July 05, 2017

Notes Toward Three Unrealized Visions

The trajectory of any artistic project is always unstable and treacherous, subject to the various failures of its delicate internal mechanisms, of course, but also uniquely sensitive to external conditions as well. For every work that achieves escape velocity from its creator’s mind to find its realization in the world, there are innumerable others whose flight is stalled or interrupted […] the vast majority of such failed endeavors will go unmarked and unrecorded, but on rare occasions the crash itself may arouse the passing interest of onlookers.

— Margaret Reeves, A Writer’s Life

Notes was to have been the third in a series of parafictional texts that I had started to incorporate into my work over the past few years. These texts were intended to function as speculative frameworks for the exhibitions I had been making, situating them within a quasi-fictive narrative that called into question various aspects of each project. The first had orbited around a painting, the second a novel; in this case, the subject was to have been an unrealized film. As I envisioned it, the story would focus on a commission I had been asked to create for SFMOMA in the summer of 2017, a collaboration with sound designer Gary Rydstrom. The project involved creating a soundtrack based on a screenplay called The Companions, written by a woman named Linda Mueller in the early ’80s. Mueller’s screenplay had disappeared into one of those strange Hollywood limbos; it had been passed around various studios for years but never produced. The “soundtrack” would be a sonic interpretation of Mueller’s unrealized script that evoked the narrative space of the story while leaving much of it to the viewer’s imagination. For various reasons, the commission for the museum had fallen apart; the failure of both projects would have been a central component of the text.

Though it had undergone endless revisions, the text had in fact originally been intended as a kind of working document for the sound project, providing a backstory for Mueller’s screenplay that Rydstrom could use as a kind of scaffold around which to construct the audio composition. At the time the project was cancelled, I had already completed a significant amount of work on it. According to my notes, the first section would have laid out the initial development of the museum project; this portion of the text would have been fully consistent with the actual story. Necessarily, in order to allow for a certain distance — both for the reader and myself — I had decided that the text should be written primarily in the third person. The author was someone named Lindsay Selwyn.

Selwyn’s piece would start out in a fairly conventional manner. In the fall of 2016, artist Anthony Discenza is approached by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to create a new work for an upcoming exhibition called Soundtracks. Though the show is to be built around a number of sound-based works in the museum’s permanent collection, the decision is made to include several newly commissioned projects as well. Discenza is asked to come up with a proposal that would make use of locations in the museum not typically used for exhibitions. In the course of researching possible sites, he’s drawn to the long, panoramic view from the seventh floor roof deck in the newly completed addition to the building. Given the title of the exhibition and the theater balcony-like proportions of the deck, Discenza’s thoughts naturally turn to film. An artist who frequently works with implied or withheld narratives, and who had previously produced a number of entirely audio-based works, he strikes upon the idea of working with a Hollywood sound designer to create a cinematic soundscape that would be superimposed over the view from the deck — a kind of “invisible film,” consisting only of sound elements, that would evoke an imagined narrative when experienced in conjunction with the cityscape.

Discenza approaches another well-known Bay Area institution, Skywalker Sound, about a possible collaboration, and finds it receptive to the idea. Gary Rydstrom, one of Skywalker’s principal sound designers, is particularly intrigued by the concept, which he sees as inverting the relationship between sound designer and director — Discenza in this instance essentially standing in for the director, but one without an actual film. In order to develop a framework for the composition, Discenza and Rydstrom begin researching “lost” films — movies for which a print no longer exists, or scripts that never made it to the screen at all. In the course of their investigations, they stumble across Linda Mueller’s screenplay for The Companions.

