I wrote this piece a few years ago, after someone asked whether my first screenplay was based on a choice or a crisis in my real life.
Re-reading it, what strikes me is the remoteness with which I viewed the tragedy that triggered the story. It’s written as a kind of numb removal.
Did I really achieve what I claimed in the last line…?
My screenplay, Found at Sea, is the story of Chris, a purser aboard a cruise ship, and Katy, a travel agent who becomes his love interest. Although I’ve made Chris the primary protagonist, at one point (prior to workshopping!), Katy was almost equally important.
In the story, Chris has literally run away to sea after the death of his wife in a fire. A burning cigarette was left in a sofa, and she died of smoke inhalation. Chris was blamed, even though there was no proof of any criminal intent. When Chris and Katy first meet aboard the ship, they talk about this tragedy, and Katy tells Chris her best friend died in a fire when she was nineteen. The shared tragedies allow them to connect.
When I was in first year university, my best friend, Bev, married her first boyfriend, Mike, in a quick ceremony.
I was the solitary bridesmaid. It was a quick ceremony because Bev had discovered she was pregnant, and in Regina in those days, being unmarried and pregnant was something shameful.
Bev was a drama student and she had just got the lead in a play called “Blood Wedding”. They postponed their honeymoon because of rehearsals.
Two days after the ceremony, a drunk man fell asleep with a lit cigarette in a basement suite in their apartment building.
There were no fire doors, because the safety code at that time hadn’t made them mandatory.
Bev and Mike lived on the third floor, but the smoke was intense and filled the entire building, trapping nine people who were eventually found dead of asphyxiation.
Bev and Mike’s bodies were among the nine located by the Fire Department.
Less than a week after their wedding, I was attending their funeral, in the same church, surrounded by the same people.
Bev was buried in her wedding dress – which she had borrowed from the wardrobe of her play. The total irony of the play’s title was completely overwhelming.
I was devastated. When you’re nineteen, you don’t think in terms of death. You’re fearless. Death is what happens to old people.
Bev’s death impacted me for years afterwards. I refused to go to weddings – the association was just too painful.
And I became keenly aware that human life is fragile, and can be taken away like that, in the snap of a finger.
I kept trying to write about it, but whatever I wrote was either too self-pitying or too unbelievable to be a good story.
In Found at Sea, although Katy has been relegated to a less-important character than Chris, the story of the fire in her youth acknowledges Bev and Mike’s fire, and because Katy talks about it, I’ve finally found a way to give words to my own grief.
Later on, when the ship catches fire, Chris leads Katy and eight entertainers through tortuous, smoke-filled corridors, to safety.
The act of saving them absolves Chris of the guilt he feels over his wife’s death…and, surprisingly, I’ve found it allows me to symbolically save Bev and Mike – which is perhaps what I needed to do, all along, in order to finally allow the memory to rest.