I remember how badly the train car smelled on my way to the office that day. A homeless man sat at one end. No one dared to go near him. I don’t know that anyone was actually sure the smell was coming from him. The city had been uncharacteristically warm late into the year and yet this man— or person since I couldn’t really tell what gender they were — was bundled up in thick layers of dirty clothing. You’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t a person at all underneath the heap. There was only an irregular rise and fall visible in the middle of that pile of winter jackets, socks over pant hems, ripped fabric.
Bystander curiosity is bizarre. Equal parts disgust and intrigue. After so many years in the entertainment industry, you begin to understand people’s more lurid concerns. You gauge the length of glances and their subjects. Black homeless are practically invisible. Mexicans less so. Asians seem to be a sort of anomaly, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one.
With each rock of the train, bending corners and crushing rats, I kept an eye on this pile of dirty laundry at the end of the car. In hindsight, I’m surprised I was so openly alert to what this person could be. I was searching for anything: a flash of exposed skin, a tuft of hair, something identifying. Then the thing in the heap coughed. Puckered pink lips appeared seemingly out of nowhere at the top of the pile and black blood like oil atomized onto their cracked skin.
Throughout my career entire, very little has been said about what it is that we do, on a pedestrian level. Sure, if you’re steeped in this world, whether employed in it or fascinated by it, you know who we are. Content raters on an ostensibly parental advisory level seem to be dwindling. I have a feeling we’re something worrisome, gatekeeping to outsiders.
The complaint lodged on that day was a continuation of an ongoing conversation between the independent distribution arm of a major film studio and my department. I think it would be fair to say that such a thing is rather common, especially concerning film trailers. The interplay between Hollywood and the ratings system, however flawed you may think we are, has functioned generally without incident.
The latest from Walter, CEO at Arid Pictures, read as follows:
This can’t be handled with the same tact. This project is not salacious. The footage is freely, publicly available. Hell, most of the public has probably already seen it. So, why would we color correct anything in the trailer that is not depicted in the same manner as a normal feature? You can imagine the irritation this would cause. This feels important. We have a chance to really shake things up.
Walter knew he was fighting an uphill battle at the time. It already looked pathetic for him to be speaking so earnestly on a director’s behalf. On a professional level, I couldn’t hold that against him since the director, whose name Walter had to phonetically pronounce for me on multiple occasions, had no clout with us. It was an extended courtesy that this particular conversation lasted as long as it had.
The project in question, a documentary which all of us at the Association knew wasn’t going to play the way Walter had hoped, was doomed from the beginning. Its depiction of what I can only call ethnic violence garnered reviews outside the US that contained words like “unflinching,” “necessary,” “essential.”
Really, you should have a much easier time with my department than with the rest of the Association. No swearing, no sex, minimal violence, no red blood. Easy. Go beyond that, we’re slapping a Restricted band on your trailer and showing it in front of the next Korean serial killer film.
I took out my laptop from its leather pouch and started a draft:
I respect your integrity, Walter. I also want to draw attention to this idea of shaking things up. Do you know who you’re talking to? It sounds as if you’re very determined to make good on a promise to your director that was never grounded in reality to begin with. News footage or not, “real world” occurrence or not, the trailer has to be cut the way it has to be cut. That especially includes the blood. I don’t particularly care about setting a precedent for realism. It’s a goddamn advertisement.
I remember feeling a bit hot after that. I really couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Walter seemed to be of a certain opinion that was not original to him: that there is a double standard in permitting the use of one color of blood over another. His problem is that I don’t make the rules. I don’t decide what is and isn’t fair. Well, I’ll say it anyway: it’s not my fault that brown and black are neutral colors.
Secretary came around the corner, her head appearing halfway down the door frame.
“Good morning,” she said. “How was your weekend?”
“I don’t know if I can enjoy them much when I worry about what’s going to show up on my desk on Monday.”
Secretary frowned a bit, her gaze casting to the ground.
“Walter didn’t make any headway then?”
I rolled my eyes.
“You don’t have to pretend like you don’t read my messages. I know you do. In some ways, I count on it. But to answer your question, no. He made none. Do you want him to?”
Secretary swallowed before saying, “I think I do, sir. Reporters show one thing. Why not a trailer with the same footage?”
The heat in my ears returned.
“Because the news doesn’t know what’s happening when it happens.” It looked like Secretary winced at something. “Directors do. The Association lets responsible people know what to expect because we ourselves are responsible.”
I looked back to my laptop and Secretary left. I looked through the Times. Headlines about death and political upheaval, natural disasters in tropical countries and island nations, dark blood spilling all over the world. Secretary returned, this time carrying a red folder and a cup of coffee, and lingered. In my periphery, her blurry figure seemed to jump back and forth like static. Her mouth opened and closed a few times before she gave up and left again.
