An impoverished and naïve student is tempted by film acting. Will she succeed or fail? 2,434 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Paris – 1966
Pauline was a young girl.
A busy and broke young girl.
Hustling and bustling from class to class, and working at temp jobs to make ends meet.
One day, Dimitry Fedotoff, a friend who worked as a still photographer on movie sets, announced he had a brilliant solution to Pauline’s financial woes. He had just been hired to shoot an American movie about World War II France at the Boulogne Billancourt Studio. He had learned the production was about to cast French prostitutes as extras, loads and loads of them. He thought Pauline had a great chance to be cast.
“You’re a pretty girl. You could play a prostitute,” he said.
“What exactly do you mean?” Pauline answered, slightly hurt that he could so easily imagine her playing a Lady Of The Night.
“You’re sexy — but you know that. Anyway, you could make more money than you’re are at your meaningless office work.”
A once successful film director suffers flop sweat as he starts shooting a high-profile reboot. 2,173 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
News of the retrieval of Sidney Ames out of the A-list directors’ dumpster to direct Zenith Studio’s reboot of Casablanca was greeted with puzzled expressions, tongue-clucking sighs and god-what-are-they-thinking gasps in the creative community. Even though these same people were long enured to the inanities of the movie business.
Sidney was 57, hadn’t directed a major film in 30 years and had last helmed a series of ten consecutive mega-hits that ignited audiences like Chinese firecrackers through the eighties. But his last film was a nuclear bomb, an epic $100 million biopic of Jesse Livermore, the American investor famous for short selling during the stock market crash of 1929 and committing suicide not long after. It detonated on 3,000 screens and posted a twenty million dollar loss on the studio’s books that year. Ever since, Sid shed fifty pounds and two wives, spent a half million keeping a drug-dealing son out of the can, and found plenty of time to markedly improve his tennis backhand. Everyone figured his career was done, fade to black, the answer to where-are-they-now questions on movie nostalgia websites. He was rarely seen in public, ate mostly at home, watched his granddaughter’s swimming lessons in his vintage manor pool overlooking the Pacific and squired under-age-thirty five ladies on ski trips to Lake Tahoe.
Fortune does indeed follow the brave, but it also follows the lucky. And in one aspect of his crazy quilt life, Sidney had proven gifted in the genetic lottery. He’d been born with the right brother. In his case, Hal Ames, a Harvard MBA investor with an impeccable stock market track record. Thanks to Hal slapping Sid’s wrists over money issues, Sid became a multi-millionaire and stayed one. Thus he was recused from the humiliating process of having to sit through endless meetings with development people while proposing film projects he knew would evoke little more than suppressed yawns or head-shaking titters after he’d left the room.
But not his Casablanca obsession. It was Sid’s pet project for decades: a reboot of the 1942 masterpiece. So he erupted into a euphoric scream on December 26th last year when Jack Terranova texted: “Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah. The Casablanca project is go. Meet me tomorrow morning at eight.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A director and editor have a complex relationship that’s even more complicated by Oscar nominations. 3,556 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
NEWS BULLETIN (Hollywood, CA) – Oscar-winning film editor turned director Mona Hessman, whose initial helming effort Once Upon A Midnight earned her a Best Directing nomination this year, has vanished. Hessman has not been seen since the Academy nominees luncheon on February 6, though she was not officially reported missing until yesterday when she failed to show up for her Oscar gown fitting. Hessman’s cell phone was tracked to a dumpster where it was found inside a Prada purse containing her ID and credit cards.
Mona sat up the cold leather sofa. She had a pounding headache and, as she stroked the back of her head, felt the crusted blood in her tangled hair.
She knew exactly where she was. She’d napped on this sofa for the better part of twenty-five years and was familiar with every sag and indentation. The realization of where she was brought to mind the last words she’d heard before being knocked unconscious: “You’re dead. You’re fucking dead.”
How many times had she heard those words before? But this was the first time they’d been directed at her. And she was left to wonder whether, this time, Max Barton might actually go through with one of his heated threats.
