Empire of Light Excerpt





The Gospel of Light


I CAN ONLY STARE at Pan’s cigarette, inexplicably dangling from his thin bottom lip, as I wait for his arms to explode away from his body. I’m pretty convinced that at any second now a bolt of lightning is going to punch through his skinny chest and burn his organs to shit before making a mad escape into the ground.

I stand a safe distance away and watch and wait.

His tools are laid neatly on a cart, like surgical gear in a Swiss operating room. And for once, he doesn’t have an iPod plugged into his ears, pushing 160 gigs of noise into his vibrating skull. Today he is focused and serious. I’ve never seen him act so responsibly, and this is a very big reason why I’m beginning to freak the fuck out.

When Pan isn’t wrangling electricity for me, he’s a beach bum who gets off on surfing through the pier pylons at Venice Beach. He doesn’t believe in condoms, and he screws girls who look as if they gargle with tepid mugs of whorehouse Jacuzzi water. If you ever see someone as reckless as Pan acting this cautious, run, because something incredibly stupid is going down.

The energy flowing through this junction box is raw, a constant flow of lightning, harnessed to run this warehouse. I didn’t have the dough to rent a generator to light my set, so I hired Pan as my gaffer to crack open the box and siphon away a dollop of electricity. It’s free power, if you survive the tap. However, if Pan slips and allows his body to complete a circuit, he’ll be dead before his shaved head bounces off the concrete floor.

And it would be my fault.

Me. A first year Cinematography Fellow at the American Film Institute and, just maybe, future manslaughter defendant.

Pan moves cautiously as he attaches the final unstable lead. I catch myself squinting in anticipation of detonation.

Screw this.

This is way too dangerous. I need to be an adult and figure another way to power the set.

“Pan. I’m thinking we should just—”




Pan spasms at an inhuman speed.

His wrench explodes from his hand and skips wildly across the floor. His fist flies towards me and punches me in the chest. Before I know it, we’re both on the ground and all is quiet again.

“Pan, are you okay?” I ask, hoping he’s alive to answer.

“Yep, bro. I’m good,” he says, lying as stiff as a board.

I look around, still trying to figure out just what the hell happened, when I notice the wrench impaled in the wall on the far side of the room.


Pan follows my gaze and spots the wrench.

“WOOOOH! Outstanding!” he screams as he leaps up from the ground in joy like he had just gone for a ride in an F-16.

“I did the dance, bro! Did you fucking see that?”

“Dance?” I ask in shock. “You were almost killed!”

“WHOOO!” is his only response.

Enough of this nonsense.

I put on my gloves.

I’m going to finish this job.

I’m in fight or flight mode, and I can already feel the adrenalin flowing into my body. I snatch the wrench out of the damn wall and march back to the power-box. However, to my surprise, I find myself stopping in front of Pan and holding the wrench out to him. I suddenly realize that my adrenalin wasn’t pumping so I could fight the power-box, but so I could run the hell away from it.

How ‘bout that?

Pan stares at me and lights up a new cigarette. He pops a drag of smoke as he looks down at my gloved hand. He reads the evidence and chuckles out loud. I put the gloves on to finish the job, but then I went coward before getting within five feet of the box. He blows the smoke into the air before gently taking the tool out of my shaking hand.

“S’okay,” he says as he turns his back on me and goes about finishing the tap. “It’s all good here.”

If I watch anymore of this, I’m going to vomit.

“If you’re good, I’m going to the set—”

“You go do what you must do, boss man,” he interrupts. “I’ll come find you when we’re hot.”

Boss man? Screw you, Pan.

As I head down the hall, I hear him begin to whistle, happily. I stop and look back at him working away like one of the goddamn seven dwarfs. Now that the taps are in place, the rest of his job is cake. He survived and now he has a bitchin’ story to tell the rest of the crew. I’ll be nothing but a stupid punch line.

Of course I don’t even make it back to the set. After helping unload the grip truck and sorting out a last minute Certificate of Insurance for my dolly rental, half the day is already gone. Pan completed the tap without killing himself, and at first I didn’t want to see it, but curiosity is getting the best of me. I’ll just take a peek before making my way to the set.

“Oh, Christ.”

You don’t have to be an electrician to know that this just ain’t right. It’s a rape. The power-box mounted on the wall like a prisoner, hanging helplessly with massive black cables clamped to its studs. It’s an unstable hot mess. I had the crew link 100 foot stingers from the power-box and out to the production set so that the violation can stay hidden. In my mind, the stingers are nothing more than my mom’s holiday extension cords that lead back to an ordinary wall plug where a Glade PlugIn is on the top socket, churning out puffs of Apple Cinnamon scent.

