It becomes clear that the scheming student filmmaker’s only talent is for blackmail. 2,602 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
As the evening was drawing to a close, Danny Shields began to question his plan. Would he ruin his chances of being accepted at the USC School Of Cinematic Arts in the traditional way in the event the admissions office came to their senses and recognized his genius? If he replaced his cousin Chuckie with real actors, Danny was certain his movies would more than hold their own with the early works of notable auteurs.
It was now 9:30 p.m. and many of the alumni and a few of the prospective students were beginning to leave. At the buffet, Danny reached for the last of the salmon and maguro sushi that had been exposed to the air too long. It was that precise moment when Danny caught J.T. Quinn’s mirrored reflection approaching in a stainless steel tray. As Danny slid a few inches sideways, the Admissions Office executive absentmindedly stepped behind him, hovering only a few inches away, still indecisive on whether he would indulge himself with the picked-over platters.
Danny was on autopilot since he had envisioned a version of this very scenario at least fifty times from twenty different angles when he initially hatched the idea. He took out his refurbished iPhone and held it over his shoulder, as if he was casually photographing the gathering in a master. Danny reversed the lens, pivoted to his left, pressed record, then suddenly stepped backwards into Quinn, as if momentarily losing his balance, squishing his face in victim mode, the same way he had been rehearsing on the bus. J.T. reflexively mumbled, “Excuse me” and wandered off. Danny hit pause as Quinn steered his wife to the door, oblivious to what had just happened that would change his life forever.
Was the casting director promoting a sexist and racist business model? Or just finding roles for underserved actresses? 2,149 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Look, I’m not blind. Or stupid. Even back then, I knew there were a few black women who slipped past the gates to become legitimate stars, including Academy Award winner Halle Berry. (I admire her so much that I’ve granted my husband blanket permission to sleep with her if she ever happens to ask him. I can bed Mahershala Ali.) Now it’s even better, with blazing talents like Viola Davis, Jennifer Hudson and Lupita N’yongo walking away with Oscar statuettes.
No, my role in the industry was not to build the careers of those special few but to champion the right for my SBGs to make a decent living off supporting parts in substandard material, just like any white actor of middling talent in Hollywood. Time’s up on waiting for our right to cash in on being mediocre, just like everybody else.
Time to get sassy! My assistant Cherie and I began watching the video.
The actress’s smile disappeared instantly. The earrings stopped moving and hung immobile for one long alarming moment. Then she spoke in a voice devoid of any dialect. I would never have represented this blandness.
“Hello, Sassy Black Girlfriend Agency Inc. I submitted this video not in hopes of signing with your agency, but to tell you in a very digital way that I am one of a new coalition of Hollywood actors of color who object to your very existence in 2018. Time’s up on limiting your clientele to women — even worse, specifically black women — and reinforcing negative stereotypes by sending them out for this very limited segment of available roles.
“We’re calling you out on your sexist and racist business model and demanding that you cease and desist immediately.“
African American film and TV roles are all the rage right now. But it wasn’t always that way. 2,135 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I opened the photo attachment to full screen. The 23-inch monitor was sitting on my mid-century modern desk, positioned in feng shui perfection beneath a classic wooden ceiling fan in a Spanish-style apartment complex turned office building just off Cahuenga and Santa Monica Boulevards in Hollywood.
Too much detail? Deal with it. That’s just the kind of person I am.
I also like to be able to see things clearly, hence the big screen attached to my MacBook Air at the office. I’m too old to watch Netflix on an iPhone, thank you very much. My Gen Z assistant, Cherie, peered anxiously over my shoulder, standing stork-like on one small bootie-clad foot.
“What do you think?” she asked, nervously stretching the cuffs of her pink cotton H&M sweater down over her tiny hands.
Visually, this actress was just right. Black, mid-30s, with too-tight clothes, at least one hundred long braids, sky-high heels and three-inch gold-painted nails bearing so many jewels they looked like they had clawed open the royal gates of Versailles. Stunning.
Still, there remained one important test she had to pass.
