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The Assumption

Dresden to go (cc)Via Popcorn Fiction, a superstar actor has big secrets in his past in this touch of noir from Ralph Pezzullo, co-author of HUNT THE WOLF: A Seal Team Six novel written with Don Mann.

He saw her face in his mind’s eye and there was no mistake. Pale and pleading. Desperate. A ghost with pale red hair floating to the surface of his consciousness.

More like an ache. An awful reminder.

Gil Naylor cranked up the stereo in his vintage Mercedes coupe as it climbed the narrow streets of the Hollywood Hills.

Then he saw her again. This time, smiling. Teasing. Beckoning him further like a siren. “Help me, Gil. Please, help me.”

Entering through the elaborately carved Spanish door, the ruggedly handsome forty-nine-year-old actor crossed directly to the bottle of Asombroso Reserva Del Porto, poured a shot and downed it.

Beyond the patio and pool he watched the sun drop like a mustard-colored fizzy into the blue ink ocean. The tequila slammed down his throat like a fist.

And the image vanished.

Replaced by familiar sounds and faces as the house came to life like it always did when he entered. Jagged sparks of energy ricocheted off the terracotta tiles and yellow stucco walls, into the lavender tiled kitchen, and beyond.

Jenny, his live-in girlfriend, responded, hurrying in from the gym in a black tank top and shorts, abs taunt and glistening, nipples at attention. Tara, his personal assistant stuck her head out of the upstairs office and called from the balcony. Continue reading “The Assumption”

Popping Fresh Popcorn Every Monday

GlacesThree years ago this week, I started a website called Popcorn Fiction. The idea arose from a conversation with my buddy Craig Mazin, in which we were both lamenting that Hollywood never looks at contemporary short fiction anymore for inspiration. A slew of movies had popped up in the aught years based on sci-fi short fiction from the 40s and 50s it seemed, but if contemporary genre stories were being published, Hollywood wasn’t paying attention.
I turned to my brother, Austin, who is a programming whiz, and even though it was beneath him, I asked him to design a website where I could launch a new story each week. He enlisted his wife, Yoko, and they came up with both the code and the look. With that in place, I just needed material.
I hit up all the screenwriters I knew and asked if they were interested. Most were. They had prose itches they wanted to scratch, and the idea of penning something original – instead of working on the latest adaptation – intrigued them. They wouldn’t have to worry about budgets or set-pieces or notes or focus groups; they could just run wild on the page. I asked them to keep it under 8,000 words, and everyone but Les Bohem listened. I paid twenty bucks to make it official, because writers deserve to get paid for their work. ($25 now, because that’s how much you need to be eligible for contests.) I said to write anything you want as long as it wasn’t the type of story that would appear in the New Yorker. Comedy, horror, sci-fi, western, crime… make it count. Just write me the kind of story that would make a good popcorn movie.

Continue reading “Popping Fresh Popcorn Every Monday”

Verst 7156

Soldiers and train - WW1To kick off the week in style, we have the below historical short story from the author of the acclaimed thriller Clawback, whichalso appears as this week’s offering from Popcorn Fiction. Enjoy!

He arrived late afternoon, trudging up from the railbed over cracked ice and snow, his Enfield banging against a metal canteen frozen solid. Khaki ammunition pouches were harnessed neatly through his epaulets. Right then, long before he started in about the ghost train, we knew he was trouble. Dead of winter and supposedly he’d been in Siberia as long as us, but he was still wearing puttees and a canvas cap. He came to attention when I stepped out of the wagon and I had to wave him down.

“Relax, I’m no ranker,” I said. I noticed that he was wearing his Colt in a polished holster tied down to his thigh, and I suddenly missed Birney all the more.

“Private First Class Woodell.” His jaw was clenched to keep his teeth from chattering. “My orders -”

“Never mind that. Did you bring any newspapers?”

