It is two hours before the Teleportation of our four-member film crew. I’m up before Julie and Charlotte, drinking coffee to help quell my jitters. I already said my goodbyes, even though to them I’ll only be gone a few hours. I don’t like these nerves I get. Ten years with Formative Experience Films, working in conjunction with the National Arts Proliferation Experiment (NAPE) out of Washington, D.C., but I can’t get used to Teleportation Day, despite having worked on thirteen previous productions. Of course, what I feel may be impacted by the fact that it’s my first time directing. But I’ll set down here what I have been telling myself for the last six weeks, since the film was green-lighted: I got this. God knows I’ve stumbled my way through enough rough patches in the pre-historic conditions of the 1980s, 1990s, or even the early 2000s working on other FE films to prepare me for whatever I may encounter. Experiences that will no doubt be captured by a future FE crew, possibly with a hungry young director, when they go back and explore my own formative years. Perhaps that sounds arrogant. But if I didn’t believe in my own potential, I would have pursued a different line of work. I know I can make films that have an impact. Hopefully this new feature on Joel Duvell is an initial stride in that direction.
At the undisclosed safe house now, recovering from Teleportation. A boring day, plus your body just aches. Sometimes I think more than 24 hours is required, for the ringing in your ears alone, but the six week production schedule is stringent. Welcome to January 1993. Georgia, it turns out, was often very warm even back then – now, I should say – all year ‘round. I was offered the Duvell gig mainly because I fought for it. I’ve always worked on the films about writers, since I’m one of the few of my generation who still chooses to read, not datafeed. Blame it on my father, who maintained a stranglehold on his traditional books – that’s books, no prefatory e-, no i-, no u-. He had about 3,000 in a bunker underneath our backyard. I had full access to them growing up. As we know now, Duvell still drafts in longhand, which is rare nowadays. I presume he always has. That’s one of the numerous questions about the writer that we hope to answer. Tomorrow, at 5:00 a.m., we proceed to the post for our first day of shooting. Or rather, 0500, as they say where we are headed.
Or not. We’ve been delayed. The lieutenant has to complete inprocessing, whatever that means, before reporting for duty. First wrinkle in my schedule. Our location is officially Columbus, Georgia, but the majority of our filming will take place specifically at Fort Benning, the United States military installation that is still known today as the Home of the Infantry. The subject is Joel Duvell, currently age 22, an American novelist and short story writer, possibly best known for his acclaimed novel Fire Watch (2017) about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. But I came to know him through his hilarious and poignant debut Mean Mean Stride (2014), which is the only novel I know of that prominently features the old progressive rock outfit Rush – still well-loved by thousands, even today. My old man was a Rush fan, and he had a first edition of Duvell’s book inside that bunker. Duvell is what you might call a late bloomer. He worked at a number of spirit-crushing office jobs throughout his younger years, also raised four children with his wife. His literary career finally took off in his mid-forties. Now he’s sixty-three. Another novelist, one of the true giants of the last century and into the early part of this one, José Saramago of Portugal, didn’t start churning out novels until he was in his late forties. And he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1998. Nobody mentions Duvell in connection with that prize, which they consistently decline to give to Americans anyway, but he has achieved critical and even modest commercial success in the last two decades. A lot of people do not know, however, that he was writing for over twenty years before he was published. Even less people know, and most find it hard to believe, that he served as an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army as a young man. My Executive Producers argued for a nostalgic doc focusing on Duvell’s time in corporate America prior to the second Depression, but I had heard all about the rumors regarding Duvell’s unpublished manuscripts and short stories from his time as a soldier. I had read eagerly when True Believer published his early story called American Soldiers, written back in 1997. That’s where we need to go, to the period when he served, I said. Shooting in a military environment presents considerable challenges, they came back. Especially before the scaling back of the Defense department. We can’t risk one of our directors on that job. That’s when I volunteered, I’ll direct. Tomorrow, Duvell reports.
