Part two of my month of working at the Waterworld Stunt Spectacular
It’s a day job rule of thumb that applies anywhere, be it a cubicle or a theme park: Socialize older, never younger. If you have any desire to converse with coworkers, it has to be with the coworkers older than you. You aren’t guaranteed any relation or common ground, but it’s a far higher success rate than going the other way down the calendar. With younger coworkers you find yourself biting your tongue more than talking as they babble excitedly about their twenty-first birthday party taking place in a club you’d rather die than set foot in, or how living rent-free with their parents means they get to spend their entire paycheck on comic books. After overdrawing my checking account three times in one week and bouncing my rent check, not even my sunglasses could hide the outrage in my eyes.
No, you have to try going up the age ladder. And try I did. I’d sidle up to the veterans’ table like a mild-mannered freshman cheerleader, laughing along with their in-jokes without contributing. I generally went ignored. So many teenagers and twenty-somethings have cycled through the theme park over the years that they don’t even perceive them anymore. After hours of quiet proximity I’d work up the nerve to ask questions. If they were answered at all, they’d offer one small bit of connective tissue among all of us… they consider this a day job while they work toward their artistic goals. Only Richard offers no other past time, passion, or hobby.
One guy paints. Another is a sound designer. Another is an actor. The stage manager spends his nights working his blood, sweat, and tears into his Van Halen cover band. He sits before an unfurled band poster and agonizes out loud over what to call it. Since high school it’s been called “Intruder,” but their manager says they need to change it to a name with “Halen” included or people won’t know to book it for Van Halen-friendly venues, whatever those are. Eager to seize the one creative exercise the job has offered, I step forward.
“What about ‘Fan Halen?’”I offer.
He looks at me with disdain. “There’s ALREADY a ‘Fan Halen,’” he says. The missing word in that sentence is, “IDIOT.” I shut my mouth and retreat accordingly.
After a couple weeks of drifting through down time with no conversation, I start taking my breaks in the theme park itself. I cruise on the Jurassic Park ride alone, exit the ride, and get on it again. I entertain myself at one point by pretending to be a Jeff Goldblum impersonator that comes with the ride. Outside, a Midwestern family tries to take a family photo while climbing a fence that says, “HIGH VOLTAGE.” They have to be told gently that it’s not a Jurassic Park photo op and is actually a hazardous fence that could kill them.
Back at Waterworld, I finish the rounds of installing pyro and return to the bench, sweaty and shaken, to sit in silence for another hour. The 1:30 show starts on schedule. Richard sits beside me and reads his paper. I read a Cinefamily newsletter I brought in anticipation of not talking. I notice Richard reading over my shoulder. Uh oh, I think. Did I do something wrong? Is he about to take my newspaper away from me and set it on fire? Am I not reading fast enough?
He asks, quietly, “When is ‘Wild at Heart’ playing?” “Wild at Heart” is David Lynch’s award-winning darling, a film both disturbingly violent and weirdly romantic, winner of the coveted Palm d’Or prize from Cannes. It’s a film that you can nearly set your watch to if you’re enrolled in a film school. “Oh, I’m watching ‘Wild at Heart’ again, it must be Thursday.”
“It’s playing all weekend,” I say hesitantly, “It’s one of my favorites.”
“Huh,” he says, going back to his paper. “Yeah. I worked on that movie.”
I throw my intimidation out the window and trade it for nerd spasms. “No way! Really? You did? Really? What did you do?”
He explains that he did the special makeup effects for the movie. He is single-handedly responsible for the scene in which Willem Dafoe falls on his shotgun and blows his own head off. I’m sitting next to the man who vicariously blew Willem Dafoe’s head off. Now that this rare bit of info has been offered, I’m able to coax years’ worth of work experience from him. Whatever the setting , no matter how many years passed, to invite film industry professionals to talk about themselves is to bring about a flood of Biblical proportions. He brought gore and bloodshed to over a decade’s worth of horror franchises. Freddys, Jasons, serial killers galore. He worked year-round on studio films, crafting movie moments alongside in-demand directors, culminating with a classic film from a living legend.
On the other side of the steel wall, the show reaches its climax. I ask him what happened after “Wild at Heart,” and as the set erupts in a gigantic blossom of red-hot flames, Richard simply says, “I burnt out.” I try to prompt further explanation out of him, but his sudden tidal wave of personality has receded from the beach and he’s on his feet, once again leading me reluctantly through tearing down and setting up the nonstop battles of Waterworld.
I go slower than ever. My concentration is shot. This man did what he dreamed of doing for years, what he loved doing, and suddenly just couldn’t do it anymore? I look up at the squat man with crossed arms, this short-tempered laborer who will work this show alongside teenagers and young misfits until he retires or explodes. I try to picture him smiling. I can’t do it. For the rest of the work day we don’t speak a word to each other.
That night I put in the “Wild at Heart” DVD and sure enough, there’s his name at the head of the film, engulfed in flames.
The next day I quit. I hadn’t finished my training and I didn’t have another job lined up, but I felt too uncomfortable to stay. Not because I didn’t feel welcome, or entirely safe, but because I couldn’t keep working alongside the man who blew Willem Dafoe’s head off. He was a constant confrontation, a reminder of a terrifying possibility. You could make it into the film industry. You could do what you love. But you could still wind up hating it. You could give up a sought-after position and take a completely different job simply because it’s completely different. And even though it’s all repetition with no reward, you could stick with that job because there’s comfort in hating something you didn’t used to love. Without ever missing a thing, you could work there year after year until the ice caps melt and you find yourself weirdly overqualified for an apocalypse that involves the oceans rising.
I just didn’t want to be reminded. Ask any producer of “Waterworld:” Ignorance is bliss. Ask the people who greenlit and stood behind the Waterworld Stunt Spectacular: Denial is a wonderful thing. Like Kevin Costner sailing the endless seas of Waterworld, so shall I continue to sail along the infinite rivers of Denial until I crash upon another floating fortress that will help me pay rent for a few months. And when I finally make it to my long-sought-after landmass known as Professional Writing, I will stake a flag in the sand without that constantly nagging fear… the fear that I might suddenly want to go back to drifting on those unstable waves simply because that’s the life I know.
After all, even if I make a terrible movie it could still live on as an okay theme park attraction, right? It’s not the end of the world.