Inside the folder were several printouts from Walter’s studio, addressed to a different department than mine. A friend at the studio—more importantly, an executive—shared certain insights with me from time to time. Development news makes for a better morning read than most journalism anyway. Arid Pictures was having trouble deciding on a translated title for the documentary Walter was working on. The literal translation from the original Filipino to English wasn’t sexy enough. They were toying with something more compelling to an American audience, something prestigious. The messages in that red folder showed the title we eventually all came to know: Blood of My Brothers: From Dark to Life. A look into the disruption of humanity brought on by essential differences between people, and the consequences that come when those differences aren’t dealt with. Money in the bank, one would think. Especially if you were gunning for some awards. But the director was disputing the changes. He was arguing against the title because he claimed it was misleading.
Quoted from one of these messages, Danilo, the director, said, “My film looks at specificity. We examine the Moros and the Filipinos, the Spanish and the Americans. We mine the division of class and of ideology. My film does not share your fixation with the color of blood. My film looks at people.”
I flipped the page. Curtis Denning at the marketing department for the studio responded, “Respectfully, we are only trying to get as many people in front of this very special work as possible. We merely need people to know that they have to see it.”
The timestamps between messages were wildly off, most likely because the director wasn’t a night owl who could respond promptly against the twelve-hour difference between Manila and New York.
Our good friend Walter, taking advantage of Danilo’s silence, chimed in saying, “I agree with Danilo. We have to maintain a sense of truth to the title. However, I also agree with Curtis that we have the potential to do something really big here.”
Nearly a day later, Danilo delivered with his wits:
Various members of Arid,
What exactly are we discussing here? I am beginning to feel that there is no discussion at all, only an unstated request for permission, which I should not have to give since this is my film. You and I will die, and this work will survive. Would Stieg Larsson be satisfied knowing that his great work Men Who Hate Women has been erased from the world and repackaged as something else called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Your considerations are polite. I find myself hesitating to take them as genuine. If this is the dilemma for the title of my film, which remains to all of us involved Reasons To Stay, I do not want to think about what this trailer is going to look like.
That was the most recent message from their conversation. I found myself nodding as I closed the red folder. The director had a point about Mr. Larsson, if only half-formed. The author’s estate had been quite vocal about the alterations made when his novel was translated into English. But how many people even think about these sorts of closed curtain negotiations? More importantly, how many people would care? From farm to table, the only thing that matters is what the product looks like when it arrives. Stieg Larsson wouldn’t bother with what his novel’s English title was. He’d be too busy deciding what to do with all the money he had made because of it.
The rest of the day continued slowly. I remember feeling heavy, physically. I think I viewed upwards of twenty trailers, making notes as I went along, periodically handing them to Secretary to send off.
If we had known each other in middle school, I probably would have avoided Secretary like something diseased. Me and my group of fellow emerging young men would draw up behind whoever it was, on the bus or in the hallways, a pin between forefinger and thumb, pricking the skin to see what color came out of the hole.
A few weeks went by before Arid had come up with a trailer for Blood of My Brothers. I arrived at a desk free of complaints. There was only one message, from Walter asking for feedback. He had sent something over Dropbox. There was only one file in the folder, called “ARID PROJ. 78.” I double-clicked.
A black rectangle spread to each corner of my screen. A voice spoke over the darkness, his non-English words subtitled.
“What does history sound like?”
Immediately, the sound of chaos: ambulance sirens, what seemed to be women screaming, a loud crash. Next, from the darkness, a hard cut to various images, the sounds from before building and building: a black and white still of destroyed buildings, rubble forming tiny mountains with bodies leaking a dark substance; the image of an American soldier from WWII, a young white man looking straight into the camera; an oil painting, perhaps from a different era, depicting massive ships docking on the edge of an island. The sounds stopped abruptly and the image of the painting faded to black. The same voice from before spoke over a black screen, a music track playing solemn strings.
“We have people from everywhere here.”
A clip showed footage taken from a television commercial for a resort, white men and women walking along the water with a child playing close by. Next, a clip of what looked to be a fish market, large semi-trucks backed up against an open garage, dirtied men schlepping Styrofoam boxes, the ground slick with melted ice. Footage from some sort of tribal celebration, bright colors flashing as dark-skinned people danced, their faces blurring together. Clips from a time-lapse, possibly stock footage, of a metropolitan cityscape at night twitching with grids of car lights and pedestrians passing by the camera. Finally, a computer-generated map of the earth showed the Philippines, red lines from various countries stretching across the image to land on the islands. The voiceover from before continued.
“But how they got to where they are and why. Those stories…”
The audio from that clip was dialed down, evidence of the editor cutting in a snippet of dialogue that wasn’t originally supposed to end there. Gradually, the audio was dialed up again, a new clip of dialogue, possibly from a completely different interview, inserted.
“…are born in blood and violence.”
The map faded to black, the violins that had been quietly pining for emotional resonance dialing down along with it. A different voice spoke, footage from the corresponding interview fading in as the face of an older Filipino man continued.
“I feel separate from my family. I feel different.”
Cut to the same man, now walking through a village, the sun shining overhead through jungle trees, shots of suspicious neighbors looking into the camera. The next shot showed the man removing a bandage from his left forearm, just below the elbow, his nut-brown skin pock-marked. A large gash was visible beneath. Black blood was congealing, forming clumps that bubbled out. The same shot continued, but the voiceover from the interview came back.
