“A mountain is composed of tiny grains of earth. The ocean is made up of tiny drops of water. Even so, life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches, and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far-reaching.”
It’s the afternoon of October 9, 1995. I’m seated in a derailed passenger car in the middle of the baking Arizona desert, trying to catch my breath. For the past fifteen minutes I’ve been sobbing almost uncontrollably, coming to grips with the catastrophic events of the past twelve hours. It’s hard enough to wrap my brain around the idea that I’ve just survived a train wreck. Harder still to comprehend that someone had wrecked the train on purpose with an intent to kill me and every other passenger aboard the Sunset Limited.
For hours I’d had to hold up a brave face to my fellow passengers and pretend that I didn’t know that the wreck was an act of terrorism, that I hadn’t been the one to find two critical pieces of evidence left behind by the bastards responsible. But the truth was out now, and the rest of the passengers had gone, taken away by Amtrak. Outside the doors of the car in which i was having a mental breakdown, the good men and women of the ATF, FBI, Arizona state police, and other agencies were all patiently waiting for me to be able to pull myself together enough to tell them about the terrorists’ notes. Soon they would be peppering me with questions not only about the discovery, but also about me, and why I had been on the train in the first place.
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DAY OF TERROR - The only photo of me that I have of that terrible day in the desert, pulled from news footage.
The immediate answer was obvious, that I was on the way to San Diego to meet with my new girlfriend Jana and to see the city that would very soon become my new home. The bigger question was why I’d chosen to come by train rather than by plane or car since either option would have been faster or cheaper. Certainly, I was attracted to the idea of traveling by rail, and of watching the ever-changing and dramatic landscape of the American Southwest slowly drift by my window. The truth, however, was far less prosaic and romantic, rooted in something that had happened during the production of Betrayal at Krondor that left me with psychic scars for years thereafter.
Almost from the day I’d signed up with Dynamix and learned that Sierra Online was our “parent company” (thus by extension making me a Sierra Online employee), I’d wanted to make a pilgrimage south to their picturesque headquarters in Oakhurst, California. Founders Ken and Roberta Williams were already legends to me, and I’d remembered as a kid ooh-ing and ahh-ing at a computer demo of their games at a software store in Woodland Hills Mall in Tulsa. But Sierra Online employee or not, during the early phase of Betrayal at Krondor’s production, I figured I was too small a fish in the pond to ever warrant an invitation down to the home office. It certainly didn’t occur to me that they’d not only invite me down for a tour of the HQ, but they’d put John Cutter and I up at a fancy resort on Bass Lake while we attended an all-expenses-paid, three-day writing seminar with a big-shot Hollywood story consultant.
Needless to say, I didn’t refuse the invitation.
On the day of the departure for Oakhurst, we had a nice-sized delegation to represent Dynamix flying out from Eugene. In addition to John and I, writers from the teams for The Adventures of Willie Beamish and Space Quest V: The Next Mutation all chatted with each other in the tiny terminal. It was one of the few instances I can recall when most of Dynamix’s various writers were all hanging out together, other than at official, full company meetings. Since joining Dynamix with its staff of over three hundred people, most of my interactions were usually only with members of my own team, so I enjoyed the chance to get to know some of my fellow scribblers, if only a tiny jot better.
As much as I would have preferred a direct flight between Eugene and Oakhurst, the remoteness of our destination required some tedious triangulation in order to get there. First, we flew south to San Francisco, then transferred to a puddle jumper that easily could have doubled as a flying Cuisinart (and I remarked as much to John). After a mercifully short hop, our delegation arrived safely in Fresno and immediately split into two teams with John and I taking one rental car, and everyone else piling into another. Forming a small convoy, we began a leisurely hour-long ascent into the breathtaking beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
For the new few days our little group would set up camp at The Pines Resort, a quiet lodge located about 20 miles from the entrance to Yosemite National Park. Surrounded by towering evergreens and squashed against the shore of the impossibly blue waters of Bass Lake, it was exactly what I’d always imagined a writer’s resort should look like. The inside was deceptively cozy with rough pine paneling and deer antlers serving as candelabras. Toward the lake, our main meeting room was framed in with wall to floor windows looking out on nature in all her revealed glory, though how I managed not to simply stare out of the window all day is still a mystery to me. I was utterly bewitched by the place, and in some ways, I don’t believe I’ve ever left it.
PINING AWAY - The location for the Sierra Online writing retreat in Oakhurst was lovely, and highly distracting.