Like several other preeminent directors, Max worked almost exclusively with a female editor. Mona was part of a select group that included Verna Fields, Dede Allen, Thelma Schoonmaker, Sally Menke, Anne V. Coates and Carol Littleton. Like her peers, past and present, she was good at what she did. Damn good; the custom-fitted glove on a great director’s hand. And Max was a great director. Inventive. Fearless.
At least when he was in the director’s chair.
When he stepped into the editing bay, he lap dissolved from Genghis Khan into Chicken Little. This was Mona’s signal to take over. As editor. As surrogate mother. As therapist, confidante, cheering section and, for two months at the very beginning of their twenty-five year collaboration, lover.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: Part Three revisits Nat and Best Actress Erin Teller’s meet cute. 2,593 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Backstory. Again. I’m Nat. I work in the mailroom at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and last year I went to the Academy Awards. I met Erin Teller on the Red Carpet and she wound up winning Best Actress for When The Mountain Sings with me sitting beside her as her date for the evening. We even went to the Governors Ball together. After that we sort of hooked up for a couple months and it was pretty amazing being with Erin Teller and having paparazzi following us around. My picture ended up in In Touch with the caption, “Erin Teller and her new Mystery Man share a black and white cookie at Art’s Deli.”
I still have the napkin. She wrote the date on it and did a drawing of a penguin. “It’s the only animal I can draw. Isn’t that weird?” she told me. We were eating outside because she said people in the Valley didn’t recognize her as much as people on the other side of the hill. Only one photographer took her photo. No one else approached her, not that she would’ve cared. The entire time we were together, I never saw her get impatient with fans or paps, even when they were crowding around her when she took me to the premiere of her latest starring vehicle Rogue One. I was afraid she would get suffocated, but she kept waving “hey” to people. She saw treating everyone well as part of her job. Like making sure she didn’t gain fifty pounds or get a giant ‘#RESIST tattoo across her forehead.
“It’s stupid the way some actors are so rude,” she told me later when we were in her bedroom. “Here you work your ass off to be a success in this business and you finally make it and you’ve got fans everywhere and then you go like, ‘How dare you interrupt me when I’m eating? Sign an autograph? Go fuck yourself.’ Do you think I’d have a career if people didn’t like my movies? D’oh.”
She sounded exactly like Homer Simpson. At that moment, Erin was leaning back against the headboard. You probably want to know if she was naked. And what the sex was like. I’m too much of a gentleman to disclose that. (Well… use your imagination. And then multiply that by a billion.)
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A movie producer relentless at awards time is blindsided by rivals. 2,398 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Most independent producers who strike it big at least make an effort to distance themselves from their bottom-feeding beginnings. Not Herschel Wechsler. It wasn’t the expensive suits that hung on his doughy frame as though he’d slept in them. It didn’t matter that he sprayed spittle when he talked. Nobody even held his flyshit toupee against him. It was that he had the kind of face you just wanted to push into the front of a 1958 Buick.
Hollywood has known its share of ogres with good taste. Joseph E. Levine, Harvey Weinstein, Joel Silver, Scott Rudin, and Otto Preminger readily come to mind. Okay, maybe not Otto Preminger. But the others possessed that rare combination of passion, guts, showmanship, charisma, and intelligence that dignified them and their productions despite the controversy they sometimes courted.
Hershel Wechsler, however, was irredeemable. You didn’t even have to use his last name. Everybody just said “Herschel.” Sure, his pictures made money — and you’d think that would absolve him of the town’s enmity. Except he did it in the one way that Hollywood found unacceptable: at the expense of the motion picture industry’s dignity. As more than one of his competitors — they bristled if called his “colleagues” – remarked, Herschel always found a way to scrape underneath the bottom of the barrel.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: Not everyone can win Academy Awards. But the few, the proud, the drafted will produce them. 2,152 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I had been to the Academy Awards once in my life, for a film I produced because the writer and the supporting actress were nominated. My dearest friend, Graydon Carter — I’m kidding — did not invite us to mix with that crowd of actors and executives whose eyes always wander over your shoulder to make sure there wasn’t someone more important than you. After my nominees lost both our categories, I took them to the Beverly Hills Hotel and we all got drunk. The writer was only thirty-two but the terrific actress was no longer young and this was probably her last chance. She burst into tears. And, inexplicably, so did I.
