November 23, 2014

Fitzcarraldo in the Murder Cabin


One of the reasons—in fact the primary reason—Erik scheduled the road trip for the last week of October was the hope we might capture the changing fall foliage on film as our bumbling hero, Noogie, flees from New York to Florida (though we were shooting his flight in reverse). This differs from the silly book I’d written, but that’s fine by me. Visually it had the potential to be much more interesting. It was a shot in the dark, given the leaves change color over a very brief window, and some years hardly at all. But as I may have mentioned we seemed to have a number of gods and demons smiling on us throughout this madcap tomfoolery, so we found ourselves driving through the twisting wooded back roads of the American Mid-Atlantic at the peak, as the trees were exploding in intense reds and golds and browns and oranges, all of which Gates the cameraman described to me.

            Our destination on what, day three? Day four? Things were already growing blurry after a series of eighteen hour days shooting in Florida and Georgia. Anyway, our destination, on whatever the hell day it was, was a cabin buried high and deep in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Long before that day arrived it seemed like a bad idea. Too many clans of inbred cannibals back there. Even before leaving our respective homes to meet up in Miami the previous Friday we’d already come to dub this stop the Murder Cabin. The picture only grew worse when the man renting the cabin warned us to get there before sundown and to “watch out for critters.”

            “Critters”? He never specified what kind of critters he was talking about, but it didn’t sound like chipmunks.

            Well, it was already clear we weren’t gonna hit the Murder Cabin before sundown, and in fact likely wouldn’t make it until several hours later, giving all the critters time to join forces and prepare their assault. But it was best not to worry about that. There was too much left to do, and too much driving still ahead. It had already been a busy day.

            Since this was a hit and run guerilla operation, the film’s directors, Erik and Brad, were keeping their eyes open along the road for potentially interesting shots and off-the-cuff scenes. So when we passed Papa Joe’s Souvenirs and Fireworks just off the highway—the place with two big plaster elephants out front and signs offering “50 FIRECRACKERS 99 Cents!” Noogie’s van and the camera car trailing it both made a hard right into the parking lot. We seemed to be in some kind of fireworks capital, as every second or third store along that stretch was an M-80 superstore with some kind of familial connection (“Cousin Eddie’s” “Brother Billy’s”) but none of the others had big elephants out front. Erik, Brad, and Brandon got together and concocted a simple scene of Noogie going into Papa Joe’s and buying an armload of fireworks, simply because that was the kind of thing he’d do. But the minute they walked, with their cameras, into the long, spare white windowless building with the concrete floors, the man behind the counter gave them the boot. Or at least gave the cameras the boot, despite all the free publicity it would give him. So as the scene was reworked, Brandon and I went into the shop on our own. It was a little shy on souvenirs, most of which seemed to be aimed at retirees for some reason. But they did have fireworks, most of them teetering just this side or that of legality. Shelves and tables and walls full of everything you could imagine. (Something called “Angry Beaver” seemed to catch everyone’s attention. According to the description it, yes, “Shoots Fiery Balls.”)

            The crew shot a brief sequence which allowed them to use the exterior without ever having to go into Papa Joe’s proper, and before we left Brad bought a big bag of mid-yield explosives to placate the ornery counterman.

            Half an hour later we stopped at a gas station to fill up and grab a couple of cups of bad coffee and some packs of cheap smokes. While we were standing out front smoking with Brad and Brandon, an old local with a long white beard stopped. It occurred to me that as long as we’d been running, we hadn’t really talked to anyone apart from waitresses and store clerks.

            “Hey,” he said, in an accent that made it perfectly clear where he’d been born and raised, “I got a question for y’all.”

            I started to get a little nervous. Maybe the inbred cannibals weren’t restricted to the backwoods anymore. Like bears they were being forced into residential areas.

            Instead of the expected “Y’all ain’t from around these parts, are ya?” he asked, “Who invented the miniskirt?”


            “Ah said, who invented the miniskirt?”

            “Um . . . I can’t really say.”

            “Seymour Heinie! Get it? SEE . . . MORE . . . HEINIE! Ha! Right? Get it? Lessen y’all come from South Carolina, where it’s Seymour Butts.”

            What followed was a ten-minute string of mildly risqué one-liners mixed with inoffensive religious jokes (“Why couldn’t they play cards on the ark? ‘Cause Noah was standin’ on the deck!”). Erik, seeing the opportunity, grabbed one of the cameras and started filming.

