BLOOMSBURY, LONDON. 30 MAY 2011
'Have you ever heard of Sister Katherine and The Temple of the Last Days?'
The smile vanished from Maximillian Solomon's eyes when he asked the question; a sign of self-seriousness, or a sudden scrutiny of Kyle's fitness for disclosure; something Kyle noticed about mind, body and spirit types who spoke about their interests with strangers. Ufologists and mediums were the same.
But even though Solomon's eyes hardened, the small tanned face of the CEO of Revelation Productions retained its default setting of being vaguely amused. With Kyle. Or maybe with everyone in the world except himself. The permanent half-smile was either convivial or mocking. It was hard to tell which with these people: the successful, the owners of things, the commissioners and controllers he'd dealt with as a film-maker.
'Yes,' Kyle said, and then his mind snatched at what he did know about Sister Katherine and The Temple of the Last Days. Fragments resembling instamatic polaroid photos: sun-bleached flashes of a scruffy, bearded man in handcuffs, walking from a police car and into a municipal building;aerial footage of what might have been a ranch or a farm in ... California? Snippets of imagery from something about the cult he'd seen on telly a long time ago. A documentary, or was it news footage?
He wasn't sure of the source of the impressions, but they were glimpses of things that suggested a notoriety that had evolved into the noir and the cultish. He knew that much; the group was perceived these days as dangerous and cool. A US Indie band called itself Sister Katherine in the eighties; some industrial band called itself The Temple of the Last Days in the next decade. And of course, he'd recognize the iconic portrait of Sister Katherine anywhere without knowing much about her life; it had been Andy Warholed on to T-shirts in Camden Market, alongside images of Jim Jones and Charles Manson, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. A plump, heavily made-up face, its expression beatific, haloed by a purple nun's habit as her eyes searched the heavens. Mother Mary meets Revlon. An evil female cult leader reduced to sick joke gimmickry, lurid nostalgia, and bespoke infamy for disaffected youth. A woman who was killed by ... or did she commit suicide with her followers in America? He couldn't remember, but he knew the Temple had murdered people. Or was it each other? A film star? No, that was Manson's family. Same era because the Temple was a hippy death cult in the sixties. Or was it the seventies? 'The cult,' he said and tried not to look clueless. Too late, his eyes had gone vague and he'd frowned with confusion throughout his hazy recall.
Max seemed pleased with his ignorance. It would enable him to expound. 'An organization that began right here in London, in 1967.'
'Yes. In this city. Few are aware of that. But Sister Katherine was British. Her real name was Hermione Tirrill. She was born in Kent. Came from the remnants of a wealthy family. Her mother even had a title. She was a Baroness, and made sure little Katherine knew she was better than everyone. As did the boarding schools where she was educated until she was fourteen, when her father left his bankrupt family. And little Kathy and her mother were forced into the ignominy of poverty. She came down hard from a pile in the country to a council flat in Margate. Had to slum it in a second-hand school uniform. Down there with the rest of them. Must have been devastating for her, this plump little overachiever with funny teeth, while she watched her former peers become debutantes.'
Kyle shrugged. 'I don't know much--'
'She was a runaway at fifteen and never spoke to her mother again. There was some time in borstal for theft and assault, then prison in her twenties. She was arrested for solicitation, and then again for running a brothel. Embezzlement, forgery too. A petty criminal. We can read what we choose into this. But what we do know from the few that have ever gone on record about her formative years, is that Katherine never liked a level playing field. That's for sure. But she liked power. And status. Wanted back what had been taken from her.'
Kyle intuited a taint of bitterness in Max, but something else too: a grudging respect.
'But the Temple's origins are fascinating. It grew out of a cocktail of Scientology and apocalyptic millennial ideas, a mimicry of Christian sainthood, occult magic, Buddhism, abelief in reincarnation ... and various other things.' Max seemed to detach himself from Kyle then, and from the conversation and even the room, like an old man reminiscing fondly. 'It could have been so beautiful. Simple psych-therapy techniques, blended with medieval ideas of asceticism and piety. A life free of ego. These were the original values. All cloaked in mysticism for an aesthetic appeal.'
