Behind the Lines with DR: The Screenwriter and the Frenchman

So here’s the scene. It was a twisted bit of drama. The young psychotic played by the brilliant Ben Foster had lashed the nubile, object of his obsession to her girlish bed. Though the character had never done this before, he’d probably seen it in a few movies, adding fuel to his dark fantasy. The target of his affection was played by Michelle Horn. She was perfect casting. At sixteen years old, Michelle had the talent to twist herself into toxic mix of budding sex and girlish naiveté.

michelle

Michelle Horn in ‘Hostage

No. I’m not talking about kiddie porn. This was a scene I wrote in a movie called Hostage. We shot it on soundstage at Raleigh studios Hollywood. The bedroom set, designed by Larry Fulton, was small and – like the character – a mash up of pre-teen pink, punk-rock, and neon. Not entirely how I’d pictured it. But director, Florent Siri, loved the electric vibe of it.

As the film’s writer, I was serving in my daily role as artistic consigliere and Mr. Fix It.

Oh. And did I tell you I was nervous? Though not nail-biting kind. That’s not me. I’m more the cruise-the-craft-service-table-for-another-cookie kind of nelly.

We were about three quarters through the fifty-five day shoot. Everybody was pretty comfortable with our roles. Days earlier, I’d dropped a nuclear bomb of a prank on the production coordinator. We were all still laughing about it.

No. The angst on the day was that I’d written a pre-rape scene that involved the actual four-post fixing of our sixteen-year-old actress to a bed. Sure, she was clothed. Yet the implicit threat of the scene she was about to play, not to mention the clamoring of a predominantly male crew busying themselves around her, left me to wonder how she’d be processing the event. Professionally, I’d hoped. But hell. Like I said, Michelle was only sixteen and hadn’t participated in anything remotely like the sick tableau I’d constructed.

Oh. And did I tell you both her parents were parked on the set in front a pair of monitors? Up to that day, her parents were always in and around the location, but usually holed up in their daughter’s air-conditioned dressing trailer. As a parent myself, I thought it understandable that their instincts might’ve led them to their protective perch. Close enough to watch, far enough away to avoid distracting the players on the field.

Then came the time to roll film. All had gone well through blocking and rehearsal. Ben and Michelle had already performed together in a number of scenes. They knew their roles and were comfortable in them.

Or in Michelle’s case. Maybe too comfortable.

The character, a fourteen-year-old tease-slash-heart-attack for her father, was one of the film’s hostages. Throughout the tale, the psychopath’s been slowly tuning her up for the taking. All leading to this moment where she’s about to be raped. The scene required an extraordinary amount of killer cool from Ben Foster while Michelle Horn needed to summon a substantial measure of fear and panic. Only when Florent cued the actors with “action,” our little miss seemed too slow to boil. The best she could muster was somewhere between worried and fearful.

Three takes later and Florent leaned over to me and shook his head.

“What ees wrong weeth ‘er?” asked the director. His French accent hadn’t lost any of its syrupy thickness in the six months we’d been working together.

I had an inkling of the problem. Michelle’s modus operandi when it came to scenes with great tension was, on a scale of one to ten, start at a four or five then build. Only she was barely at a three. I suspected it had something to do with her parents on the set.

“Cood you pleez go an’ ‘ave a leetle talk weeth ‘er?” asked Florent.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s unusual for a director to ask the writer to speak with the actors. Hell, it’s unusual for a writer to be welcome more than fifty miles from the movie set. But this was an unusual workplace situation where both writer and director had such trust in each other that Florent would often ask me to assist.

I slipped from my seat and climbed up the steps to the elevated set. When Ben saw me, gave a mild shrug and stepped aside so I could sit at the edge of the bed.

“Everything cool?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Michelle. “I’m great.”

“Might need to dial the fear up a few notches,” I gently said. “The whole terrorizing of your character has built up to this moment. Don’t be afraid to let out the scary.”

