“Aleksandar Hemon is on fire.” Vanity Fair
“His writing style is as vital and rewarding as ever. . . . The kind of writing that pulls you in and holds you there.” San Francisco Chronicle
Joshua Levin has a reasonably comfortable Chicago apartment, a mildly dysfunctional family sprinkled throughout the suburbs, a steady job teaching ESL, a devoted girlfriend who lives down the block, and a laptop full of screenplay ideasone of which he thinks, might turn out to be good: Zombie Wars.
But all it takes is a few unexpected eventshis already unhinged army vet of a landlord experiencing something of a psychotic break, a moment of weakness (or two) with his sultry Bosnian studentfor Joshua’s life to descend into chaos. As the stakes quickly move from absurd to life-and-death matters, The Making of Zombie Wars takes on real consequence.
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The Making of Zombie Wars
By Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Aleksandar Hemon
All rights reserved.
The MAKING of ZOMBIE WARS
Script Idea #2: An elderly contract killer with a heart condition is forced to go into retirement after he failed at his last hit. It's his only miss, so when he has a chance to redo it and restore his perfect record, he cannot say no, even if he's risking a heart attack. But then he falls in love with the target's teenage daughter. Title: The Last Heart
Script Idea #7: A blind man and a blind woman, attracted to each other by smell. On their first date, they find themselves at a murder scene and catch the killer's particular scent. Nobody believes them, and the perfumed killer is now pursuing them. Title: Where Do We Go from Nowhere
Script Idea #12: DJ Spinoza is a misfit no one understands: not his schoolmates, not his friends, not his teachers. His one dream is to DJ at his prom night and blow all those assholes away. After his radical DJ-ing results in a disastrous party at the place of the girl (Rise) he aims to hook up with, he ends up castigated. What will it take to make everyone dance and Rise fall for him? Title: Spinning Out of Control
Now, what could I do with the boy? Joshua asked himself. All human feelings are derived from pleasure, pain, and desire—but most important, Spin could say to Rise, from the beat. And what if he said nothing? What if he was the strong, silent type? Why this and not that? Writing is nothing if not carrying the hopeless, backbreaking burden of decisions devoid of consequences.
Afternoon at the Coffee Shoppe slipped into evening just as Joshua's caffeination reached the heights of the Rwandan plantations where his beverage originated. Hence he was burning to surf the web for Rwanda, learn some interesting facts about other cultures and allow his current creative dilemmas to resolve themselves. Back in the day, before the worldwide web of temptation, there used to be that thing called inspiration. Then the spirit was perpetually displaced by trivia and vanity search. Mercifully, there was no Internet access at the Coffee Shoppe.
Hence Joshua opened up a file with another script in perpetual development (Title: The Snakeman Blues), in which a comic-book geek and a retired superhero (the Snakeman), ungainfully employed as a public-school English teacher, team up to fight the evil mayor of Chicago. Joshua was incapable of deciding whether the Snakeman would die at the end or live to go back to teaching—a truly heroic activity in the city of Chicago—and if so, whether he would do so in his human or his serpentine form. The happy ending was corny, while the death was depressing, and Joshua could think of nothing in between. Besides, how exactly would a reptile fight the Chicago Police Department and the devious mayor?
Too hypoglycemic to type a word, which would then perhaps lead to the next word, he could perceive only the blank space below what he'd written last. (Snakeman: Don't! Let's take care of the boss first.) Baruch the Spinner was right: infinity exhausts all reality. But finitude does it too, almost. Joshua stared at the crosswalk outside the Coffee Shoppe where nothing was happening, until he discovered some comfort in devising wisecracks for some imaginary audience at some future dinner party: How is ashoppe different from a shop? Did the Wife of Bath drink soy milk chai lattes? Are the Middle English–speaking baristas commonly stricken with black death, et cetera?
