Six Degrees of Separation

“I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we’re so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture, that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound, you are bound, to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.” – John Guare

Ouisa’s musings from John Guare’s extraordinary play, Six Degrees of Separation, perfectly articulate the journey that has been – and continues to be – the creation of They Live Among Us. There has been an odd synchronicity surrounding the project; glorious at times, at others, unsettling, as if unseen forces were at work.

I experienced two such incidents this week. In one, I was given the opportunity to bring to closure a traumatic incident from my past,
through the chance encounter of an old acquaintance.

I consider this a gift. A chance to heal. Bit by bit, one step at a time.

In the other incident, I sat dumbstruck as worlds collided within my pages.

I had written Episodes 4 – 6, and was executing a rewrite as I moved on towards 7 – 9. Episode 4 opens where 3 leaves off, with Peg and Ted in the Hollywood Hills. Peg was recounting the events leading up to her suicide: I was with… the worst sort of people. It was a party. They were… there were things done that night, terrible things. I remember I ran into the night. They chased after me, calling. I ran up to the sign… it was so very high, I thought if I could just climb up there, if I could just escape…

One of my rituals is to jog Lake Hollywood, then hike up the hills under Wolf’s Lair, eventually coming out onto Mulholland Drive at Castillo del Lago. Both structures are among my favorite in the City of Angels; the latter was once owned by doomed star Rudolph Valentino.

I wondered if it was possible for the party to have been there that night. I wondered who owned Castillo del Lago at that time; if, indeed the residents were the worst sort of people.

I decided to research the property. I skimmed through real estate listings and acquisition records. Then I stumbled across an article that almost brought me to my knees.

In 1932, the same year that poor Peg took her infamous swan dive into oblivion, Castillo del Lago was vacant. The residents of the nearby community of Beachwood Canyon would traverse the hills to the abode, using it as an impromptu community center. Countless parties were held there; some family affairs, others of a decidedly more debauched nature.

In the center of the article were the reminiscings of an old man, who was a boy during those parties. His sister attended many a midnight soiree at Castillo del Lago; he remembered being jealous of her adventures there, and how he dreamed of one day owning the estate.

His name was Milt. Milt Entwistle. Peg’s younger brother.

And so, the journey continues…

Moments of Grace

“I don’t believe in stories with happy endings; I believe in moments of grace.” ~ Todd Field, AMC Shoot Out

I’ve been thinking a great deal about this quote, as post enters its final stages for Episodes 1 – 3 of They Live Among Us.

Moments of grace. What the characters – supernatural and mortal – are seeking. What I – as a writer, a filmmaker, a human being – am seeking. Moments of grace.

We live in ungraceful times; we are culturally conditioned to judge a man not by his actions, but by the amount of money he makes. Profit is our deity; we feed off of the misery of others through war-profiteering, loan-shark banking and depriving the impoverished of healthcare. An infant dies in its mother’s arms because the truckload of grain that relief organizations sent to her camp was hijacked and resold for profit. Churches build towering gilt monoliths worth hundreds of millions of dollars – and these structures cast giant shadows on Skid Row. Victims of rape are murdered by their families, for their victimization is seen as an admission that they are the guilty ones. Children are bought and sold – traded like junk bonds – within the sex-trade industry.

We know this, of course. We hear it on the nightly news… but we refuse to listen. Instead of exploring the human crisis that is Darfur, we turn our attention towards the Jersey Shore. We do anything, everything to drown out this influx of data, for the shame and guilt that we would feel if we were to open our hearts and our minds to the human suffering that surrounds us would be more than the soul could bear.

It was not without trepidation that I began this project. I knew that I would be taken to very dark and painful places; and yet, I also knew that I would experience moments of grace… and that is pwhat I experience as I witness post: beings as they battle demons, literal and figurative, while strugglthe in the place that is the City of Angels… and seek moments of grace. Dark emotions and conflict lurk just beneath the surface; scenes are taut, whittled down to what is most primal and essential. A killer seeks true love. A priest ministers to demons. A lonely man loves a ghost. An angel yearns for a prostitute.

Moments of anguish… enveloped by moments of grace.

The Eye of the Beholder

Film is a fascinating medium to work in. First, you create a world, and those who walk within it, and then you work with cast and crew to achieve an articulation of your vision. Eventually, you make your way to the moment of truth – the rough cut.

I have spent the past few months wandering through the world of “They Live Among Us.” Night after night I have sat in a corner of the Paradise, or followed Caim on his sojourn through the mean streets. I have watched Lucian and Beliala rise, and I have shed tears for Peg – as well as for Ted’s heart-breaking dilemma.

