The man was already a legend at forty.
Carter T. Bloom, director of nineteen of the most critically acclaimed, commercially successful motion pictures of all time, walked on to the set of what was going to be his twentieth masterpiece.
Walked? Walked doesn’t begin to describe how this man moved! He was a one-man royal parade, stopping traffic and commanding attention, but with the prowl of a wolf, his heightened senses soaking in the environment. With every step, giant waves of energy pulsed through the space; the peaks made of respect and the troughs made of fear.
The gaffers and the best boys and the grips all stopped what they were doing and watched this giant of a man cut the expansive set into equal halves. The tap-tap-tap of his black wood cane rhythmically punctured the silence of the room as he glided through it, his black trench coat flowing out behind him like a macabre wedding train with his tall top hat a distinctive crown on his confident head.
He reached the middle of the set and stood in front of his chair, his assistant handing him a fresh coffee and the day’s script. Wordlessly, he looked around the room to the heads of each of the departments. A nod from the Director of Photography, a nod from Lighting, a sweaty, nervous shake of the head from Sound.
The director handed back the script and the coffee and stalked across to the meek sound engineer, now visibly shaking as he tried to prepare the mixing desk, his brown beard damp with sweat, his shoulder-length hair clinging to his reddening face. Upon reaching this wreck of a man, Bloom slowly folded his arms, holding his cane under his armpit as if he had been stabbed by the sword of his enemy. The engineer worked rapidly, pulling out and reconnecting cables, setting dials and switches until finally, just as the director began to draw out his arm, the level meters lit up with the reds and greens of Christmas tree lights and the engineer spun his head around and nodded frantically.
The director stared at the sweating engineer with wispy blue eyes with specs of white that seemed to morph and change like the clouds of a hurricane around the calm centre of his pupil. He didn’t blink.
A split second before the poor man crumpled into a weeping heap on the floor under the weight of the gaze, Bloom spun on his heels and strode back to his chair in the middle of the soundstage. The engineer slumped down into the rolling office chair by the mixing desk, let out a deep sigh and rubbed his face with his hands.
Cable Bateman—the world’s most famous actor— stood with the rest of the cast and the director of photography and watched Bloom return like they were watching a bear—with equal parts fascination and fear—wanting to see the magnificent creature but poised and ready to run at a moment’s notice.
Seated with his coffee and script, Bloom nodded a nod that was so quick and so tiny that one of their slow-motion high-resolution cameras would have struggled to capture it. But this crew had been here before. They knew the man and they knew the mission and, like a finely tuned automobile, the engine of the room started with a satisfying roar and filming began.
The actors committed to their roles without insecurity or jealousy; the camerapeople sweated over every tiny shadow and speck on screen; and the sound engineer—now recovered—closed his eyes and immersed himself in the sound waves coming through his large ear-enclosing headphones.
The room was a perfectly tuned mechanical force with each department anticipating the needs of the machine. The set designer would reach out for a handbag or a handgun and, before their arms had finished extending, a prop hand would be there. An actor would turn from accidentally ripping a seam and find a seamstress from wardrobe kneeling at her feet, already threading a needle. The dolly grips would glide through the space laying track so smoothly and precisely it was like they were laying a royal dinner service.
In the middle of this flowing river of activity, a side door opened and a tall, skinny man with unwieldy brown hair and a long nose on his boyish face slipped onto the set. He walked up behind another young man, no more than eighteen years old, who was watching the action carefully from the side.
“Excuse me, my name’s Benjamin Ley-Etch,” said Benjamin Leech, looking down his impressive nose at the young man.
“Shhhh,” said the young man with confident authority, remaining fixated on the action. “Can’t you see we’re filming?”
“My apologies,” said Benjamin, put out by the boy’s tone. “It’s my first day here. I’m the new assistant to Carter T. Bloom.”
This got the young man’s attention and he turned to look at this stranger with his exquisitely manicured beard, his knitted blue cardigan, and his tie knotted with a double-Windsor. “Mr Bloom already has an assistant,” he said. “Amanda’s her name. Been with him for fourteen years now.”
