The executive story editor pitches the script to the studio boss – with consequences. 3,103 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
So here Mike was, past thirty and working in a studio story department, parking at the other end of the lot. The real question was, how did you progress from here? When the people above made enough flops or embarrassed the studio enough they were fired gently and given their own production deals. Few movies ever came out of those kiss-off vanity office suites (more time was spent on cool logos and interior decoration), but it might be possible to wring some authentic opportunity from such a sinecure. Of course, first you’d have to get promoted within the studio system to fail comprehensively. Well, Mike was good at that. He had credentials: he.was a one-man Bermuda Triangle. Let the ordinary losers try and compete with that!
Getting promoted was another issue. Mike knew the way to do it was to socialize with people he didn’t like. It was a daunting prospect, not least of all because there was no clear way to define your progress. In law school you measured your steps toward the bar exam class by class, and year by year. The path was worn down by many feet. There was nothing comparable in this world. Mike had no idea how many nights of poker he’d have to sit through, how many cigarettes he’d have to smoke, how many parties he’d have to endure, before he was eligible to get the job he wanted to lose.
In fact, he didn’t even know how to begin. He and Emma hardly went out at all. He remembered high school and desperately trying to figure out how to get into the cool group when nothing else had seemed to matter. He’d crashed parties, staged elaborate ones of his own. He even went out for the football team. But nothing worked. A geek was a geek; the social structure was absolute. It had been a grotesque ordeal and he had no desire to initiate some new version of it now.
He put the problem aside until a few hours later, when his old friend Roscoe Henderson called with the first hint of a solution.
An executive story editor tries to convince his studio to make a special screenplay. 2,489 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Mike’s job existed because no one in Hollywood wanted to read a screenplay. It made sense: they were tedious. Even the best ones were a chore to plow through and the worst were excruciating. Mike had wondered about this often since he had started running the story department. Part of it was that scripts weren’t designed for reading. A screenplay was a blueprint for building a movie; popcorn was inappropriate. They weren’t supposed to be fun. But they dismantled narrative in a mercilessly clever way, leaving the pieces – chunks of single-spaced description, columns of dialog, indented transitions – scattered on the page like the ruins of a children’s toy.
The most common solution was to skip the blocks of description and just read the dialogue. But more and more scripts were all action and the only spoken lines in six or seven pages were “Look out!” or “What the – ?” So you really had to at least skim the car chases and the knife fights.
For months every bad script Mike had seen involved someone named Bubba. He had never met anyone named Bubba, which was probably a good thing. But they were everywhere in the world of bad scripts. Whatever Bubba’s occupation, he always wound up declaiming it to the drippy girlfriend who objected to his heroics. “I’m a fireman, damn it,” He would say. Or, “I’m a cop, damn it.” And the girlfriend would invariably say “If you go out that door, I won’t be here when you get back.”
I didn’t make my boss look like a crook even though that’s what he tried to do to me. 2,692 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Bobby van Arnold wasn’t corrupt. He just knew how to game the system. “It isn’t cheating,” he insisted. “It’s working the loopholes so guys like us can make a living.” He underscored his point by poking me in the chest when I handed him my first weekly expense report after he’d hired me in 1970.
He grunted, “What’s this?” and went through all my neatly arranged figures and doubled them, turning $5 into $10 and $10 into $20. “How the hell can I turn in my expenses when send them this? You want to make me look like a crook?”
“But that’s all I spent,” I said weakly.
“So what? You think the producer is gonna be happy with a cheapskate publicist? You want him to think we don’t care enough about his film to spend the hell out of it? Fill out a new one and don’t make the same mistake.”
I quickly learned that movies weren’t a job, they were a racket. Bobby made this clear to me right after I doubled my expense report since the company was paying me poorly. That’s how it worked.
A young executive learns too much information from this studio mogul. 2,243 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“I need you!” Walter Shepherd bellowed into the phone, causing Barry Nash to cringe.
First as an agent, then as a producer, and finally as a studio head, Walter Shepherd was a Hollywood legend whose behavior was considered off-the-wall, and whose thinking was deemed out-of-the-box, long before those terms became fashionable. It was Shepherd who showed the movie biz that hits should be separated into two totally distinct categories – those that boys, girls, or sometimes both, saw three, ten, or even twenty times; and those that attracted people who didn’t, as a rule, go to the movies. It was Shepherd who predicted first the rise, then the rapid fall, of the new 3-D technology.
For Nash, who was far from earning V.P. stripes of his own, the chance to work with such an icon as Shepherd seemed like a dream. After hitting a wall as an aspiring screenwriter, then toiling in obscurity as a freelance script reader, the opportunity to learn from a honcho was not just what his friends termed a new lease on life. It also gave Nash the wherewithal to marry his college girlfriend, with whom he quickly produced an adorable daughterplus a chance to see the way Hollywood really worked.
