A Junket in the City of Light
By Tom Hanks
What brown fox jumped quickly over dogs that are lazy?
Hey, this writing machine actually works!
What the hell has happened? Who am I today? Still Rory Thorpe, I guess, but who is he?
Last night—just hours ago—I was the guy in a huge movie that everyone was talking about, the guy who made out with a glamorous beauty, a guy with a fine ass. In the capitals of Europe—and America—I was hustled around like a politician, into cars and into ballrooms filled with camera-totin’, question-hollerin’ reporters. I waved to seas of people, many of whom waved back, even though no one knew who I am, even though I am, in fact, a no one. Although, I have in my possession... certain documents... that reveal Willa Sax’s TOP-SECRET CODE NAME(it’s Eleanor Flintstone!).
I was 2 Days into taking the City of Paris by storm, with a 3rd to go, and Day 3 was going to have FIREWORKS! I had all my expenses paid. I was wearing free clothes. I could ask for a sandwich whenever I wanted, even though I was kept so busy I didn’t have time for much more than a few bites.
But this morning all that is over. I have to be out of my room at checkout time. Too bad. This is a nice hotel. The Nazis stayed here. A good rule of thumb when traveling in Europe— stay in places with a Nazi past. The place in Rome had been Gestapo headquarters during the war. Big rooms. High ceilings. A beautiful garden. In Berlin, the hotel had been leveled when the Russians clobbered the Nazis who were hiding in it. To rub in their victory, the Commies never bothered to rebuild it or much of anything else in that part of East Berlin. When the wall came down, the hotel went back up and now the joint has a special room just for smoking cigars. In London, the old lady of a grand hotel had been bombed by the Luftwaffe sometime between the Nazi glories of Rome and the ass kicking they took from the Reds a few years later. The Queen has had dinner there twice since 1973.
Finally, this Parisian hotel had been the headquarters of the German Occupation Staff. They say Hitler had a cup of coffee on one of the balconies before he drove around to take in the sights of his conquered City of Light.
All this has been free of cost for me, including the hotels in LA and Chicago and New York, on the studio’s dime, because I play Caleb Jackson in Cassandra Rampart 3:
Destiny at Hand.(Cassandra Rampart aka Willa Sax aka Eleanor Flintstone!)
Day 3 of my junket—sorry, my Press Tour—would have been another wild ride of a day. Instead, I have to pack my bags and check out by 1:00 p.m.—I’m sorry, by 13:00...
Rory Thorpe thanked his lucky stars for Irene Burton; those stars had been mighty benevolent over the last two years. He’d been in a movie with none other than Willa Sax—Cassandra Rampart herself! He had money in the bank for the first time in his life! And he was getting a free trip to Europe out of the deal! All he had to do was give some interviews over there! His enthusiasm had Irene Burton mutely laughing her ass off.
Irene was sixty-six years old, had worked in marketing for every one of the six major film studios, and now lived in semiretirement in a beach house in Oxnard—far enough away from Hollywood to avoid the daily stresses of showbiz yet close enough to pop in when she was needed to clean up the occasional PR flameout. Eleven years ago, she escorted a young, talented, and beautiful actress through the press tour for a horrible movie called Dementia 40, which did lousy business but is now legendary for introducing audiences to the young, talented, and beautiful Willa Sax. The press called her Willa
Sex for a few years—a fitting moniker—but now Willa was Cassandra Rampart, a one-woman industry who had her own line of exercise clothes, a home for orphaned pets, and a foundation that promoted literacy in third world nations.
The first two Cassandra Rampart movies had grossed $1.75 billion worldwide. Willa Sax didn’t just command $21 million a movie plus profits, she commanded respect.
“Irene,” Willa told her on the phone. “You gotta help me.” “S’up, punkin’?” Irene called all her young actors punkin’. “Rory Thorpe is as dumb as a box of hair.”
“Who is Rory Thorpe?”
