SHORT STORY


THE COMMISSIONING OF GOL
(How Jens Gol won the Quarter Moon gig)

To most people the monochrome colours of a police interview room would induce feelings of depression, despair, of life crushed by the institutions of justice and state-sponsored intimidation. But not Jens Gol. Gol didn’t belong to the tribe known as ‘everyman.’ He filmed it, documented it, panned his cameras across its bleak landscapes and dishevelled homes and workplaces. He stood on the outside looking in.

Now he found himself on the inside wondering if they’d let him out. The door opened, the detective entered, closed the door behind him and then opened it again.

“Don’t think it’ll make a difference, but if you could try to keep your voice down a little, Mr Gol.”

“Sure.” Gol’s voice ricocheted off the tiled walls and escaped through the open door down the corridor.

The detective sat away from Gol’s table. “All right, I accept you are a film maker. Does that explain your behaviour in the Amstel Cafe this morning?”

“I guess so. There is a causal link, yes.”

“Mr Gol, please try to talk a bit quieter.” He consulted his phone. “I want you to tell me why you were shouting put your shoulder into it, you’ll never hack his head off if you don’t put more shoulder into it.”

“I was directing Linda van den Vriessen.”

“In your sleep?”

“Yes. It was a very vivid dream.”

“And what induced this vivid dream?”

“The film.”

“Film?”

Gol shifted for the first time in his chair.

“Mr Gol, we live in difficult times. Most people threatening to chop off heads tend to leave bombs lying around too. Your reputation is part and parcel of your films. Reactionary, revolutionary. You’ve worked with Toten Herzen who are not exactly UN peace ambassadors.”

“I can tell you, but there’s a non-disclosure contract, so you mustn’t mention this to anyone.”

“Mr Gol, if you don’t keep your voice down everyone from here to Shanghai is going to hear about this film.”

“Okay.” Gol’s voice dropped to a baritone whisper and he began his tale.

Gol’s studio at the Amsterdam Institute of Film and Television had been soundproofed. Not the standard levels of soundproofing, this was major league, industrial, high density foam panels used in the aerospace industry, and all of it installed one night by a group of students suffering from the early symptoms of tinnitus.

When Gol told his assembly about his commission they laughed. “You?”

“Yes, me. What’s the issue here? Input is one thing, output is another. Input is the client. Output is the director.”

“But you don’t make films.”

“I’ve made seven features. Four of them award winners.”

The most incredulous student, Jasmine Hong, had left home in Singapore to study under Gol, hoping to acquire his eye for the grisly side of life to reinterpret her shiny corporate homeland. “Your films are about decay, Jens. Your favoured colour palette is greycentric.”

“I like that word. That’s a great word. It is one word, isn’t it?”

“How do they, why did they ask you to make a science fiction film?”

“Look, I admit it came as a surprise to me, but when you think hard it’s not that peculiar.” Gol sat beneath a reflective umbrella, the sparse light of the studio travelling around his head like a halo. “They decided I had stamina.”

“Stamina?” said Arjen Oosterheijn. “What are you, a racehorse? How are they going to sell a film like this with your name.”

“My name’s good. It has associations now. I am the guy who filmed Toten Herzen and survived.”

He was right. He did survive. His assistants never worked again, but Gol turned up at Cannes, he showed his face at the Venice Film Festival and stood next to Woody Allen’s daughter at the Berlinale, neither of them aware of the other’s identity. But Gol was living proof of two things: it was possible to work with Toten Herzen; and Toten Herzen’s reputation rubbed off on others.

The film Gol made of the band recording their comeback album Malandanti did well at the box office. He bought a vintage Lamborghini tractor on the back of it. But what really mattered was the bankability, producers wanted his name on the posters, they were determined to capture the morbid curiosity that would draw people into the cinemas wherever the name Jens Gol appeared.

A commercial fact lost on his students. “Will it be in black and white?” said Jasmine Hong.

“No.”

“It could be,” said Arjen Oosterheijn. “This could be the first black and white sci-fi film since that adaptation of the Jules Verne novel in 1933. Will there be oil refineries in it, Jens?”

“No. There is a railway system.” His students gasped. “Stop that. You can’t have collective irony. Some of you must be taking the piss. Look, let me tell you what it’s about and then you can make up your own mind.”

