I am writing about a fish that saved a town in the north of Spain when Kyla sends an email and wonders how the movie is coming. I am editing you in a music video about a heartbroken angel, I tell her, and I send her the link:
A music video about a lovesick angel? Where did this come from, she wonders. I need you in bodypaint and angel wings, similar to what we shot on the beach in Oaxaca. But she wasn’t in bodypaint, she says. That’s the way I imagined you, says me. And that’s the way Tanker van Gogh will shoot you if we convince him to fly down from Amsterdam.
But what about the erotic thriller, “Assassin 62”? Is it almost finished? Ha ha ha, says me, I have barely started. That’s what she thought, she says, and wants to know where I am right now and can we shoot more scenes to get the movie finished? I am in a castle in the plains of Spain, headed to a town saved by a fish, I tell her, about 20 hours driving from Vienna, on the Spanish-French border. I have to shoot some buildings in black and white, real arty-farty stuff for a story about how we think of ourselves as objects of desire and ambition, and I don’t get very far talking like this before Kyla says she’s got her car keys in her hand and she is out the door. Wait, I say, but it’s too late to stop her. I am laughing in the castle, and will have to zip up to Bilbo within 24 hours when she shows up to act out some scenes for one of three projects we are making, and for the Heartbroken Angel music video.
Where would she go to pose, or to escape? She loves wide open spaces, and this part of Spain is full of them, empty and lonely, perfect territory for Kyla Cole. There is a long wall at the castle of Gormaz, with a rounded doorway that suggests another world if you can walk through it and promise not to return. I see the character I have written for Kyla as a passionate defender of elephants and trees, a soldier for mother Earth, but she is more of an avenging angel, and as I shoot the castle I see the model in wings, quietly planning her revenge:
I look around the castle to see what she would be drawn to.
And the edit I make that night in Gormaz, of the hole in the castle wall in which the angel of my story can escape her pursuers:
I am staying in an odd little town about 40 kilometers away from the castle, and in the morning I stumble into a place to shoot: the baker Cervantes has heard that I shoot nudes and he tells me there is an abandoned house with a unique bed of concrete raised off a stone floor. A local poet intended it for his wedding night, but his fiancee died from a mysterious ailment she got swimming in the turquoise lake. She was naked on a moonlit night skinny-dipping in the lake, and within two days was dead of a fever the authorities said was clearly posted on a warning sign. You cannot swim in this part of the country, says Cervantes, because of the industry. The factories, the air, the water, they are killing us to maintain their profits, he says, and maybe in your book you can mention something about the Romero family from Loare, who cash their monies at the expense of the locals. He warns me that the concrete bed is believed to have spirits, but he knows I travel regularly to the Arctic Circle to play with elves and ghosts there and he reckons I am immune to any mischief. But what about the model?
What? What about her?
“Can she ward off the intentions of a dead poet?” asks Cervantes, mysteriously.
“I thought it was his fiancee who died from water poisoning?”
“So it was,” says Cervantes, “But he was a poet!”
“Well how did he die?”
“Of heartbreak of course, do you expect a poet to go on with his life driving a truck and delivering flour to the bakers? She died, so he died, proof that he is a poet.”
He shows me the abandoned house, and it is perfect for what I want to shoot with Kyla. Listen Cervantes, I say, I will honor your poet with pictures of how he might have seen his fiancee if she hadn’t gone swimming. So tell the mayor I will be shooting there for a few days with the model, who is driving down from Vienna as we speak.
“Don’t worry about the mayor, he just wants to see the pictures and he’ll be happy. He looked up the model at the Internet Cafe, and he’s at your service.” Cervantes gives me two warm barras of bread with chorizo and manchego wrapped in paper. Lunch, he says, and there is a bottle of red wine, too.
I fall asleep on the concrete bed and wait for Kyla Cole to finish her drive.
Time is passing, man. This is her voice as dawn comes through the window. Time is passing, and I am wasting it. There is fresh bread from Cervantes at the front door, along with wine, grapes, more manchego cheese, and some serrano ham. Plus the customary onion and garlic clove. We will stink of garlic, I warn her, because I don’t intend to get on the tourist trail, and to this she replies, “I like the place already.”
She wants to know what we’re shooting, and I tell her I have to show her the fish first. And the castle. The fish is five hours away, and she hands me the bread and ham: eat up, buddy, we’ve got some miles to do, and you need to tell me what to say. I need lines. And in her shy way, she changes her dress as warns me not to watch her doing so. I take pictures and she throws the bread at me, but we are both happy she is here, and the movies can develop a bit more.