This morning, once again, I watched Lillith. Through the lens.

A curious thing happens when you look at the world through a lens. Life is compressed. Distilled to its very essence. It is stripped of everything superfluous. It sees only the truth. It is omniscient. It is the eye of the beholder.

Looking at the footage, I was able to behold Lillith for all that she is. Beautiful. Fractured. Tormented by the demons within. She did not toy with Craig, as a cat does with its prey; instead, she genuinely wanted to be near him. Loneliness was the hunger that drove her to him – her need for love was great. Unfairly punished by the machinations of a patriarchal society. Expelled, cast forth, turned into a victim of her own desires.

And thus, Craig responded as any young man would; he pursued her. The hunt had commenced. His attraction to her was not false – how could it be ? He paid for her drinks, and he took her to a rooftop. The promise of the pleasures of her flesh danced in his head. He wooed her out of her shyness, and he reclined in anticipation of what was to come…

… and another moment of truth. Lillith’s dark nature took over. Her abandonment into carnality was not titillating; instead, it was tragic. I watched, mute, as Lillith lost herself in Craig. I watched as she fed on his pleasure, on his desire, on his life-force. Her eyes fluttered; she was sated… and then awareness came upon her. She moaned as she saw what she had done. Shame, disgust, guilt flew across her face; cumulus clouds of anguish. She scrambled away from him, hating herself a little bit more, as she has done every time that she has fed on a human.

Later, I saw her at Paradise again. Another night, another man. This one was named Terry – a social worker on Skid Row. At first I assumed that she would feed again, but now that I have witnessed all she experienced that night with Craig, I realize that to do so might destroy her. Each killing brings with it new trauma; another one could push her over the edge of reason. Terry is a kind man with a gentle way about him. She is desperate for contact. She whispers her mantra: “This time, everything will be alright.”

I wonder how long this budding romance will last, for I know that soon Lillith will meet another like her. One who feeds on the pleasure and pain of others. A predator who feeds on lust; he is unapologetic for his state. His appetite is huge. What will come of her, if she couples with him? Will she, like Lucian and Beliala, pass into darkness?

Worlds Collide

Saturday night marked the final day of shooting Episodes 1 – 3 of They Live Among Us.

I sat in a corner and watched Lucian and Beliala as they stripped Beth of everything. They were voracious in their need to rob her of her humanity; their lust for her flesh was wanton. They fed on her fear – and then, they fed on her. I wondered how long their hunger would be sated by this act… who would be next?

Caim and Buer bid one another adieu in front of the Paradise, and went their separate ways. I followed Caim with the stealth of a spy as he made his way through the mean streets of Hollywood. He passed a street… and stopped in his tracks. I turned to see what had garnered his attention, and there she was. A prostitute, clad in a sheer midriff blouse and the plaid skirt of a Catholic school girl. Serafina. She strode with determination, as if she worked her territory by sheer will-power alone.

A man appeared in front of her – Rocco. Deep in the throes of a cocaine high, he was jumpy, paranoid. An argument began, an age-old squabble over money… only this time something darker had entered the equation. Rocco erupted; violence spewed forth from him like ash from Vesuvius. He beat Serafina; he kicked her on the ground. His rage had turned him into a feral animal; he was like a man possessed…

…and all the while Caim stood by, watching, as he had countless of lifetimes before… only this time, something within him snapped. He bested Rocco; with one swift blow he knocked him into unconsciousness. How he resisted killing him, I do not know. He gathered Serafina into his arms and soared into the night sky, towards refuge.

I peered around a corner in Caim’s warehouse loft. It was not the trendy downtown loft of the self-aware hipsters, instead, Caim’s lair was a decrepit, aged building of glass and steel and stone. Caim carried Serafina gently towards his bed. He ministered to her wounds; he permitted himself the luxury of touching her face – a secret, stolen act that he could only execute while she was not conscious, for with such contact comes great danger. He waited for her to wake – and she did, filled with hurt, distrust and shame. He showed her mercy; he pledged to take care of her – and wanted nothing in return. I sensed his hidden anguish; how carefully he concealed his humiliation when he realized that she did not remember him – but how could she? I longed to comfort him, to whisper that everything would be alright – but I did not, for I could not tell if that was the truth or a lie. I still do not known which it is.

Caim left. When Serafina woke, there was food, and a desperate communication to her soul: an azalea blossom. She held the flower, and I saw her hand tremble. The whispers deep inside her had begun. She left – ran, actually, like a thief, into the night, towards all she knew. She ran home to Rocco.