First day on location at Fort Benning, or Fort Beginning, as the troops here call it. We’ve already learned the meaning of the soldierly expression, Hurry up and wait. We had to show up at 0600 at Infantry Hall on post for a briefing by officials – a civilian woman and a Major Weid, a protocol officer. Their job was basically to inform us of where we could and could not go on the installation. We used the cover story we settled on in pre-production: we are with the old cable television channel National Geographic, shooting footage of young officers for a program on the cultivation of American military leaders. They bought it. Then we were sent to a mess hall, where we sat around for two hours discussing my general approach to the shoot, drinking coffee so weak it tasted like scalding tap water. Duvell was not scheduled to report officially before 0830, and we were unable to move by vehicle between 6 and 0730 because of morning physical training, or PT. At precisely half-past seven, a huge cannon blew off somewhere, traffic picked up immediately, and a pimply-faced private arrived. He took us out to an incredibly ancient green truck called a deuce-and-a-half. My grip (Brandon), boom operator (Kelvin), DP (Floyd), and I piled into the back with these huge rolled-up canvas tent-looking things. The private drove us to a place called Kelley Hill clear across post, and pulled up to a depressing sand-colored building with a flagpole and a sign with a painted crest on it. Headquarters, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), it read, and across the bottom the words: SPEED TO THE FRONT.
Duvell arrived at 0820 in a little gray Honda. They had us waiting by the front desk. You couldn’t call it a lobby per se. We were standing under a shabby wood and glass display case on the wall. It held a kind of collage, consisting of two crossed AK-47 rifles; a bunch of dirty papers in Arabic, a few hand-written; and a uniform that was once apparently worn by some unfortunate in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. This is 1993, so we’re talking about the first Persian Gulf War, now a footnote at best, called Operation Desert Storm. They sure thought it was a big deal in 1/17 Infantry. We saw Duvell park and approach the battalion headquarters on foot, in freshly pressed camouflage fatigues and a Second Lieutenant’s gold butter bar gleaming on his hat. It would have been tough to recognize the writer just by pictures from today. In his sixties, Duvell is much paunchier, entirely bald, with thick glasses and a white beard. The young man walking smartly up the flagstones this morning was slim, with wire-rimmed glasses; a clean shaven, youthful face; and startled blue eyes that telegraphed his appreciable apprehension. Yet there was no mistaking him. I’ve never even been on a military installation before, but if this wasn’t a young officer reporting in for the first time then I’ll never know what one looks like. I think the plan was for someone to take Duvell off to the side and let him know he’d been randomly selected for the documentary, but the Battalion Adjutant, a Captain Malone, was no where to be found, and the four of us were left standing there with our gear when the future novelist walked in. Screw it, I said to nobody, and introduced myself and my crew. I explained why we were there, and resisted the urge to tell him I’d read all of his books. I have – only he hasn’t written them yet. It’ll be many years. But it tunrs out he was writing quite a bit even by 1993. Duvell looked like someone had just slapped his face moments before, so startled did he seem by our presence. The poor guy had a lot on his mind already, and a film crew just compounded it. You’ll get used to us, I promised. You won’t even know we’re here. We stay out of the way. I can’t say this first meeting gave me a strong impression. It certainly was not the last time I would see Duvell look as though he had no idea what just happened.