He was about to open a new file to log all the shoppe cracks when a pack of ROTC cadets appeared on the Olive Street horizon in fatefully slow motion, reminding him of that long shot in Lawrence of Arabia where in the flat-line desert a speck grows into a horseman. The cadets forded the street fake-punching one another, slapping shaven necks, no worry in their lives, save the fear of being expelled from the pack. And then he saw them in the desert, thickly coated in dust, tongue-hanging thirsty on their way to a battle where they would mature and/or heroically die, the nefarious natives offering them contaminated piss-warm water in beaten tin cups. The cadets couldn't begin to conceive of their sandstorming future; they couldn't as much as pity themselves in advance. In fact, they could see little beyond their imminent meal, beyond acting out their childish toughness, beyond playacting hand-to-hand combat at lunch break. He who has a mind capable of a great many things has a body whose greatest part is eternal, wrote Baruch. And out of the sad ROTC mindlessness the scene from Dawn of the Dead was recollected in which zombies tottered in circles around a depopulated shopping mall unable to forget their life before their undeath, their infected brains still retaining the remnants of their happy Christmas memories. A chubby cadet sensed the intensity of Joshua's inspired gaze and, as the rest of the corps trundled on to the next-door sandwich shop, stopped to grin at him from the other side of the window. His face was wide, his cheeks flushed, his front teeth of uneven sizes like a skyline, his eyes lit up with the arrogant innocence of youth. In a blissful blink, Joshua saw the narrative landscape neatly laid down before him: all the endless possibilities, all the overhead and wide shots, all the graceful character trajectories blazing across the spectacular firmament, all the expanse conducive to a love interest—all Joshua had to do was stroll through that Edenic symmetry and write it down. This time, he was determined, his vision would not decompose in the computer's memory with the skeletons of his other ideas; he opened, right then and there, a new Final Draft file and created the title page to stare at it:
by Joshua Levin
Chicago, March 31, 2003
Whereupon he stared at it.
Alas, unless you're the Lord himself, creation cannot be willed: Joshua needed to eat something before embarking upon it, and hence stood in line behind an overtattooed prick who couldn't decide between banana and pumpkin bread, while the barista in a Che Guevara hat (yet presumably fluent in Middle fucking English) looked on indifferently. The impasse allowed Joshua to imagine a zombie biting into the prick's neck tattoos, blood splashing the ready lattes, turning them pink, the zombie oblivious to the hysterically hissing espresso machine. The revolutionary-Chaucerian barista, artistically striving for the perfect foam, took an eternity to steam the milk for Joshua's cappuccino, giving enough time for the zombie apocalypse to smoothly exhaust its cataclysmic reality and sink to the bottom of Joshua's mind. Back at his shaky table, he sat munching on carrot bread until he reached a Zen-worthy level of caffeine-crash blankness. He closed the file, then the program, and then, finally, his computer, to put it in his bag, to sleep.
* * *
Substantial portions of Joshua's life had been wasted before, leaving no trace of trauma or regret. But the pressing problem on this particular Monday was that he needed to turn in some pages to his Screenwriting II workshop(pe?), which was to be conducted that night at Graham's place for the first time. The Birkenstock cocksuckers from the Film Collective were bloodsuckers as well, per Graham, taking a shameless cut of the class fee without bothering to provide enough toilet paper. He'd been paying for it out of his pocket, until he'd concluded that his faithful workshoppers could just as well wipe their asses at his humble abode, while he could keep all the money for himself.
The pageless Joshua, equipped only with the vaguest zombie memories, was thus ensconced in a purple beanbag on Graham's living-room floor. Pretzels and a spacious plastic bottle of defizzed Diet Coke crowded the coffee table. With his testicles squeezed by his twisted underwear, Joshua avoided all eye contact with the beflanelled Dillon, who was outlining some idea of his, hip-deep in the faded, sunken futon. Bega was there too, hunched at the desk in a Motörhead T-shirt, contemplating the splendorously lit Wrigley Field in Graham's window. The baseball crowd emitted a home-run roar and Bega grunted wistfully, his thick, unneatly parted gray hair conspicuously rhyming with the grayish shrub on his face. Graham interrupted Dillon's rambling to make a point by sharing a pertinent section from the script he'd just completed.
