The Magic Hour
The magazines all come a week late.
People arrives on Mondays, Us Weekly on Tuesdays, and In Touch on Wednesdays. On Friday afternoons, Star slides through the mail slot, looking well-thumbed. Each one comes via Los Angeles (where I used to live), Montreal (where our mail is routed), and Manawan (the closest town). Each cover is marked and re-marked with heavy black permanent ink. Some weeks, the smudges obscure even the pink and gold of the headlines.
She shows up in People the most; her management at ICM probably cut them a first refusal deal. Some weeks, when a story merits it, she’ll show up in more than one. Every so often, I’ll see her in the “They’re Just Like Us” section of Us Weekly, photographed picking up Maeve from soccer practice, the caption congratulating her for not sending the chauffeur.
Sometimes they call her “single mom Celine Bell.”
Sometimes the word “sassy” is used as a prefix.
Every day, I follow a strict routine: standing neural glides at nine a.m. and one p.m; foot inversions at seven, nine, eleven, one, and three; a set of posterior hip stretches right before lunch. Kneeling hip flexors. Towel stretches. I hold my breath, toss my head back and forth, and silently count off the seconds. By four in the afternoon, I can walk without limping.
Half an hour before sunset, they need me in the chair. Minutes tick away as Norma dusts on my makeup, as we flirt our way through the familiar small talk, remembering when it only took ten minutes to make me look twenty-five. Sometimes, when I think of it, I ask after Don, her husband, and Don Jr., her son. “Oh, they just love it in Manawan,” she’ll say, and I’ll nod. It’s a beautiful piece of country, especially in spring.
The assistant director usually shows up a few minutes late. In good weather, we ride across the plains of bent wheat and long-spurred pansies in a teamster-driven golf cart; in winter, a Sno-Cat carries me to the set. The ride takes five minutes or twenty.
We film for one hour a day.
I’ve always thought of myself as a city person—Houston, New York, Los Angeles, London, Los Angeles—and even these tundra years haven’t really changed that. Inching across this khaki flatness, I find myself searching for the edges, for the line where nature ends and the buildings begin. If you want it badly enough, northern Quebec can seem like some monstrous city green, an enormous Central Park you’re just about to find your way out of.
When I met Celine, her last name was still Magarshack. At twenty, I’d been in New York for a year, working at Gristedes, and scoring the occasional Off-Broadway fifth lead or used-car commercial. Celine was nineteen and still living with her parents in Chappaqua when she landed her Law & Order guest spot.
She played Ashley Lampson, a CUNY student who disappears from her Third Avenue residence hall one snowy morning. I was cast as the suspicious-seeming ex-boyfriend whose typewriter matches the ransom note. By the time we filmed the scene where Ashley inadvertently reveals that she faked her own kidnapping, I was nursing a crush.
We were married a week after her birthday; she took my name, even though I’d asked her not to. The show’s producers wrapped the typewriter in ribbons and gave it to us as a wedding present.
Three years later, Celine got pregnant. That fall, my career had finally begun to pick up following my performance as a jewel-thieving hemophiliac in Tell Me Why. Strangers began pointing me out to their friends. My character’s bone-dry death scene was widely spoofed. And in February, I scored a long-shot Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Except for a small part in Searching for Bobby Fischer, Celine didn’t work.
I was alone in Zurich, filming One-Way Street with Sidney Lumet, when Celine told me she was going to have a baby. Things had been tense between us before I left, but the pregnancy seemed to smooth it all over. For the rest of the shoot, I spent my per diem on Swiss baby accessories and phone calls home.
Celine went into an early labor during the Academy Awards pre-show. I ended up watching the ceremony in the Cedars-Sinai maternity waiting room, feeling a little out of place in my borrowed Armani tux. Maybe it was the setting, but I found myself strangely at peace when they called Tommy Lee Jones’s name instead of mine.
During the delivery, my daughter’s brain began to bleed.
The bleeding lasted for three days. IVH, the doctors called it, short for intraventricular hemorrhage. Our baby pulled through (most do), but “Ivy”—the name we’d chosen—seemed too close to “IVH.” We called her Maeve, after my Irish great-aunt.
Our set is located on the lake’s western edge.
For three full weeks after my arrival in Quebec, the construction crews spent their mornings pouring concrete and running wires for temporary residences, and their evenings pounding together pre-weathered clapboard houses and manicuring the craggy dirt road that runs through the center of our fictional town.
If you approach on foot, it can look almost real.
The crew calls it “Filmsville,” and while that name was probably intended ironically, it’s been repeated so many times that the joke has withered and died. Everything here has a nickname. That row of buildings across the lake, the ones stocked with cameras and lighting equipment, with golf carts and costumes? We call that the “Warehouse District.” The crew and their families live in East Filmsville; most of the cast resides in tony North Filmsville. At the center of the set, there’s a large embossed sign that two gaffers installed a couple years back, just for laughs. It reads: “Historic Downtown.”