The Academy Awards are the most boring and self-important awards show on TV. At least the Grammys and Tonys have music. And, in a weird way, those shows are more authentic. As for the Oscars, I have four words for you: Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. What is that? Humanitarian? Who’s kidding who? That’s why the Academy moved this farce off the broadcast and into the untelevised Governors Awards. As for the rest of the show, there were all those clunky dance numbers and awards for sound effect editing and set decoration? And… I could go on and on. Yawn.
My Academy odyssey began one morning in November. I went to the Soul Cycle class in Brentwood at 6 a.m. Only the hardcore show up at that time — the producers and agents and managers and studio executives who shower afterwards and flee in their Teslas and Maseratis to UTA or Paramount or NBC to start another happy day in Hollywood.
I drove to my office on Sunset which is in the same West Hollywood building as Soho House. Julie, my assistant, was already there drinking her green health food breakfast -– a thirty-five year old woman who seemed to work day and night and was more protective of me than my mother.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: An actress thinks the Academy Awards are all about her. 2,991 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
The party is swirling and Eleanor Gautier is already drunk.
Charles Dumont had been silent throughout the long drive from Malibu to the Hollywood Hills and silence is rarely a good sign for the moody French director. He’s wearing that brown silk shirt that Eleanor absolutely abhors. She wonders why so many items in his closet resemble the result of an intestinal virus. He’s also smoking, another way to irritate this year’s Oscar-nominated actress who stars in Oscar-nominated Charles’ gritty cop drama Brutal Norms, which received a standing ovation at Cannes and the Palme d’Or.
Tonight’s hostess, Liz Fontaine spots the gloomy couple from across her living room and quickly makes her way around knots of party guests. “You made it!” Liz exclaims as she air kisses the pair. “I wasn’t sure you’d come. As you can see, everyone is here and they adore you both. You’re the buzz of Hollywood, you know.”
“She knows,” Eleanor says as the stir of her vodka martini punctuates her statement. When she’s drunk, she refers to herself in the third-person.
Liz introduces the couple around. Eleanor’s eyes stray and then narrow. “Is that Melanie Milapeed?” she asks Liz.
“Yes, how thrilling I have the two leading Best Actress nominees here at my party,” Liz replies.
“Are there any Oscar voters present?” Eleanor asks, her eyes tick-tocking between her rival and Liz.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: At Oscars time in Hollywood there are only winners and losers. 2,884 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
When I came back from New York a week later, Rebecca insisted on picking me up at the airport. The Los Angeles weather looked good on her. She was wearing a simple shift and sandals. Her muscular arms were tanned. Very obviously, her Oscars’ makeover had changed her.
"I have something to tell you," she said, as soon as I got into the car. She could have asked me how my business trip went, but no — she couldn’t wait to tell me what was going on with her. I waited. I could always tell her later about my boss and love interest Billy Ward finally asking me to join him for lunch on my second to last day at The W in Times Square. We ran into each other in the lobby. Billy had just checked in. I didn’t see him after that lunch, but I was sure I had made an impression.
“Shoot,” I said.
"Jaxson and I got married in Vegas." I was too flabbergasted to respond. "I know it’s a shock, but we drove out there and got a little tipsy, and before I knew it I was a married woman again." She held up her left hand to show me a slim gold band.
"You can get it annulled," I finally said.
“I don’t want to get it annulled."
"Are you in love with him?"
