CHRISTMAS FICTION: 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.
A TV exec hears a comedy pitch from a couple of over-50 showrunners she’s never met. 5,110 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Calling in his last ancient chit, Warren had talked a former junior colleague into issuing a drive-on to get them through the front gate. The rest would be up to him.
He piloted his old BMW convertible, its torn roof folded down out of view so as not to humiliate its occupants, toward the visitors’ lot. Fifty-eight and no longer an athlete –- he was even done with pick-up basketball, the risk of injury now far outweighing the pleasure he got from playing — Warren wore a sports jacket, faded jeans, and a bright new T-shirt with a hip (his son Clay had assured him) image of an audio cassette above the slight paunch that poked over the top of his seat belt. After extensive experimentation with hair coloring he’d left the gray specks in his beard, which he’d carefully trimmed to look untrimmed. Just this morning he’d noticed the beginnings of what he’d assumed were facial warts. Warren, once a Golden Boy, had begun to believe he’d be an odd-looking old man.
Mitch, four years younger, nearly a foot shorter and more informally unshaven, with hair another former colleague had described as “bozine” after her favorite frizzy-haired TV clown, wore red Converse sneakers and a flowery Hawaiian shirt that most people who’d never known a joke writer would consider antithetical to his dignity. Under the shirt, on his left shoulder, the Charlie Chaplin tattoo he’d treated himself to upon moving to Hollywood decades earlier had aged to look less like Chaplin and more like Hitler.
Mitch glowered at the dashboard clock. “We’re over an hour early,” Mitch said. “I told you there’d be no traffic.”
If Warren had told his partner the real reason he’d picked him up at 9 AM for an 11 AM meeting less than half an hour away -– that there was no 11 AM meeting and they were in the midst of a con job that Warren had been meticulously planning for months in an effort to resuscitate their drowned careers -– Mitch’s pride and rage would never have permitted him to get into the car. “I knew they’d make us park out where the slaves are picking cotton,” said Warren as he drove them farther and farther from their destination on the lot. “And you have to get into costume.”
The studio credits czar finally comes face to face with his comeuppance. 1,651 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The numbers for the weekend were in and they were bad. The big fall release was a big bomb. A stinker. Guaranteed to cancel out any profits for at least a fiscal quarter. It was like planting a lawn and watching mud come up. Whoever thought that a film about a beautiful girl lost in the woods being chased by a mutant bear was a winner must had been smoking way too much of the recreational stuff. The mechanical bear turned out to be a better actor than the star. When the script called for the character to be injured, she couldn’t even manage to whimper with any authenticity. Jeffrey had heard children’s talking dolls that sounded more real. So it was another loss after the studio had just taken a half-billion dollar write-down in the last quarter on three heavy-effects movies that "underperformed.” Like that gentle phrase could somehow tidy up another red ink disaster.
What Jeffrey knew immediately was that everyone needed to be sprucing up their resumes because the people in charge always figured that cutting overhead was the way to solve the mess they’d created. Jeffrey wondered why they never thought about firing themselves. Instead, some bean counter ran his finger down a list of names and salaries and decided: this one in, that one out.
Just like what he did on credits.
Jeffrey opened yet another binder of the crew deals. This one in. That one out. He checked the spellings and any strange credit requests. That morning, a dolly grip wanted to be credited as Jim "Jimbo" Smith. But Jeffrey hated nicknames and that was why Jimbo’s was gone. The pen’s tiny flick. The black line. The small gesture. Not even a second’s thought to deny the credit. Goodbye, Jimbo.
A studio credits czar rules his kingdom unless or until confronted. 1,711 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Sometimes the smallest gestures had the biggest consequences, didn’t they? The pebble to the windshield that eventually cracked the whole thing. The chance meeting at a premiere that neither was supposed to attend. Say if one morning thirty years ago, a development executive at Fox hadn’t argued with his boyfriend before coming into work, Jeffrey Baummann might had sold the script that set him on the path of a successful writer. Or twenty years ago to the liquor store a minute earlier, and Jeffrey would have bought the lottery ticket that won a hundred mil and not the someone who did right in front of hm. Ten years ago if not for a missed red light, Jeffrey might have met a different woman who could have been his wife. That morning, expending not even a calorie, he crossed out a name on a draft of end title credits for one of the studio’s films.
