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.

I can describe the Julie who answered the door only by comparing her with the Julie of a decade ago. Hair lighter. Hips wider. Face thinner. She was still pretty, still neurotic, still tentative when she embraced me. Julie had said that she would be ready at noon, but when I got there she was in a bathrobe. She brought out two outfits and asked me to help her choose. One was a skintight aqua dress, the other a pair of shorts and a tiny Miami Dolphins T-shirt. I picked the dress.

"It's a ten-dollar hooker dress I bought on Sunset Boulevard," she said.
"Ten-dollar hooker or ten-dollar dress?" I said. Julie laughed at that, but was silent the entire car ride, sizing me up. "You look great," she said, when we were safely seated in the restaurant. "You look very handsome." I returned the compliment. We beamed at each other like idiots or lovers. We were neither, of course. She had a boyfriend back in Los Angeles, a piece of intelligence she had delivered over the phone the week before, presumably as a preemptive strike against the power of memory to seduce.

Julie didn't want to talk about I Love You ... Don't Touch Me. Not right away. Instead she talked about The 411, a movie she was directing for the Playboy channel. "It's a softcore film, and the scenes are really erotic," she said. "I did it partly for the money, because my check got delayed when Goldwyn sold to MGM, and partly for the work. I love directing. It doesn't matter what the project is like. You can't ever think you're too good for the work."

"So," I said. "What is your movie like?"
She sighed. "Do we have to talk about it? I mean, it's not that I don't want to. It's just that this movie isn't easy to talk about. I mean, I wrote it four years ago. I filmed it two years ago. Sometimes I worry that I'll never go on and do anything else."

"Of course you will. You did this Playboy movie."
Suddenly she came to life: "There's this one scene where the lead actress is having sex with this guy she's just met. They're on a table, and I shot her from above, and her leg bends like this --" here she crooked a finger calligraphically. "It's one of the nicest shots I've ever filmed."

"Let's talk about your movie," I said again.
Her gaze spiraled down into her wine glass. When she looked up, the gravity was still in her face. "I'm worried that the studio doesn't know how to market me," she complained. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote that Daisy's voice was full of money. Julie's was full of breakage. "They say there's no hook, but this is a movie about an adult virgin. Plus, there's never been a straight woman this young who wrote and directed. And the movie looks so good for a $60,000 movie." She ticked off these achievements in a detached voice, as if she were someone else praising a promising young director, and the list seemed to buoy her a bit. "Listen," she said, "I can talk about the movie, I guess, as long as we don't talk about that and nothing else."

"Okay," I said. "Say you had $30 million, or the $12 million it cost Tarantino to make Jackie Brown. Who would you have cast?"

"Let me think," she said. "I would probably cast Sandra Bullock as Katie, the lead. Definitely Richard Gere as Richard, although I'd have to consider playing Katie so I could have a love scene with him." There was a hint of a pause, and then she charged ahead. "As Ben, Jason Alexander."

"Jason Alexander? Isn't he a little squat?"
"It's his personality. That funny, neurotic energy. It's very attractive."
"It wasn't in high school," I said, in a tone that suggested I was joking. I was pretty certain that I was.

Julie seemed less sure; she stared at me with a look that mixed curiosity, care, and what I hoped was a grain of guilt.

Hoping to smooth things over, I changed tack. "By the way," I said, "I meant to ask you how my letter is used in the movie."

"You'll see," she said. "And anyway, it's not a whole letter. It's a poem you wrote about my hair."

"You're kidding," I said. Julie was laughing. "You're laughing because you're kidding."

"Close," she said. "I'm laughing because I'm not kidding."
That afternoon we crisscrossed South Miami, crosshatched the Gables, and then devised a plan to wind up in the Palmetto High School parking lot. When we got there the sun was dropping, and we sat in the car and talked. A few kids were in the parking lot, and one boy was up on the hood of his BMW, talking on his cell phone. The color of the light was pitched somewhere between salmon and scarlet.

There, in the lot, as the evening came down across the school's etiolated aqua exterior, I moved toward Julie, inching bit by bit into the past. The past was about eight inches to my right, because there I found a knee -- Julie's knee, I assumed -- and traced its contour with my thumb. Hands nearing 30 know their calling so much better than those still in their teens. Fingers found faces. A shoulder lifted itself to a pair of lips. And then there was a suggestive fade to black.

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