A hit TV show set in Hawai’i is ending an eight-season run. Then disaster strikes. 2,874 words. Excerpted from the 2018 novel Waimea: Uprising by Gordy Grundy. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
"I didn’t tell you that Sanders tried to recruit me for his posse party," said Amanda. There was no way in hell she was going to jeopardize her career.
"Equal opportunity," Waimea laughed.
"I’m always up for a new experience." She shook her head and whistled. "But raiding a hippie commune seems highly unadvisable." The TV actress’s star was rising and she wanted to keep the trajectory into the clear smooth blue.
"Heard any word about it on the set grapevine?" asked Wai. His job as second Associate Producer on the Hawaii cowboy epic Paniolo had been waylaid by a favor for his boss. "Any gossip?"
She thought about it and was surprised, "No."
With tensions climaxing, the filmmakers wonder if they can convince the famous actor to quit. 1,649 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Operation Death moved through the studio slowly but surely. Casting proceeded apace. Costume fittings were routine for a contemporary picture. Naturally, Forsyth would be contractually permitted to keep his clothes. Sets went up on schedule and, as expected, Dr. Doherty’s home, seen in only one quick sequence, was decked out with expensive dark brown shag carpeting.
Director-screenwriter Allan Spanner was Overseeing storyboards for the screenplay when his agent ordered him to find some place private to take the call. He chose the men’s room off the office.
“Are you sitting down?” the rep asked. “I just got a call from Pete Trimble, the newspaper columnist for one of the Chicago papers. He said he was letting you know that, under Writers Guild rules, a writer who is hired to write behind another writer has to inform the first writer.”
“What are you getting at?” Spanner asked.
“Pete Trimble is a friend of Brendan Forsyth. It looks like your old buddy has hired his old buddy to rewrite your script.”
“You mean the one we’re starting to shoot on Monday.”
The celebrated actor starts driving the filmmakes crazy. Can they control him? 2,191 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The first phone call started as an innocent inquiry.
“Does he have to drive an SUV?” Brendan Forsyth’s agent asked.
“Why not?” Charlie Greene, one of the two producers on the film Operation Death starring Forsyth, asked back.
“Brendan feels that the character would drive something sporty. Say, a Porsche.”
Don Masaroff was an old-time ten-percenter who brought his client list with him when he’d hopped agencies the year before. He was known as a gentleman, had repped Forsyth since forever and was used to nudging producers rather than playing brinksmanship.
“The man’s a middle-aged surgeon,” Greene said. “Plus, we’ve lined up a promotional tie-in with GM for free vehicles in exchange for an onscreen credit. A Porsche wouldn’t be in character or in the budget.”
“Brendan thinks the character should be more daring,” Masaroff said, ignoring Greene. “That raises the stakes for his encounters. Besides, a lot of middle-aged guys buy a sports car. It’s a rite of passage, you know? I did.”
A comedy-action star stretches to take on a daringly different dramatic role. 1,705 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Brendan Forsyth was a green-light machine. Ever since he shot to stardom opposite Ryan Howson in Gangsters Two, the pair playing two lovable rogues, he had become one of those rare Hollywood commodities popular with both public and critics. He was also smart. He had a social conscience and supported many causes and charities, but he kept a low donor profile. His marriage was stable and the press treated him and his wife, Barbara, with respect. He was selective with interviews.
His ability to choose projects was equally remarkable. He famously passed on the starring role as the ship builder who rescues all the passengers in the disaster picture Sea Doom because it was the builder’s flawed design that put everybody in jeopardy in the first place. Rather, he wanted to play the captain of the rescue liner because that was the only guiltless character in the script. Interestingly, Howson had no qualms playing the ship builder, and the re-teaming scored a box office record.
Forsyth would even take a supporting role if he thought it could help a picture get made. That garnered him a lot of good press, but it also made his fellow actors wary of him. And yet the guy was just so likable that they had to forgive him. What other big star would have played the fireman for barely ten minutes in the children’s movie, Cathy’s Kitten? Because his daughter loved the books, that’s why. Or the voice of a paranoid caller on the TV series Shrink Rap? Because the sitcom was his guilty pleasure, and it set off a trend of celebrity cameos.