I trailed behind Father Buer as he ministered to a homeless man – another fallen angel driven mad. As he and Caim argued about Caim’s contact with Serafina, a movement on the periphery of my vision caught my attention. I turned focus and found myself gazing upon a homeless man. He was not an actor. He slept in filth in an alley near St. Joseph’s Place; the stench of urine was unmistakable. It was cold outside, and wet – a thick marine layer had enveloped us in its water-logged grasp. The man had blanketed himself with newspapers in an effort to banish the chill. I wanted to go to him… who was he? Certainly, at one time, he had a name. He had once been somebody’s son, somebody’s lover, somebody’s friend. How far he had fallen from grace…

…but I did not approach him. I waited by my car after the last shot, making small talk, smiling, seemingly nonchalant, while inside I was weeping, for I was thinking of all that I had seen that night… and I fervently wished that I was a different person, one that was more beautiful. More brave. One that had the courage to sit with the fallen.

A Place Called Paradise

I spent Sunday night in Paradise.

Urban sprawl provides one with anonymity, as if the masses surrounding you form a shield of invisibility. You are indistinguishable amongst the masses. You cannot be seen for who – or what – you truly are.

It was under this protective veil that I entered the Paradise Bar.

There is no measure of time in Paradise, for there are no windows with which to gauge the hour of day. It is eternal midnight within its dark walls. A few mismatched bar stools, a couple of small seating areas – this is the sum of Paradise. It is a place where troubled souls venture, in order to numb the pain within.

Across from me were two men engaged in debate. One of them, the older, wore the clerical collar of a priest; the other was cloaked in black. Their discussion, barely audible, had the sense of a lifelong debate between the two. I wondered why the priest found such pleasure in his whiskey… what horror he was trying to forget… and yet, he seemed hopeful. Ebullient, almost, clinging to idealism the way a drowning man might clutch a water-logged seat cushion.

His companion was of a different ilk; dark, beautiful, intense. Detachment was his defense… and yet, a glimpse of something else. An offhand remark; a rare smile, a bit of self-deprecation… and pain. I watched as the mask was dropped. Anguish wrapped around him like a lover’s embrace – anguish, and hope. I thought of Janus, the two-faced god, and wondered which of the faces would become master, and which would become the slave.

A movement caught my eye – a young man stepped into the room. His clothes were rumpled, there was stubble on his cheeks. He seemed lost – and utterly alone.

He slid onto a stool, and began the age-old ritual of self-medication. On his right, a lone man. He seemed almost an anachronism in the bar – his suit was pressed, he wore a silken tie, and a fedora sat by his side. Like the rest in Paradise, he, too, seemed invisible in the world. Why was he here? Why so alone?

Paradise’s bartender was a youthful chap; I assumed that he was a writer, as he kept a journal close by his side. When he was not recording his musings or serving customers, his attentions were solely devoted to the cocktail waitress. Secret glances passed between them; every opportunity for contact was fully exploited. I thought of the head-rush of new love, of how one’s senses become amplified, of the feeling of sated pleasure. I wondered how long that this would last for them. For some people, this passion is a fleeting escape from the harsh inequities of life; for others, it is the coming together of souls. What will it be for them?

A young woman sat next to the rumpled man. She was fresh and pretty; clad in a simple pink dress, the epitome of the girl next door… and yet, within her eyes, I could sense abject loneliness – and something else. It was her eyes. Yes. They seemed older than she. Perhaps only I noticed, for the man next to her certainly did not. He zeroed in on her; to him, she seemed like oxygen to a dying astronaut. I could see her measure him; her need for love was palpable. Perhaps this time love will find her, I thought. Perhaps this time, everything will be okay.

And so, I sat in my darkened corner Sunday night in Paradise, and watched the stories that surrounded me. The two men rose, and slipped into the night. The young woman and the man left together. The young lovers whispered in the flickering lights, while the man in the suit drank alone… and I knew that their journeys were about to begin.

Acts of Intimacy

This weekend marks the beginning of production for They Live Among Us. Within a few weeks, all will be visible, all will be known, and you, gentle readers, will be able to join us on this journey.

Soon, I will write in depth about this weekend; what I saw, what I heard, what moved and intrigued me. What I hope for the characters… and what I fear for them most.

Until then, I leave you with thoughts from an entry about what I’ve experienced during the creation of TLAU from my other blogsite:

Acts of Intimacy

Writing for actors is an act of intimacy.

When you take this approach, you are peering into an artist’s heart and soul… and you are allowing them to peer into yours. You ask questions of their characters – detailed glimpses into their lives, for these glimpses provide you with not only what is happening in the present, but what has happened in the past… and in the world of They Live Among Us, backstory – the character’s lives, their fecund histories – is everything.

