Zoë Wells

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

The Hot Box


There’s a fly somewhere. Every twenty seconds it buzzes, lands, quietens long enough for me to convince myself that maybe it has gone. Then the clack of the rotary trimmer slicing through fresh film comes, and it starts over.

Loïc spins round on his chair and rolls into my corner, handing me the next scene.


Who goes there?

‘It really is garbage, isn’t it?’ I say, flicking through the script.

He smiles, nods, and swivels back. Silent types make the best editors. They make for the best of most jobs in film editing—these days spent in the hot box, these blackened offices, heads bent down, agonising over minutiae, are not for talkative types. When it came to crunch time, you wanted to be surrounded by those who could keep themselves to themselves and get the job done.


Show yourselves!

These films always go the same way. Some clean-cut, chiselled man in a three-piece suit flies out to save the government from some insurgency. Sometimes underground Nazis, sometimes rabid communists, this time some Moroccans out for blood. History re-written by those with more money and less time than sense. On Monday, Henri would get a call through from a producer, asking for a quick cut—a simple feature in a week, no problem. Within the day he’d come marching through with a box of raw footage for Loïc, a list of effects for Martin, and a script of captions for me. He’d head through his office door, put his feet up, and collate the editing credits, his name topping the page as ‘Head Editor’ while Loïc scrubbed glue out from under his cuticles.

The fly is back. I pour out a measure of bleach, look at Jean’s face through the lens. Of course he’d get the girl.

Henri’s door swings open, filling the room with white light. He walks over to my desk and drops a single sheet in my in-tray. I smile at him. ‘QUARTERLY EMPLOYEE FEEDBACK - JACQUES DUCHAMP’. Henri’s artistic licence to kill a career right where it stands. I let it sit there, simmering. He heads back into his office, barely giving me a cursory glance through those round fucking wireframe glasses. I’ll read the papers some other time.


What are we going to do?

The door to Henri’s office remains slightly ajar, letting through sounds of the radio—the météo and reports of potential water rationing if the heat wave gets worse. It drowns out the sound of the fly.

I coat each of the sixty-odd frames of the last line of dialogue in paraffin while the printing press heats up the text plates. The air, previously waxen and stodgy, feels loose and metallic now, like an autoroute on a warm day.



Our hero cranks the reluctant printing press into life. The frames enter the counter, sweltering under temperatures in the hundreds of degrees, only a little warmer than the sidewalk outside or the air of an unventilated office of four. The paraffin at the base of the frame melts slightly, slackening just past the correct amount. I press the metal text into the first of the negatives.

What are we going to do?

The next sixty frames go past like clockwork, and then the scene after that, and after that, until the hour’s passed and Loïc is nearly done fixing the next brown box of footage. I take the newly pressed frames and hold them to the light. The sound of Henri’s shouts rings through the office.

What are we going to do?

Sweat is building up in the creases of my forehead. I wipe it away, back, into my hair. I’m beginning to look like one of those turtleneck art types, the ones who sit outside smoking cigarettes, hair gelled, eating smoked salmon baguettes and talking about the women they’re sleeping with behind their wives’ backs, in all the time they spend not working on films. The kind of person who doesn’t sit in a dimly lit room wearing safety goggles, rubber gloves, and a fume mask that traps their mouth-sweat in rings on their face. A sweat goatee. The girls really dig it.

The paraffin coated frames are lowered carefully into the prepared bleach before being placed on the drying rack. This is the real movie magic: the acid burns away at the exposed film but only in the cracks revealed by the metal press. Precisely controlled chaos, creating gaps of white in the shapes of letters. When they’re dry, the captioner checks them through the red light, looking for wayward burns, careful not to add any additional errors. The film is at its most fragile here. Hold it to the light too long and he’ll burn it further, bubbles and trouble, faces distorted. White light filters through the centre of the boils, red outlining the sides, like bone seen through burnt skin. No, better to keep it out of the light as much as possible.

The serifs are a little hairy; a line or two of dirt, scratches, errors from pushing the paraffin this way or that; flashes of white, impossible to notice individually, but together damning. The errors that you hardly think of, but that burrow into your eyes. Like wind noise, like high-pitched ringing, like background actors staring into the camera. The little things.

But what can you do?



I jerk awake. He rolls back to his corner wordlessly. I check the time. It’s morning. Henri is outside, enjoying his morning cigarette and smoked salmon sandwich. He’s chatting with some local producer he’s hoping will bring to life the screenplay he’s had sitting under his desk since he left film school five years ago. His radio is blaring through the office. If it bothers Loïc or Martin, it’s impossible to tell from their hunched silhouettes and quiet breathing. The fly is sitting on the quarterly review today, making him all the easier to ignore. Someone left the bleach out, the lid undone.

My mask is in the bin. It’s too warm to wear it—my mouth-sweat layers it away from my face, letting in air, rendering it redundant. 40 degrees. And no fans in the office, for fear of flying papers and lost footage. The windows are shut. The Hot Box has really earned its name.

I check Loïc’s new papers.

The beautiful Penelope has entered the scene now. She’ll be dead within a day. These scripts have to have those femme fatale types, the ones you fall in love with even through three-centimetre wide frames. Smooth skin accentuated in the red light, a bleach white smile, eyes that bore into your soul without her even looking at the camera. She’s a translator I think, a double agent whom the hero meets while trying to get back some classified files he lost in the first act. By the third act, she’ll reveal that she never leaked the information to the insurgents. That she didn’t compromise him. That she loves him.

End screen. Gag. The smell of bleach has hit my nostrils. Back into the machine.


