A wannabe filmmaker finds an unconventional way to get his horror script made. 3,216 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“You understand what I want you to do?”
“Yeah,” I said. It was easy to say it. Flowed off the tongue. I wasn’t even worried. What was that line from that Hannibal film, the one with the lambs? His pulse never got above a certain number, he was so relaxed? That’s how I felt. Relaxed.
“And you finance my film.”
“And I get gross participation, backend, off-the-top. The works.”
“The works,” he agreed.
I didn’t smile. But I should have. You don’t smile, though, when you make a Breaking Bad deal like that. I don’t mean a deal with AMC; I mean, a deal that will put you on the other side. For good. I was about to become a Walter White. And I was only in my early 20s.
Got to start sometime in Hollywood.
A young actress works for a studio executive on matters more thrilling than movie roles. 2,521 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – February 1938
Inside the gates of Hollywood’s grandest studio, which specifically wasn’t in Hollywood at all but in Culver City, a young woman sat waiting inside the executive suite of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer outside the office of Finbar Gregory, Vice President of Studio Relations. That part, Studio Relations, made her smile. Because he was much more than his benign title would suggest. A former sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, he was also the son of an LAPD police captain and had joined MGM in the late twenties as head of security for the studio. He had become the right arm or, more to the point, strong arm of MGM’s Vice President and General Manager Eddie Mannix. Mr. Gregory handled a number of delicate press and publicity issues for the studio. Rumor had it that he and Mannix never exchanged memos but met behind closed doors every morning at seven.
The young woman whose name was Rita Lake looked around the ante room and at Mr. Gregory’s secretary, Marge or Midge or something like that, and wondered if the older woman with light gray hair and a small and efficiently build, thought she was having an affair with the executive. After all, Rita had been to his office several times over the past months and since he had little to do with casting, her presence on so many occasions might be misconstrued as inappropriate.
Rita Lake wasn’t her real name; she was an actress beautiful in an unconventional way with exotic good looks that came from her father, a Russian Jew, and her mother, a Spanish beauty. She had large hazel eyes framed by neatly arched eyebrows, and thick auburn hair recently cut to the new fashion. She had a trim figure, more athletic than voluptuous, and good legs that helped her get more parts than her acting skills.
On this particular morning Rita was dressed in a brown wool suit with a matching handbag and low-heeled shoes, the hem length of her skirt set appropriately at the knee. Rita wondered if it was her wool suit in the mild dry weather or the glacial stares that Marge/Midge was shooting her that was making her perspire. She self-consciously touched the small bruise under her left eye. The swelling had gone down and she hoped that the small amount of make-up she was wearing had been sufficient to cover the black and blue mark.
A down-on-his-luck social message documentary filmmaker is asked to work on a Reality TV show. 2,323 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The phone jarred Michael awake at 6:18 am. It was Eva, his sister and self-appointed agent, calling from her Audi on her way to the gym.
“You couldn’t wait until you finished your workout?” he said groggily.
“Today at 11,” she reminded him. “I sent them over your teen hooker piece and they love it. They’re eager to meet you. Now don’t screw it up.”
“I’ll be on my best behavior,” he mumbled.
“Don’t you dare embarrass me.”
“I didn’t know that was possible.”
“You’re such an asshole,” she said and hung up.
Michael got out of bed and brewed some coffee. He knew he should be grateful for Eva’s attempts to get him work, but reality TV? He had become a documentary filmmaker to make the world a better place, not to contribute to its degradation like his sister, who represented many of the worst offenders of the genre. “Reality TV,” she once told him, “is the 21st Century equivalent of the gladiatorial arena. The Romans loved it and so do we. It’s human nature. We glorify the strong and want to kick the weak.”
A TV showrunner trying to learn more about women characters does research in a strip joint. 2,930 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Zack was glad in this moment to be in Brooklyn, at this bare bones den of bare flesh. Also, he needed material for Season Three.