Leech adjusted his lensless glasses. “I assure you, sir, that I know my business here.”
The boy rolled his eyes. “Alright, let me check.”
As the boy ran off to the centre of the room, Leech took in the scene in front of him, carefully studying how this great man worked. Despite himself, he was impressed at the fluidity of motion, a carefully controlled tornado of effort with this tall, black-clad figure seated calmly in the centre, directing the chaos around him, seemingly with no more than head movements and arm gestures.
Still, it looked pretentious to Leech, like a man not fully in charge, blinded by his own artistic indulgences. When Leech finally ran his own set, it would not be in such a ridiculously flamboyant way.
His studies were interrupted when the boy came back with a young woman in tow, wearing a headset over her short red hair that framed a round face and a very serious expression.
“Mr…?” She asked in lieu of introduction.
“Ley-etch,” said Leech.
She flipped over a few pages of the clipboard she carried and, finding the sheet she was looking for, scanned down the list. “Ley-etch. ley-etch. No one with that name here. Are you sure you’ve got the right soundstage?”
Leech grabbed the list out of her hands.
“Hey!” she said.
“There.” He said, finding his name and pointing at it as he handed it back to her.
She eyed him carefully, then looked where he was pointing.
“Oh,” she said, her eyes angry slits, the words dripping with contempt. “Leech.”
“I assure you, my dear, it is Ley-etch. I am the new assistant to Carter T. Bloom.”
She let out a short, mirthless laugh. “Hardly. You’re my new assistant. And only while Holly’s away. My name’s Amanda and you’re already late. You’re lucky He doesn’t know you exist yet or you wouldn’t be back tomorrow. Follow me.”
The assistant turned and walked away before Leech could protest and, after a angry glance at the smirking young man, stormed off behind her.
Bloom was leaning in close to a brilliantly polished black German car that stood in a carefully reconstructed auto repair shop in the centre of the set. Alongside him was a junior electrician, a young woman with closely cropped black hair and big green eyes, who was fiddling with the car door and explaining something in rapid, halting sentences.
Amanda stopped a few feet away and threw up a hand, forcing Leech to stop suddenly behind her.
Leech loudly protested her rudeness which caused the director to turn and glare at the source of the noise. Everyone around him stopped and turned to glare with him.
The look in the director’s eyes was fierce. It was a look that could stop an army in its tracks and make them turn around and head home, all the while apologising for the inconvenience caused and clearing up their mess on the way out.
Leech shut up immediately, unable to do otherwise under such a gaze, but Amanda still turned to shush him anyway as Bloom returned to the electrician and, with a simple hand gesture, invited her to continue.
The nervous electrician finished explaining.
There was a long pause.
Finally, the director nodded once, then got up and walked back to his chair.
The electrician’s face exploded with a huge smile, her eyes wet with joy.
“Oh wow,” she whispered to Leech because there was no one else and she couldn’t let it pass. “Did you see that? Lucky girl.”
She hurried over to Bloom. On his way to follow her, Leech sneaked a look at the car door, stroking his dark beard as he examined it. There was a small metallic snake poking out of a tiny hole in the interior panel of the door that projected a weak, soft light upwards.
Confused, he headed over to Bloom just as Amanda was introducing him.
“This is Benjamin Leech—”
“Sorry, ‘Ley-etch’,” she said, rolling her eyes as an apology to Bloom. “He’s my new assistant.”
Leech offered out his hand. Bloom looked at it without emotion and made no attempt to accept it. Leech withdrew it, self-consciously rubbing his trouser leg with it as if it had just been spat on. “It’s an honour to meet you, Carter—” Amanda winced— “but I believe there has been some sort of mixup. You see, my brother-in-law works for the studio and set this up and he said that I was due to be your assistant, not your assistant’s assistant. I have some ideas about directing that might be very valuable to you and I believe we could work well together.”