With the flick of a pen, a black line moved a half-inch right and one less dolly grip went into the roll.
Jeffrey was the studio’s credits czar, a nickname from an old boss to make him feel better when she declined his raise. Afterwards, the late head of publicity at that same studio said at a big meeting, "Oh Jeffrey, you’re the poor bastard who has that job." It certainly got a laugh.
This was what he did: prepared the main and end titles for the studio’s films which meant he looked at lists and lists of names, deciding whose would go in. He eliminated many of them with a small gesture. There was no attempt to find the private echo, this one resonating, that one not. He had a template. He filled it in.
The ex-WWII Army officer with the mogul relative isn’t sure showbiz excites him. 2,201 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
December 1945 – On the set of MGM’s Up Goes Maisie shoot
Dave pushed the studio mail cart around the perimeter of the darkened sound stage until the sudden burst of brilliant light from a working set flooded his eyes. It was a scene set in a business school classroom, one of the opening shots in a Maisie series film; rows of cute extras taking their places at typing tables. Watching them from her chair, awaiting her call, was the film’s star, Ann Sothern. Every Maisie movie was a cash register for the studio and she was its cashier. She sat legs crossed in ankle-strap shoes, in a tight dress, waiting for the director’s signal to take her place for the shot. Dave had seen so many famous faces since he’d began at MGM the month before that Ann Sothern, though lusciously sexy, was by now to him just another recipient of studio mail. Up close, even the thick mask of makeup couldn’t distort her perky blonde beauty. Her smile broke out her dimples and her eyes radiated that glow he’d come to see as only emanating from actors with the elusive star quality that created box office.
Dave Meltzer had strict instructions to hand-deliver a letter only to her, not to any maid or assistant. It was a fat envelope plastered with registered mail stickers from a law firm. At her dressing table, she studied the pages, following the text with her pen. “What do you want to do after the mailroom?” she asked Dave, picking up the phone.
“Not sure. I’ve only been here a few weeks.”
“Nothing got you gaga to write screenplays, direct, produce, or at least hump some of these gorgeous girlies around here?”
“I push my cart around hallways, between offices and over sound stages. I stack mail, hand it to the people and go on my way.”
“You need to start shmoozing, kid. Talk to the people you deliver to. Make friends. Kiss a few asses. Learn the landscape.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Dave said. “Thanks.”
A search for the script reader accurately predicting Hollywood’s hits and misses. 2,789 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.
I noticed a detail on a Tuesday afternoon that changed my life.
There I was, studio executive Ben Kurtwin, reading scripts from successfully made movies like some office assistant or film student. I know this will surprise you, but sometimes studio execs read scripts. Especially when they’re a junior exec clinging to their job. And let’s be honest – I don’t want to be fired because what the hell else can I do? I have no actual fucking skills.
Anyway, I was reading scripts from the previous few years’ biggest hits looking for the intangible that makes a popular film. All of these big-earning features had been offered to Destination Studios where I currently spend my days and many nights, but we’d bought only a few. Enough to keep on doing what we do. But I wanted to see first-hand what my dearly departed colleagues had missed and why we had passed on pictures that had gone on to make mountains of money. Maybe the answer lay on the page after all.
As I started to read Death On Mercury, the biggest moneymaker from last year, that’s when it happened. The detail I noticed wasn’t something in the script but from the coverage. The reader had given this screenplay a big thumbs-up and a high score and advised the studio to jump on it. The reader’s name was “Jody.”