It is a little frightening, this transparency. Yesterday, at the table read, I revealed a suspicion of mine in regard to a character’s backstory. It is a dark and terrible moment in his past; the reveal was unsettling for all.

It is much safer to keep things gay and light. To reveal something so dark is to open one’s self up for inspection, for criticism, and for judgement. Such reveals are an articulation of the struggle within. To commit this act is to stand there naked, for all to see.

This intimate act of writing is as if you have been speaking with a person for a while… and you move in close to them… and discover that they are wearing a scent. You look around, and realize that others in the room do not know this scent. It is subtle. It is only for those who are allowed so close.

Intimacy is not without risk. Shedding defenses, stripping off layers places you in a position of vulnerability. What if you are rejected? What if the sum of you is considered to be aesthetically or morally displeasing? What if you are found to be ugly?

As I prepare to incorporate notes and thoughts from the read, I also prepare to bare my mind, my heart, my soul. My friend Dari says “Write like you’re naked,” and never before have words rung so true.

Guardian Angel

In the world of They Live Among Us, the Creator bears more resemblance to the God of Abraham, of Zeus, and other omnipotent rulers of ancient cultures, than the modern Judeo-Christian deity. The Creator is a demanding and temperamental one; the rules of Elysium are literally set in stone.

Forgiveness for and acceptance of transgressions do not exist in this paradise; to break the mores of Elysium is to be cast forth – forever.

Like the God of Abraham, the Creator, too, demands absolute obedience and submission, and in exchange for this devotion, He takes care of the world of Man. Like the God of Abraham, the Creator demands sacrifice.

This is where the story of the Chosen One begins. Serafina, like countless women before her, was born into the House of Circes – women who devoted themselves to the Creator. Serafina’s birth was carefully contrived, for she, like the Chosen One before her, was brought into the world to offer herself in sacrifice.

The final year in the life of the Chosen One is spent in solitude. The priestess is sent to an island, to spend her time in reflection and in prayer, so that she may prepare herself for her final duty. She is alone; offerings are brought to her by the devout. But she must not have contact with humans. It is forbidden.  She is assigned a heavenly guard – an angel, whose duty is to protect her, so that she may live – to die.

Serafina’s guardian angel was Caim.

There they are, the guardian and his charge, on the island of Aeaea. Caim is touched by Serafina’s beauty, by her calm as she prepares to perform the singular task that she was created for. She is so very brave. The world of Man is in her hands; if she does not fulfill her obligation, mankind will plunge into darkness.

Caim moves Serafina in inexplicable ways. His presence travels far beyond the mere trappings of his form; it is his soul which calls most eloquently to her, as her soul calls to him. They are blameless, the two of them. They cannot ignore the whispers they hear inside. They yearn for one another;  the opportunity to touch is fleeting. A lingering glance, the brush of a fingertip… these small moments are all they have. In their beds at night, they dream of lying together, limbs intertwined, unable to distinguish one from the other. They are star-crossed.

Every few weeks, Caim must travel to Elysium, and offer his own devotion to the Creator. Each time he leaves Aeaea, his longing for Serafina grows. Each time he enters Elysium, the seeds of discontent fester. He begins to silently question the Creator, of how He can destroy what He loves most. Caim confides in Buer, and in Lucian. The facade of obedience is cracked.

It is mere weeks before the ritual is to commence. Caim returns from Elysium. In her garden, Serafina waits…

The Struggle Within

Recurrent themes echo within the world of They Live Among Us. Each character struggles with feelings of isolation, of loneliness… of being different… an outsider.

Being alone in a city of over 4 million people provides one with a certain autonomy; there is comfort in invisibility… and yet, there is also sorrow. Each of the characters yearn for something; they wish for their souls to be touched, and it is because of this yearning that they must raise their defenses and bear the shields of objectivity and separation. Emotions must be compartmentalized, for, when they are not, they erupt with the power of Vesuvius.

Good and evil are not defined in black and white in this modern gothic world. No one is completely pure; and yet all have the chance for redemption. Even Lucian longs for love, from his Creator, from his master… from Serafina. Father Buer, in the dark of the night, closes his eyes and dreams of Elysium, where once he loved another. They are very mortal, these immortals. They hope. They fear. They dream.

Each struggles with inner demons: Craig, the perpetual man-child. Rocco, the monkey of drug addiction riding with great fury upon his back. Serafina, burdened with a soul that has been denied eternal rest, Jimmy, haunted by Beth’s sudden disappearance, and Caim, the wounded warrior angel, tormented by his actions of the past, having to face what haunts him most, again and again, in perpetuity.

