The Venice Film Festival was the culmination of their dreams. 1,719 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The source material for their project, an obscure novella called “Fork In The Road,” was the story of two life-long female friends whose paths diverge. One pursues a career as a medical researcher, the other becomes a hardened criminal. But in the end, it’s the latter who has the more emotionally satisfying life. She becomes an angel of mercy in prison, redeeming herself through altruism. The story was tersely written, and because it was delivered without even a trace of sentimentality or bathos, earned the tears Cynthia shed when reading it.
She passed it on to Harlan, who also found the story compelling but pointed out “as a movie it screams ‘woman’s picture.’ The only male characters are incidental. And before you give me ‘the lecture,’ I’m only telling you what every producer in town is going to say, even the female producers. Just trying to prepare you.”
Married just two years, but together for six, they’d discussed several co-scripting projects for Harlan to direct but so far nothing had jelled. Cynthia was keeping them afloat with residuals from a long-running TV series in which she’d been a supporting cast member, and a combination of TV commercials, voice-over work and guest-starring assignments. She was regularly cast in pilots, none of which ever went to series. Harlan, meanwhile was directing local theater and temping as a teacher.
Like many of their aspiring friends, they were just getting by, stuck in gear, in desperate need of forward momentum.
What happens when you fall for a showbiz wannabe who then becomes a somebody? 2,468 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
When the film rights to Truman Blu’s novel, Better Off Dead, sold for two million dollars to Magnet Pictures, it was a triumph. Three days ago, the publishing rights had sold to HarperCollins for seven hundred fifty thousand, thereby creating the buzz that would make Truman Blu a rich man. Of course, the author was thrilled, but the huge sale also made Lolo’s boss, Peter Biro look like a star and Lolo basked in the reflected light.
Truman had been a struggling writer in the unincorporated town of Victor, Montana, and went from penury to riches overnight. A month later, he came down to L.A. for his victory lap. He arrived unexpectedly, and Peter was in a staff meeting. Lolo texted her boss, who texted back that she should take Truman to Starbucks and Peter would get there as soon as he could.
Lolo went down to the atrium to retrieve Truman. He rose from a Herman Miller sofa. It took a long minute for Truman to reach his full height. He dipped his head in the way of tall men and smiled. Those teeth. The man must have eaten nothing but candy as a child. Truman Blu, previous to this windfall, was a man who could not afford teeth. But Lolo saw past that. What she saw was a man bathed in the glow of genius. He had done the one thing she wanted to do, the thing she dreamed of doing as she wrote late into the night. Lolo had always been a sucker for men of literature. One drunken night back in New Hampshire, she had sucked on the tips of a man’s fingers just because he’d had a short story published in Ploughshares.
Is Jason going to spy on his celeb friends for a gossip mag? 2,304 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Beverly saw Jason sitting at a corner table under the heavy drape of bougainvillea. He looked like his dad with some of his mother’s refinement thrown in. He definitely wasn’t movie star material but he was cute. Beverly didn’t like her staff to be too great looking. It made them memorable. Memorable was definitely not good. A few years ago, she’d had a reporter with a purple streak in her hair. Jenifer Lopez referred to her on the red carpet as Juicy’s Miss Purple. Subsequently, the reporter had been thrown out of a posh hotel in Cabo because Jennifer’s security people recognized the hair and knew she was a gossipmonger.
Looks are fine, but not too out there. Jason could blend in wherever he went.
He stood up when she approached the table. She never saw that anymore, thought Beverly, who would have raised an eyebrow but that expression had been wiped out by Botox long ago. Melody must have been awake enough during his childhood to get some manners pounded into him, Beverly surmised. Actually, he’d learned that from Big Jack. Stand up, look them in the eye and shake hands, but only if they offered theirs first. “It’ll get you laid, I promise you." Big Jack had been right.
Beverly went into her no-nonsense mode, shotgunning questions at him. Asking Jason what he did for fun. What he read. Where he went with his friends. And what he was studying. Then she got down to it. Did he know Selena or Kendall? What about Demi’s kids? Does anybody still care about Britney Spears anymore? Is Jennifer Lawrence going to keep so private she’ll fade? Which clubs were hot right now?
