“Will you accept 300 per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The 300 is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
Mank, directed by David Fincher. (Netflix, 2020)
Come to Kosovo. There’s money to be made. The government here is in need of creative people like us. And the food is not all that bad.
You may wonder what a world-renowned Hollywood set designer like myself has to do with fighting a pandemic in Kosovo. And the answer is: Everything in my power.
If never winning any Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, or, heck, even the Teen Choice Award, taught me anything, it is that you never turn down a lucrative consulting contract. And with cinemas and theaters closed due to the pandemic, Broadway in deep hibernation, movies being released directly online, and our artistic world turned upside down — you’d think that we’ve reached the end times for our artform.
So when the opportunity presented itself for me to work with the Kosovo government, in saving lives nonetheless, I just said “sign me up.” This pandemic has taken its toll, Lawrence, and I figured, even if I’m not gonna win an award for best set design, this was an opportunity for me to do something meaningful for once.
I instruct the Kosovo government on how to best maintain the appearance of doing something in the face of total powerlessness.
I know what you’re thinking. But hold your horses and imagine this:
A lone gunslinger rolls into town. They ride their horse through the main street. There’s a saloon, the barbershop, the general store, the gunsmith, the telegraph office, pretty much every service a small town on the frontier needs. Some people just arrived at the railroad station. There’s some steam followed by a whistle. There’s a stray dog on the streets. Working ladies wave from the second floor of a red house. The blacksmith keeps hammering and the town drunk is preaching to the preacher.
Just your regular day in a dusty frontier town, you think, until you realize something’s off. The buildings are not made of brick and mortar. They are all props. Giant set design cardboards bolstered up by boards and planks.
My work here is the same. I instruct the Kosovo government on how to best maintain the appearance of doing something when dealing with the pandemic in the face of total powerlessness.
The government here is smart and practical. They realize that years of neglect and nepotism have rendered their health system useless and barely functional. They know that if they were to even attempt the most modest of reforms, the best course of action would be to burn the whole thing to the ground, and start anew.
OK, that was a bit dramatic. Background in film and theater does that to you, as you well know. But you get my drift.
Managing a pandemic is like managing the opinions and expectations of an audience at an overpriced Broadway show.
But even that can’t be done — you can’t escape nepotism here. That’s what Shaban, my Kosovar handler tells me. Even he got his job through a connection. Or at least, that’s how I interpreted his signs and gestures, which according to the recruitment brochure, were supposed to be perfect English.
Anyways, I can already imagine you riling yourself up with our age-old debate about film versus theater, so I’ll frame this in images you prefer:
You see, Lawrence, managing a pandemic is like managing the opinions and expectations of an audience at an overpriced Broadway show. They paid their left kidney for the tickets, and they expect to be dazzled. And you can’t really dazzle them with a bare black box, rusty pipes showing in the background. No one would be willing to buy scalped tickets for Hamilton if it were performed on a stage anything short of grand and magical.
Speaking of Hamilton. That’s how the folks are over here — “Young, scrappy, and hungry.” Just like their country, Kosovo. But I’d be damned if they’re “gonna throw away their shot.” And that’s where their ambition and vitality and pizzazz come from. The stuff that you and I are used to seeing only on a stage, here, my dear friend, you find it walking down the street — as real as it gets.
But what does all this have to do with the pandemic?
As I said, since they can’t fight the pandemic through conventional means, aka healthcare, they called in the creative cavalry. Enter myself.
If you saw any of my works, and I know for a fact you enjoyed many of my pieces (despite hating to admit it publicly), then you would know that one leitmotif that comes over and over in all my works — beside the grandeur and the magic I always try to express — is the feeling of authenticity. I always strive for my set designs to feel real.
There will come a day when they will look at set design and recognize its contributions to the medical sciences.
And that is exactly what I am consulting the government here on. Think of a Potemkin village. Think of staged illusions. Of course, my work here is more conceptual. I come up with the big ideas. And then the government executes and implements them in its attempt to win the battle against the pandemic. (Which, I hope we can agree, is the battle for hearts and minds, very much like any of the dramatic arts.)
I truly believe I am expanding the bounds of our noble profession. There will come a day when they will look at set design and recognize its contributions to the medical sciences.
Truth be told, my complex concepts are often transmogrified during translation by my handler (I mentioned our communication challenges), but I see it more as creative cooperation and input from a fellow artist.