EXCLUSIVE: Michael Tolkin debuts the beginning of his novel-in-progress about a veteran executive’s humiliation when he has to start over in Hollywood. 2,974 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Chapter 1 – Out With A Scream
For thirty-five years, I was the right hand man to John Brine Trubb, the legendary producer who would have been immortal if he hadn’t died. I had the privilege of being at the old man’s side when he went out with a scream. It’s the great puzzle of Rosebud that no one was in the room to hear Kane’s last word, but three of us were there to hear the Trubb’s final adios. JBT’s attorney, Redoubtable Maize, always too fancy with his allusions, heard in the old man’s dying expression the horror of Don Giovanni dragged into Hell at the foot of the Commendatore’s statue, agony after defiance. JBT’s special friend Auspicia Renn, his Abishag, said that it was the sound her rather older lover made when he was in ecstasy on Ecstasy. A logical guess, but wrong; from my catbird seat forward of the curtain that hid his day/nite bed on the Gulfstream, I knew too well the shape of the sordid bellow she was able to draw out of him and I can arbitrate the credit for his final yodel; she loses. No, JBT’s death shout was a blend of the old man’s two favorite moments in all of cinema, opening with the start of the cattle drive in Red River, the close ups of cowboys waving their hats in the air, calling Yee-Haw! And blended with the "Yah-hoo!" at the end of Dr. Strangelove, when the great Western actor Slim Pickens rides the nuclear warhead out of the bomb bay, setting off the end of the world. I kept this observation to myself, as JBT would have wanted. “Hum this every morning when you brush your teeth: never share your personal taste,” he used to say to the people he knew in the business, the people who looked up to him. It was a ridiculous mantra, bad advice, meant to send his enemies, which meant all of you, in pursuit of wasting someone else’s money. Pursue failure. That was the message inside the advice however justified by the circumstances. He had plenty of good advice, too, look at what he did, but he never shared it, not even with me.
The funeral service was austere but per his manifesto, surprisingly well catered for a crowd of three hundred or so, although I had no appetite after my first pass at the pastry table, when attorney Redoubtable took me aside. When his first words were, “Look, Martin,” I could have written the rest of what he said, or hired a writer to do it, at scale.
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.
He knew no one in television and quickly came to know everybody. Who will stop his rise? 5,069 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
THE EARLY YEARS
Weight was always an issue for me, when I was young. An Italian boy from Ohio, I was basically loved to fat by my mother. All the love she didn’t get from my father, she gave to me — in huge pans of lasagna, monster portions of risotto, and gigantic slabs of tiramisu. I ate it all; it was so worth it to see her smile as I cleaned my plate.
So, at 21, I was living at home, a short fat Mama’s boy, a community college graduate, and in my private moments, gay. One night, right after my father kissed me with a look of disgust that was hard to hide, I went downstairs — I was living in the basement, my star athlete brother getting the only other bedroom upstairs — and sat in the dark, thinking. I stayed down there for days, not that anyone noticed. Well, my mother would pass down food whenever she was depressed.
And to me there only seemed one place to go, one dream to live, one big, great fuck-you-to-everyone-who-ever-made-fun-of-me — Hollywood.
My first job in Hollywood was not the mailroom, it was as an assistant to the assistant of the assistant to the assistant of the assistant to the Executive Vice President of the major cable network. I could not believe when I walked through those basement doors for my interview.
They’re Hollywood’s walking dead, deemed too old to hire. One writer fights back. 2,236 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Bernie Saffran made the mistake of turning 41 in Hollywood. He didn’t need to mark the milestone with a birthday party; everybody in town simply knew. Like an ice cube on a hot griddle, his name immediately melted from producers’ contact lists. His long-time agent Lance Steel (honest, that’s his name) handed him off to a trainee. His favorite coffee bar no longer let him sit at a window table. His multi-pierced sales clerk at The Gap suggested more suitable selections at CostCo. Here he was, nine years before he could join AARP, but the town had written him off.
