17th Street Review

Isabella.jpg

Halley Parry

The camera sits several meters from the end of a low, wide table. The floor is a pale hardwood. The terrace is visible to the right of the screen; a balcony leads to the sky outside. Large terra cotta pots sit on the railing of the terrace and vines with open blue flowers strangle the columns. We are shooting in a mansion in LA, though it is easy to imagine we are at an Italian villa in the twelfth century. 

Twelve people sit around the table which is set not for an elaborate banquet but a simple supper. The tablecloth, made of elegant silk, is a subtle gray, its pattern a tangle of white flowers. The pattern and the color mimic Isabella’s dress which is darker gray like a stormy sky and littered with golden flowers. Like a bouquet of roses thrown into thick fog. Nutshells litter the table before the man in front, Isabella’s brother, sitting across from her. The wall behind the set is plastered with wallpaper, a magnification of Isabella’s dress and dizzying.

The shot is static, framed so you can see the face of almost everyone sitting around the table. It is disorienting, this angle, each actor lined up so that they are in stark profile. They don’t seem aware that they are sitting in a group, there are separate little orbs around them. No one speaks in this scene, just Lorenzo and Isabella. One woman’s face is obscured, she sits at the far end facing the terrace. She is too beautiful, the director said, so beautiful that she will upstage the lead if her face isn’t hidden. 

The left side of the table: in the foreground, Isabella’s brother sits with one muscular leg extended in front of the table, pointing his toes towards her chair. A dog is curled up beneath the green velvet of his chair, which is tipped at an alarming angle to accommodate the dog. But that’s how it has to be. Beside him is a man in a yellow gold shirt with a red tunic layered on top. He nervously inspects his wine glass, which is full of a brown liquid. For this shoot, they are using prune juice though I hear that some directors let the actors drink real wine to get in the mood. There is a falcon perched on his chair; it is making the dogs nervous. To his left is a smug looking man with straight red hair, and next to him is the beautiful woman with the obscured face. 

On the other side of the table farthest from the camera and closest to the wall, a man is downing the contents of his cup. He is a heavy drinker and will die first in the movie from the poisoned wine. Next to him is a busty, prude woman in a green dress with her hands clasped across her belly. She looks straight ahead, as though she is about to make a joke but decides better of it. A man peels a pear with a small knife, a beautiful woman with dark hair raises a nut to her lips, and the man next to her dabs his mouth with a napkin. An old woman with a sheer scarf covering her head wraps her hands around her belly, in either physical or emotional pain. 

Everyone is in profile except for Lorenzo, who turns away from the old woman toward Isabella, toward the camera, toward us. He hands Isabella an ornately decorated blue plate with a blood orange, sliced in half. She is lifting one half but does not meet his gaze. Behind her stands the servant, one knee cocked in yellow tights, though his red hair makes him look like part of the family. There is an air of suspicion among this group of actors, but I don’t yet know why. Perhaps they are just good actors, they are suspicious that something has been poisoned and they are right. A bowl of grapes and a plate of plums and peaches is partially hidden by the hulking figure of Isabella’s brother.

This is how the scene begins. The director for this film, a period piece, has eyes like ice and is known for his controversial tactics to infuse his scenes with a hidden air of reality. Once, he locked an actress in a room until she began to panic before releasing her into a scene. 

I take note of these details, positioning for the beginning of the scene, in my mind like a list. This is a simple shot, the guests eat somberly and Lorenzo tries to convince Isabella to take a blood orange from his plate. It is my job to make sure that, from take to take, nothing has changed in case they will need to be edited together. 

My official title is script supervisor, but I think of myself more like a painter. Every drop of paint has a place and cannot be changed. I have a meticulous eye for detail, but the real reason I am so good at this job is that my memory is photographic. I see each take like a new snapshot and I compare them with my eyes closed. 

Take 1

Lorenzo

Isabella

My tunic is the exact color of salmon. It is crushed velvet and features a long seam down the front. The wardrobe assistant asked me to raise my hands over my head which was honestly humiliating. She held it open so as not to disturb my hair, which has been greased into a crust that cascades from my head. I am beheaded at the end of this movie, though the brother has ordered the waiter to poison the wine in a failed attempt to kill me, and most of the people at the dinner will die. Isabella will become ill but survive. The waiter stands behind me looking suspicious, his hands are clenched and up by his chest, gripping the white towel draped over his arm. I don’t like to be touched and I feel as though he is about to reach out and touch me, which has made me set my jaw tightly and the director comments that he loves the intensity on my face, to keep it. 

The director fusses over Isabella but seems oblivious that there are more of us sitting around the table.

In each scene, I take a bite of a blood orange. An actual bite. Because they are there, yes, but also because it’s important to the director that I appear to be truly eating -- an effect I can only manage, apparently, by the actual act of chewing and swallowing. Not mimicry. Acting is just about doing what you are told. 

I have already eaten seven segments of orange today. I came to set hungry, in part so I could manage to eat as many oranges as we needed to get the shot, and also because my dress is half-a-breath too small. It holds my organs together in a desperate hug. At the audition, I lied about my size in the hope that I would get the part if I were just a bit thinner. It’s possible that I was right.

I say my line, “I would not grieve thy hand by unwelcome pressing.” I eat the orange and gaze at Lorenzo, puncturing each individual cell of orange with my teeth. The take is no good because the dog barks at the moment of most intense eye contact and I jump. 

The Brother

The Falcon

We all sit around a dinner table. It is night, but lights have been erected outside to make it appear that the sun is shining on the other side of the terrace, in the sky. It looks blue. I am sitting across from the lead, across from Isabella. Her real name is Coco but she insists that we call her Isabella for the duration of the shoot. She’s a bit of a snob, takes this all very seriously. To get into character, she isn’t using anything that wasn’t around in medieval times. I saw her taking a piss in a chamber pot upstairs and I watched, I couldn’t help myself. There was something so feral about it. 

In the dinner scene I pretend to kick the dog. I stretch out my leg and hold it, taut and strong. The dog barks when I nudge it with my foot and we have to start over. Their handler is outside smoking behind the dressing rooms, a row of white trailers.

You whisper to me when you take the hood off of my eyes. You whisper encouraging words because you are kind, kind despite the fact that I am kept in the dark. That I was kept in the dark for the long journey here. I hate the taste of metal. The air is still here which makes it difficult for me to concentrate on my task, which is to perch. I am not interested in any of the food on the table though this whole room has an air of warm rot. A flea crawls across the back of the dog. A roach makes a nest beside us in the wall. 

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