Gol remembered the original script treatment and his first meeting with the producers, Harry Tranter and Gerard Horowitz.

“Let me see if I’ve understood this.” Gol paused. Horowitz, a bit deaf, was turning himself in his leather wing-back chair to hear better. “Okay. Time is a ribbon, it doubles back on itself and where two surfaces touch you have two periods in history co-existing side by side.”

“Yeah,” Horowitz shouted.

“But in this film, the ribbon has double double-backed so that three surfaces are in contact leaving three periods in history existing side by side?”

“Yeah.”

“And those periods are the Dark Ages, the Enlightenment and the Far Future.”

“Yeah.”

“Occasionally the ribbon separates without warning and everyone is alone again. Nobody knows when it will happen, but the separation always occurs when there’s a quarter moon.”

“Jens,” Tranter had been stood out of Gol’s sonic range and came up behind him. “Haven’t you read the novel?”

“I’ve heard of the novel.”

“Jesus, it was the best-selling novel in Europe last year. It’s been translated into forty languages. How can you not know what it was about.”

“I don’t read science fiction.”

Horowitz was unfazed. “We know it’s not the sort of thing you normally do, Jens, but it’s a Dutch novel. We wanted a Dutch film. Didn’t want the Yanks getting all over it, spreading it out over four films and having people getting their cats trapped in doors and all that over-ripened shit to fill the gaps. But how many Dutch directors can handle a production this big? None. Except you.”

“Sure.”

Tranter sat down and lit a black cigarette. “No, you’re not sure. You have no idea. But you are unstoppable. You survived Toten Herzen, you have a reputation as wide as the, the er, I don’t know.”

“The Atlantic. Say it. The Atlantic. Jens, we’ve raised the capital on the back of a big name.”

“Is this a joke? I’ve seen television programmes like this.”

“It’s not a joke for Christ’s sake,” Horowitz tutted at Tranter. “We want a Dutch director. The Germans have a growing film industry, the French have a great film industry, Christ, if the Finns can have a film industry thanks to Iron Sky so can the Netherlands. Say you’ll do it, Jens.”

“And read the novel,” added Tranter.

Gol waited for his students to react. “Have you read the novel now?” said Jasmine Hong.

“No. I went to San Sebastian and discussed the story with the scriptwriter.” His students gasped again.

Away from his smog and the smell of diesel Gol felt lost. The fresh air forced him to reconsider the deal in front of him. A major film, a sci-fi epic, Horowitz had whispered in his ear, in a way only Horowitz could manage, the budget would be close to two hundred million. He didn’t say whether that was dollars or euros, but it was still a big number in any currency. Gol’s last award-winning feature, Burnoff, about the night shift at one of Europort’s gas storage facilities, cost eighty thousand.

His concerns were all over Christina Hoof’s face. She wanted to tell him what she really thought about her script being directed by this man (her words in a leaked email to Harry Tranter), but she said nothing. Gol waited for her to repeat the email, wanted to say it to clear the air and reassure her, except he couldn’t reassure himself.

“It’ll be a challenge,” he said. Diners at the restaurant terrace held their forks and spoons to their mouths, all the better to listen to the very public conversation at table eight.

“In what way? You mean directing a film with a script you haven’t read about a novel you’ve never heard of?”

“I’ve heard of it. I skim read it two weeks ago. It’s no big deal. The challenge is the artistic interpretation, the design, the mood, the atmosphere.”

“There are no oil refineries in it.”

“Everybody keeps asking me about oil refineries. But what’s the problem anyway? The Dark Ages can’t be any worse than parts of Arnhem. Different costumes, set design.”

“What do you know of the Enlightenment?”

“Lots of Scotsmen.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Yes, I am. Of course I understand the Enlightenment, Rotterdam was built on the engineering developments of the Enlightenment, energy, transportation. . . .”

“It’s not a documentary, Jens.”

“I didn’t say it would be.”

“What did you think of Beatrisch?”

“Who?”

“Beatrisch, the matriarch.”

Gol’s mouth became plugged by a water chestnut. Unable to answer, he flapped his hands to stop Hoof throwing down her napkin. “I know who you mean, I didn’t pronounce the name like that when I read through the script.”

“Okay, speak.”

“Personally, I thought she was overblown.”

“Overblown?”