He didn’t think it would happen to him, not after 20 years as a working and mildly successful screenwriter in the biz. If he could be gay or transgender or heterosexual and nobody cared, why couldn’t he be 41? But the Gen X and Y’ers named Jason and Kristin who ran the feature industry felt otherwise.
“You’re only as old as people younger make you feel,” Bernie used to joke. But when he hit 41, the punch line stopped getting laughs.
He tried to hide his age, of course. He turned his baseball cap backwards. He wore his sports shirt unbuttoned and let it hang over a Yeezus T-shirt. He listened to whatever crap his kids listened to on the radio – oops, make that the streaming audio. He sampled @midnight to gauge the lowest common denominator of humor even though host Chris Hardwick was three years older. Hell, if Lorne Michaels in his seventies could dictate the taste of SNL demos for generations below him, so could Bernie Saffran.
Or so he thought.
What script notes for Shakespeare would have said if Hamlet were in movie development. 772 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
FROM: DENISE MEZZOGIORNO, KEVIN OKRA
TO: BUZZ KAPLAN
RE: HAMLET, 9TH DRAFT (April 23, 1599)
Though we think the writer has moved forward in this draft, there are still a number of problems with the script. In the next pass the following points need to be addressed:
1. STATIC ACTION. The narrative flow is consistently staunched by a series of pointless digressions, unresolved subplots and superfluous dialogue.
2. LACK OF JEOPARDY. At no point is Hamlet in actual jeopardy. What jeopardy there is is manufactured by a series of murky and over-written monologues.
3. INCONSISTENT CHARACTER ARCS. The leading characters suffer from lack of clear motivation and resolution. In the end, no one seems to have learned anything.
4. THE LOVE STORY DYNAMIC IS MUDDLED. We think we have to take a serious look at Ophelia’s suicide. Having the principal love interest check out before the end is, frankly, a bummer. What if Hamlet, at the eleventh hour, saved her from drowning? We could maintain the pathos (she could still sing and act distracted) but avoid a downbeat and emotionally-unsatisfying resolution.
5. UNSAVORY ETHNIC STEREOTYPING AND LATENT SEXISM. Please delete the references to "Polacks" and dimensualize Ophelia’s character with greater self-esteem.
A successful film studio is run with an iron fist. But is that the best strategy for its future? 2,711 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The old man was packing his things in a cardboard box – doing it himself. I just watched.
Jake Simon was going – really going. Hard to believe. After 15 years, 15 years, of one man rule by an angry, unpredictable son of a bitch. You could certainly say that. And you’d be right. But, of course, it was more than that. Much more. Anyway, it was over now – over and done in half an hour.
I remember the day I got here. How could I forget? I’d never been to a studio before – any studio. I’d just published my second novel to mild critical acclaim; and I suppose, to Jake, I was exotic, and I was “hot” – at least hot enough to hire as co-head of feature development.
Why do I remember that particular day? That’s easy. I was replacing a guy named Sid Blumberg, who was being demoted. Sid had gone to Jake and complained that I was an overrated, Ivy League hack. Not nice of him; but, hey, I get it, that’s the business.
Anyway, Jake calls me into his office with Sid still there. Sid stands there looking uncomfortable while Jake repeats what he just said about me. Kind of embarrassing. Then, Jake turns to Sid and says, “I’ve hired this man because he has rare talent – talent we badly need. Unlike you, this man’s an artist.” Then, suddenly, he points at my feet and shouts, “Kiss his shoe!”
Will ambition kickstart his movie career or kill his marriage? 2,292 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“So, yeah, this is risky. But life goes fast, Emma. We’re both starting to realize that. In two years we’ll be invited to our fifteen-year high school reunions and the next fifteen years will fly by. I want to have fun making films.”
