It didn't help that the assistant director dry-humped me on set in front of everyone.
George hoisted me up on top of a plastic picnic table in the middle of the front office and began dry-humping me. He pinned me in place as the table legs scooted back against the wall with his bodily force. The front doors opened, letting the fall chill my exposed skin.
He was laughing. They were all laughing.
I thought there were only five people in the front lobby — a few producers, the production manager, the director, maybe a driver from transportation, a production assistant or two. I remember people saying to me later, when we were alone — not in front of anyone who could fire us — "I can't believe he did that! If we worked anywhere else, he'd be fired."
"Yeah," I said. I thought the same thing.
But none of us did anything about it.
What could I do? I was pretty low on the food chain. And my bosses all saw it. All guffawed. Enjoyed the show. I wasn't a person. I was an expendable.
I gave up my home to be part of this movie crew; moved all my belongings into storage and was living in a Motel 8 off an Omaha highway with a great view of the parking lot — everything a girl dreams of when she works her way up in the film business.
I wish that was the only time George humiliated me in front of people. But it wasn't. He took pleasure in making jokes at my expense, asking me if I wanted to act in the porn the characters in the movie watch, telling me I was stupid.
He didn't know me. He didn't care that I spent seven years working in production already, that I worked for Spelling Television and produced my own show, that I took the steps down in rank to help my friend and, in theory, myself.
"I need your help," Victor said over a call. "Linda can't go out of town, and I hoped you'd be willing to live in Omaha for three months and help me on the movie. They [the producers] want me to hire locals, but I can't trust them — they don't know anything." To sweeten the deal he said, "It's low-budget but a negative pick-up from Paramount. The pay isn't good, but I need someone who knows how to run an office."
I thought the call was heaven-sent. I had served my husband with divorce papers and wanted to put as much distance between me and the man who spent five years emotionally abusing me. I wanted to fill all my holes back in and prove I still had worth. I was at my best at work.
And there was Victor's cheery voice over the phone, laughing, giving me an escape route. If I said yes, I had three days to put my house on the market, my things in storage, and 1,500 miles between me and my soon-to-be ex.
Little did I know I had victim written on my forehead. That deciding to leave didn't mean the first door was an exit.
"Yes," I told Victor. And I went to be his production coordinator.
George wasn't the only man on set to treat me disrespectfully. But he was the only one to apologize. After calling me an idiot at a production meeting for asking how he preferred his paperwork, he wrote me an apology note.
"I shouldn't have done that. Sorry."
When he gave it to me, he told me I reminded him of his soon-to-be-ex-wife. He was in the process of divorcing her and leaving his small child because he started an affair with the gorgeous lead actress on the movie he wrapped before this low-budget one. He and his big-budget girlfriend were better than us. His brown eyes laughed, and I wondered if this was the bullshit he fed his ex-wife, too.
I thumb-tacked George's apology in public view behind my desk. I figured if he had the audacity to embarrass me in public, he should publicly apologize. There was still some fight in me.
One of the six producers on the film was a jerk, too. It was Jake's first time as a producer. He came from post production and didn't have much time on set. He overcompensated by informing the office staff of what our jobs entailed. The first day on location he had his assistant hand me a print out of a production coordinator's jobs and responsibilities. It was ironic.
Jake asked me to forge SAG sheets, changing the working hours of actors. I told him no. He threatened me to get me to do it. I said no. He said the producers didn't want to get in trouble. But they had no issue with hammering me down.
"Just do it," he insisted. "We'll get in big trouble."
As if I wouldn't.
Jake called me one morning from location while I was in the production office.
"How could you let us run out of film? Why are you including short ends in the total? What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"I'm not the camera department," I responded. "I don't fill in the totals on the production report, and if you don't want short ends in the total, talk to the director of photography, the first assistant camera, second assistant camera or loader. All on set."
He slammed the phone down on me. He conveniently forgot that, according to the paperwork he gave me, a production coordinator wasn't allowed on set. That my job had me firmly planted in the production office across town. Any time I asked to visit set, they wouldn't let me.
I stayed. I'd chat with my friend, Victor, the one who hired me. We talked about how clueless Jake was. We laughed at how my assistant kept trying to get me fired because she wanted my job. We laughed at how terrible it was that I couldn't keep a good production assistant because they wouldn't work the 12 to 14 hour days for less than $100 a day. We sat in his office and commiserated about how the producers told us each to do opposite things. Then he'd leave for set and I'd be alone with a girl who wanted my job and bosses who used me as a punching bag.
I thought I could take it. I wanted to prove I was strong. I could handle all the bullshit. I was smart. I spent years learning all about each department so I could help solve problems. I had something to prove.
But having something to prove is a waste of time and energy.
The director, Alexander, had a problem with me. You see, I refused to forge the SAG sheets. And I had the nerve to send a whole script to a minor. Sending scripts to the cast was part of my job, but he didn't want the minor's family to read the script. He didn't want the parents to back out because of the scene of the actors watching porn or the lesbian relationship in the movie. Which is what happened.
Alexander called the production office and asked for me. It was the first time in eight weeks the director spoke to me directly.
"Tell me Jake made you do it."
