As far as I know, there is not now nor has there ever been an entrance or an exit of the backlot of Backlot Studios. When the shapes of shadows turn the exteriors of the world into the interior, all daylight mocked by the deliberate motions of the spotlight and the fresh air choked out by the heavy smell of sheetrock, there you are. It’s not a place you travel to, but a place that slithers itself behind your world, sneaking into your perception in the right light. Your Life: A Movie.
But I’m always there. My world is the Backlot. There is no such thing as the silver screen to me, only production.
Backlot Studios is a vast labyrinth of warehouses, a dreamlike amalgam of every movie studio in existence. It’s easy to think that a place built for such fantasy is nothing and means nothing more than what it facilitates. It would agree with you, and that’s a lie it tells to keep you out from under it’s skin. But I belong there, underneath, where the ghosts have names and the actor as the vessel is the lead role. And so it has to be me who tells the truth about it.
The intricate interior sets, prefabricated neighborhoods, offices, car parks, and plastic gardens are all masks the place wears. The real face of the Backlot is matte gray- the walls, the floor, boxes, pipes, doors, fire-escapes, and alcoves are all painted this flat color. It’s one shade closer to avant garde on the scale between that and utility, the color that is the tasteful background of countless Calvin Klein commercials. Cool, soft, blank gray. Behind everything, the Backlot is an endless landscape of simple structures, all painted the gray of library carpet.
Tonight, the Backlot is still in a way I’ve never felt before but it must be because I’ve never consciously explored it before.
I’ve been wandering the passages behind the unfinished portions of neighborhood sets, stepping deftly through the dangerous afterthoughts of stabilizing boards and following pinholes of light through the accidental corridors on the periphery of the false world. I’m making my way into Stage 9 gently, knowing the stillness circumambient is not a coincidence.
Just as I’ve never looked at the Backlot this way, it’s never been looked at before and even the nails in this spiderweb of carpentry know it. I’m looking for Drama and he knows it.
I weasel my way through alleyways peppered with folding tables and chairs for craft services, letting my hands pass over the freshly painted Styrofoam masonry of breakaway walls, peeking around corners and perpetually looking over my shoulder as if it’s possible I’m being followed. I do this not because I’m actually paranoid of my surroundings but because it looks mysterious when I do it, and I’ve spent my whole life aware that, somewhere, a camera may or may not be rolling.
Where I choose to emerge from the wings is arbitrary when I winnow myself under the jacks of the nearest wall and slide through the crevice between two enormous hollywood flats. Gaining my bearings, the street is soft under my sneakers, the concrete hard-troweled and smooth like that of the back rooms of grocery stores. The sound I make doesn’t carry. No sound carries and the source of the low light is invisible. A payphone startles me, eye-level, stark black and still. It’s out of place here and out of time against the mid-forties architecture of the quaint neighborhood set.
I start to back away into the void, feeling like it’s some kind of sign, the first thing to meet me here being a symbol of something I am. I convince myself the phone connects directly to it’s twin somewhere in a crow’s nest atop a catwalk, installed for communication between members of the production crew long before walkie-talkies were invented. But the convincing I’m doing isn’t me talking to myself, not really. It’s Drama subconsciously answering my paranoia.
What the fuck is this doing here?
Oh, well, you see, it was on the set of Angels with Dirty Faces that they needed different lighting effects, something really special to give the Dead-End Kids the most intimidating aesthetic they could, you know? So, they had to direct the rafter monkeys 16 hours a day. They needed something like that. Well, the truth is they’d needed something like that for a long time, but it wasn’t until…
But even as I’ve just experienced it for myself, I’m not fully aware that his internal dialogue uses me as a host, maybe uses anyone inside him, making it seem like whatever he’s thinking or feeling isn’t his but one’s own.
I follow the street to an intersection at a set of trolley tracks, keeping close to the walls, still trying not to provoke the owner of the Backlot to anxiety any more than I already have.
When I round the next corner, my shoes are caught in a material shredded to imitate dead grass and underbrush overgrowing the cemetery. An obnoxious blue spotlight from under the foundation of the set casts vibrant moonbeams through the graves, collected under the gangling skeleton of a willow tree. Fog really would make this creepy, but without it, the foam headstones may as well be on their cigarette break, quietly bitching about the pay on this gig and whether the union ought to hear about it.
After making my light but awkward way out of the cemetery, I’m struck by how similar this space is to a Costco, the old-fashioned neighborhood before me as if the warehouse wholesaler were hollowed out and decorated for a local production of Music Man.
But I can take in the view of the whole set for only moments before the light starts to move and the void casually envelopes what was there. Although I know it’s just Drama’s mind shifting focus, it scares me. The “street” is flanked by blackness until the blackness descends like a veil over the houses, unmaking them, for all intents and purposes. I’m not afraid of being taken by the void, but I am afraid of being pushed out of the Backlot. I scramble for something I might have done to deserve that as I watch my surroundings disappear.
I turn in place and I turn again, unsure how many degrees I’m actually revolving; the trick of the void. I’m becoming Janey Glenn from Girls Just Want to Have Fun, a girlish part of myself approaching a fighter, poised to run as my heart accelerates to near frantic until a third turn finds me alone with the enormous structure at the dead end of the street. I blink my heart still, drawing my breath back to me, and swallow.