“Okay, Marta. Let’s get to it,” Lora said, striding toward the dimly lit rear of the building. “We’ve got a situation, kind of a good news/bad news scenario. Well, sort of. Coffee?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Marta replied. “Chaz made me a cup for the drive.”
“He’s such a peach,” Lora said, “a sweaty one, though, you have to admit.”
Lora didn’t answer as she corralled Marta forward.
The back office was empty except for remnants, a stout oak desk and two folding chairs. Jake, typing at an aluminum laptop as they entered, did not look up. Marta imagined Joan in the room decades earlier, noisily firing off letters on an indestructible Royal and smoking furiously as she gossiped with the floor manager about the lives of the clientele, homespun farm wives with callused hands to whom she peddled—on affordable layaway, naturally—modern visions of city sophistication and ease.
Lora cleared her throat until Jake stopped. “We’re good to go, boss. You remember Marta, yes?”
Behind the desk, Jake continued reading the screen. He’s slouched and will be monotone, Marta thought, like back-of-classroom students. Jake focussed on the computer screen intently, as though to communicate I’ve got better places to be.
Lora knocked on the desktop. “Yoo hoo, Jake?”
Jake offered Marta a confident automatic smile. “Sure thing, we’re good.” Leaning back and clasping the back of his neck, Jake flexed round biceps. “You’re settled okay, Professor?” he asked. “Everything in order?”
The clipped delivery encouraged a military reply. Marta thought to say “Yes, Sir,” but wasn’t comfortable joking with a man she’d scarcely met. “Everything’s fine, thank you. It’s Marta, please.”
“Alright then, we’ll start with the good news,” Lora said, pacing the room like a zoo animal, one newly captive and wild-eyed rather than sleepily domesticated. “The next while can be a surprise holiday for you, all expenses paid. Surprise!”
“Accommodation and per diem plus the weekly salary,” Jake said.
“What’s the bad news, then?”
“The Prophet of Djoun has done a 180,” Jake said. “Major change of plans, it’s deep-sixed now.”
“Keyword: it’s been re-purposed,” Lora added. “There’s a new buyer and a new concept. The script’s been revamped.” By now Lora had settled at the desk’s corner.
“The nature of the beast,” Jake said distractedly, eyes flitting to the screen.
“Oh.” Ignorant of production company deal-making, Marta awaited further explanation.
“Basically, it’s a matter of economics,” Jake said. “But there was already money allocated for your consultancy, so it’s still yours. The contract had been signed, et cetera. Legally you’re entitled and we’re obligated.” He snapped shut the laptop.
“I don’t understand,” Marta said, disliking her new status as a technicality and a legal obligation. “I’m entitled to what?”
“We’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version,” Lora said.
“Network A backed out of their commitment, so The Prophet of Djoun went bye bye.” Marta watched Lora wave and wondered why she believed that pantomiming the situation would help clarify the ambiguity. “‘We’re over-committed’ they said, and needed to lower overhead. ‘These uncertain times’ and ‘Return on investment,’ and so on. The usual business doublespeak, but the gist is they backed out at the eleventh hour and put the kibosh on the whole deal. If I had a dime for every lying wanker in the movie industry…Christ, men and their cold feet.”
“Keep your eye on the track, Lora,” Jake said.
Marta’s confusion was not abating. “So, the movie isn’t going to be made?” Since they were sitting in Joan’s and holding a meeting while on location, Marta assumed that scenario was remote: what imbecile would demand a disrupted schedule and hours of driving from the coast only to have her turn around, fat cheque in hand?
“Not exactly. That movie isn’t going to be made. Prophet is out, Battle is in,” Jake said.
“Battle…?” Marta said, resentment rising. How long would it have taken to email an update? And couriering another script wouldn’t have broken the bank. They forgot about me, obviously, she thought.
“Network B was sold on a different vision, you see,” Lora said. “Scripts are wet clay, basically. They’re easy to shape. A bowl becomes a vase in no time and it might become a bowl again by the end of the week. Or a cup. Poof, like magic! And we deliver what the buyer demands. They say, ‘No cup now, we need a plate’ and we know what to do. Demand and supply.” Lora’s words and pottery class motions were easy to follow, but Marta wanted to hear elucidation without weird digressions or geared-to-children analogies complete with Theatre 101 hand gestures.