“Yes, I mean, would a woman like that really be feared by so many men? In the Dark Ages wouldn’t they accuse her of being a witch and kill her?”

Hoof played her trump card and delivered the conceit behind Quarter Moon’s success. “Beatrisch is inspired by the women of the Far Future.”

“Oh, them.”

“They live in a post-male society, women who aren’t in thrall to men because there aren’t any. They’ve put the idea into Beatrisch’s head that they’ll support her if she makes a move for power.”

“Yes, yes, I got that bit. But aren’t the three time periods prohibited from mixing?”

“I can’t believe you’re directing this film. Haven’t you figured out how you’re going to interpret that? The deceit, the mistrust, betrayals of agreements and treaties?”

“It’s early days. I’ll have a better idea when we start casting.”

“There speaks a documentary maker. You cast to match the vision, you fuck. And besides, Harry and Gerard have already approached someone to play Beatrisch.”

“Have they? They didn’t tell me.”

The reason they didn’t tell him was because Gol never turned on his phone. The arrangement came about that morning and the actor, Linda van den Vriessen, was in another part of San Sebastian beating the hoolies out of a punch bag. Tranter stood back to allow Gol to step forward on his own, give van den Vriessen a clear view of him.

She loosened the bandages around her fists and with a manicured fingertip caught a stray bead of sweat on her eyebrow. Everything about van den Vriessen suggested mountains and clean air: the electrifying blue eyes, cheekbones like the Matterhorn, a solid tall – very tall, the woman must have been two metres at least – presence challenging Gol like a wall of rock.

“You’re very Alpine,” Gol said.

Van den Vriessen glanced down at her breasts. “Pardon?”

“No, your cheekbones. Do you have Slavic ancestry.”

“Harry,” she barged Gol out of the way, “you didn’t say he was a maniac. Unusual. . . .”

“Linda-”

“You said he’s unusual. I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but what an introduction. Cheekbones?”

Van den Vriessen’s cheekbones cast shadows. Gol immediately saw potential in the shortness of the woman’s fuse. She didn’t need armour to look armoured; shoulders like a swimmer, biceps that Gol would have been proud to call thighs, and between top and shorts her six-pack had eight mounds of ripped muscle.

“I see why they chose you,” Gol said. “Have you made this kind of film before?”

Tranter placed his hand on van den Vriessen’s formidable forearm and reassured her Gol was at a transitional moment in his career. “Linda, Jens is bombproof. Whatever you throw at this man, it just bounces off him. You can tell him all day to talk a little quieter, it makes no difference. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was on the autistic spectrum, but what you need to know is that he learns and he doesn’t quit. He survived Toten Herzen.”

“He made a documentary about them.”

“I don’t want to tell a professional actor how to act,” Gol said. “You should know what you’re doing without my help. Christina’s script is perfect, it speaks for itself. My job is to put the pieces together. Let the specialists direct the photography, create the sound, design the sets, make the music. . . .” He noticed Tranter raise a finger. “I respect the expert, Linda. You bring your interpretation to the table. I trust you to do it right.”

“Good,” van den Vriessen nodded, “good,” and tightened the bandages on her fist again, “I can live with that.” She punched the bag so hard one of the seams split.

“About the music,” said Tranter.

The students, especially the male students, wanted to hear more about Linda van den Vriessen’s Alpine features, but Gol introduced his main concern. The music. “I can live with the doubts, I can live with the threat of Linda’s south paw, I can live with the online petition to have me thrown off the project.”

“There’s eight hundred thousand signatures, Jens,” said Arjen Oosterheijn.

“Yeah, yeah. Millions have read the novel. No, the music, that bothered me.”

“Why?” Jasmine Hong opened the only window of the room. “People started to think you were being taken for a ride. The producers were using you to get a bit of pre-production publicity.”

“I know. I confronted Tranter about that. He reassured me it was not the case.”

“And you just believed him?”

“No. One thing I discovered working with Toten Herzen, never assume nice people are your friends.” Jasmine Hong couldn’t believe Toten Herzen were nice people. “No, not them,” said Gol, “they were assholes. No, they were surrounded by people who loved them, but when the shit hit the fan those friends vanished. They survived because Susan Bekker always had a back-up plan. Susan Bekker was a genius.”

And Susan Bekker would come to Gol’s rescue in his hour of need. But before his hour of need arrived Gol needed to find Rob Wallet.

