“You must confront the darkness within to confront the darkness without.”
Saturday morning, 22 September 2007
GM: Emil’s seen flyers all around Tulane for the movie seeking actors. No experience required. No salary either, but there will be free food at the film shoots. Plus a fancy meal at the Commander’s Palace screening. And it’ll be something to put on college applications or under “volunteer experience.”
It’s good enough that Emil’s girlfriend Hillary decides they should give the next audition on Saturday morning a shot. It’s at a classroom in the McGehee school for girls in the Garden District.
Emil: The man is dressed in the traditional attire of exhausted college students: a sweater branded with the name of a university he doesn’t attend and a pair of jeans that are a little to baggy to be flattering. He wears a skullcap on the top of his head. “All right, all right, I’m coming!” he laughs after the young brunette who’s pulling him along, almost tripping over the floor.
Support: The teenage boy there in the classroom stares.
GM: A blonde girl sitting next to him on a fold-out chair smiles and gives Emil and Hillary a “thanks so much for coming” hello. Her name is Cécilia. The boy is Elliot. She asks them to “slate,” which as she helpfully explains, “is a movie term for giving your name and talent agency to the auditioners… though somehow I think we can skip the second of those.”
Support: Elliot glances over the two and when their turns come gives each a prompt.
The brunette’s is, “Tell me a secret.”
Elliot’s gaze is more focused on Emil.
“Tell me about yourself in the most interesting way you can.”
Emil: “Uh well, if you want to know about me I could tell you I’m a Jewish Comp Sci major… class of…”
He sees that this isn’t really what they’re looking for, so he breathes and switches gears.
“I know how to find out secrets. Given an hour or two, a phone book, and an Internet connection, I could find out the context of anybody’s lives. Who they are. How they present themselves. And if I had some time to chat with my rabbi, I could figure out anybody’s fundamental purpose.”
He stares Elliot right in the eyes. “I could find out who you are, but more importantly, why you are.”
Was that too much? Emil thinks. His lifts his arms up, showing his palms to the director. “Not that I would ever do that. That would be a couple hairs shy of a stalking charge. Not to mention the ethical issues.”
“Oh!” he remembers, turning to belatedly answer Cécilia’s question. “You can call me Em.” Every performer needs a pseudonym. Well, every performer whose go-to audition comprises of telling minors he can doxx them.
GM: The brunette, who simply gave her name as Hillary, looks amused.
“Oh, that’ll be easy to remember,” the younger blonde woman smiles. “It’s so close to his name—Em and El.”
“What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found out about someone through your rabbi, phone book, and internet connection?”
Support: Elliot chokes a little on his water but otherwise retains his composure. “Yeah, real easy,” he agrees.
“I’m interested, gotta admit,” he says in the meantime. “What are you looking for at an audition?”
Emil: “Oh, like I said I don’t think it would be very good to go snooping for info like that most of the time. But to give you an example of the stuff my rabbi can tell you… there’s always something pertinent in the meanings behind names,” ‘Em’ answers El with a shrug.
“To he honest, Hil sorta just dragged me along over here. But, you know I’ve always liked the movies and I like the idea of helping out a community project. Its been a while since I’ve had the chance. So I’d like to play a part if you have one in mind.”
“You have a real interesting name, El, know what it means?”
GM: “It’s another name for God, I think?” Cécilia supplies.
Support: “Yeah, I think my mother liked the sound of it more than the meaning. But I’ll bite, what’s it mean originally?”
Emil: “Your friend is right, it is, in its shortened form, a name of God. But back in the day, before the God of Abraham was widely known, your full first name, which I suspect is some translation of Elijahu, was of much more significance. Elijahu means my God is Yah. It was a defiant declaration of faith, of knowledge of who truly controls you despite being surrounded by other insects who claim divinity and through that seek control. You aren’t a servant of Dagon or Baal, and you can’t change this fact. Your subservience to your God is a part of you. And you even have the pleasure of knowing your master’s name.” Em expresses this with a great levity, like he’s retelling a childhood story.