Bloom raised a questioning eyebrow as Amanda blushed. “Now, I think Mr Bloom has everything in order,” she said through gritted teeth, grabbing Leech’s arm and leading him off. “Come on. There’s some things I need you to go and fetch. From very, very far away.”
Bloom was a maestro!
The music of production swirled and spun and sang around him, his every gesture conducting the great symphony, his every motion an accent that provided answers to the questions of his orchestra. Throughout this great movement, the only notes out of place were the discordant concerns of Leech.
“There’s a conflict between the Key Grip and the AD. Amanda’s struggling to resolve it. Thought you should know.”
Still he moved forward, the vision of his script—only half-formed on paper—took on substance and weight and form. His ideas were given breath, brought to life, encouraged to dance. It would be a masterpiece!
“Amanda says that there’s an issue with lighting that’s going to halt shooting for half a day. Frankly, I don’t think she’s trying too hard. I’m making a call to someone at the studio. I’ll get it sorted for you.”
This movie would be the deepest of dramas, an epic flight through human suffering and triumph, through the valleys of failure and rejection and pain to the great summits of victory and achievement. He drew performances from his actors that they didn’t believe they were capable of, physically pulling them into the greatest roles of their lives.
“Sorry to bother you with this but Amanda needs your input on a contract negotiation with the catering company. Seems she hasn’t delivered something they needed.”
But ultimately it was about love. As he silently cajoled and pleaded with and bargained with and scared the men and women at his command, he felt the love that they felt for their work, for working with him, and poured it back, all of it back and so much more. As the weeks wore on, he slept less and less, obsessed more and more. It was exhilarating and exhausting; rewarding and taxing; beautiful and punishing.
For the twentieth time in his young life, he wondered if he would make it to the end.
On the last day of shooting the interior scenes, Amanda caught up with Leech by craft services. The next day would be the first day on location and she was unusually stressed.
“Have you got today’s pages?” She asked as she adjusted with her headset.
Leech pulled out the papers from his brown leather messenger bag, handing them over.
She grabbed them from him and walked off. Suddenly she paused, turned and rushed back.
“Jesus, Leech. These are tomorrow’s pages!” She said.
Leech prided himself as being a man of opportunity. He believed that he had a gift to spot a good thing when it came his way and exploit it to the fullest. He never missed the signals he believed the universe sent him, so when Amanda realised that they were the wrong pages, the goosebumps of possibility arose on his arms. He hid his joy behind a face of concern.
“Really? Let me see them?”
“Damn it,” she said, checking her watch, “there’s no time to make new copies. This’ll make everything late.”
Summoning the two months actor training he had done three summers earlier, he morphed his face into an expression of horror as he looked them over. “Oh god,” he said, slowly raising one hand to his mouth. “What have I done?”
Amanda was shaking her head as she reached out to take the papers back. “I’m sorry Leech but you’re only four weeks into your probation period. Listen, let me go and and tell him for you. Just slip out quietly and we’ll make sure to give you a good reference.”
“No,” said Leech quietly. “It was my mistake. I’ll go.”
Bloom was sitting in the director’s chair with his eye’s closed. He had formed around him a bubble of stillness that grew with each breath, waiting for the symphony to begin again. As Leech made his way across the room, he noticed the crew unconsciously routing around this growing, invisible space, keeping a respectful distance from the peace that emanated from the centre.
Leech stepped through it without breaking his stride.
Instantly, the director’s eyes were open, the watery blue gaze under the shadow of the top hat attached to him like a fishing line.
Leech coughed. “Excuse me, Mr Bloom. There’s been a bit of a mix up with the day’s pages, I’m afraid. It’s going to take us a little while to get the right ones together. It’s really my fault. When Amanda gave me the list of page numbers yesterday I should have double checked them. I just assumed that she’d been doing this job for so long that she’d never make such a basic mistake. Given her recent performance, though, I should have been more diligent.”
Bloom stared without blinking, expressionless, examining, searching. Leech engaged, refusing to break eye contact, trying to argue and convince and confirm with his own eyes.
A full minute passed.
Bloom nodded once.