"'Blessed be the amateurs!'" Graham spoke in the bloated voice of one of his cardboard characters. "'The triers, the failers, the shit-swimmers! Let us praise those who dream big and achieve nothing, those undaunted by impossibilities, entrapped by possibilities! They are the dung beetles of the American Dream, the unsung little fertilizers of American soil.'"
Graham rubbed his thumb pensively against his cleft chin as he looked up at his audience for their reaction: Dillon was looming over an open notebook in his lap, writing something down furiously; Bega nodded, chewing his Bic pen to pieces; Joshua was fixated on Graham, but only because his very balls were swelling in the painful squeeze. Addressing the problem required standing up and shoving his hand into his pants to free his testicles from the grip of his underwear. He was not ready for such a commitment, so he endured. The mind can imagine nothing except while the body endures.
"Just so you don't wonder what happens," Graham continued, "my boy goes on to make it big. He's gonna bottom out at the end of Act Two, but then comes back in Act Three, winning a Golden Globe."
Joshua tried to reach for his backpack, but the pain in his groin made him gasp and sit back. Graham's living room was overwhelmed with paperbacks—on the shelves, on the floor, on the windowsills—all of them dusty and invested in the magic of film and the science of screenwriting. The only wall without books featured a gigantic poster for The Godfather: Part II, Al Pacino looming over them like Jesus in an altarpiece.
"This is all based on a true story, gentlemen. Hollywood big shots lined up all the way to the Hills to have a diet soda with me, but I wasn't gonna let them fuck me! No, sir!" Graham flashed his middle finger to the erstwhile line of big shots. "Feel free to fuck yourselves, you bunch of Weinsteins!"
Graham rocked back and forth, Hasid-like, as he ranted, his bald crown reddening patchily like a lava lamp. Bega seemed to enjoy the rant, as he abandoned the Bic mastication for a hearty laugh. Meanwhile, Joshua rolled out of the beanbag to stand up, grimacing in the pain overriding Graham's anti-Semitic insinuations.
"Point is," Graham continued, "you're willing to learn, and that's undoubtedly fucking great. So, Dillon, to be perfectly and productively honest, that's far from the smartest idea I've ever heard. But we're gonna work on it all day long and we're gonna make it good."
Dillon wrote something down, then turned the page to write some more. Joshua finally pulled down his pants to release his balls, in the process of which his navel-eye blinked at everyone from a tuft of hair.
"What in hell are you doing?" Graham asked.
"Inadvertent self-wedgie," Joshua explained.
Graham clapped his hands, startling Dillon. "Do you hear that, Dillon? Inadvertent self-wedgie! Write that down! That's what you want your characters to say, not some anodyne bullshit about corporate greed."
The pleasure of untwisting his balls was compounded by Graham's praise, so Joshua felt entitled to make Dillon scoot over so he could sit down on the futon. He examined the night outside: the sparkle of the ball game all over Wrigleyville; the lit El train struggling along the Sheridan curve; the Lake Shore skyscrapers on the horizon; the endless darkness beyond. Bega shook his hair over the desk, as if trying to get something out of it. Could it be lice?
Joshua had been in Screenwriting I with Bega; they'd never talked much beyond exchanging remarks on their inchoate scripts. Bega would always project mean superiority while mocking the inane plots in the pages of other workshoppers. His plots would not be much better, but he'd protect himself by withholding their resolutions, claiming he wanted to keep the workshoppers involved.
"Is there such a thing as an advertent self-wedgie?" Dillon asked.
"There are all kinds of wedgies. Let a thousand flowers bloom," Graham said. "What happens next?"