But he was staring at our camp, and didn’t answer. I thought we’d done a good job: two rattletrap wooden boxcars with the bogeys pulled, bermed up a good four feet for insulation. Jackson had showed us how to chink them airtight with river clay. He’d also built a half-closed firepit outside, by fitting together unmortared rock – someone had to stand sentry, since the partisans were all around, and it was bitter cold. A pile of broken crates and beef tins was accumulating to one side, and because the ground was too frozen to dig latrine pits, we generally just crouched behind them.

Maybe Woodell was expecting campaign tents and a parade square.

Our corporal had emerged from the other boxcar and was greedily flipping through the few tattered papers Woodell dug from his pack. He was wrapped in a torn wool cloak, a muskrat hat low over his ears.

“December 1919?” He shoved back the folded broadsheets and glared at Woodell with red, sunken eyes. “That’s two months ago!”

“I’m sorry, sir. I brought them for, ah, not for reading but for, well, you know how the toilets are . . .” His voice trailed away.

“Toilets? Toilets? Think I saw one the last time I was in Khabarovsk.” He relented. “Look, private, you’re freezing. Bring your kit inside.”

With a woodstove at either end, the ventilation louvers generally iced over, and Sutter smoking all the time, the fug inside the boxcar was blindingly thick. Not to mention none of us had had a bath since we arrived, three months back. It was hard to tell in the dim light but I’m sure Woodell went green.

“I’m sorry to see you,” said Sutter, from a heap of blankets on the floorboards where he’d been dozing. Like me, he hadn’t tried to shave since the last time we went into Lenyarsk, and his face was black with grime and gun oil. “Replacing Birney must mean they’re planning to leave us out here indefinitely.” Continue reading “Verst 7156”

At Her Feet He Fell

Bank HeistA Popcorn Fiction Selection. Three lives intersect during a bank heist. Then proceed to betray each other.

Let the bank rob the bank. That was the plan. Arbogast had come up with it all, but that only made sense. He was the thinker, the planner. “Einstein” they used to call him back in the neighborhood. You had a problem? You needed a solution? You went to see Arbogast. Not that he wanted to help. Not a chance in hell of that. It was just he was so damn proud of his own thought process. He’d help you out just to show he could. Just to rub your face in your own stupidity. Be a thinker not a stinker. He never got tired of saying that. Whether it was to a kid on the corner or to himself while picking up spent shell casings, it always applied. That’s not to say thinking didn’t have a downside. Sometimes the facts you turned up weren’t so great. And as Valentine’s Day approached, Arbogast had been considering two things. One? All the red is to hide the fact that love is really blue. And two? The muse is, was, and always would be a slut.

Janey was what the arsonists like to call ‘an accelerant.’ She didn’t necessarily start the fire, but she sure as shooting made it burn a whole lot brighter, faster and hotter. She was so far from home when Arbogast found her, that she couldn’t remember where home was. About the only thing she could remember was she was never going back. Somewhere along the way she had rejected a literal suicide for a philosophical one. She had fooled herself into thinking it was possible to escape. And the Route 66 to follow always seemed to involve a guy. She’d ridden mean guys, tough guys, and plenty that couldn’t get out of their own dumb dead-end way guys. At first the trick was knowing when to get off, but she quickly learned that they always let you know way ahead of time. Arbogast was different. Arbogast was a genius. This ride had been longer and truer than all the others combined. Scarier, too. But Janey meant to ride it as long as it didn’t kill her. She just hoped she’d know when that was.

Continue reading “At Her Feet He Fell”

Veronica Majeure

Show me the way to the next Whisky BarA Popcorn Fiction Selection. A contract killer gets stuck in Dublin after a job in this crime piece from screenwriter Brian Helgeland.

