I knew I was in trouble when the Director asked me to cock my head to the right.
“I can’t cock my head to the right. Or the left.”
“Just like this.” He cocks his head to the right. But, see, he’s not wearing a fiberglass suit of armor with a helmet attached to the shoulders. He doesn’t look like a low budget Cyberman. Or, a lower budget Cyberman, as it were.
“I can’t move my head.”
“Okay. Just, look shocked.”
So the camera starts speeding, I take my mark, and it’s time to make this awkward robot costume convey shock. I try some Meisner. Why am I shocked? What is causing the shock in me? Well, I am trapped in a dirty robot costume, standing in a parking lot on Cahuenga. That should be shocking enough. Why am I here? Because at 11:30 last night I got a frantic text from the Producer telling me they’d lost their robot guy and needed me to come in and replace him. Obviously, this was a terrible thing to do with my time. So I was relieved when the Producer texted me a few moments later, saying she’d found a replacement. But, bright and early next morning, another frantic text. It seemed the replacement had also disappeared (this should have been a warning sign but my reasoning skills aren’t the sharpest in the morning) and I saw this all as a Sign from the Universe. Some inescapable force of nature had determined it was my fate to don a clunky robot costume and have at it.
“Can you try tilting your head up?” the Director asks. He demonstrates again.
I convey shock.
“That was great! Next shot.”
This is going to be a long day.
* * *
By 2:00 pm I’ve discovered this wonderful resting position. See, I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.” So I’ve taken to leaning against one of the cars on set and using the back of my helmet as a headrest. It’s surprisingly comfortable.
I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.”While in this position, I can see Houston through the tiny little eye holes, teaching the Producer how to punch. Houston is my fight partner. We go on sets and choreograph the fight scenes. That’s how I wound up involved with this project. Of course, I had no idea that I’d be the one having to throw the punches. If I’d known, I would have had the robot fight entirely from this awesome leaning position. Houston isn’t choreographing the Producer into the fight though. He’s just doing that thing that we all do where we constantly teach people how to throw a proper punch. You’d be surprised how few people can.
And the Producer is asking, “How many fights have you been in?”
Houston says, “Four, maybe. One of them was with that kid I was telling you about, in a Chinese restaurant. Then there was Japan, where I saw a fight and tried breaking it up.”
I can’t imagine Houston breaking up a fight. He’s all Krav Maga and Falcon Punch.
“Then there was the one at the football game in high school.”
Huh? I’ve never heard this one.
“Tim, have I ever told you about that one? It was a Stanford game and this racist guy behind me kept shouting awful stuff and spitting sunflower seeds on me. So I asked my dad if it was okay to get into a fight with him.”
I can picture Houston asking his dad for permission to get into a fist fight.
“Every fight I got into, I broke these bones.” He points at the little bones in the back of his hand.
“Where’s Tim?” I hear the Director call out. Like he can’t take the extra two seconds to locate the only robot on set. Maybe I blend in against the mustard-colored 1982 Mercedes Benz.
I say, “Here” but my voice just sort of meanders around the inside of my helmet, unable to squeeze through the tiny mouth and even tinier eye holes. So I push off the car, which takes more effort than I’m proud of, and do my robot saunter.
“We need the robot to fall over.”
“I can’t fall over.” A nickel in the jar for every “I can’t” today would really cost me.
“Can you just go prone and do a reverse pushup?”
“Nope.” I can’t even dougie. That’s how restrictive this outfit is.
“Guys. That suit cannot touch the gravel,” the Producer says. “It is worth 19,000 dollars and if we scratch it . . .”
19,000 dollars? This awkward piece of shit?
“Okay, so, Houston! Do we have those pads we talked about?” the Director asks.
“No. I don’t have the pads. The Producer does.”
“Yeah, but I asked you to bring them.”
Houston clenches his jaw, takes a deep breath. He has a short fuse when it comes to incompetence.
“I emailed you. I said, ‘I don’t have the pads. The producer does. She owns them. She has them in her possession.’” Houston has taken out his phone. He’s reading an email. “‘She is in charge of the pads. She has them. If you want them on set, ask her.’”
The AD asks the Producer if she brought the pads. I have to turn my whole upper body to see her.
“I didn’t realize I was supposed to.”
By now, we’ve moved on. I’m dropping to one knee, putting one hand on the ground. Like I’m hiking a football.
“Can you make a fist?”
“No. I can’t make a fist.”
My gloves are made of the thickest possible rubber, as if the designers were terrified that the suit would allow for any amount of dexterity.
…every take ended with us just sort of going on until we didn’t know what to do next. We’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.
“Try something like this.” The Director demonstrates making a fist.
* * *
Later on, I start to notice that the shadows are awfully long, and we still have most of the fight scene ahead of us. The Director makes an impassioned plea to the actors, who are circling the craft table. He says, “We’re running out of time, so we need to speed this up.”