Dillon consulted his notebook. There was no writing in its pages, Joshua noticed, only doodled arabesques.
"They're like in the desert," Dillon said, "and there are like all these things. He like stops by the fear booth and these like guys ask him what his fears are and he says, it's like sharks and waves, and these like guys come out dressed as his worst fears and like follow him around. And then he takes 'shrooms with the goth girl, and they go on the most fantastic trip of their like life, and then he decides not to go on to LA for the job and like live with the goth girl in the desert community."
Graham watched him intently, conceptualizing the fear booth and the guys dressed as sharks and waves. "That's gonna cost a lot of money," he said.
Evidently, money had never crossed Dillon's mind—he wrote money in an empty space left between the arabesques, then underlined it twice.
"Fact: you need no money to write a script, but you need oodles to make a movie. Fact: you will have to beg for money, part of the job." Graham began rocking again. "And the Weinsteins will unleash their twenty-two-year-old dipshit suckerfish to skim your life's work in one lazy afternoon. Then they'll throw at you the piddly coin they spend monthly on their chest depilation and expect you to work with that. You need to know you're nothing to them! You're a zero! Absolute fucking nothing! Zero!"
Bega laughed again—Graham's hatred of the Weinsteins seemed to amuse him to no end. Joshua's chest constricted with a gasp of guilt—he should counter the slight, but couldn't. Dillon blinked in what must have been panic at the blotches floating across the expanses of Graham's cranium. He then returned to the safety of doodling: at phenomenal speed he was now turning spirals into tornadoes, which in the upper half of the page biblically connected with darkness. On the opposite, tornado-free page, there was a scene featuring stick people with speech bubbles over their O-heads, one of them grasping an oval surfboard with his stick hand. Zombie Wars, Joshua thought. Where do we go from nowhere?
"The good news is that if you could get a hunky male star to be the surfer dude you might be able to find some dough," Graham said, having steadied himself. "Maybe that, what's his name, Hartnett?"
"I think you should make this dude more of real person," Bega said. It was surprising to hear him talk—he'd been laughing on the fringes all night. "He should be normal, little bit of philosopher, maybe loser. Like Josh here."
In Screenwriting I, Bega had wittily and deservedly, Joshua thought, picked on a Peruvian whose drafts had featured Inca gods fighting sea monsters. This time Joshua said: "Me? How did I come into this?"
From a distance, they all examined Joshua, the survivor of an inadvertent self-wedgie: the body of a lightweight wrestler who'd quit wrestling after middle school; the droopy eyes that, in a more flattering light, could appear contemplatively sorrowful; the slight overbite that often made him look unduly perplexed.
"To be perfectly honest, finding hunkiness in Joshua is a challenge," Graham said. "I'm just kidding."
Dillon laughed, relieved that Graham was off his back, and embarked upon drawing houses with smoke-spewing chimneys. Crematoria? Was it a subliminal—or, fuck it, liminal—way for Dillon to align himself with Graham's latent anti-Semitism? Even before the crematoria tableau, Joshua firmly believed that Dillon's chubbiness was born of devotion to obscure nineties bands, which required a uniform: flannel shirt, Costello glasses, expensive trucker hat. And who comes from LA to take screenwriting workshops in Chicago? He probably came here to like live for free with his grandmother. Mrs. Alzheimer, née Loaded.
"Now that he brought your ass up, Josh," Graham says, "whaddya got? Fresh, stunning work? A roller-coaster ride of violence and sex?"
Bega leaned forward to hear Joshua, his eyebrows' grays now shimmering under the desk light.
"I don't think I have pages. But I do think I have a new idea," Joshua said. "The working title is Zombie Wars."
"What happened to DJ Spinoza?" Graham asked.
"I need to figure some things out. I can't hear the music yet."
Excerpted from The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon. Copyright © 2015 Aleksandar Hemon. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
The Making of Zombie Wars,
A Note About the Author,
Also by Aleksandar Hemon,
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