Shooting the Sphinx: a unique political thriller about an American filmmaker who becomes involved in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 by Avram Noble Ludwig.
In Hollywood, Ari Basher is the stuff of legends, the man who always gets the impossible-to-film shots. In Cairo, however, he faces the most difficult and dangerous challenge of his career: he must photograph, from mere feet away, the face of the imperishable Sphinx. The film depends on it, but if Ari damages the ancient Sphinx, he could end up in an Egyptian prison for life or even dead.
Compounding his troubles, Ari has saved a dark-haired revolutionary named Farah from being raped by government thugs, and she has turned his life around. Now he is caught in a web of intrigue, torn between his need to work with the military dictatorship to get the shot and his desire for this passionate revolutionary. Losing her is not an option.
Will Ari join in the liberation of Egypt? Will he and Farah escape the country alive? Finally . . . will Ari get the shot?
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Shooting the Sphinx
By Avram Noble Ludwig
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Avram Noble Ludwig
All rights reserved.
Ari Basher hopped out of a van into a blast of rotor wash at the Thirtieth Street Heliport. He hiked up his jeans and tried to keep the grin from devouring his face as he let himself into the gate through a tall chain-link fence. He loved to fly.
A sleek white corporate Sikorsky S-76 had just touched down, the rotors still spinning overhead. A bored CEO in a business suit stepped out of the aircraft. He cast a grim dry glance right through Ari, who politely held the gate open for him. Ari wanted to ask, "Dude, why so serious? You get to soar over all the bus riders on your daily commute."
Instead Ari called out, "You're welcome!" The businessman faltered, dazed by the radiance of Ari's confident exuberance.
"Thank you." He cracked back a wan creaky smile of his own, rusty from disuse. Ari knew that he'd won the CEO over as he disappeared into his typical black SUV.
On the other side of the large corporate Sikorsky, Ari found his ride, a smaller Eurocopter, and his team: Don, Charley, and Sal, the pilot.
Charley Foster, a gruff, elfin ex-Navy F-16 mechanic, who had worked on aircraft carriers for years, was threading film into a special aerial camera inside a gray three-foot ball mounted on the nose of the chopper.
Sal Montevale, a compact, bushy-white-haired Vietnam vet, who had been an air cavalry pilot and was now the dean of New York aerial photography, sat in his cockpit waiting. Ari waved. Sal had flown on Ari's first job in the film business, twenty years prior, in the Hamptons. The star of the picture was supposed to steal a helicopter and buzz a crowd of extras at a lawn party. When the star stepped into the chopper, they had called "Cut" and slapped a curly blond wig on Sal's head; Sal was the one who'd taken off, buzzing the crowd with low, shaky moves as if he didn't know how to fly. The result was some great acting as the extras had run for their lives like Viet Cong in a village about to get hit.
Don, the cameraman, sat in the backseat, a monitor and camera control console in his lap. Mellow and unflappable, Don was an Australian surfer who had somehow risen to become the top aerial cameraman in the world. They would all be spending a lot of time together in the coming weeks, so Ari expected that life story to come his way over a beer — or ten — in the hotel bar.
"How we doing, Charley?" Excited to get in the air, Ari walked around to the front of the chopper and peeked over Charley's shoulder at the camera.
"I said we'd be ready by the time you got here, and we're ready, so back off."
"I love you, too, Charley."
Charley shut the round three-foot SpaceCam housing, then grabbed his fist with his hand, a signal to Don that the camera was ready to fly. Don moved his controls up, down, left, and right. So did the ball on the nose of the chopper — like a giant eye with a tiny pupil. Ari spun his finger in the air as a signal to start the engine, but Sal was already flipping switches and easing the throttle in. The whine of the turbines spooling up and the smell of jet exhaust put the grin back on Ari's face. He opened the door and stepped up into the right-hand seat beside Don so they both could see the monitor.
"Can you believe they pay us for this?" Ari winked at Don.
