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.
A film editor gets the opportunity of a lifetime with the world’s greatest director. 4,163 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I liked Martin from the get-go. He was extremely polite, with an unexpected sense of humor, and eyes so intelligent and intense that most people feared him. Fortunately, I had grown up around a man with fierce eyes, my grandfather. Being his favorite, I was the only one of his grandchildren permitted to sit on his knee and – privilege of privilege – play with his beret.
This day of my interview to work at Kaleidoscope Studio, Martin was wearing a checkered brown and white shirt and brown corduroy pants, but no beret. Not that day.
“May I ask a question?” I say. He nods. “Why am I here?”
Martin breaks into laughter. “We have three films and three films in trouble,” he declares. His producers Forest and Gary nod in agreement.
Martin wants to take me on a tour of the studio. Once outside, something quite weird happens. He points to a black bicycle leaning against a wall.
“Come on the bike.”
Martin repeats, “Come on the bike.”
“I haven’t done this since I was two years old,” I tell him. But I jump on the front of the bike and off we go.
Out-of-work Hollywood types travel to the middle of nowhere to make an adventure show. 2,332 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Mann.
We were desperate. Art. Bruce. Lance. Tony. Scott. The whole lot of us. Desperate for another break. Desperate to make another month’s rent, another phone bill, another car payment. Desperate to make something happen. Tired of waiting tables, waiting in open houses, waiting to get slaughtered at the next cattle call. We’d all had a break or two already – a national commercial, a recurring role on HBO or FX or AMC, a juicy part in a fourquel splatter-fest. Just enough to keep our hopes up, keep us out of real jobs and real money. Only the breaks hadn’t led to bigger breaks. We needed that big roller to take us over the top. And this was our wave machine.
“Can you believe this shit?” said Art, an aspiring film editor scraping by on local commercials and backyard bare-knuckle brawl videos. Believe it or not, they pay people to edit those things. He got four hundred bucks and an eight ball for the last gig, which launched the career of a 380 pound overalls-clad cyclops named Opie Mohammed.
I couldn’t believe the tab as I looked at it, dollar signs burning my eyes. Even out in the middle of nowhere like we were, in some Northern California town where the redwoods met the Pacific, it was possible to run up a four figure bar tab. Before I could react, another round had arrived — bottles of Budweiser and whiskey backs, although you could have them in any order you liked. I could already feel the hangover and I knew a couple of the others were half blind. Somebody had to pay for this. The credit cards were maxed. We didn’t have the budget for this bill. I hailed the waitress and ordered another round of whiskey.
As soon as I said it I got hit in the eye with the flash. “How come every time I order a whiskey, you take my picture?” I asked.
Scott slipped the phone back in his pocket. “Because in Argentina they say ‘whiskey’ instead of ‘cheese’. Picked it up on a shoot in Patagonia.”
A writer gets a movie job offer on an exotic island and goes to check it out. 2,134 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was bang in the middle of another Writers Guild strike, and I woke up with a throbbing headache. I hadn’t drunk more than half a bottle of Trader Joe cheap red, and in those days that wasn’t enough for me to suffer a hangover. No, the pounding in my forehead was a form of dread at the thought of traipsing over to Sony Studios to join my comrades on the picket line yet again. I didn’t even know what we were fighting for exactly: just something to do with making money from the Internet. All I did know for certain was that I was broke, and my damn headache wouldn’t go away.
As I sipped a cup of coffee inside one of the few remaining rent-controlled apartments in Santa Monica, I felt entirely disillusioned. I couldn’t turn on the TV for any respite because, without the writers, the programming was filled with reality shows and repeats. Nor did I feel like going out for a walk, as the June gloom had set in since L.A. is never as sunny as people like to think. So, instead, I stared at my laptop screen trying to come up with an original story idea.
In theory, this quiet period would give Hollywood writers an opportunity to delve into our artistry and create something we cared about. But my screen remained blank for an hour. If I’m honest, it was a futile task; I hadn’t been able to write anything original since my first script that had snagged me representation. Everything else since then had been assignments.