            When our anonymous comedian friend finished his routine he wished us luck and moved on to find another audience for the same tired, well rehearsed jokes. Still, it was an odd little break from the whole “standing outside the gas station and smoking” act, which became so familiar to everyone over the course of the week.

            For the last four or five hour stretch to the Murder Cabin, I rode in the van with Brandon, who seemed to be showing early symptoms of what we determined must be Beach Ebola, contracted while lying face-down in the sand for a couple of scenes they’d shot in Miami. (Oddly enough, “Bechebola” was also a special being offered by the Italian place that refused to seat us our second night in Florida.)

            Along the way the two of us talked about Noogie Krapczak, the Man, the Mystery. It was strange. In the silly book I’d written Noogie was just a hapless schlub who knew way too much about movies, stumbled onto an idiotically brilliant slow motion heist, stole a whole bunch of money and had no idea what to do when his scheme was uncovered. But as an actor Brandon started asking me all kinds of tough questions I’d never thought of before about Noogie’s background and thinking, trying to come up with some solid and deep psychological understanding of who he was being asked to play.

            As I struggled to make up answers, unaccustomed to discussing one of my books in anything even approaching “serious” terms, the sun began sinking, the trees grew thicker, the two-lane road grew twistier and any signs of civilization disappeared as we climbed higher into the mountains. Meanwhile I couldn’t help but think the critters we’d been warned about were gathering strength and waiting.

            For the last hour or so (taking wrong turns into account), the pavement gave way to gravel as the road narrowed and became a series of sharp dips and rises as we followed the rental car deeper into lord knows where. Oblivion, probably.

            As we reached the cabin, the final dip was a thirty yard long, forty-five degree angle drop, and the tires of the used van Brandon and I were in could find no purchase on the loose gravel of what someone jokingly considered a driveway. As Brandon struggled to control and slow the skidding van, we slid inexorably down to where the car was waiting. I didn’t say anything at the time, but already I was wondering how the fuck we were going to get out of there in the morning. Maybe that was the idea all along. We were never getting out of there.

            Well, at least the cabin was pretty nice, with a fake fire, a couch, a deck out back and a couple of bedrooms. Might as well make the best of it, given none of the crew had any cell phone service and it was after midnight. So we had a few beers and a few smokes, had some prepackaged Indian food Erik had packed, didn’t talk about escape possibilities given we all secretly knew they were futile, instead talked about assorted Bigfoot variations in assorted areas of the country, and went to sleep. Even before leaving Brooklyn I had the sense this whole terrifying ordeal would end a year or two down the road, when someone came across all the hours of footage they’d already shot and turn it into one of those “found footage” horror films. Well, this seemed as appropriate a place as any to leave it.

            No critters ate us, though I heard any number of things shuffling around in the woods.

            In the morning, still not wanting to consider how the hell we were getting out of there, they shot a few different takes of a long scene with Brandon, I split a beer with Gates, Brad shot off some fireworks, and then we prepared to leave.

            Yeah, it wasn’t as easy as all that. No just starting the engine and heading back up that so-called driveway to the road. Not even the rental car could get the traction to get up the hill, and everyone started getting a little nervous. I don’t know who made the first Fitzcarraldo crack, but it’s what we were all thinking given we were all Werner Herzog nuts (even Morgan brought it up before I mentioned it later). What we needed was a crew of indigenous people with ropes and pulleys, but they were nowhere to be found. We were gonna die down there like we’d figured from the start (or at least I had). There wasn’t even any question of calling a tow truck since there was no phone service that far away from everything.

            Finally Erik, with the help of a few logs and some pushing, serpentined the car up the hill. But that was the easy part. The van was another question.

            An hour later, after some rocking and pushing and failures and sliding backwards, something finally caught, the tired wheels finally found something solid beneath all the gravel they had spun out of the way, and Noogie’s van, with Brandon behind the wheel, at last lurched up the hill.

            We carried the rest of the equipment and luggage up on foot and loaded the car. Then Gates and I had another beer.

            “So which way now?” someone asked.

            “Doesn’t much matter which way you go. Any road we take is gonna lead us right back here.”

            Still, we climbed in the car and the van and drove on anyway. The leaves in the mountains, I’m told, sure were pretty.


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