"Of course not." She moved her rental car into traffic carefully.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: You don’t have to win an Academy Award to have your life transform. 2,476 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
By the time my cousin Rebecca called to ask if she could spend February with me, I’d already planned a business trip right after the Oscars. She said she’d be fine staying in my house by herself. And who wouldn’t be? I have a condo in Venice with a view of the Pacific. It would be a great place to visit if I didn’t already live there and, since Rebecca lives in Vermont, I can see how it would appeal to her.
We are first cousins and were born only one month apart which is a problem when it comes to her visiting because I’ve been cutting seven years off my age since I arrived out here and Rebecca is likely to blow my cover. She doesn’t even dye her hair; that’s the least a woman can do. I went trophy-wife red five years ago. I’m a regular Rita Hayworth in a business suit.
I didn’t have the heart to refuse Rebecca who, at forty-three, was a widow. Five years ago, her husband, Harold Braddock III, was lost while climbing Annapurna. Rebecca has still not forgiven him even though he left her his enormous fortune.
Rebecca would be here for my boss’s Oscar Party. Billy Ward, the fearless leader at Spectacular Talent Agency, was holding it in the The Theatre at the Ace Hotel. Digging up a date each year for the Oscar party was a chore, especially this year since my sights were set on Billy Ward who was between wives. I’d been in love with Billy since my first day at STA. He had buckets of charisma and charm enough to land the whole entertainment industry at his feet.
The fustrated filmmaker goes on a TV talk show to save his movie. 2,295 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1969
It was nearly four o’clock when Tall parked in a loading zone at the CBS lot, and ran into Stage 17. From the lobby, Tall could hear The Dean Keller Show orchestra welcoming a guest, and the audience applauding. Above a set of double doors, a red “Live Show Recording” sign blinked.
“Mr. McCollum!” a woman said in a low, excited voice.
Tall turned to see Tandy Dale, the associate producer who’d handled him the day before, walking toward him with a clipboard against her chest. “When I heard the door open,” Tandy continued, “I thought a civilian was trying to sneak in.”
“Would it be possible to get backstage?” Tall asked. “My wife Diana lost a little enamel compact that belonged to her mother when we were here last night for my appearance, and it’s the only place we haven’t looked.”
“They cleaned this morning, and didn’t turn anything in. But I suppose it could’ve fallen in the couch cushion?”
Tall followed Tandy around the perimeter of the stage. As she unlocked a door marked “PRIVATE,” she looked back at Tall. “Would you like to know your audience scores from last night?”
A rebel filmmaker struggles to deter professional and personal disaster. 2,334 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1969
“You’re a fucking kamikaze pilot, Tall,” said Jack Benton from behind his teak desk. “And you just crashed into your own fucking ship!” He wore a chambray blouse and a necklace of mahogany beads, but on his wrist dangled a gold Rolex. And only two days earlier, Jay Sebring had flown back from Las Vegas just to give him a haircut.
“And you didn’t just kill yourself,” Benton continued, pounding the heel of his palm onto a year-old issue of a Black Panther newspaper he’d never read. “You killed me, you killed your wife, and you killed that little band of outlaws you have marooned out there in the desert with you. I’m sure they’ll pretend like it’s a blessing — since they think they’ve transcended the fucking material world like an order of fucking Tibetan monks. But let me tell you a little secret. If anyone had gotten famous from this stillborn movie of yours, they’d be buying Jaguars and houses in fucking Malibu.”
“I just earned you lines around the block!” yelled Tall, standing in the middle of the office, rocking from his toes to his heels with the violent energy of a wrestler on his starting line. He was short, but broad across the shoulders, so that with his arms crossed, his buckskin jacket stretched taut across his upper back. His old tan boots chirred as he pitched onto his toes, and his wavy blonde hair curled down his neck.
“How the hell do you figure that, Tall? From my experience, people go to movies to be entertained — not to feel like they’ve fallen off a roof.”
