F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.03 - July 1995

Notes on a Process

By William Gibson

A clear cold Monday mid-morning in Toronto, February 1994, and I'm standing beneath the dim high ceiling of a brick Victorian factory on Lansdowne Avenue, perhaps a foundry once for steam engines, more recently a General Electric plant. This room is vast, and in it are built other rooms, ceilingless, lights slung above. Here's a hotel suite, Beijing, early 21st- century, realised in the most fastidious detail (though the faux Phillipe Starck chairs have recently been riddled with explosive flechettes, setting goose down to play across the wonderfully ugly carpet). Here's the back room of the Drome bar, with grease-stained duct work to rival Gilliam's Brazil. And here, in a propman's plastic Ziploc bag, looking like a cross between some fetish queen's jewellery and the business end of a Roto-Rooter, is a weapon of a sort that has never before existed anywhere in the human universe. Except, that is, behind my forehead. Why we spent however many mornings driving to Century City in some rented car, with the windows down and the air-conditioning on, as if, thereby, we were stealing something from this system that so effortlessly, so seamlessly, so consistently refuses us...

I've become an intimate of Sunset Strip hotels, moving over these four years from Bel Age to Le Ràve to the St James, and finally to the Chateau Marmont, that historied pile, where the ghosts of Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons (who didn't actually die there, though they certainly served their time) sit around the pool at night with the ghost of Jim Belushi (who did). There I learned to stay in the "9" suites: 39, 49, 59, 69. These have balconies running the length of the building, facing the Strip, and more rooms than you can ever quite discover during a given stay. Like vast 1920s Hollywood apartments, their original fixtures and fittings strangely intact. Huge white gas ranges, deactivated dumb-waiters, cedar-lined closets with fold-down ironing boards. A place fraught with mysteries. Mysteries and intriguing-looking European tourists, who stand around the front desk complaining of irregularities in their wives' rented cellular service. Complaining of strange voices, speaking as from the very well of time. Of a madman on Frau X's pocket Motorola, muttering that the severed finger joint of one particular and long-forgotten '50s starlet languishes this very day in the locked drawer of that odd brown piece of furniture in the hallway of Suite Sixtysomething - but the precise location is always lost, awash in that ferocious garble of Russian cab-static, up off the crawling Strip, where the cabbies, mainly Vietnamese when I began my term of service (Four years ago? Five?), are now mostly from Vladivostok.

Not to say that I wasn't happier at the Marmont, once I discovered the place. My home away from home. Glitz-free. Patient to a fault, the Marmont. A place proud of its Bohemian heritage.

A place to sit up late at night, rereading whatever current draft, so curiously indistinguishable from the last, while pondering what it might be, exactly, that one does in order to make this strange thing, a movie, happen? And they do happen, movies, because through the window, past the palms and the shadow of the Marlboro Man, you can see the billboards down Sunset, the ones announcing all the new films. Yes, but movies are quite impossible to make. Utterly. It cannot be done. And yet. And yet... So that life, or anyway the segments of it concerned with trying to make this movie, becomes a sort of Kafka-loop, but Kafka as done by the Fox Network, say. So that you go away. Go home. Back to the world. But eventually it tugs you back yet again, as if on a bungee made of prepaid first-class air tickets and something that starts to feel, well, fairly deeply compulsive - yes, even a mania of sorts... To cut the Kafka-loop bits short, what initially sounds like yes, but - no no no no no begins to sound like yes, of course, but no no no no, and, well, yes. - except of course when we mean no.

When it's virtually all yes, you find several million dollars at your project's disposal (though quite amazingly useless, you discover, and which, anyway, under no circumstances whatever, including any eventual making of the film, will ever belong to you) but the rare no really means it, and while that no is there, some eldritch entity in Dimension Zed, be it a faceless Bahamian banker, her cousin the Parisian tax lawyer, an Alaskan accountant or Herr Virek in his designer cancer-vat in Neo Zurich (and believe me, you'll never know) will not sign the cheque you need to secure "the talent" - ie, "name" actors - without whom you cannot make this movie.And it goes on like that. And, well, on.

So that, sadly, when at last you are flushed through that very final membrane, you scarcely even know it. You are, in some odd and I suppose merciful way, past caring. It's all very odd. You're kind of like one of those hapless yet endearingly tough-talking personality-constructs in a William Gibson novel, the part of you that is most nearly human has come to inhabit certain interstices in a piece of software called scriptor. You have started to experience everything in terms of scriptor's "Work" menu. When you enter a room, you feel a momentary anxiety: should this be under scene heading, or action? You aren't sure, so you say something, really anything, to the first person you see, because that will definitely be under dialog. You have been working 14-hour days, six-day weeks, for the past two months. Your family, when they see you, look at you oddly. You dream of having a personal assistant. Someone to handle all the little things, like relating to your children and brushing your teeth. You experience moments of terrible lucidity, in which you see how deeply and cosmically silly this whole experience has gotten to be. Meanwhile, your friend who wants to be a director has relocated to Toronto, where the "film" - you've taken to thinking of it in quotation marks - is supposedly to be shot. He has taken his pregnant wife, their two children from a previous marriage, into the bitterest, most nightmarish winter in Canadian history. And he has already spent literally millions of somebody's dol-lars on... something. You aren't quite sure what. And the cheque has not been signed. Not quite. no.

And then they sign it. And the director - and now he is the director - begins to shoot. Things begin to move to a really frantic pace. Because now there is the relentless logic of fitting 105 suddenly very intricate pages of story into only 56 days of shooting. Meanwhile the talent has been signed as well. Actors have arrived to inhabit these creatures of your imagination. It's all very strange. Deeply strange. People with walkie-talkies. Cars and drivers. Catering vans. The leading lady is off behind the Beijing Hotel set, teaching herself to peg ninja-spikes into a sheet of Styrofoam. People from the Smoke-Wafters Union are wafting prop-smoke into the back room of the Drome bar. Things are beginning to move. It's happening.

The actor who plays Yomomma, the transsexual bodyguard, asks you if his character has a penis. You tell him quite frankly that nobody knows except Pretty, his girlfriend. Who else, after all, would dare to ask? He seems to like that.

Then you go away, and you talk about all this too much, boring your family, your friends with your monotonous obsession. You show them the photographs you've taken. They shrug. You make an effort to behave normally. It doesn't work. You're not sure what to do. So you go back to Toronto to look at the Beijing Hotel suite again - and it's gone forever, dismantled. As is the back room of the Drome bar.

You find all that's left of the hotel suite - a filthy stretch of carpeting and a shredded fake Phillipe Starck chair - in an even bigger building out in the suburban industrial belt. An address on Industry Street, a disused transformer factory. Someone's painted "pcb's 'r' us" over the door to the sound-stage. Here the director and the production designer have caused to be constructed the mother of all garbage constructs, something really huge, big gomi, like a section of the bridge in Virtual Light, a demented, heartbreakingly lyrical, 3-D collage of cargo containers, dumpsters, an Airstream trailer, a cabin cruiser, a school bus. And you walk out on it, into it, as strange winds of time and art and possibility blow through you, and you remember reading the City of Interzone section in Naked Lunch when you were 14 years old, for the very first time. And this is it. And you aren't crying, but you know that it's very possible you might...

And then, then suddenly, it all reverses itself, swings around, back into the real world and you know that it will never be that for you again, be real or almost, but that's OK. You were there, finally, if only for a very fleeting instant, and now you can actually go back to the real world and talk to your own children and maybe even brush your own teeth.

You don't have to do this anymore.

(Except that there's something called "post-production," and they haven't really told you about that yet.)