Breaking his reverie and now self-conscious about his digression, Max killed the half-smile. 'A well-intentioned concept quickly usurped by a female sociopath and criminal elements. In London it was known as The Last Gathering. It became The Temple of the Last Days in France, during a schism in 1969. At a farm in Normandy where they nearly starved to death. The remnants migrated to America, under the same management. Where they self-destructed in Arizona. 1975. That you will surely be familiar with?'
Kyle swallowed. 'I'm not that familiar with it.' He cleared his throat too aggressively. 'With them.'
'So I see.' Max said with a condescending inflection on the last two words.
Momentarily, Kyle felt dizzy with embarrassment, as if he were being asked a question at school that he had no answer for. An illogical reaction, because why would he know anything about them? Had he pretended to? They were hardly important. And Max Solomon had invited him by email to the production offices in Bloomsbury, for a meeting about a 'prospective collaboration' without stating anything specific about the proposal. He felt his face go hot. 'No disrespect intended, but why would I be?'
'From what I have enjoyed about your work, Kyle, I'd say you might want to be.' Max smiled. And commenced issuingthe impression that he would ever be the unruffled and idly comfortable man, his success innate, entitled to prosperity and that all should know it. Signs recognizable to Kyle. And he instinctively disliked those who exhibited them. A class unto themselves; the money man, the film executive from the upper corporate tier, the self-important producer. Loved being close to the creative flame, stressed their own 'creativity' at every opportunity, and by doing so devalued the very word to house dust. But their aspiration to take ownership of another's work, he'd learned the hard way, was always reinforced by an underhand cleverness that you underestimated at your peril in this racket. They were the reason he had reduced himself to self-financed film-making, and a personal debt so colossal just thinking about it made it hard to breathe.
Earlier, he'd been collected from an impressive reception so brightly lit he'd spent the entire wait squinting. When shown into the CEO's office and Max had risen to greet him, his movements so light and graceful, the tiny man had reminded Kyle, uncomfortably and unkindly, of a small clever monkey with quick glittering eyes. A primate rising to its hind legs, dressed in Paul Smith.
The man was also tanned the colour of a sweet potato and his entire scalp was covered in a semi-transparent pelt of hair implants. He never understood why balding men paid so dearly for a procedure that only gave them thinning hair. The one time he'd been to Cannes, and the two visits he'd made to LA to talk to film agents, he'd found alien worlds full of men just like Max Solomon.
When the email arrived the night before to request the meeting, Kyle had broken an anxious evening of reading jobads online and immediately checked out the Revelation Productions website. Instantly, his heart and its vain hope that the meeting might lead to an opportunity to work again, and that he would earn enough money to stave off his impending insolvency, cooled with dismay. His disappointment grew incrementally the more he saw of the website, until it was total.
Revelation had published a book called The Message, which had sold 'Fifty Million Copies!' A strapline that filled most of the company's homepage. He'd seen the book around. It had changed the life of many female celebrities as well as being one of those books that every other woman had been reading on the London Underground for one summer. How long ago that summer was escaped him, but he'd never seen the book being read in public since.
As well as The Message, the company produced a massive backlist of books, DVDs, CDs and merchandise that had a contemporary, life-affirming, self-help USP attached. The company claimed their products were 'groundbreaking' and 'definitive' and 'revelatory'. But the brand struck Kyle as being very Californian, a bit vulgar, and dated lo-tech, magic-bullet-chicanery, while also fortifying his aversion to bad science blended with spiritual horseshit. But it had come to this; with the exception of porn, he'd dropped to the bottom of the film industry.
His documentary about the American Metal Core scene, Shredding, had been shown dozens of times on cable television, been a hit at festivals in 2006, and was still referred to as a cult classic in the music press; his film about witchcraft at a Scottish University, Coven, had got him into trouble for defamation, but it was also a film once shown on BBC2to considerable acclaim; thirty thousand people had bought the DVD of his film about the European Black Metal scene, Reigning in Hell; and two hundred thousand people had downloaded his documentary, Blood Frenzy, about three missing British hikers who vanished in the Arctic Circle: all of this success was real. Not bullshit. He'd walked the walk. He had a real and enviable filmography. But the distributors for the first three films claimed he owed them money: fifteen grand. And he still carried another ten grand's worth of production debt from Coven like an anvil upon his increasingly rounded shoulders. In total, his last self-financed film and unpaid rent had left him thirty thousand pounds in debt on a variety of credit cards and loans. A day of fiscal reckoning was nigh. Its anticipation made him incapable of a single undisturbed moment of happiness. It had also stolen his ability to relax, which seemed more hideous than losing the ephemera of joy. Something, he noted, guaranteed by the likes of Revelation Productions. Happiness: they promised that in spades. So maybe he should hold out for a DVD on tantric sex.