His tone was terse. I imagined his temples sweating and his thick, black-rimmed glasses sliding down is hot face.
"Do what?" I asked. I had no idea what he was fuming about.
"Send the script. Tell me Jake made you do it."
Looking back, I know at this moment everyone else would have said, "Yes, Jake made me do it"; would have told the up-and-coming director that their tormentor told them to do it. I could've made myself the hero. I could have moved up the food chain and saved myself. I wish I had said yes. But I thought the truth mattered. I didn't want to join in the blame game.
"No, he didn't," I whispered.
"Who the fuck do you think you are?" Alexander cursed me out for a good minute or two. He called me a every nasty derogatory term and anything else his quick wit thought of. He drowned me under his tidal wave of rage.
Calm came over my mind as my body began to shake with fear and fury and inferiority. I kept my voice flat.
"I'm going to have to stop you there," I said. "No one talks to me that way."
"Fuck you," the director said.
My floodgate burst.
"I don't know who the fuck you think you're talking to but no one talks to me like that," I repeated. I leaned forward on my desk. I needed its strength. I couldn't fall. My voice grew powerful. All the pain they inflicted on me was returned tenfold. I remember enjoying it. The phones started ringing off the hook again. I had work to do. I was over being the punching bag. "Fuck you!" I yelled, and I hung up on him.
"Holly, phone," my assistant said. She held the receiver toward me. She was across the room at her desk. Her eyes reflected her brain's calculations about the probability of me being fired and her opportunity to take my job. "Line two is Victor."
"Hi, Victor." I sank into my chair. "I think I may be fired."
He laughed. "I heard the whole thing." He had been standing next to Alexander and heard my side, too.
I wasn't fired. Alexander waited to dole out his punishment.
It was the day before our Thanksgiving holiday. We had worked six-day weeks, and it had been a long time since many of the crew had seen their families. Family members came to Omaha and took up residence with us in the Motel 8 to share a rubbery turkey dinner and 12 hours off. My mom was kindhearted enough to visit and lift my spirits.
To make up for the hell I dealt with, the second assistant director, Sean, invited me to set the day before Thanksgiving. He placed me as an extra in a scene. I sat in position during rehearsal, and just before Alexander was about to shoot, he asked me to leave.
Sean couldn't believe it.
"Let her stay," he said.
Without a word, I got up. As I walked off the set, Alexander spoke.
"Get back to the office," he said. "I don't want you on my set. At all."
Alexander didn't know my mom was on set that day, too, working as an extra with me. The assistant directors made sure she got camera time. Their apology to me.
Mom saw how they treated me, how I let myself be dismissed. She saw how small I'd become.
The worst day came not so long after that.
An art department truck was in an accident at the high school we used as the main film location. The cube truck hit a passenger vehicle, killing the teenage driver.
How could we stay? How could we finish the movie? How would we continue filming at the scene of a student's death? How did the movie matter now?
My phone blew up with calls. Red lights flashed across the phone. There was no way to answer them all.
"You'll probably get some calls," Jake said. His voice was soft. "Don't tell them anything."
"What could I tell them? I wasn't there."
Ringing filled the space between us.
"Don't pick up."
"What if it's one of our producers? The director? You?"
"Fine, pick up but take messages. Don't tell them anything."
Jake didn't come to the office and neither did the other producers. I don't recall handing it well, and I may have shared a producer's phone number in addition to taking messages.
I sat in the room under fluorescent lights and cried thinking about the kid who died and his family. I thought about the twenty-something-year-old who killed a teenager because of a movie. Maybe he was on his way to pick up a prop or drop off paint. It was too terrible.
I lost my taste for the business and all the belittling I endured. How could a movie be more important than the people working on it? The idea that I had to know more and be tougher because I was a woman didn't feel right.
On the last day of filming, I walked away from the business.
George and Alexander saw their careers take off. Alexander was nominated for an Academy Award or two. People talk about his genius. George is a first assistant director on A-list blockbusters and became a producer for Alexander. (His actress girlfriend dumped him and married Hollywood royalty.)
I don't think of any of them fondly. I wonder if they're still up to their old tricks. I wonder if the actors who looked up to them and the viewers of their movies knew how misogynist they were if they'd still be successful.
And I know the answer is yes.
I lost any passion I had for the art. I didn't understand why I let myself be treated so badly. I couldn't wrap my brain around why being good at my job wasn't enough. I got therapy. I found my voice and backbone, built boundaries, filled in my holes, and remembered my worth.
I didn't want to be bitter. I wanted to be whole. It was immensely hard work putting a grown woman back together.
When I ventured back into production years later, I realized it was still filled with people proving they could do it. Proving they were better than others around them by shitting on them, backstabbing and stealing creativity.
But I no longer needed to prove my worth to famous strangers. I didn't need to prove I was strong enough to take the abuse. I learned I had my own creative longings, and I didn't need anyone's approval to pursue them and I certainly didn't have the desire to give my ideas or self away any more.
I elected to thrive away from the abuses of Hollywood. And by walking away, I learned I no longer found myself forced on my back, on top of a table locked in place and shaking. I didn't require a desk to steady my voice. I found my own legs, my own worth and voice.