So when Forsyth agreed to play the hotly contended role of Dr. Bob Doherty, an alcoholic surgeon who climbs on the wagon to save the U.S. President’s life in the medical thriller Operation Death, it was seen as another daring decision by the iconoclastic star. Producers Adam Hoffman and Charlie Greene were thrilled; Larry Cooper, the retired surgeon who’d written the bestselling novel, was honored; and screenwriter-director Allan Spanner was eager to work with his friend of twenty years dating back to when they were both struggling actors.
Hollywood may have too many award shows but everyone still wants to be a winner. 1,929 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Hollywood – 1978
"And the winner is," heralded Artie Edgar, hesitating a beat in an effort to heighten the suspense.
Known mainly for his role in the made-for-cable comedy series, Geezers, Edgar had been tapped to emcee history’s first cable TV awards program, the Inter-Connected-Networks awards, or simply, the ICONs.
The program was being televised nationally on every cable channel, a joint effort to elevate awareness of the non-conventional fare now being offered by a myriad of new programming services.
The year was 1978, fifteen years before the cable industry’s first Emmy nomination. For its time, however, the ICON awards were the symbol of excellence in cable programming.
"The ICON goes to Burlesque Heaven," Artie Edgar gleefully announced.
She invited him into her palatial Hollywood home so he could comfort her at this next catastrophe. 2,378 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Jill Racine, television’s biggest star, observed the vehicle full of old people pointing, chattering, struggling to take photos of her. Still smiling, she urged me to go fuck myself, then skipped over to the tour group, leaned into the nearest elderly man and asked perkily, “You guys thirsty?”
I helped the tourists out of the minivan and watched Jill usher them toward her mansion. Hot, exhausted and angry as they were, my people were frantic with excitement. Ruthie had removed the handkerchief from her forehead, revealing a small abrasion. The German, expressionless, was the last to disembark. I didn’t know whether he had the faintest idea who our hostess was.
Stepping inside, the folks luxuriated in the air conditioning and begged for selfies with Jill, which she promised them “after you’ve cooled off and had something to drink. You guys like chocolate chip cookies? I made some with Daisy.”
Damn she’s a good actor, I thought.
There were three types of homes I’d point out during my first tour of duty driving Starlight Tours to the “Homes Of The Stars” when I’d just moved here: homes where I knew the star lived because I’d seen the star, homes where I knew the star didn’t live because I’d made it up, and homes where I didn’t know if the star lived because the drivers I’d observed during training had told their customers the star lived there but maybe they’d made it up.
A dozen years later, I was encouraged to reach the point where this ridiculous job was providing an emotional release. I could forget about my dying sitcom-writing career and resultant financial woes and make actual human contact. And I could tell jokes for two hours at a time, or an hour and a half with shortcuts if my group was a bunch of stiffs. I was even blessed with brief moments when I could break through the fog of anxiety over my son’s cerebral palsy and the debilitating loneliness stemming from my wife’s long-term hospitalization and her doctors’ refusal to let me see her.
My customers’ biggest thrill, now as then, came from seeing a star in the flesh. It didn’t happen often but it happened. Mel Brooks, wearing a robe and slippers, politely told us it was okay to drive by his place but please don’t stop the car. Cameron Diaz ambled over in a striped blue bikini to say hi. Michael Jackson Himself once hopped out of his limo near his Carolwood Lane home and happily shook hands with my awestruck customers.
Rule #2 for showbiz assistants: don’t bed a stranger instead of the man you love. 1,927 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I walked into my apartment like a zombie.
I knelt on the floor of my bedroom. Stared at the wall. The SoCal summer sun sank outside my window. I watched shadows shift. Jake would not leave my mind or my body. He had taken over.
I had not managed the effort to switch on the light. Now shadows faded into darkness. My thoughts crashed. My power of denial faded. I absolutely loved him and I hated myself for it. I hated him for it, too.
“Why, why, why?” I asked the empty room.
I dropped my head into my hands. The moment solidified. I was head-over-heels in love with Jake Easton — a songwriter older than my father would be had he lived — and my resistance was circling the shower drain as I let the water run. I pulled myself up, out of paralysis, and dressed. I fetched my purse, walked to my car in a daze and drove the two blocks to The Brentwood, my local Regal Beagle.
