Dead Lines

By Mark W. Travis

It’s 1995, early in my teaching career, and my parents are visiting me in Los Angeles. Because I am always looking for something to impress my father with, something that would make him proud of me, I show him a brochure of a seminar that I will be teaching. It’s a very detailed brochure with bullet points of all the aspects of directing that I promised to cover. I am watching as he reads every line of the brochure, making those little ‘hmm’ sounds as he absorbs the information.

One thing you need to know about my Dad is that he was an actor in college and loved it so much, he dreamed of making it his career.

“This is good, Mark.” My father smiles, looking at me with his wise patient eyes, “You should write a book.”

“Dad, are you kidding me? Write a book? I’m not gonna write a book. I’m a director, not a writer. I’m not going to write any books!”

Well, that’s what I wanted to say to him. That’s what the voices inside my head were screaming. But instead, I look at him, the loyal dutiful son, and say, “Great, Dad, good idea. Thanks.”

Three years later and I am still teaching. I’m not directing. I’m teaching. I’m teaching all over Los Angeles, at USC, UCLA, AFI, even at The Directors Guild. I’m teaching film students and veteran directors how to breakdown scripts, analyze scenes and direct actors.

That’s when I get a call from ShoBiz Expo. The premier filmmaking exposition in Los Angeles. They want me to give a full day, 6-hour seminar on film directing. What? Really?

This is insane! I’m a theater director. I’ve only directed one feature film and it turned into a political football. I’m still licking my wounds. You have to understand, all those  directing workshops? They’re all based on my training and experience in theater. Basically, I’m teaching directors how to use theater techniques to connect with actors. That has nothing to do with films.  So why is the biggest film expo in Los Angeles asking me to give a 6-hour-long seminar on film directing? They’re nuts!

Of course, I say yes. Besides, it’s so far in the future, I’ll have plenty of time to come up with something.

One month goes by. Two months go by. Only one more month and this commitment is looming in front of me like a dark cloud. And now I’m beginning think, “Maybe I should prepare for this. Maybe I should figure out what I’m going to talk about.”

Three weeks away. Two weeks away. One whole day on film directing? Six hours of just me talking? What the hell am I going to talk about? Panic. Rage. Fear.

I pull myself together and sit down at my computer to begin to write something – anything. Blank page. Blank mind.

Then I do that thing that I do when I have no idea what to do. I go to Staples. I go to Staples to buy a new notebook and paper and dividers. It’s good to have dividers in there, you know, those little dividers that you could put little labels on. I get the notebook. I get paper; I get dividers and a labeler. I’m all set. I am organized!

I’m back in my office. New supplies all laid out and ready. But of course, there’s nothing on the paper, no idea what the labels should be. But I’m in control.

I go to my computer to start writing. Nothing. I have nothing.

Years earlier I had taught a directing seminar at UCLA Extension. It was a seminar on Theater Directing. I had taught this seminar several times. It seemed to be successful. And suddenly I have a brainstorm. That seminar has a syllabus, an outline, a sequence of topics to be discussed. And that syllabus is somewhere in my computer.

I dive into my computer and find the Directing Theater Syllabus. Beautiful. Organized. Thorough. Complete.

I open the document. I scan the topics. And then, in a moment of brilliance I hit search and I replace the word ‘Theater ‘with ‘Film.’ This will work!

I change the title to Directing Film. I print out the syllabus, punch the holes in the paper, put it in the notebook. I separate it with the dividers into six equal sections, one for each hour. I put big labels on each divider. I close the notebook with a SNAP! And I’m done. I’m ready. No need to read it, not now anyway. I’ve taught this before.

It’s Saturday. The seminar is two days away. On a Monday. The Show Biz Expo covers three days: Saturday, Sunday and Monday. My seminar is on Monday, all day Monday! It’s Saturday morning and I’m thinking I better prepare. I’m flipping through my beautiful new notebook. The syllabus looks great. The topics are great. The sequence is great. I rip out pages that have nothing to do with filmmaking. I know I should do more but I have no idea what that would be.

Then I get it. I should go down to the Expo, which is already happening, and just look at the room. Get a feeling for the place, you know, it’s sort of like going to Staples. Get yourself in an environment where you feel prepared, where you feel in control.

I’m at the Expo, the Los Angeles Convention Center. This place is huge. The enormous main floor is filled with state-of-the-art filmmaking equipment from cameras to cranes, from sound recording to editing. And it is packed with hundreds of attendees fascinated by and playing with the latest equipment.

I go upstairs to the seminar rooms. Introduce myself. No one seems to know who I am. But that makes sense. I ask if I can see the room where I’ll be teaching. One of the workers offers to take me there. Now, I’m hoping for a small, intimate room. I imagine there’ll be about 20 or so attendees and it will be best if we can sit in a circle or something and just talk and share ideas.

You’ve got to understand, this Expo is all about the equipment. It’s not about training. It’s not about seminars. It’s not about any of that stuff. It’s about cameras and toys and technology. And I’m a nobody. And who’s going to want to sit in a windowless room for 6 hours listening to this failed filmmaker blather about how to make a film?