“Enter The Battle for Djoun. That’s just the working title. Lady Hester Stanhope is gone, but now there’s Lady Harriet Swinburne, a strong independent woman that’s similar. Likewise, the other characters have been changed a bit and renamed. Again, it’s a legal thing,” Jake said. Marta learning the otherwise indifferent man paid close heed to the letter of the law.
“The Stanhope woman has living relatives in England, or somewhere, so there’s concern about character assassination and defamation, or buying permission, or some damned thing, if you can you believe it,” Lora said from the desk perch. “Question: She’s been dead for, like, ever, right?”
“Yes, since the summer of 1839,” Marta said.
“So, there’s another character, one based on Lady Stanhope?” Marta thought vaguely about libel laws and the term “Inspired by True Events” that often appeared in film promotions.
“You got it. Lady Swinburne has the same back story,” Jake said. “She’s strong and outspoken and left England rather than face the hypocrisy. She doesn’t put up with other people’s crap, basically.”
“Basically,” Marta said.
“She’s a sexy alpha-female, an Amazon, tough as nails, Lara Croft meets a young Queen Elizabeth I with a touch of Amelia Earhart. And she set up a commune in a hostile foreign territory and was renowned, and all that,” Lora explained.
“But Network B was sold on a script that’s more action-oriented than the original biopic,” Jake said.
“Action-oriented,” Marta said, annoyed by her own parroting.
“That right, honey. It’s re-genrification,” Lora added. “Happens all the time, the law of commerce, as old as Adam Smith.”
“All the time, you’d be amazed,” Jake confirmed.
“Action? Like Transformers?” Marta asked. “Or Saving Private Ryan?”
“Yeah, exactly,” Lora said, “or maybe Aliens.”
“The epic battle between good and evil, it’s classic, old as the hills,” Jake said in explanation of the revised thematic content. “But no robots.”
“Robots?” Marta said. “Really? I don’t see how...”
“The new script will explain everything,” Lora said. “Trust us.”
“Anyhow, we’re not quite so concerned with historical accuracy now. The viewers aren’t going to quibble about things like that. The network’s demographic is teenaged boys, basically,” Jake said. “And men that act like them. As far as they’re concerned anything before Playstation is a long boring stretch of prehistory.”
Who act like them, Marta silently corrected.
“Precisely. These guys are stunted, nerdy dweebs that play with gadgets while they watch TV and drink 6-packs of Coke and still get hot watching Xena reruns. Ancient Rome, Medieval England, World War I, it’s all the same. Their primitive brains register gore, action sequences and flashes of T and A, not whether Lady So and So would say or do such and such in 1829 or whenever. Did I mention gore? Exploding bags of blood, decapitation, that kind of thing. I should know, I live with two of them, teenaged version,” Lora exclaimed. “They’re rude little monkeys....”
“The track, Lora, the track,” Jake said. Marta could see their variation on good cop/bad cop had developed organically.
“Right. The long and the short of it is that viewers are the bread and butter of the network and those viewers want action sequences and D-cup video game vixens and don’t give a fig about much else,” Lora said. “Hester Stanhope’s speech-making would lull them into comas. They’d switch channels in a heartbeat, so the plan is that Lady Swinburne’s kick-ass battle royales will flick some caveman switch in their thick heads.”
“Exactly,” Jake said, flexing. “And we’re here to deliver the product they expect.” Marta read the yellow LIVESTRONG wrist band and the tattoo beneath the dense clipped forearm hair: there, for onlookers, a high-rise of letters spelled “Fortune Favors the Bold.” Comportment, she thought, a fusty principle. And faintly ridiculous too, like white man’s burden.
“We’ll give you the latest script now, Marta. Take the day off. Look at it and think about what you want to do. Like I said, we’ve got a shit load of work to get done today, so we have to cut this meeting short,” Lora said, holding up the cellphone to show Marta the day’s schedule, blocks of different colours in a time line.
“Alright,” Marta said. She wanted extra minutes for interrogation, but Lora had made it plain that the moment was not propitious.
“If the vacation idea doesn’t cut it, you can check out and head home,” Jake said. “It’s a good deal either way. Free money.”
“We’d prefer that you’re nearby, just in case,” Lora said.
“Just in case,” Marta asked.
“Well, you know.” Marta had no idea.
“You look a bit dazed, hon,” Lora said. “This business is crazy.”
“I’ll check in later,” Marta said as she turned for the door.