We called ourselves the Vidiots. We weren’t paparazzi since we had little interest in videotaping celebrities. Nor were we nightcrawlers, those gothic ambulance chasers who taped police shootings to sell to the evening news. We saw ourselves as documentarians wanting to capture the essence of our beloved Los Angeles.
We relished taping locations from classic movies. We recorded inside the Bradbury Building featured in Bladerunner. We shot at the Alto Nido Apartments where William Holden’s character lived in Sunset Boulevard. We taped in dark alleys, on rooftops, inside abandoned buildings, on the sides of freeways. Once, while driving through downtown, we pulled alongside a police car transferring Richard Ramirez, the infamous Night Stalker, to county jail. We captured four chilling seconds of Ramirez staring directly into our camera lens.
One of the cops yelled out the window, “Get out of here, you idiots.”
“Vidiots,” we corrected him. “We’re Vidiots.”
Luke and I met in Atlanta in the summer of 1981 while working on a horror film. Luke was the lead actor while I was a production assistant on my first movie. We felt an immediate kinship borne out of our love of cinema. Luke wanted to direct while I wanted to write screenplays.
After returning to Los Angeles, Luke got married and I finished college. A few years later, we reconnected. I purchased a video camera and we started making experimental shorts together. This is how we ended up at Los Angeles International Airport on an August night in 1985. We wanted to capture the image of an incoming airplane cutting through the dense evening fog. The visual was mystical, reminiscent of the final scene in Casablanca.
As we exited the freeway at Century Boulevard, gateway to LAX, we encountered a slew of emergency vehicles with flashing lights outside the Airport Hilton. Our instincts took over. We parked at a nearby strip club and hustled two blocks to the hotel.
The scene was chaotic. A shuttle van lay on its side in the middle of the street while paramedics treated victims on gurneys. We quickly set up our equipment. Luke handled the camera while I carried the VHS recorder, battery, portable light and microphone. We were connected to each other by four feet of cable. This caused us to crab walk awkwardly like campers in a three-legged race.
Luke started rolling while I corralled a fire chief and shoved a microphone into his face. I peppered him with questions. He told us a woman under the influence of crack cocaine commandeered an airport shuttle van filled with passengers. She crashed into a passing bus causing the van to overturn. Twelve people were hurt, several seriously. Halfway through the interview, it dawned on the fire chief that our camera seemed a lot smaller than the other news teams and lacked an identifying station logo. We had long hair and jeans and likely smelled of weed.
“Who are you with,” the chief asked.
“KFK TV News,” I said without hesitation. This was our fictional media outlet, short for Kafka News. The ruse usually worked but the fire chief was too savvy. He flashed us the stink eye and walked away.
We continued taping as the police escorted a young black woman in handcuffs toward a squad car. The media followed, yelling out questions like, “Why did you do it” and “What’s your name?” The woman had a glazed look in her eyes, clearly overwhelmed. The police guided her into the back of the vehicle and sped away.
We returned to our car before it was towed and headed toward the airport. We found a spot on Aviation Boulevard near the start of the runway. We set the camera on a tripod and waited. It was almost midnight.
Luke lit a joint. I put a Peter Gabriel CD on the car stereo. Within minutes we were baked. It was a beautiful night, cool and brisk with a soft breeze from the nearby Pacific. These were my favorite moments. They made me forget I had no idea what to do with my life. For Luke, it gave him time to reflect on his career that was going through a rough patch. He yearned to make serious movies but was stuck in candy-coated teen idol roles that painted him as a male bimbo.
“Does that make you a himbo,” I asked. He wasn’t amused.
A half hour passed and no planes appeared. Maybe the fog was too thick, we reasoned. We decided to drive to the airport to search for inspiring visuals. We circled a few times and parked at the curb outside Terminal #2 servicing Delta and Mexicana Airlines.
I handled the camera this time while Luke carried the gear. We entered the baggage claim. It was devoid of passengers. A Latino security guard sat in the corner reading Sports Illustrated. Two baggage carousels were out of service while a third spun slowly. We followed a white suitcase as it circumnavigated the carousel on a journey to nowhere. The image was blasé, but we were stoned and we knew inspiration was always a moment away.