“The guy in my latest thing. I just saw his EPK.” The electronic press kit is a house-controlled interview given to the press as background for a movie. “Most of his answers start with ‘Well, um. It’s like, you know...’ We have the junket coming up and I can’t go around the world with Doofus McGillicuddy as my costar. He needs to be told what the fuck not to do.”
“I can do that.”
So Irene did. She took Rory shopping at Fred Segal and
Tom Ford for the clothes he’d need—casual-look outfits for interviews and black-tie tuxes for premiere galas. No charge.
She took him luggage shopping at T Anthony for the right trunks and suitcases—at a steep discount the studio covered—so those outfits would be ready to don at a moment’s notice. He’d be photographed in two-shots with one of the most beautiful women in the world and needed to look like he rated the position. He’d be answering the same questions a thousand times over, so she drilled into him the talking point memos the studio had provided: CR3—DAH brings the C Rampart universe its most compelling & sophisticated film, for she is not just a heroine for our times but a woman for the ages. Please use
“woman for the ages” whenever describing Cassandra.
Irene had perfected her ability to keep her laughter to herself when one of her clients said something really stupid or naïve—in Rory’s case, his thinking his first ever trip to Europe was going to be free.
“Oh, punkin’,” she told him. “You’ll be working your ass off.” The junket began in Los Angeles: three days jammed with interviews, photo shoots, video conferences, Q and A sessions, forums with fan bases, and as many talk show appearances as possible, each needing an hour of preinterviews with the segment producers. Irene saw to it that Rory was well dressed, well groomed, and well versed in what the fuck not to do. And there was the trip to the Comic-Con convention in San Diego. Willa Sax needed a team of bodyguards to keep the fans at bay; many of them were costumed as Cassandra, the former Secret Service agent with computer chips implanted in her brain, formula-enhanced, superstrong sinews, able to communicate subconsciously with the Seven, the extraterrestrials who live among us, aliens who may be good guys, may be bad guys, and who et cetera et cetera et cetera you get the idea. Many ComicConers were costumed as the Seven. No one was dressed as Caleb Jackson, pro surfer/software whiz, because no one had seen the movie yet. The fans seemed thrilled at the screening of a twenty-minute teaser of the movie, making it a trending topic for most of the day on both Twitter and Poppit!
Two days later in Chicago, the teaser was screened on the campus of Northwestern University, the alma mater of Willa Sax herself. Her old dorm was renamed in her honor. Irene steered Rory through two days of interviews, a parade, a charity volleyball match, the dropping of the puck at a Blackhawks hockey game, and a screening of the movie to benefit literacy in Africa that was held at the same theater where the gangster John Dillinger had been gunned down.
Four days of junket were held in New York City, starting with a press conference staged in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, attended by 152 media outlets. Rory did not get a question until Willa had talked for thirty minutes, mostly of the challenges of shooting with the new FLIT-cam digital process and the new SPFX system called DIGI-MAX. She was a producer on the film, after all, having optioned the rights to the Cassandra Rampart graphic novel in 2007 for a mere ten thousand dollars.
She laughed off questions about her husband’s investment genius and his supposed bedroom prowess. “Guys!” Willa protested. “Bobby is a banker!” Bobby was her husband, and he was worth $1.2 billion. Willa told the press that he really was a regular dude who had to be told to take out the trash.
That led to Rory being asked, “How does it feel for a guy like you to kiss the most beautiful woman in the world?”
“It’s a kiss for the ages,” he said. Irene smiled, knowing she’d done her work well. The crammed room remained silent, save the clicking of camera shutters. When the press conference ended, Willa was whisked away as more questions were shouted at her. Irene escorted Rory into a smaller ballroom set up with multiple round tables, each crowded with journalists and their microphones. Rory spent twenty minutes at each table, one after another, with no break, answering versions of the same three questions. What is it like working with Willa Sax?
What is it like kissing Willa Sax?
Is that really your ass in the hurricane scene?