Rule #1 for showbiz assistants: don’t fall in love with the boss. 1,416 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jake Easton caught me in the middle of a mani-pedi at the nail shop. I pulled one hand away from the manicurist to answer the phone.
“Listen, on your way to my house, I need you to stop by Aida Thibiant for me.”
“Aida Thibiant,” he pronounced with an arrogance that sent daggers through me. “It’s a spa in Beverly Hills. I’ve ordered a bunch of skin and hair products that need to be picked up. There’s a sale so I decided to go to town for the best that money can buy. It’s the stuff I used back when I took good care of my skin. Also, I need you to book me a facial and a massage with the receptionist. Her name is Jenny. Make the appointments for Saturday morning. Nine for the massage with Bridget and ten for the facial with Lauren. Do you have a pen? I’ll give you the address.”
This guy annoys the fuck out of me. He’s a 58-year-old legendary songwriter/recording artist who’s written tons of hit songs for notable artists on the seventies Laurel Canyon music scene. As well, Jake has enjoyed a pretty successful acting career over the years. Also, he’s a notorious ladies man/lothario who has been romantically linked to a plethora of beautiful iconic female singers. By contrast, I’m thirty years younger than Jake and hired to transcribe his lyric journals for an upcoming album, but also to perform unclear personal assistant tasks. I’m a struggling actress/writer and still hopeful that working for Jake will be my ticket into the Hollywood elite.
“No,” I snapped. “I don’t run around with pen in hand waiting for you to bark orders at me. Sorry.”
He must make a choice: become the out-of-control young starlet’s BFF – or her babysitter. 2,778 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jimmy Sakamuru talked a lot about art, but he cared more about money. It’s the only way a director can get anything done. Jimmy would try to stick to dollars and cents around Barney but he was sure to look for a chance to tell us how his movie was like Italian neo-realism or some damn thing. He had directed a few studio pictures but none of them had been hits. It meant that now he could make a studio distribution deal but he’d have to find his own financing. Jimmy had lost his pipeline to studio financing. To claw your way back from that took a fierceness that wouldn’t be denied. The ins and outs of this were tricky.
And now Jimmy was bringing Caitlin Harper to our office. We mostly got business people coming through our doors. This would be our first pop diva.
Barney was wearing his best suit — a blue pinstriped double-breasted model that he wore to bank meetings. He seemed a little anxious. It hadn’t occurred to me to dress for the occasion. I was in my usual khakis and an old grey herringbone jacket. Jimmy was dressed in leather, jacket and trousers, though not the James Dean-Marlon Brando biker sort. Jimmy’s leather was buttery and so tight that it must have caused pain. He was wearing Japanese running shoes that had air pumps in them. The shoes looked like the 1980s to me but, as I came to see, those shoes and much else with Jimmy were worn in an ironic manner that mostly went over my head and certainly over Barney’s.
Jimmy showed up solo with a song and dance about Caitlin being ill. Her absence was an unmistakable sign of how things would go if we got in the Caitlin Harper business. Jimmy was full of assurances about how well he could handle her. Before Barney could throw him out, we were treated to a disquisition on the finer points of the shooting scheme for Overdrive. "I don’t want to just tell the story. Not a biopic, you know?" Barney knew what a biopic was but not much more. “The influence here is the nouvelle vague," Jimmy added with an aggressive French accent that irritated Barney.
Who’ll be tapped to tame a young starlet with wild ways? 2,762 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It was two o’ clock in the morning and Caitlin Harper was weaving her way east on Sunset Boulevard in her Cadillac Escalade. She’d had a lease on that enormous black beast for all of two days. Three of her pals were on board. Caitlin had sworn up and down to her agents, her manager (who was also her mother), her lawyer, possibly her accountant and to her one friend who had some common sense, that at night she would always have a driver. She would never, day or night, drive after drinking. She probably meant it when she said it, but Caitlin was twenty years old and famous. She did whatever she wanted to do whenever she wanted to do it. Caitlin had recently seen Bonnie And Clyde and was in a Faye Dunaway mood. She’d taken to wearing a black beret, imagining herself an outlaw on the run.