After settling in at the hotel, we learned that several Sierra Online employees would be coming over for the lectures as well, though I regret to say that I’m not at all sure who joined us. All I remember is that everyone was very nice, and that we were looking forward to this learning experience together.
Now in the name of full disclosure, before the seminar, I’d never even heard of our instructor Robert McKee. He hadn’t written anything I’d ever read, nor had he been the screenwriter of any movie I’d ever seen. All I knew was that he was evidently The Definitive Big Thing to writers in Hollywood at that time and was well known for his talks on story structure. (Four years after our seminar, he’d go on to publish his best-seller Story which in essence is the same thing as we got in his lectures, but you can buy it for twenty-five bucks on Amazon rather than spending several hundred to sit through his lectures.) Lucky for us, we got to see the show for free thanks to Ken and Roberta.
Over the course of the next few days, McKee would take us through a self-guided tour through his theories about writing, both for good and for ill. On the upside, he was a knowledgeable speaker with a wealth of stories about the creation of several of my favorite movies. He analyzed Casablanca and taught us about using supporting and negating resonance within a narrative, and how the thematic conflict between two subplots could be used to create emotional tension for the viewer. He demonstrated the utility of the film’s central McGuffin while also pointing out the absurd artificiality of it (the Nazis would never have recognized the “unrescindable” authority of transit papers signed by General DeGaulle.) We danced with the psychology of Hitchcock and cracked open the skulls of the writers behind Chinatown. Had we stopped there, I probably would have come away from the lecture a happy camper, glad to have had a peek at the inner process of other successful creators. It was when McKee decided to get truly abstract about his theories of writing, however, that he set an insidious time-bomb ticking inside my brain that would catastrophically go off many years later.
McKee was very fond of diagrams. You’ll find a few inside of Story as just a small sampling of how fond of them he was. I remember him drawing the story spine, and diagramming subplots, seemingly taking every opportunity he could to scribble on the portable white boards in the conference room. His analysis became brutal, clinical, and robotic, insistent that all good stories had the same base DNA. Every good story had to fit the pattern, had to fit the mold. In the back of my mind, I remember flashing on Dead Poet’s Society with Robin Williams at the chalkboard as he drew a diagram of good poetry as defined by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard. A part of me was screaming that I should get up on my table and shout “My Captain! My Captain!” but I kept my seat and studiously copied his notes like a good little drone. His marker kept moving, creating more and more little boxes, shoving little pieces of my soul into prison cells. I had to accept it because he was a professional and there were long lists of people out there who considered him the expert. I wouldn’t realize what that lecture had done to me until long after my time at Dynamix.
GRAPHING STORY - This scene from Dead Poet’s Society would keep playing on a loop in my head during McKee’s lectures. Be gone J. Evans Pritchard!
Thankfully for Betrayal at Krondor, the main storyline had already been set in stone and was already well into production. There were no chances for me to do much of anything using McKee’s methods to go back and revise what I’d already done, and it would have little impact on the subquests that John and I were still to write. Today I shudder at the thought of the monstrosity I might have whipped up if I’d been following McKee’s dictates at BAK’s outset.
On our last day in Oakhurst, with the seminar concluded and the group beginning to break up, we finally got our invitation to head over to Sierra HQ. A few of our Dynamix crew opted not to come because they were worried about the severe thunderstorms that were rolling into the region and weren’t thrilled at the prospect of getting caught in heavy wind gusts as they attempted to crawl down out of the mountains. John and I, however, opted to stay, hoping to get a better look at the legendary game company.
I’ll be honest and say, in retrospect, the visit to Sierra HQ ended up being something of a letdown. I was expecting it to be bigger, and brighter, and somehow more amazing than Dynamix. What we got to see, however, seemed more like a dungeon out of Terry Giliam’s Brazil than the hippy fantasy castle I’d been imagining before. Everywhere we went, I remember people stacked five deep in rooms that wouldn’t have qualified as utility closets back at Dynamix. How could people create in these conditions? Everyone we met was incredibly nice and knowledgeable, but I still couldn’t shake the soul crushing sense that it felt like a bunker. It’s possible that my mindset was off, still colored by the psychic oppression I’d felt in McKee’s lectures, and perhaps that transferred to my negative impression of the tour.
As time approached for us to head for Fresno, I remember feeling disappointed that we weren’t going to get the chance to talk with Ken or Roberta, but the schedule was the schedule. We needed to leave if there was any chance of getting to our flight on time.