Sure enough, a second suitcase plunged down the baggage chute from the unseen area above us. Luke and I locked eyes. We both had the same thought.
“Should we do it,” he asked.
“Absolutely,” I said.
Without thinking, we stepped onto the carousel and began walking up the baggage chute. I slipped and fell attracting the attention of the security guard.
“Careful up there,” he said. “Hope you know what you’re doing.” He returned to his magazine. Those nine words would later be our salvation.
We continued up the chute into a massive hangar with all manner of baggage loading devices. There were dollies, wheeled platforms, electric carts and portable stairs. There were no people, just hundreds of boxes and crates reminiscent of the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
We walked through the warehouse recording everything we encountered. We peered into a locked lost and found cabinet filled with jewelry, watches, booze and shoes. The roar of a jet engine pierced our reverie as a Continental 737 rolled past the open hangar door. The plane was massive and shook the entire building. One of us, I’m not sure who, uttered the words of a bona fide Vidiot. “Let’s follow it.”
We hustled out of the hangar onto the taxiway, tethered by camera cable. We trudged forward, heads down, past the empty planes at their terminals. For some odd reason we stayed within the double yellow taxiway lines as we walked. The Continental was about a half-mile ahead. It slowed as it neared a row of blinking lights then made a sharp turn onto the runway. It amped its engine and plummeted forward, picking up speed.
We hurried across the tarmac and dove into a thin patch of grass parallel to the runway. I checked the camera to make sure we were recording. As the plane approached, I noticed a young boy staring at us from within the plane. His face was pressed against the window and he appeared spellbound by our presence. The ground rumbled and the plane screeched past leaving a wake of hot air and diesel exhaust.
I panned with the aircraft and watched as it lifted off the ground and disappeared into the clouds. Luke emitted a triumphant scream. We gave each other high-fives. The moment was exhilarating, one of the greatest visuals we’d ever captured. We felt a sense of victory, a reward for our artistic courage. That lasted about three seconds until we noticed a police car with flashing lights speeding towards us across the tarmac.
“Run,” Luke yelled.
Instead of disconnecting the camera cable so we could sprint, we remained tethered. We staggered toward the baggage hangar, slamming into each other with each step. The police cruiser was closing fast.
“Whatever happens, keep rolling,” Luke said.
We were within 100 feet of the hangar when the squad car overtook us. The doors opened and two officers emerged. A loud voice commanded, “Down on the ground, now!”
We dropped like two shot deer.
The first officer, a stocky white man in his 50s, shined a bright flashlight into our eyes. “Who are you and what are you doing here,” he yelled.
“We’re with KFK TV news,” I answered reflexively.
“Shut your fucking mouth, hippie,” he said. He pressed his boot into my lower back and pushed down. My abdomen felt squishy, as if about to explode.
The second officer, a sinewy Latino with greasy hair pointed his gun at us. The way he extended his arms made him look like an extra in a Clint Eastwood film.
“What’s the camera for,” the first officer demanded.
“We’re filmmakers,” Luke said.
“You have a permit?”
“We’re just getting some B-Roll,” I said hoping to confuse him with film jargon.
“You two are in a load of shit. Search ‘em and restrain ‘em, Morales.”
Officer Morales holstered his gun and grabbed his handcuffs. He dealt with Luke first, shackling his wrists. “Not so tight,” Luke groaned.
I was next. I felt hard steel dig into my wrist. I tried shifting my hands for a better position but it only increased the pain. Morales retrieved our wallets and keys from our pockets and rolled us onto our backs. Our full weight pressed down onto our cuffed wrists. The pain was excruciating.
Morales knelt down and examined the video equipment. “Hey Daniels,” he said. “These assholes are still filming.”
“Turn it off,” Officer Daniels said.
Morales tinkered with the camera. Officer Daniels shined his flashlight into Luke’s face.
“Hey Morales, this guy’s a pretty boy.”
“They’re going to love him in county,” Morales sneered.
“I’m an actor,” Luke yelled.
“You’re both under arrest,” Daniels said.
They placed us in the back of the cruiser and radioed headquarters. Daniels did the talking.
“We got two bogies on the LAX taxiway. Both in their 20s, Caucasian, long hair. They were procuring unauthorized video recordings on the runway. They look to be American.”