“Got it,” she said.

I winked at Ben, returned to my seat. Roll film. Slate it. Action. In the next three takes, Michelle turned the three into a four. You could see it on the monitors. Something was holding her back.

“I bet it’s her parents,” I said to Florent, gesturing behind us.

“Zey’re on zee set?” asked the director, clueless that the video assist crew had set up monitors and headsets just for mom and dad.

“Over there,” I nodded.

“You find out?” asked Florent.

On my feet again, I climbed back up to the bedroom.

“How was that?” Michelle asked.

“Warmer,” I said. “But not near close to what we need.”

“Okay. I can go harder.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yeah?”

“Any issues with your parents on the set?”

“Not really.”

“Not really?”

Michelle thought about it for a moment or two.

“A little,” she corrected. “I mean, it’s weird right?”

“I’m not the one playing the rape scene,” I said.

“Okay,” confessed Michelle. “It’s a lot weird.”

“Want me to ask them to go?”

Michelle simply nodded. So when I returned back to video village, I kindly relayed the message to the actress’s mother and father. I expressed to them that, considering the sensitivity of the scene, that she’d feel more comfortable if they were to retire back to the trailer. Both mom and dad nodded as if they understood, but didn’t so much as move an ass cheek.

Okay then, I said to myself. Politics. I returned to my chair next to the director, calmly explained the situation. Florent gave the couple a sideways glance, gestured to the first AD that he wanted to go again. Film rolled. Action was called.

Once again, Michelle upped her game. But only another notch. She was only half-way there and we were still on our first set up.

“I zink I should talk to ‘er,” said Florent, standing up. “And I zink you should talk again to ‘er muzzuh and fazzuh.”

I agreed. But before I revisited Mister and Missus Horn, I rewrote my approach. Satisfied that my new tack might politely nudge the duo out of their seats and off the soundstage, I trekked back over and, was about to speak when I heard the director’s voice over my wireless headset. The sound crew’s mics were still hot and just about everybody with a pair of ear-cans were catching the Frenchman directing the young actress.

“Mee-chelle,” Florent said over my headset. “Zees scene is very important. Maybe zee most important scene for you in zee movie.”

I could see both of Michelle’s parents, eyes fixed to their monitor, headphones glued to their ears.

“So Mee-chelle,” continued the director, softly with meaning. “What I need you to do eez to fuccus. I need you to fuccus very very hard.”

“Sorry,” said Michelle. “What do you need?”

“I need you to fuc-cus. Very very hard fuc-cus.”

“Fuck us?” Michelle asked, her face screwed into a question mark.

“Yes. Need to fuccus.”

“Fuck us.” The actress wasn’t sure what the director was truly asking.

“Fuc-cus. Yes,” said Florent. “Very hard.”

This is where I glanced back at Mom and Poppa Horn. Both their mouths were slightly agape. Eyes baked on the live video shot of the scene taking place in the bedroom.

This is where I heard Ben Foster, still mic’d, begin to guffaw.

“Can you do it for me?” asked Florent “Can you –“

“FOCUS!” I shouted across the stage. “YOU NEED MICHELLE TO FOCUS!”

With that, the crew busted out into a huge, tension-relieving tumult of laughs.

“Oh my gosh!” said Michelle, finally letting loose with her own belly laugh.

“What?” asked Florent, palms up. “Eez something funny with what I said?”

“You said ‘fuck us,’” laughed Michelle.

“Yes,” said Florent. “I need you to fuccus.”

By then, the laughs had spread to the lighting crew.

“What eez so funny?”

Florent eventually got the joke and laughed himself back to his chair. Michelle’s mom and dad kindly dropped back to their daughter’s air-conditioned trailer. And with a little help from Ben Foster revving up the scare-factor, Michelle finally found her panic button.

To this day, it still brings a giggle to both the Frenchman and myself. We will call or email and tease the other to fuccus very very hard.

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