The first round hits the guy higher than I thought I was aiming. In the chin to be precise. I want to blame it on him swiveling over in his chair as he clocks me coming through the door, but the truth is, this one’s on the Jameson. It took three shots of it to get me up here. Guts bolstered at the expense of accuracy. Irish whiskey for Dutch courage here in the heart of Dublin. But don’t mistake me for a mick. Nothing against them, I just happen to be Polish German. Except for maybe my liver; that’s Irish all the way. As far as the Irishman I’m shooting at, his now missing chin is an unfortunate marring of an otherwise remarkable face. It’s also a violation of my contract, an express point of which was I kill him from the neck down. In other words, no head shots, leave him looking whole and pretty for an open casket funeral. So that part of the deal is a wash. And now he’s getting up from that chair, but the Jameson courage is still coursing through me and the stirring words in Latin found on every label: Sine Metu. Without fear. Although fear is about the only thing I feel as I pull the trigger again and the man goes down. Shot through the heart. Ceased to be. Sounds so much better than deceased. Like there’s a difference, huh?

I’m supposed to turn around and walk out the door, but I step to the desk instead. He was writing something when I walked in and that messed up little part of me needs to know. There are notes everywhere. Scribbles over type. But there by his fallen pen, the last words he would ever commit to paper are these: “I have a theory about love and it goes something like this—” As I stare down at the unfinished sentence, I suddenly wish I’d come in twenty seconds later.

Continue reading “Veronica Majeure”

You and Hank

Hot Rails to HellA Popcorn Fiction selection. Two salesmen see the dark side of Bangkok in this short story from screenwriter Darby Kealey. Oh yeah, and one of the salesmen is: you.

The first thing you notice as you step out of the airport is the heat. It’s hot in Bangkok. Not like LA heat, either. It’s thicker, almost soupy. You feel like you’re walking through the head of steam that affronts you when you open your dishwasher just after the Super-Clean cycle — but this place doesn’t smell like detergent. They probably don’t even have dishwashers here.

Your associate — he’d probably call you a ‘buddy’ — gets right to it: “Whores, buddy.” He’s a simple guy, Hank, which you envy at times; you can see him eternally happy with a bottomless case of lite beer and a ball of twine. That’s why he’s in sales. But right now, all Hank wants to do is buy. He’s heard Thailand is the place to come for prostitutes, the Mecca (your cultural reference, of course). He told you about it the whole damn flight. You would’ve preferred a crying baby.

“So this is Bonehenge, huh?”

“Huh?” Hank says. You catch the glimmer off a string of drool issuing from his mouth; Pavlov would’ve had a field day with Hank. “Whores,” he says again, trailing off at the end of what for him amounts to a sentence. He’s staring through the welter of buses, taxis, cars, and rickshaws clogging the airport entrance, to a back-alley in the distance, which he must think leads to the section of town where all the hookers are hooking. Or maybe there is no Red Light District here. Maybe it’s the whole city — the whole country, even. A Red Light Country. The thought makes you sad for a moment, but you don’t really have time to ponder it, as Hank is ambling off into almost certain death down the random back-alley. It’ll be a miracle if he survives this trip.

“Easy, Hank,” you say, grabbing him by the collar of his Lacoste shirt, which is already drenched in boozy sweat. “Hotel first, man. We gotta drop off our stuff.” Though clearly irked, Hank accedes. Despite the fact that you’re in the Far East now, the fundamentals of civilization still apply: you’re his boss. Well, not his boss, exactly, but his superior. And while you don’t like to assert your authority over anyone, particularly not a guy two years your senior, you believe that a strict adherence to hierarchy, to discipline, is the only thing that keeps foreigners alive in these inscrutable lands. You hail a taxi from the taxi stand, as the almighty Travel Guide told you to do.

Walking AlongDriving in Bangkok isn’t like driving in The States. It’s not even like driving in LA. It’s not even like driving, really. It’s more of an all out Battle of Wills. Right now, you’re sitting at a stoplight, but the semiotics of traffic signals has been diluted to the point of utter meaninglessness. Your driver blares his horn, screams something, then attempts — really tries, you can tell — to bash another taxi next to him. You think of cheap Chinese cars with no airbags and human crumple-zones; of substandard hospitals and poorly trained shamans; of some rich Frenchman with a penchant for champagne and a need for your liver. You know it’s cliché, but at this moment you hate the French.

