The flirting and gossiping ends badly for someone on this TV series. 3,759 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The wrap party was being held at the cheesy cowboy theme bar at Universal CityWalk. Caleb hated that development next door to the lot where he worked. Even the name grated on him: “CityWalk.” It was everything that pissed him off about L.A.. The antiseptic tourist trap was so utterly un-urban. He could rattle off at least a half-dozen bars on nearby Ventura that were far superior. But he was just a lowly writer’s assistant so it wasn’t his place to question the chosen location for the wrap party. Actually, he wasn’t surprised. He worked for a cookie cutter network procedural, and the powers-that-be had chosen to end the season in the most uninspired way possible. Little wonder that he always could predict each show’s ending.
As he parked his car, he thought about Nora, the staff writer considered a “diversity hire.” She had once confessed to him that she loved the City Walk. Of course, Nora loved the City Walk. Caleb hated Nora. He didn’t see her talent, or what she offered to the show, or why Bryan gave her two scripts. Caleb was really hoping he’d get to co-write the finale, like Matt Weiner’s writer assistants, but instead Nora got it. Like she needed another credit. Caleb had read her pilot back when he was Bryan’s assistant. It was fine, the dialogue was cute, but the story was nothing special. Rom-com chick stuff. He’d been working for Bryan for four years, and Nora had never worked on a show, but she was a staff writer and Caleb was the writer’s assistant. Bryan told him it was because of money. The show had spent too much of its budget on upper level writers, and the studio would pay for a “diversity writer.” That was Nora. A Korean girl from Encino… How fucking downtrodden.
While she would never tell any of her fellow writers, Nora loved Universal CityWalk. As a kid growing up in the Valley, it was the closest she ever got to actually walking onto a studio lot. L.A. kids aren’t supposed to get starstruck. But Nora just couldn’t be jaded. She wanted to belong to the business, not merely be adjacent, and write for a real primetime TV show with millions of viewers. Now that she was, Nora still liked to visit CityWalk to remind herself how far she’d come. About once a week, she’d arrive an hour before work, go to Starbucks, drink her latte and think about how she was about to go work in a bungalow on the real lot. Though she questioned whether she deserved to be there. But if she really was nothing more than a token, Bryan wouldn’t have given her two scripts. She knew Caleb resented her and coveted her job. But she was working her ass off, agonizing over every word of procedural exposition instead of scripting for people to ignore while they did their laundry. Nora had long ago learned that hard work was the best remedy for insecurity.
A TV exec hears a comedy pitch from a couple of over-50 showrunners she’s never met. 5,110 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Calling in his last ancient chit, Warren had talked a former junior colleague into issuing a drive-on to get them through the front gate. The rest would be up to him.
He piloted his old BMW convertible, its torn roof folded down out of view so as not to humiliate its occupants, toward the visitors’ lot. Fifty-eight and no longer an athlete –- he was even done with pick-up basketball, the risk of injury now far outweighing the pleasure he got from playing — Warren wore a sports jacket, faded jeans, and a bright new T-shirt with a hip (his son Clay had assured him) image of an audio cassette above the slight paunch that poked over the top of his seat belt. After extensive experimentation with hair coloring he’d left the gray specks in his beard, which he’d carefully trimmed to look untrimmed. Just this morning he’d noticed the beginnings of what he’d assumed were facial warts. Warren, once a Golden Boy, had begun to believe he’d be an odd-looking old man.
Mitch, four years younger, nearly a foot shorter and more informally unshaven, with hair another former colleague had described as “bozine” after her favorite frizzy-haired TV clown, wore red Converse sneakers and a flowery Hawaiian shirt that most people who’d never known a joke writer would consider antithetical to his dignity. Under the shirt, on his left shoulder, the Charlie Chaplin tattoo he’d treated himself to upon moving to Hollywood decades earlier had aged to look less like Chaplin and more like Hitler.
Mitch glowered at the dashboard clock. “We’re over an hour early,” Mitch said. “I told you there’d be no traffic.”