Up to this point, the text would have remained in complete accordance with the facts. The next section was to serve as both history and discussion of Mueller’s screenplay. The idea was to provide enough detail to allow Gary to begin constructing the sound environment, while leaving enough out to encourage readers to fill in the rest of the film’s narrative themselves. I imagined some brief introductory comments here on the American film industry and the countless screenplays that are never produced; stories of infamous lost scripts that were optioned into oblivion, etc. Reference would have been made to other better-known but equally ill-fated screenplays, tantalizing might-have-beens such as Clair Noto’s The Tourist. The text would underscore the notion that the uneasy fascination The Companions exerts lies with the very fact of its unrealization, leaving the script — only portions of which still exist — as a space of speculation and conjecture.

Following this would be a discussion of the screenplay itself. In the summer of 1982, an aspiring artist and writer named Linda Mueller completes a draft of a screenplay called The Companions. The story centers on Sydney Reston, a seemingly ordinary young woman working as a data entry specialist for a vast multinational corporation with the cryptic name of Global Sequence. Sydney is also trying to develop a career as a fashion photographer in her spare time — the reader is encouraged to imagine her living something of a double life, moving between a world of chilly corporate offices and San Francisco’s then-still burgeoning culture of underground punk clubs, performance art, and the city’s lively queer scene. (Some attempt here to invoke the rich ecosystem of subcultures that still thrived in San Francisco at the time, now of course mostly extinguished.) While on a photo shoot at the Legion of Honor, Sydney catches sight of a woman who appears to be her double. Doubling/splitting as a theme; an obvious nod to Vertigo (this connection would be developed later on). Her attempt to unravel this mystery leads to a series of increasingly unsettling encounters. Global Sequence seems to be implicated — though how and why is not clear. 1 Sydney gradually drawn deeper and deeper into a complex web of intrigue that becomes ever more ominous and strange, even as its outlines fail to come entirely into focus.

The text would have continued to heavily emphasize this sort of ambiguity. Mueller’s screenplay teases the reader with various explanations for the bizarre events piling up around Sydney: corporate espionage, secret mind-control experiments, alien prostitution, even a plot to open a gateway to Hell itself (using mass hypnosis and manipulation of San Francisco’s energy grid) are among the possibilities advanced. (Make it clear however that the screenplay never fully commits itself to any of these hypotheses.)

As Selwyn notes, one of the most striking features of The Companions is the way it manages to combine aspects of at least a half-dozen different genres, from hard-boiled noir to erotic psychological thriller. 2 Despite the screenplay’s hybrid nature, however, I had decided the text would focus chiefly on its science-fictional elements. I had imagined that the central role of corporate technology in the story would be emphasized — for example, the script makes continual references to a “protocol” or “system” being developed by Global Sequence, called “glass,” that appears to be associated with surveillance, though it may also be inadvertently (or deliberately) creating gateways into alternate realities. 3

Literary connections: A longish section had been planned to illustrate the influence of various novels on Mueller’s screenplay. These references were intended to serve as cues that could suggest possible plot elements to readers without describing them directly; they would also help establish The Companions in a lineage of other literary fictions set in San Francisco. I had decided to use Fritz Leiber’s classic Our Lady of Darkness as a central reference point. Written in 1977, just five years before The Companions, Leiber’s novel is both a terrifying and playful homage to the city’s eccentric history (as well as to the work of various weird fiction authors like H.P. Lovecraft, who heavily influenced Leiber’s career). The protagonist, Franz Westen — a clearly autobiographical character who, like Leiber, is an author of supernatural fiction — runs afoul of sinister, “paramental” entities haunting San Francisco, which are eventually revealed to be manifestations of the massed psychic energies of the city itself. Some discussion inserted here regarding certain elements of Leiber’s story that can be clearly identified in The Companions, in particular the conceit that the vast concentrations of steel, electricity, and people found in modern metropolises might cause them to act as both generators of and attractors for para-natural forces. In Mueller’s screenplay, there’s a lurking suggestion that the city itself possesses a strange and terrible sentience. Float the notion that the entire narrative may represent a kind of dream the city is having about itself.

