The Venice Film Festival was the culmination of their dreams. 1,719 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The source material for their project, an obscure novella called “Fork In The Road,” was the story of two life-long female friends whose paths diverge. One pursues a career as a medical researcher, the other becomes a hardened criminal. But in the end, it’s the latter who has the more emotionally satisfying life. She becomes an angel of mercy in prison, redeeming herself through altruism. The story was tersely written, and because it was delivered without even a trace of sentimentality or bathos, earned the tears Cynthia shed when reading it.
She passed it on to Harlan, who also found the story compelling but pointed out “as a movie it screams ‘woman’s picture.’ The only male characters are incidental. And before you give me ‘the lecture,’ I’m only telling you what every producer in town is going to say, even the female producers. Just trying to prepare you.”
Married just two years, but together for six, they’d discussed several co-scripting projects for Harlan to direct but so far nothing had jelled. Cynthia was keeping them afloat with residuals from a long-running TV series in which she’d been a supporting cast member, and a combination of TV commercials, voice-over work and guest-starring assignments. She was regularly cast in pilots, none of which ever went to series. Harlan, meanwhile was directing local theater and temping as a teacher.
Like many of their aspiring friends, they were just getting by, stuck in gear, in desperate need of forward momentum.
Can a Hollywood animation icon make it in the harsh world of NYC reality? 1,386 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming
Mickey was awful tired. The snap of life was long gone. The heartbeats and thought-waves had died out when the drawing stopped. After that, animation was only a matter of machines, and money. Walt Disney, who wasn’t the nice man his conglomerate’s PR department sold to the world, was long dead, his severed head supposedly stuck in a San Fernando Valley deep-freeze. Minnie, the she-mouse Mickey was supposed to love, had turned into a block of black ice with long eyelashes and too much lipstick. Minnie had nothing to say anymore. She’d been clobbered by life or its simulation, stricken mute as Pluto, that distant animal star. Mickey knew how love felt, but he’d never been happy with what it really meant, to him.
He felt rootless, lifeless, old. Born from a bottle of India ink and a stolen idea, made to move by brushes with destiny, forced to express emotions not necessarily his own, he nonetheless felt the urge to return, somewhere. Back to the well of blackness, the life-blood that tasted like the end, which is where it all began, for him.
Mickey didn’t say goodbye to anyone at the Studio. Not a word to Huey, Dewey and Louie, or whatever Donald’s nephews were called. Not a word to his supposed friend, that buck-toothed monster from another species. He couldn’t even bring himself to say that stupid name.
He didn’t leave a note, he just left.
What happens when you fall for a showbiz wannabe who then becomes a somebody? 2,468 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
When the film rights to Truman Blu’s novel, Better Off Dead, sold for two million dollars to Magnet Pictures, it was a triumph. Three days ago, the publishing rights had sold to HarperCollins for seven hundred fifty thousand, thereby creating the buzz that would make Truman Blu a rich man. Of course, the author was thrilled, but the huge sale also made Lolo’s boss, Peter Biro look like a star and Lolo basked in the reflected light.
Truman had been a struggling writer in the unincorporated town of Victor, Montana, and went from penury to riches overnight. A month later, he came down to L.A. for his victory lap. He arrived unexpectedly, and Peter was in a staff meeting. Lolo texted her boss, who texted back that she should take Truman to Starbucks and Peter would get there as soon as he could.
Lolo went down to the atrium to retrieve Truman. He rose from a Herman Miller sofa. It took a long minute for Truman to reach his full height. He dipped his head in the way of tall men and smiled. Those teeth. The man must have eaten nothing but candy as a child. Truman Blu, previous to this windfall, was a man who could not afford teeth. But Lolo saw past that. What she saw was a man bathed in the glow of genius. He had done the one thing she wanted to do, the thing she dreamed of doing as she wrote late into the night. Lolo had always been a sucker for men of literature. One drunken night back in New Hampshire, she had sucked on the tips of a man’s fingers just because he’d had a short story published in Ploughshares.