“You know, Elijah was also a prophet. Every prophet gets to tell a story, sorta like what you’re doing with this movie. But the special part about Elijah is that instead of perishing before His word came to pass, his master took him from the world alive, by fire, to stay next to Him in His house. Forever.” Em is beaming, a little too excited for his own sake.
GM: “Oh wow, that’s a lot to have in a name,” Cécilia says. “But I guess it’s true that names have power. You obviously know a lot about religious studies, Em.”
Emil: “Oh, that’s nothing. My teacher says we’ve barely scratched the surface of knowledge to learn. Do you have much interest in religion yourself?”
Support: “Some,” El answers. “But I wasn’t raised in a churchgoing home. I know Cécilia was, though.” He beams at her.
“You seem to care a lot about meaning,” El says to the Jew. “What’s your own name mean, Em?”
Emil: Em smiles at El’s apparent interest, but then scrunches his brow a bit before answering, “Well, in the original language, ‘Em’ is an adjective, meaning pertaining, or perhaps, belonging to mother.”
Emil thinks for a moment before breaking into laughter.
“I guess that means I’m somewhat of a mama’s boy. I can’t disagree with that!” Em finishes as he calms down. “So what’s your movie gonna be about?”
GM: “It’s a love story, remember?” says Hillary, having watched her boyfriend’s lengthy exposition with some amusement.
“That’s right,” Cécilia nods, still smiling slightly over El’s churchgoing remark. “It’s a rags to riches story about a poor conwoman who falls in love with a handsome young heir, but his aunt is a horrible monster who gets in the way.”
“That’s an interesting subversion. Refreshing, actually. Usually it’s the guy trying to get the girl who’s better than him,” Hillary remarks.
“Yes, we wanted to do something refreshing. It’s 2007, after all. The girl can fight to get the boy too.”
“Yes, that sounds great,” Hillary nods. “But it does sound a little black and white to me too, no offense. Two people in love, a bad person gets in the way, and true love overcomes?”
“Oh, we’ve made sure to give it more depth than that,” Cécilia smiles. “The nuance isn’t in the aunt, but the heroine’s choices. When I say the aunt is a horrible monster, that might be the literal truth. Or it might not. The aunt isn’t ever mean to the heroine’s face, but there are disturbing hints about what she’s up to behind closed doors—things so disturbing she might not even be human. The heroine isn’t sure what to believe and wonders if she’s insane, because at the same time, the aunt makes her nephew very happy and actually encourages them to pursue a relationship together. But the more the heroine sees, the more she’s convinced their happiness may be built on an unspeakably awful lie. But she can’t simply expose the aunt without consequence, or even expose her at all—the aunt is powerful, connected, and she’s no one. So the heroine has to face some very hard questions about what she’s willing to do for love, what she can live with, and how much of this may just be in her head. There can’t be a happily ever after in this story: just an option that’s less distasteful.”
“Oh wow, that’s really dark-sounding,” Hillary comments, eyebrows raised. “Would you say that it’s a horror movie?”
Cécilia seems to think on that. “You know, we actually hadn’t really considered its genre. But now that you mention it, I’d say it definitely is. It’s only ambiguous whether it’s supernatural horror or psychological horror. Some or all of what’s happening could just be in the heroine’s head.”
She smiles at the two auditioners. “Hopefully that gives you both a better sense of what the movie’s about, anyway.”
Emil: Emil nods. “Thank you for explaining, but now I’m curious. Does the conwoman ever admit to her deceit? You know, out of love or something like that?”
GM: “You mean about who she is?” Cécilia shakes her head. “No. Though now that you mention it, that detail gets largely sidelined in favor of the plot with the aunt. I wonder if that’s a mistake.”
Emil: “Well I guess I assumed, since she’s a liar, she might make herself seem better than she is. Maybe you could include a redemption arc?”
GM: “Maybe you shouldn’t,” Hillary says thoughtfully. “Does the aunt get to redeem herself?”