If Warren had told his partner the real reason he’d picked him up at 9 AM for an 11 AM meeting less than half an hour away -– that there was no 11 AM meeting and they were in the midst of a con job that Warren had been meticulously planning for months in an effort to resuscitate their drowned careers -– Mitch’s pride and rage would never have permitted him to get into the car. “I knew they’d make us park out where the slaves are picking cotton,” said Warren as he drove them farther and farther from their destination on the lot. “And you have to get into costume.”
The studio credits czar finally comes face to face with his comeuppance. 1,651 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The numbers for the weekend were in and they were bad. The big fall release was a big bomb. A stinker. Guaranteed to cancel out any profits for at least a fiscal quarter. It was like planting a lawn and watching mud come up. Whoever thought that a film about a beautiful girl lost in the woods being chased by a mutant bear was a winner must had been smoking way too much of the recreational stuff. The mechanical bear turned out to be a better actor than the star. When the script called for the character to be injured, she couldn’t even manage to whimper with any authenticity. Jeffrey had heard children’s talking dolls that sounded more real. So it was another loss after the studio had just taken a half-billion dollar write-down in the last quarter on three heavy-effects movies that "underperformed.” Like that gentle phrase could somehow tidy up another red ink disaster.
What Jeffrey knew immediately was that everyone needed to be sprucing up their resumes because the people in charge always figured that cutting overhead was the way to solve the mess they’d created. Jeffrey wondered why they never thought about firing themselves. Instead, some bean counter ran his finger down a list of names and salaries and decided: this one in, that one out.
Just like what he did on credits.
Jeffrey opened yet another binder of the crew deals. This one in. That one out. He checked the spellings and any strange credit requests. That morning, a dolly grip wanted to be credited as Jim "Jimbo" Smith. But Jeffrey hated nicknames and that was why Jimbo’s was gone. The pen’s tiny flick. The black line. The small gesture. Not even a second’s thought to deny the credit. Goodbye, Jimbo.
A studio credits czar rules his kingdom unless or until confronted. 1,711 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Sometimes the smallest gestures had the biggest consequences, didn’t they? The pebble to the windshield that eventually cracked the whole thing. The chance meeting at a premiere that neither was supposed to attend. Say if one morning thirty years ago, a development executive at Fox hadn’t argued with his boyfriend before coming into work, Jeffrey Baummann might had sold the script that set him on the path of a successful writer. Or twenty years ago to the liquor store a minute earlier, and Jeffrey would have bought the lottery ticket that won a hundred mil and not the someone who did right in front of hm. Ten years ago if not for a missed red light, Jeffrey might have met a different woman who could have been his wife. That morning, expending not even a calorie, he crossed out a name on a draft of end title credits for one of the studio’s films.
With the flick of a pen, a black line moved a half-inch right and one less dolly grip went into the roll.
Jeffrey was the studio’s credits czar, a nickname from an old boss to make him feel better when she declined his raise. Afterwards, the late head of publicity at that same studio said at a big meeting, "Oh Jeffrey, you’re the poor bastard who has that job." It certainly got a laugh.
This was what he did: prepared the main and end titles for the studio’s films which meant he looked at lists and lists of names, deciding whose would go in. He eliminated many of them with a small gesture. There was no attempt to find the private echo, this one resonating, that one not. He had a template. He filled it in.
The ex-WWII Army officer with the mogul relative isn’t sure showbiz excites him. 2,201 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
December 1945 – On the set of MGM’s Up Goes Maisie shoot
Dave pushed the studio mail cart around the perimeter of the darkened sound stage until the sudden burst of brilliant light from a working set flooded his eyes. It was a scene set in a business school classroom, one of the opening shots in a Maisie series film; rows of cute extras taking their places at typing tables. Watching them from her chair, awaiting her call, was the film’s star, Ann Sothern. Every Maisie movie was a cash register for the studio and she was its cashier. She sat legs crossed in ankle-strap shoes, in a tight dress, waiting for the director’s signal to take her place for the shot. Dave had seen so many famous faces since he’d began at MGM the month before that Ann Sothern, though lusciously sexy, was by now to him just another recipient of studio mail. Up close, even the thick mask of makeup couldn’t distort her perky blonde beauty. Her smile broke out her dimples and her eyes radiated that glow he’d come to see as only emanating from actors with the elusive star quality that created box office.