Irene took him to the Media Center on the eighth floor, to sit through a total of fifty-seven television interviews, lasting no more than six minutes each, all held in the same room, Rory seated in the same chair with a one-sheet of the movie behind him. In the poster, Willa was staring off into space, a look of ferocious concentration on her beautiful face, her torso clad in a tight sweater, a rip exposing her shoulder and the top sphere of her left breast. Behind her was a mosaic of images from the movie—an explosion, dark figures running in a tunnel, a massive, cresting wave, and Rory wearing a headset and looking at a computer, serious as all hell. WILLA SAX IS BACK AS CASSANDRA RAMPART was printed in big letters. Rory’s name was in the cluttered billing block at the bottom of the poster, in typeface the same size as that of the film’s editor. Irene kept him plied with green tea, protein bars, and small bowls of blueberries.
The movie was promoted on CBS This Morning the entire week. Every morning at 7:40 and 8:10, Rory reported the national weather in front of a green-screen map. Willa Sax was a guest host with Kelly Ripa on Live with Kelly. The two women did Pilates on the air.
The premiere of the film was supposed to take place on one of the piers on the Hudson—special facilities had been constructed with seating for five thousand people, but a predicted thunderstorm put the kibosh on that. Instead, cinema screens all over the city were booked for simultaneous digital projections of the movie. Rory and Irene were delivered to every one of them by SUV—a total of twenty-nine personal appearances. Willa Sax attended only the special screening held at the Museum of Natural History to raise money for its Programs for Young Scientists.
At the end of the nine days of the domestic press junket, Rory was exhausted, talked out, dizzy; he had seen little more than cars and rooms and cameras. Worst of all, the questions had been the same for four-hundred-plus interviews. What is it like working with Willa Sax?
What is it like kissing Willa Sax?
Is that really your butt in the hurricane scene?
Rory now felt that working with Willa Sax was like eating a peanut butter sandwich on a motorcycle, kissing Willa Sax was like Christmas in July, and the butt in the hurricane was that of a talking horse named Britches.
“Welcome to the big leagues, punkin’,” Irene told him. “Tomorrow, Rome.”
Willa Sax flew to Italy on a chartered plane, along with her team, her posse, and her handlers. The studio plane took the other five producers, all the executives, and the marketing heads. With no seats available for either Rory or Irene, they flew business class on TraxJet Airways, changing planes in Frankfurt.
Three days of press were held in Rome, each as busy as those in the US. On the last night the teaser was shown outside at the Circo Máximo—where the chariot races were held in ancient times. To Rory it looked like just a big field. Scenes from the movie were projected onto a huge temporary screen, but not until after a local soccer team was presented with the trophy they had won in some championship. The crowd was estimated at 21,000. When Rory appeared onstage to wave to the Romans, nothing happened. When Willa appeared to do the same, fistfights broke out as a tide of fans in soccer jerseys rushed the barricades to get to her. The Italian carabinieri got into a melee with the thugs as Willa was hustled into an armored car and whisked away to the airport. The next morning, Rory and Irene took a commercial flight—Air Flugplatz—to Berlin, where another three days of press were on tap.
In Berlin, Rory’s body clock was so jet-lagged that he found himself flush with energy at 3:00 a.m., so he went out for a run. Leaving the hotel, he was ignored by the dozens of fervent German Cassandra Rampart fans who’d lingered all night and would continue to do so all morning, hoping for a glimpse of her. He jogged along the dark paths of the Tiergarten, stopping to do push-ups on the steps of a monument to the Russian Army, complete with actual tanks, that crushed Berlin in 1945. At noon the next day he was so tired he felt like a sleepwalker. He talked like one, too, telling the entire staff of Bild, the national newspaper, that as both a fan of the movies and the latest costar of Willa Sex (he actually said “Sex” instead of “Sax”), he felt that “Sandra Caspart was the most complimental and sophisticationed of any and all films, for Willa Sex is heroin for our times, and a woman of the four ages.” Then came the questions. What is it like working with Willa Sex?
What is it like kissing Willa Sex?
Is that really your butt in the hurricane scene?
“Try not to call her Willa Sex,” Irene told him in the car back to the hotel.
“When did I do that?” Rory asked.