Cop turned screenwriter Nick Chapel finds another body and puts his own in danger. 3,036 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I’m riding shotgun in the LAPD department issue Ford Taurus going south on the 405 and trying not to imagine the sources of the stains, tears and burned holes in the fabric around me. The seats are wide and the suspension spongy. My slacks and blazer will have to be laundered and even that may not erase the smell of fried food and cigarettes. I crack the window, but it’s not big enough to air out this kind of stink.
For the longest time Ayers says nothing, focusing on the intricate sequence of lane changes required when traveling through West L.A. and Culver City. He’s a meticulous driver, head on a swivel, checking his mirrors. Perhaps he was in the military, or played ball in college. I sense team sports in his background, but the lanky frame that impressed high school recruiters has gone soft.
“So you and Brandt were a team,” the police detective finally says. “I hear you didn’t suck. A real hard charger.”
“I liked putting the cuffs on bad guys.”
“Hard chargers burn out. That what happen to you?”
I smile at the jab, then explain, “I got a job on a TV show and it stuck. Now I’m a screenwriter.”
“I need you to just remember one thing: you’re not a cop anymore. So who is this mook we’re trying to find?”
Former LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel follows a lead in the serial murder case. 2,096 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Five tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
There is a reason I specialize in rewriting crime stories. It’s not just the compelling nature of murder, and the ease of breaking a second act that is propelled by the search for a criminal. It’s the simple motivation that drives the hero to his or her goal. No boring exposition is needed to explain why a police officer or private investigator endures trials and hardships to solve the crime and catch the villain. It’s simply what they do, and who they are. It defines them.
It’s the detective who doesn’t pursue the killer that requires explanation. He knows the criminal is out there somewhere. The same sun beats down on him. He wears sunglasses to cut the glare, just like I am, and maybe even a hat to protect his sensitive scalp. The same hot wind blowing in from the desert burns his lungs. I drive east, sketching out the backstory of a man I’ve never met.
He works in show business, or used to, but the reality never matched his dreams. That made him angry, enough to kill, but he’s no wild man ranting on Hollywood Boulevard about what might have been. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Intelligent. He has a plan and a place to do his work that must be private, where no one would notice his comings and goings, or the bodies he carries.
Driving through Beverly Hills, I wonder if he is shopping at this very moment. Maybe he is sipping a cappuccino at one of the coffee shops on Robertson, or eating lunch at the Beverly Center. But then he is probably more accustomed to brown-bagged lunches and black coffee from a thermos than hipster meetings at The Ivy. I settle into his shoes, and feel the weight of the implements he uses to cut his victims apart. I should be angry with my ex-partner, LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt for introducing me to this character, but only feel an odd gratitude. Finding Sid Shulman is the least I can do.
Screenwriter Nick Chapel is back on the LAPD beat looking for a serial killer. 1,894 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt spreads the files on the table. “Fair warning: these are pretty disturbing.”
“Worse than eyeballs?”
“Worse than eyeballs. The Starlet Stalker takes different body parts every time. We’re keeping the specifics out of the press. They know disfigurement is part of the MO, but not the details of what he’s taking. The first victim, Mandy Monroe, played the oldest daughter on the sitcom Daddy’s Home. She was found five weeks ago in a dumpster in back of a Pizza Hut on Pico Boulevard with her breasts cut off.”
Brandt slides the file across the desk to me. I brace myself, then open it, revealing photos of Monroe’s savaged torso. She lies naked in a tangle of garbage, her face frozen in a beatific gaze, a purse and its contents scattered around her crudely slashed torso. Where her breasts should be, eye-shaped holes reveal red musculature and white ribs. For a moment, it’s difficult to process the discrepancy between her external beauty and internal meat. I close the file.
“I flagged the case, but pegged it as a one-off,” Brandt says. “Figured some angry boyfriend or crazy fan, but I was wrong. The second victim, Victoria Foster, was in the teen comedy Senior Year. She got a lot of press from her nude scene. Her body was found in a half-pipe in a Venice skateboard park. Again the breasts.”
“Your guy likes the publicity,” I begin. “This town is full of hot young women, but he goes after the ‘it’ girls, the ones with heat on their careers. He makes no effort to hide the bodies. He wants you to find them. Leaves their purses to help you identify them. And he keeps killing even after you put him on national television. Talk about your ego strokes. This gives him something he’s missing in life, a feeling of importance, that his existence has meaning. I’m sure your profiler has told you he’s probably single, a loner, maybe the victim of abuse.”
LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel is consulted on a serial murder case. 2,272 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The elevator doors open at the lobby revealing Russell, the day man on the front desk.
“Mr. Chapel, are you okay?” he asks. “I caught the whole thing on the security cameras. Should I call the cops?”
“I’m fine, Russell. No need for the police, but don’t open the garage for them. Maybe they’ll miss their deadline.”
Finally, I let out a long sigh. I am home and safe behind metal gates, doors with biometric key card locks, and Russell with his security monitors and taser. With each passing floor, I feel cleaner and safer, high above the dirt, poverty, illegal-immigrant desperation, multi-cultural conflict, gangbanging violence, and star-struck disillusionment of the city below.
The doors slide open, and we are greeted by a reproduction Louis XIV side table topped with a vibrant bouquet of bird-of-paradise. There are only two condos on this level and Lee Chang stands outside the open door to my unit, no doubt having watched the entire affair on the security system inside. He’s not much older than my college roommate’s daughter, Megan Davies, but already a veteran of the industry. Three months as my assistant will do that to a person. Gone is the boy band haircut and saggy skateboard jeans he wore to his interview, replaced by dressy-casual attire from the vintage stores on Melrose. Right now he is bringing me up to speed with his usual efficiency.
“Housekeeping has the guest room all set up for Megan. Mel called about a deal at Paramount. Mrs. Henderson from next door is threatening to take you before the tenants’ board because of all the paparazzi outside. And you’re all over the news. The landline’s been ringing off the hook. Channel 4, Channel 7, the L.A. Times, Entertainment Tonight. I’m letting the machine pick up. What the hell happened?”
Which is worse on a TV shoot: wrangling insane directors or stupid executives? 1,850 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
You know it’s a bad day when the Network appoints an incompetent head case to be its new programming chief and the guy you chose to direct your latest movie turns out to be a fraud.
Let’s just call it a massive Xanax day.
My name is Ray Medly and after years of toiling in the fields and learning my craft, I now produce motion pictures, including theatrical features, movies for television and streaming video.
I’d begun shooting Wagons West on the same day Mascot Cable trumpeted the hiring of Truman Rombolt, the third member of a three person team of programmers at RBP Productions and the subject of much industry speculation as to what it was they were thinking when they hired him.
When it was announced he was to become Mascot’s new head of programming, a collective groan could be heard all over Hollywood.
"Clueless," was how one producer described him.
"A deeply disturbed human being," commented another.
A movie studio executive refereeing a ruckus wonders how he got in the middle of it. 1,841 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1953
The Paramount Pictures executive suite was decorated in muted blue and green tones with aqua adorning the walls of the sumptuous offices where the top men nested on large sofas and chairs that reflected the paint scheme. An interior designer, probably a set decorator from the studio, suggested the colors because they had a soothing effect on the inhabitants and their visitors.
But this soothing atmosphere was having little to no effect on the meeting taking place inside James McLaren’s office. Jimmy to his friends, Paramount’s Chief of Studio Production was in the process of mediating between one of the most heralded directors and the current hot blonde commodity that the studio had produced.
“Sie ist faul und kann nicht handeln!” Hart Winslow, nee Reinhardt Wisner, shouted, slipping into his native German whenever he began to get angry. Winslow was one of many of the great artists that Hitler managed to chase out of Germany in the thirties. The director belonged to the legendary Berlin school of filmmakers that also produced Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. His escape was aided by the exiled Europeans now living in Hollywood; Bertolt Brecht had been his traveling companion.
McLaren didn’t speak a word of German but knew that Winslow was upset. “Hart, please, calm down.”
Winslow tried to stay in his chair. “Jimmy — excuse me, Mr. McLaren — she is… unprofessional!” He was using both hands as if praying or pleading.
He was a student of Italian film legends like Fellini and Mastroianni. Then he met their muse. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Quite a few people here in Hollywood on the Tiber hear “writer,” and understand “translator.” This means you exist to help them get their ideas, novels and screenplays produced in the real Hollywood on the Pacific. Bugged me at first, but they’re fast-cash transactions, and the “translate” button on the digital typer works better and better.
Everyone knows the old Cinecittà lot is being gradually turned into a theme park. They still shoot some TV ads and -series there. Hopeful extras line up at the gate. Eager beaver aspiring directors bring their reels, which are usually on their cellphones. No more paparazzi. No limousines, certainly no helicopters. No men in long black coats and Borsalino cowboy hats atop slicked-back hair who hide their authoritarian gaze behind Persol sunglasses, the lenses a shade or two darker than are commercially available.