Dave Meltzer had strict instructions to hand-deliver a letter only to her, not to any maid or assistant. It was a fat envelope plastered with registered mail stickers from a law firm. At her dressing table, she studied the pages, following the text with her pen. “What do you want to do after the mailroom?” she asked Dave, picking up the phone.
“Not sure. I’ve only been here a few weeks.”
“Nothing got you gaga to write screenplays, direct, produce, or at least hump some of these gorgeous girlies around here?”
“I push my cart around hallways, between offices and over sound stages. I stack mail, hand it to the people and go on my way.”
“You need to start shmoozing, kid. Talk to the people you deliver to. Make friends. Kiss a few asses. Learn the landscape.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Dave said. “Thanks.”
A WWII U.S. Army officer contacts his macher relative in the movie biz. 2,999 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
April 1945 – Trier, Germany
A G.I., spent by battle fatigue, trudged away from his platoon during a bivouac at the edge of a forest and tried catnapping under a leafless tree. He looked up at its naked branches still cobwebbed into the overcast skies. A red-winged blackbird sang on the branch above him, a harbinger of a Spring that seemed late in the morning chill. But the song was a sleeping pill and the soldier folded his arms, took off his helmet and nodded off.
After an all too brief catnap, the first soldiers in C Company arrived. The G.I. roused, looked up and saw Lt. Dave Meltzer grinning down at him. “We’re moving east in hour, a mop-up operation. Meanwhile, relax.”
The officer and the G.I. smoked in silence a while, heads tilted toward the brooding sky. “I’m already back home in my head, sir” Quinn said, tapping his temple with a sigh.
“Patience buddy. It’s a matter of a week or two.” Lt. Meltzer rubbed his stubbled chin and asked, “And home is…?”
“New York — only for a month, tops. Then I’m off. My old man is pushing me to go to Hollywood and look up a family connection. Maybe back-door myself into a movie job.”
Lt. Meltzer nodded. “So I’m told. Mr. Louis B. Mayer. My old man’s family came from the same town in Russia as Mayer. His grandmother and Mayer’s maternal grandmother may have been sisters. Could be a familial delusion.”
A heartbroken woman uses the actor’s movies to get through a painful breakup. 3,015 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I wasn’t expecting any of this, but they say when the student is ready the teacher will appear.
If you had told me back in January that Ewan McGregor would pull me up out of the pit of despair, I would not have believed you. I didn’t know that one day he would come to me all sexy and whisper in my ear, “Choose life.”
I should start by saying that last year was a difficult year for me.
The break-up took me so by surprise that it was like a movie with a twist ending. You have to go back and watch it again. My boyfriend turned out to be Keyser Soze and now I had to re-read every text and replay every date looking for the clues I missed. I pieced the timeline back together, now with the new plotline: his face and hers together in a picture she had posted back when he and I were together. I knew everything in that instant. His confession came much later.
There is this thing your brain does in grief, replaying the story, as if reliving it could change it. I searched for the moment when things went wrong, desperate to fix it, or at least understand it. Was it a word I said? Or maybe it was my childhood? Or maybe his?
My brain sputtered. My mind was caught in an infinite loop. All I wanted was my boyfriend back. The heart wants what it wants. There was no explaining to mine to let go, and there was no explaining to his to hang on. Thinking about it became exhausting. I had to find something else to occupy my restless mind. I knew that much.
The L.A. psychologist follows the seductive allure of his new-found showbiz fame. 3,152 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“The mailbox is full and cannot accept messages at this time.” What a difference an anonymous tip makes.
Say hello to Dr. Dennis Corbin, Hollywood guru. My client list now rivals that of a boutique theatrical agency. The driveway is a Red Carpet arrival ceremony, sans couture. I feel bad for Caroline. She held onto Dennis Corbin stock forever then bailed before it popped. Like selling Apple in 1997 before Steve Jobs’ return.
Sitting before me is my latest celeb. Welcome to Corbin World, Monica. You may have seen her standup on one of the late night shows. Monica Reardon, with her Nordic noir hair, tattooage and piercings. I know what you guys are thinking: get a load of those big tats.