Caim has traveled as far into the dark that any being can journey, and still survive. This last foray has left an indelible stamp upon his spirit. You can see it within his eyes… eyes as blue as the heavens, and yet, as black as the dark of night.

Few of the characters are without choice. Lillith could deny her carnal urgings. Lucian and Beliala could forsake the consumption of flesh. Buer could accept his place in the world, Sam could walk into the light, and Caim could choose, this time, to stay away from Serafina, to let her life unfold without interference.

But they do not. And so, the story continues…

The All-American Succubus

Lillith may be as fresh-faced as a homecoming queen, and yet she is one of the oldest of those who live among us.

The story of Lillith is a cautionary tale about a modern young woman living in less than modern times. Lillith was Adam’s first wife, and, like women of today, believed that she was her spouse’s equal. Unfortunately, Adam did not share this belief. He wanted a mate who was uncomplicated, uneducated and submissive. He wanted to be served. He wanted a slave. And so, in this ancient world of patriarchal theocracy, Lillith was cast forth from Paradise, and forced to wander the earth for eternity.

I think about the shock that she must have felt upon awakening from the fall. How cruel her punishment was, for her only crime was insubordination. I think about the shame, the isolation that she felt, as she navigated through a sea of mortals. I think about Paradise, the memory of it seared into her brain, how she hungered to return home. And hunger she still does, for after the fall, Lillith was transformed into a succubus.

Succubi and incubi are specialized forms of vampires. They are sexual vampires. They may or may not drink the blood of their victims. They may or may not dine on their victim’s flesh. One thing is for certain – what they do is to drain the life-force from their victims, extinguishing them in an orgasmic frenzy.

I sit in the corner of the Paradise Bar. A man walks in – Craig. He’s boyish and rumpled; discontent is settled on his shoulders like a shrug. He sits at the bar, alone, and drinks Scotch.

Across from him, a beautiful young woman. Lillith. She watches Craig; I can feel her attraction to him – it is palpable. How ripe he is. The warmth that emanates from his flesh. I hear the thoughts as they run through her head – Maybe this time it won’t happen, maybe this time I won’t kill him, tonight will be different, maybe this time everything will be alright…

She speaks to Craig; he turns… and within moments he is smitten.

Perhaps tonight will be different. Perhaps tonight, everything will be alright.

For Lillith, the hunt begins.

The Trouble With Lucian

Not all fallen angels are as conflicted as Caim and Father Buer. For some, life on earth has become a sort of paradise. For beings such as Lucian, Los Angeles is a veritable all-you-can-eat human buffet.

For every protagonist there must be an equally forceful antagonist, and Lucian is a force to be reckoned with. He, too, served with Caim, as one of the Ancient Ones. He, too rebelled and fought in the Great War.

I see Lucian, before the Fall, growing envious of Caim’s rising star. I imagine him as a sort of supernatural Iago, always present, ever whispering into Caim’s ear, offering an insidious litany. He encourages Caim’s growing discontent;  Lucian nurtures and feeds the seeds of rebellion. Perhaps Paradise was too perfect for Lucian; perhaps his appetite for flesh, and the power that came with it, drove him. Fall he did… but instead of plummeting into the depths of despair, he rose – and thrived – amongst mankind.

Lucian is a master of manipulation. He prefers places of power – Wall Street, D.C., Rome. Wherever there is excess and privilege, Lucian is there. Every few decades, his persona dies – a car wreck, a mysterious plane crash – and Lucian retires into solitude for a period of time, only to rise again.

And thus, he rises, this time in Hollywood. Lucian embraces the City of Angels with gusto; he surrounds himself with carefully selected mortals – modern-day Renfields – to help him feed his fancies. He has crafted himself into an A-list movie star; he basks in luxury. At his side is his ever-faithful companion Beliala, an elegant yet bloodthirsty bitch if ever there was one.

In this new era of corporate capitalism and greed, Lucian thrives. He loves L.A., and all of its trappings. A new assistant has arrived to serve him – Alex, an ambitious junior agent. Alex has been hired by an age-old firm, which represents just a few select clients. Alex’s job is to find young Hollywood hopefuls, and send them, under the guise of an audition, to Lucian, like a lamb to the slaughter.

Soon, however, Lucian will himself be drawn into Caim’s private hell. Lucian, too, longs for the Chosen One.

For Lucian, Serafina might be the ultimate sacrifice. An offering of blood – that could launch the War against Man.