He had been given carte blanche as showrunner for Season One and Two. Season Two was “not a dud, by any means,” wrote a critic for The Carrier trade, “yet it paled in comparison to Season One. It was young Faulkner, in over his head. It was strained with forced mystery. One had to wonder if Zack Randke was being pedantic on purpose, in the hopes of disguising an unfleshed-out narrative and betting on the possibility that his work would be seen as too genius to be understood.”
“Eh, take it as a compliment,” his agent had said after an hour-long verbal lashing over poolside mint juleps in Los Angeles. Zack kicked his boots off the end of the lounge chair, pulling his ball cap down lower on his forehead. He was still Zack Randke. That had to count for something. After a year of meetings with his agent Alan, the word poolside now felt like a threat.
“You told me the episodes were good,” Zack had whined.
“Listen, kid, you’re the writer. If you’re going to demand sole writing credit, and you know you need three-dimensional women, then you better know what a 3D woman is like. You researched it, right?”
“A woman was the goddamn lead character of the whole Season Two,” Zack said, throwing up his hands.
“Yeah, but they didn’t like it that she got knocked up at the end, and she didn’t die like the men.”
The screenwriter’s script is completed. But how will the studio mogul react to the brutally honest biopic? 2,802 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
After finishing Act Two, Dave went on a one-night bender, polishing off a fifth of Jack Daniels and falling into a deep sleep on his living room sofa. He awoke with a start in the middle of the night and ran to the typewriter. Through bleary eyes and a cracking headache, he began to type out the opening scene of Act Three: a close-up of a television set.
The Argot Pictures board keeps a safe distance from the blond wood TV cabinet, as if it were some alien life form. But studio mogul Jules Azenberg approaches the contraption and gently strokes it. With that one motion, he demonstrates to the members that he is not threatened by television and that he plans to tame the medium just as he did the movies.
Forced to divest itself of its theater chain following the 1948 Consent Decree, Argot is running a deficit for the first time since the early ‘1930s. There is the smell of blood in the boardroom and Jules must convince the members that he is still in control of the situation. The advent of television gives Jules a new sense of purpose after the prolonged depression he suffered in the wake of his sons’ WWII deaths.
Rather than retread radio stars for television, Jules strikes on an original idea. The next scene is set in a quiet isolated booth at The Brown Derby where Jules is lunching with Madeleine Devane, one of Argot’s biggest stars. Her contract is up for renewal and the aging actress is clearly nervous. They chat for a while as she waits for the boom to fall. In the middle of the meal, Jules lays his napkin on the table and lets out an extended sigh. The color drains from Madeleine’s face, fearing that she’s about to be fired.
“How would you like us to renew your contract for five more years?” he asks.
“Don’t tease me,” Madeleine responds tersely.
The screenwriter’s challenge for Act Two is seamlessly threading the studio mogul’s public and private lives. 2,260 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Hollywood – 1969
The second act of his screenplay, the Untitled Jules Azenberg Biopic – First Draft, gave Dave problems as second acts generally do. Determined to push ahead, he rose every morning at seven and, hangover or not, sat down at the typewriter with a pot of coffee and waited for his fingers to magically click into action. On a day when his hands just sat there stiffly poised on the keys and not a single coherent scene emerged, Dave took a break. He and his pal Joel Rodgers went out on the town for a movie, dinner and drinks at Trader Vic’s where Joel regaled him with the details of the latest showbiz scandal. Dave listened, but without much enthusiasm. Like most current gossip, it was graphic and tawdry and destroyed what little illusion was left about movie stars’ private lives. What was Hollywood without glamour? Without fantasy?
When the muse finally revisited Dave, she came equipped with a metaphor. Act Two opens with Jules at a gaming table tossing dice in a visual motif establishing the studio mogul as an inveterate gambler and a smart one at that. For Jules proves himself an expert crapshooter, knowing exactly how long to play, how high to raise the stakes, and when to walk away from the table.
By the early 1930s, his Argot Pictures is on a roll. Most of its B-movie competitors fall by the wayside, victims of the Depression. Argot slowly buys up all the rivals and establishes itself as a viable rival to the A-list studios like MGM and Warner Bros. Here, the script hones close to the real story by assigning Jules due credit. Given his brother Mort’s cautious nature, Argot might have survived the transition to sound but not the economic reversal of the times. It took more than business savvy to keep Argot afloat: it took Jules’ ingenuity and daring.