In this book excerpt, an aspiring filmmaker tries to climb the Hollywood ladder in spite of his evil boss. 2,269 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Zach celebrated Carson’s birthday by treating him to lunch at Spago in Beverly Hills where Wolfgang Puck prepared a special meal for them. And for Christmas, Carson received a Prada cashmere sweater. He wore it to the office once, so Zach would see it, then returned the sweater and put the balance toward a designer suit on sale at Macy’s. “Cashmere in Los Angeles?” Carson had remarked. “Not exactly practical. A Hugo Boss suit on the other hand…”
Those instances of solicitousness, however, paled by comparison to the number of times Zach had called Carson “a second-class cretin because you’re not even good enough to be first class” and threatened to “fire your sorry ass if you so much as breathe funny for the rest of the day.”
The stress, which sometimes breached Carson’s high tolerance level, had led him to consider stealing a tranq or two from the pharmacy in Zach’s bottom desk drawer. His boss would never know since, like many of the other office execs, he popped pills by the hour.
“Seriously, dude?” Jamie had chided when Carson mentioned it. “Is that the road you want to head down: sucking pills like they were Altoids?”
“No, no, you’re right,” Carson conceded. “But some days, it’s very tempting.”
The opportunity to work for one of the top producers in the industry right out of college was not a matter of happenstance. Carson had been hired on the recommendation of Prof. David Mendoza, who had mentored Carson and Jamie at Cal U School of Film and was one of Zach Corrigan’s closest confidantes. The two had met when Mendoza was working on his doctorate in film and interviewed Corrigan for his thesis, which evolved into a published bio about the maverick producer. Zach often showed Mendoza rough cuts of his films and asked for suggestions on how to improve them. Mendoza had keen cinematic instincts and, over the years, Corrigan had repeatedly tried to hire him.
An assistant takes friendly advice on how to deal with a monstrous film boss in this book excerpt. 1,706 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
With a personality as unruly as his person, Carson Thorne’s boss, Zach Corrigan (aka “the beast”), was a large rumpled man who some speculated might be suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Carson had a better answer: “Zach is a performance artist specializing in mood swings.”
Zach admitted to thirty-eight. He was actually forty-six. Carson knew this because, as his first assistant, he’d helped Zach renew his passport and driver’s license. Zach’s self-image was that of a rakish hipster, dashing and edgy. Everyone else viewed him as a borderline slob. Zach had a heavy beard but shaved only twice a week, probably on the same days he bathed, and with all his accumulated wealth, he had yet to invest in a comb or a steam iron. His Saville Row custom-tailored suits were perpetually rumpled, his club tie always cocked to one side, his shirt tucked half-in/half-out. All his socks had holes in the big toe and the last time his shoes had been shined was by the manufacturer. His attentive patient wife, Mila, had long ago given up on trying to bring order to his sartorial chaos. She chose to pick her battles and fight only those she had a chance of winning.
Though rabidly driven and tireless, Zach was also a devoted family man. Unlike most Hollywood producers, he wouldn’t even think of cheating on his wife despite the constant stream of come-ons from sacrificial lamb ingénues. Moreover, he never missed one of his children’s soccer matches, graduations or dance recitals even if it meant being late to a business meeting or an important political fundraiser he was chairing.
Zach’s preferred means of communication consisted of an infinite variety of snorts and harrumphs, and he freely emitted unsightly noises from all his bodily orifices. He didn’t seem to care if other people were present, even celebrities, most of whom claimed they found the impromptu explosions charming. That’s how badly they wanted to be in business with Zach Corrigan, whose films had won seventeen Oscars to date and been nominated for forty-two.
She wasn’t the predator. She was just the assistant warning starlets about him. 1,998 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I got the assignment not long after I graduated from Queens Community College. I was the only one that the school’s job center was referring: they needed somebody smart and discreet. I asked if it was the C.I.A. and the placement counselor laughed; they’d never gotten a call from the C.I.A. If I was so lucky to secure the job, I would be the personal assistant to the big man himself, a Soho movie mogul. It would mean taking two subway lines from Queens but the counselor assured me that the commute would be worth it. Who knew where I could go from there?
With my straight A average, I’d been hoping to continue on at a good four-year college. Stonybrook offered me a full scholarship but it was out of the question. We simply couldn’t afford it. My part- time bookkeeping job was just not cutting it. By then, mom’s arthritis was so bad, she could barely walk and Dad was already M.I.A. We called it that, a joke between my sister Amy and me. Dad’s days in Vietnam were over before we were born, and before he even met my mother. But the way he continuously referenced that time made it a daily presence in our lives.