“No, I think you want to feel like an important filmmaker. You want to drive some German sports car around Beverly Hills and sit by the swimming pool with movie stars and get the cool table at Craig’s. You want to read about yourself in Variety. You want to be respected by people you hate. Fine. But there’s no way to get that stuff unless you gamble with both of our lives. You can’t spin it, Mike. Paramount is safe, that’s a fact. You have friends there. If something happens, they’ll find you a job somewhere else. You’re always telling me that getting fired is the best way to get a promotion by moving from studio to studio. It’s a club and you’re finally a member. If you turn your back on that, they’ll be rooting for you to fail. And when it happens, you’ll be tainted goods. Is that what you want?”
Mike spoke very slowly into the burning silence of her stare. “I am not going to fail.”
“Really? So then tell me: when have you ever succeeded?”
“That’s not fair.”
“My life is at stake. So, sorry, fair doesn’t matter to me right now. What matters is making you see the truth before it’s too late.”
Mike rummaged helplessly for something to say back to Emma. It seemed that all the words had been used up. There were just three left.
“I want this.”
Every movie career has ups and downs. But every marriage has a breaking point. 1,924 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jim pushed his glass aside and leaned forward.
“Let me tell you what’s really going on,” he said. “Bill Terhune has a deal going.”
“Bill Terhune always has a deal going,” Mike replied. “He probably had deals going in kindergarten – ‘You cover for me during nap time and you can have my cookie at snack.’”
“This is real."
“So was that. Not to mention the black market Lincoln logs. And the crayon exchange. Apparently he had the only sharpener.”
Jim had to laugh. “I mean it, Mike, this is serious. He found someone with money.”
It was the one sentence guaranteed to knock the smile off Mike’s face and silence him. This was what everyone was looking for, the seam of gold in the mountains, the genie in the battered lamp, the copy of the Declaration of Independence on the garage sale table: someone with money to make movies.
“Who is it?”
Temping in Hollywood can be boring or blissful or even brilliant. 2,886 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“It’s an insurance company,” she said, idly swiveling in the black leather manager chair with the receiver cradled against her shoulder. “Yeah, Culver City. It’s in the movie business but as borderline as you can get. It’s all they had for me this week. I got bills to pay, babe.”
She looked up, startled to see a man standing over her desk. “Gotta go,” she said, hanging up the phone.
“Hi, I’m Brad,” he said, beaming down at her.
She straightened up. “I’m Sara from the temp agency,” she replied, “filling in for Todd Pierce’s secretary while she’s on maternity leave.”
Sara gave Brad a quick once-over: tan skin, angular jawline, aristocratic nose, blue eyes and blond hair. His perfect teeth glistened through a radiant smile.
“Welcome to Fortress Insurance.” Brad said and started to leave, then stopped. “By the way, how you were holding the phone,” he cocked his head to the side, “you’ll get a crick in your neck. Use the headset.
It’s 1936 and a smart college student is this movie mogul’s newest assistant. 2,079 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I stood up as story editor Kate Brown arrived in the conference room. She smiled. She had a polished debutante look about her with alert eyes that seemed to hide a lively intellect. “So, Buzz, I’m assuming that Professor Hawley briefed you,” she said earnestly, glancing down at a letter. “He writes here that you did your senior thesis on Middlemarch and played first base on the Columbia baseball team. Impressive juxtaposition of talents.”
She lifted her eyes off the paper and sized me up, watching me twitch in my tweed suit, a clearly idiotic choice for a 93-degree New York City summer day.
“Mind if I remove my coat?” I asked, feeling the drip of sweat beads zig-zagging down my neck. Were I a contortionist, I’d surely be kicking myself in the ass at this point. It’s the only suit I now own. I did have a new $15 blue serge number I wore for my college graduation which, to my everlasting misfortune, shrunk in a sudden thunderstorm to a size more adaptable to a Bar Mitzvah boy than my 6’2” frame. So it was either the tweed or dungarees and a Columbia t-shirt.
“Sure,” Kate said. Then she stood up, clicked on the big fan and aimed it to sweep my tweed pants.
“Blessings on you, “ I said, feeling the waves of cool relief. “So this is an assistant job to a movie executive?”
“Mr. David O. Selznick, yes. Didn’t the professor mention that?”