“This is why I feel different.”
I knuckled the touchpad on my laptop. The edges of the video window briefly appeared along with the playback timeline at the bottom. There were about forty seconds left.
A clip from CNN of the President of the United States announcing the return of military presence to the Philippines was bookended by a loud, dramatic drumbeat. Next, the wounded man from before was shown in a hospital where it became apparent that he worked as a nurse. Arid was now entering the wrap-up stage of the trailer where all the pieces came together, with title cards stating rhetorical, intentionally non-specific phrases.
“When hope seems impossible…”
A clip of an explosion during the night, orange and yellow flames belching black smoke, a crowd of people running and screaming.
“When divides must be crossed…”
A clip of the nurse in the hospital supply room, sinking against the wall and crying. Two doctors in white coats scowled through a porthole in the door. In the following shot, a wounded American soldier carried on a gurney gasped for air.
“He needs a transfusion!” “What’s his blood type?” “A-R!” “But we don’t have any on-site!”
A slowed down shot of two doctors looking at one another, accompanied by the same dramatic drumbeat, punctuated the moment. The scene faded to black, and white text appeared.
“…Compassion is the only way to survive.”
Those solemn orchestral strings returned as the final sequence of the trailer played out: the Filipino nurse on a bed, a needle in his arm as black blood drained into a bag; and the soldier, who had lost consciousness, his uniform cut away, being prepped for a transfusion.
A final voiceover from the nurse said, “I love freely. But sometimes, it’s hard. It makes you do scary things.”
Blood of My Brothers: From Dark to Life slowly appeared on the screen in bold red letters.
I’ll admit, that first experience was affecting. It’s rare for a draft trailer to be in such good shape. But my job doesn’t leave room for much in the way of editorial feedback, merely content supervision. I began to draft an email, detailing moments when the devastation and images of violence ran a little too long. I also noted that the image of the nurse’s wound towards the beginning was too graphic to show so prominently.
Later in the day, I got a response from Walter:
I appreciate your prompt response.
However, there is one thing I feel I need to make clear. The main reason I had requested for an exception to the Association’s rule regarding the showing of red blood is not without merit. In the final scene of the trailer, where Nurse Boquiren is giving blood to the wounded American soldier, we lose the emotional impact of the gesture because Nurse Boquiren’s blood, rendered black in the trailer to fit the Association’s guidelines, is red.
Our prior misunderstandings with Danilo regarding the content of the trailer followed this main arc. While we are working on other teasers, TV spots, and full-length international variations of the trailer, this debut has to be shocking.
So, with this information in mind, as my last-ditch effort to persuade you to allow us an exception to the rule, please consider speaking with the Association heads about what this means.
The reality of this was not new. But it had been so rarely shown in a documentary. Not to mention the implication of the nurse, whom the audience assumes so much about upon first seeing him, donating to an unconscious American soldier. My gut reaction was to call Walter and scream at him for not telling me the direction they were headed sooner. But the truth of the matter was there were no exceptions. It didn’t matter who made the film or where it came from, why it was significant or what its effects would be. The revelation of those specific details in the narrative would be an added benefit to the production and the audience.
I’ve never been asked if my decisions during my time at the Association, as a whole, were consistently appropriate from project to project. I think I’ve never been asked because the question is irrelevant.
You want to talk about appropriate? Witness the liberties taken by Walter and the various people involved at Arid Pictures during prep for the documentary. I will say this: the amount of media attention garnered once Blood of My Brothers was released in the U.S., the think pieces written about its supposedly misleading marketing, Walter’s back-peddling over the rules he had to abide by because of the Association, Danilo’s public refutation of his American partners over both the title and the translation, even the brief resurgence of blood-sourcing protocols here in the States that determined the true color of the donors: none of that could have been predicted.
But I had a hunch. Like I said before, after so many years in this business, you develop a sense for the scents people pick up on. You learn what they respond to, what gets them riled up, and what makes them burst with excitement. So, while I didn’t foresee the size of the ripple that film would have, I also wasn’t surprised.
Walter and I have spoken many times in the years since that first trailer dropped. At one point, over dinner, he said, “Hey. I just wanted to apologize for throwing you under the bus like that. There was a lot of pressure to explain myself. None of it was personal.”
I don’t think I even responded verbally, just gestured for the conversation to move onto a different topic. His sentiment was a nice one, but really, Walter should have thanked me. Every writer and public personality who commented on any portion of the film and its production should have thanked me. People rarely take pride in the work anymore, in doing their job. My decision had nothing to do with my personal feelings. It was simply the duty to do what was expected of me. That’s something people seem to push back against. I can only imagine what would have happened if someone other than me had been confronted with the same decision.
Most arguments for heritage break down pretty quickly but there is some pride to be gained in purity. It doesn’t matter where it starts. I know what I am. As the documentary clearly shows, the same can’t be said for others.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Columbia Journal, wildness, No Contact Mag, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Reverse Shot, among other publications.