Is Jason going to spy on his celeb friends for a gossip mag? 2,304 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Beverly saw Jason sitting at a corner table under the heavy drape of bougainvillea. He looked like his dad with some of his mother’s refinement thrown in. He definitely wasn’t movie star material but he was cute. Beverly didn’t like her staff to be too great looking. It made them memorable. Memorable was definitely not good. A few years ago, she’d had a reporter with a purple streak in her hair. Jenifer Lopez referred to her on the red carpet as Juicy’s Miss Purple. Subsequently, the reporter had been thrown out of a posh hotel in Cabo because Jennifer’s security people recognized the hair and knew she was a gossipmonger.
Looks are fine, but not too out there. Jason could blend in wherever he went.
He stood up when she approached the table. She never saw that anymore, thought Beverly, who would have raised an eyebrow but that expression had been wiped out by Botox long ago. Melody must have been awake enough during his childhood to get some manners pounded into him, Beverly surmised. Actually, he’d learned that from Big Jack. Stand up, look them in the eye and shake hands, but only if they offered theirs first. “It’ll get you laid, I promise you." Big Jack had been right.
Beverly went into her no-nonsense mode, shotgunning questions at him. Asking Jason what he did for fun. What he read. Where he went with his friends. And what he was studying. Then she got down to it. Did he know Selena or Kendall? What about Demi’s kids? Does anybody still care about Britney Spears anymore? Is Jennifer Lawrence going to keep so private she’ll fade? Which clubs were hot right now?
This "son of" is smart and celeb-connected but desperate. 1,965 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Dude, I am so screwed, Jason Alden muttered to himself as he sat up in bed alone late Wednesday afternoon to find his apartment trashed, as usual, his grubby sheets kicked to the floor. Earlier he’d had a fight with his girlfriend, Nicole, and she’d thrown him out of her Santa Monica beachfront condo, which her daddy, the guilty party in her parents’ nasty divorce, so generously paid for. That was considered only fair in a L.A. divorce war: he’d been caught sleeping with Nicole’s tennis teacher, then was stupid enough to knock her up and marry her.
Nicole never did get her backhand down.
Jason had slammed out of Nicole’s posh apartment’s parking lot at 5 a.m. in his three series BMW – overdue to the leasing agency, with no replacement in sight. Now he was in his own apartment on the wrong side of town. His study pad, as he described it to his parents when they rented it for him in a sort of safe neighborhood near USC. But even that was about to come to an end. Daddy Dearest wasn’t going to renew the lease and had told Jason in no uncertain terms that he’d have to cover any damage that had been done. There was plenty of that, for sure. Holes in the walls and carpets, vomit in the closets. It was a sty and now he was stuck with the clean-up.
A lot of things were coming to an end for Jason. His dad, Teddy Alden, was a washed-up director-writer-producer who was still talking about his glory days with Spielberg in the 1980s and 1990s. But the senior Alden never made Spielberg money, never had his drive and most importantly hadn’t had the sense to hire his accountants. Teddy Alden had been a partier of the first degree. Right up there with Don Samuels, the producer who famously died on his toilet, stoned on a pharmacy worth of drugs. It was a miracle Teddy was alive, but as he hit his fifties he’d started to slow down. Jason wasn’t sure it was because of the natural inclination of the elderly to get to bed early, or, that he had blown through a Hollywood-sized fortune and had to stop leasing jets to go for lunch in San Francisco.
An artist, his dealer and a studio mogul begin the most shocking of negotiations. 2,606 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“No! No! It can’t be done. The Post Office changed the rules and they can’t be sent through the mail any longer.” Why did I pick up the fucking phone? “Going through the U.S. Mail was an essential part of each artwork.”
Sue comes stumbling down the hall, half asleep and half naked. I’m staring at her pussy when I realize she is mouthing, “Who is it?” The bull shit on the phone continues.
“I don’t give a fuck how rich the S.O.B. is. I’m not in the movie business and never heard of the dude.” Doug, my art dealer, has some studio mogul on the hook and is determined to land him. I continue trying to explain why this simply can’t happen. “The Post Office changed the rules ages ago. It can’t be done. Final! End of conversation!”
I return the phone to its cradle with a crash. Can’t do that with a cell phone. I grab my shirt from the hook and feel around for rolled joints in the pocket. One left. Perfect.
