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…

The Story Begins

Today is All Soul’s day. What a serendipitous date to premier Episode 1 – “Pull My Strings” of They Live Among Us.

You’ll meet Craig, a guy who is having a really bad day. You’ll watch Jimmy and Beth exchange not-so-secret glances, and you’ll hear Caim and Buer as they begin their eternal discussion… and you’ll meet Lillith. A lovely stranger – from a very strange land.

Original music by Brent Heflin McHenry

“Mary Annette”  courtesy of The Hushdown

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n. – John Milton, Paradise Lost

Like what you see and want to see more? Support our Kickstarter campaign for Episodes 4-6!

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.

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…