“Normally, strong wind plays havoc with sound. You can’t hear a thing.” Wallet had taken Gol onto the fly bridge of his boat where a hideous Mediterranean gale tempered the violence of Gol’s voice. “I’m not sure how I can help you, Jens. Just ask her.”

“I don’t know where she is.”

“Neither do I. We’re not exactly on speaking terms at the moment.”

“That’s too bad. Rob, can I ask you a question?”

“Oh, I don’t know about that, Jens.”

“Who is Agneetha?”

“It’s pronounced Anyeta.”

“Okay. Do you think I’m right though? Do you think she can do it?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because Susan is a rock guitarist and she doesn’t even like symphonic metal. She can’t write a soundtrack to an epic sci-fi film. Why don’t you ask Hans Zimmer?”

“He’s dead.”

“He’s not dead. Is he?” Neither of them were sure so Wallet looked on Wikipedia. “You clown, you’re thinking of Hans Zimmermann, the Nazi politician in Nuremberg. Hans Zimmer, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Last Samurai, The Dark Knight Trilogy.”

“He’ll be too formulaic. All his scores sound the same. The producers want names on the film posters. They asked me, they’ll agree to Susan Bekker.”

“No, no, no. You’re going about this the wrong way.”

During his time in the Lake District Gol didn’t really get to know Wallet who came and went, only stopping when he was attacked by bushes or people needed throwing off mountain tops. And now, here he was lecturing Gol on how to make films. A man sacked for being an incompetent publicist had become a consultant on movie production.

“You don’t need names to make yourself indispensable, Jens. You need money. You need to bring money to the project.”

“They already have money.”

“It’ll never be enough.”

“They have two hundred million.”

“And you’ve seen that, have you? That must have been an enormous briefcase.”

“Of course they have the money. They’ve cast the main roles. Can we go inside? It’s getting very windy up here.”

“I thought you liked miserable weather. I know someone who would invest. Invest a lot. If your producers saw you with a few million of your own, they’d think twice about dumping you when it suits them.”

“I really think we should get out of this wind, Rob.”

Wallet was forced to agree when a bell blew off its hook and almost caught Gol square in the face. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Jens. . . .”

Students and tutor alike decided to forego lunch. Gol wanted to reveal the most lucid section of the story; the students wanted to know who the mystery benefactor would turn out to be. “I don’t know how she found me. Rob Wallet didn’t know where I lived. And when she did find me I don’t know how she got in.”

The barge was locked. Gol had been out, sitting through a contemporary production of Falstaff set in a car production factory. His lady friend made an excuse and went straight home, leaving Gol to mooch about, preparing a bit of supper and checking the internet to see where he might find Susan Bekker.

“I like the idea of living on a boat.”

The woman’s voice, a singular presence in the pitch blackness of the barge’s lounge startled Gol. He dropped a plate of ham and couldn’t find it in the dark. “Who is that?” He turned on the only light he had and the face of a woman appeared in the brilliance of his phone screen. “Who are you?”

“A friend of Rob’s.”

“You’re not Raven.”

“Correct. He told me you needed money.” The woman hovered in the gloom, her pale face waxy like Wallet’s, leaving Gol to presume her condition and how she had entered the barge without opening a door. “Do you need money?”

“Er, yes. Yes.”

“I can’t hear you.”

“Sorry,” Gol cleared his throat. “Yes.”

The woman winced. “Okay. I can hear you now. How much do you want?”

A growing chill filled the barge and Gol felt the slippery surface of the ham beneath his bare foot. “A few million, two, three, I don’t know.”

“Make your mind up. I can raise a hundred for you.”

“Thousand?”

“Million.”

“What?” The phone screen powered down and the woman disappeared. When Gol found the light switch she was sitting on his sofa, legs crossed, and the clock on the wall behind her head had stopped. It never stopped.

“A hundred million euros? Are you joking?”

“Raising funds is my business.”

Gol’s arm fumbled for the nearest chair. The complexion, the chill, the fundraising and late hour conspired to reveal the woman’s name. He couldn’t say it, he couldn’t speak. His swallow reflex went berserk and he noticed the fallen slice of ham lying on his rug like a piece of skin. “They expect the film to be a box office hit. They don’t see how it can fail. Your investment would be safe.”