The agony and the ecstasy of one man’s experience working in the TV writing biz. 1,449 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
There are many dreaded words a father can hear from their child. “Dad, I wrecked the car.” “Dad, I’m in a Tijuana jail.” “Dad, the pee stick has a plus sign.”
But none of those words could ever compare to the sheer horror of hearing a child of mine say, “Dad, I want to work in showbiz.”
Perhaps I should elaborate…
I am a husband and father of three kids. My career has been spent bouncing back and forth between life as a writer and life producing promos for a TV network. It’s been an occasionally pleasant but also frequently demoralizing. The highs are way too high and the lows are way too low. It’s career crack. Addicting, unhealthy and way too much suffering has to incur before receiving those rare tastes of joy. All those years of stories that started out with, "There’s a producer who seems to like my script…” “A big agent is going to read my script this weekend, I hope…” “The producer said if I give him a free option, he’ll try to sell it…" and then inevitably end with, "I haven’t heard back from him/her yet."
This is a profession I’ve regretted pursuing for a lot of years. And a profession I have adamantly tried to steer my children away from pursuing. You want your children to be both successful and happy, not just getting by and miserable. So I tell them my war stories to make it easy for them to reach their own conclusions.
David O. Selznick’s new assistant learns more than the movie biz. 2,711 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Three days later the Super Chief hissed into Pasadena, its crimson war bonnet and yellow locomotive gleaming in the sparkling Southern California morning sun. The chauffeur was waiting and hefted our bags into the trunk of the Cadillac Fleetwood limousine. The trip had been three days of valuable reconnaissance about my new boss. I’d learned that David O. Selznick was a frenetic and obsessive memo dictator, a chain smoker, a heavy drinker, a cheap-feels copper on lady friends he’d trapped in the train passageways, and, mostly, a terrible gambler.
The driver eased the car out of the train station lot and drove onto Colorado Street headed south to Beverly Hills. Selznick slapped my knee.
“Buzz, you haven’t set a foot down at the studio yet but you are, dear boy, a true gem of a hire. Now I’ve leased an apartment in the Beverly Hills flats for you. We’ll drop you there now. Relax today and come into the office tomorrow to organize yourself with Lydia Schiller, my secretary. Then clear Friday night. You and I have a date in Tijuana.”
“What’s in Tijuana?”
“You’ll see. Just wear your suspenders.”
My next few days were a frenzied blur of running errands for Selznick to his tailor, to his bookie, to his lady friends, to his doctor to pick up and wait for prescriptions to be filled between snatches of time reading Gone With The Wind.
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?”
Cop turned screenwriter Nick Chapel finds another body and puts his own in danger. 3,036 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I’m riding shotgun in the LAPD department issue Ford Taurus going south on the 405 and trying not to imagine the sources of the stains, tears and burned holes in the fabric around me. The seats are wide and the suspension spongy. My slacks and blazer will have to be laundered and even that may not erase the smell of fried food and cigarettes. I crack the window, but it’s not big enough to air out this kind of stink.
For the longest time Ayers says nothing, focusing on the intricate sequence of lane changes required when traveling through West L.A. and Culver City. He’s a meticulous driver, head on a swivel, checking his mirrors. Perhaps he was in the military, or played ball in college. I sense team sports in his background, but the lanky frame that impressed high school recruiters has gone soft.
“So you and Brandt were a team,” the police detective finally says. “I hear you didn’t suck. A real hard charger.”
“I liked putting the cuffs on bad guys.”
“Hard chargers burn out. That what happen to you?”
I smile at the jab, then explain, “I got a job on a TV show and it stuck. Now I’m a screenwriter.”
“I need you to just remember one thing: you’re not a cop anymore. So who is this mook we’re trying to find?”
Former LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel follows a lead in the serial murder case. 2,096 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Five tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
There is a reason I specialize in rewriting crime stories. It’s not just the compelling nature of murder, and the ease of breaking a second act that is propelled by the search for a criminal. It’s the simple motivation that drives the hero to his or her goal. No boring exposition is needed to explain why a police officer or private investigator endures trials and hardships to solve the crime and catch the villain. It’s simply what they do, and who they are. It defines them.