My trailer is in the Filmsville suburbs, almost hidden from view behind the brick-and-pine bunker where Vara does her editing. Through my tinted windows, I can see craft services and the prep tents that rim the northern edge of the set; I can see the field where the extras gather and the ash-gray buildings that make up East Filmsville. In winter, those worn streets and cement modular structures have a haunted look, like some Siberian gulag that time has not set free.
I was twenty-six when I signed the contract. I’m almost thirty-five now.
Maeve was in her first year of pre-school at Pasadena’s School of the Good Shepherd. Next fall, she’ll start seventh grade.
When I left, Celine had made three movies. This year, she has that many coming out between now and Christmas.
Winter is immense in northern Quebec. The snow comes in late October and covers everything. The plain becomes dark, endless, ushering in a glacial period that lasts until April.
Spring is when the lakes thaw, the birds warily return, when a new crop of interns and production assistants arrive from Montreal by bus. All year I tell myself that I’ll live to see the end of this shoot, but it is spring when I start to believe it again.
The Lake Iowa shooting script, credited to Vara Harkeller and Dwight Hershon, originally ran one hundred and seventeen pages. That’s standard for Hollywood, maybe even a little short. When I signed onto the project, Vara promised me that the screenplay would stay that length. But during my third month in Quebec, I awoke one morning to find that new pages had been slipped under my door.
Each sheet was eight and a half by eleven inches and printed in Courier New. All the page numbers were omitted.
When I confronted Vara at the craft services table, she pleaded ignorance and hid behind a rapidly thickening accent. Danish in hand, I raged about “willful deception” and “contractual guarantees” before storming off to my trailer. We were beyond the reach of cell towers, so I spent my evening drinking stockpiled whiskey and drafting an angry letter to my agent. By the time a note arrived from Studio City informing me that nothing could be done, we’d already begun shooting the new scenes.
For the first five years, I always believed that we were less than three months from the end of our shoot—that’s what I told Celine in my letters. This was before the accident, when Vara still bothered to invent delays and make excuses. I held on tightly to slimmer and slimmer hopes, until, one morning, I woke in my frost-covered trailer to find that the last of my denial had been swept away, replaced by a tumor of resignation.
That was more than three years ago.
Even now, most mornings there are new pages, though I gave up trying to count them long ago. The assembled sheets weigh eighteen pounds on my trailer’s bathroom scale. Where the original script covered fifteen story-years with brevity and economical grace, I suspect that the final cut—if Vara ever completes one—may well unspool in real time.
On set, we’re surrounded by lakes, though they don’t call them that here. Lac Obascou stands in for Iowa’s Lake Wabello—we do most of our filming there. Lac Troyes and Lac Tourbis are nearby, though I couldn’t say quite where. When we arrived, we were given informational brochures by the municipal government, but they’re printed in Atikamekw and French.
Lake Iowa has eaten my youth. I’ve spent nine years making this movie—that’s longer than my parents were married, longer than World War II. Most movies shoot for a period of weeks, some linger into months, but nobody films for years anymore. Not since Stanley Kubrick died.
After the accident, Vara recast our female lead and we spent months reshooting the movie’s relationship scenes. One evening, I was standing off-camera with the new actress when she turned to me and rather sweetly complimented my performance in One-Way Street.
I thanked her. “Did you see it on the big screen?” I asked.
She laughed. “I wish.” She’d been thirteen when the movie came out and her local theater checked ID.
I brought three small photo albums to Quebec.
The first has pine green corners and plastic pages that crinkle when turned. It holds pictures of my parents, of my childhood house, and pets long dead.
I keep photos of my wife and daughter in the second one, shots of toddler Maeve squinting at the pages of an open dictionary, of Celine wearing a striped red bathing suit and a scowl. This is the album I look at most, the one that stings the way I need it to. It’s easy to grow numb up here, if you aren’t careful.
The third album is empty, has always been empty, and looks destined to stay that way.
Our magic hour comes just before dusk.
In person, that time of day is pretty but little more, unless you happen to luck into a thrilling sunset. The camera, though, finds a beauty in the evening light that exists only on film: colors grow muted and sad while sharp gray shadows wring pathos from the landscape. Treatments have been developed and processes devised, but no one has yet constructed the magic hour in a lab.
Vara depends on the magic hour, needs it. In her first movie, Icicle, made before she fled Estonia, the climax was filmed entirely at dusk, lending the film a haunted quality that reviewers singled out for praise. In each of her successive films, more and more of the screen time played out at twilight.