She started out doing random, disconnected jokes: I stuck a pin in a pincushion and my couch dropped dead. I like to feed unpopped corn to pigeons and watch them explode in the sun. Realized non-sequitur comedy was a dead-end and developed more personal material. The result was a trifecta of well-received HBO specials: Potty Mouth, Old Maid, and No Immediate Survivors. She dug deep and hit a gusher.
At the moment, she’s fidgeting with a soft pack of Pall Malls, unfiltered.
When he’s thanked on TV, the L.A. shrink tries to become Hollywood’s new must-see. 2,354 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It’s one of those nights, rare in L.A., when you can hear the quiet. There’s a faint but audible electric buzz. The Adirondack chair is as hard and cold as slate. Across the black void a woman in a lighted window washes a single plate. The sprinklers whoosh on. I flick my cigar into the wet grass.
Stop The Presses! is great. I love my recurring role on it. I’m their Keyser Söze. Three days in, the Dr. D mystery — a non-story, if ever there was one — is kept alive by my client Sadie’s trendingness and a slow entertainment news week. Not that you’d guess it from Carlito’s caffeinated hysteria. But it doesn’t take an “entertainment reporter” to know that with no new news, this story will soon die. Then I can forget about a bonanza of new clients. About turning things around.
I freeze-frame on the show’s closing crawl: Got a tip? Submit tips anonymously: email@example.com.
I read a line once in a self-help book that stuck: the best way to escape from your problem is to solve it. This thought is accompanied by dramatic music: the startup chord of an iMac. Followed by these words on the screen: the ease & simplicity of Gmail, available across devices.
Create an account.
The L.A. psychologist is more focused on his bumpy marriage than his showbiz clients. 2,512 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Food Merchant is a family-owned Southern California supermarket housed in a former warehouse on Lincoln Boulevard. Step inside and you enter a world of specialty foods lovingly displayed in a Disney theme park version of the Kasbah. A colossal indoor souk divided into sections with names like Marrakesh, Algiers, and Casablanca posted on banners overhead. It’s 10:40 a.m. and I’m here, as on most days, killing time. My next (and last) appointment of the day is at 4:00. It’s why Caroline’s lost all respect for me.
Her Big Grievance #1: Not holding up my end. I could surprise her with FM’s Natural Turkey Bacon, smoked over hardwoods without preservatives. See, Caroline, I’m bringing home the bacon. A joke, Caroline. Ah, forget it.
Big Grievance #2: Dr. Dennis Corbin, Day Trader. I studied the financial markets. Study may be too strong a word. I skimmed business news on the Internet. Watched that morning guy on One For The Money. He rated E-Tec a strong buy. “Lithium-ion batteries — it’s the future, Caroline. Cell phones, electric cars, personal computing. Green technology. Trust me, I’ve done my homework.”
Big Grievance #3: Buying more on the way down (technically, #2A).
Big Grievance #4: We were going to start a family when we had the savings.
I won’t get into the Little Grievances.
My new ringtone: Kubrick’s 2001 theme. “Hello?”
“Sadie Cowen gave me your number.”
An L.A. psychologist with a boring practice has one cool patient: an Emmy-winning tabloid princess. 2,571 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“Graceful, isn’t she? I’m a full-on spastic.” The presenter in the tangerine gown fighting with the envelope is British actress Myrtle Davies. Myrtle won last year in this category — Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series. She’s in the third season of that cable show set in Brooklyn where she speaks in a New Yawk accent. It’s surprising to hear her proper English, as if this were the acting.
“Bless your patience,” she says, tugging at the enclosure. Myrtle yanks the card free. Applause. “How humiliating.”
Caroline and I are sitting at opposite ends of the living room couch. Alan, our black shepherd mix, takes up the demilitarized zone. He sleeps a lot these days. We’re watching the Emmy Awards on the widescreen. Caroline hates award shows, but the marriage counselor wants us to do more activities together, so she sits there working on her laptop. She can’t stand this Hollywood bullshit. I love it. All of it: the golden lives, the yawping narcissism, the better class of women.
