Trick Lighting


Our Daily Correspondent

I ran into the guy while I was taking a walk through what is now called the Columbia Waterfront District—but then, this was nearly ten years ago.

“Excuse me, do you live around here?” he said. I thought he wanted directions, but it turned out he was a location scout for a small indie film. Did I have a railroad apartment, he wondered, in an older building? I did. And would I be willing to let them shoot there for a few hours?

They came to check it out a few days later. For some reason, their approval seemed important; I scoured the place and had fresh coffee brewing (realtor-style) when they came in. This time it was a director—a middle-aged man—and a few assistants. They conferred a great deal about angles and light and what they’d have to do to make the place work before giving their qualified approval. A shooting time was set.

I had grown to hate that apartment. It had looked nice when we moved in a year before, and had felt like a fresh start. But then had come the months of unpacked boxes and unhung pictures and the day I had a burst of enthusiasm and tried to arrange everything myself. And then the anger at my slapdash methods and the walls of crooked frames, my tears. My boyfriend hated his job and, I think, me. I would walk through the door and find him sitting in the dark. We almost never had people over. And the row of small, windowless rooms, which had initially felt cozy, now looked dark and dreary. Our landlady, who it seemed was in violation of about every housing code, had long since fled the state, so any maintenance—of peeling paint or faulty wiring—was out of the question. I was glad to be forced to clean, to open ourselves up to scrutiny.

On the day of the shoot, the crew arrived early. I had again made coffee, and augmented it with doughnuts. My boyfriend answered questions about outlets and wall supports and the group of five or so began experimenting with lighting effects, suspending cords and hanging sheets and rearranging furniture. They were all very officious and official and it was thrilling. “I love this apartment,” said one of the crew—handsome, French, about our age. He indicated the rows of paintings—the work of my boyfriend’s grandfather—the thrift-store furniture, the stacks of books. “This is what I want,” he said.

Later, the cast, wardrobe, and makeup showed up. There were three actors: a pretty young woman with a theatrical mien; an older, intense man with silver hair; and a rather sullen young guy. Makeup, hair, and wardrobe would take place in our small bedroom. My boyfriend and I went to a movie to get out from underfoot. I remember laughing as we went.

When we got back, they had started shooting. We were allowed in, and sat quietly on our bed with the crew, looking at a copy of the script. I noticed that the hair and wardrobe women were both wearing pairs of my shoes. I was absurdly flattered, although I knew even then that in the retelling I’d pretend to have been quizzical and irritated.

The movie was about a brother and sister—the two young people—bonding on a road trip to go see their drunk father. Our apartment belonged to the gray-haired guy, the sister’s older boyfriend. He was apparently supposed to be a professor. First they ate some Chinese food in silence at our dining-room table (to show they were estranged), and then sat in the living room and had a conversation meant to convey pain, distance, and disconnection.

“Haven’t you had enough?” the girl would say coldly as he opened a beer.

“Since when are you a teetotaler?” he’d sneer.

They did this scene over and over.

Between takes, the cast interacted; the older guy was talking rather grandly about some other film he was working on and asking the young costar about her training. My boyfriend and I tried not to meet each other’s eyes or snicker. After all, we had volunteered for this—or I had. We were forced to suspend judgment; I found it was relaxing.

It had gotten very late. Someone knocked on the door—a furious downstairs neighbor who couldn’t sleep. I apologized; there was nothing we could do. “This is completely unacceptable,” she said.

They had to shoot one final scene. This time, the brother character slept on the couch, exhausted, while his sister stroked his hair. I wasn’t sure whether there was supposed to be an incestuous subtext or whether it was just clear that the two actors were sleeping together.

The movie was appallingly bad, almost unbelievably bad. There was no chance anything would ever come of it; nothing has, although I see it appeared at a tiny film festival, and there is a trailer online, even worse than I remembered. But everyone approached the enterprise with the seriousness of a real project. And in the false, soft glow of their carefully arranged lights, the apartment looked beautiful. Many years after we’d broken up and moved out, I found a still shot in our apartment, and sent it to my old boyfriend. “Haven’t you had enough?” I captioned it.

It took over an hour for them to strike the set, not least because most of the crew left. The French guy and one other stayed behind to wind the lights and rearrange the furniture. We helped; it was nearly three A.M. “Don’t worry about moving it back,” urged my boyfriend.

“Beautiful place,” said the French guy, looking around one last time. “Perfect.”