Our first shot: Lieutenant Duvell, sitting in the Battalion Adjutant’s office, waiting for Captain Malone to show up. He was staring at a white board on the wall that depicts the leadership structure of the battalion staff and each of its five Infantry companies: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, and Headquarters. Each company has a commander and a first sergeant, and under those names, three mechanized infantry platoons each, all led by First or Second Lieutenants. There were three platoons on the chart for which no Platoon Leader’s name was attached. Duvell will be assigned to one of these platoons, we are assuming. He seemed focused on a little block on the corner of the board that read EXPECTED GAINS, followed by these names: CPT WHISNER, 2LT LaFIOSCA, 2LT DUVELL. Floyd zoomed in on the board first, then the LT’s eyes. Duvell clutched a green military issue notebook, a folded white document, and a pen. I don’t think the man had said a word since he told us who he was, and the few other men we’d seen were ignoring the hell out of him. What was going through his mind? I’ll have to ask him when we have our first one-on-one. Suddenly a tall, lanky officer blew into the room with a clipboard and a bunch of thick, three-ring binders. It’s amazing how much paper was consumed. He deposited the books on his desk rather unceremoniously among mountains of other files. You Lieutenant Duvell? he shouted. Duvell, already standing, barked, Yessir, reporting for duty as ordered. He handed the folded paper to the captain, who opened it and scrutinized the order. Duvell rendered a crisp salute, which the taller man reflexively returned. At ease, lieutenant. What is it … Joel? Yessir. Malone thrust his thumb at us. I already know about these gentlemen. We approve. Show them respect. But at the same time, you’ll do your job as if they aren’t there. Is that clear? Yessir, it is, said Duvell, who was not acting intimidated. It seems he can play the game when he needs to. We’ll see how long he can keep that up. Malone riffled through a bunch of papers. It was almost as if he’d forgotten Duvell was there. I signalled Floyd to keep rolling. I will have to spend a good deal of time in the editing room, I can see that already. Hurry up and wait. At least Floyd’s camera is digital, although we rigged it up in a much bulkier shell container from an old PanaVision, because digital photography hadn’t been invented. That was my idea. A director has to innovate. Finally, the captain said, There you are, you fucker. He plucked a single page from the mountain and read it. You will be taking over 3rd Platoon, Delta Company. Your commanding officer is Captain Greg Bayne – outstanding trooper – and your platoon sergeant is …. Son of a bitch! he yelled. Lots of luck, Joel. The man leaned back in his chair, his eyes aflame with mirth. Your platoon sergeant is Mike Braintree. Sergeant First Class Mike Braintree, I should say. Whoo boy. Duvell scratched furiously in his notebook. Then he looked up again, his face blank. Well, Braintree will fix you up right. Don’t you worry about that. Malone laughed again. Then he gestured over Duvell’s shoulder, towards another door I hadn’t even noticed. The commander’s CP is through that door. Which is where you would take your ass right now and report to him if he were here. But, seeing as how it’s early January, the colonel is on leave – as is most of the battalion. So, since it’s also Friday, you are dismissed until Monday. Report back here at 0900 sharp on that day to meet with Colonel Abrams. Is that understood? Captain Malone rose. So did Duvell. Absolutely, sir, he said. He lifted his hand again and saluted. Speed to the Front, sir. The captain returned it and said, All the way. And that’s all we got on Day One.
We were able to shoot a few one-on-ones today, Sunday, to help flesh out the time while waiting for tomorrow. These conversations are essential for the film. Captain Malone lives on post with his wife and two small kids. We didn’t intend to talk to him much, but wanted to get his first impressions of our subject. He told us Duvell looked scared. And he’s got good reason, Malone said on camera. Can you explain what you mean by that, Captain? I asked. Well, he’s a brand-new officer, entirely untested. He began ticking off on his fingers. Zero military background, either prior service or in his family. I have the file. No known existing or former soldier to take counsel from. He is not Ranger qualified, either. We have heard that this is an essential ticket-punch for young Infantry officers – to complete this difficult combat/survival/leadership course, said to be extremely demanding. The school is based right on Fort Benning, but Duvell either side-stepped it or got thrown out. This, Malone explained, immediately puts him a few notches under most of the other officers. The soldiers will notice for sure. Whether they care is debatable. But they will see that most of the officers have the Ranger tab on the left shoulder, and that Duvell does not. Duvell’s CO, Bayne, will be displeased. No question about that, Malone said. Then there’s the battalion training calendar. Duvell will have little time to adjust. And if that’s not enough, there’s Sergeant First Class Braintree. He would be a serious handful for any young officer. How do you mean? I asked. You’ll have to see for yourselves, he laughed. There’s no preparing for Braintree. Brilliant soldier. Don’t get me wrong. But he will chew Duvell up and spit him out. The captain nodded, as if to confirm his own conclusion. Yep, if I were Duvell, I’d be scared too.
* * * * *
Jude J. Lovell received an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in 2001 and his writing has appeared in Touchstone, Rock & Sling, America, St. Austin Review, Paste, The Other Journal andAmerican Chronicle. He is also currently writing a book about Herman Melville.
His other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.