"Don't tell the studios how much we dig it." Don put his finger to his lips. "Or those greedy buggers might just start charging us to come to work."
Sal pulled on the collective and the rotors bit into the air, lifting the chopper off the ground. Ari hadn't been in a chopper in a while, and the first sensation of helicopter flight always startled him a little. As a private pilot, he was used to flying a plane and feeling like he was sitting on top of something. A helicopter always made him feel a different center of gravity, a different weight, like he was hanging from a coat hanger stuck in the back of his jacket. Ari pulled a rough sketch of their flight path out of his pocket.
"Sal, the director wants us to try this. To loop around over the middle of the George Washington Bridge."
"Sure." Sal studied the drawing for a second. "Got it."
Don, too, memorized the pattern and nodded. Then he focused the camera downward, practicing moves: zooming in and out on moving cars below on the West Side Highway.
They flew over tiny little people jogging in the park, biking on the streets, coming and going. Not one of them having as much fun as I am right now, thought Ari. Ain't my life cool?
"Here's your bridge," said Sal. The GWB loomed up in the windshield, an elegant massive structure, its two giant cables strung over pylons rising out of the Hudson River between the Palisades of New Jersey and Washington Heights on the New York side.
"Ready, Don?" asked Ari.
Like a dragonfly in slow motion, the little helicopter flew right over the middle of the bridge, its lowest point, then banked around and came back.
"You get it?" asked Ari.
"I can do better," said Don. "The shot takes a long time to develop."
"Can you fly it faster, Sal?"
"As fast as you can. We're going again."
Sal repositioned the chopper in the sky. He pushed on the stick and the craft surged forward, nose down. Again they crossed over the dip in the suspension bridge and banked hard left. Ari felt two Gs on his ass, then three as the weight of his body literally tripled in the tight turn. He watched the screen, figuring that he had about six takes in him before he lost his lunch. The chopper leveled out of the turn and crossed back over the bridge, returning to its starting point.
"How was that?" asked Sal over his headset.
"Eh," said Ari. He wasn't thrilled. "Let's try it again."
The three men did the shot a few more times, but they knew collectively that it wasn't special, just adequate. They shared one of those rare moments in movie-making when the best plans, the best people, the best equipment just don't add up. The editor will end up hacking off the front and back of the shot and pick a fairly boring piece of footage, where the audience can see the whole bridge and know what it is. All this for nothing — movie-making was just like that, hours and days of work for seconds in the finished film.
On take six, Ari looked out of the window to fight his nausea. He could taste a little bile on the back of his tongue. Sal and Don seemed fine and ready to go again. Ari looked down at the Palisades: sheer granite cliffs that dropped three or four hundred feet into the Hudson.
"We've got to tell a story in every shot," he said, almost to himself. "Sal, Don, cut. Forget this. We've got it as good as it's going to get, and it's going to wind up on the cutting room floor anyway."
Sal and Don looked at Ari like scolded children. The best of the best always internalize failure. Ari pointed down at the Palisades.
"What if we start along the edge of those cliffs, really tight, and we don't know where the hell we are. We could be in the middle of the Rockies for all the audience knows, then we bank, we find a piece of the bridge, see the river, follow the traffic really close, then descend down underneath the roadway; and, voilà! New York City is revealed as we drop beneath the bridge!"
"Could work," said Don, starting to visualize the shot in his mind. Sal grunted in agreement. He eased off the stick, banking wide over the river to come right to the edge of the cliff.
They skimmed over the tops of barren winter trees sticking up from the craggy rock ledges, then banked out over the Hudson alongside a massive suspension cable dipping down below the roadways and their flow of traffic, to finally drop and find the distant Empire State Building dead on in the middle of the shot. The entire bridge looked as if it were balancing like a teeter-totter right on the very tip-top of the art deco building's giant antenna, an optical illusion.