His risky gamble is to jump head-first into larger budget movies at a time when everyone else, including the established major studios, is cutting corners. And for that he needs an ally because Jules feels inferior to the task of convincing talent to sign with Argot rather than a more deep-pocketed institution like MGM. He needs someone with the polish and finesse to talk to theater types. So he enlists a celebrated and ceaselessly charming German-born director and appoints him vice president of production. It’s a curious choice and, at first, the board expresses concern that a creative type will run financially amuck.
The screenwriter of the studio mogul’s biopic works on Act One. 2,036 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Hollywood – 1969
Weak, Dave, weak. Just like your ex-wife said. Or soft, as Jules used to say. Driving out the front gate was like stepping from inside a fun-house mirror. He felt a headache coming on, the kind he used to get when he worked at Hollywood mogul Jules Azenberg’s Argot Pictures – like a nail being hammered into old plaster, making a hole twice its size and sending dust flying everywhere. He never did work for anyone remotely like Jules after leaving the movie business. Television was a completely different animal. Writers like Dave were hired for a series episode for one reason only: to fill in the intervals between commercials. There was no pretense of making art, or quality entertainment. It was called programming for a reason. The beats were all laid out; writers merely inserted new words inbetween. No one expected Dave to pour his heart and soul into a teleplay the way he had with a movie script in the vague hope that a scintilla of what he’d written actually made it to the screen intact. It never did but it never stopped screenwriters from trying. Keeping that kind of delusion going took a great deal of energy. And Dave had paid for it with big plaster cracks.
The next night, over dinner, Dave and his friend Joel Rodgers discussed Azenberg’s offer to write a warts and all biopic of Jules’ life and career.
“You said yes, I hope,” Joel said.
Dave nodded, but couldn’t conceal his unease.
“Good. For once in your life, maybe you’ll be smart,” Joel chided him. “Take the money and run.”
“It’s not that simple, Joel. It’s just that I’ve never been a leech.”
“It’s a wonder you’ve survived,” Joel chortled. “In this town you need to be either a leech or a lemming. Or a rat. So tell your agent to squeeze that little fucker’s balls until he screams. Then, once you have your money, write whatever the hell you want. He gave you permission. Now call him on it.”
A screenwriter turned TV scripter gets a shocking assignment from his old studio boss. 2,996 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Hollywood – 1969
Dave Peterson was racing against a deadline. The F.B.I. teleplay was due in the morning and he planned to pull an all-nighter to finish it. Glancing up from his typewriter, he stared directly at a bottle of booze and sighed. Not tonight, buddy. But I’ll take a rain check. He was alone. Tiki, his Greek-born ex-wife, had run off with her boss, a fruit wholesaler from Woodland Hills. Didn’t even ask for alimony. Had even joked that, if he tried to divorce her for adultery, she would sue him for alienation of affection and name Jack Daniels and Smith Corona as correspondents.
He was jolted by the telephone. He checked his watch. No one called at this hour except for his buddy Joel Rodgers when he needed a loan or a ride for poker night, and that wasn’t until Friday.
“David. It’s Doreen, Jules Azenberg’s assistant.”
“Doreen?” he replied, surprised. No, not surprised. Flabbergasted.
“You must be thinking, ‘How long has it been?’” she said with a brittle chuckle.
“Yes,” he replied, trying to recover.
“You sound busy,” she continued.
“Actually, I was in the middle of…”
“So let me get right to it. Mr. Azenberg would like you to come in for a meeting tomorrow.”
“A meeting? Dave asked. “With me?”
Hollywood’s best P.I. McNulty helps a comedian corpse get one best laugh. 1,848 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“Okay, let’s do this,” McNulty said aloud as the sun slowly rose over the San Gabriel Mountains.
