The fustrated filmmaker goes on a TV talk show to save his movie. 2,295 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1969
It was nearly four o’clock when Tall parked in a loading zone at the CBS lot, and ran into Stage 17. From the lobby, Tall could hear The Dean Keller Show orchestra welcoming a guest, and the audience applauding. Above a set of double doors, a red “Live Show Recording” sign blinked.
“Mr. McCollum!” a woman said in a low, excited voice.
Tall turned to see Tandy Dale, the associate producer who’d handled him the day before, walking toward him with a clipboard against her chest. “When I heard the door open,” Tandy continued, “I thought a civilian was trying to sneak in.”
“Would it be possible to get backstage?” Tall asked. “My wife Diana lost a little enamel compact that belonged to her mother when we were here last night for my appearance, and it’s the only place we haven’t looked.”
“They cleaned this morning, and didn’t turn anything in. But I suppose it could’ve fallen in the couch cushion?”
Tall followed Tandy around the perimeter of the stage. As she unlocked a door marked “PRIVATE,” she looked back at Tall. “Would you like to know your audience scores from last night?”
A rebel filmmaker struggles to deter professional and personal disaster. 2,334 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1969
“You’re a fucking kamikaze pilot, Tall,” said Jack Benton from behind his teak desk. “And you just crashed into your own fucking ship!” He wore a chambray blouse and a necklace of mahogany beads, but on his wrist dangled a gold Rolex. And only two days earlier, Jay Sebring had flown back from Las Vegas just to give him a haircut.
“And you didn’t just kill yourself,” Benton continued, pounding the heel of his palm onto a year-old issue of a Black Panther newspaper he’d never read. “You killed me, you killed your wife, and you killed that little band of outlaws you have marooned out there in the desert with you. I’m sure they’ll pretend like it’s a blessing — since they think they’ve transcended the fucking material world like an order of fucking Tibetan monks. But let me tell you a little secret. If anyone had gotten famous from this stillborn movie of yours, they’d be buying Jaguars and houses in fucking Malibu.”
“I just earned you lines around the block!” yelled Tall, standing in the middle of the office, rocking from his toes to his heels with the violent energy of a wrestler on his starting line. He was short, but broad across the shoulders, so that with his arms crossed, his buckskin jacket stretched taut across his upper back. His old tan boots chirred as he pitched onto his toes, and his wavy blonde hair curled down his neck.
“How the hell do you figure that, Tall? From my experience, people go to movies to be entertained — not to feel like they’ve fallen off a roof.”
Dante flexes his power as both a screenwriter and a blogger. 2,950 words. Part One. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Creeping over the Century City skyscrapers, the sun’s harsh rays bathe my 1966 Ford Mustang as I take the 10 from Santa Monica towards Robertson. Ray-Bans I’ve owned since my first week in L..A shield my eyes from the glare and the breeze rushes over the windshield, tousling my already unkempt hair. If this cinematic moment was captured on 35 mm film, it would appear liberating, a sun-drenched endorsement of SoCal living. Nothing could be further from the truth. Under the crushing weight of the CO2 hovering above the L.A. Basin, this drive couldn’t be more claustrophobic and suffocating. As I light up a cigarette, combining the air pollution with tobacco and nicotine may seem like overkill, but I am nothing if not the author of my own story.
I turn west on Wilshire and, in the space of ten minutes, I reach the STA offices. I ride the elevator to the eighth floor and take a seat across the desk from my agent, Dave Chaikin.
“I love this fucking script, Dante!” he yells, slamming a closed fist on the desk between each word, a poor man’s Ari Gold in a rich man’s Armani Collezioni suit. Once upon a time, Dave was a fledgling literary agent in search of the screenplay that would make him a major player. Dave would have me believe the moment he read Galaxy Hoppers, my 120-page tome, it was love at first sight. He created enough buzz that there was a bidding war and then sold it to Global Studio Media.