Cécilia starts to answer, but Hillary preempts her with, “Rhetorical question. You want this to be a horror movie, and that’d be a really happy ending. But how much worse is the aunt than the conwoman, really? How many people has the conwoman hurt? Why should she get to redeem herself just because she’s the protagonist?”
“There’s a quote my mom likes, ‘Every person is the protagonist in their own story.’ Even the ones who are bad guys. It feels almost… excusing the conwoman, saying that because she’s the heroine, the protagonist, the center of her world, that she gets to be special. Am I making sense there?”
Emil: “You know, I think you bring up something really important there, Hil. Maybe, and I’m no storyteller so take this with a grain of salt, if you want to do something fresh, let the aunt alone redeem herself?”
GM: “Oh, just the aunt? Why her and not the conwoman?” Cécilia asks curiously.
Emil: “Because she’s the only one who is really suffering in the movie. She’s the one the audience will come to see as a monster. The other characters get off comparatively easy. Let the aunt fight for her image and you’ll have a nice twist,” Emil responds after some thought.
GM: “I don’t know… actually, no, I do,” Hillary frowns. “The aunt’s supposed to be a horrible monster who’s hurt people, isn’t she? So why should we feel bad for her just because the audience finds out? So she loses her reputation—that’s called getting caught. That isn’t suffering, that’s justice.”
Emil: “Because, Hil, I’m not sure the aunt is actually that bad. They said that we never see the aunt actually hurt anyone. If it’s told from the perspective of the conwoman, she could be twisting the narrative to justify her actions. What if we get to see the aunt’s side of the story in the end of the film?”
GM: “That’s true,” Hillary thinks. “So the conwoman was actually just mistaken about the whole thing. The aunt being a monster was actually a con she was pulling on herself. The real monster all along was her.”
“I wonder though, if we can already switch roles like that and have the conwoman turn out to be the real monster, could she redeem herself too? And how do you have her redeem herself and still face justice?”
“I’d first say the aunt being a monster is a matter of perception, but the conwoman being one is an objective fact,” Cécilia raises. “Crimes are crimes, and the conwoman can’t simply spin her way out of those. Twisting other peoples’ perspectives is what she’s always done. She has to admit to that, to her crimes, and other people’s perspectives—society’s—mattering more than hers.”
“That makes sense, then,” Hillary says. “The conwoman simply has to admit what she did was wrong. She has to be honest for once, and willing to face the consequences.”
Cécilia nods. “If the conwoman is caught and tells us she’s sorry, it’s hard to believe she really is—or at least sorry for anything besides getting caught.”
“Crocodile tears,” Hillary remarks.
“Yes,” Cécilia says. “For those tears to be human, she has to confess what she’s done when she thinks she can get away with it. She must be willing to face justice. But just as important as justice is mercy. The people she’s hurt can choose to forgive her, and absolve her of any consequences besides a humbled pride. Redemption is a two-way process. The criminal tries to prove they’re worthy of it, and the victim recognizes when they are.”
“So the conwoman could redeem herself, just like the aunt might not actually be a monster,” Hillary says. “That’d be a really happy ending. But is it the best story?”
Emil: “Horror is nothing without contrast. I don’t think redemption in itself has to lead to a happy ending. You know the story of Samson and Delilah? Samson broke his oath with God for the love of Delilah and he suffered immensely, getting humbled from a man who could kill a thousand men with an animal’s jawbone to a cripple with his eyes gouged out. His story was horrific, but he did redeem himself in the end, by sacrificing his life to tear down the temple of Israel’s enemies.”
GM: “That’s true,” Hillary remarks. “The conwoman could redeem herself. But the nephew or the people she’s hurt could always refuse to forgive her. Just because she does the right thing doesn’t mean that other people have to.” She frowns. “I don’t think I like that ending, though. It’s unfair. Samson gets recognized as a hero in the end, it just costs him.”