“We’re from Los Angeles,” I said.
Luke whispered into my ear. “This isn’t good.”
“What do we tell them?”
“Tell ‘em we’re making a student film.”
“Say it’s a rom-com. There’s always a final airport scene with the guy trying to find the girl.”
“Carla’s gonna be pissed,” Luke said.
Carla was Luke’s wife. The last thing she always told us before we embarked on one of our video adventures was, “Don’t get arrested.” We knew we had a long night ahead.
We were driven to the Inglewood police station on Manchester Boulevard. It was a massive building with thick concrete and tiny windows. The officers led us through a back door into a green tiled hallway with five metal chairs chained to the wall. In the first chair was a sleeping man who smelled like gin. His face was ruddy and his nose looked like cooked cabbage. The middle chair held a young white teenager, shirtless, in torn jeans. In the far chair was a black woman in her 30s with bandages on her face and neck.
Officer Morales cuffed Luke to the chair between the drunk and the half-naked teen. I was cuffed beside the injured woman. Morales disappeared through a steel door leaving us alone with the perpetrators. Luke and I remained quiet, not wanting to provoke the other detainees. My mouth was dry and clammy, my t-shirt drenched in sweat. A bearded policeman entered the hall. I asked for water.
“As soon as you’re in the cell you can lick the toilet bowl,” he said with a laugh. He disappeared down the corridor, his footsteps echoing off the walls.
A large clock read three a.m. Beneath the clock was a poster of the Lakers and a sign reading: “Inglewood: City of Champions.” I wondered if any Laker had ever been cuffed to my chair.
The sleeping drunk began making strange noises. His bodyjerked left and right as if he were trapped in a nightmare. His head struck Luke’s shoulder.
“Get off me,” Luke screamed. The man awoke and looked around, unsure where he was. He began dry heaving. Moments later he was asleep and grunting again.
“He has the DT’s,” the teenager said. The kid had dirty blond hair and peach fuzz where a moustache should be. “It happens to winos when they’re coming off a bender.”
“As long as he doesn’t puke,” Luke said.
“He was covered in it when I got here.”
Luke grimaced and tried dragging his chair away from the drunk. He could only move it a few inches since it was chained to the wall. He started hyperventilating.
“You okay, man,” I asked.
“Not really,” Luke said.
I felt for him. Luke had a wife and an agent to answer to, a reputation to uphold. If word leaked about his arrest, paparazzi would arrive in droves. I, on the other hand, was a non-entity. I was jobless, single, living with my parents and smoking way too much weed. Getting arrested was no big deal for me. If anything it might increase my street cred. The best I could do for Luke was try to distract him.
“What’d they arrest you for,” I asked the teen.
“Standing in one place too long?”
“It’s police talk for prostitution,” he said. “Doesn’t matter. I’m only 15, they can’t do shit.” He laughed. Luke dragged his chair toward the drunk.
“How about you,” the teen asked.
“Me and my buddy were caught videotaping airplanes on the runway.”
“Damn,” the teen said. “That’s cold blooded.”
I felt a sense of pride.
“I wish I was in for videotaping,” the black woman said.
I turned to my left. The woman’s eyes were bloodshot, her lipstick smeared.
“What’d they get you for,” I asked.
“My boyfriend and I got high at a motel. We had a fight and he hit me. I didn’t have a car so I started walking and did something real stupid. I stole me one of them hotel vans figuring I’d drive myself home. But it was filled with people. Next thing I know we were hit by a bus and everything went to hell.”
“That was you,” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“We were there. We saw police and fire trucks and ambulances. It was a big deal.”
“Was anybody hurt,” she asked with a hint of terror.
“I’m not sure,” I lied.
“That’s what happens when you get high,” the teenager said. “You need to cut that shit out.”
“At least I don’t suck dick,” the woman said.
“Fuck you crackhead,” the teen yelled.
Officer Daniels entered the hall.
“Keep it down,” he yelled. “You,” he pointed at Luke.“Come with me.”
