[Preface: Coding footnotes into a WordPress blog is… arduous. I think these are all correct, but you have my sincerest apologies if something goes terribly, terribly wrong.]
This is a story about fame.
Well, not really fame so much as my tangential connection to fame. Regardless of what you’ve heard, I’m really not that famous. I’ll still send you my autograph if you want it ($8.99 plus S&H), but somehow I feel like you won’t be taking me up on that offer. My last starring role came when I played the time-traveling professor in my fifth grade class’ school play, the climax of which saw me faint in a histrionic fit and be carried off stage left by two of the lovelier girls at Peachland Elementary School. Rave reviews from all the classroom parents, mind you, but not exactly Oscar material. Hell, not even Golden Globe material.
No, this is a story about other people’s fame. My uncle is an actor—a lot of television and plays lately, but he’s been in a decent number of more-than-decent movies, too. I’m not about to list them, but I’m sure that you could puzzle out who he is and what they are if you really wanted to—you being a very bright and capable human being, with the whole of humanity’s knowledge before your fingertips, lurking under the right combination of key strokes. For this story, it is only important that he was in The Lost World, a Steven Spielberg film which takes its name from a novel by Michael Crichton, which in turn takes its name from a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame). The Spielberg movie, much like both books, is about dinosaurs. Again, I won’t tell you whom my uncle plays, but rest assured that by the end of the film he has been eaten.
Despite the tropical locale of Isla Sorna, the fictional island off the coast of Costa Rica where the majority of the movie takes place, a lot of the film was shot in Los Angeles on the Universal Studios backlot, located north of Hollywood via the Cahuenga Pass. So because of this filming location, and because by the age of seven it was well known among my family that I had a bit of a paleontological predilection, and because I happened by so much luck or coincidence or providence or what-have-you to have grown up in the suburbs of the City of Angels, I was invited to see the filmmaking process.
This chain of events led to one morning in 1996, when I found myself in my dad’s red and rather ordinary Jeep, passing through the barricaded gate to the Universal Studios backlot. We parked near the entrance, next to several large, green, military-grade Jeeps branded with the word “InGen.” At the time, I didn’t know anything about this Lost World movie besides the fact that it contained, in some form, both my uncle and dinosaurs. But that was enough to incite inside a small boy’s mind small galaxies of anticipation—imagine yourself in my (velcroed) shoes.
I’ll try to recreate the next few minutes as faithfully as a decade and a half of separation allows. The building my father, brother, and I approached after we left our Jeep was large, with gargantuan sliding doors. We entered through a normal-sized side door and were greeted by a bank of computers, station after station of monitors and keyboards and joysticks, each occupied by a technician staring intently at his screen. Huge bundles of cables snaked away from the computers and disappeared into the foliage of the rainforest that took up the opposite half of the warehouse. (Yeah. A rainforest. Inside the warehouse.) That half of the room was pouring rain, a torrential tattoo punctuated only by fake lightning and thunder. I had just about wrestled my brain into believing that there was a verdant jungle living in this concrete warehouse—and settled into the peaceful tranquility that comes from accepting the surreal—when the sound of rain was shattered by Scream Number Two on the list of the five most blood-curdling screams I’ve ever heard. Across the warehouse, two twenty-foot-tall tyrannosaurs were busy eating a man out of a Jeep. The T-rexes’ heads bobbed and their massive jaws opened and closed silently, six-inch serrated steak knife teeth illuminated in strobe light lightning flashes like Satan’s Cheshire cat. The man in the Jeep—pudgy, balding, soaked, and terrified—was glancing rapidly between the pair, screaming without drawing breath.
And then, in the final moment—the moment right before the tyrannosaurs bent down and plucked this wailing man from his car and devoured him in front of my innocent eyes—right then, like a deus ex machina that he is far too gifted a director to ever employ, came the cry, the command, the commandment, the mighty voice from on high booming out over the silent crowd: CUT.
This was, after all, Hollywood. And with that one word the act was over. The tyrannosaurs hung lifeless, unmoving, dull eyes surveying the crowd of people in the room without so much as a hint of predatory malice. The rain was shut off, the strobe lights were turned off, and the shrieking man was toweling off in silence underneath one of the dinosaurs. I had watched the entire sixty-five million years since the K-T extinction pass in about sixty-five milliseconds. The throng of men and women standing at attention around the set burst into life as the rain and the dinosaurs died, and out of this horde emerged my uncle.
My dad and uncle’s conversation soared over my seven-year-old head, so I spaced out, watched the dinosaurs. I reentered through the Kármán line of the conversation when my uncle turned to me and said, “Hey Seth,” but said it in such a way that I knew—knew—I was being let in on a big secret.
“Seth,” he said, “I think there’s someone here you’ll want to meet.”
Following my uncle, we walked across the warehouse towards a man in a baseball cap who was sitting in a folding chair and talking quickly to another man with a clipboard.
“Steve,” my uncle said, as the clipboard hurried away, “this is my [brother / brother-in-law] and his kids.” The man in the baseball cap turned around and shook hands with my dad, then bent down to look me in the eye. HI SETH, he said.