He had lost too many buddies over there and, according to our mother, that was the reason he turned into a drunk. I guess it’s as good a reason as any. He used to make decent money as a mechanic but blamed technology for rendering him obsolete. But it was the alcohol that did him in. Last we heard, he was living in Costa Rica with some widow he met at the recycling center. Give him that, at least he recycled his liquor bottles.
That left me to keep the family afloat. Amy, already with two kids of her own, had moved to Texas of all places when her husband got a job transfer. So the timing was perfect when the Placement Center called. My interview with the office manager followed two days later. I had arrived early and waited over an hour in her office. The walls were lined with movie posters of the company’s artistic and commercial hits. I hadn’t seen any of them, movies were expensive and at home, mom preferred to watch the nature shows, though her body was incapable of moving, she liked to travel to exotic places in her mind.
She wants to make it in showbiz. But not by temping for the powers-that-be. 3,386 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I sit at a desk in a poolside cabana at a fairytale Spanish style estate in Bel Air. Platinum record plaques litter the walls, bragging. This cabana is the home office of the assistant to veteran record producer Matthew Vaughn. I am an undercover rock star (like Hannah Montana, only a little longer in the tooth) or so I’d like to believe, but I’m dripping with passionate stage fright. If only I could get on that stage. I could be somebody. Meanwhile, I’m a temporary assistant to the powers-that-be in the entertainment industry, while I “develop my writing and artistry.” That’s my pitch, but it’s getting old. My life is a dichotomy. A nightmarish fantasy. A fantastic nightmare.
This is the second consecutive Monday I am on this particular assignment — a two-day gig that terminates at 6:30 pm. It’s 11:23 am. I wonder what will come out if I write all day as a way to pass the hours. Oh, the hours. Springtime sun rays filter through lush tree foliage over the Spanish tile pool, through French doors, across the desk and glare off my laptop screen. It’s pretty. This place would be heaven if only it were mine. If only I were more than a temporary assistant living a temporary life.
I have been assisting entertainment types for twelve years now. I’ve also written a novel, multiple TV pilots, a feature, endless songs. I’ve come close to success. I’ve tasted it. But it’s never more than a taste on the tip of my tongue. None of my dreams have come true and the only bankable skill I have developed since college is the skill of assisting the powers-that-be in Hollywood. I know how to get them exactly what they want, no matter how ridiculous or seemingly impossible, on the triple. It’s a skill I’ve honed to near perfection, one many people around the world might think they would kill for. But it isn’t feeding my soul anymore.
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.
The wannabe TV scribe meets the show’s head writer who is arrogance personified. 1,637 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Manhattan – 1954
I set up my new working area right by the only window in the room. The glass pane was so filthy you couldn’t see if it was night or day.
Milky came over to inspect. “It’s so crowded in here, Rocky, that you’re gonna have to lose some weight or park your ass out the window to make room.”
I decided to join in. “Is that a window or am I looking at a large glass of tomato juice?”
Milky thought this over and a little smile came to his face. “Okay, not bad. But take my advice: you’re gonna be dealing with four of the smartest and funniest people in television so you better stay on your toes or you’ll be eaten alive. You know how I know this? You see that Emmy award on the shelf?”
I looked over at the bookshelf that hadn’t seen a dust rag in years and found the Emmy with a bra hanging off one of its wings.
“This ’53 Emmy,” Milky continued, “tells you we are the best comedy writing team in television, at least for last year. And that…”
He stopped in mid-sentence, looking at the bookshelf and then around the room. He went to each desk and looked underneath. He even searched in the wastepaper basket and in the closet. He stopped and rubbed his chin and then threw up his hands. He looked over at Hattie.
“Where the hell is it?”
A wannabe TV writer starts his dream job amid the stuff and staff of nightmares. 2,220 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Manhattan – 1954
I guess it was the mid-fifties; the only way I can visualize New York in those days was in the leafy fall and the cold gray days of winter. It comes back to me like one of those art house films. Everything seemed painted in white, black and gray.
I was living a great life back then. I’d survived the Korean War and dodged working at my father’s bookkeeping firm by using the G.I. Bill to get into City College. That’s where I graduated with my English Lit degree and decided to practice my new craft in the NBC mailroom. A great job if you have no other ambitions in show business. You make all the right contacts and you have a little gambling book on the side. If you don’t screw up the mail, you’ll have a job for life. It was there I came to know Mort Schumacher, the Head of Programming, and started dumping my scripts into his mail slot.
I did this for three months: banging away at my father’s old Underwood at night and finishing a script every two weeks. The first one I personally handed to Mr. Schumacher and told him how much I wanted to write for television and why it was my life’s ambition to become the Chekhov of the electronic media age, and on and on. After, I’d just leave little notes attached: “Here’s another one! Hope you enjoy… Rocky.” Or, “Cranked this out in forty-eight hours and no sleep and seventeen cups of coffee. If you get the chance, please look it over… Rocky.”
