Strange whine

Okay, over the weekend I clued some of you folks on some backchannel shenanigans re an upcoming Afterhell episode, “Damning Praise.” I’m giving you some details and a touch of denouement on the QT. Don’t let it go to your head.

For those who came in late, this needs a little set-up.

Now then, “Damning Praise” was one of the first “Afterhell” scripts. It features a variation on a character concept I’d kicked around and played with in several different forms for over 20 years. He was a wise-cracking, dimension-hopping adventurer whose chosen nom de guerre referred to one of his (and one of my) favorite authors. His name is Harlan.

“Damning Praise” is a dark, disturbing, nightmarish vision of fandom. At the climax, this version of the Harlan character does a few disturbing things. But he’s a protagonist, maybe even heroic in a Gothic sense. And he’s appearing in an obscure audiodrama piece that doesn’t exactly rake in bags o’ money. In other words, I didn’t think the real-life namesake of this character, Harlan Ellison, would care about it.

This script has been sitting around for a few years. After so many distractions — cats, family, losing our house to a predatory lender, making that lender go the fuck away, getting to know many other audiodramatists, working on various projects with them, learning from it all, applying that to my own work — I thought it was time to produce that script. I wanted to dust it off, give it a good polish, and record the sucker. With help from some friends in Boston and here in Portland, we got that process started earlier this year. Then more distractions came before I could pursue that further.

(I promised to get into some of that in later postings. And I will. Now shush. Who’s telling this story, me or you?)

Casting and setting up the recording session took the rest of the year… or at least, so it seems. For months, Jamie and I contacted actors, sent out scripts, and talked to them about scheduling. Everybody was busy, which only made sense. These are very talented actors, very much in demand. But the harder we tried to put it all together, the harder it got. Schedules clashed constantly. There were no more than a few days a month, nearly every month, where everyone could meet. And at the last minute, someone had to cancel. It raised the inevitable question, to recast or reschedule? I was paranoid about getting just the right performances for this one, so I chose to reschedule. And it kept on happening. D-Day wasn’t this hard to pull off.

Did I say “a little set-up?” Somebody shoot me now. No, belay that. It gets interesting here.

After oodles of wrangling, September was looking like our month. And it has been. Everything was falling into place, albeit with the grace of a drugged gazelle, but it was happening, dammit. I wouldn’t get a full cast rehearsal, but a chance to rehearse some important scenes. Then everyone would be there a few days for the recording.

But three days before that rehearsal, Jamie and I had to talk with one of our actors. He wanted to do this story. He just didn’t get it. It didn’t have the overtly comedic tones of Volume 2. This was more surreal, darker…

And the script needed a polish. Yeah, I thought it should have one too. It was written hastily, in the sort of white-hot creative burst that Stephen King and J. Michael Straczynski often extol. For them, it’s the crucible of their personal best efforts. But they didn’t say anything about tightening up sloppy dialogue and blah formatting… or when I was going to find the time to fix all that.

But there I was, answering for the slapdash results, explaining the story, plot, character backstories, my inspirations for the piece, what I would’ve fixed if I’d gotten the time, every single creative decision short of the choice of word processor. And somewhere in that whole oral exam, he heard what he needed to hear. He was good to go. We were back on track. Whew. We could relax.

The next morning, he sent us an e-mail. He was having second thoughts. It turns out that he’s a friend and colleague of none other than… Harlan Ellison. He didn’t want it to look as if he was tiptoeing behind Harlan’s back, so he asked if he could talk to Harlan about it.

Ugh, so the HE guy would have to hear about my sloppy scriptwriting and these goofy CD’s I was making. Oh well, the worst that happens is a stern lecture–

Whoa, there was a line in the e-mail that stopped us cold. Legally we were on thin ice? HE’s name is intellectual property?! Crap, I’d forgotten about that.

Before anyone starts going on about huge egos and control freaks, here’s an important fact. So many people have tried to smear, scam, and libel him that he’s had to resort to such tactics to keep all that lunacy down to a dull roar. If there hadn’t been so many attempts, nobody would have to sweat it.

But the devil of it was that our mutual friend, the actor with whom I’d just discussed the script at length, has been aware of that script and that story for the last two years. And he decided to slam the brakes on the whole production just a few days away from our recording date.

But hey, he considers the guy a friend. You don’t screw your friends over, not if you can help it. I told him to go ahead.

What I didn’t tell him was, “Damn it, we were set! We were good to go, you stegosaurus! For fuck‘s sake! Why didn’t this occur to you before, Rip Van Winkle? Why now?! Where the fuck was all this friendship when I first pitched this idea to you on the way back from recording Volume 2?! Son of a bitch! Shit… shitshit!!!”

We were stunned. Dammit, we were so close. I’d just pulled us out of a nose-dive. Were we gonna crash and burn anyway? My intellect was saying one thing, that Harlan probably wouldn’t care, that it was small taters compared to the full-blown legalistic monkey crap-throwing contests he had dealt with in his time. The finished product might even amuse him, I thought. But the door to litigation had been opened. It was possible. And all the pre-production work Jamie and I had done, all the effort to write the damn thing, all the heated debates on the backchannel during that process, might have been for nothing.

So Jamie and I sweated for three more days, through the weekend, straight on till Tuesday morning. The whole time, we were on deathwatch and we knew it. Whether Harlan was a reasonable man wasn’t the issue. The whole situation was out of our hands. If our mutual friend framed it the wrong way, if Ellison was having a shitty day, if the planets were in the wrong alignment, if we pulled out a copy of the I-Ching and threw the fuckin’ magic Pocky sticks the wrong way….

Okay, that’s enough of that. You’re all in the loop, yes? About how the fate of this episode hinged on what Harlan Ellison’s reaction to the news was, right? You’re not going to start whining about spoilers when I spill? Crucifixion? Good.

The answer on Tuesday? Our actor friend called Harlan, and Harlan was cool with it. In fact he reportedly said, “Why are you bothering me with this? It’s not a big deal! It’s teeny! That other thing, I fought that for 29 years. Trust me. To get me into court, it has to be a big deal. This, not so much. Go ahead, do what you want.”

Verbatim, apprarently. And for that, our friend has a good memory.

Harlan asked for only two things in return. A note in the CD’s liner notes will state: The character of “Harlan” appears with the approval of Harlan Ellison. And we’ll send him a copy of the finished product.

So naturally we’re going to bust our asses on Volume 4… just as soon as we recover from the SAN loss for this whole incident.

And even better news! The last of the principal dialogue was recorded last night. And [info]audioboy himself just re-sent some special crowd walla, saving our exhausted bacon. We’re good to go.

Now I can concentrate on the last three parts of “Giallo Hotel.” No rest for the wicked.

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Written: Sep 28, 2007