“I think I like that kind of ending more than one where the aunt turns out not to be a monster and the conwoman redeems herself, too. You shouldn’t be able to essentially just handwave what you’ve done away—redeeming yourself should cost something.”
Support: The young director is an unusually well-groomed young man for his age, and Em gets the distinct impression he’s a little at a loss, a situation perhaps unfamiliar to him. He’s been listening to their discussion first with the kind of polite silence of somebody who knows the work obsessively well but is waiting to hear what others have to say, then with what looks like a kind of touched surprise as the girl—maybe some kind of romantic partner, from the body language, but it’s hard to parse the boy’s exact relation towards her—-starts to talk about his project’s insides and outs, as attentively and thoughtfully as if it were her own.
Then that expression grows thoughtful and steadily still (morose?) as the group discusses the ending.
“I guess I’m wondering what redemption looks like when truth becomes dangerous. The obvious answer is she comes clean, shares everything—but that also seems too clean. What redeems a liar when the most dangerous thing they can do is tell the truth?”
The question seems directed at all of them, but he’s watching Cécilia’s face.
GM: “I’d say that’s the whole point of redemption,” Cécilia considers. “It has to cost the wrongdoer something. They have to give of themselves for others, not just to make right the wrongs they’ve done, but to show us they’ve had a change of heart. So Samson in the story gives his life to defeat Israel’s enemies.”
“Now the wrongdoer might also think, why should they ever do that. Who wants to die or pay some other price when they could get to live instead, and not? How does redemption pay?”
“You could say, again, the whole point of redemption is supposed to be thinking about others. But the wrongdoer is actually saving themselves too.”
Cécilia seems to think. “In fact… let’s assume for a moment the aunt really is a monster, and of course the conwoman already is. Now let’s say she doesn’t redeem herself to the nephew, and doesn’t come clean.”
A dawning look comes over Cécilia’s face. “Actually… I think I’ve got something that could be the perfect ending for this movie. Something that’s pure horror. Even more than the original script.”
“The best horror doesn’t just show the monster as an external threat to defeat. It makes the monster an internal threat too, that says something unsettling about the protagonist and forces them to confront their own failings and weaknesses. It blurs the line between the monster and the protagonist. I’d start by drawing parallels between what the aunt and conwoman have in common.”
“How they’re both hurting people,” Hillary says. “The conwoman isn’t wrong the aunt is a monster, but the conwoman is still one too. Though it’s more than even that, there’s lots of kinds of monsters. But the aunt and the conwoman are both liars.”
“Exactly,” Cécilia agrees. “They’re both lying to someone—actually, the same person, the nephew—in pursuit of happiness. They’re after the same thing.”
“Why, though?” asks Hillary. “What’s making the conwoman do this, lie to and hurt someone we’re supposed to believe she loves? Monsters aren’t born, most of the time, they’re made.”
Support: “A monster? I wouldn’t go that far. She wants love and light in her life like anybody else. The things she does to get it are wrong, but I think her crime is a teenager’s crime, a mistake made for human reasons. She’s manipulative and imperfect, but I’d hope also a sympathetic figure.”
His tone sounds curious.
GM: “I don’t think so,” Cécilia says, shaking her head. “Maybe if the aunt wasn’t in this, and the conwoman wasn’t going after the nephew. But the aunt is, and the conwoman is. It’s because like draws like. The conwoman is drawn to them, both of them, because she’s repeating history. If she’s lying to the person she loves, she’s probably done it before. Maybe past loves, but if you want to get to the heart of it, I’d say she’s lied to her family. And hurt them very badly. She’s looking for love here because she’s lonely. She hopes she can find it this time, but she’s repeating the same mistakes as last time.”
“So that explains why she’s after the nephew. But where does the aunt fit into this?” asks Hillary. “You said the conwoman was drawn to her.”
Cécilia nods. “There’s another quote, I don’t remember who it’s by or even how it goes—but we see things we wish weren’t true about ourselves in the people we most dislike.”
“How the aunt and the conwoman are both liars after the nephew’s affection,” Hillary raises.