For whatever reason I imagine us doing the fight scene in Benny Hill double-time. Maybe it’s the tunnel vision, but by now I’ve begun interpreting everything literally.
I overhear the AD tell the Cinematographer, “I’m going to start calling cut, if that’s okay.” Which is nice to hear. Until then, every take ended with us just sort of going on until we didn’t know what to do next. We’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.
I’m supposed to lower one of the actors to his knees in this take, and the actor seems really worried. He says his knees are messed up. I’m not sure what that means.
Now, during the next take, he’s supposed to just wait on his knees a while. For a moment, I forget he’s there because he’s left my pathetic field of vision and I’ve taken to imagining that the universe is just two little disks, joined in the middle and if I can’t see it, it’s not there.
Then he stands up.
“You have to stay on your knees,” the Director says.
The actor goes back down, exiting the universe. I hear him say something about his knees bleeding.
I know every move. After all, I came up with half of them. But I can’t really see what I’m doing so it’s harder than I’d hoped. I start feeling like I’m actually inside a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize. It resists at every instant.
One of the PAs walks over and tells the Director his cat has gone missing. Someone else makes a meowing noise.
While a fellow actor wildly thrashes my armor with a rubber crowbar, I notice that the crew has shifted their attention to the parking lot entrance. I rotate my entire body around to see a white pickup pull in. The driver, who looks like Terry Crews in a golf cap, jumps out of the car and starts shouting at us.
“Either someone shows me a permit right now, or you get the fuck off my lot! Right now! This is private property!”
I hear someone say “Okay, pack it up. Pack it all up.”
So we’re all rushing around, packing up the crafts table, the props, the rigging, the camera. I’m very slowly making my way out of the parking lot. There are no extra hands to help me take off my armor, so I’m doing my best impersonation of an embarrassed robot, one foot at a time, while Terry Crews eyes me from his pickup.
Finally I manage to get my gloves off. I use my newfound dexterity to remove my helmet. My shell of solitude is gone. I suddenly realize how loud everything is. Everyone is shouting at someone, somewhere. Terry Crews is shouting at the Producer. Cars are peeling out, tearing up the road. The Props Master finishes removing my armor and now I’m in a form-fitting silver jumpsuit feeling more than a little naked.
I start feeling like I’m actually inside a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize.I climb in the back seat of my car because it’s the only open door and Houston has my keys.
From inside the car I can see everyone is still shouting. I spot Houston talking with the Director. As the Director talks I can practically see the power-up bar above Houston’s head, slowly building up. Like when it reaches the limit he’ll have enough energy for a fireball, or go Super Sayan or something. I wonder if the Director realizes how close he is to the edge of a very steep, unforgiving cliff. Does he really want to start a fight with the fight choreographer?
It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled. I’m not really here. I’m just observing from my spaceship. Then Houston gets in and starts the car. I put on my seatbelt and think of Houston as my chauffeur. I’m still wearing the silver jumpsuit.
We’re driving to the AD’s house to regroup and for some reason Houston’s gone all The Italian Job, weaving through traffic, driving in the breakdown lane. I’m not sure why we’re trying to get there so fast but it’s all very exciting nonetheless.
Houston rants in the front seat and this is what I pick up between the growling: First, the Director blamed Houston for not rehearsing enough. Then, when Houston asked him about whether or not we had permission to shoot there, the Director said he had talked to management. Then, when Houston asked the same question again, the Director revised his story saying that he “called them, like, five times and no one picked up so I assumed it was okay.” Then, Houston didn’t punch him.
“I swear I’m going to punch him,” he says. I think about the little bones in the back of his hand. “If he tries to blame anyone but himself for this mess, I’m just . . .” Then more growling.
We’re the first people to arrive at the AD’s house. We sit on the porch and the sun starts to set over Silver Lake Boulevard. Ten minutes later, everyone except the Director has filed in. Each of them haggard, shell-shocked. The Producer has been crying. She asks if everyone’s here.
“Everyone except our fearless leader,” Houston says.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know.”
Someone calls him. His phone is dead.
The AD talks about some other shots they need to get today while the sun is out. But we need the Mercedes, which the Director is driving. They also need the Director, though I’m not sure why.
The Cinematographer is on the phone with someone in the car with the Director. He’s giving directions.
“760 Harvard Ave . . . 760 Harvard Ave. 760 . . . Harvard . . . Harvard. Harvard . . . Like Harvard University. Like the college. Like, ‘I went to an Ivy League college, Harvard University.’ Yes . . . 760. Harvard.”
Houston starts laughing.
“Did he just get in the car and drive somewhere . . . anywhere?”
Apparently, he is in West Hollywood. No one really knows why.