“Let’s figure it out as we drive.”
“Am I the assassin, am I the angel, am I the doomed lover Ananda?”
“I think this will be about the buildings and the land, and what they make you think. What we shoot will be for all those characters.”
We stop at the castle before lunch so I can get a few shots of the exterior. The light is fantastic, and the castle at Gormaz exudes authority and history, and Kyla walks around the grounds, impressed.
The Arab caliphate built it in the 8th century, and on this hill you can see for miles. Nobody will sneak through. Taxes, treasure, trade all encircle this place, which is unusual for its length (ten times as long as it is wide, 400 meters by 40 meters) and for its 28 towers. What does Kyla think?
“There is a reason Elvis sang a song about castles in Spain and not about castles in Poland or Budapest,” she says. “Romance is in the clouds and in the stones here, I can feel it. What did Ananda think when you brought her here?”
“It was an escape from the suburbs, from safety and sterile thinking, from vacations that are really obligations and from guys who would not sleep on the wet spot,” I reply. “She didn’t know she could be what she wanted to be instead of what her family and neighborhood needed her to be.”
“Which was what?”
“A sheep, Kyla, a trophy for a man who wants to show her off to his colleagues, when deep down she thought she might one day be a spear or a dream or salvation to an abandoned idea.”
“And now she’s back in the suburbs?”
“With a kid and a job at the local bank. in California, three miles outside San Francisco, in the boondocks.”
“Does she miss you and the wandering around from idea to idea?”
“She was exhausted at the end: when I dropped her off at the airport she went through security and never looked back at me.”
“What did she think she would do when she was hanging with you?” asks Kyla as we walk the castle grounds. “It was all going to be romance and adventure and no rent or family?”
“I called her the romance writer,” I say. “Ananda was going to go to Africa and visit the mountain gorillas and write stories about the people who are saving them. Or we were going to make movies together, all the sorts of fantasies you have when you don’t stop to think about reality. People must think your life as a model is a fantasy! And they’d be surprised by the reality, I am sure.”
Kyla laughs: “You better keep my secrets to yourself, Seanie, because I don’t want anyone thinking I am really that boring!”
“No, you’re like a cat, with a fatal curiosity. What you want to have might kill you, but you still want it.”
“Oh, I like that: write it down so I can say those lines.”
“I’ll remember them, don’t worry.”
But of course Kyla never speaks those lines because I immediately forget everything I say: this is the curse of being a writer. An idea strikes, you see the formula of a concept unfold in perfect order as if it is an instruction manual, but then a bird sings or a raindrop falls on your glasses, and you have to deal with real life and there goes the magnificent possibility of making something nobody has seen or heard before. And as I am thinking this, Kyla points to the long wall of the castle and says:
“Tonight on the concrete bed of the poisoned lover, I will create that shape for your camera, and you will see my spine as you see this wall, something strong that holds up all the stones of a dreamer’s world.”
And as I watch Kyla clamber around the stones of an 8th century palace, I do indeed see how I will shoot her later that evening in the tiny abandoned town where the mayor is leaving me a plastic bag of meats and cheese on the door handle of a house of a poet whose lover died from swimming at night in toxic waters.
UPDATED May 18, 2019.
More coming soon . . .
In Bilbo by day and Gormaz by night
The shipbuilding industry had died long ago. Cargo ships are now built in Korea or China. Not in Bilbo. The city, once an industrial powerhouse, had fallen on hard times. How could it be brought to life? In the same way that all bad neighborhoods are transformed into desirable places to live: art. The Guggenheim Museum took a chance on a dying city and brought in the world’s hottest architect to build an art museum.
When we get back to the little cottage at Calatanazor, after a long day on the Basque roads, Kyla lets me shoot as she falls asleep, and the last thing she does is show me her armpits: “Just as you want them, pheromones leaking for your viewers.”
More coming in this section next week!