Seated in a florist’s van rented from a movie vehicle supply house, Hollywood’s most in-demand private eye waited to see if the first minor obstacle, namely getting screen siren Eden La Peer’s actor fiancé out of the house, had been successfully handled. The answer came shortly after 7 a.m. when the gate to their Beverly Hills home opened and the fiancé’s Jaguar convertible headed off to Palm Springs for a two-day gig that McNulty had arranged through a TV producer who, like most people in the industry, owed the P.I. a favor.
So far so good, McNulty thought.
A few minutes later, the florist van rolled up to the gate intercom and buzzed.
“Yes?” a woman’s tinny voice asked.
“Floral delivery for Miss La Peer,” the uniformed driver said.
The gate opened slowly. But, before the van moved, the side door slid open and one of McNulty’s men hopped out wearing a rented security guard uniform. His job was to keep any unwanted visitors from passing through the gate while the van headed to the house.
A few moments later, the van driver carried a large floral arrangement wrapped in clear cellophane to the front door. McNulty followed but hid himself off to the side. The door opened and Eden La Peer was standing there in a low-cut satin nightgown, her hair tousled and her eyes sleepy from the early hour.
Hollywood investigator McNulty must fulfill a comedian’s final wish. 2,287 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Lenny Hazeltine was dead.
“How dead was he?” echoed the voices of a phantom TV audience in McNulty’s head.
So dead he stopped getting robo calls from politicians.
So dead Nigerian Princes quit emailing him.
So dead his three ex-wives stopped suing him for more spousal support.
Yes, Lenny Hazeltine, one of America’s most beloved funny men, was truly, absolutely and undeniably dead. Not that he wasn’t used to it.
“I’ve died so many times on stage,” he would joke, “my undertaker’s on speed dial.”
But now, in the truest sense of the word, Lenny Hazeltine, the man who claimed he’d been cited by the Center For Disease Control for spreading infectious laughter, was dead. And that was bad news for McNulty, Hollywood’s most infamous private eye. Not only because a close friend had passed away, but also because the day had finally come when McNulty had to make good on his marker.
The IOU had come about a few years earlier when Lenny, one of the more notorious and self-admitted degenerate showbiz gamblers, invited McNulty to sit in on one of several underground poker games that had become a high-stakes pastime among A-list celebs, high-rollers and other moneyed mucky-mucks. McNulty’s invitation was a so-called “bonus” after he’d saved Lenny a bundle in outrageous spousal support from his second wife. To prove that she had been the unfaithful party, McNulty’s team of Nerd Ninjas had hacked into her cell phone and downloaded explicit photos and videos of her and a soap opera hunk engaged in a catalog of Kama Sutra positions.
“They were tied up in so many knots,” Lenny joked, “the Boy Scouts awarded them merit badges.”
An artist thinks he’s come up with a wonderful way to find film content and wow Hollywood. 2,674 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I had never been treated so rudely in my life. I was in a meeting at a major Hollywood studio, sharing my creativity and insight with a top executive, only to be given the bum’s rush by three security guards. As if the humiliation of being dragged out of that office, down the hall and through the lobby wasn’t enough, I was also thrown, literally tossed, onto the street. Onto asphalt, not gold.
The indignity began that November when I read that a major movie studio had bought the film rights to The Christmas Cottage. Not only was opportunity knocking on my door, it was ringing the bell. Hollywood, an insatiable beast, had run out of ideas. Filmmaking was and still is a lowly art form rising to its greatest level of incompetence. While most studios keep producing re-remakes and re-re-remakes, this studio was trying to be an innovator.
The Christmas Cottage is a painting by Thomas Kinkade, the “Painter of Light” as he is affectionately known in America’s shopping malls, who composed a warm-hearted landscape featuring a snow-covered cottage nestled in cozy woods.
I saw this new development as opening a Pandora’s Box in the world of cinema. Why stop with a painting? There are many images and objects that can have a high concept. Hollywood has already made films from board games and Legos. Sculpture, conceptualism, postcards, Campbell Soup Cans and traffic signals could also be made into blockbuster entertainment.