One guy I met at a boring party heard “writer,” and understood “tour guide.” Not exactly refreshing, but different. “Tell me,” I said, “what’s the job?”
“All you gotta do is act like you’re the actor who played Porcello in Fellini’s Casanova. Tell the customers you and Donny Sutherland grew up together in Canada, played hockey, ate maple syrup, shit like that. You lead groups through the new fake sets, which are gonna look all dusty and sacred. Make ‘em feel like they’re getting the real deal, that they’re seeing something secret for insiders only, so they’ll go away thinking some of that magic might’ve rubbed off on them.”
The plot thickens and then doubles as McNulty investigates. 1,922 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Coffee bar manager Billie Franklin was startled by the sudden arrival of four men. She recognized Vanguard Studio’s Chief of Security and two of his uniformed security guards. She didn’t know who the other man was but suspected he was the private detective McNulty hired to investigate Mitch Mandeville’s hit and run. And from the looks on their faces, they weren’t there to order chai lattes.
“What’s going on?” Billie asked, clearly puzzled.
The security chief explained that they were searching the premises.
“Do you have a warrant?” she demanded.
“Don’t need one,” McNulty informed her. “The studio lot is private property and its security personnel is authorized to conduct any search they deem necessary.”
During questioning, Billie freely admitted that she and Mitch had been having an affair when she learned of his engagement to his Director of Development Tessa Gower. “He didn’t even tell me to my face,” Billie sobbed. “I had to hear about it on Access Hollywood!”
After turning the coffee bar upside down, the security chief informed McNulty that nothing was found tying Billie to Tessa’s drugging.
“My gut tells me something’s here,” McNulty insisted. “Have you looked in the coffee urns?” They hadn’t. “Empty ‘em.”
A movie’s magic is finding something new in every screening. 1,819 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Professor Daggett sits inside a local coffee haunt in Silverlake chatting with his colleague, Avery Dortch, who teaches cinematography at USC. Dortch, a short balding man with glasses and a love of Shakespeare, cups his hands around a caramel latte.
“Story doesn’t mean shit anymore, Avery. It’s all bells and whistles and car crashes and explosions.”
“I’ll grant you that we’re raising a generation of pre-diabetic androids who’ve never heard of Titus Andronicus.” Dortch lifts his head and closes his eyelids and recites, “Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head…”
“Yes, yes, I know. But what do we do about it, Avery? Nuance means nothing anymore. Everything must be spelled out. The trailers give away the whole plot. Moviegoers now expect it.”
Dortch returns to earth. “I had a student once who said the cornfield scene in North By Northwest is way overrated.”
“You see? Proves my point.”
“When I asked him why, you know what he said? That Hitchcock should have had another plane appear. Then they could have had a big air duel in the sky over the cornstalks.”
Why do film school classes analyze the magic out of the movies? 2,246 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
At 6:02 p.m. on October 11, under a canopy of puffy coins sliding lazily south to southeast over the Los Angeles basin, professor Edwin E. Daggett has an epiphany.
“Yes! Of course!” he shouts and thrusts his fists upward in triumph.
Two hours later, Professor Daggett stands before his USC film studies class, his eyes burning with an excitement that his students haven’t seen in him before.
“So, your next assignment is to watch John Ford’s classic western The Searchers over the weekend and on Monday we’ll have a thorough discussion of its mysteries.”
Levi Sims, a member of the Trojans’ track team whose personal best in the 100-meter hurdles is 13.42, raises his hand with a puzzled look on his goateed face. “What do you mean by mysteries?”
“I want you to dissect the film and decipher scenes or dialogue that hint at other things,” replies the veteran author of several books on the Golden Era of Hollywood. “Look for what you may not have seen before.”
Are humans hard-wired to gather in mourning for Hollywood celebrities? 1,848 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
June 25th is my birthday. Most years. Not this year. This year it’s 2009 and the day Michael died. And Farrah. And it makes me very sad. If you looked at me, you’d probably figure why would a white, divorced, middle-aged accountant — okay, unemployed accountant — give a shit? You’d think I’d have more important things to be sad about. Like the fact that I’m unemployed. Or that I’m middle-aged and fat. Moonwalk? Hell, sometimes just plain walking normally gives me shooting pains in my left arm.