Topology of the city: A passage here that describes how The Companions’ narrative is steeped in the unique landscape of San Francisco: “The city is a palpable, fog-draped presence in the script, a character in its own right.” (References to specific locations in the screenplay would also be another way to tie the sound composition into the roof deck’s view of downtown.) Point out that many scenes are set in or near famous landmarks — for example, Global Sequence’s main headquarters is the old Pacific Bell building at 140 Montgomery Street, originally built in 1925 (and at the time of its construction, the tallest building in San Francisco). Meanwhile, Mueller makes the enormous and iconic Sutro Tower a central feature of her tale, a mysterious focal point around which the story orbits — and where it violently ends. The malign presence of the tower is suggested mostly visually, rather than through any real exposition. At various points, the screenplay calls for long, static takes of the vast structure: “slowly engulfed by cataracts of fog”; “glittering evilly as twilight overtakes the city.”

Folding: The text returns to its description of Mueller’s plot, which grows increasingly complex. Several disturbing encounters lead Sydney to suspect that people are being duplicated or multiplied in some fashion — not only people, but space/architecture as well. The city itself appears to be subtly shifting — buildings erased or replaced, though no one seems to notice the changes. Interesting possibilities for Gary’s sound composition here. Could it be that parallel dimensions are colliding, causing alternate versions of the city to become enfolded within each other? (As noted, it wasn’t clear to me if this would have been part of some intentional plot — an invasion of sorts — or simply an unexpected side-effect of the glass technology gone awry.) Even time itself seems subject to a similar decohesion: at one point, during a nerve-racking chase in the fog, both Sydney and her pursuers appear to become stuck in a sort of spatiotemporal loop, continually returning not only to the same deserted section of the city’s Tenderloin district, but to the same moment in time. Some observation here about how The Companions’ structure is not so much non-linear as oddly recursive, as though the plot was running itself through a series of variations that slowly build in intensity.

Alfred Hitchcock: As previously observed, Mueller’s screenplay invites obvious comparisons to Vertigo. In certain ways, The Companions can be viewed as a science-fictional, feminist revision of the film — Hitchcock funneled through the lens of authors like Joanna Russ and Anna Kavan. Recalling the divergent personas of the protagonist/narrator of Russ’s The Female Man, the text describes a central scene in which Sydney confronts not just one, but multiple versions of herself, some disturbingly altered. The theme is no longer just the doubled self, but rather an endlessly fractured identity. The moment is clearly intended as both echo and rebuke to Scottie’s encounter with the resurrected Madeleine in Vertigo, and makes explicit Mueller’s frontal attack on the uneasy gender politics of Hitchcock’s classic. “There is no objectifying male gaze here, only Sydney’s image of herself, caught up in a fatally spiraling subjectivity into which even the reader is subsumed,” Selwyn writes. 4

Paranoia as an overarching mood: In addition to Vertigo, The Companions evokes a number of other films set in San Francisco in which the city is portrayed as a site of profound alienation — I imagined various references could be inserted here that would provide further linkages for Gary. Possible sentence: “It’s not difficult to imagine that, had it succeeded in ever reaching the screen, The Companions might have taken its place among other cinematic visions of urban paranoia, such as Philip Kaufman’s 1979 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, David Fincher’s The Game, and especially Coppola’s The Conversation. The theme of paranoia also afforded an opportunity to bring in additional literary references; in its dark, deeply cynical world view, the screenplay evinces a strongly noir-ish sensibility that recalls the writing of such authors as Dashiell Hammett and Philip K. Dick. (Reading this, it struck me that Mueller’s fusion of hard-boiled detective fiction, corporate conspiracy, and speculative technology might place The Companions alongside — though perhaps not squarely within — the emergence of cyberpunk, a genre that frequently employs a paranoid narrative logic.) 5