My real name was Lucius Bauderchantz and my family called me Luther and my friends, Lucky. It was in the service — because of my stocky build, curly dark hair and bent nose — that they started to call me Rocky, after Marciano. This confused the hell out of my parents; when people would call the house and ask for Lucky or Rocky, mom and dad weren’t sure if they’d forgotten about another son hidden somewhere.
All of my hard work finally paid off one day when I was summoned to Mort Schumacher’s office on the thirty-eighth floor, all brass fixtures and wood paneling.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: An ambitious production aide at the 1979 award show screws up not just once but twice. 2,528 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Karen was eager to please, maybe because she was overweight and, she’d told me without embarrassment, always had been. But she didn’t take any shit. Actually she didn’t use the word “overweight,” she said she was “fat.” She was funny, too, which I love in a woman. I was drawn to her the moment I met her.
I was low on the totem pole but Karen was lower, a temp secretary, or “personal assistant” as they’d just started calling them, chained to the desk of some associate producer in their offices over in West Hollywood. She was 25 and I was 23. I was done with film school because I’d decided not to bother getting the MFA. I was already working on the Oscars show, specifically the 51st Academy Awards in 1979. I was a member of the industry.
At that very moment I had just finished leading Lawrence Olivier onto the stage. “Call me Larry,” he’d urged me. I didn’t offer to shake his hand because Karen had warned me he was suffering from some painful bone disease but would be too polite to say so. Still, there was a bounce in his step the moment he set foot on the huge Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, even though it was only a dress rehearsal. (I think “Larry” was wearing a jumpsuit.) I’d handed him over to the stage manager and he’d taken center stage, gazing out over the house like he owned it – which he would the next day, when he received his Lifetime Achievement award.
Olivier might not even be the biggest star at the ceremony. There were whispers of an “extra-special presenter,” an even bigger legend that year for Best Picture, the final award of the night. Lots of people guessed Katharine Hepburn, who rarely made public appearances anymore. And Hepburn, Karen told me, had never shown up at an Oscars ceremony, even the four times she won. Karen quoted Hepburn by heart: “As for me, prizes are nothing. My prize is my work.”
Karen figured the Mystery Legend would be John Wayne because of reports his lung cancer had returned.
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. 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.
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.)
The flirting and gossiping ends badly for someone on this TV series. 3,759 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The wrap party was being held at the cheesy cowboy theme bar at Universal CityWalk. Caleb hated that development next door to the lot where he worked. Even the name grated on him: “CityWalk.” It was everything that pissed him off about L.A.. The antiseptic tourist trap was so utterly un-urban. He could rattle off at least a half-dozen bars on nearby Ventura that were far superior. But he was just a lowly writer’s assistant so it wasn’t his place to question the chosen location for the wrap party. Actually, he wasn’t surprised. He worked for a cookie cutter network procedural, and the powers-that-be had chosen to end the season in the most uninspired way possible. Little wonder that he always could predict each show’s ending.
As he parked his car, he thought about Nora, the staff writer considered a “diversity hire.” She had once confessed to him that she loved the City Walk. Of course, Nora loved the City Walk. Caleb hated Nora. He didn’t see her talent, or what she offered to the show, or why Bryan gave her two scripts. Caleb was really hoping he’d get to co-write the finale, like Matt Weiner’s writer assistants, but instead Nora got it. Like she needed another credit. Caleb had read her pilot back when he was Bryan’s assistant. It was fine, the dialogue was cute, but the story was nothing special. Rom-com chick stuff. He’d been working for Bryan for four years, and Nora had never worked on a show, but she was a staff writer and Caleb was the writer’s assistant. Bryan told him it was because of money. The show had spent too much of its budget on upper level writers, and the studio would pay for a “diversity writer.” That was Nora. A Korean girl from Encino… How fucking downtrodden.
While she would never tell any of her fellow writers, Nora loved Universal CityWalk. As a kid growing up in the Valley, it was the closest she ever got to actually walking onto a studio lot. L.A. kids aren’t supposed to get starstruck. But Nora just couldn’t be jaded. She wanted to belong to the business, not merely be adjacent, and write for a real primetime TV show with millions of viewers. Now that she was, Nora still liked to visit CityWalk to remind herself how far she’d come. About once a week, she’d arrive an hour before work, go to Starbucks, drink her latte and think about how she was about to go work in a bungalow on the real lot. Though she questioned whether she deserved to be there. But if she really was nothing more than a token, Bryan wouldn’t have given her two scripts. She knew Caleb resented her and coveted her job. But she was working her ass off, agonizing over every word of procedural exposition instead of scripting for people to ignore while they did their laundry. Nora had long ago learned that hard work was the best remedy for insecurity.