I wasn’t sure what the studio had in mind for its feature about The Christmas Cottage. Wouldn’t Picasso’s Guernica make a better movie? How about the hard “R” of any Odalisque by Matisse? Or, given the current trend for Christian entertainment, would not The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Bosch scare a heathen back to God? But who was I to question the superior intellect and creativity of the Hollywood sensibility.
A character actor from a hit horror trilogy remembers how good his life used to be. 1,702 words. illustration by John Thomas Carlucci.
Are you ready? Start your tape recorder.
In the movies they used to call me Snake-Man. They did. I was the only one they ever called Snake-Man before or since. I was.
I made three movies, a trilogy. I made them five years ago in the City. Another time, another life. They weren’t bad. They were good action pictures. We made all three of them in about a year and a half. We first did Dawn Of The Snake-Man, then we followed that up with The Thing Called Snake-Man, and the last one was political so we called it Rabooba: Snake-Man’s Revenge. I carried a .44 Magnum in that one.
I don’t carry a gun no more, though. No more guns for me.
They called me Snake-Man because that’s exactly what I looked like, a Snake-Man. There weren’t too many actors who could have pulled it off, I know that. I used to play a lot of foreign spies, just small bit parts, before I got a chance to be Snake-Man in my own shows. Before I got to star.
Oh, I think just about everybody saw a Snake-Man picture. But I don’t go to the movies too much anymore, since I left the business.
Entertainment companies say they want diversity. But this job applicant isn’t so sure. 2,615 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Finally, the miracle arrived and I made it to my stop. The journey through Laurel Canyon had taken an hour, and even once I landed in West Hollywood the bus driver took some nonsensical route. This only reaffirmed that Los Angeles was not a city for pedestrians. For the person who can’t afford a car, that liberty had been taken away decades ago.
After getting off at 3rd and Fairfax, I rushed down the sidewalk – a feat impossible in the heels I wore. I still wasn’t used to them. I had bought them at Target just two nights before. I kept glancing at my phone to make sure Google Maps was taking me to the right place. I’d never been to this part of the city so I was checking and rechecking the address every five seconds. All that did was remind me how late I was and waste the phone’s battery even more. I didn’t even know how to get back home from here. West Hollywood was thirteen miles from my house, but it might as well have been a different country.
I walked right by the entrance at first. It had no logo, no sign, nothing to tell someone it was a film production company. I backtracked when I realized I had gone too far and returned to a grey building with blacked-out windows. Around the corner, I pushed the intercom buzzer and a voice came on.
“Hi, I have an interview at nine with—.” My mind went blank. I couldn’t remember the guy’s name. The voice repeated the question. “Uh, I’m sorry. My name’s Jessie and—”
“Mejia?” I said, in a tone that indicated even I wasn’t sure who I was.
A TV show’s writers room assistant plots more creatively than her bosses. 2,556 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“It must be weird that we’re exactly the same age and I’m an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator and you’re the writers assistant.”
She really said “slash.” She said it two times.
I wanted to tell her it was fuckloads easier to make it as an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator when your father is a major exec at a major studio and he got you that first job on an insanely hot Netflix series not because you were qualified, but because your father was owed a major favor from a Netflix VP thanks to a gambling debt. And so, Graylon Kipling, freshly graduated from Cornell, got plopped into a top-tier TV job even though she couldn’t write for shit and everybody wanted to fire her fat nepotistic ass – and eventually did. Now, because of another chit called in by her father, here we sit in our offices on the NBCUniversal lot ready to start work on a ten-episode order of Graylon’s very own new series, TabOO.
It was harder for me. I grew up in the Midwest with a dad who sold Toyotas and a nurse mom. They thought my being a CPA would be an awesome job instead of those “Hollywood dreams” harbored by their little girl. So I have an accounting degree which I never plan to use. But I made it to L.A. and did the barista thing and met a guy at Peet’s who helped me get a job on a Nickelodeon show as a PA. I ended up in the writers room as the assistant after the current writers assistant crashed into a morning rush hour pile-up on the 134 freeway.