Bernard tries to find out the identity of the writer inputting hit scripts into his computer. 2,144 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Spending money was time-consuming as well as challenging. After a five-day buying spree Bernard Berry found that he still had over a million three in his bank account. He could replace the Benz with something newer and quieter but he was fond of the aging diesel. It smelled like a car, not like an airport. And he was bored.
A week passed and still Bernard had not hooked up his new computer. He missed the online companionship: the junk emails, the chat rooms, the porn sites. So he took the new machine out of the carton, wired it, loaded the new software and booted up. The familiar glow of the screen and the pulsing of the cursor greeted him like the comforting sight of an old friend. Hey, how’re you doing? Been a while…
Clicking on his e-mail program, he discovered that in his absence 59 emails had accumulated. Sent at different hours every day, all were from the same sender. And all said they same thing: “HOW’D THEY LIKE THE SCRIPT?”
Bernard didn’t reply right away. Instead he walked outside the poolhouse. There were leaves floating on the surface of the water. He sat down on a rusted recliner and blinked a few times. He was not dreaming, and this was not a movie. This was his life. His silent partner, somewhere out there in the cyberether, unfortunately wasn’t very silent. Nor did he appear to be going away. On the contrary.
Bernard reentered the poolhouse, sat down and replied to the email. “THEY LIKED IT A LOT. I SOLD IT FOR A LOT OF MONEY. WOULD YOU LIKE SOME OF IT?”
In less than a minute, a new email floated in. “NO.”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
The answer was just as quick. “NOTHING. I LIKE TO WRITE.”
A screenwriter working on a lousy script suddenly finds a brilliant one on his computer. 2,806 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
It was bad enough when the gardener ripped out the hydrangeas he had planted, at $295 a pop, making his house look like collateral damage from an air strike. And when his lawyer stopped defending him from lawsuits and started suing him instead for fees and 18% annual interest. And when his endodontist refused to look at his throbbing left rear molar, let alone write him a script for Percodan… But when his ex-wife didn’t even bother auditing his 1040 because she knew that there was no more loose change to shake out of his pockets, it was time to take a serious look at his prospects.
Which was what Bernard Berry was doing at 3:30 p.m. in the poolhouse of his mortgaged-to-the-hilt home in a neighborhood that realtors referred to, charitably, as Beverly Hills Adjacent-Adjacent. Since noon he had been trying to write an action sequence for a screenplay he had been pecking at for months. He was convinced this script, a highly derivative story that he had artfully borrowed from a hit buddy action thriller, was his last best shot at pulling himself out of the morass of debt and depression he had been in for the last year and counting.
Somehow he would finish this script, convince one of the aging Young Turks at the agency that no longer represented him nor even took his phone calls without being badgered, to read it and sell it for serious change. Then pay off his debts, replant his hydrangeas, get a root canal and reboard the gravy train he had been on before things starting going south.
His psychopharmacologist — who was among the litigants to whom he owed money and who would not renew his Zoloft even when Bernard reasoned that if he stopped being depressed he could write better and therefore earn enough money to pay his tab — said that he was suffering from a major trough in his self-esteem, caused by crevices in his chain of cognitive defensive mechanisms.
You couldn’t take that to the bank. Nor any of his past accomplishments as a well-paid B-plus list screenwriter who had made enough money over the years to have had a wife venal enough to take him to the cleaners and a lawyer who charged $750 an hour to keep him afloat. The shelf life of personal accomplishment in this town was short.
Hollywood P.I. McNulty pieces together the puzzle surrounding the missing TV showrunner. 2,160 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
McNulty was finishing a fourteen-hour day piecing together all the images related to the year-long disappearance of TV showrunner Dana Delongpre. The images from his iPhone. The surveillance video from the convenience store where she’d last been seen. And all the photos posted by CHP Officer and wannabe screenwriter Chet Nichols on his Facebook and Instagram pages expertly hacked courtesy of McNulty’s Nerd Ninja team.
Blurry-eyed from hours of frame by frame studying on his notebook screen, McNulty leaned back in his chair and knocked back the last mouthful of Glenlivet, his mind still sharp and focused. And now he was damn sure he knew what had happened to Dana. And it wasn’t murder at the hands of her husband.