“Just now. To Germany’s largest daily newspaper.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m no longer sure what the words are that come out of my mouth.”
The German screening of the teaser took place later that night, projected onto the Brandenburg Gate to six thousand fans. When she appeared at the balcony of the hotel to wave to them, Willa Sax was disappointed there were no fistfights.
“I guess I’m no Willa Sex tonight,” she said at the gala dinner afterward, held in the same museum that displays Nefertiti’s bust.
By the time Rory and Irene had flown to London (CompuAir into Gatwick), the international press junket had turned Rory into blabbering toast.
Getting the job was a fluke, a scratch-off lottery win. Rory had given up on Los Angeles after a six-month stint as a model-actorbartender with all of two credits on his SAGAFTRA card. He’d booked a yogurt commercial, playing touch football on a beach. For three cloudy days in San Diego he ran around shirtless— Rory looked damn fine without a shirt—with a group of racially mixed “pals”, then they all snacked on yogurt. They were coached on how to dip the spoons into the minipacks and place the yogurt in their mouths. There was a trick to it.
Nine weeks later he was cast in a one-episode role on the rebranded Kojak series for CBS. Rory played a tattooed-shavedhead meth dealer who was pretending to be a handicapped Iraq War veteran, so obviously he had to die. Rory met his end in high style—shirtless (of course), dragged off the roof of an office building by his fraudulently gained motorized wheelchair,
New Kojak jumping to safety just in time.
With little else going on but car payments and gym workouts, Rory grew bored with Southern California, and took his yogurt-Kojak money to Utah for the ski season. When New
Kojak finally aired, one of the several other producers on Cassandra happened to be watching and texted Willa Sax:
Think I saw CR’s next bit o’ honey. A few days later, Rory got a call from his agency to get back to town because something
huge was on deck, in the brew, cooking in the hopper.
The first time Rory met Willa Sax—who was crazy beautiful, beyond-real-life beautiful—was over cups of green tea in her offices in the Capitol Records Building on Vine Street in Hollywood. The home she shared with her venture capitalist husband was somewhere in the hills nearby. She could not have been a nicer person, chatting with Rory about art and raising horses. Rory knew very little about either. Willa changed the subject to Fiji. She had been to the islands to do research for the movie. She told Rory about the beauty of the night sky and the clarity of the water and the happy faces of the locals, especially during the traditional kava ceremonies that were held to welcome visitors. She had learned to surf there. The movie would shoot in Fiji for at least two weeks.
The meeting lasted a little over an hour, but before Rory was in his car and at a standstill in the afternoon traffic of the Hollywood freeway, his phone exploded with texts: WSaX Loved
you!$$$$. Two weeks later he was officially cast as Caleb with a crazy payday of nearly half a million dollars, to be spread over three films, which could or could not be part of the Cassandra Rampart universe. The next time he saw Willa was at the studio for camera tests. A production assistant took Rory to her trailer. When he climbed up the steps wearing his torso-clinging Caleb Jackson surfing outfit, she sized up her no-name yet gorgeous costar and said, “Well, ain’t you hot shit!”
The start date of the movie was delayed for a few months as the script was rewritten, then pushed to after the new year so Willa could enjoy the holidays with her husband; they spent Christmas in a castle in Scotland. Rory’s first day playing Caleb Jackson was in late March on a soundstage in Budapest. Willa had been shooting for three weeks and had her own makeup trailer, so the two did not see each other until they were on the set. The scene called for them to make out in a shower, but the water was not hot enough to hiss out any real steam, so the Hungarian SPFX crew rigged the stall with a smoke machine. When Willa came to the stage in her bathrobe, her three security guards circled her chair. She asked Rory if the hotel was working out for him, then told him that now that she was married she never kissed on screen with an open mouth.