“Oh, but it’s not even just the nephew,” says Cécilia. “I think the aunt is actually more important to the conwoman than the nephew.”
“The conwoman sees herself mirrored in the aunt, who’s a horrible monster. Not just who she is, but who she could be—a liar who’s gotten away with all the horrible things she’s done, which are so much worse than the conwoman’s, yet still manages to win the nephew’s love.”
“The conwoman is simultaneously intrigued, aroused, and repulsed by this. The aunt is everything about the conwoman she hates and fears, yet also wishes is true.”
“And that’s why the conwoman is doomed, and her pursuit of the nephew with the aunt involved can only end in failure and tragedy. Because you must confront the darkness within to confront the darkness without. For the conwoman, that would mean coming clean, and proving she actually is different from the aunt.”
“And the truth always comes out,” Hillary fills in. “Maybe it takes a while, but it always does. The conwoman found out about the aunt, after all, and she’s a better liar and worse monster than the conwoman is. That’s why con artists always move on, because people wise up eventually. You can’t fool someone forever. But the conwoman is looking for love—something you can’t just move on from.”
Cécilia nods. “The conwoman has forgotten that. She’s played herself and fallen victim to her own con—so she will lose the nephew and the love she hoped to obtain. Not because of the aunt. Because of herself.”
“That’s what we call a tragedy in the literary sense of the term—it’s not simply something sad that happens, like stubbing your toe, or even your mother suddenly dying. It’s when the protagonist brings about their own doom through a fatal flaw they could have forseen, but didn’t. It makes us throw up our hands and say ‘if only you’d done that! You could have gotten a happy ending!’ because it was so sadly, tragically preventable.”
Cécilia smiles at Elliot. “I’m so glad we had Em and Hil over, El. They’ve given us the best ending for this movie yet.”
Support: “Some people just have that magic touch,” El agrees, his mood twisting like a ballerina with broken heels. “Well, we’ll remember you two, that’s for sure—we already have your callback information, right?”
He walks them both to the door after they’ve finished chatting. “That was a nice conversation you two got rolling. I have to thank you for that.” He offers a hand first to the woman, then to Emil. His grip is comfortable and cool, but not strong.
“How did you find us, if you don’t mind me asking?” he asks the man.
Emil: Emil takes the young man’s hand, his shake by contrast is a little too firm for comfort. “It was fate. And also a flyer. But fate is definitely in there somewhere, I’m sure. Hill actually is the one who found out initially, isn’t that right?”
GM: “Yeah,” she nods. “I think my mom and Cécilia’s have met each other a few times too.”
“Oh really, who is she?” Cécilia asks.
“I thought I recognized you from somewhere,” Cécilia smiles. “Congratulations to her on becoming majority leader.”
“Thanks. We were all really proud.”
Support: “Oh? My mom voted for her,” El says. “You should invite her to the screening, in any case, especially if we call you back. I’m sure she’d love to see you on the screen, and the more big names, the better for publicity.”
GM: “I’ll ask,” Hillary nods. “Commander’s Palace is great even if you weren’t doing the screening there.”
Support: “I know, I’d probably be looking forward to the meal as much as the movie if it was somebody else’s baby,” El laughs. “How’d you two meet?”
GM: “We both go to Tulane, and we took some classes together,” Hillary answers. “Anyway, we’re sure you’ve got other people waiting to audition. Good luck.”
Emil: Before the couple leave, Emil takes a worn notepad out of his bag, scrawls an address on the little room remaining on the paper unstained by poorly erased calculations and drawings, tears the strip and hands it to El.
“You two seem like particularly intelligent and spirited people. If you’re interested in learning some deep truths about the world you live in, give me a call and come to this address for a study session. It might just change your life… if you’re open to it.”
Support: “That’s nice of you to offer, thank you,” El says, taking it with a smile and glancing at Cécilia.
Emil: Emil smiles back and takes his leave with Hill.
All things told, it’s been a good audition.