I should be sad that I live in a crappy apartment in Hollywood, the part where the glam is insane homeless men and drug-addled whores. Or that my ex took my kids to Ohio. Or that she did it because I lost my job. In other words, she did it just to be a bitch. Was it my fault that all of a sudden I couldn’t make good money being an accountant? That’s my skill. I didn’t complain that she didn’t make good money being a bitch.
Anyway, let’s not go there now. Lots of nights, I sit around drinking cheap scotch being sad about that. Not this afternoon. This afternoon, I’m sitting around drinking cheap scotch being sad that Michael’s dead. And Farrah.
So why do I give a shit? Because Michael and I were close. We were bros. Not that I ever met him. We probably didn’t have many values in common. Fill in your own pedophile joke here. But we did sorta have stuff in common. We’re the same age. Well, I’m two months older. And I’ve outlasted him. I never thought that would happen. I mean, I never really thought about it at all. But he was a rich singer-dancer -actor who breathed purified air, and I’m a fat accountant who recently began drinking too much cheap scotch. Just since my kids left.
Working for a movie studio isn’t what it used to be. 1,813 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The first time it was the sign along the wall of the Studio lot. Someone had pulled off the two small "e"s leaving "Ent rtainm nt". Was it a dig at the kind of films the Studio produced? Maybe it wasn’t even vandalism, just some yokel who had shown up and, after the decidedly inferior Studio tour compared to Universal or the fabulous back lot at Warners, concluded that a souvenir was required. They could go back to Paduca or Clover or Groversville, hold up the purloined letters and say, "Look what I got me," basking in the praise from their friends. Maybe they did it in broad daylight. Spontaneously. Maybe they came back at night. There was surveillance all over the interior of the lot. Jeffrey Baumann didn’t know if there were cameras monitoring the perimeter.
Jeffrey did something at the Studio with contracts for a living on the credits for the movie advertising. If asked, he would readily agree that he was an office drone working in any business. The only advantage Jeffrey saw was that he got to watch the Studio’s films in private screening rooms during the day, sometimes with only two or three others people. But given the quality of the Studio’s output lately, that wasn’t much of a perk.
The lot wasn’t the most interesting lot of all the studio lots that someone visiting Los Angeles might take the time to tour. Though years ago, the lot had been huge with its own ranch and animal park, now it was roughly an isosceles triangle, a quarter mile at the base and a half mile at the sides, with the tip chopped off. All this Jeffrey learned on the Studio tour he had to take when he first started working there twelve years before. How interesting was it, really, to have some bouncy guy with unkempt blond hair and a scraggly beard in a blue shirt and shorts guide you briefly through the ratty set. That was the amazing thing, how nasty and cheap the sets looked when you saw them close up and in person. And then he’d lead you to an old musty dusty stage where he solemnly intoned that Esther Williams used to do her high dives into a pool that was underneath the floor, preparing to soar — that’s right, soar — while the cameras rolled. At Universal, a shark literally leapt out of the water, trying to bite off your arm. Scary. Here you had to imagine an actress from yesteryear and her chorus of bathing beauties soaring. Esther who?
On what would have been Marilyn Monroe’s 91st birthday, an imagining of her most humble of childhoods. 3,038 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Della noted, as she held six-month-old Norma Jean, that Sister Aimee had said it was very foolish to even hesitate to trust God. Sister Aimee spoke every sentence with a building rhythm. One, two, three, FOUR; one, two, three, FOUR. Certain words clanged like cymbals.
Della held Norma Jean loosely as if waiting for the baby to be scooped up by the great Aimee Semple McPherson. Della listened for twenty more minutes as Sister Aimee preached, her black Bible rolled up and held like a microphone as her long white sleeves trailed down to the stage, a heavenly cord of electricity with all its rhinestones, cascading to earth like stars from the sky.
“What’s more illustrative of our faith than to dedicate one of God’s little lambs? Bring your babies to the front and give back the gift, which has been so graciously given you. To keep them safe and let them truly grow in the light of God.”
Della raised Norma Jean above her head and passed her to Sister Aimee. From the back of the tent the baby appeared to levitate in her white baby gown up to the center of the stage.
“I baptize thee, beautiful baby, Norma Jean Baker. In the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit.”