The light remains red, but you’re off again, swooping through traffic like a bat into hell. A rickshaw sidles up next to you, making you flashback to the chariot-racing scene in Ben Hur; you slide toward the center of the backseat, half expecting a spike to pierce through your door at any moment. You finally understand what Hobbes meant by the State of Nature. And you’re plodding straight through the heart of it now: The Jungle. The thought makes you cringe.

“You seem a little jumpy, dude. You cool?”

“Fine, Hank. Just a little crazy, driving here.”

“Yeah,” Hank says, chuckling with an insouciance that, given the circumstances, indicates one of two things: A profound, Zen-monk acceptance of the comic-tragedy that is life — or mild retardation. And you’re pretty sure Hank doesn’t meditate. “Way I see it, I’m the type of guy who doesn’t worry too much about this kinda stuff, ya know? Fuck it, man.” You hate people who use phrases like ‘I’m the type of guy who…’ It seems so affected, so ersatz heroic, like Hank pictures himself standing atop some jagged cliff, sunset glowing behind him, every time he’s describing himself and his preferences, even if it’s just whether he likes chunky or smooth peanut butter better. Hank probably eats a lot of peanut butter.

Continue reading “You and Hank”

Not a Poe Fan

Edgar Allan Poe

A Popcorn Fiction selection. A bookmaker’s heavy haggles with a degenerate sucker who can’t make his payments in this crime story from top screenwriter Brian Koppelman.

“…No shit!  Really?  You’re saying they put this cafe on the very spot Edgar Allan Poe used to live?  Well.  Well!  If I were the sort of guy who gave a fucking shit about Edgar Allan Poe, I guess I’d give a fucking shit that he fucking lived here. But since I am the opposite of the kind of motherfucker who gives a fucking shit about where Edgar Allan Poe dined, shat and slept, excuse me if I do not strike an impressed pose.  Instead, why don’t you impress me.  Go into your pocket and take out the money you owe.  And then, why don’t you put it on the table where I can proceed to pick it up and move towards the door in one fluid and easy motion, leaving you here to appreciate the ambiance and heavy portents of the illustrious haunting author’s former haunt.”

Wow, I thought, this guy has either done way too much coke, seen way too many Tarantino movies or done a whole lot of coke while watching Tarantino movies. But he was the guy Block sent to collect.  So he was the guy I was going to have to deal with. I forced a smile and dove in.

“Mr…Mr…You never told me your name–” Continue reading “Not a Poe Fan”

Impulse Kill

DrivenA Popcorn Fiction Selection. A small-town sheriff has trouble disposing of a dead body in this twisted tale from screenwriter/editor John Patrick Nelson.

It had been an impulse kill.

Sheriff Dunne mentally kicked himself as he steered his beast of a squad car down the desert road, sweat dripping down his ass crack. Stupid, he thought, pulling the trigger like that. Just plain dumb. You’d think it would’ve at least given him a little bit of satisfaction, just the tiniest bit, but no, even when he drew his gun and fired, he’d known it was a major fuckup.

And here he was, cruising on the outskirts of his little desert town, with a body in the trunk, looking for a place to dump it. Another in a long list of stupid moves.

Number one being marrying Jean. Everyone warned him about her — hell, she even tried to warn him not to do it. And maybe she tried to be faithful, those first few years, when things were good and he was climbing from deputy to sheriff. But soon as he pinned that star on his chest, she was out the door, chasing after whatever she could get between her thighs. He couldn’t count the times he’d have to bust into some good ol’ boy’s house (or truck, or meth lab) and drag her out, usually butt naked. But he’d always managed to restrain himself, never to blow away her boyfriends, no matter how bad he wanted to.

And yet here he was, looking for a good place to dig a hole.