“And the Emmy Award goes to…” Myrtle scans it, breaks into a broad smile. “Oh, this is extraordinary… Sadie Cowen! Yes!” The orchestra plays the Good To Go theme. It’s the first comedy series based on a food delivery app.
Myrtle and Sadie are friends. I know this because Sadie told me so in therapy. I, Dr. Dennis Corbin, also know that she and Myrtle had a threesome this summer with Ezra Garrett. Google says he’s a “fuckboy” and a “wannabieber” who starred in something, I forget what. At the time, Ezra was a hair shy of eighteen, a fact discovered late. It threw Sadie into a panic. “Ah’m a rapist,” she moaned in her Texas drawl. It took most of a session to talk her down. But, hey, that’s what I’m here for.
I’d like to share this bit of gossip with Caroline. It might make her laugh, something I was once able to do. But professional ethics prevent it. So I say nothing as she goes over Monday’s cases and Hollywood continues to celebrate.
A 17-year-old Latina aspiring actress has the best and worst day of her fledgling showbiz career. 2,073 words. Part One. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I drove back down Franklin Avenue until I reached the 101 Coffee Shop. I sat at the counter and tried to come up with a game plan. I pulled up Craigslist on my cell and scoured the rental listings. Everything was too expensive. The cheapest was a share in Koreatown for $500 a month. I called the number.
“I’m calling about your furnished room. Is it still available?”
The woman who answered made an appointment for me to see it in 30 minutes. As I drove, I felt a lump form in my throat like I was going to cry. I pressed the worn out button next to Unit 3 and entered the creaky elevator. Please don’t be a murderer, I whispered to myself. To my relief, the woman was in her twenties with a warm smile.
“Hi. I’m Liz. Let me take you on the grand tour,” she said wryly. The place was tiny. “I’m never around. I work all the time as an assistant in a talent agency. What do you do?”
“I just moved here. I’m a model and an actress,” I told her.
“I figured,” she said looking at me.
To rent the room, I needed to pay one month’s rent in advance. My heart sank.
“I’m filming a Target commercial next week and can give you the money as soon as I get paid.”
Liz’s face had a skeptical look.
A veteran movie reviewer recalls her first vote as a member of the Gotham Film Critics during awards season. 2,540 words. Illustration by Thomas Warning.
"Nose punched," Rhoda said.
"Eye blackened," said her 20-year-old son.
"Technically, the black eye happened before the narrative’s frame," she pointed out.
"Technically, scalded with chicken stew," he countered.
"Shot in the toe. The gut. Bathed in bloody barf. Brain matter splattered. Never have I so wanted to wash the chunks out of a woman’s hair," Rhoda said. "That level of misogyny, well, it’s really straight-out misanthropy. So does that make Tarantino’s treatment of women less revolting? He needs therapy, not another big budget. "
After seeing Quentin Tarantino’s master-jerk The Hateful Eight, mother and son were driving home and listing the horrors heaped on the movie’s primary female character.
"I love Jennifer Jason Leigh,” she continued, “but perhaps her performance would have been better in 70mm Panavision."
Right then, in the middle of a right turn, Rhoda flashed back to 1995, the year she first voted with the Gotham Film Critics. That awards season, she influenced her peers to award Jennifer the Best Actress for her portrayal of the twisted little sister in Georgia.
A search for the script reader accurately predicting Hollywood’s hits and misses. 2,789 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.
I noticed a detail on a Tuesday afternoon that changed my life.
There I was, studio executive Ben Kurtwin, reading scripts from successfully made movies like some office assistant or film student. I know this will surprise you, but sometimes studio execs read scripts. Especially when they’re a junior exec clinging to their job. And let’s be honest – I don’t want to be fired because what the hell else can I do? I have no actual fucking skills.
Anyway, I was reading scripts from the previous few years’ biggest hits looking for the intangible that makes a popular film. All of these big-earning features had been offered to Destination Studios where I currently spend my days and many nights, but we’d bought only a few. Enough to keep on doing what we do. But I wanted to see first-hand what my dearly departed colleagues had missed and why we had passed on pictures that had gone on to make mountains of money. Maybe the answer lay on the page after all.