Now, I stare at my latest screenplay on his desk, the one I’ve affectionately named Skylar And The Ninja Ghosts, as Dave asks, “I have to know, after all this fucking time, what compelled you to finally put pen to paper again?”
A mid-career screenwriter has more fun at his secret avocation. 2,169 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Orson Welles said that, depending where you choose to conclude it, any story can have a happy ending.
My story began the night I met Grace Chase in Cabana in Santa Monica, California.
The sun was living out its final moments, painting the sky gold, and a Pacific breeze flowed through the open-air bar. Hours removed from my first screenplay sale, I spied a beautiful blonde through a haze of tobacco. The strings of “At Last” by Etta James swelled into a crescendo of anticipation as our eyes met and she flirtatiously exhaled a stream of cigarette smoke, compelling me to navigate the swarm of guys that divided us.
“Grace,” she opened.
If my Hollywood story had faded to black at that moment, as the smoke cleared and I gazed into Grace’s eyes, it would have had a happy ending.
Alas, shit happens, as it is wont to do, and four years, three weeks, and two days later, a naked brunette is lying in my bed, screaming, “Choke me! Choke the fucking life out of me!”
A very big TV/film fan hitchhikes to Hollywood in search of something – or someone. 2,408 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
On behalf of my home planet, I’d like to welcome myself to Hollywood.
I hail from Mars. I know for decades you’ve been searching for signs of life up there on the fourth rock from the sun. We were so flattered in 2012 when you sent up that cute Mars Rover Curiosity that’s still zipping around our Gale Crater like a little golf cart. We love each and every orbiter and all those nifty NASA-type gadgets. When that stuff shows up, well, it’s just like Christmas here!
You’ve explored Mars — but you still haven’t found us. Don’t blame yourselves. We’re smaller than anything you can detect even with your most sophisticated ultra-microscope. You can take home all the digital photos, rocks and space-dirt you want— you won’t see us. No, you’re not stupid. It’s not your fault. We’re just real small, that’s all.
Okay I like you humans. You’re funny. So I’m going to share a little secret: You can see us, in a way. We are the red on the Red Planet. All of us, together: our very existence radiating a beautiful warm glow into space for the whole galaxy to share, shifting from tangerine to blood orange to terra cotta brick depending on our mood. That’s us.
We would have done purple when Prince died if we could.
But I digress. My Earth pop culture reference to The Purple One reminds me of the story I wanted to tell you as my first direct communication with Earth. About how I came to Hollywood, and why I must stay. I must stay for as long as it takes.
A young actress works for a studio executive on matters more thrilling than movie roles. 2,521 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – February 1938
Inside the gates of Hollywood’s grandest studio, which specifically wasn’t in Hollywood at all but in Culver City, a young woman sat waiting inside the executive suite of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer outside the office of Finbar Gregory, Vice President of Studio Relations. That part, Studio Relations, made her smile. Because he was much more than his benign title would suggest. A former sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, he was also the son of an LAPD police captain and had joined MGM in the late twenties as head of security for the studio. He had become the right arm or, more to the point, strong arm of MGM’s Vice President and General Manager Eddie Mannix. Mr. Gregory handled a number of delicate press and publicity issues for the studio. Rumor had it that he and Mannix never exchanged memos but met behind closed doors every morning at seven.
The young woman whose name was Rita Lake looked around the ante room and at Mr. Gregory’s secretary, Marge or Midge or something like that, and wondered if the older woman with light gray hair and a small and efficiently build, thought she was having an affair with the executive. After all, Rita had been to his office several times over the past months and since he had little to do with casting, her presence on so many occasions might be misconstrued as inappropriate.
Rita Lake wasn’t her real name; she was an actress beautiful in an unconventional way with exotic good looks that came from her father, a Russian Jew, and her mother, a Spanish beauty. She had large hazel eyes framed by neatly arched eyebrows, and thick auburn hair recently cut to the new fashion. She had a trim figure, more athletic than voluptuous, and good legs that helped her get more parts than her acting skills.