And just a quick note to make sure you can follow our progress as this story unfolds. Where are these unique places in the Spanish landscape. Not in Spain, for a start! The Basque province of Spain doe snot consider itself for one moment to be “Spanish” and Kyla was told in a very firm manner by a barkeep in San Sebastian not to refer to being in Spain because you are in Basque territory, “and the Basques will never be Spain.” Similarly, Catalonia is not Spanish nor Spain, and is right now in the throes of a separation from the country, wishing to be its own place. But these three places in our travels, the castle in Gormaz, the town of Segovia, and the odd abandoned town of Calatañazor are old-time Spain. I’ve omitted some of our voyaging between places, and have put some of our conversations into locations shown better on this map.
The concrete bed in the poet’s house is behind a small door similar to that photographed above. The town has a few dozen inhabitants, but is one of many tiny villages that have been left behind as everyone catches the train to Starbucks and Nike and fifteen bucks an hour in the big and small cities in Iberia. The magic, though, is still in these small places in big spaces, and a few thoughtful people are ditching the funks and fouls of urbanity to get somewhere that reverberates a single donkey’s lonely bray at mid-day, where you can smell the loaves baking for a mile, and hear songbirds twitter without the thrum and sours of rush hour. Calatañazor could be an ad for your escape.
And in the nearby river there are underwater caves with drawings that date back four thousand years. It is here where the poet’s betrothed took off her clothes and plunged into her death. What was the fever she caught? What manmade product could have crawled into her blood in a midnight swim? Kyla points to the fields around town as we drive through them: “Fertilizer, antibiotics, shit.” Yes, that’s it, I think, fertilizer. We’re all being fertilized to death.
We are about to shoot on the concrete bed in the poet’s house when I pull out a pen and commemorate the shoot: Cervantes the baker and the Mayor will appreciate the sentiments as we shoot the lines of a woman full of life, supremely fertile, flirting with the bondage of marriage and family while plotting her narrow escape: freedom is connected to her skin, she knows, because she loves children and puppies and quilts and all the other trappings of domesticity, but is wary of betraying her curiosity. But am I speaking of Kyla or the character she plays, Ananda Shields as the romantic writer, or Abbi Hendrix the artful assassin?
How do the words go, that I write for her on the concrete slab in the dead poet’s castle?
She finds beauty in the tiny moments of the day, which most of us let pass without value. What were you doing at three o’clock in the afternoon yesterday? Was the Sun out? Did you see somebody in tears? Did you think of a black hole, far away, swallowing a small planet at a million miles an hour? Kyla sometimes reminds herself out loud, remember this moment. And if you ask her what it was she just experienced, she will tell you she doesn’t give away her secrets. Love, yes, it’s for anyone who needs it more than you do, not to give away as you wish. But a secret, these can be hidden treasures, stashed in a well of feelings to which she often goes to drown her dooms.
And in the morning of the first day in Catalonia, when I flew in from California, I had stopped the car to take pictures of luminous trees, white and yellow and tinted with orange, not the style of Vincent van Gogh, but certainly his colors. I got a print made and I show it to Kyla: she studies it and then carefully tucks it into her journal. There are words with go with it, I say, and she laughs: there are always words. Writers!
I’ll write them out with a sharpie on the concrete bed in the dead poet’s house, I tell her, as we walk a small path to a bakery for bread too hot to hold with your bare hands, just out of the oven, still baking as you cradle it to your chest. I will look for your words and show you how I feel when I read them, says Kyla, and we walk through Vincent van Gogh’s purples and lavenders, and it occurs to me at a moment in our morning walk that I should collect people’s impressions of the painter, and show what they think of him and his works in a movie that shows Vincent as nobody has seen him, abandoned and betrayed by his family for being too difficult to understand.
Kyla can draw, and she has a sketch of a nude woman that looks familiar. Who is it? The girlfriend of van Gogh, says Kyla. A prostitute for the miners where he went to preach. Her name is Sien. And the sketch by van Gogh is named “Sorrow.” I look at Kyla’s sketch and almost ask if I can have it, but she smiles and tucks this away into her journal, too, beside my print of the birch trees with yellow leaves from the dewey morning I landed in Catalonia.
Tanker Gogh Joins Us in Catalonia
I drive with Kyla to Barcelona, where we will part company, and to our surprise we find Tanker van Gogh is not far away, in the south of France rather than in Madagascar, where he lives in top secret. As soon as he hears we are in Barca, he shoots down and we meet him in the Ramblas. Several glasses of fino later, we agree to do a quick shoot at a villa outside Cadaques, and as we walk to our hotels that night he takes a fabulous shot of Kyla to which he and I compare her to the B-movie actress Maud Adams, who once starred in a bad James Bond movie:
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