Over seven months, Rory shot only a few days a week—in Budapest, Mallorca, back in Budapest, in a stretch of desert in Morocco, then in Rio de Janeiro for a scene that called for Willa and Rory to run through the crowded streets of Carnival, a scene that took four days to prep and sixteen minutes to shoot. Rory himself shot a week in Shreveport, Louisiana, while Willa took time off with her husband in the Seychelles. They met up again for a day of additional running-through-Carnival scenes, but this time in New Orleans. Because some of the film financing came out of Germany, tax laws forced them to shoot one scene in Düsseldorf. They ran out of a building and jumped into a taxi—the extent of the Düsseldorf filming. After ten days of reshoots in Budapest, they had only the surfing scenes yet to do. They never did go to Fiji. Instead, Rory and Willa grabbed shots against a green screen at the exterior water tank in Malta, pretending to surf on SPFX gimbals as stagehands doused them with very cold water from dump tanks.
French telephones do not ring. They go bleat-bleat, bleat-bleat,
bleat-bleat. At 6:22 a.m., the sound is like having a barn animal in your hotel room. Rory had to stop that sound.
“Yeah?” The receiver felt like a toy up to his ear.
“Change of plans, punkin’.” Irene was on the phone. “You get to stay in bed.”
“Say what?” Rory was still a bit woozy, having taken advantage of the Hotel Meurice’s bar until just four hours ago.
“The schedule for today is in flux,” Irene said. “Go back to sleep.”
“Watch this.” Rory put the phone back in its cradle, rolled over, and was out like a glass-jawed boxer.
He woke up three hours later and stumbled into the sitting area of his hotel suite—good enough for Nazi officers in the day and just fine and dandy for Mrs. Thorpe’s only boy. The schedule for his Day 3 in Paris was on the desk beside the room service menu and a media packet on CASSANDRA RAMPART 3: DESTINY AT HAND. At 9:46, Rory was supposed to be giving TV interviews of twelve minutes each, but neither Irene nor anyone else had come to fetch him. Tomorrow he’d be flying business class on IndoAirWays to Singapore, so he ordered up a few café au laits and a bakery basket from room service.
He had spent very little time in any of the hotel rooms save for exhausted sleep and grooming, always by two women, one for makeup and one for hair, both ushered into the suite by Irene while Rory showered. Alone, in his underwear and sipping coffee and hot milk, Rory checked out the place.
The hotel had been recently renovated in Hipster-Millennial, which would have been a blow to those Nazi occupiers of long ago. A black screen was the TV. The remote for it was long, thin, heavy, and incomprehensible to any American. The lamps were all touch-controlled, but only if you knew where to touch them. Four bottles of Orangina drink were arranged neatly on the square coffee table, ironically next to four porcelain replicas of oranges. The sound system was a retro turntable with a collection of LPs by the Elvis of France, Johnny Hallyday, one record going all the way back to the 1950s. There were no books on the shelves, but there were three old typewriters—one keyboard was Russian, one French, and one English.
Bleat-bleat. Bleat-bleat. Bleat-bleat.
“You sitting down, punkin’?”
“Gimme a second.” Rory poured himself the last of the hot milk and a final cup of coffee, balancing his cup and saucer as he rolled back on a leather recliner. “I am actually reclining now.” “The press tour is canceled.” Irene was old school. Press junkets were what corporations organized to sell product.
Press tours were what movie stars did to promote their films.
Rory spit café au lait all over his bare legs and the leather recliner. “Huh? Wha’?” he said.
“Go online and you’ll see why.”
“I never got the wi-fi password.”
“Willa is divorcing that venture capital vulture of hers.” “Why?”
“He’s going to jail.”
“He do something crooked and piss off the feds?”
“Not the feds. Hookers. In his car on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Seems he was in possession of something other than his medical marijuana, too.”
“Wow. Poor Willa.”
“Willa will be fine. Weep for the studio. Cassandra Rampart 3:
Destiny at Hand Job will take a hit at the box office.”
“Should I call Willa and tell her how sorry I am?”
“You can try, but she and her team are on a plane somewhere over Greenland. She’ll hide out at her horse ranch in Kansas for a few weeks.”
“She has a ranch in Kansas?”
“She grew up in Salina.”
“What about the big events on the docket for today? Fireworks and the French Air Force and all those orphaned pets?” “Canceled.”