I was trying very hard to remember what I cared about – maybe that was giving me the headache – when my phone rang. This hadn’t happened in a few weeks. I feared that a comrade was calling out of disgust with my inability to show up at the picket line. But the call was from my agent.
Had the strike suddenly ended? Or was she quitting the business to start up a yoga studio?
The director wraps her film by punishing and praising those who deserve it. 2,474 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Fed up with my lead actress Brittany, I decided to pay a visit to Rex Durand in his suite. The famous actor in my movie Lost Encounter, now shooting, was not feeling well. His bodyguard was at his side. His dresser was also there. Everyone confided that Brittany was sleeping with the screenwriter. I had to wonder how much rehearsal had really been going on between them. Obviously, very little. For an actress already on shaky ground, would this affair be the final blow? I had to talk to the scripter. I was sworn to secrecy not to reveal my sources, as the lovers did not want me to know.
The following day another six hours were los because of Brittany. Once more, we did the best we could by shooting around her. I had had enough. At first, the screenwriter denied anything was going on. I told him I knew the truth and it was pointless to deny it. And if her work kept suffering, they ultimately were hurting the film. He promised to keep the situation under control. I was still naïve enough to believe that he would help the film by making sure Brittany was prepared.
On our schedule the following week was the fashion show and that was when the film’s producer Lawrence Perlman arrived. He was to be a first row extra. We had secured a very large space with plenty of room to build a stage and a walkway as well as the biggest Atlas crane to make the most of the expanse. Inspired by Chanel, I had asked for a series of multiple mirrors on the stage and liked the results. And my costume supervisor pulled off a miracle with the clothes and all the accoutrements and secrets of a great stylist. The difficulty had been to make the fashion believable and she had done so a thousand times over.
My personal challenge at this point was physical. I became sick on the very first day of the shoot. The pressure of it all, and the very cold weather, had gotten the best of me. By the third day, I was barely conscious. Between takes, I wrapped myself in blankets, doped myself with flu medicine, drank a lot of hot liquid and prayed that lighting would take a little longer before I had to spring back into action.
A Reality TV editor abandons his job after a quake and then finds real satisfaction. 1,899 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Dick considered openly weeping onto the editing console. But that, he thought, might short circuit the machine and actually make his workday longer.
The clock on the opposite wall was entering hour nine of what was shaping up to be a sixteen hour day at HRB Post in a dingy room above an even dingier strip mall in one of the dingiest pockets of Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood. Unsmiling men and women of dubious and indistinguishable national origin milled around outside, entirely oblivious to the life of Dick Nadal, age 31, with only that amount in his checking account. His hair was thinning but he was not, and he considered taking a second lunch at the Zankou Chicken on Sunset.
Nobody there would stop him from having a good cry.
Dick worked as Department Editor at HRB Post, a job title that sounded exclusive but was simply a sixteen letter cover-up to mask the horrors of painstakingly editing together Reality TV footage of young idiots into a cohesive show. Today’s editing session was for the third season of The Snatch, a terribly monikered name for a visually harrowing series.
His day was peppered with questions such as whether Cindy, the 23-year-old blonde bartender from Dallas, should be shown spouting quasi-racist rhetoric before or after it was made apparent to the viewer that she was under the influence of several dozen Jello shots. There was a note from the director that the set didn’t even have Jello so now the entire legal team was refusing to sign off. Dick decided to edit in a split second of B-reel footage of an empty Jello box and punch in a musical sting for added comedic effect. He was, by several accounts, a fantastic editor. And yet, sadly, he should really have been working on something a whole lot better. He picked his nose as scene 32-A rolled out.
Everyone’s in a panic except the producer when unsubs digitally mess up a film. 2,382 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.