'What makes you think I'd be interested in a cult?'
'I've seen your work. It has a refreshing openness. When dealing with the niche, the derided, the forgotten. And the unexplained. You're not an exploiter, Kyle. I like that. Or a sensationalist. You have an open mind, my friend. So I began to wonder if we could work together. I have become very curious about your approach. Your vision.'
Kyle resisted any show of being flattered, though he was. 'I make films with one agenda. To capture a subculture and to understand it. Or to tell a story honestly. As those who speak to me perceived the experience. I've only made filmsabout things that interest me. Stories that fascinate me, that either no one has told or told well enough. Stuff the mainstream media avoids or just misunderstands. And I won't compromise what I think is the right approach to achieving this. If I can bypass the current Hollywood and film industry business model in the process, it's a massive bonus. Artistic compromise, idea theft, getting turned over by suits. Enough already. I'm done with all that.' He said this as a veiled warning. He'd been told it was unwise to show his bitterness in meetings with producers, that it was unprofessional. These days, he chose to ignore advice like that.
Max raised his trimmed eyebrows as high as he could, but the lower half of his face didn't budge. He'd had a facelift as well. The half-smile was starting to convince him it was, in fact, mocking.
Kyle tried to smother his rising irritation. But it was like trying to get the wrong size lid on a tin of red paint. His voice came out all tight. 'And my time is coming. For film-makers like me.' He felt silly for saying it, but was also revelling in how the film industry quaked at what digital technology was doing to their age-old monopoly. The least he could do was remind its representatives of this fact. 'Eventually I intend to be the media provider of my own work. For a specific audience. And it will never be any dumbed-down, censored crap put out by executive know-nothings, with their profit and loss sheets, their bottom lines, and their careers. I already finance, shoot and edit the films myself. Owning distribution is the next battle. That's where I stand.'
'I see.' Max looked at his tiny feminine fingers, spread them on his desk, studied his nails for a few seconds, whileeither frowning or fighting the half-smile; it was hard to tell with someone whose chin was probably once part of their forehead. 'Your film Blood Frenzy struck me as unequivocal in its acceptance of, shall we say, a paranormal aspect to that tragic story. What I took from the film was a strong suggestion that something very old, something that defied natural law, had been responsible for the disappearance of a significant number of people ... in a distant part of the world. Did you come to believe that?'
Here we go. 'We all want the truth, Max. I just tried to understand what happened. There's no way I will ever know what really happened up there. I don't think anyone ever will. But I got an authentic sense of the place the story came out of. People suggested things, without much prompting. I never tried to steer the interviews, or to emboss a theory on anything. My mind and my lens were wide open. The viewer is the interpreter. These days everyone wants a say. The world is a hanging jury. I give the audience the known facts and the fallible testimony of the interviewees. And to be honest, I had no idea what that film was going to suggest to me as I made it.'
'I see. Interesting.'
But did he see? While Kyle spoke, Max had been frowning as if he was not listening, but thinking instead of what he was going to say next. It annoyed him even more, if that were possible.
'I don't like polemic, Mr Solomon. Most audiences don't either. My trick is to choose a story that is so interesting, the audience has to get involved on some level. It's the most I can do as a director. I don't use stars or shoot well-known events, which is why I've given up on the system.' That wordalmost came out of his mouth on fire. He took a deep breath. 'So I find stories for the neglected mass of non-mainstream viewers. And there's an awful lot of us. I'm totally pull-based from word of mouth online. That's my constituency.'
'You make a living from this couture approach?'
Kyle paused for longer than he wished. 'Not yet. I was ripped off on the music films and Coven. So I made Blood Frenzy a non-product. I gave it away free from my website. Some indie record labels embedded ads on the page which covered some of my costs. I'm in arrears on the rest. But it's never been about money.'