Continue reading “Impulse Kill”

The Impossibility of a Diaphanous History Machine

WiresA Popcorn Fiction Selection. An explosive original short story from Mulholland author Charlie Huston.

Ten days before all signs of his existence were wiped off the face of the earth, Rail saw Booker and asked her if she could help him with a small problem.

He waited for her answer, watching a tendon pop up under the mat of freckles that colored her forearm an almost uniform brown. The wire stripper in her hand sliced through green insulation and she whipped the tool to the right, exposing a clean bristle of copper filaments ready to be braided.

She set the stripper aside on the tool bench she’d fashioned from barn planks and railroad ties.

“Why the fuck, Rail, would I help you? If you don’t mind.”

Rail studied the chaos of her workspace. Tools, tangles of wire, fragments of chipboard, heaps of bent nails, the guts torn from dozens of household electronics, lengths of pipe, jars of accelerant, loops of hose, more tools, and several half-disassembled radio control motors. Everything piled with no sense of order on the paint-stained, solder-burned, saw-scarred bench.

Booker’s work didn’t progress without a fair amount of hunting and pecking and cursing. Her mess wasn’t a custom system of organization that allowed her to unerringly find to hand exactly what she reached for. Rather, she required this level of anarchy to bring an element of poetry to her craft.

Indeed, Booker’s explosives and delivery systems were recognized for both their eccentricity and efficacy. And, occasionally, for their subtle humor.

From the mess, Rail plucked a fragment of metal that looked as though it were the remnant of a sheet of stainless steel that had been shattered like a pane of glass.

“What did that?”

Booker was twisting the bared copper strands with the callused tips of her thumb and forefinger. “Liquid hydrogen bath. Air hammer.” She pressed her thumb between her eyes.“Like they use on livestock in a slaughterhouse.”

Rail touched a fingertip to the needle -sharp tip of the shard. “Lot of trouble to make shrapnel.”

Booker shoved her hand into the pile on the workbench, heaved things this way and that. “Fucker.” She yanked and her hand came out of the pile holding a tube of stainless, cut on a bias at one end, a slight nip just before the lip at the opposite end, no more than 500 mm in length, 125mm in diameter.

She weighed it on her palm.

Continue reading “The Impossibility of a Diaphanous History Machine”

A Conversation with Mark Bomback

The writer of Die Hard 4 and Unstoppable, Mark Bomback is one of Hollywood’s leading action screenwriters with a long list of major projects in development or about to go into production. Below, Mark talks about his love of classic genre stories, working with the unstoppable Tony Scott and Denzel Washington and what really makes the Die Hard series tick.

Your story, “Still Life” feels very much like an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone.  Are there any particular “eerie” stories that provided an inspiration, on the screen or off?

I am most definitely a huge fan of both those shows, as well as The Outer Limits. I think The Twilight Zone in particular has informed my approach to genre fiction, both as a screenwriter and in my occasional stabs at prose writing.  Regarding the story “Still Life,” I wasn’t directly inspired by any film, TV episode, or short story in particular, however I’ve been a serious Stephen King fan since I was 11 years old, and his short fiction – particularly his collection Night Shift – hugely influences any genre writing I attempt. I also love Jonathan Carroll’s fiction, and particularly adore the stories in his collection The Panic Hand (the title story, as well as “Mr. Fiddlehead,” are especially great). In terms of the subject of immortality, I can still recall how moved and troubled I felt after reading Natalie Babbitt’s brilliant Tuck Everlasting when I was in 5th grade. It had an almost biblical impact on my opinion regarding any and all fountains of youth.

Your film Unstoppable is in theaters now, directed by Tony Scott.  In terms of the modern action film, Scott has few peers.  His relationship with Denzel Washington is one of the more notable Actor/ Director alliances in contemporary Hollywood. How did writing for the ongoing Scott/Washington juggernaut affect your process?