"Yeah!" cried Ari. The three men grinned at each other like demons. They had bagged the big one, caught movie magic in the camera. "We got it!" Ari reached out and slapped his pilot and his cameraman on the shoulder. "We got the shot!"CHAPTER 2
Ari sat in the darkened screening room watching his aerial footage with the other producers, the key crew on the film, and the director, Frank Solomon. There had been a lot of "oohing" and "ahhing" at the George Washington Bridge shots, but only one opinion in the room mattered: Frank's.
The film business was the last true feudal society, replete with droit du seigneur, courtiers — even court jesters. All things and all people revolved around the director in this aristocracy of creative commerce.
Up on the screen, the next shot started at the top of an art deco radio mast, which, of course, turned out to be the needle of the Empire State Building. The camera passed right over the antenna's tip and then tilted down a thousand feet to reveal tiny cars and buses on Fifth Avenue below. The effect stole your breath.
Frank gasped in the front row. Elated, Ari knew the shot would make it into the movie.
"Is that all?" asked Frank.
"One more," said Ari, holding up his finger. Empty sky popped on screen. A green spike came up from the bottom of the frame, then several other spikes appeared. They grew until everyone realized that what they were seeing was the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Her face rose slowly up, filling the screen. Her blind eyes were almost grotesque, even horrifying.
"That close-up's a little too close." Frank stood, signaling the end. The lights came on. The projector stopped rolling.
Ari looked around the small screening room. About a dozen producers and studio execs, the editor, the cameraman, the production designer, wardrobe, hair and makeup: every department that had something to do with the look of the film was present and waiting for a chance to ask endless questions of the director.
Ari knew that he would only have a minute or two at most before the others jumped in, distracting Frank with tomorrow's shoot questions, all more immediate than his own. In order to steal the director's attention, Ari had come equipped with props: six plastic pyramids, a toy helicopter, and a kitschy little golden plaster statue of the Sphinx.
"How'd you like the bridge shot?" Ari walked up to Frank.
Frank didn't nod, or even smile. He rarely paid anyone a compliment, but something on his face, some tacit shift in his expression betrayed that he did like Ari's shots — very much.
"Good," was all Frank said. Yet Ari knew that one quiet "good" from Frank was worth a hundred superlatives from everyone else in the room. The producers started to crowd around.
"So much to choose from," they said on the coattails of Frank's approval.
"When do you leave for Cairo?" asked Frank, shutting off the compliments.
"Now," answered Ari.
Elizabeth Vronsky, the executive producer responsible for the business side of the film and its budget, stood up. She was taller than most of the men in the room and had a cool confidence in her ability to shoot down any risky idea. This ability always put everyone in that room, including Frank, on the defensive. She spoke for the studio in Hollywood. If Frank was the king of this film, Elizabeth was the queen.
"The problem is ..." began Beth. Ari dreaded his precious minute getting sucked up by what might go wrong with his work, instead of what had to be done. "... that we might miss our date at the Sphinx. We just got permission for only one day next week. We don't know if we can get it again or how long that might take —"
"Frank." Ari cut her off by walking past her to the control console at the front of the screening room. "How do you want me to do the shot?" He quickly set up the little statue of the Sphinx and the plastic pyramids on the console, then held up the toy helicopter.
Frank drifted over, drawn to the statue of the Sphinx.
"One possibility," continued Ari, "is that we start tight on the head of the Sphinx," Ari held his toy helicopter up to the little gold statue mimicking a possible flight path, "so tight we don't know where we are...."
Frank reached down and picked up the tourist trinket Sphinx. He brought it up to his weary eyes to study closely for a moment, his large impassive face dwarfing the little hand-painted golden lion like a witch doctor with a voodoo doll.
"Where did they pick this up?" asked Frank.
"In Cairo," said Ari.