“If you’ll excuse me,” said Leech, “I’ll go and get the right pages done. Amanda wishes to assure you that it won’t happen again. She would have told her yourself but, between you and me, I think she was a little afraid.”
Bloom let out a soft sigh and closed his eyes. He had already carried the burden of production for three months and yet there was still so much mountain to climb.
Halfway across the set, as Leech stopped to let a large dining room table complete with a stuck-on vase of flowers pass, he noticed Amanda entering through one of the side doors, talking on her phone, oblivious.
From the centre of the room, a throat was cleared.
In volume, it was no louder than any other man’s. In stature, it passed through the cavernous room like a cry from the Gods. Time stopped. The men carrying the heavy table held it steady as if they were carrying nothing more than a bed sheet. The electrician, leaning off her ladder to adjust a c-clamp on a stage light, froze her contorted pose as if she were a gymnast at the Olympics. The actors on set stood mid gesture, only their eyes moving as htye turned their attention towards the thunderous noise.
Amanda pulled her phone away from her face, which had turned copy paper white.
Bloom raised an arm.
He extended a black gloved hand.
A single shake of his top-hatted head.
The tears were already streaming down her face as she dropped her phone and ran out of the building.
A cloud of red dust bore down on the silver SUV as it wound its way down the desert track to the makeshift parking lot. It skidded to a halt and the monstrous airy mass, finally catching its prey, smothered it with tiny crimson particles.
Leech opened the door of his air-conditioned cocoon. The heat of the midday sun hit him like a boulder. He looked down at his stylish cardigan and, after carefully weighing the options, removed it and threw it back in the car.
“You’re late,” said the Second Assistant Director as Leech arrived on the edge of the set.
“I am aware. I had breakfast meeting with the studio. What did I miss?”
“Nothing major. I thought you were supposed to be with the second unit?”
“I was,” said Leech. “I sent Holly instead. Now that Amanda’s gone, I should really be here with Bloom.”
“Does Mr Bloom know?”
“Not yet. It’s a scheduling thing, way below his concern. I’ll catch up with—”
They were interrupted by a violent scream the came from the centre of the mass of bodies and gear before them.
They looked at each other and listened.
There was another shout.
The Second Assistant Director and the new Director’s Assistant took off. They ran past flight cases and props, hopped over cables and stands and mounts, and pushed passed people with clipboards and headsets to get to the source of the screaming: On the carefully constructed set, next to the same black German car—now beaten and muddy and broken—was Cable Bateman. His perfect face—covered in dirt and dust that had been carefully placed by skilled makeup artists—was turning red from the heat of the sun and the heat of his own rage. He was pacing up and down the set, screaming and gesticulating. Over to one side, a cowering young man in big headphones and a white t-shirt hid behind the thin metal pole he carried, a giant grey furry microphone stuck to one end.
“What the fuck is it with you? You fucking amateur! A boom! You dropped a fucking boom into my shot!” Shouted Bateman, storming back towards him. “Do I come into your studio in the middle of a recording and start prancing about and making noise? Do I?”
The young man, now on the verge of tears, cowered further behind the pole that provided no protection from the star’s wrath. The actor turned away again, then suddenly spun back to unleash another assault: “Do you know how fucking hot it is out here? Do you realise how fucking hard this is? What don’t you get about this?”
The sound engineer, seeing one of his boys in trouble, threw off his own headphones and marched across the set, stepping in between the two. He extended both hands face down in a gesture that pleaded for calm.
“Mr Bateman, our apologies,” he said. “There was a last minute change in the coverage that changed the camera positions. My man was not informed. He was where he thought he should have been. I should have let him know. I’m sorry.”
Cable Bateman batted away the man’s calming gesture as if it were an irritating fly, stepped up to the engineer and waved a thick finger in his bearded face. The man pulled up his hands in protest.
“So, this is your fucking fault, is it?” Bateman turned his blonde-haired head to where he thought the director sat. “Bloom, I want these men—”
But Bloom was not in his chair. Slowly, stealthily, he had made his way towards the scene, unnoticed by everyone, their attention directed to the meltdown of a celebrity. Bateman turned further, looking for the missing director, to find the man in black behind him.