I meander back onto the set and realize that I’ve been so worried about the power and stupid insurance that I’ve neglected my lighting. It looks like hell. And learning to light is why I’m here in the first place!

Two weeks ago I wasn’t even really sure just what the hell cinematographers did. I knew they were responsible for pumping enough light onto the set so that the camera could record a healthy image, but a monkey could do that. What I’m clueless about is how to tell a story with light, how to move people with it.

The director is nowhere to be seen. Cool! I have time to maybe tweak one light. Maybe I can do something… artsy? I put my gloves back on and head for the Key Light, jumping onto an apple box and reaching for the barn door.

“Where are we? Are we lit?” Like some demonic wood sprite, the director, Maal, appears out of nowhere just as I reach the light’s barn door.

Shit! I can’t catch a break!

“Hey, Maal,” I say.

He ignores me as he inspects my lighting.

He stands majestically in the middle of the set, like one of his Senegalese warrior ancestors, his head panning and taking in every inch of my lighting set up. He shows no emotion as he speaks down to me with his cool French-African accent.

“Are you happy with this lighting, Jason?” he asks calmly.

“Yeah, but I could tweak—”

“No,” he interrupts and marches toward the monitor. “Let’s get this over with. Where are my actors?”

The Assistant Director runs onto the set just as Maal asks the question. “Sorry, but we need fifteen more minutes for make-up.”

“What are you talking about? They’ve had all morning!

The set comes to a halt. Nobody has ever heard this very Zen-like artist scream before. The A.D. gathers himself. “I had make-up come in later because I knew we’d be unloading for most of the morning and—”

“Stop,” he interrupts. “I’m going outside for a smoke. Get me when they’re ready.”

Now, I could use these fifteen minutes to have the crew fix my lighting, but I’m not. Why? Because I’m afraid of my own crew. How messed up is that? Here’s the deal, a lot of these people already had professional careers as Camera Assistants or Gaffers before coming to AFI. Me? I just graduated from Central State University, a small black college back in Ohio, three months ago. Ordering around a guy that just pulled focus on the last three Ridley Scott commercials is just not all that easy. So my flight mode kicks in again, and I escape beneath the loading dock where I pop open a can of Coke, sit back and guzzle.

“Fucking disaster!” Maal screams as he storms onto the dock above me with Pan in tow. “How the hell did I get stuck with this fool?”

“The guy’s just green. He’s only twenty-two,” Pan says in my defense.

“I’m all for giving somebody a shot. If AFI wants to save a spot for some kid from the sticks, fine by me. But I didn’t drop twenty-thousand large to babysit some idiot from Iowa.”

“Jason’s from Ohio.”

“Both states have four letters and mean nothing to me.”

Maal and Pan look out towards the Los Angles skyline in thought, as if regretting what has to be done next.

Maal finally says it.

“I need you to take this over.”

Oh, this is just great.

“You’re going to fire him?”

“Can’t do that. He paid his tuition just like we did. You just need to take it over.”

Pan thinks about it. “Naw, Maal. I can’t get down with that,” he finally says. “I’ve got my own projects to light, man. I’m not here to put my work on somebody else’s reel.”

“So I’m just screwed.”

“Calm down, dude. The only reason I didn’t help Jason with the first set-up was because I was too busy gaffing the tie-in. I’ll get him through it all okay and your video will look great. So give us all a break and chill with the Survivor alliance bullshit.”

Way to go, Pan. Tell that jerk, what for.

“I hope you’re right,” says Maal as they both stomp out their cigarettes and head back into the warehouse. “Nice work on that tie-in, by the way. I guess I owe Jason at least that. That’s the only thing he’s done right.”

“I wanna go home,” I mumble to myself.

After five minutes of this mantra, I suddenly notice that the din of noise coming from the set has died down to nothing. Did they really roll camera without me? I scramble up the loading dock and burst onto the set.

“What the hell?”


It’s as if the rapture hit just as I was praying to Jesus that Maal die a horrible Ebola death.

I stand in slack-jawed silence, that is, until I hear murmurs coming from the direction of the power tap. I follow the twisting path of the black stingers, which lead me back to my crime scene. All eyes turn on me as I enter the room. There I find the entire cast and crew, including a pissed off Maal, and five grim members of the Los Angeles Fire Department. They’re all staring at the illegal power tap that up until six minutes ago was the only right thing I had done all day.

The dour-faced Captain looks too damn tired to hear any of my excuses. Is it really possible that I screwed up and managed to get us shut down on the first day of the shoot? I mean, come on. It can’t really go there, can it?

The Captain takes off his helmet and wipes the sweat from his brow.

“All of you, get the fuck out!”