So later, an hour later, the Director, our fearless leader, shows up. He looks awful. I wonder where his cat is. I picture the little critter, wandering Cahuenga, playing with strays, smelling new smells. Seeing new sights. Then the sun sets and the cat is alone and hungry and his home is nowhere to be found. He licks his fur. He curls up in a ball and forgets everything that’s ever happened. He accepts the wild.
So now I’m putting the suit on again. They’re turning on the little blue bulbs around the eye holes so now everything I see is framed in little blue glowing lights.
I’m sitting in the passenger seat. I can’t even put on my seatbelt without help. They’re mounting a camera to the hood. And the driver, my lovely co-star, decides this is a good time to mention she’s almost blind without her glasses. And it’s night time.
“So, put on your glasses.”
“No, see,” the Director pipes in. Fuck. “If she wears the glasses then she’ll have to be wearing them in the next scene.”
“We could have her take them off.”
“No. We don’t have time for a shot like that. No . . . Are you comfortable driving just around the back roads?” he asks.
I can hear Houston restraining the urge to hit The Director.
“You cannot seriously be thinking . . .” he says. Then storms off.
“I couldn’t drive on the freeway. But back roads should be fine.”
“We could have Tim spot for her.”
Then we would literally have the blind leading the blind. Between the two of us we could barely read a stop sign.
“The AD will sit in the back and give her directions.”
So we start to pull out, but the light attached to the dashboard falls off.
Correction, the dashboard falls off.
So the Cinematographer is taping the dashboard back on. The Props Master is helping him. The AD is sitting in the back. The Cinematographer accidentally opens the sunroof. Suddenly everyone bursts into motion pressing every single button they can find trying to get it shut. They’re reaching over me, fumbling over each other. I can’t help but notice that the car has a bright red button on the front panel. Occasionally someone’s finger drifts over it then moves on. I wonder what it could be.
Finally, someone finds the right button, the sunroof is shut. The light is attached. The dash is attached. We’re ready to go. And I guess she’s not going to wear her glasses, so that’s cool.
It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled.
Two rings of glowing blue frame the lights of Western Ave. and I start to realize that there’s a good chance I will die in this stupid robot costume. And the funny thing is I don’t really care. I can see the red tail lights and the orange streetlights reflected in the pavement. I can’t really see my driver, but when she asks the AD where to go next, she sounds confident enough. Of course she doesn’t seem to understand how to follow directions.
“Turn right here.”
She goes straight.
“Okay, it’s okay. Just keep going straight.”
“This is fine. It’s fine. Turn left here.”
I watch a pedestrian skitter across the road.
I pull back from the eye holes and look around the inside of my helmet. My iron maiden. My little spaceship. It’s just me in here, alone. I’m not in a car, headed towards my inevitable early death. I’m in a robot. I trust him to keep me safe. I trust him to lead us home.
Then someone’s pulling off my helmet. We’re parked at the house. We’re not dead, which is nice.
We wait inside for the Director to make an appearance. Secretly, I think we’re hoping he’ll make things worse for himself. Blame someone else, maybe make some racist comments. But maybe we’re too exhausted for that. Even Houston looks haggard.
When he finally arrives, he sits down on the couch between Houston and the Producer. He doesn’t speak at first. He just stares at his shoes. Then, after a long electric moment, he begins, “Guys, my girlfriend is going to be so pissed when I get home, for the cat getting out. Just so you know, she’s going to tear into me so . . .”
So . . . so what? Are we supposed to pity you? Should we mount a search team? Jump in our cars and patrol Cahuenga? We could have the lead actress drive. Maybe I could spot for her.
After all the ridiculous events of the day I wonder if possibly this is some sort of elaborate practical joke, or maybe performance art. It would be called “A Dog Teaching a Human How to Wag His Tail,” or “The Limits of Tolerance,” or the always classic, “Sabotage.” I think about the robot, now in pieces in his box. They didn’t need me. They just needed someone to fill the skin, someone to carry it. I wonder if that’s all the Director is. Maybe this kind of thinking is dangerous.
The Director makes some comment about how we might have to cut the fight scene completely and Houston gets up. He doesn’t look the Director in the eyes, but he points his whole body at him, clenching his fists. They share a silent moment, filled with horrible potential. Then, something truly amazing happens: Houston just pulls out his keys and we leave in silence.
On the drive back we see an empty car parked in the middle of the street with its lights on, its engine running, and its doors ajar. It hums quietly to no one.
T. Lucas Earle is a writer, filmmaker, and musician. His fiction has appeared in Electric Spec, Colored Lens, Razor Literary Magazine, and New Myths. His dark comedy, Abduction, premiered in LA Shorts Fest in 2013. His most recent film, in which he plays the lead, is Up Next. T. Lucas lives in Los Angeles. http://www.tlucasearle.com/