I probably should have seen this coming.
When Vara announced to the assembled cast and crew that we were going to shoot Lake Iowa exclusively during the magic hour, a key grip standing in the back nervously raised his hand. Weren’t there two magic hours, one at night and one in the morning? Vara roughly pinched the bridge of her nose, displeased. She didn’t like the morning, the light was too grainy. We would film at dusk.
Vara has always been stingy with the dailies. In all this time, I’ve only seen maybe fifteen minutes of footage, but every frame she’s shown me has been marked by the ice blue of filmed evening. I remember one sequence better than the others, a lakefront scene where my character reconciles with his wife after a fight about her infidelity. We’d been filming for half an hour when the northern lights appeared unexpectedly overhead, filling the fourth through twelfth takes with waves of color and sizzling electromagnetic lines. The footage was thrilling, the most astonishing set of images I’ve ever seen.
Of course, after the accident, we had to reshoot it.
On her third birthday, Maeve threw a fit. We’d bought an ice cream cake, something that inexplicably enraged her. She lay on her back on the kitchen’s cold tile floor and—fists shaking—began to wail.
The night before, Celine and I had fought about my decision to do Lake Iowa. She had a callback for a network series, a medical drama that she was sure she’d get. She wanted to hold me to my promise to alternate projects with her so that someone would always be home to care for Maeve. When I pointed out that she didn’t have a project yet, that there was no guarantee that she’d be offered the part, our discussion lapsed into livid silence.
I tried to calm Maeve with promises of a new cake, a better cake, but the outburst continued unabated. Finally, Celine sighed and gave me a tired look, then scooped our daughter off the floor and carried her to her room. That evening, Celine and I silently ate Maeve’s cake, then braved our mutual indigestion to make love. Four days later, I left for Canada.
At first, the scripts arrived in bushels. They were strapped together with pink rubber bands and shipped to Filmsville in cardboard boxes the color of decaying teeth. Except for a paperback copy of Grisham’s The Rainmaker that I’d bought for my flight to Montreal, the screenplays my agent forwarded were my only reading material.
If I’d known I’d have sixteen hours of non-sleeping free time each day, I probably would have packed differently.
Initially I was just looking for my next role. I’d browse through each script, writing little notes in the margins with a felt-tipped pen and asking myself the big questions. Did I really want to make a Western? Why I am getting so many scripts about time travel? Is William Friedkin as much of a dick as everybody says? And how many hemophiliacs can you play before you end up typecast?
As my faith in the eventual end of the project dwindled, I began reading the scripts just to pass the time. It’s been eighteen months since the arrival of the last screenplay, but I still glance sometimes at a few old favorites: Gunmetal (quip-heavy thriller about arms dealers), American History X (skinhead redemption story), and Cruel Words (right-wing speechwriter stalked by psycho). Even if I never make another movie, it’s comforting to read these scripts and picture myself mid-scene on some Los Angeles soundstage, playing someone new.
Every second Friday, Warner Brothers sends me a check for one hundred and thirteen thousand dollars. When I signed my contract, that sort of overage fee was considered prohibitive—if the studio agrees to that, the thinking went, then they’ll do whatever’s necessary to bring the movie out on time. The sweetness of this particular provision may explain why my then-agent failed to include a kill-clause in my contract. I’m told his negotiations on my behalf are taught as a cautionary case study to first year agents at CAA.
At first, I was certain that someone from the studio would arrive any day to pull the plug. As time passed, I grew increasingly perplexed. No accountant could ignore the hole we were creating in the studio’s balance sheet, so why was nothing being done? Then last year, I was chatting with an intern between takes when the subject came up. She’d just arrived on set from Los Angeles and attempted to explain: “In a tax shelter,” she said, “losses are really assets.”
I didn’t follow. She clarified.
Without a major change in contractual law, I will die here.
There was a time when I would glance at the occasional tabloid (especially when the cover featured gems like “Patrick Bell Sex Scandal!” or “Patrick Bell Fights for His Life!”), but that was before I found myself carless in a place where the closest grocery store checkout line was eighteen miles away.
Then one day, I received an anonymous note in the mail. After stewing all morning, I asked Vara if I could visit Manawan’s public library. She consented on the condition that I let a teamster drive—union rules, she said. I spent the ride examining the note, trying to sift clues from its blunt, typewritten text: Your wife is cheating, it said. Look at the cover of People.
When we got to the library, I found that two middle-aged First Nations women were already looking at the only copy of that week’s People. To kill time, I paged through back issues in the library’s periodical room. June 8th found my wife “canoodling” with “twenty-five-year-old wunderkind” Leo Schulz, the director of Black Moon. On June 1st, the section headline for the Schulz/Bell photo-essay asked, “Are They Engaged?” May 25th quoted my wife’s press agent as saying that Celine and Leo were “just good friends.” The May 11th issue showed Celine, Leo, and Maeve having a quiet dinner at the Electric Lotus. None of the articles mentioned me.