Presumably, somewhere amidst all this would have been some real background about Mueller, though my notes fail to provide much information. At the time she writes the screenplay, she’s 26. She apparently grew up in New York — one envisions a typical sort of East Coast liberal arts education. By ’82, she’s already been living in San Francisco for a few years. It’s possible she attended the Art Institute, but dropped out after a year or two. The details aren’t important. She’s dating someone with connections in Hollywood; the screenplay gets optioned, but can’t get made. The script is subject to a series of bad deals; over the course of the next decade all sorts of big names get attached to the project — at one point Spielberg appears to be involved; actors as varied as Madonna, Isabelle Adjani, and Rae Dawn Chong are considered for the role of Sydney — but the project always fails to go forward for one reason or another. Paint a picture of troubled relationships, betrayals, endless legal disputes over rights. The Companions lingers for years in limbo, passed between studios and producers until eventually it expires. Mueller moves back East and pursues a career as an artist, but fails to get much recognition. She never writes anything else of note. Eventually retreats to New England, where she dies at 49. The cause isn’t clear. Would it have been something tragically random, like a car accident, or something that indicates a more troubled psychology? The question is left unresolved, like so much else in the story.

Of course, the vertiginous, other-worldly quality and unreliable narrative of Mueller’s screenplay inevitably prove too elusive for the blunt machinery of Hollywood — I had written some quotes to insert here in order to lend the whole thing a sense of verisimilitude. One director, recalling Mueller’s script, had described it simply as “unfilmable”:

The problem is, the whole thing’s just got too much going on. I mean, you’ve got all these great plot elements — there’s possibly this global corporate conspiracy, there’s spy stuff and car chases and even a shootout — but you also got a lot of very weird things happening, seduction by aliens or people from another dimension or whatever. At the end the whole city gets maybe destroyed or something, but then you get this final scene where it’s like, huh? Did anything even happen? […] Don’t get me wrong, I loved the script, but there’s just no way to tackle that. You either have to dumb it way down, in which case, why even bother, or you wind up with something that most studios won’t touch because they can’t slot it into anything. I mean what sort of story is it? How would you market something like this?

Analysis: Looking back over this material, it’s clear that the very qualities that made Mueller’s story so intriguing to so many different studios were inevitably the same ones that made it impossible to realize. The story’s appeal is obvious; its strong visual sense and slyly recombinant attitude to pulp genre tropes offer a playground of cinematic possibilities. But in its deliberate embrace of narrative ambiguity, Mueller’s screenplay displays the sort of markedly literary sensibility that Hollywood has traditionally tended to view with distaste. There is a slippery, untrustworthy feeling to the writing that does not readily lend itself to adaptation — yet it is precisely this elusive, dreamlike feeling that makes The Companions so singular. Much of the story seems to be presented from Sydney’s perspective, but can this be trusted? Is Sydney simply succumbing to the alienation of urban life, or is there in fact something more complicated and strange going on — a fracturing of reality itself, a result of the bizarre experiments Global Sequence is conducting? The apocalyptic climax, set at the base of Sutro Tower 6 and culminating in its destruction (along with much of the rest of the city), would seem to argue for an overtly science-fictional interpretation. Yet the strangely subdued final scene, with Sydney walking alone through an apparently undamaged Golden Gate Park, suggests something more ambiguous:

One of the most fascinating and unsettling aspects of The Companions (and one that undoubtedly helped create the strange rumors that seemed to follow the screenplay for decades) is the way it uniformly leaves readers with the impression that some unrevealed but potentially annihilating knowledge lies at its center. Like encountering some nightmarishly inverted set of Russian nesting dolls, reading The Companions generates a kind of existential free-fall, a sense of gazing into a vista that keeps opening further onto ever-vaster dimensions of terrifying possibility. Shifting almost imperceptibly from the mundane to the dramatic, to the outré, and eventually to the cataclysmic, it ultimately arrives at a kind of cosmic apotheosis in which awe and dread fuse into something totally inexpressible.” 7

At this point, the text would have pivoted back to my and Gary’s work on the SFMOMA project. A brief transition here — possibly just a sentence or two to make clear that it was precisely the unrealized nature of Mueller’s screenplay that immediately drew Discenza and Rydstrom to it — followed by a partial account of the project’s development. This section would have included a number of extended interview quotes, something along the following lines:

We were looking for a story that hadn’t made it off the page, one of those films that disappear into Hollywood’s vast limbo of lost projects. Given the museum’s downtown location, I was also hoping to find a project that really focused on an urban setting. The Companions was perfect in this regard; the fact that it’s set in San Francisco and makes such heavy use of the city was a huge bonus. It also gave Gary and me the opportunity to think about all the great films that have been set here, from classics like The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, and Bullitt to more recent films like Zodiac […] and even some dopey popcorn stuff, like Big Trouble in Little China and The Rock. Obviously, given my interests, I was strongly drawn to the script’s science-fictional elements, which are at once very present in the story and at the same time somewhat muted and diffuse — in some ways I’d say the science fiction aspect of it is almost more of a mood or affective space. (This is a modality of sf that I’ve always been particularly interested in, how it can be simply be an alternate angle of view on our existing world, a way of making it strange.) I was also really intrigued by the whole take on technology in the script, both in way that the corporation in the film seems to be taking over San Francisco (and possibly the world), and in how this kind of sinister imaging technology is having such a destabilizing effect…not surprisingly, those aspects struck me as unusually prescient.

This material would have been a more or less an accurate summary of how the project evolved, switching back and forth between a third-person voice (presumably Selwyn’s, though s/he seems to have gotten lost in the mix) and direct quotes. Rydstrom is excited by the idea of inverting the relationship between film and sound. A designer with decades of experience on big-budget productions (Rydstrom had been lead designer on such films as Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan), he loves the idea of creating a soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist. “After working on so many films, the notion of developing a sonic environment for an unmade film was really appealing to me, in that it gave me an opportunity to illuminate the enormous role sound plays in film — without having to be tied to any images.”

As they work on the project, Discenza and Rydstrom try to avoid being too literal in interpreting the screenplay: “We didn’t want to tackle the script directly,” Discenza notes. “First of all, we really couldn’t, because there appears to be no intact copy of it anymore; all that exist are portions of the script. More than a third of it is just… gone. So we wanted the project to be a way of paying tribute to Mueller’s script, and bringing attention to it, because it’s such an amazing story, but we also wanted it to be a stepping-off point for a larger exploration of the extent to which sound drives so much of what we see in a movie.” Since a key goal of the project was to play with a wide range of genres, the multifaceted nature of the story was also a source of appeal. “The core part of the sound designer’s job is creating mood,” says Rydstrom. “A huge component of what you experience emotionally in a film is really set by the sound, though often it’s in ways you may not be fully conscious of. So what seemed like such an interesting challenge with this was to see how you could use sound itself to suggest all of the screenplay’s complex narrative structures and shifts.”

The plan was to continue in this fashion a bit longer, trying to bring in as much of my and Gary’s actual conversations as possible about the ways sound can build and shape a narrative on its own. There would be a section here that talked about Walter Murch. More quotes from Rydstrom, possibly the story he told me about how Murch would record the soundtracks of old movies onto tape recorders when he was a kid, long before the advent of VCRs. I was also going to include material from Michel Chion’s Audio-Vision; dig more deeply into his concept of “added value” and how sound drives our perception of images in film. A good deal of additional research was planned, though obviously never completed.

The piece was to have ended with a description of the whole thing falling apart. The idea, of course, was to have the collapse of the museum project echo the inability of Mueller’s screenplay to ever get produced. The project’s breakdown would begin gradually. Enthusiasm on everyone’s part at the outset, but as emails go back and forth between the artist, the Skywalker team, and the museum, problems with technical implementation begin to arise that hadn’t been fully considered at the outset. Complications with the outdoor location; concerns about possible noise complaints. Increasing pressure from the museum to scale back the scope of the work; resistance by the artist. There would be a necessary ambiguity as to reasons the project unraveled. A thoughtful tone would need to be struck: is it an issue of institutional priorities, or is this merely another case of a difficult artist being unwilling to compromise?

