Montauk Murder Mystery
Though months after 9/11, the smell of burnt metal and plastic still lingered in the moist, thick air of Chinatown where late one spring night in a bar called Double Happiness we decided to make a short film in Montauk. My small ad agency had recently acquired a broadcast quality video camera and I figured I’d give it a shot. Moreover, it would provide a welcome diversion from the still smoldering pit and stunned pall that hung over lower Manhattan like a damp, smoky raincoat.
To a guy from Missouri, Montauk was a mysterious, mythical spot steeped in fishing lore, crustacean characters, heavy drinking and eerie phenomena. Its audacious two-pronged stab into the chilly north Atlantic seemed like beetle mandibles or the fork they give you with steamed lobster. Montauk in name alone sounded like a different planet to me, like Vulcan. Indeed, on my very first visit I looked up and saw a small meteor flame out with a puff of smoke trailing behind. It was magic. And no one else saw it. The rumors of secret mind control experiments, time travel and alien visitors at the old Camp Hero military base juiced the place even more for me, and again years later when the truly creepy, mutated-looking Montauk Monster washed up on the beach in Ditch Plains in 2008. And disappeared the next day.
Alex, my wife, and Carly her girlfriend, an actress in residence at an East Village theatre company would be our talent, leaving me to direct, shoot and edit. I imagined something along the lines of Ingmar Bergman meets the Twilight Zone (in black and white, of course) that would tell a strange ad hoc story with Montauk as imposing backdrop, a daring piece of cinema verité that in our case loosely translated to you have no budget. We would do this the week after Labor Day when the hotel rates were lower and the weather just as fine with warm bright days, roaring surf and perfectly chilled evenings, buoyed by bonfires stretching down the beach into misty nightfall.
Over drinks we sparked basic story ideas: People sit around a beach bonfire calmly speculating on which member of their group will be murdered by midnight. Charming concept but complicated with too much dialogue. Or, how about a young hotshot takes the Hampton Jitney out to Montauk and meets a girl on the bus who takes him to a strip poker party with her girlfriends. He ends up drunk, naked and locked in a pitch dark shed with a growling unseen beast about to rip him to shreds. Great idea but it would require a cast, animal wrangler, etc. and you know, money.
As our budget was now approaching –$250 and growing, we had to come up with something really simple. Okay, how about a woman comes back to her hotel room to find her own dead body lying in bed. She committed suicide with pills. So she’s already dead but having seen herself dead she must confess to arranging for the murder of her ex-husband, a devious little green card seeker from Australia. As it were, Carly drew generously from a recent, strikingly similar personal experience to inspire her monologue and subsequent mea culpa –except for the murder part. (Her dad beat him up in the end I’m told.)
Her confessor, in all black on the beach with long black hair, listens silently as Carly describes her ex-husband, his insanity and loathsomeness, a mad vampire from Down Under. Meanwhile I have a 20-pound ENG camera on my shoulder and am perched on my haunches, my legs growing number by the second, shooting her in long, long-winded takes, holding my breath, trying to keep steady until I keel over onto the sand. Cut.
On our way back to the hotel room, we pass a couple of local gents next to a truck, kicking back with beers waiting for the bonfire. They take one look at us: A flustered buxom blonde in diaphanous white followed by a spooky Asian beauty in all black and me bringing up the rear with a big camera. “That looks like fun,” one of them cheerfully calls out to me.
Hotel room walls in beachside resorts are among the thinnest ever recorded. Under these conditions we shot the reaction scene of Carly coming into a room to find her own body lying dead in bed, having committed suicide with pills. Having not rehearsed the scene, I expected a reasonably tingly outburst from a trained actress but what I got was epic. I was hunched over, shooting from a low angle as she entered the room followed by her black apparition, and upon seeing herself she screams – a real ten-dollar ear-splitter that made me cringe behind the camera thinking holy shit the cops will be here any minute – thanks! I waved furiously to wrap the scene up. Carly takes her time and finally runs out the door in boohooing hysteria. The dark angel goes silently to the bed, sits down and shuts the dead Carly’s eyes. I turned off the camera and we got the hell out of there.
We left the hotel expecting to see cops deployed outside. In fact, nothing happened. No inquiring neighbors, no shouting, no calls to the front desk. We weren’t exactly alone but I guessed the whole summer kit and caboodle had checked out on schedule, with off-season stragglers like us left to confuse the scream with a horror movie on pay per view with crashing surroundsound waves. I asked myself: If I heard a blood-curdling scream in a hotel such as the Royal Atlantic, would I call 911? Are you crazy?
So now, according to our tenuous plot, Carly descends to the netherworld on her way to the afterworld ushered along by her dark angel. To depict this, I ran Carly through a gauntlet, deriving peculiar relish from shooting this lax physical specimen in flip flops bounding breathlessly all over Montauk – tiny payback for damn near crippling me with her endless monologue the day before and assaulting my eardrums last night. I gleefully had her run down a tunnel of dense foliage, climb dusty dirt crags in Ditch Plains (several times), barrel through forests and nettles, over rocky coastlines and finally, to the lighthouse past a few bewildered tourists. We wind up with her wandering the beach in pitch dark until she comes across a bonfire. Sitting next to it is her soul conductress, silently awaiting her return to the spot where they began. Exhausted, she falls to her knees on the sand and watches her soul drift into the fire (I had no idea how to create this effect), whereupon her friend takes her by the hand and they slowly walk toward the crashing surf into the darkness… Fade to black. The End.
When I got back to the agency offices at 55 Broadway, went to work on an edit. In 2002, both the camera and effects technology were not within a country mile of what is available today. I did a final cut straight out of the manual, desaturated the color and bumped up the contrast to give it an ersatz Bergman look, but had a hell of a time tamping down the righteous crash of waves in the background on the audio tracks; I should have given them a credit for how often they stole the scene. In the end, I tried to capture that rare, magnetic attraction to the place that is hard to explain. While I don’t know anything about the inner workings of the town itself or any incumbent sociopolitical intrigues I prefer it that way. I availed myself of Montauk for a mixture of discovery and catharsis, and realized an existential gift to no one in particular. And Montauk delivered.
At any rate, I produced a short watchable black comedy (11:00) entitled The Egress. And unlike the Montauk Monster, it exists to this day. In a very minor way, it is my tribute to the mystery and wonder of Montauk from an alien standpoint, confounded, fascinated and yet thankful of its peculiar, rough-edged vibe and beauty, if always recalling a puff of smoke from a falling meteor viewed from up above the world, as seen by no one.