It’s the detective who doesn’t pursue the killer that requires explanation. He knows the criminal is out there somewhere. The same sun beats down on him. He wears sunglasses to cut the glare, just like I am, and maybe even a hat to protect his sensitive scalp. The same hot wind blowing in from the desert burns his lungs. I drive east, sketching out the backstory of a man I’ve never met.
He works in show business, or used to, but the reality never matched his dreams. That made him angry, enough to kill, but he’s no wild man ranting on Hollywood Boulevard about what might have been. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Intelligent. He has a plan and a place to do his work that must be private, where no one would notice his comings and goings, or the bodies he carries.
Driving through Beverly Hills, I wonder if he is shopping at this very moment. Maybe he is sipping a cappuccino at one of the coffee shops on Robertson, or eating lunch at the Beverly Center. But then he is probably more accustomed to brown-bagged lunches and black coffee from a thermos than hipster meetings at The Ivy. I settle into his shoes, and feel the weight of the implements he uses to cut his victims apart. I should be angry with my ex-partner, LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt for introducing me to this character, but only feel an odd gratitude. Finding Sid Shulman is the least I can do.
Screenwriter Nick Chapel is back on the LAPD beat looking for a serial killer. 1,894 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt spreads the files on the table. “Fair warning: these are pretty disturbing.”
“Worse than eyeballs?”
“Worse than eyeballs. The Starlet Stalker takes different body parts every time. We’re keeping the specifics out of the press. They know disfigurement is part of the MO, but not the details of what he’s taking. The first victim, Mandy Monroe, played the oldest daughter on the sitcom Daddy’s Home. She was found five weeks ago in a dumpster in back of a Pizza Hut on Pico Boulevard with her breasts cut off.”
Brandt slides the file across the desk to me. I brace myself, then open it, revealing photos of Monroe’s savaged torso. She lies naked in a tangle of garbage, her face frozen in a beatific gaze, a purse and its contents scattered around her crudely slashed torso. Where her breasts should be, eye-shaped holes reveal red musculature and white ribs. For a moment, it’s difficult to process the discrepancy between her external beauty and internal meat. I close the file.
“I flagged the case, but pegged it as a one-off,” Brandt says. “Figured some angry boyfriend or crazy fan, but I was wrong. The second victim, Victoria Foster, was in the teen comedy Senior Year. She got a lot of press from her nude scene. Her body was found in a half-pipe in a Venice skateboard park. Again the breasts.”
“Your guy likes the publicity,” I begin. “This town is full of hot young women, but he goes after the ‘it’ girls, the ones with heat on their careers. He makes no effort to hide the bodies. He wants you to find them. Leaves their purses to help you identify them. And he keeps killing even after you put him on national television. Talk about your ego strokes. This gives him something he’s missing in life, a feeling of importance, that his existence has meaning. I’m sure your profiler has told you he’s probably single, a loner, maybe the victim of abuse.”
LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel is consulted on a serial murder case. 2,272 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The elevator doors open at the lobby revealing Russell, the day man on the front desk.
“Mr. Chapel, are you okay?” he asks. “I caught the whole thing on the security cameras. Should I call the cops?”
“I’m fine, Russell. No need for the police, but don’t open the garage for them. Maybe they’ll miss their deadline.”
Finally, I let out a long sigh. I am home and safe behind metal gates, doors with biometric key card locks, and Russell with his security monitors and taser. With each passing floor, I feel cleaner and safer, high above the dirt, poverty, illegal-immigrant desperation, multi-cultural conflict, gangbanging violence, and star-struck disillusionment of the city below.
The doors slide open, and we are greeted by a reproduction Louis XIV side table topped with a vibrant bouquet of bird-of-paradise. There are only two condos on this level and Lee Chang stands outside the open door to my unit, no doubt having watched the entire affair on the security system inside. He’s not much older than my college roommate’s daughter, Megan Davies, but already a veteran of the industry. Three months as my assistant will do that to a person. Gone is the boy band haircut and saggy skateboard jeans he wore to his interview, replaced by dressy-casual attire from the vintage stores on Melrose. Right now he is bringing me up to speed with his usual efficiency.
“Housekeeping has the guest room all set up for Megan. Mel called about a deal at Paramount. Mrs. Henderson from next door is threatening to take you before the tenants’ board because of all the paparazzi outside. And you’re all over the news. The landline’s been ringing off the hook. Channel 4, Channel 7, the L.A. Times, Entertainment Tonight. I’m letting the machine pick up. What the hell happened?”