As I started to read Death On Mercury, the biggest moneymaker from last year, that’s when it happened. The detail I noticed wasn’t something in the script but from the coverage. The reader had given this screenplay a big thumbs-up and a high score and advised the studio to jump on it. The reader’s name was “Jody.”
A commenter thinks he can do better than the newspaper’s lead film critic. 2,681 word. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Griswold had promised himself never to look at the online comments to his reviews, but he heard the snickering all over the newsroom so he finally had to see for himself. It was his review of a supposedly feminist comedy that featured such empowering scenes as projectile vomiting in the middle of a wedding, and then went downhill from there. He had condemned the flick as the witless and moronic trash that it was. It made $100 million on opening weekend.
“Shouldn’t comedies be assigned to reviewers who actually have a sense of humor? Or a life?” was one of the kinder remarks.
Many were personal attacks on the person they imagined Griswold to be: “He’s apparently too cool for the room. Go back to your decaf almond milk lattes and leave hilarious comedies like Sisters Of The Bride to a critic who doesn’t have his head up his ass.” Some attempted to be clever: “My idea of the date from hell: going to see this movie with Griswold. While all of us are laughing our heads off, he’s choking on his own bile.” A few were so profane or threatening that they were “removed by moderator for violation of rules.”
And then this comment caught his eye: “Reviews like yours are the problem with modern film criticism. You’re so obsessed with the bodily function gags that you can’t appreciate how the editing cleverly juxtaposes the protagonist’s conflicted feelings about her wedding with her incestuous interest in her maid of honor. This was patently obvious to anyone actually watching the film. Perhaps you should focus on what’s on screen instead of that tub of popcorn…”
Griswold was startled. He rarely ate popcorn at the movies. When seeing four or five films a week, such indulgence would have quickly made it impossible for him to fit into the seat to do his job. However, knowing what he was in from the hack who had directed this one, Griswold had decided to order a box. But how could this commenter have known that unless he or she was at the private press screening?
EXCLUSIVE: Michael Tolkin debuts the beginning of his novel-in-progress about a veteran executive’s humiliation when he has to start over in Hollywood. 2,974 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Chapter 1 – Out With A Scream
For thirty-five years, I was the right hand man to John Brine Trubb, the legendary producer who would have been immortal if he hadn’t died. I had the privilege of being at the old man’s side when he went out with a scream. It’s the great puzzle of Rosebud that no one was in the room to hear Kane’s last word, but three of us were there to hear the Trubb’s final adios. JBT’s attorney, Redoubtable Maize, always too fancy with his allusions, heard in the old man’s dying expression the horror of Don Giovanni dragged into Hell at the foot of the Commendatore’s statue, agony after defiance. JBT’s special friend Auspicia Renn, his Abishag, said that it was the sound her rather older lover made when he was in ecstasy on Ecstasy. A logical guess, but wrong; from my catbird seat forward of the curtain that hid his day/nite bed on the Gulfstream, I knew too well the shape of the sordid bellow she was able to draw out of him and I can arbitrate the credit for his final yodel; she loses. No, JBT’s death shout was a blend of the old man’s two favorite moments in all of cinema, opening with the start of the cattle drive in Red River, the close ups of cowboys waving their hats in the air, calling Yee-Haw! And blended with the "Yah-hoo!" at the end of Dr. Strangelove, when the great Western actor Slim Pickens rides the nuclear warhead out of the bomb bay, setting off the end of the world. I kept this observation to myself, as JBT would have wanted. “Hum this every morning when you brush your teeth: never share your personal taste,” he used to say to the people he knew in the business, the people who looked up to him. It was a ridiculous mantra, bad advice, meant to send his enemies, which meant all of you, in pursuit of wasting someone else’s money. Pursue failure. That was the message inside the advice however justified by the circumstances. He had plenty of good advice, too, look at what he did, but he never shared it, not even with me.
The funeral service was austere but per his manifesto, surprisingly well catered for a crowd of three hundred or so, although I had no appetite after my first pass at the pastry table, when attorney Redoubtable took me aside. When his first words were, “Look, Martin,” I could have written the rest of what he said, or hired a writer to do it, at scale.