Caitlin Harper might have been the only pop diva I had heard of. That’s because everybody had heard of her. You couldn’t look at a screen or a magazine without encountering her round and lubricious face. She pouted her way across the American media with her high and swollen breasts pushed nearly out of her famous swooning necklines. I couldn’t name any of the songs she was associated with though I had seen a few of her movies.
On this night all that weaving from lane to lane, complicated by those Dunaway dreams, sent her diagonally across Sunset, over the lushly planted road-divider and into a telephone pole near the Beverly Hills Hotel. The pink palace as it was known was the property of the Sultan of Brunei, a personage that I’m sure Caitlin had never heard of though it’s entirely possible that the Sultan had heard of her. A woman in one of the big houses on Foothill Road was awakened by the noise and called in the accident. Caitlin had been drinking, which is what she was usually doing at two In the morning, unless she was having sex or possibly both at once. She was wearing her seatbelt, though I doubt it was buckled at the moment she wrapped the Escalade around that pole. It was a triumph of ingenuity that despite the inconvenience of interference from two airbags, Caitlin had enough of her wits about her to buckle up even if It was too late to do much good. Caitlin had banged her head on the side window which caused a mild concussion, but that was all. Concussions are one of the many things that seatbelts prevent. No one seemed interested in such pesky details. Her chums were bounced around a bit though the serious damage was to the pole and the Escalade.
Short or tall. Blond or brunette. Whoever women are, Hollywood wants someone else. 552 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
SEEKING ACTRESSES AND ACTORS WITH TOTALLY ATTAINABLE QUALITIES FOR HIGH PROFILE TOP SECRET FEATURE FILM
OFFICIAL CASTING CALL: UNTITLED FEATURE FILM (MAJOR STUDIO)
*No phone calls. Email pitches ONLY*
FEMALE LEAD: Allison is effortlessly sexy but not intimidating: a true leading lady in every sense. She’s the girl next door to the girl next door; a classic beauty with an edgy quality that we cannot describe in words… but we’ll know it when we see it. Her imperfections make her who she is. Maybe she’s got a quirky birthmark on her thigh, or two different color eyes, or a penchant for wild lipstick. Surprise us!
Slowly and painfully, the one-time movie star comes back from near death. 2,232 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
He tried but he couldn’t move; restraints held his arms and legs down. There was something over his face, something heavy and damp, and there were tubes in his nose feeding cool air into his nostrils to control the rate of his breathing. Pain vibrated throughout his body but it was a dull ache, not a sharp piercing, that ran from his neck to his toes. Something was masking the real feeling. Just when he felt he could open his eyes, he would pass out again.
There were times the famous movie star Tommy Shaw heard voices hovering above but he remained in a constant state between dreams and consciousness so that the voices hardly seemed real. Were they talking to him or amongst themselves? One time he could clearly hear the conversation:
Take it easy on the morphine, Mr. Clovis… We do want him to wake up some day. Can he handle the pain, Doctor? He moans so in his sleep… Gradually, okay?… We need to lower the dosage over the next few days… We must concentrate on getting Mr. Shaw back to full consciousness and then we can regulate the pain… You can see him trying free himself… Mr. Shaw, please try not to struggle… Your wounds will bleed… Please, sir, listen to the doctor.
Then Tommy would obey the voices and stop fighting against the restraints and fall back to unconsciousness.
Tommy Shaw’s recovery from his near coma, to his weeks-long stay in bed, to his standing and trying to walk, took over a month of painful rehabilitation. He couldn’t attend Helen Porter’s funeral; her family came and took her body back to Springfield, Illinois, and they made it clear that no one from Hollywood was welcome to be there. Fans left flowers and postcards with their condolences and hopes for a speedy recovery outside the gates of the mansion. Universal Pictures sent over food from the town’s best restaurants and Carl Laemmle sent over a signed blank check for whatever Tommy needed. No visitors were allowed in the house. It fell solely to Clovis to prepare his master for life as his new self.