A movie studio executive refereeing a ruckus wonders how he got in the middle of it. 1,841 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1953
The Paramount Pictures executive suite was decorated in muted blue and green tones with aqua adorning the walls of the sumptuous offices where the top men nested on large sofas and chairs that reflected the paint scheme. An interior designer, probably a set decorator from the studio, suggested the colors because they had a soothing effect on the inhabitants and their visitors.
But this soothing atmosphere was having little to no effect on the meeting taking place inside James McLaren’s office. Jimmy to his friends, Paramount’s Chief of Studio Production was in the process of mediating between one of the most heralded directors and the current hot blonde commodity that the studio had produced.
“Sie ist faul und kann nicht handeln!” Hart Winslow, nee Reinhardt Wisner, shouted, slipping into his native German whenever he began to get angry. Winslow was one of many of the great artists that Hitler managed to chase out of Germany in the thirties. The director belonged to the legendary Berlin school of filmmakers that also produced Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. His escape was aided by the exiled Europeans now living in Hollywood; Bertolt Brecht had been his traveling companion.
McLaren didn’t speak a word of German but knew that Winslow was upset. “Hart, please, calm down.”
Winslow tried to stay in his chair. “Jimmy — excuse me, Mr. McLaren — she is… unprofessional!” He was using both hands as if praying or pleading.
He was a student of Italian film legends like Fellini and Mastroianni. Then he met their muse. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Quite a few people here in Hollywood on the Tiber hear “writer,” and understand “translator.” This means you exist to help them get their ideas, novels and screenplays produced in the real Hollywood on the Pacific. Bugged me at first, but they’re fast-cash transactions, and the “translate” button on the digital typer works better and better.
Everyone knows the old Cinecittà lot is being gradually turned into a theme park. They still shoot some TV ads and -series there. Hopeful extras line up at the gate. Eager beaver aspiring directors bring their reels, which are usually on their cellphones. No more paparazzi. No limousines, certainly no helicopters. No men in long black coats and Borsalino cowboy hats atop slicked-back hair who hide their authoritarian gaze behind Persol sunglasses, the lenses a shade or two darker than are commercially available.
One guy I met at a boring party heard “writer,” and understood “tour guide.” Not exactly refreshing, but different. “Tell me,” I said, “what’s the job?”
“All you gotta do is act like you’re the actor who played Porcello in Fellini’s Casanova. Tell the customers you and Donny Sutherland grew up together in Canada, played hockey, ate maple syrup, shit like that. You lead groups through the new fake sets, which are gonna look all dusty and sacred. Make ‘em feel like they’re getting the real deal, that they’re seeing something secret for insiders only, so they’ll go away thinking some of that magic might’ve rubbed off on them.”
The showbiz murder attempts mount as famed P.I. McNulty tries to prevent more. 1,570 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Mandeville Moving Pictures was six weeks into a ten-week shoot on A Whisper In The Dark when the stalker finally made his move on Jade San Vincente, Hollywood’s newest and brightest young star who also happened to be the lead actress in Mitch and Billie Mandeville’s newest movie.
“Quiet, please!” the assistant director called out. “This is picture!”
Everybody was gathered at the far end of the Malibu Pier to film a crucial scene where Jade must wordlessly decide if her character will honor her dementia-stricken mother’s pleas to help her die. As Jade took her place at the rail, her assistant held up a parasol to shade the actress from the bright Malibu sun. After a few quiet words with Jade, the director nodded to the A.D. who then ordered the camera operator to “roll camera!”
All eyes were on Jade as a range of emotions flitted across her face. It was a touching moment and Jade was capturing her character’s anguish beautifully. Then, from the corner of his eye, private detective McNulty caught a flash of movement. Someone on a ten-speed bicycle was hurtling down the pier toward them!
The bike knifed through several crew members, knocking them down, and raced straight for Jade. McNulty saw the rider was holding a plastic drink container in one hand. Moving reflexively, The P.I. grabbed the parasol and stepped in front of Jade just as the rider squeezed out a long stream of hydrochloride acid from the container.