Now, I’m not sure that I even knew who Steven Spielberg was at the age of seven, let alone appreciated the genius that is Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I was given the impression that this man was in charge of the dinosaurs, and so I believe I behaved suitably star-struck. I managed to hand him my copy of the novelization of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (here book had followed movie and not vice versa), which he signed with great looping strokes of his pen—
TO SETH, OUR GUEST IN THE LOST WORLD
—and handed back to me. I took the book with shaking hands and clutched it to my chest.
SO, the man in the baseball cap said, I HEAR YOU LIKE DINOSAURS.
Well, yes sir I do, I said. The next thing I knew, the man in the baseball cap was picking me up. He set me down on his right knee.
IN THAT CASE, he said, LET ME HEAR YOUR BEST DINOSAUR ROAR.
To recap: I, Seth Mandel Winger, seven-years-old, unemployed-but-looking and single-but-also-looking, without a shred of acting experience to my name, am having my first audition. Said audition is taking place on one Steven Allan Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning lap, and I have been asked to do what any seven-year-old does quite naturally: bellow like a bloodthirsty Mesozoic reptile.
I nailed it.
* * *
So that, ladies and gentlemen, is my story about fame, about my excursion into the land of the lionized, that holy wood, that magnificent Lost World beyond the dominion of the ordinary, where strange and wondrous creatures roam the earth. If you want my autograph now, I’m still more than happy to supply it ($19.99 plus S&H). Reenactments, however, are strictly out of the question.
I spent a nontrivial amount of time browsing the internet to figure out if there’s a fancy French word for this, like there is for dénouement. As far as I can tell, there isn’t.
Related to me by marriage, but the particulars of this distinction aren’t particularly important to this story. For all intents and purposes uncles are just uncles.
“Intents and purposes”: a great phrase, but until more recently than I care to admit I thought it was actually “intensive purposes.” Which is a much more understandable misunderstanding than my childhood belief that anyone “lactose and tolerant” must be very nice.
By this logic, don’t you think you got a pretty remarkable deal on your computer and internet connection? An example, dug out from this wondrous lode of information: The current letters in the famous HOLLYWOOD sign are five feet (1.52 meters) shorter than the original versions. The internet is full of beautiful inanity.
Or about the plummeting real estate market in San Diego (if you’re a pessimist with a penchant for metaphor, at least).
This translates to “Sarcasm Island,” but I’m not sure if that’s intentional.
Leading to many hilarious jokes told to me about the thesaurus and why it’s the smartest dinosaur, but those are another story. And also not hilarious.
Je weniger die Leute darüber wissen, wie Würste und Filme gemacht werden, desto besser schlafen sie nachts. (A slight twist on a German saying—note the typical German grammatical conciseness and syntactic simplicity. Teutonic terseness is almost an oxymoron.)
It is perhaps at this point that I should explain to you that this word meant nothing to me at age seven. Jurassic Park was rated PG-13—parental guidance required for those under the age of thirteen—and my parents’ guidance had deemed this film along with all other films bearing such stipulations strictly off-limits. It is also perhaps at this point that I should explain to you that InGen is the name of the genetics company which clones dinosaurs in a colossally stupid fashion in Jurassic Park.
That is to say, at least a third of it will be made up.
If I’m being fast and loose with my thoughts, my memory makes it look like a Quonset hut. But if I really stop and think about it, the building was much more square and not really like a Quonset hut at all. The constructs of memory are strange and protean beasts—and if you relive your thoughts enough, how long until you forget entirely that the fabricated pieces are fabrications?
Like a Bond villain lair full of real henchmen, henchmen who are sweaty and balding and wearing Hawaiian shirts instead of svelte and built and wearing black turtlenecks.
Strobe lights and some clever use of reverb, respectively.
The only simile I can think of involves boxes of Crackerjacks and hidden prizes, but this only works if temporary tattoos can feel terror.
Or at least a section of a warehouse in the backlot of a studio located over the hills several miles to the north of Hollywood.
For the record, the first sixty-five million years of the Cenozoic, when compressed to under a second, sound a lot like gaffers yelling about lighting and smell slightly like damp rubber and stale coffee.
To protect his identity from all but the most dedicated of investigators, not his real home state.
This is, however, his real manner of speech.
No hints, Holmes.
Maybe more accurately, all those technicians were in charge of the dinosaurs, but Spielberg was at least in charge of the technicians.
Or, if you’re one of the previously-mentioned pessimists with a penchant for metaphor, about mildly creepy but mostly endearing pedophilia.
These creatures usually roam in white Hummer limos (modern day ivory towers, I suppose), and their world is not so much lost in the Spielberg/Crichton-esque sense (which are Frankensteinian parables about the dangers posed by renegade science) as it is lost in more of the Doyle-ish sense (wherein the missing world is simply sequestered on a South American plateau, passed by by time and outside influence, insulated by its own secluded and exclusive nature—a truly “lost world” in the sense that, once found, it is ever alluring, yet simultaneously a land almost impossible to enter and harder still in which to dwell).