He unlocked Luke’s cuffs and helped him to his feet. Luke stared back at me sheepishly and followed the officer into the bowels of the station. I felt a sense of dread. With Luke gone, my bravado slipped away. I recounted James Bond movies in my head to quell my nerves. I made it to Roger Moore in Live and Let Die when the teenager nudged me.
“Is your friend an actor,” he asked.
“Was he in that one about the guy who dies and comes back to life as a dog?”
“I think you’re describing our actual life right now.”
I was always evasive when people asked about Luke. He cherished his privacy and avoided the limelight. That was why he loved our video adventures. The camera served as an invisibility shield so he could engage in life without being recognized.
“Was he in that one about the monkey,” the teen continued.
“Don’t think so.”
“How about the teen werewolf movie?”
“Any zombie films?”
“You sure see a lot of movies,” I said.
“That’s where my customers bring me.”
The thought of him fooling around with an old businessman in the back of a theater while watching one of Luke’s movies made me cringe.
“How do I get a lawyer,” the woman asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe try the yellow pages,” I said.
“Are they expensive?”
“Like 50 bucks an hour expensive?”
“That sounds low.”
“Whoooo,” she shuddered.
I’d probably need an attorney as well. Until that moment, I thought I’d be able to drive home, sleep a few hours then share my story with friends. My only previous criminal record was for spitting in Beverly Hills. Now I was facing an arrest that could stain my future.
The hallway door opened and Luke appeared. He was smiling. Officer Daniels walked beside him and patted Luke on the shoulder.
“My daughter’s not going to believe it,” Daniels said.
Luke flashed me a thumbs up. I was perplexed.
“I need you to sign some papers and you can leave,” Daniels said.
Luke filled me in. Daniels had a pre-teen daughter whose favorite movie was a teen romantic comedy starring Luke. Luke agreed to appear at the daughter’s birthday party in exchange for reducing our trespassing charge from Class A to Class C. We still faced a possible $1000 fine and six months in jail but we were freed on bail without having to pay bond.
Our night wasn’t over. My car had been impounded at the airport and taken to a tow yard. That cost me $350. We also had to face Luke’s wife Carla, a scary proposition. She gave me the silent treatment, her rage palpable. She told me to drive home safely and then closed the door in my face.
I didn’t hear from Luke for a few days. A mutual friend told me he was in the doghouse. I sent an apology letter with flowers to Carla, but she was done with me. “No more video adventures,” she said.
Luke and I retained a lawyer who wanted to make a big deal out of the case. He said 60 Minutes recently aired a segment about shoddy airport security. “If the press discover two schmucks with a video camera got past airport security onto the runway, the publicity will be terrible.” He offered to represent us pro bono if we let him go public with the details. I was game but Luke had no interest in becoming a tabloid target.
We sat in the lawyer’s office and watched a copy of the airport video. As we viewed ourselves climbing up the baggage chute, we heard the security guard say, “Careful up there. Hope you know what you’re doing.”
The lawyer paused the video and slammed his palm on the desk. “We got ‘em,” he yelled. The lawyer explained that the footage was exculpatory. The security guard’s words served as implied permission for Luke and I to walk up the baggage chute.
“You two are the luckiest idiots I’ve ever met,” the lawyer said.
“Vidiots,” I corrected him.
Six weeks later, Luke and I sat in his car in front of a Simi Valley house smoking a joint while preparing to attend a 12-year-old girl’s birthday party. The street was lined with parked police vehicles, guests of Officer Daniels. I wasn’t crazy about smoking weed around so many cops but Luke said there was no way he was going inside unless he was stoned.
The event was awkward. Dozens of young girls screamed and giggled while Luke danced with Officer Daniels’ daughter. In the background, polo-wearing cops chugged beers and smoked cigars. I lingered around the snack table, paranoid. After 20 painful minutes, we left.
“What do you want to do now,” Luke asked.
“Well, we do have our video equipment,” I said.
“Stone Canyon Reservoir.”
Luke let his mind track through his favorite classic movies. “Chinatown?”
“Yup,” I said. “Where Jack Nicholson gets his nose sliced open.”
“We’ll probably have to climb the fence to get in.”
“Just like Nicholson,” I said.
We hopped on the 210 Freeway toward Los Angeles. Luke lit up another joint. It was a beautiful day, perfect for another video adventure.