On this particular morning Rita was dressed in a brown wool suit with a matching handbag and low-heeled shoes, the hem length of her skirt set appropriately at the knee. Rita wondered if it was her wool suit in the mild dry weather or the glacial stares that Marge/Midge was shooting her that was making her perspire. She self-consciously touched the small bruise under her left eye. The swelling had gone down and she hoped that the small amount of make-up she was wearing had been sufficient to cover the black and blue mark.
An artist thinks he’s come up with a wonderful way to find film content and wow Hollywood. 2,674 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I had never been treated so rudely in my life. I was in a meeting at a major Hollywood studio, sharing my creativity and insight with a top executive, only to be given the bum’s rush by three security guards. As if the humiliation of being dragged out of that office, down the hall and through the lobby wasn’t enough, I was also thrown, literally tossed, onto the street. Onto asphalt, not gold.
The indignity began that November when I read that a major movie studio had bought the film rights to The Christmas Cottage. Not only was opportunity knocking on my door, it was ringing the bell. Hollywood, an insatiable beast, had run out of ideas. Filmmaking was and still is a lowly art form rising to its greatest level of incompetence. While most studios keep producing re-remakes and re-re-remakes, this studio was trying to be an innovator.
The Christmas Cottage is a painting by Thomas Kinkade, the “Painter of Light” as he is affectionately known in America’s shopping malls, who composed a warm-hearted landscape featuring a snow-covered cottage nestled in cozy woods.
I saw this new development as opening a Pandora’s Box in the world of cinema. Why stop with a painting? There are many images and objects that can have a high concept. Hollywood has already made films from board games and Legos. Sculpture, conceptualism, postcards, Campbell Soup Cans and traffic signals could also be made into blockbuster entertainment.
I wasn’t sure what the studio had in mind for its feature about The Christmas Cottage. Wouldn’t Picasso’s Guernica make a better movie? How about the hard “R” of any Odalisque by Matisse? Or, given the current trend for Christian entertainment, would not The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Bosch scare a heathen back to God? But who was I to question the superior intellect and creativity of the Hollywood sensibility.
The pioneer of children’s entertainment gives the leaders of his legacy some adult advice. 1,075 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
When Walt Disney passed away on December 15, 1966, he left an artistic and commercial legacy that his successors are still mining. He also – according to persistent rumor – left behind a private film that was to be shown to his top executives exactly one year after he died. When the anniversary day arrived, they were led into “the sweat box,” the tiny airless room where animators used to screen their rough footage, and shown to assigned seats. The lights went down and Walt appeared on film. He spoke to each of them by name and told them exactly what they were to do for the next five years. When the film ended, the stunned men returned to their corner offices and the sole existing print they had just watched was destroyed — again, on Walt’s posthumous orders. Always known for meticulous, if not compulsive, planning, Walt had issued instructions for the completion of Walt Disney World in Florida, its expansion into European and Asian countries, and development details for WED Enterprises and RETLAW. He even cautioned against releasing the animated features too quickly on home video, a medium whose commercial debut was still nine years off but which his studio contracts had been predicting for decades.
It was therefore an extraordinary moment when the transcript for this film was discovered between the pages of story conference notes for The Jungle Book, the picture Walt had been developing when he died. We present it here for the first time as a tribute to the man who built an empire upon a mouse:
The screenwriter’s script is completed. But how will the studio mogul react to the brutally honest biopic? 2,802 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
After finishing Act Two, Dave went on a one-night bender, polishing off a fifth of Jack Daniels and falling into a deep sleep on his living room sofa. He awoke with a start in the middle of the night and ran to the typewriter. Through bleary eyes and a cracking headache, he began to type out the opening scene of Act Three: a close-up of a television set.