“No investment is safe, Jens. I know the risks. I also know if I help you, you’ll help me.”

“How?” He was whispering again.

“Sorry?”

“How?”

“Introduce me to Susan Bekker. You want to work with her again, you want her to compose the soundtrack?”

“Is it wise to bring you two together. I mean-”

“Let me worry about that, Jens. You want to make this film?”

“Yes, yes, of course I do.”

“One word from me and they’ll find someone else.”

“I’ve no doubts about that.”

“So will you help me to help you?”

Gol went back to Tranter and Horowitz, meeting them in a stationary train carriage on a siding near Amsterdam. They were unimpressed with his choice of composer.

“She’s a rock guitarist,” shouted Horowitz, placing emphasis on the word rock.

“Come on, Jens,” said Tranter serving the brandy, “she would bring in some publicity, good publicity. Maybe she could do one song, Gererd, a guest appearance in a promo, but the whole soundtrack, Jens?” He fell into his chair. “No.”

“Yes.” Gol swirled the brandy in his glass. “She comes with one hundred million euros.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Susan Bekker comes as part of a package. I have a financial partner who will invest one hundred million euros in the film. A three hundred million euro film. That’s a big film. You wanted to put the Netherlands on the map? After this, we’ll take over the globe. We haven’t done that since the 1600s.”

“Are you serious?” Horowitz had drunk his brandy in one gulp. “Who’s putting up that amount of money?”

“Someone,” Gol searched for a clever euphemism, a word that captured the scale of the mysterious woman’s threat. He could have mentioned her name, but it terrified him. “Someone special.”

“Did they go with it?” said Jasmine Hong.

“Eventually.”

“How did you persuade them without telling them who she was?” said Arjen Oosterheijn.

“I think they figured it out. The same way you have probably figured it out.” A student sitting at the back raised his arm and admitted he had no idea who they were talking about. “Put two and two together. A woman, a dead woman looking for Susan Bekker.”

“Her mother?”

“Not her mother.” Gol’s voice forced the student’s arm down. “No, they figured it out. They wouldn’t mention her name either, but they drank to it. Drank quite a lot actually.”

The money helped. It paid for a cast populated with stars from Europe and the US. Principle photography started in May and the first scenes involved a crucial moment in Linda van den Vriessen’s portrayal of Beatrisch.

Suited up, her armour smeared with filth and prosthetic brain tissue, she emerged from the bog of conflict dragging her whimpering son by the hair. Surrounded by warriors, the son knelt in front of his mother and bowed his head in anticipation of the sword. She steadied herself, lifted the weapon like she was lifting the branch of a tree and swung it in a wide casual arc. The blade glanced of her son’s neck and took his ear off.

“Cut. Cut, cut, cut.” Gol approached the bleeding boy. “Linda, I know you can handle weapons.”

“I hope you’re not going to lecture me on swordmanship.” She pointed the blade at Gol’s face.

“No. But I know you, Linda. You need more savagery, you’re angry, you hate your own son.”

“I thought you said you didn’t tell the actors how to act.”

Gol didn’t know how van den Vriessen could hold such a heavy sword for so long, but he knew if he took another step forward it would take his eye out. “All I’m saying is convince the camera. Like this.” His voice increased in volume as he swung his own invisible sword, “Put your shoulder into it,” he yelled again and again. “Put your shoulder into it. You’ll never hack his head off if you don’t put more shoulder into it.”

She lowered the sword, gripped Gol’s shoulder with a cold metal glove and shook him until his headphones fell off.

“Excuse me,” she shook him again harder. He opened his eyes and found two police officers standing over him.

“Yes, what?”

“Whose head are you trying to hack off, sir?”

“Head. No, no, it was a dream, I was dreaming.”

“Okay. You’re scaring the customers.”

It may have been the brandy talking, but Gol refused to leave the cafe and when they persuaded him to stand up he didn’t think his legs would get him to the door. The officers helped him, led him to the door, across the pavement, into the car and off to the police station and a monochromatic interview room where a weary detective refused to believe he was Jens Gol, the man who survived Toten Herzen, the man responsible for a three hundred million euro film, the man caught up in a conflict between a murderer and her resurrected victim.

“Are you sure you’ll make this film, Jens?” said Jasmine Hong.

“How can I not make it? This is life at the extreme. The line where life meets death. How can I not make this film?”