I was taping a family of four on an afternoon picnic when it happened. One of those $50 an hour jobs that you pick up from the bulletin board outside the labs in the community college. Tell a few stories about some weddings and that reunion when your buddy Jack got back from Afghanistan and its pretty easy to convince a forty year old white guy with a permanent five o’clock shadow that you can shoot two and a half hours of an idea three reality show producers had rejected a half dozen times a piece.
Still, shooting in the middle of the day presented all sorts of different options, crazy lighting and a lot of lens flare, like a Hype Williams vid. Got to be on my own personal boat for the day. And they stayed out there way longer than three hours, and I had already been there for an extra one shooting b roll before they arrived.
You imagine that a forest line that ends at a beach would be a pretty sexy sight, a lot of gorgeous color and plenty of flora and fauna to shoot and frame your dramatic shots of the family with. I mean, that’s the deceptive part, that’s how it sucks you in.
Like I said, I poked around a bit before they showed up in their cast-iron black Chevy Avalanche. Filming close-ups of the dew on the branches of the old pine trees and catching 30 fps frames of bugs skipping on the water. Life looks better slowed down. I’m pretty sure Baywatch taught me that. It was always strange to me, how supposedly clean water could froth up at the edges, like the first few times you pour beer in a dirty glass. I spent a little too much time on the frothy water.
It wasn’t as if I was going to run out of film for the shoot. I had two 64 gig cards on me, and I’ve always habitually erased as I go. Trying to burn out the shitty failures as fast as I can. Saves beating yourself up later on when you go back to edit. I shot some stills of the lake and the rocky shoreline that took a bite around the beach. If you Google maps it, you’ll see what I mean when I say it looked like a Reese’s peanut butter cup that someone had munched on in just one place, just like in the commercials. There were even little bits of broken rock like crumbs scattered around the brown sand.
I should have noticed it then, when I was messing around. I climbed up on a rock pile to get a nice wide shot and maybe a cover piece. The grass beneath the pile wasn’t as green as the grass further down and back up the hill. It was like the rotting gum line of the forest if the trees were healthy teeth ringed round by gingivitis. But that’s wrong because the whole setting really was just about the most-puke inducing kind of perfect that you would plan for a family picnic if you were a Manson or one of the housewives on Lifetime before the husband starts beating her and raping her sister and everything turns to shit.
The Nelson’s were a television sort of perfect. The matriarch had been the one who picked up the phone and spoke in her bleached teeth and right fork proper way. Dad was a big man and you can’t really describe that type of big. Not professional sports big, but the kind that can look at you with a straight face and tell you they eat pieces of shit for breakfast and not crack a smile. His eyes were like museum glass, extra thick so you couldn’t possible contaminate the painting. He came to check me out. The splotches in his cheeks and the way he scratched his balls every few seconds made me think he had come up on the wrong side of some Craigslist exchanges. I checked out though and he left the two hundred dollars in cash. Fresh bills, probably picked up at the ATM out front of the bank next to my studio.
I shared the studio with two other guys, artist types the both of them and worth less than broke. I had seen plenty proof of their complete lack of talent underscored in red three times on the late notices we received and that they quickly tossed. Not before shredding them of course. They might lack for talent but they were both smart as cod in a catfish pond.
The point was, I paid the bills and I didn’t mind the feel of two crisp Benjamins fellating each other in my wallet. So of course I packed up the gear and headed out to the address he gave me which had actually led me to an old tackle shop about three miles from the actual site. Luckily, the kid with the banjo had known how to get here. That really should have been the first sign, right? What kind of kid sits outside an old tackle shop in the middle of summer break.
So I was taping them and I backed up against a squat but thick boulder and leaned on it to steady my arm. The shot needed to be wider, because I was definitely missing the fifteen year old deep throating a carrot with that girl next door wicked smile on her face. I caught some profiles of Dad and Son and their manly backslaps and overexaggerated laughter but I didn’t have the money shot of Mom and Daughter in a warm embrace. Mom was leaning over to her when I slipped and damn if I wasn’t pissed to miss that shot.
My body, of course, is much less concerned about keeping the two hundred bucks when it finds itself falling quickly into a bottomless hole. Without even realizing it I managed to slip the camera on its strap up to my armpit and grab the short boulder with both hands. But fuck me sideways if that boulder didn’t slip right up off the ground and try and follow me into the hole. It got stuck and my arms jerked out of their sockets but I managed to hold on, dangling by my fingertips in coffin cold blackness and no sense of how far I might fall if I let go.
The boulder had easy handholds though, and it wasn’t like I was in terrible shape. For a second, I had that image of Sly Stallone in Cliffhanger stuck in my mind, hanging off the side of a mountain with one chalk stained hand, reaching for a Beretta with the other so he could shoot down a helicopter with a nine mil. Still, it dawned on me that I couldn’t see anything, not even a crack of sunlight. I didn’t know if I could breathe—sure it felt like I could breathe, but how would I know? At that point my adrenaline had me higher than freebasing morphine. I definitely didn’t know how far down the shaft went, and most importantly, I had not one fucking brilliant idea about how I was going to get out.