We arrive at the room. The man opens the door and I walk in. I am shocked. Something’s wrong. This is the wrong room. It’s monstrous. I turn to the guy, “This is the wrong room. I’m just doing a little seminar on …”

“Nope,” he interrupts, looking at his clipboard. “This is the right room, Mr. Travis.”

At the far end of the room is a small elevated stage, with a podium. Lights have been set up to light the stage. Microphones for recording. I decide I need to gather myself here, take control. I need to get things straightened out. Good thing I came two days early.

“Okay,” I say, “we clearly have a problem here. This room is much too large. I’m sure you have a smaller room that would accommodate whoever wants to come to this seminar.”

“Not really. We don’t. This is the only one.”

“Really? And why is that?”

“Because your seminar is sold out.”

“Sold out? How many people does this hold?”

“300.”

300? Sold out? You mean, 300 people want to hear this idiot who thinks he knows something about directing but who’s only directed theater, lots of theater, one big film dud, some television… and 300 people want to hear me talk about film directing for 6 hours?!

Waves of fear and panic envelop me. Images of 300 people storming the stage in protest flash before me.

I drive home. I’m trying to think of some way I can get out of this thing, but I can’t.

Monday morning, the day of the seminar. I arrive early. I walk into my seminar room. And already it’s over half full. I stand in the back, notebook under my arm, praying for an earthquake.

It’s time for the seminar to start. Some ShoBiz Expo employee is at the podium introducing me, reading from my bio. She’s doing her best to make it sound like I’m a professional filmmaker. Bless her heart. A few minutes later I’m standing at the podium. The room is packed. The lights are blinding. I look down at the eager participants in the front rows, notebooks out, pens poised, ready to write. And I’m thinking, “I’m so sorry. You are going to be so disappointed. I have nothing to say. You will all be gone by the end of the first hour.”

I open up my notebook and start from page one. I see where everything’s been changed from Theater to Film. Sometimes it makes sense, often it doesn’t. I begin telling stories, stories that could have happened, stories about famous directors I could have met. I’m just talking so they’ll think I know something.

I look to see how many pages are left to make sure there’s enough left for the afternoon. I don’t want to come back from lunch with only two pages left.

Lunchtime. They’re applauding. I’m exhausted. I want to go home. I sit with some of my friends and they’re saying, “It’s great.” I think they’re deluded. My manager gives me a thumbs up, but what the hell does he know?

Second half. I do the same thing. Spin stories. And then I get into the process of working with actors and I begin to relax. I do have something meaningful and insightful to talk about now, mainly because it’s the only thing I can talk about. I see I have only a few pages left but hours to go, so I improvise. All about acting. All about directors working with actors. And now the stories are true from my experiences and I can feel the energy in the room shift.

I can see the post-production section arriving and I have next to nothing to say about that. Watch the clock. Keep talking about actors.

I get to post production and apologize that there’s so little time left. I say something clever about abandoning the film you thought you were making and finding the film you have been making. It’s enough to confound even the sharpest minds and deflect them from the fact that I have nothing more to say. And then I’m done.

Silence. I knew it. I bombed. But then… applause. Really? They’re just being polite. I desperately want to leave and I vow to myself that I will never do this again. Ever.

As I try to make a break for the door, people won’t let me. They want to talk. They have more questions. Someone says, “You should write a book.”

What?

“We’re asking you to write a book.”

What?

In the space of five minutes I have two offers from two prominent publishers to write a book on directing feature films.

Great! Just what I need. More pressure.

I say yes.

I said I could do it in one year. It took me two years.

While I’m writing, my father has a stroke, a massive stroke. He’s fighting to stay alive and I want to there with him, fighting. But I’m 2500 miles away. Every moment I can, I take a plane to cross the continent to be by his side. And every time I wonder what it’s like for him to go from being so vibrant and embracing of life to being this other person.

One day, I’m holding his hand, watching him breathe, when he suddenly opens his eyes and says, “Whose idea was this?” His question breaks me wide open. That’s Dad. That’s him. Always inquiring with a glint of mockery. For a moment he came back. I’m shocked, delighted and tearful. Yes, whose idea was this catastrophe?

I’m still writing the book when I get the call, “Mark, get back here. Dad has only a few days left.” On the plane I’m jamming to finish the first full draft of the book. I email it to my publisher.

I’m sitting by my Dad’s bed. All my five brothers and sisters are here, my mother is here. The whole family is here. We’re all talking to him. We’re all saying our goodbyes.

By this time, his ability to talk is zero. Nothing. Maybe he will signal with a squeeze of the hand that he’s heard something but we keep talking to him.

For a moment I’m alone with him. My last moment with him. I take his hand, hold it tight, hoping for a squeeze. Gathering all my love, I say, “Dad, I don’t know if you can hear me. I love you, Dad. I miss you. Can you hear me? Dad… Daddy… I finished the book.”

I wait. Nothing. And then there’s a sound, a rattling sound.

Oh no, no, not the death rattle, please. Not now!

My Dad’s body shifts ever so slightly. No squeeze of the hand. Just a tiny shift and then … then… my father, my brilliant, broad-shouldered, big-hearted giant of a man, but now so frail, struggles to say something. One word. One syllable at a time.

“Con-gra-tu-la-tions.”

His last word. For me. His final word ever.

Locations

Los Angeles, CA, USA

Noordwijk, Netherlands

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