The Argot Pictures board keeps a safe distance from the blond wood TV cabinet, as if it were some alien life form. But studio mogul Jules Azenberg approaches the contraption and gently strokes it. With that one motion, he demonstrates to the members that he is not threatened by television and that he plans to tame the medium just as he did the movies.
Forced to divest itself of its theater chain following the 1948 Consent Decree, Argot is running a deficit for the first time since the early ‘1930s. There is the smell of blood in the boardroom and Jules must convince the members that he is still in control of the situation. The advent of television gives Jules a new sense of purpose after the prolonged depression he suffered in the wake of his sons’ WWII deaths.
Rather than retread radio stars for television, Jules strikes on an original idea. The next scene is set in a quiet isolated booth at The Brown Derby where Jules is lunching with Madeleine Devane, one of Argot’s biggest stars. Her contract is up for renewal and the aging actress is clearly nervous. They chat for a while as she waits for the boom to fall. In the middle of the meal, Jules lays his napkin on the table and lets out an extended sigh. The color drains from Madeleine’s face, fearing that she’s about to be fired.
“How would you like us to renew your contract for five more years?” he asks.
“Don’t tease me,” Madeleine responds tersely.
The screenwriter’s challenge for Act Two is seamlessly threading the studio mogul’s public and private lives. 2,260 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Hollywood – 1969
The second act of his screenplay, the Untitled Jules Azenberg Biopic – First Draft, gave Dave problems as second acts generally do. Determined to push ahead, he rose every morning at seven and, hangover or not, sat down at the typewriter with a pot of coffee and waited for his fingers to magically click into action. On a day when his hands just sat there stiffly poised on the keys and not a single coherent scene emerged, Dave took a break. He and his pal Joel Rodgers went out on the town for a movie, dinner and drinks at Trader Vic’s where Joel regaled him with the details of the latest showbiz scandal. Dave listened, but without much enthusiasm. Like most current gossip, it was graphic and tawdry and destroyed what little illusion was left about movie stars’ private lives. What was Hollywood without glamour? Without fantasy?
When the muse finally revisited Dave, she came equipped with a metaphor. Act Two opens with Jules at a gaming table tossing dice in a visual motif establishing the studio mogul as an inveterate gambler and a smart one at that. For Jules proves himself an expert crapshooter, knowing exactly how long to play, how high to raise the stakes, and when to walk away from the table.
By the early 1930s, his Argot Pictures is on a roll. Most of its B-movie competitors fall by the wayside, victims of the Depression. Argot slowly buys up all the rivals and establishes itself as a viable rival to the A-list studios like MGM and Warner Bros. Here, the script hones close to the real story by assigning Jules due credit. Given his brother Mort’s cautious nature, Argot might have survived the transition to sound but not the economic reversal of the times. It took more than business savvy to keep Argot afloat: it took Jules’ ingenuity and daring.
His risky gamble is to jump head-first into larger budget movies at a time when everyone else, including the established major studios, is cutting corners. And for that he needs an ally because Jules feels inferior to the task of convincing talent to sign with Argot rather than a more deep-pocketed institution like MGM. He needs someone with the polish and finesse to talk to theater types. So he enlists a celebrated and ceaselessly charming German-born director and appoints him vice president of production. It’s a curious choice and, at first, the board expresses concern that a creative type will run financially amuck.
A TV show’s writers room assistant plots more creatively than her bosses. 2,556 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“It must be weird that we’re exactly the same age and I’m an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator and you’re the writers assistant.”
She really said “slash.” She said it two times.
I wanted to tell her it was fuckloads easier to make it as an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator when your father is a major exec at a major studio and he got you that first job on an insanely hot Netflix series not because you were qualified, but because your father was owed a major favor from a Netflix VP thanks to a gambling debt. And so, Graylon Kipling, freshly graduated from Cornell, got plopped into a top-tier TV job even though she couldn’t write for shit and everybody wanted to fire her fat nepotistic ass – and eventually did. Now, because of another chit called in by her father, here we sit in our offices on the NBCUniversal lot ready to start work on a ten-episode order of Graylon’s very own new series, TabOO.
