BELOW THE LINE
John McFetridge and Scott Albert Signature Editons, 240 pages, $16.95.

Screenwriters Scott Albert and John McFetridge found out the difference between the movie industry and book publishing with their just-released novel, Below the Line, about the unseen, unsung denizens of film sets. “In the ‘about the author’ section, we had a little bit that said Scott wrote the screenplay Lab Rats … and I said, ‘Let’s change this because Scott got fired,'” says McFetridge. “Our editor asked, ‘How could the writer get fired?’ And I realized that it would never have occurred to her to take this book through two or three drafts with us and fire us and bring in somebody else cause they’d like the book to be a little funnier…. But you know, in the movie business, I’ve come to accept that the writer is below the line.”

The title of McFetridge and Albert’s book refers to the extras, crew members and legions of assistants who appear on the bottom half of call sheets and cost reports — those uncelebrated people, often Canadian, who labour behind the scenes to create Hollywood cinema.

“We were really after the kind of workaday stuff,” McFetridge says, and that’s what the book delivers. The episodic, fast-paced novel takes place over six weeks on a Toronto film set, concerning itself with make-up artists, grips, location managers, set dressers and local talent. Save for a starlet who gets romantically involved with the transport captain, the celebrities — director, producer, lead actor — appear as annoying side characters, like the adults in a Charlie Brown comic strip.

As film analogies go, this novel is more Short Cutsthan The Player; a set of not-always-connected short stories that hit a nerve often enough but don’t hang together as cohesively as they might.

The authors’ explanation that they wrote the book in 2000 for the 3-Day Novel Contest sponsored by Anvil Press goes some way to explaining its casual structure. “We worked out the movie that they’re working on and some of the characters who are working on that movie,” McFetridge says. “And then we went off on our own and wrote stories that took place on that movie set.”

They submitted the completed novel but received no word — “Nothing,” says Albert. “No, ‘Dear sirs, this is the worst thing we’ve ever read.’ Just nothing.” — until a year later, when a bulk-mailed flier asked them to “Please enter the 2001 3-day Novel Contest.”

Nevertheless, they felt they had the kernel of a good book, so they rewrote and polished and eventually got an acceptance letter from Signature Editions. Upon entering the publishing world, they found that writers are not only above the line, people actually pay attention to details.

On that subject, McFetridge recalls their editor pointing out typos in the call sheets, parking permit, invoices and script fragments interspersed between the chapters just for fun. “We thought, ‘you’re reading this crap?’ Man, most of the people for whom this is vital information don’t even read it. She said, ‘In the book world, we read everything.'”

The inclusion of this material helps set the scene but doesn’t deliver enough useful information or subtext to justify the space it takes up. As McFetridge points out, there’s nothing in these trimmings that will advance your understanding of the story. Perhaps this is a case of form matching content. In the book, the film production is disintegrating, with the script being improvised throughout the shoot. McFetridge and Albert have first-hand experience with this, having met on the no-budget vanity project The Protector in 1997, and they are currently rewriting a project called Hunt for the Devil, heeding the producer’s request to include more sex.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on June 12, 2003.

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