Place: Tacoma, WA
Throughout 4th grade, my friend Alan Mann and I shared one common dream: achieving fame and publicly lauded genius status before high school. Somehow, some way, we’d be rich and famous. Our financial independence would allow us familial emancipation and the ability to buy a house where we and all of our friends would live. At our manor, the only adult allowed would be our English butler, Mr. Higgens, whom we’d play endless demeaning pranks on. But don’t feel bad for Mr. Higgens, we were positive he would always respond with witty one-liners and derogatory, but respectful, jabs.
Now, in order to accrue the theoretical lifestyle that we were quickly growing accustomed to, we had to do something of greatness, something that no one would believe was carried out by two fourth graders. From there, the ideas came to us like floodwater and we embraced each with an enthusiasm unmatched since Bugsy Siegel envisioned the Flamingo Hotel. The way we saw it, the more things we tried, the more likely it was that lightning would strike. It was a similar logic that lead thousands of gold hungry Forty-Niners to their poverty-ridden deaths after years of backbreaking work. No way that could backfire!
Inspiration came when I watched a behind-the-scenes special that looked into the making of a Showtime original movie, something about a father and son lost in the woods and their brave attempt to survive in the wild. The lead actor, when asked of the experience as a whole, had said, “This is one of the funnest projects I’ve worked on. I love my job. It’s like getting paid to play in a big backyard.”
Wait a sec! I liked to play in my backyard and if making movies was like that, then filmmaking was our ticket to fame.
Later, I explained to Alan how, “…all we need to do is get a camera an’ some microphones on sticks an’ we could totally make our own movie. How hard can it be?”
Alan’s dad had an old 8mm hidden somewhere in the house. So, one night, Alan waited for the right moment, then approached his dad about using the camera. In what could only be attributed to his THC-induced haze of judgment, this usually A-hole of a man actually said, “Sure. Whatta you gonna use it for?”
“Mike an’ me are gonna make a movie.”
Before going to retrieve the camera, Mr. Mann looked at Alan with what was no doubt an alien look: an ounce of pride. “That’s dynamite,” he said. Handing over the camera and some film, Mr. Mann doled out some heartfelt advice. “Be careful, though,” he said. “There’s lots of Jews in Hollywood.”
Quickly, we decided upon our first feature: a film adaptation of Tom Sawyer. It was perfect. It had adventure and fishing and treasure, an Indian and the characters were our age.
Camera bag in tow, we began scouting locations (that’s showbiz speak for ‘places to film’). Not far from our school, Idlewild Elementary, sat Lost Lake, which we immediately deemed the perfect spot to represent the Mississippi River. It was isolated enough that we could film without problems (i.e. older kids beating us up and taking the camera), there were overhanging branches, lots of mud, even one partially submerged trees from which to sit and fish through the thick, shag carpet of algae. The way we saw it, since neither of us had the slightest clue as to what the Mississippi actually looked like, what were the odds anyone else would know the difference between it and a pond? We were so keyed up about the pond, er, massive river, that we forgot to seek out a picket fence to paint or a cave to get lost in.
Casting was simple. Alan wanted to be Huck Finn, which left the part (not to mention title character) of Tom Sawyer to yours truly. For what was no doubt upwards of several minutes, we toiled over what girl we could get to play Becky Thatcher. Secretly, I wanted Kara Pennyday, but I wasn’t about to admit it. “I don’t wanna kiss some girl,” I said.
“It’s in the story,” Alan argued.
“I don’ care. You kiss her, then.”
“Nuh-uh. In the book, Tom Sawyer….”
“I don’ wanna do it. Everyone’ll laugh.”
Alan thought this over. “Well, what about we dress my brother up like a girl an’ then you just gotta kiss him?”
“Yeah, that might work.” –Eventually, the character of Becky Thatcher was omitted all together, but we still needed more casting.
One day, after school, we approached Erique as he was unlocking his bike. “Hey, um, you wanna be in our movie?”
“Movie?” he asked with a smile. “For real?”
“Totally,” I said. “We’re making a Tom Sawyer movie an’ we wanna know if you wanna be the Indian Injun Joe.” –We had overlooked the fact that a 10-year old was being asked to play a middle-aged man. The fact was, Erique had dark skin, that’s all we saw.
Erique asked when the filming would take place and we told him on the weekends. “No can do,” he said. “I got Little League on the weekends. Sorry. I’d like to see it when you finish it, though.”
As desperate times called for desperate measures, we made the decision to only mention Injun Joe when necessary. For example, “Good thing we got away from Injun Joe before he could hurt us in that cave where he’s trapped, now.”
Otherwise, the character of Injun Joe would be represented by shadows and camera tricks. A distant shot of a feather sticking up from behind a log; a plastic toy would be just as convincing when we added the line, “Hey, there’s Injun Joe way-y-y-y down there next to that gigantic twig tree.”
When it came time to write the script, Alan, who even had difficulty writing his ‘What I want for Christmas’ essay, left me in charge. So, in the matter of two hours, I managed, with the talent of any great Cliff Notes author, to transcribe the entire novel into half a page. This incredible literary feat was accomplished by condensing entire chapters, less all dialogue (I figured we would, “…just make up stuff when we’re filmin’,”) into one-line entries:
In retrospect, I strongly believe Mark Twain’s ghost would have been duly justified in returning from the dead and snapping my neck in a copyright-driven fit of rage.
As the first day of the shoot neared, we fastened homemade fishing poles, got our costumes ready (Alan found a straw cowboy hat in his brother’s room and used a pair of scissors to cut more jagged edges in the brim, while I borrowed my dad’s red suspenders) and began preparing our Oscar speeches.
That morning we were to begin, Alan’s mom asked, “Where are you going in that junky old hat? You look like a hobo.”
With rare enthusiasm, Alan explained our project, to which Mrs. Mann replied, “I don’t want you near that pond! It’s filthy! You’ll get malaria!”
Alan was immediately and irrationally grounded, thus ending the updated and bastardized retelling of the adventures of Tom and Huck and a plastic Injun Joe.
Thanks a lot, malaria!