The producer Bernie Polon sat behind his desk preparing for the emergency concerning the film he’d worked on for the last three years. The director had demanded a meeting in Bernie’s office at eight o’clock in the morning. Bernie wondered if people really have meetings at 8 a.m.? But he had to accommodate Desmond Bright, who was a temperamental British helmer that everybody hated to love. But the filmmaker shot fog-smothered landscapes with gauzy figures delivering modestly indecent lines while fighting Vikings or aliens or demons better than anyone. Also called into the meeting was Jon Wright, the film’s editor with all those credentials Hollywood needs an editor to have.
Though Bernie was pretty sure that soon eighth graders would be doing all the editing in town. Hell, in a dozen years, eighth graders might be doing Bernie’s job the way things were going in the movie business.
“OK, what is so fucking important that we need to meet in person?” Bernie demanded of Desmond, making it clear they weren’t going to be friends today. “Haven’t you learned how to use American technology yet? It’s called an iPhone and it has Facetime.”
Desmond’s cheeks sucked in. “My film’s been hacked!”
The producer had been in the movie business for 35 years and knew that the technical jargon of film changes every 30 seconds. But this was a new situation, even for Bernie.
TV FICTION PACKAGE: An adventure channel crew reconsiders after a scary encounter. 2,347 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
After the monster bit our boat, we got the hell out of the river.
Our star, Dr. Grady Jackson, laughed as we climbed up the bank and made our way in the dark to the van. Nothing seemed to slow him down. Not even an evil villain sent straight from hell. Less than an hour ago, we were standing knee-deep in a Central American river filled with horrific hungry creatures big enough to eat us. At night. So we could shoot dramatic footage in the dark with Grady as he caught a few of the bigger beasts. In small rubber boats, no less. Me, I almost saw the headline flash before my eyes when he went under the water: “REAL LIFE ACTION HERO KILLED MAKING TV ADVENTURE SERIES.” People do die making our shows.
Top that, Hollywood.
“Pura Vida!” Grady said.
“Or Aloha,” I said. “Whatever.”
Helping Grady was exhilarating, but for me it represented a new low point in my career. I was glad to be outdoors, shooting video in an exotic location. It sure beat smoking crack next to our headquarters in the middle of downtown Washington, D.C. on my lunch breaks every day. But this was getting too weird. Even for me. No, I don’t really smoke crack. It’s a metaphor. My job now was chasing killers more ruthless than any of the other wild creatures I have spent thousands of hours watching from the safety of editing rooms.
TV FICTION PACKAGE: The host, producers and writers on a late-night network talk show scramble. Part One. 2,633 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
"We’ve got ‘Dog President,'" said Mitch as soon as the elevator doors opened and Andy appeared. "And half a monologue. And two out of seven writers in the writers room."
"Amy and Kurt are on Wall Street right now doing ‘Shoe Shine Guy,’" said Andy.
"Eric is working out of Arnold’s Coffee because his internet went out. Just his. I think he’s lying," Mitch said angrily. “This is so–"
"Mitch," interrupted Andy, "have you eaten yet?"
"Just a Kit Kat," said Mitch, sheepishly.
"You’re doing that thing you do when you don’t eat. Get yourself something and come back to me in an hour. And take an actual break. Don’t just stand around the hallway gobbling candy bars. That’s creepy. You’ll make the property value of this place go down."
"OK, Andy," said Mitch. He started off towards The Andy Perry Show writer’s room and knocked on the open door. Everybody inside spun around. "Andy’s here, but Amy isn’t," he warned. "Send Andy what you have. We’re going commando and emailing Andy the jokes ourselves. "
"We’re not wearing underwear?" said Eric, rounding the corner beside Mitch and entering the room. Eric was attractive in a way that writers never were and used it to his full advantage.