Speeding down out of the Sierras, John and I beat our way through rain and gusting wind to finally reach the Fresno airport with only minutes to spare before our flight to San Francisco. By the time we’d boarded the puddle jumper, the rain was pounding so hard on the roof of the plane that it sounded like hail, but the stewardess assured us it was all perfectly normal and that the tiny plane could handle taking off under even more severe weather conditions than we were experiencing.
Once we were airborne, the tiny plane struggled. Sheering winds shoved us around like an air-hockey puck, and the frame of the plane moaned and groaned like it was about to fly apart. John didn’t seem to notice, having dropped into a catnap while we were still on the runway. For me it was another story. I tried desperately to find my place of Zen, a place where the world wasn’t shaking like the insides of a paint mixer....
...and then the bottom fell out of the world. Plummeting sharply into a nosedive, our plane lost what must have been at least a hundred feet almost in an instant. White knuckling the armrests of my seat, I looked to the crew for reassurance that everything was going to be okay, that I was just imagining things...but the stewardess’ expression was one of stark-naked terror.
After an eternity in which it had sounded like the world was full of angry, washing machine-sized bees cloaked in thunder, we finally leveled off. That I hadn’t somehow emptied my guts all over John I still consider a miracle, and he never knew what he’d missed since he’d somehow slept through the entire episode. For me, however, it was a nightmare that would take me years from which to reawaken.
Safe on the ground at San Francisco, I seriously considered renting a car and finishing the return trip to Eugene overnight, feeling much more trusting of my chances in a car than anything that left the ground. Nonetheless, I swallowed my panic and followed John aboard, certain that every air pocket or bit of turbulence on the way home was the herald of my imminent doom.
In the years to come, plane trips became increasingly impossible for me. Hours and sometimes days before a planned trip, I’d break down with debilitating nightmares as I’d flash back to that Fresno flight. Trips to the doctor to pre-medicate my anxiety would do nothing to alleviate the problem, only adding an extra layer of unease at being groggy while still being utterly terrified during flights. For a while, the only relief was to try and avoid air travel altogether, but it would come at the cost of losing many opportunities for work where frequent air travel would have been mandatory. And it would put me on a train to San Diego in 1996, leaving me at the center of the worst act of domestic terrorism between the Oklahoma City Bombing and the attacks of 911.
After years of struggle, my battle with my fear of air travel came to a rather sudden and unexpected end. In 2011, my good friend Larry Nemecek asked me if I could film a documentary project that he was producing called The Con of Wrath. Because I’d geared up for an independent film production in 2009, I was in a unique position to be able to help him make it happen for a significantly lower price than if he’d gone off and hired an indie film crew. Part of the gig, however, would require a number of plane trips to Houston, Texas for key interviews.
DOCUMENTING DISASTER - Ironically this little documentary about overcoming the odds played a huge role in helping me overcome the phobia I’d acquired from my disastrous return flight from Sierra Online.
I debated the issue fiercely with myself. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. After many years of rarely stepping foot on any airplane, I at last decided that I had to try, not just to help myself, but also to help my friend. I loaded up my gear and went to work...and strangely, the fear started to go away. On the first trip I was anxious, but I could deal with it. On the second, it was more of an afterthought, something that occurred to me after the trip was already over. By the third trip, however, the fear was nothing but a blip, more of a memory than anything else. When I talked to my wife Jana about it, she had a good insight about it that hadn’t occurred to me. “I think this just means you really, really want to make films, sweetheart,” she said. And she was right. The secret had been there in the back of my head all along. The trick to slaying my dragon had been to follow my creative self, to follow my better instincts to drive out the fear.
‘Twas creation that slew the beast.
#Oakhurst #ThePinesResort #SierraOnline #RobertMcKee #Writing #Story #TheConOfWrath #LarryNemecek #Planes #aerophobia #Terrorism #KrondorConfidential #Krondor30 #BAK30 #KrondorFFC
TO LEARN MORE
If you wish to read my full personal account about the train wreck, you can grab The Derailment of the Sunset Limited for Kindle on Amazon. If you enjoyed it, I’d be very grateful for a review there.
The Derailment of the Sunset Limited by Neal Hallford
Larry Nemecek, the director of The Con of Wrath, is still in post-production on our documentary, but if you want to see the teaser trailer we cut for Comic Con several years back, you can see it here:
The Con of Wrath Teaser Trailer (Vimeo)
The Many Worlds of Neal Hallford is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Thank you for being brave enough to share with everyone what you were feeling, thar you DIDN'T like the speaker, your fear of the plane, and your emotions. It was a ride!