“When do we go on to Singapore and Seoul and Tokyo and Beijing?”
“We don’t,” Irene said, without an ounce of regret in her voice. “The outlets want only one thing, Willa Sax. No offense, but you’re just the guy in her movie. Rory No One. Remember that poster I had in my office that said ‘What if they gave a press conference and nobody came?’ Oh, wait. You’ve never been to my office.” “What happens now?”
“I leave on the studio plane in an hour. Not looking forward to that twelve-hour bitchathon. The movie opens domestically in four days, and the first paragraph of every review will be about hookers, OxyContin, and the man who paid for sex while wed to Willa Sax. Sounds like the plot of Cassandra Rampart 4: The
“How do I get home?”
“That’ll be handled by Annette in the local office.”
“Who is Annette?” Rory had met so many people throughout the junket the names and faces might as well have been of Martians. Irene called him punkin’ a few more times, told him he was just aces all around, a real mensch, and that she thought he was going to have a fantastic career should CR3: DAH make its money back. And, she liked the movie, actually. Thought it was cute. I don’t speak Russian. The French language has too many letters and punctuation marks to make sense to me.
Good thing this other typewriter is in English.
I think Willa Sax—aka Eleanor Flintstone—is a great gal who doesn’t deserve this. She deserves a better guy than one who likes streetwalkers and hillbilly heroin. (A guy like me! Not once in one thousand interviews did I ever confess my deep and constant crush on that lady. Irene told me not to be that honest with the press. “Tell just enough of the truth, but never lie.”)
I have a pocket full of money. Per diem. In every city Irene handed me an envelope of cash! Not that I had a chance to spend any of it. Not in Rome. Nor Berlin. In London I had no free time. Maybe I should see what pleasures a few euros will buy me here in Paris...
LATER! I went outside of a hotel on my own for the first time since Berlin. Hey, Paris ain’t bad! I was expecting the usual hordes outside the hotel, the fans hoping for a glimpse of Willa. Hundreds of them, mostly men, duh, have been waiting outside, photographers, autograph hounds, et cetera. Willa called them the Paper Boys. They are gone now, the word probably having gone out that Willa Sax has left the City of Light.
Annette LeBoogieDoogie says just because the junket is canceled I don’t have to fly home immediately. I am free to linger in Paris, in all of Europe if I want, but on my own money.
I just did some wandering around, in fact. I crossed the river via a famous bridge, then walked right by Notre Dame. I dodged the scooters and the bikes and the tourists. I saw the glass pyramid of the Louvre Museum, but did not go in. No one recognized me. Not that they should. Not that they would. Rory No One, that’s me.
I walked into the gardens—the place where we were going to have a huge event with rock bands and jets flying by and fireworks and thousands of people wearing free 3-D glasses. Instead, crews were breaking down the stage and the screen. The barricades were still up but were made moot. There was no one to keep back.
Beyond the gardens was a big traffic circle called Place de la Concorde—millions of cars and Vespa scooters, lanes and lanes of them going both ways and around and around a monument needle in the center. A huge Ferris wheel has been there since 1999. Bigger than the one in Budapest—when was that? When did I make the movie there? In junior high?
The one in Paris is not nearly the size of that one in London, the one that goes around only once, very slowly. When did we have that huge press conference in front of that thing, the event that had the children’s choir and the Scottish Mounted Light Cavalry and one of the lesser members of the royal family? When was that? Oh, right. Last Tuesday.
I bought a ticket but did not have to wait long for the Ferris wheel to let me on. Hardly anyone was in the line so I had the car all to myself.
I went around a bunch of times. Up high I saw the city stretch to the horizon, the river wind its way to the south and to the north, with many fancy, long boats sliding beneath all the famous bridges. I saw what is called the Left Bank. And the Eiffel Tower. And the churches up on the hills. And all the museums along the broad avenues. And all the rest of Paris.
Before me was the whole of the City of Light and
I saw it for free. Extracted from Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type: Some Stories (William Heinemann), published on 17 October