Not being a scientist or a reader of National Geographic, I don’t really know what constitutes a “minor ecological catastrophe.” But yes, I am responsible. I gave the order: burn everything, and I did so to protect my intellectual property as well as that of the Palestinian Film Board, which generously agreed to finance my live action adaptation of Watership Down. They wanted a parable about liberty and statehood, and I have always been a fan of the novel. Despite the ideological overtones of the project, I am generally indifferent toward the conflict between Arab and Jew. I took the helm solely because of the technical challenge. The Palestinians do not have much money and could not produce a film with expansive computer animation, hence the need to use real wildlife and to shoot on location.
What has also been referred to as a “modest genocide” in the newspapers hinges entirely on my choice of assistant director. The film itself was viable and remains viable, and would have been brought to utter, timely fruition had it not been for Professor Gregor Ritzenthaler, PhD, former chair of the North Carolina Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. To be brief, the man is a disgraced and drunken zoologist, although the region’s foremost expert on the Leporidae family. I see in him now something of a tortured genius and an unpleasant, reluctant saint. But when I first met him at a TGI Fridays in Durham, he was friendly and outgoing. It was a Wednesday morning, about half past eleven, and he was on his eighth or ninth boilermaker. I should have been alarmed by this fact, but instead I was charmed by his knowledge of rabbit society, the inner workings and brutal politics of warrens and harems, breeding grounds, places of exile, defeat. It was operatic.
But Ritzenthaler showed up to the first day of filming drunk on Knob Creek and released all of the rabbits. Once he sobered up on a loaf of sourdough bread and a thermos of blackcoffee, it took him a full day to traipse through the marshes and recapture most of the principal cast. We had dinner that night in my trailer, and he apologized in full and promised to switch to a lower proof bourbon. At the time I believed this to be a fair and reasonable compromise.
The role of General Woundworth went to our largest rabbit, but he was docile and diffident on camera, not at all keeping with his characterization in the novel. In order to induce the appearance of despotism and rage, we fed General Woundworth four ounces of espresso and his heart promptly exploded. The look in his eyes was terrible. Dr. Ritzenthaler did not forewarn me of this possible outcome. The animal rights activists learned of Woundworth’s demise and began to picket the set and commit small acts of sabotage. More rabbits freed and anamorphic lenses smashed to bits. It may be unpopular to claim outright, but a single, German-engineered anamorphic lens is worth a thousand Woundworths.
There is no justice in this world. My tormentors were somewhat organized and adequately funded. They were occasionally ruthless, and one night they kidnapped Ritzenthaler as he was exiting a local tavern in the company of a known prostitute. Did she lure him into their hands? Was she a part of it? They wanted me to stop filming in exchange for the professor’s safe return. I refused to negotiate, certain they couldn’t harm a fellow mammal. But dear God, what they did to him was much worse. It was perverted and sanctimonious. A letter dated four months ago from those bastards records their attempts to sober up Dr. Ritzenthaler, much to his horror, by feeding him a diet of milk thistle and organic honey. Of course I contacted the police, but the detectives I spoke to were entirely apathetic. Ritzenthaler was a known drunk and a lecherous troublemaker, and they were glad to have him off the streets and away from their genteel country brothels. Fate had thrust into my unassuming orbit a manic scientist, a listless constabulary, and a cadre of mediocre terrorists.
Without Dr. Ritzenthaler around to advise me on the flurry of lovemaking scenes in the film’s third act, they turned out clinical and frank. Absolutely joyless. I had hoped that the musical score could add a subtext of romance and power to these empty trysts, but I ran out of money to hire a proper composer. My nephew, who is my ward, began writing and recording music on a keyboard synthesizer as per my instructions, but it was not very good. The horror of General Woundworth’s death, those grimacing eyes, that death rattle, the sight of his body being caressed by the expiable Dr. Ritzenthaler, who wept like a lunatic, all of these horrors in rapid succession must have destroyed my nephew’s artistic sensibilities. His atonal concertos did not suffice.
Ritzenthaler’s eyes were once roguish and delightful, but that all changed. Halfway through the scheduled shoot, on a large hill overlooking the set, under the aegis of the setting and torpid Carolina sun, he appeared at dusk with an army of militant vegetarians behind him, forty pounds lighter from the denial of Knob Creek and fried haddock and broiled liverwurst. Our eyes met from across the field and his were dull and humorless. He’d been converted or lobotomized. Sobriety made Professor Ritzenthaler sinewy and agile, with a chest like repaired and burnished Alexandrian marble.
Still, I will always try
to remember him as a tender, supportive and much flabbier man. Whenever I expressed self-doubt in the privacy of my trailer, he’d calm me down with a glass of whiskey and a rendition of “Nessun Dorma.” He had a lovely singing voice. When I was deeply, profoundly troubled and couldn’t sleep he’d make a soothing balm out of crushed methadone, fiber glass and Vicks VapoRub and apply it to my lower back. It left quite a bit of scarring but it worked and I had pleasant dreams of a finished film and a lavish, fully catered premiere in the West Bank.
But that’s when I gave the order, when I saw him standing astride that hill. With Ritzenthaler leading the charge, they attacked us with paintball guns and attempted to seize our equipment. I escaped narrowly with some of the film and my nephew, but we didn’t have time to go back for his keyboard synthesizer. He was devastated. As a way to assuage his tears, I told him he wasn’t a very good musician and therefore retrieving the instrument was not a matter of urgency. He has responded to my logic with a ruthless and indefinite period of silence.
What little I salvaged of the film is rough, extremely rough, without color correction or computer effects. Many shots still include myself and Dr. Ritzenthaler shepherding the tranquilized and chemically aroused rabbits on our hands and knees, placing them into phalanxes, arranging them beside conspiratorial camp fires, forcing them to confront or make love to one another or to assume the stance of a tyrant, trickster or messiah. In spite of our bellies and hangovers, there is a natural harmony and litheness to our movements as quadrupeds, and the rabbits are so drugged and insentient that they seem to harbor some love or at least Darwinian deference for us, like newborns for their mothers. We look like a family in the dirt and mud, among grass and longleaf pine, immortalized in 70 mm film while under the distant lights of Ursa Major. I note this wearily and wistfully with each, obsessive viewing. But Ritzenthaler and I will be erased in the post-production process, and the rabbits will effectively be orphaned.
Avee Chaudhuri is from Wichita, Kansas. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fluland, Gemini Magazine, FLAPPERHOUSE, Dead Mule and Prairie Schooner.