The press is plenty hot now. It takes less than ten minutes to heat it up these days, as opposed to the usual 40. The captioner is filtering through the script. Act 1, Scene 8: Penelope walks across the scene, ordering a Scotch on the rocks in Arabic from the barman. Jean notices her from under the brim of his hat.


Not an ordinary drink for a woman.


I am anything but ordinary.

It’s hard to fit the captions right on the screen. Too high and they run along her upper lip like a Chaplin moustache, words brimming like sweat. Too low and they cut over her bottom lip, hiding the subtle quiver, the signpost that tells us that she is the one, the only one that matters in this whole charade. She is the reason we’re here.

The office door swings open and Henri comes in, hovering over Loïc’s desk. He doesn’t look up. Penelope smiles back at Jean, coy, yet achievable. Somewhere a fight breaks out. Henri shouts at Loïc. The Moroccans are in the bar, Jean and Penelope hide behind the table, pistols drawn. Loïc sits there, taking the bullets in. Henri throws a glass. CRASH—the Moroccans break through the window during their escape. Henri slams the door shut behind him, the gust of air pushing the remaining frames out of place, a cloud of dust settling over the image. Penelope holsters her gun. Loïc wipes away the bleach from his shirt. Martin hardly shuffles from his station.

I am anything but ordinary.

The quarterly feedback sits there. I can taste the heat, I think to get a glass of water but the office is on pause, still frame. My eyes linger on the measured bleach. The fly buzzes on top of the paper. My hand pulls the lamp down, the light growing in intensity, red, hot, then the shade touches the paper and

The captioner lifts the light a little, smiles at his work, then returns to the frames.


Penelope offers me a drink. I gratefully accept, making sure my hand avoids her skin for fear of moving the slides even a little. Touch the paraffin and her face will melt. I don’t touch my face either. I don’t touch anything, least of all the quarterly report.

Loïc doesn’t show up for work today. He is not so easily replaced as the others who came before him, the chatty ones. Henri fumes and smokes in his office. The flakes of ash carry through to this room. I think I see them settle on Penelope’s face. She says she doesn’t mind, she’s a smoker herself, but her flames are elegant. I wipe away the ash from her face. It stays there, but her face doesn’t. Henri shouts down the phone. Martin is at Loïc’s desk, trying to pull together the final edit between his sweaty hands. I can’t stand the thought of Penelope being cut away by him, snip here, snip there.

Jean is back. He sweeps her in for a kiss. She’s caught off guard, slips a piece of paper out of view. I let the metal plates drift further up the press, punching Penelope’s words over Jean’s face. Why should she care for him? Just another smartly dressed Parisian nobody, who thinks he can be someone if he shoots this person, hits them, talks to the right people in the right circles. Jean lowers his hat—he has to leave. A final shot of Penelope. She’s heartbroken, but her face changes when he leaves the shot.

Her eyebrows furrow. Her chin is elevated slightly. Jean has his back turned, but the captioner holds the frame to the light, analysing the way her jaw cuts through his minute window. The mole on her cheek. She’s ruined by the red light, whore’s light. Penelope deserves the white light of the sky, the real world. She deserves so much more than words that are cut into her skin, that cut away at her until she’s nothing but his words, his thoughts.


What happened to your hand?

He didn’t get the memo to keep your head down and work. I grab his box, move my hands away from him.


Is that a burn? From the bleach?


Bleach doesn’t burn like that. It’s the heat.


Pretty fucking bad sunburn.

We haven’t been outside during the day since the heatwave started. There’s a sofa that we take turns sleeping on. All I smell is heat, sweat, bleach, Loïc, sizzle, buzz, white noise filling my ears. The lamp burns flesh. The paraffin coats my fingers, everything I touch is felt through the waxy mesh, only vague outlines. And everything I touch burns.

Sweat, bleach, sizzle, buzz. The frames of her face left drying and burning, boiling under the red light of the desk. Dip fresh frames in bleach, let it dry out. The paint comes undone. The fly buzzes —but the fly is dead—the radio buzzes and Jean is shouting down the phone again, shouting at the Moroccans and producers and Loïc is burning under the lamp. The footage is buzzing. The phone rings. The captioner scratches her face and then his face melts in the August heat and acid burns. The bleach sizzles. The phone buzzes. The radio is dead.

HOT. BOX – DAY – 10th PARIS 1976


What’s taking so long?

The captioner slots the reel of the first cut into the projector, careful not to let the sweat from his fingers touch the delicate frames. Penelope smiles at him from the pages. Martin sits in his corner.

BANG, clack, buzz.

The projector whirrs into action. Act 1, scene 1, the start of the film. The roguish Jacques crosses through the frame, getting his marching orders to go to Morocco.

Act 1, scene 8. Penelope enters the scene. She melts away into the background, white perfection in the heat, silhouetted.


What the fuck is this?

Everything melts away, the buzzing, the white noise, the radio, the heat. All that remains is Penelope. And even Penelope bubbles, boils, her skin tears at the corners in acid burns showing the white bone underneath, her eye sockets empty save for the spotting, the dust, the dirt, the flies that are sitting in there now. You don’t need those, you need only your mouth, the cut beneath your chin, your mole, these are the reasons we love you. And of course your words, your

over and over, that’s all you need. You’re perfect now, don’t you see that? Bleached away, her bleached white teeth, the smell of her perfume, the bleached white face of a bleached white woman and

Henri stops swearing. He’s silent, staring. Then he laughs. He laughs. We’re laughing, and he’s saying you’ve really done it now kid, you’ve really fucking done it, he’s laughing, Martin’s laughing, the radio, Loïc, the fly, the heat, the flesh, the captioner, they’re all laughing, they’ve really fucking done it now haven’t they haven’t they haven’t

I am anything but ordinary.

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