He wondered whether he should just get up and leave. He couldn't even pretend he liked the man. And he'd be one of a dozen directors Max was currently feeling out for something tabloid. At least it wasn't over a lunch he was paying for; this was an actual production office. But he could already intuit he and Max were terminally different; if he couldn't trust his instincts after all he'd been through, then what else did he have to go on? Time to split.
But then Max had to go and say, 'I believe I have such a story. An extraordinary story. So cards on the table, Kyle. I want you to make a film for me.'
He fought hard to contain an eruption of excitement. A silence thickened about them. 'About the ...'
The half-smile withdrew entirely from Max's smooth face. 'Let me bring you up to speed, and then you can tell me if this is to your taste.' Max leaned back in the leather chair that dwarfed him. 'On 10 July 1975, the Phoenix Police Department removed fifteen people from an abandoned mine in the Sonora desert of Arizona. A few hours after SisterKatherine's Night of Ascent had taken place. The mine had been occupied by The Temple of the Last Days since 1972.
'Nine of these people were dead, including Sister Katherine. Six were found alive. Of the living, five were children. The infamous Manuel Gomez, aka Brother Belial, was the sixth. Katherine's favourite and her executioner. And Brother Belial was the only adult survivor of that night. I'm sure you've heard of him? He was killed in the recreation room of the Florence penitentiary before he could stand trial. By inmates unknown.
'Another five members of the cult, all present at the mine during the weeks preceding the Night of Ascent, were never traced. It is believed they were also murdered, but buried in the desert.
'It is this aspect of the cult that has fascinated its biographers, its fans, its exploiters. The criminal case. The police believe the murders occurred as a result of infighting, and drug psychosis, or some manner of suicide pact. The newspapers at the time called it a satanic ritual involving human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of its leader. Who, by the way, was actually beheaded. And that version of events is the one that has endured, as you might say, in the "mainstream" public imagination. So what else does one need to explore as a film-maker or biographer? It's a perfectly lurid story that has enough of everything.
'But ...' Max pushed a pile of DVD cases across the desk to Kyle, an envelope file, and an old paperback book so used the writing on the spine was invisible. 'The four documentaries about the cult, and the three feature films, are terrible. What you'd expect. Appalling. Truly awful. Of the many books, only one is worth reading. Last Days by Irvine Levine.Dismissed as fictitious, and now long out of print. But the police officers from the Yuma and Phoenix police departments suggested that, at the very least, Levine's reportage was fastidious with the details concerning the Night of Ascent when the murders took place.'
Kyle cleared his throat. 'It all happened a long time ago. Unless any new evidence has come to light, why make another film? Are you saying it just needs to be done right? Is there some anniversary, or a nostalgia thing--'
Max held a small hand up and cut him off. 'No. There is a story here that has never been told. Forget the murders. Forget the police investigation. The media exploitation. It is an oft-trampled path. But something else about The Temple of the Last Days has also endured, in folklore and in alternative histories of a Fortean nature. Which is where we come in. You see, there is a very real belief that the group's mystical and occult interests bore dividends. A belief that Sister Katherine achieved something extraordinary. And that her willing death - because, make no mistake, she was slaughtered on her own orders as were her most loyal followers that night - is part of this mystery, the unexplained phenomenon that haunts their story from its very origins in London. Keeps it alive, you could say, for those of us with more open minds. A story no mainstream film-maker would do anything but attempt to disprove. That is, if they gave it any credence at all.
'You see, there are other survivors, Kyle. Not of that night, but of the organization. People who fled many years before its end. And others who escaped mere months before its dissolution. People who, one could say, have never, not ever, been able to escape what they experienced in the service ofSister Katherine. And what is unique now, is that a handful of these survivors are breaking silence for the first time since the police investigation in 1975. And when that happens, as you probably know, it's because they have something to say. Something they need to say. But have been afraid to say. And so they have provided us with an exceptional opportunity for a groundbreaking work.
'The effect Sister Katherine had on her followers was nothing short of monumental. Life-changing. And terrible. Her cruelty was exceptional. But then, so was her leap of imagination into the inexplicable. She did something to spellbind them.'
