The Sound of Silence on the Set on Mt. Tamalpais (Weekly Writing Challenge: The Sound of Silence)

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Good Evening:

One fine spring day in 2002, I received the first of a series of phone calls from a casting agent in Los Angeles who said that he really needed me for the starring role in an episode of a television series. Well, that’s what he said. Given the size of the acting pool in LA (mindblowingly huge) and the size of the acting pool in the San Francisco Bay Area (um, not terrible), it seemed reasonable to believe that maybe a modest modicum of mistrust might come in handy.

After several more phone calls from him, and after I conducted a little online research, he seemed real, but I made sure we met in a very public location. I’m glad I did. Not only did everything prove legitimate, but I found myself with my first lead role in an episode of a foreign television show, a Channel 4 UK reality crime series called Supersleuths. The good news: I had and have the exactly right look for the role.

The bad news: the role was David Carpenter.

David Carpenter (no links), born 1930, is The Trailside Killer, one of California’s all-time worst serial killers and today he might be the oldest person on any Death Row in America. Yours truly in 2002 bore a striking physical resemblance to him circa 1980 when he committed a series of rape/murders in the Bay Area, many of them occurring on Mt. Tamalpais, the highest peak in the Marin Hills and one of the most beautiful locations in the Bay Area.

Therefore, we spent many days on “Mt. Tam” creating reenactments of the crimes on the actual locations where they occurred. In my experience, most film sets are boisterous fun places; for most people in the industry, getting a job is the tough dreary part, working the job is the fun part. By contrast, the cast and crew on “The Trailside Killer” episode of Supersleuths maintained by far the most sober and serious environment of any acting job on which I’ve worked, especially after the first day of shooting, which took place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center. A woman who had worked with the detective who literally handcuffed Carpenter watched the first take of the first scene and immediately fled the set. When an assistant caught up with her, she kept whispering, “That’s Carpenter. That’s Carpenter.” We never saw her again after that day.

Everyone, both local and British, figured it out; the crimes remained very painful memories.

But early one grey, foggy, drizzling morning on Mt. Tam, the director, cinematographer and I studied some actual photographs of the crime scene we planned to recreate. Yes, actual photos, another reason for the sobriety. The crew prepped their equipment whilst simultaneously shielding it from the minimal wetness, while the actress who would portray the first of the four victims I would kill that day stood under an umbrella gazing at the place where she would die. We had set up our work site at a picnic area a little over 2,000 feet above sea level, normally a noisy environment: this part of the park can get very windy, and the Bay Area has so much vehicular traffic below us and so much air traffic above us that ambient noise always poses a challenge for sound crews.

Then I said, “Guys, did you hear that?”

The director, an Englishman, said, “I don’t hear anything.”

“That’s my point. I hear nothing.”

The light drizzle fell so lightly that it made no noise as it landed upon asphalt, grass, wood, or leaf. But it fell thickly enough that combined with the low clouds overhead and fog all around, the weather managed to muffle all of the sounds of the mountain and the San Francisco Bay Area without itself making any sound. The weather even managed somehow to stop the wind.

We listened to nothing. The crew stopped working, looked around and listened to nothing. The actress looked up at the sky and heard nothing.

The director said, “I’ve never heard silence in my entire life.”

I said, “Neither have I.”

The cinematographer said he had heard absolute silence once before. He was almost 60 years old. I remember one of the crew slowly stomping his right foot up and down on the grass, making no noise at all. Then he stood still again. We all held still for two, perhaps three minutes, and listened to silence, listened to nothing, and aside from the cinematographer, we were listening to the sound of silence for the first time in our lives.

Then we all grinned. Simultaneously. For the only time during the entire project.

The director said, “We’re falling behind schedule,” and we sobered up and got back to work. I still had to kill four people that day and we were losing time.

Vonn Scott Bair

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7 responses »

  1. Powerful post. Silence is a rare commodity in our modern world and the “Sound of Silence” can be deafening when we’re afraid or uplifting when we’re at peace. I bet this was a difficult acting role…or at least challenging.

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