To be honest, from the moment I first conceived of the character of Frank Barnes, I had Denzel’s voice in mind – this was way before Tony came on to the project.   My big fear was that Tony would shoot down the possibility of Denzel simply because they’d just wrapped on The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, and in fact I do believe Tony would have preferred to avoid the inevitable knocks from critics regarding his going back to Denzel once again.  However neither of us could deny the fact that there truly was no other actor on the planet we’d rather see play that role.  Once Denzel came on board and we began script meetings in pre-production, it was truly fascinating to watch the two of them at work. They have a certain shorthand, of course, but what’s so unique is the level of trust each has in the other.  It allowed them to collaborate in a very truthful and focused way, without any of the nagging fears and insecurities that so often fuel those anxious conversations during prep.  What was even more gratifying was how quickly they came to extend that level of trust to me. I think it’s a testament not only to their confidence as artists, but also to the level of experience each of them brings to a film. I’ve personally never felt so secure in asserting my opinion as the writer, and I have never had that opinion so welcomed.

You wrote Die Hard 4, Live Free or Die Hard. To a certain extent, the Die Hard series goes all the way back to the 70’s, to the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe, which was the basis for Die Hard 1. What is the ongoing appeal (both from an audience and creator perspective) of the contained threat scenario?

Actually, I’m not entirely certain that the “contained threat” is really the secret of the franchise’s longevity. Certainly the first film created this whole sub-genre of action movie – the “Die Hard on a fill-in-the-blank” movie, and that is directly attributable to the narrative ingenuity of that first film – but what I think accounts for the success of the subsequent Die Hard films, including the one I wrote, is simply the character of John McClane. The same might be said of the Indiana Jones films – like Die Hard, the unique conceit of Raiders is undeniably something audiences responded to, but I think the reason both films did more than just spawn imitators resides in the power of thier protagonists.  I know that when I wrote my first draft of Live Free or Die Hard, it wasn’t so much the spirit of the action I was trying to nail (although that was a major, major concern) but really the voice of McClane that I knew would ultimately make it read like a Die Hard script.

Your forthcoming film Protection has an amazing pitch, a reversal of normal action film protocol that appears to cast The Witness Protection Program as the bad guys. What was the genesis of the project?

This is a project I was hired by 20th Century Fox, producer John Davis, and director Gary Fleder to rewrite.  The original draft was written a few years ago by Allan Loeb, a very talented writer, and was then subsequently rewritten by Miles Chapman, who incorporated some clever revisions.  Gary has his own specific ideas as to the kind of film he thinks this could be – something in the vein of Marathon Man, especially in terms of the psychological journey the protagonist takes over the course of the story.  Gary and I had been trying for years to find something to work on together in just this arena, so I was very excited by the opportunity to get involved. I hesitate to divulge much more, as it’s still in development, but I think it could wind up being a really fun film.

Another upcoming project, Jack the Giant Killer, as it is billed, seems like it will present an amazing opportunity to reinvent a classic story. How does one go about updating a narrative that is such an intrinsic part of our collective experience?

Again, this isn’t my original script, but another project I was hired to rewrite.  The original was written by Darren Lemke, who made some really interesting choices as to how to interpret and expand on the familiar fairy tale. I wrote on it for a little over a year, and worked with the director, Bryan Singer, to really try to mine every bit of visual and narrative fun that the tale offers. I had an opportunity to see some of the pre-production materials, and it’s definitely going to be a pretty massive spectacle.

The concept of eternal life is obviously one that many people think about. Still Life presents quite a dark view of what the reality could really equate. Did writing the story make you think twice about what you might do if the option came your way?

I confess, I’d pretty much weighed in against it before I sat down to the computer.  That said, I don’t believe anyone really knows how they’d respond to such an offer until presented with it.  Hopefully I’d have the foresight to turn it down.  Or at least remind myself to quickly re-read Tuck Everlasting.

Mark Bomback is a screenwriter whose credits include Live Free or Die Hard and Race to Witch Mountain. His new film, Unstoppable, directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine is now in theaters. Mark lives in New York with his wife and four children.

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