It was harder for me. I grew up in the Midwest with a dad who sold Toyotas and a nurse mom. They thought my being a CPA would be an awesome job instead of those “Hollywood dreams” harbored by their little girl. So I have an accounting degree which I never plan to use. But I made it to L.A. and did the barista thing and met a guy at Peet’s who helped me get a job on a Nickelodeon show as a PA. I ended up in the writers room as the assistant after the current writers assistant crashed into a morning rush hour pile-up on the 134 freeway.
But this is the conversation I only play inside my head, very fast, because Graylon’s waiting for me to answer her question. I look down at my feet, as if I’m trying to be humble and oh so thankful for this opportunity, and I say, “Yeah, it’s really weird that we’re exactly the same age and you’re an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator and I’m the writers assistant.”
The agent anxiously sees his end-of-year bonus before heading to a client’s Halloween party. 2,746 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Global Talent Assets was located in the heart of the Beverly Hills business district. Casey sat in his office with the door closed. He was speaking very quietly on his burner phone with a partner from the competing agency Synergy. Casey was ready to hang up if anyone came to the door.
“You guys just need to sweeten the pot a little more,” Casey assured Michael.
“Come on, man. We agreed that you’d be signed by end of business today. Billy and Mark are starting to think you’re jerking us around. Do you want this or not?”
Casey loved working two different agencies to his own advantage. “Of course, I do. We could be done if you guys give me what I’m want.”
“Casey, no one else in our lit department is getting money even close to what you’d be getting,” Michael argued, his voice growing impatient.
“That’s because no one else is bringing in The Goose,” Casey reminded. “Cheyne Gold is the top action writer in this town. Of course I want to negotiate the best deal for myself. You’d do the same if you were in my shoes, Michael. Just go back to the guys and tell them what I need.”
You’ve never heard of the curse of Hedy Lamarr? This screenwriter experienced it. 2,225 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Fifty-three year old Steven Harris could recite the ten worst if only moments of his life in Hollywood in perfectly chiseled narrative prose, in a voice resonating with regret that ended in either a deep sigh, a shoulder shrug or another belt of strong coffee since he’d been in recovery. He’d related his woeful tale so often, it had become as polished as the best of his screenplay exposition dialogue. His last project, just passed on after a lot of studio bullshit happy talk, demanded a heavy session of commiseration. For that his ex, Ellen Owens, was his go-to safe place. Theirs had been one of those quirky marriages you hear about: horrible living together, utterly joyous after the divorce.
One of the reasons was Ellen’s magical ability to listen with patience and insight to his mewlings about the downward trajectory of his writing and directing careers. And, as always, his sorry tale began with that fleeting elevator moment, thirty-two years before, with Hedy Lamarr.
Ellen had agreed to meet Steven at the Intelligentsia coffee joint in Silver Lake at a quiet corner table where the lamentations, all familiar and chronologically precise, flowed from his mouth to her ears for the umpteenth time since their divorce ten years before. As she came inside, he got up, and they did their hugs and cheek kisses, and he curled back into his gloomy shell, prepared to spew forth the top ten list of why his career had gone into the crapper.
He tapped his laptop and said glumly, “It’s my best script ever. Fox just passed. Nobody left to see it. That’s project number five in the toilet this year. A new record. Want something besides coffee?”
“Just coffee. So, honey, talk to me,” she asked, planting elbows on the table, curled fists on her cheeks. “What’s the great project they shit on this time?”
The wannabe director must decide whether to keep working in showbiz or keep dreaming. 2,306 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
On occasion, while circling the office and delivering the mail, Max tried to engage the studio’s executives in a conversation about a film that had especially impressed him or a book that he’d found particularly moving. Right, Max," was generally the disinterested response. Then they would ask him to make sure that their delivery got right over to Parker or Simons or Goldstein or whomever.