TV FICTION PACKAGE: More from behind-the-scenes of The Andy Perry Show host, producers and writers. Part Two. 2,950 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was about noon when Kurt, his feet propped up on his desk, was to have his world shattered. He hadn’t dressed for the occasion, as people whose worlds are about the be shattered are not often dressed appropriately. He was wearing a cardigan that he thought made him look "masculine, but not too masculine," as he’d told the sales clerk at J. Crew earlier that month. He had also bought several checkered shirts, as many young urban professionals of his age and tax bracket frequently do. They made him look approachable and casual, but not too casual, and not too approachable.
Kurt felt very dapper. He leaned back in his chair, riding the crystal clear wave of sartorial confidence all the way to the shores of true relaxation. His was a life that others envied, he thought. He wrote for The Andy Perry Show and lived down the street from the 11th best bagel place in New York. He had an interesting girlfriend who came from a family that had a prodigious amount of old money. Kurt prided himself on the fact that they had sex sometimes more than once a week. They had just adopted an elderly pug. Until that day, Kurt’s life was an avenue of nothing but green lights softly and coquettishly whispering "Go, Kurt. Go."
Kurt felt something bang on his desk. It was Andy’s fist. Kurt was shocked, and nearly spilled his cold-pressed iced coffee all over his J. Crew work shirt and Red Wing boots.
"Did you write ‘Dog President’?" demanded Andy. He had his arms crossed on his chest and smelled faintly like really good chicken.
"Uh. Yeah," said Kurt as he tepidly pled responsibility for his magnum opus and immediately felt his face flush from embarrassment.
"Get your coat," said Andy, "And come with me."
The entire writer’s room became deathly silent.
A film professor teaches his former student, now a studio exec, how to make a free movie. 2,979 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“I’d love to buy your pitch,” she said, “but all we’re making this year is shit.”
It’s a good thing the Vice President of Production of United General Pictures had carpeting in her office or she would have heard my jaw hit the floor as I realized that my project had been shot down by friendly fire even before it had taxied, let alone taken off.
“Orders from the top,” Megan Koplowitz continued, "and not just from the top of the studio, but from the top of the conglomerate that owns us. Make shit.”
She was being suicidally candid. But I expected nothing less from my prized former film student.
“This is hard to hear,” I said, “coming from the studio that last year won six Oscars out of 18 noms. There’s no way you could make shit even if you tried.”
“Well, we’re trying. Awards cost money. Shit doesn’t.”
I waited for her to crack a smile. Nothing. Megan sat poker-faced in her thousand-dollar swivel chair, pulling on her five dollar vapor cigarette, and leafing through the studio’s billion dollar list of fecal matter.
A TV team for an adventure channel goes in search of scary footage. Unfortunately, they find it. 3,502 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
And there I was.
The point of this exercise was about as stupid as it sounds when you say it out loud. I was standing knee-deep in a river filled with horrific hungry creatures big enough to eat me. At night. We were launching two rubber boats so we could head out into the warm murky water and shoot dramatic footage in the dark with our star, Dr. Grady Jackson, as he caught a few of the bigger beasts. Yeah. In rubber boats. Jesus.
Yes, I just took the Lord’s name in vain. Sorry if you are offended. I am a bad man. But not bad enough, as you may soon see from the confessions I list. Why should I fear hell? Some of it was right here. At the moment, we had some huge real-life demons to deal with.
Confession #1: I absolutely hate this particular species.
You’ll get none of that noble carnivore crap from me. In India and Africa these evil mutants have been known to devour small children and old women. They are killers more ruthless than any of the other wild creatures I have spent thousands of hours watching in editing rooms. Which is where I usually was. Not now. With the extra camera, I would catch another angle for editing purposes. I was the writer-slash-producer-slash-director of this show.
My job title was not as glamorous as it sounded. In TV, if you write it, you usually have to produce it and direct it, to see that it’s done right, and that can mean shooting footage, or editing, or even narrating the piece. If you managed to read those tiny credits at the end, while the channel was promoting the next program coming up, you might have seen my name fly by.
Granted, it was kind of exciting to be out here near them in the open. But the creatures we were hunting? I detested them almost as much as I feared them. I have my reasons.