Bloom raised his head, the brim of his top hat revealing the great man’s watery blue eyes, eyes that could go hours without blinking, that shifted and flowed and hypnotised.
“Listen, Mr…Mr Bloom, we really can’t be—” He was mesmerised by the eyes of this strange alchemist that had at once turned all his rage into fear.
Then it happened. A sound that the whole set heard.
When the actor, a shot of courage from the sudden shock, protested with shouts of “Jesus! Do you have any idea who I am?” and “You can’t do that!”, Leech—at the side of the set with the Second Assistant Director, his view unobscured—saw that it would happen a second time.
Without missing a beat, he pulled out his smartphone and, with a tap of the screen, captured a photo that would appear in newspapers and on websites for weeks, months, years:
The moment the Oscar-winning director of nineteen perfect movies struck the world’s most famous actor with the end of his cane.
The hollow knock that emitted from glossy wood meeting bony skull echoed with an unholy resonance. The shockwave of the terrible noise ran rapidly across the set and on into the desert. The wind stopped whistling. The cacti stopped growing. The lizards ran for cover.
After the first strike, the silent cast and the crew had turned away like a whisper, not wishing to witness anything further, satisfied at the punishment for the unprovoked attack on one of their own. They were ready to protect the vision, ready to protect their leader. No, we saw nothing. No, no incidents in the desert.
Everyone but Leech.
Bateman, shocked, humbled, contrite, looked into Bloom’s eyes, tears in his own, and whispered an apology.
Bloom placed a loving hand up to the great actor’s face, assuring his flawed, adopted son that all was forgiven, and nodded once. Bateman turned, head lowered, and apologised to the two sound engineers.
Leech, seeing this great actor’s fall and unable to contain himself, pressed the on-screen button once more.
This time, there was no noise of wood on bone to cover him, and the sound of his digital shutter cut through the silence like a gigantic crash from a trashy cymbal.
The storm was fierce.
The bulbs of the press flashed like lightning in Bloom’s eyes for weeks. Words of condemnation and judgement flew down at him in the biggest deluge of scorn and hatred ever seen in Hollywood.
The cast and crew of his nineteen finished and one unfinished movie refused to comment on the incident, refused to be drawn in. They whispered words of defence and support, ignored by the press and the media, an interconnected organic machine programmed for nothing but drama and conflict and subsisting on fear and outrage. Everyone refused to understand, refused even to try.
Cable Bateman appeared on talk radio and breakfast shows defending his director, claiming responsibility for the incident. He admitted that he had deserved it, that he had behaved like a child. He talked of pressure and beauty and art and suffering and sacrifice.
He was derided, laughed at, made to look stupid. No longer the world’s greatest actor, contracts were torn up. Offers dried up.
Comment threads and message boards and social media lit up with disgust for the once-great Bloom. Blog posts were updated and revised and rewritten to reflect a newfound loathing for his films. “Pretentious! Egotistical! Artless!” they screamed as they attempted to expunge their love for the work from history. Editorials pontificated at length about artists, legacies, separating the art from the man, and decided with a collective sigh that this artist had crossed an unseen, unknown, constantly-shifting line.
And, in the centre of it all, smiling, shaking hands with the studio executives who had already disowned this once great man, stood Benjamin Leech. The famous whistleblower. The righteous crusader against the tyranny of the Hollywood greats.
Arriving on set a few weeks later, Leech noticed a discarded newspaper in the trash can that stood by a table of muffins and croissants and coffee.
He picked it up, wiped off the crumbs, and read the front page.
Carter T. Bloom, extraordinary director of nineteen stunning, original, incredible movies, had been found dead in a seedy motel room, laid out on the bed, his top hat ripped and broken, his sleeves rolled up, his arms spread wide.
Leech tossed the newspaper back into the trash, then walked to the centre of the set and sat down in the canvas chair with his name on the back.
All eyes were on him.
He nodded once.