“Wanda!” the Hollywood P.I. barked into the office intercom. “Get me Shamrock!”
‘Shamrock” was the code name for Killian Cleary, a former IRA soldier and roguish Irish mercenary who’d seen action as a private CIA contractor in many of the world’s hotspots. A dead shot and skilled martial arts expert, Killian Cleary was McNulty’s secret go-to guy whenever back-up was needed on an investigation.
“Got one, boyo?” Shamrock laughed, recognizing the number on the burner phone McNulty used exclusively to contact him.
“It could get sticky,” McNulty admitted.
“Where and when?” Shamrock asked.
“Tonight,” McNulty replied. “Bring the beast.” That was another coded reference for Shamrock’s armored Hummer which he’d outfitted with an impressive array of firepower.
The showbiz sleuth follows up on a freeway hunch in search of a missing TV showrunner. 1,965 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
A hundred yards behind where he was parked, McNulty’s camera drone hovered over an area where the 14 freeway crossed over the concrete channel of the California Aqueduct. Suddenly, the Hollywood investigator’s eyes were drawn to something glinting in the sun on the center median. As he dropped the drone lower, he could see the shiny object was glass in a broken plastic shell possibly from a vehicle’s side mirror. There also were red fragments apparently from a tail light. McNulty realized that his hunch was gaining traction.
Directly ahead were two large openings that dropped some twenty feet into the concrete channel below and encircled by guard rails but not completely. For traffic moving north, the protection was on the south end; for traffic moving south, on the north end. The cost-cutting logic being that guard rails were only necessary on the sides facing the oncoming traffic lanes.
“What could possibly go wrong?” McNulty muttered, shaking his head at the stupidity.
As he surveyed the scene, he imagined what might have happened to Dana Delongpre when she suddenly vanished from the face of the earth. He theorized that she’d been driving north in the southbound lanes, lost control of her vehicle, skidded across the median toward the unprotected opening and then plummeted into the watery channel below. It was only a guess, McNulty knew, and he needed something tangible to make it real.
His gut told him it was lying there at his feet.
Hollywood P.I. McNulty is back, hired by a missing TV showrunner’s husband accused of murder. 2,064 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Nearly a year had passed since Dana Delongpre had gone missing. She and her Range Rover had seemingly evaporated into thin air on a dark and lonely stretch of Mojave Desert highway. Now you see her, now you don’t like some spangled magician’s assistant in a Vegas lounge act. But this was no magic trick, nor was it just another routine missing person’s case. This was news. Not just in Hollywood where Dana was the creator of a hit TV series, but throughout the world because, well, she was the creator and showrunner of a hit TV series.
“Dozens of people go missing every day,” McNulty grumbled at the time. “But when there’s a Hollywood connection, the media’s all over it like glitter on a pole dancer.”
As the days blended into weeks, media speculation about Dana’s disappearance ran the gamut from running off with a lover to alien abduction. What was known for sure was that Dana was driving back from a location shoot near Lone Pine, a three-hour drive from L.A., after filming on her series The Paradox Files had gone late and she’d left sometime after eleven p.m. Pings from her cell phone showed her heading south on 395 before taking the southbound Antelope Valley Freeway. She was even picked up on surveillance cameras buying gas and coffee at a convenience store on the outskirts of Palmdale. That was the last time anyone saw her. Authorities quickly launched an intensive week-long ground and air search along the freeway and the intersecting California Aqueduct, but found no trace of Dana or her Range Rover.
Now, as the first anniversary of her disappearance approached, the media was interested in the case once again. Only this time they dug up new information that Dana’s marriage had been a troubled one. She and her husband were on the verge of divorce, and police had responded to at least two domestic violence calls. As a result, what had started out as a tragic missing person was now being looked at as a possible murder investigation. And that made Dana’s talent agent husband the prime suspect.