"Ratings, Max. Concentrate on the ratings," one of the executives finally told him. The man’s name was Drew Oberlin and he was only a few years older than Max. He had a big office, designer furniture, and a secretary who could have modeled. Max stood by the door looking in, his hair matted, his shirt clinging to his underarms. Oberlin spoke from behind his desk. "Concentrate on the ratings," he repeated. "That’s what matters."
Oberlin was immaculate in a dark suit and white shirt that snapped in starched perfection when he moved. He offered Max gleaming white teeth as if practicing for an audience, Max his mirror.
Max returned the smile, hesitantly, with more of a grimace.
"I’m giving you good advice here," Oberlin said. "Never mind art. Ratings. That’s all that matters. Say, could I ask a favor of you? I have some laundry that needs to be picked up…"
At Max’s urging, Oberlin read Max’s screenplays and reluctantly proffered the advice that Max might write better as part of a team. "Your work, well, it’s got class. But you’re not attacking the center of the marketplace."
The wannabe director goes in search of a job, any job, inside the industry. 2,086 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The routine continued — the run, the coffee, the calls. The rejections. Finally, Max scored an interview, instructed to arrive on a Friday at eleven a.m., and screamed with joy as he hung up the phone. He allowed himself one minute of unrestrained happiness in which he jumped up and down, threw himself on the ground and beat the carpet with his arms and legs like a baby.
"Yes. Yes. Yes," Max shouted.
Then he picked himself up, adjusted his clothing, and went back to the telephone.
Max had never heard of the company so he tried to do some research. He scanned the trades for some mention of Smigrod Productions. He checked 16mm film rental catalogues. He went to the movie and television Academy libraries. The best he could discover was that Seymour Smigrod might have produced a short-lived game show 20 years ago. After that, Max found nothing. Smigrod Productions was not the artistic haven he sought, but still it was a beginning, and he sorely needed to start somewhere working on a film — not preparing the supporting documents.
Max arrived early for the interview. The address he had scrawled on a slip of paper matched that of a sign that hung askew outside a bungalow on a side street in Hollywood. The neighborhood was seedy. Aging cars were jacked up along the curb, missing one or more tires. Litter was strewn on the cracked and pitted concrete sidewalk. Even the fronds on a pair of decrepit palm trees hung listless.
"It’s a nice résumé," a thin faced woman with glasses and ratty curls said to him. She had told him her name but too quickly for Max to catch. He was reluctant to ask her to repeat herself, too anxious about appearing confident and in control. "You don’t have much real experience, do you?" she asked, keeping her head down. "On productions, I mean." When she glanced up to look at Max, she colored, then dropped her head again.
A writer has to get out of a movie job contract and off an exotic island. 1,918 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The next morning, Jenny Logan came to escort me to Jack’s place. She didn’t say a word about the job offer she’d made me to come from L.A. to this isolated island off Cambodia and write and possibly direct a film. But, as we stopped outside the steps of the beachside mansion belonging to the movie studio owner, a Luxembourg billionaire, I noticed cut marks on both Jenny’s wrists. They were obviously recent.
Jenny saw me looking at them. “I’m sorry if I’ve been weird, James. I think, when I get back to L.A., I’ll be my normal self again.”
She gave me a kiss on the lips, and then pulled back before I could turn it into something intimate.
Just then, a tropical rainstorm snapped into life and I rushed inside the palatial home. Jack was short, stocky and tanned but not even plentiful spa treatments could hide his fifty-something age. He smiled like a villain from a Bond movie and welcomed me inside. Of course, Jack’s bodyguard stood expressionless five feet behind us at all times.
“Thank you for this amazing opportunity, Mr. Hauser,” I said politely. I noted he didn’t offer me a drink, not even tap water. At least in Hollywood they offer you a bottle of Voss before they drain you of life.