But this is the conversation I only play inside my head, very fast, because Graylon’s waiting for me to answer her question. I look down at my feet, as if I’m trying to be humble and oh so thankful for this opportunity, and I say, “Yeah, it’s really weird that we’re exactly the same age and you’re an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator and I’m the writers assistant.”
Actress Peg Entwistle jumped to her death from the Hollywoodland sign in 1932 at the age of 24. Here is a fictional imagining of her final journey. 2,319 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Immortality is a tricky business. I am sorry for being a coward. Though, in the moment, I always felt myself to be one of the bravest women in the world. Standing alone in the spotlight. Embodying fears and dreams and convictions. Compelling strangers to feel something.
But those moments were fleeting. And then you spend the rest of your moments, and hours, and days searching for that spotlight again. Maybe it was never bravery at all. Maybe I wasn’t doing any of it for the strangers. Maybe it was I who needed to feel something.
The ladder is narrow and crude. Steel spurs nip me. My hands, nails perfectly polished, speckle with blood. I count as I climb. One-Mississippi. Two-Mississippi. My heartbeat pounds the seconds in my ears. I stop at fifteen.
Fifteen goddamn seconds. Maybe I say this aloud. Maybe I scream it. It doesn’t matter when no one is around to hear. A woman on a stage with no audience.
I feel brave having climbed up here, all the way to the top. From my perch, Tinseltown glitters and twinkles, just like the rest of the world thinks it does. Hard to believe it was only several months ago that butterflies fluttered in my stomach when I first glimpsed the Hollywoodland sign, a beacon of shiny white against the mud, a real-life picture postcard informing me I was here. The new face in town, the Broadway actress, a real actress, who desired to be in pictures. All this seemed much longer ago. Another season. But there are no seasons here.
I had thought it brave to come to California. To traverse such distance for my craft, my calling. But I was nothing more than a squirrel trying to hoard acorns. It’s autumn in New York, soon to be winter, and who can much think about Broadway in the year 1932 when people are starving to death. Yet, I’d gone to the train station this morning for a one-way return to New York. Only to burn with humiliation as I counted pennies at the ticket window, and still came up short.
A TV writer watching his son at preschool also watches a TV star who could help his career. 2,219 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I sing and put my left foot in and out, careful not to stare at Jill Racine as she and her three-year-old daughter grin and sing and put their left feet in and out, too. Two other parents do stare at her – she’s dressed down in sweats with no make-up, or hardly any, I’m not an expert — and two others decide it’s more acceptable to stare at my son Ryder, who lets out a queer cry of joy as he twists his body and jerks his left foot in as the other kids are already shaking theirs about. Two other parents give Ryder the side-eye, another glances at me pityingly. By the time my boy yanks his left foot out, Jill Racine, her daughter and everyone else have turned themselves around and are putting their right feet in.
Jill Racine must be on a hiatus week from her show, since this first day of preschool is the day after Labor Day. If Denny had been on the ball I’d be enjoying a day or two off, too, instead of not having a sitcom staff job for the first time since I started out. No script assignments, either. He got me a meeting last month but I’m sure it was a favor to him, since I had to pitch my story ideas to some lame insecure co-producer with whom I was wasting my time, at best. I’ll force myself to watch that piece-of-shit show every week to make sure the guy doesn’t rip me off, although it’s hard to imagine Denny or my useless lawyer standing up for me against the studio if he does. I clearly need a new agent but everyone knows the worst time to look is when you’re unemployed.
Jill Racine seems to be enjoying the Hokey Pokey. I hear she’s a monster. Amazing what some people do when they get power. Supposedly she fires The Jill Show writers herself, won’t let the showrunner do it, because she gets off on it. Last year some writer told me that at run-throughs she’s into humiliating her stand-in, one of the most vulnerable people on any set; even making fun of the woman’s ears, which are apparently sizable. (They say Jill’s clever nickname for her is “Dumbo.”)
Because Jill Racine is invulnerable. She’s such a huge star and her show such a massive hit and she’s so rich that she can say or do anything she wants to anyone.