Frank's cell buzzed. He didn't even have to look at it. "That's our leading lady. I made a promise to come over to her hotel to discuss her lines for tomorrow, and we have a four thirty A.M. shooting call." Frank stifled a yawn, girding himself to that thought, then tossed the Sphinx to Ari. "Astonish me. You always do." Then Frank walked out of the room.
"No pressure," said Beth.
"Oh, man." Ari picked up his model pyramids. The other producers descended on him.
They all chimed in at once. "What day is your permit for?" "Do you have enough time to pull this together?" "What's your backup plan?"
"I get the shot," insisted Ari. "That's my backup plan."
"And I've got something for you." Beth started for the door. "Come to my office." She didn't wait to see if Ari would follow. He just did.CHAPTER 3
Beth's assistant was waiting outside the screening room door. She held up a folded check request form between her hands almost as if in prayer.
"What's this check for?" asked Beth as she started walking down the hall to her office. Ari and the earnest young novice fell in beside her.
"They want to rent a camera crane for Monday," said Beth's assistant.
"No," said Beth.
"But if we don't get it picked up tomorrow, it won't get on the truck for Monday morning —"
"Tell them to call me."
"But ... it's Friday night," stammered the assistant.
"So what?" Beth turned on the fresh young thing. "I'm still here. You're still here." Beth pointed at Ari. "He's still here."
"Beth," Ari wanted to calm her down. "It is Friday night."
Beth turned her glare on Ari, then tore the check request in half and gave it back to her girl Friday.
"I said no." With that, she disappeared into her office.
Ari gave it a second, then patted the quivering assistant on the shoulder.
"Don't worry, kid, Beth's not angry with you. She's not even angry at these clowns for asking for a crane at the last possible second in the work week. She's angry at ... someone else." Ari winked at the assistant. "We're all under a lot of pressure. Go fill out another check request. In half an hour she'll get around to signing it."
Ari took a deep breath, as if jumping into an icy pool, and then slipped into Beth's office, shutting the door and locking it behind him.
Beth was already dialing the combination of her big safe, which was about the size of a wardrobe. She always wore new high-tech running shoes, crisp jeans, and a tight Lycra jacket, the zipper slightly open to accentuate her long neck. Her erect posture made her seem even taller. She wore no makeup, yet had a perfect white complexion, which was prone to red blotches just before she got angry. Ari had seen big macho union grips, electricians, and teamsters reduced to fidgety little boys under the gaze of her piercing gray eyes. Her straight red hair was always twisted into a bun with a pen stuck through it. She was a study in casual precision.
With a clank, she pulled the handle and yanked open the heavy gray doors of the tall safe. Inside were stacks of hard drives, hundreds of them, containing in digital form all of the footage of the movie. On a small part of one shelf sat bundles of cash. She picked up some packets of hundreds and turned back to Ari, who reached out for the money.
"Such a pleasure doing pleasure with you," he joked, hoping she had calmed down a little.
"Don't you ever contradict me in front of my staff again."
"Beth, lighten up. Why tear up the kid's forms? She's just going to have to fill 'em out again when the key grip calls you in fifteen minutes to kiss your ass."
"And you cut me off while I was talking to Frank." Her ice-gray eyes went wide.
"So that's what we're really mad about here?" Ari tried not to betray his own nerves. "I only had twenty seconds of his attention."
"Just because you're the director's pet doesn't mean you can cut me —"
"Hey," he interrupted, "I thought I was your pet?"
"Don't you pull that charm stuff on me." She gazed at him, her anger wavering.
He thought, she's either going to slap me or ... He moved in toward her slowly, almost imperceptibly. Whenever Beth got mad, Ari fell into a hypersexualized state. He could usually stop himself from acting on it, but sometimes he was overwhelmed with a sensation of falling or spinning and felt a strong urge to reach out and hold on. He kissed her suddenly, backing her up between the doors of the safe, biting any other words of anger out of her mouth.
Excerpted from Shooting the Sphinx by Avram Noble Ludwig. Copyright © 2016 Avram Noble Ludwig. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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