Real to Reel

When an old friend told me she had produced and directed a major motion picture, I was pleasantly surprised. Then she told me what the movie was about.

Julie still wanted to direct, but she was rejected from the American Film Institute's directing program two years in a row. The third year, AFI offered to admit her as an editor. Once there, she made a short film called On the Virge that was a precursor to I Love You ... Don't Touch Me. But after AFI, it was back to the grind. Julie temped, edited low-budget action flicks, directed a straight-to-video softcore horror film called Witchcraft 6, and eventually took a full-time job as an editor at the Playboy channel. Amid all of this she was trying, not always successfully, to rework On the Virge into a feature-length script. ("Here I was, working on a script about a virgin and cutting porn movies.") In April 1995, after a real-life love affair crashed and burned, she returned to the script and finished it in less than two months.

But aspiring directors with completed scripts are nothing more than serious amateurs. A year after she finished writing, Julie was still laboring at Playboy, still trying to get her script before the cameras. An old family friend, Marilyn Shapiro, donated $20,000 toward the production of the film. Rolf Erickson, an L.A. businessman who ran a video equipment rental business, kicked in $5000. Julie drained a trust fund her parents had created for graduate school. She withdrew her life savings.

With that money, she could afford a cast. She could even afford a crew. But she couldn't afford to start shooting. "There was a diamond ring my grandmother had left for me when she died. I asked my parents if I could sell it to make the movie. They said okay. The ring went around the world looking for a buyer, even to Israel." It sold just in time, for $15,000.

Production began January 17, 1996. With $60,000 in the bank, Julie could hope for three weeks of shooting at most, with no room for error.

Ten years isn't forever, but it's a long enough time to worry. Who has succumbed to time's depredations? Who has gone wide in the middle? Who has failed to keep the dreams a step, even a half-step, ahead of the disappointments?

In June 1996, I attended my high school's tenth reunion, in an antiseptic chestnut-paneled banquet room at the Sonesta Beach Hotel. Everyone looked young but tired, which is to say that everyone looked like me. I went to the reunion with my friend Harold Oster and his wife Angie. One woman wove unsteadily through the crowd toward us. "I hear you married a beautiful woman," she said to Harold.

"Yes," he said. "And then I remarried." Angie laughed at the joke, the way it put the sting of irony in everything. The drunk woman didn't pick up on the finer point. She just tipped her drink in a tipsy salute and disappeared.

Most ten-year reunions are little more than an opportunity to re-create the dynamics of a decade earlier. There are a few key reversals, of course -- the prom queen ill-used by time, the geek reborn as a master of the universe. But most of the members of my class, most of us, remained largely unchanged. The girls who made us shy then made us shy now. The boys who made us uneasy then made us uneasy now. Evolution, when it happens, happens slowly and between individuals, but these group events are a kind of shell game. The promise of maturity is held up so that the group can see, and then the sleight of hand begins. Is it here? No. Here? Guess again. Well, it must be here, right? Sorry, brother.

I spent most of the evening talking to Harold, who I talked to twice a week anyway. I also spent a considerable portion of the evening craning my neck to look for Julie and asking old classmates if they had any news of her.

We hadn't spoken in five years, only exchanged the occasional letter, and I was eager to catch up. I wanted to see how her film career was going. I wanted to see what she looked like. In the film loop I was screening even as I scanned the room, I saw us sitting at a side table trading stories about our lives -- the difficulty of a creative career, the doubts, the compromises, the rare moments of triumph. Maybe when we were a few drinks gone, we would sneak to a secluded corner of the room and discuss matters more intimately.

But Julie wasn't there. A few folks told me they'd spoken to her that summer, that she was still in Los Angeles. What they didn't tell me is that she was at the end of her rope, editing a movie she wasn't sure anyone would ever want.

The shoot that January and February had been swift but severe, three weeks of exhausting work followed by three months of editing. By spring Julie had cobbled together a rough cut. Despite the fact that she had economized everywhere -- gotten the film stock on the cheap, shot on a loaned camera, et cetera -- she had run out of money. "I couldn't get out of bed," she recalled. "Here I was with a film, and I couldn't afford to finish it. Plus, I wasn't sure if anyone liked it."

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