Saturday, September 23, 2006

A World of Gray Zombies

by Gina Sestak

A few weeks ago I promised to blog about my many jobs. Let's start with the most glamorous -- movie extra.

OK, OK. All you former movie extras out there can get up off the floor and stop laughing. Being an extra doesn't usually pay enough to qualify as a "job," unless you can live on pennies a day. And it surely isn't glamorous. But you can learn a lot on a movie set.

I've been an extra in a lot of movies, including little known gems like Blood Sucking Pharoahs of Pittsburgh. [That's me in the restaurant, with my back to the camera.] My favorite, though, was a stint as a zombie in the original Dawn of the Dead.

Dawn of the Dead was filmed at Monroeville Mall, a large suburban in-door shopping center, in the wee hours of Sunday mornings. We extras would show up around midnight on Saturday night and gather in a large room to be made up. Some received horrific wounds -- bloody gashes, axes through the head, etc. Alas, I was not amongst them. My make-up, like that of most of the other zombie extras, consisted entirely of painting my skin gray and smearing red around my eyes. Then we waited. Those of you who've been in movies already know that most of what you do is wait. You are filmed for a few seconds, then the crew spends the next hour or so moving cameras and rearranging lights, then you are filmed for a few more seconds, etc. Mostly, you hang around and eat the food graciously provided by the film-makers.

Spending hours in a room full of gray and bloody people has an interesting effect on the mind. You begin to see yourself as one of them. The zombies become "us." Whenever non-zombies {aka "live people") come in, you find their vibrant skin tones jarring. They've become "them," another species. Alien.

I was one of the few zombie extras who survived encounters with the motorcycle gang and found the secret room where the heroes and heroine had been hiding. We zombies broke through a wall, shuffled down a hallway, invaded the secret room, and climbed a ladder to the roof, just in time to see the two surviving live folks fly away in a helicopter. The wall, the hallway, and the roof were all in Monroeville Mall. The secret room was about 15 miles away, in a warehouse in downtown Pittsburgh. The ladder didn't really go to the roof. This is movie magic. Parts of the action were filmed out of sequence, in different locations, then the parts were put together in such a way as to fool the audience into thinking that everything occurred at the same place within a few minutes' time.

What does any of this have to do with writing mysteries? you may ask. Plenty.

Writing mysteries, or any other type of fiction, requires the author to create an "us-versus-them" scenario. When done right, the reader identifies with the protagonist (like I identified with the zombies) and sees the antagonist(s) as the "other" (like the live people). The reader becomes emotionally involved in the action which, like the invasion of the secret room, does not have to be constructed sequentially. You can write one part of the final confrontation, put it aside, write a few earlier chapters, then come back and add to the confrontation dialogue. It doesn't have to be written in order -- you just have to put it together so it reads as if it were. And that is writing magic.


Anonymous said...

Great blog, Gina! How cool that you were a zombie once!

I often think about writing my scenes out of order. But I often find myself yearning to write certain scenes early---so I use them as a carrot for myself. I keep writing the scenes that don't interest me much (red flag!--Must find ways to jazz them up!) so I can get to the good stuff. That's just me, though. I'd be interested to hear from other writers who write "out of sequence."

Anonymous said...

Wow, Gina, how cool to be a zombie! I'm afraid I couldn't manage the hours, however.

My first manuscript (the, "Shall never darken anyone else's eyes," one) I wrote in order. Can't say it made it any better. But then, it probably didn't make it any worse, either.

Since I've learned something about plotting and story arc I don't always write my stories in order. I sometimes need to write a later scene to see what happens in an earlier one.

I always have to write the opening scene first, however. Otherwise I can't really enter into the alternative reality of the book.

Anonymous said... always, this tale could only have come from Gina.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Wow, Gina. My grandfather owned a furniture store in the Monroeville Mall and one of the daytime shoots caught him walking in front of Hughes & Hatcher.

Since I don't write mysteries, I don't have the luxury of writing out of order, but I see your point. I had a friend in Grad school who said that essentially, mysteries start in the beginning of the traditonal story arc -- they generally start with a dead body and it's up to the investigator to figure out the backstory -- or the set-up of the situation, as it were.

Hmm. Maybe that's not making the sense I need it to...

Anonymous said...

Remind me to get your autograph the next time we see each other! Fascinating entry, Gina. I wish I could write out of order, but I certainly edit out of order, which I do when I find my storyline and characters changing in unexpected ways. So, I make a quick visit to a previous chapter, write some notes on what has to change--a new clue, a character bit--so the story hangs together. The only time I write out of order is at the beginning, when I sketch out the last scene, the climax that I'm writing toward and where everything is supposed to come together.

You've inspired me, Gina. Someday I'll have to write about my experiences backstage at the opera (definitely not a grey milieu!).

Rob Gregory Browne said...

The original Dawn is one of my favorite horror movies. But bloody as all hell.

As for jumping around with our writing the way movies are shot out of sequence, I'm afraid I can't go there.

I write from the beginning straight through to the end, stopping only to rewrite and refine. It's impossible for me to jump ahead because I don't know what's up there until I get close enough to see it.

Cathy said...

I can really relate to this. I've been feeling like a gray zombie lately, but there's no pay for it. I loved reading this and look forward to your other professions. Thanks for sharing.