Max sipped at his glass of Evian. 'It's taken a great deal of persuasion even to assemble what is now a dwindling group of survivors.' He smiled and raised his hands. 'You could say, there is no one else available. I even tracked down the notorious Martha Lake and Bridgette Clover.' He watched Kyle's face for recognition; when he received none, he seemed disappointed. 'The two chief witnesses for the prosecution had it ever gone to trial. They became celebrities once the story broke in seventy-five. Two young women who fled the mine in Arizona with their infants, three months before the Night of Ascent. Alas, poor Bridgette passed over earlier this year. But Martha, dear, dear Martha, is waiting to tell us her part of an incredible story.'
Kyle looked about the walls of the room, lit like a clinician's laboratory or photographer's studio. He saw framed book covers about glycaemic index diets and old posters advertising bestselling spiritual awakenings available on VHS. 'Bit off the beaten track for you, isn't it? Not very wholesome.'
Max beamed. 'Now this is where I do believe this project will really appeal to you. Revelation Productions have developed a side project. Mysteris. A new imprint for the online delivery of content from a pay wall, twinned with DVD releases. We're embracing the revolution here, Kyle. We want an avant garde element in our portfolio. The new brand will be a base for cutting-edge counterculture film-making, about alternative history and unsolved mysteries. And the Temple story will be the flagship film. You see, the Temple has a very large online following. And one hardly catered for in the manner I propose.
'Using digital technology our costs are hardly prohibitive, as you have already alluded to. And once the production cost has been recouped, the profits will be shared on a cooperative basis with the artists.'
Max sat back in his chair and smiled, raised his hands. 'Kyle. I can't tell you how good it feels to roll one's sleeves up again, and to get back into the mix, as they say.' He smiled at his walls. 'Do you think I started this company to rest on my laurels? Tesco sells vegan meals and Boots sells aromatic oils.' He shook his head in despair. 'But I was part of alternative approaches to health and spiritual wellbeing when it was original. A lifestyle revolution, Kyle. I was there. Back then. The sixties. And I want to get back in touch with my creative side.'
Kyle bit down on what wanted to come out screaming. 'And you want me to make the first film?'
'Precisely.' Max tapped a manicured finger on the file between them on the desktop; he now seemed unable to disguise an urgency in his offer. 'And I want you to start right away. There's no time to lose. The trail I have followed sofastidiously could go cold. All you need to know about the people you will be interviewing is in here. Their names, biographies, their connection to the Temple are enclosed. As are photographs and details of the locations that must be visited. '
Kyle sat mute, stunned into disbelief, his head a chaos of excitement, fear, and caution. What had just happened never happened. What had just been offered, was never offered. Ever.
Max's stiff face managed to loosen with excitement. 'My role will be executive producer. All creative decisions are yours. I will not be on set, ever. You must be self-sufficient. Though I suspect you prefer such an approach. If there is anything you need in the course of the production, you merely call me and I will do my best to execute your requests. Distribution and licensing are already taken care of. My own company is the investor. We take it directly to market. The production money is in place and waiting. For you.'
Kyle picked up the folder. 'I need to take this away. Look at it.'
'The first day of principal photography is this Saturday.'
Kyle laughed, and failed to cull the derisory edge to his voice. 'Come again?' Did Max know anything about film-making? 'Did you say Saturday?'
'The schedule is done. Permission to film at each location has been arranged. Accommodation and flights can be booked today. As your employer, my liability insurance will cover you and your equipment.'
'Script? I don't know anything, or much about this, Mr Solomon. I need a script. I need to work out how to tell the story. It's all about the storytelling, Mr Solomon--'
'You have five days to familiarize yourself with the story.' Max prodded the Levine book for emphasis. 'The shooting schedule I have taken the liberty of producing in the chronology of the cult's movements: London, France, Arizona. That will have to be your logline. In essence, it follows their founding to their self-destruction. Six locations in three countries in eleven days. Not one more. No reshoots, no pickups. I want the footage shot within that time frame. Screen lifts for the B-roll and stock footage have been sourced and copies are in that file.' Max beamed. 'What do you say?'
Disorientation came down fast. Either his seat, or the actual room, moved. Too many questions, instincts, and suspicions would not settle inside him or evolve into coherence, into language. 'The locations. I need to at least see them first. I need to think about sound, lighting--'
'There won't be any crowds at any of the locations. They're remote. Derelict properties. One of your specialities. Besides that, there are some home visits. There may be the odd flight path I don't know about, but nothing too challenging for a man of your experience and adaptability. This is extreme guerrilla film-making. Your raison d'être, my dear boy.'