I had this great idea — something I was mulling in my head ever since that failed sci-fi production — to incorporate gameplay, interactivity, choice, and nonlinearity. Shaban, my handler, interpreted this in his own way. And the government then came up with their latest policy: A total weekend quarantine in the capital.
A complete shutdown of businesses. Only small bodega-style markets were allowed to work. Don’t ask me why; all I know is that it worked on a conceptual and aesthetic level. And catch this: an element of the ticking clock. You had two hours before the rules took effect at 8p.m. Friday.
The chaos, the ticking clock, the running around, the nonlinearity of it all. Theatrics at its best!
I wish you were here Lawrence. There was something very theatrical about it all. Very dramatic. The rush of people to buy supplies.
Business owners trying to figure out if their shop is small enough to work, or big enough to be shut down. The long lines of cars trying to get out of the city. Borders to neighboring countries got swamped as people made impromptu weekend getaways. (When was the last time you or I did anything spontaneous?)
The chaos, the ticking clock, the running around, the nonlinearity of it all. Theatrics at its best! I doubt Dali and Buñuel would’ve created a scene more surreal.
Speaking of surreal, I believe my avant-garde thinking was responsible for another one of the great policies: The mandatory wearing of masks in public. For this concept I thought about all kinds of masks used in the best theaters and film productions. From the Phantom of the Opera all the way to Darth Vader. But I have to admit, my dear Lawrence, it’s your work that I got the inspiration from. It was from that talk you had about the role masks played in rituals.
You should see it, Lawrence, it’s performance art of the highest level. The entire city, its streets, all masked. Police revenues are up 37% from the fines they issue to people who don’t wear them. And then, the kicker: a great exercise in artistic interpretation and fluidity of meaning. Inside bars, restaurants, cafés, you are free to unmask, expose your full face, express your feelings, whisper sweet lies to a person close to you, breathe in their love and exhale your passion.
I never intended to explore the issue of human isolation in so much detail, but the 7p.m. curfew has not only helped decrease virus cases — although one of the scientists complains constantly that we are not basing our policies on scientific facts — but also served as great research and inspiration for my latest artistic project: Deep Cold Lonely Space.
If they are starving today, they don’t much care about their retirement in the far future.
And then, one day, I noticed the government types panicking. I figured, that’s it, I’m done; the infection numbers must’ve broken the records, and my time here is up. My impostor syndrome kicked in. They’ve seen through my charade, I thought. You know how insecure I get when thinking about my art.
But as it turned out, the source of all that commotion was money. As in, they didn’t know where to get it from. (Isn’t that our specialty, Lawrence, being semi-starving artists and all? Artistic guns for hire? Pistoleros of the conceptual?)
How does one go about funding an emergency pandemic economic relief package, anyways? It’s not like you could pull off “A Fistful of Euros” type of scenario by playing opposite sides of the parliament against each other.
My naivety came to my rescue. “Why can’t we just give people some of their own money?” I asked. You know me, I never had much flair for economics or how numbers work. And thanks to Shaban’s creative interpretation — he has truly developed this into an improvisational artform of its own — the government decided to dip into the pension fund.
But, as I said, dear Lawrence, it’s all about perceptions. The person in need doesn’t care where the money comes from. If they are starving today, they don’t much care about their retirement in the far future.
And this is where you come in, Lawrence. These humble people need your help. They already lost their retirement savings once when they switched political systems. Imagine them again in this frontier town that’s ruthlessly been plundered by various gangs, and bandits, and raiders, until there’s barely anything left. And now, there is a new breed of invisible outlaw — the virus, of course — knocking on their doors, demanding haraç.
Join us, Lawrence. We could use your talents. Your expertise in theater set design will complete our rag-tag gang of creative ronins: a video game designer with a passion for building CGI worlds, a washed out writer turned film critic, a conceptual artist specializing in performance art, a retired psy-ops officer, and of course you already know me and my set designs, as well as Shaban with his creative and improvisational interpretations. We’d be unstoppable.
Maybe not exactly a Magnificent Seven, you may be thinking. But still… Let’s stand together against this pandemic. Any moment now it’s expected to ride hard into town, to ask for its unfair share of the harvest. And we are doing everything to face it at high noon on the main street, between the saloon and the red house. All the buildings have been reinforced, their cardboard façades bolstered to stand the fiercest of winds. We will be ready… I hope.
Come to Kosovo, Lawrence. There’s money to be made. The food is not all that bad. The government work has an Old Hollywood vibe to it. And best of all, the whole country is like a blank canvas, awaiting your creativity.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.