I was surprised to find that the hot ache of betrayal came coupled with a small, sentimental impulse—whatever else those pictures showed, they were the first I’d seen of Maeve since she was three. Even seeing Celine and her boyfriend gave rise to a nostalgic spark, reminding me of what it had been like for us in New York, when our love was new and every evening seemed to bring us closer.
Back then, Leo Schulz would have been ten years old. Maybe only nine, depending on his birthday.
The new issue dropped in my lap. Its cover featured a proudly displayed engagement ring, Celine’s beaming face, and the headline: “It’s Official!”
Back on set, I spent twenty minutes filling out subscription cards.
According to the official inquiry, our helicopter fell from the sky because of a rotor’s defective hub.
It was winter. We’d been shooting a love scene in a flat, white meadow a couple miles from Filmsville. Vara wanted to discuss out character arcs and ordered both leads to ride back in her helicopter. Halfway to Filmsville, I heard a noise like the ringing of a single tiny bell.
Lake Iowa was pitched to my agent as “an American Fitzcarraldo meets Blue Velvet in the wild west,” and though I couldn’t quite work out what that entailed, I agreed to meet with Vara at Le Dôme to talk about it. She arrived late, looking flustered and a little sweaty in a red leather catsuit.
I would play Gerry Rea, 25, an ill-fated Irish immigrant living with his wife, Clara, 22, and infant son in Boston’s turn of the century slums. Tipped off about a soon-to-be-built Midwestern railway line, Gerry sinks his small savings into land in central Iowa, certain that the information will make his holdings valuable. However, when he arrives in the state, he finds that he’s been sold railway-adjacent land that also happens to sit at the bottom of Iowa’s Lake Wabello. Clara finds work as a servant for the town’s malevolent sheriff, eventually becoming his sexual plaything in order to feed her child. Determined to make things right, Gerry begins a quixotic attempt to reclaim his savings by filling in the lake one bucket-load of dirt at a time.
Vara seemed anxious to land me and assured me, unprompted, that she was a big fan of my work. I told her that I felt the same way about her and singled out her second film, Understanding Grief, for praise. She gave me a rapturous smile and a copy of the script. I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
After the crash, I came to with smoke in my lungs. I’d been thrown on impact and had landed in a nearby snowdrift. My mouth dry, my arms peppered with scratches, I felt nauseated and lost, like a child woken too soon. Lying on my back in the debris field, I cautiously turned my head, hoping to see something familiar. Vara was staggering toward me and, as her foot passed over my head, I glanced in the opposite direction, catching sight of the pilot, my motionless co-star and the impacted body of the helicopter, a blade still spinning weakly on its battered tail. Vara coughed heavily, then pushed the pilot’s limp arm off a smashed film canister. She dragged the container away from the helicopter and sat next to it in the snow, exhausted.
Later, when the crew and EMTs arrived, Vara cried quietly as she helped pull the bodies from the wreckage. But as I lay there bleeding, she methodically checked each and every frame of film for scratches.
Last week’s People arrived today. It has red carpet photos from the premiere of the new Ridley Scott movie. It has passionate letters to the editor attacking and defending Dabney Coleman. It has a feature on Kiki Dee and a profile of a decorated marine tucked into its back pages. On the cover, and from pages eighteen through twenty-five, are photos from the Malibu beachfront wedding of Leo Schulz and Celine Bell.
At first I browse through the pictures, recognizing people in the background of every shot: there’s David Geffen, drink in hand, leaning against a doorway; there’s Jake Kasdan, fumbling nervously with a cigarette; there’s Reese Witherspoon, caught mid-gesticulation. Celine is pictured grinning her way down the aisle, through the short civil ceremony, and then into the hotel reception. Maeve hugs her mother on page twenty-two, then looks sulkily at her Shirley Temple on page twenty-four. As I run through the paragraphs, the wedding and engagement and courtship details accreting in my head, I wonder if this article will be the one to mention that Celine already has a husband.
I find my name in a brief expository paragraph on the top of page twenty-one, across from a photo of Celine dancing with her father. Celine, it reads, was married once before, to actor Patrick Bell. That marriage ended two years ago when Celine filed for divorce on grounds of abandonment.
I look down at my wedding ring.
Someone knocks on the door to my trailer. “Mr. Bell?” It’s an intern. “Mr. Bell, you’re needed in makeup. I’m supposed to bring you right over.” I drop the magazine face down on the floor, pull on some shoes, and exit the trailer.
Outside, night is about to fall.