At this point, my notes become increasingly vague. Obviously, I never did find a way to wrap it up; with the project cancelled, my interest in the text faded rapidly. The whole episode had been deeply distressing and I didn’t want to think about it anymore. My vague recollection is that somehow the text would switch back over into my own voice… There was supposed to have been some discussion about the challenges of working with large institutions, be they film studios or museums, but this part of the narrative now seemed tired to me, offering little of interest to myself or the reader. What I had really hoped to talk about, I think, were the mysterious lives of stories, the way they can sometimes drift into peculiar lacunae, re-emerging as something else. The whole point of my and Gary’s project had been to give the story of Mueller’s screenplay a life of its own, one that could potentially go on to evolve without us. I suppose the intention had been to explore the ways something unrealized can exert an odd sort of power in a way that an actualized work might not. I recall that part of the initial inspiration for the project had been the documentary about Jodorowsky’s spectacularly failed attempt to make Dune, along with the history of Noto’s The Tourist. One is tantalized by what these films might have been, but at the same time, there’s a sense that it’s perhaps better in some ways that they were never made. It’s not difficult to imagine that the actual films might have turned out terribly; existing instead as stories about things that might have happened, they are free to enjoy a richer life in our collective imagination.

At the same time, as I look over these notes, there’s a voice in my ear that keeps whispering a line from another, much older story: Nothing will come of nothing. I seem to hear this voice more and more often now, as I feel both my interest in and ability to make work stealthily sliding away from me. I had hoped that my inclusion in the exhibition would help arrest this process in some way; instead, its collapse only accelerated my sense of disconnection, my own increasing alienation. Perhaps the text could have been a way to salvage the project, to make something thoughtful out of the whole debacle. But despite all my efforts, finding a way to make the story seem both credible and meaningful to the reader continued to elude me; all I was left with was more might-have-beens.

Here the text cuts off.


  1. At various points, the screenplay inexplicably cuts away from Sydney’s story to excerpts of a proto-TED talk style interview with the company’s eerily youthful CEO Traven, a Werner Erhard-like figure who utters gnomic pronouncements extolling humanity’s imminent technologic ascension. These odd insertions, which one would expect would distract from the central narrative, somehow only intensify its atmosphere of creeping unease.
  2. In an earlier draft, I had hoped to establish a link between The Companions and Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, a chronicle of a failing marriage fused with elements of Lovecraftian horror and cold-war era spy thriller — but later concluded this was too tenuous a thread.
  3. Though there appears to be no link whatsoever between this feature of The Companions’ plot and the Google project of the same name, the coincidence certainly struck me as odd, possibly too much so — the sort of thing I would’ve expected Selwyn’s editor to reject.
  4. Lindsay Selwyn, “Looking Glass Apocalypse: Linda Mueller’s The Companions,” Film Review Quarterly, Issue 37, March 2017.
  5. The connection between The Companions and cyberpunk would have been interesting to explore further had the project gone forward. Certainly, the screenplay’s portrayal of an anarchic network of subcultures hidden within the interstices of global capitalism—each co-opting advanced technologies to their own ends—is a defining feature of the genre. Additionally, I had noted that Mueller wrote the screenplay the same year as the release of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a film that obviously had a huge influence on the visual aesthetic of cyberpunk. (I also recalled that although Scott’s version is set in Los Angeles, the novel itself is set in San Francisco, though it’s doubtful anyone but the most die-hard PKD fans would know or care.) Similarly, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, arguably one of the ur-texts of cyberpunk, would be published just two years later. There would have been lots to work with here; certainly more opportunities for Gary to play around with.
  6. The prominence of Sutro Tower in the narrative: another possible nod to Our Lady of Darkness? In Leiber’s novel it also plays a central role — a kind of fulcrum for the dark forces stalking Westen.
  7. There appears to be no source for this quote — ed.

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