anything with those two words in it right now.”
“It’s my treatment,” Trace argued. “I can rewrite it to be anything I want. Look, guys, we’re just in the embryonic stage of development here.”
Smalls and Hubler exchanged a glance across the table. Trace felt betrayed. He had known Smalls for twenty-seven years and expected some kind of tip off if this was going to be yet another low-budget film-making jerk off session.
“Do you have any other ideas?” Hubler asked.
“Maybe a werewolf story? I was involved in ‘The Howling’, you know.”
“And what if we change it from a concentration camp to just a regular prison?” Smalls chimed in. “A concentration camp is too bleak and dark.”
Trace leaned back in his chair, took a long and thoughtful pause as he sipped his coffee, and wished that he were anywhere else but here.
“Try this on for size,” he pitched. “A super hero concept. A prison on the outskirts of the desert but not just any prison. This is a high security prison that holds all of the world’s most dangerous super villains -- ”
Hubler leaned forward in his chair. “I’m liking this.”
Smalls nodded his head.
“—and someone is killing the super villains, someone or something within the prison walls,” Trace continued. “And so a retired super hero, a man who has done battle at one time or another with all of these super villains, is sent in to find out who is killing the bad guys. After all, society needs its villains in order to function, to maintain social order.”
There was radiant light in Gray Hubler’s eyes. The cloud was lifting.
“This is good. We may not have to go the direct to video route on this one. We might be able to get matching funding from the Sci-Fi Channel on this and do it for a million instead of three hundred thousand.”
When Trace returned home one hour later – after much animated banter with Hubler and Smalls about the “powers” of the super villains – there was a Three Day Notice To Pay Rent Or Quit affixed to the door of his Extended Stays hotel room.
There was no way Trace could muster the creativity and the energy to write yet another speculative treatment for free in three days; in fact, Jack had said at the end of the meeting that they wouldn’t be able to meet Trace until later next week.
He thought about taking a cab into Hollywood and getting hammered at The Drunkard Duck, a favorite hangout of writers for decades. It was rumored that Nathanael West and Scott Fitzgerald bent their elbows at the plush bar when they, too, were trying to catch a ride on the Hollywood merry-go-round. But he didn’t need the inspiration of the ghosts of West and Fitzgerald to write the treatment because he had already decided that he wasn’t going to do it. There would be no immediate gain from writing it.
“Congratulations,” he muttered as he poured a dose of Black Velvet into a shot glass emblazoned with the words HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD. “You just wasted two days of your life.”
This was the predicament he always found himself in: How does one balance possible career advancement against immediate needs? And how much career advancement can be wrestled from penning the screenplay for a low-budget horror film, even one with super heroes and super villains in it?
This was a game better and more enthusiastically played by people much younger than Trace. He was 47-years old and twice divorced with a 12-year old daughter he rarely saw or spoke to. He had worked as a professional writer for over a decade but now the jobs were getting fewer and further between and he had no other bankable or reliable skills except as a producer of feature documentaries for television and theatrical release. The documentary gigs, though, took a year or more to complete and only paid on the back end. He published a book, “Northfield Through A Haze”, an opium-laced recounting of the final days of the James-Younger Gang, but the quarterly royalties weren’t enough to put even a dent in his staggering deficit.
Trace downed the shot of smooth Canadian whiskey, poured another, and moved to the south-facing balcony of his fifth floor hotel room. Night had long fallen and the lights of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine hummed in the distance. The Dodgers were in a home stand against the San Francisco Giants that evening.
There was a thundering boom like incoming artillery or mortar fire and then the night sky over Chavez Ravine lit up in a dazzling array of color. Another boom followed and the fireworks display commenced in full.
The Dodgers must have won, Trace thought.
He carried the shot glass and bottle of Black Velvet to the balcony and leaned against the iron railing. The sky continued to crackle and pop and burst with color for a full thirty minutes while Trace observed with dispassionate interest.
When the fireworks finally subsided a noxious smell lingered in the air above the city, a scent not unlike the odor of crackling desperation.