'A shot list for each location.' He was thinking out loud. 'Vital. You can't plan enough, Mr Solomon, or you're racing against the clock to correct mistakes you never envisaged. My films are pretty simple. One, two cameras. But still, I have to think every scene through.' As he was talking he thought about his debts. He should ask about the fee. Was there one? Had Max mentioned money?
'The photographs will have to suffice. There cannot be any more delays. It's why I'm offering you the work. We're too far along now. It can only be done on this schedule bysomeone ... a director of your capability in such a situation. That going to be a deal-breaker?'
'But ... the people I'm interviewing. I have no sense of them. I need to talk to them first--'
'No time! The first day of principal photography is this Saturday. I'm afraid I have been let down at the last minute by my team. For personal reasons they were unable to begin.'
'And anyway, I'm familiar with each of the individuals who have agreed to be filmed. So you'll have to trust my selections. I don't think any of them will disappoint. We wouldn't even be talking now if I wasn't confident in your improvisation skills. Your ability to deliver on time and on budget. I know you've made films out of fresh air, through a network of favours, and deferred payments. The heavy lifting has been done here. And I have included questions I would like asked.'
'Now this is where I might have a big problem with an agenda.'
Max stood up to close the meeting. He was impatient, fidgety. 'It's hardly prescriptive. More of a guide. And you will see my only agenda is a desire to explore the paranormal aspects of the organization. The very purpose of the film. So I'd guess if I have an agenda, then it should be yours too. How you shoot the scenes is up to you. Frame and compose them any way you like. I want your signature style. And I'll need the dailies delivered promptly. How would that occur?'
'Er, I used a parallel editing strategy on the last two films. Worked just fine. I rough cut the best footage on Final Cut Pro. Prior to a final edit with my editor, Finger Mouse--'
'All the master files go to hard-disc space I rent from him.Compression means it'll take longer than real time to put across at the end of each day, but I can get rushes in a day or two.'
'Let's try for a day. And your production crew?'
'My partner, Dan. Can't work without him. And he does the cameras.'
'So there will be three of you in total. Dan and this Mouse?'
'That's how I did the last two films.'
As Max came around the desk, hand outstretched, Kyle couldn't tell if the executive producer was impressed by their minimalism or pleased at the low cost implications. 'And they will agree to a confidentiality clause. I'm afraid this project must remain undercover until completion. The story remains contentious.'
'Can't see why not. Festivals? Theatrical release? It would be nice to at least try.'
'Of course, of course. DVD, internet and TV is our target though. But we shall leave no opportunity unexplored.'
Kyle stood up, but wobbled. He was light in the head, had helium in his feet. 'You're ceding creative control to me?'
'I'd need to see a contract.'
'I have it here. You look unconvinced.'
'I have been ill-used, Mr Solomon. Ill-used. Investors have one thing on their minds: profit at any cost.'
'Indeed, I hope our collaboration will be profitable. The advance, I think, is generous.'
'Advance?' The shadow of his debt seemed to waver, even retract. Debt changed gravity and had made the world around him heavier for so long, he felt like he was on anotherplanet in the solar system. Just being within reach of a solution to his burden gave him a moment of unbearable bliss.
'Yes. One third now, one on the shoot's completion, one on final delivery of your masterpiece. How you split it with your comrades is entirely up to you. I believe it commensurate with your reputation. I am thinking one hundred thousand pounds, not including expenses, deductible from net receipts.'
One hundred grand. Kyle swallowed, felt faint.
'Take this away and look at it. Show it to your agent, if you have one. And as you have your own equipment and people, Revelation will merely be the publisher - contractor for the finished article.'
'I want to see your cash-flow projection.'
'Of course. Anything else?'
Kyle paused for one beat more than he wished to. He couldn't decide whether Solomon was the devil or his saviour.
Max beamed; his teeth were perfect. 'Excellent! Then we have an agreement?'
Kyle cleared his throat of its constriction, its aridity. He picked up the contract. 'I'll read this first.'
'I need to know today.' Max looked at his Patek Philippe watch. 'Let's say by five p.m.'
LAST DAYS. Copyright © 2012 by Adam Nevill. All rights reserved.