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.”
A down-on-his-luck social message documentary filmmaker is asked to work on a Reality TV show. 2,323 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The phone jarred Michael awake at 6:18 am. It was Eva, his sister and self-appointed agent, calling from her Audi on her way to the gym.
“You couldn’t wait until you finished your workout?” he said groggily.
“Today at 11,” she reminded him. “I sent them over your teen hooker piece and they love it. They’re eager to meet you. Now don’t screw it up.”
“I’ll be on my best behavior,” he mumbled.
“Don’t you dare embarrass me.”
“I didn’t know that was possible.”
“You’re such an asshole,” she said and hung up.
Michael got out of bed and brewed some coffee. He knew he should be grateful for Eva’s attempts to get him work, but reality TV? He had become a documentary filmmaker to make the world a better place, not to contribute to its degradation like his sister, who represented many of the worst offenders of the genre. “Reality TV,” she once told him, “is the 21st Century equivalent of the gladiatorial arena. The Romans loved it and so do we. It’s human nature. We glorify the strong and want to kick the weak.”
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 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.
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?
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.
Two actors meet in a bar and discuss a Hollywood Boulevard performance noone has seen. Not yet. 2,321 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I was working the afternoon shift in a dark empty bar called 8½ Monkeys. The owner thought the name would appeal to cult movie fans, but he’d been wrong about that. It was the start of happy hour, though looking around at the thin skim of customers hiding from the sunlight, it didn’t seem that anybody was planning to get happy anytime soon. Least of all me.
The bar was at the eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard right before it meets up with Sunset, and there’d been a phase in my life when I’d thought that sounded very glamorous. But that was a long time ago. I’d come to L.A. a good few years back, as a bartender who wanted to be an actor, but now after all the usual auditions, rejections, bit parts, disappointments and rip-offs, I reckoned I was probably just a bartender.
Some people sit alone in bars because they don’t want to talk to anybody. Some people sit alone in bars because they do. As a bartender you have to be able to cope with either. The guy sitting on the stool across the bar from me me was obviously a talker. I could sense that long before he opened his mouth.
He looked like he might once have been a somebody. He was just about middle aged, greying elegantly, and good looking in an out-of-fashion TV cop show kind of way. Maybe one of those guys who’d been the best-looking boy in his small town in Wisconsin, and he thought he’d come to Hollywood and capitalize on it in some way. And he’d got here and seen that his small town back in Wisconsin actually had pretty low standards of male beauty and realized he was never going to make it big. But he’d gritted his teeth and hung in there, made a living one way or another, because anything was better than the humiliation of going back home. It was a story I knew very well, but I wouldn’t have paid money to see it on the screen.
A showbiz journo goes Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole and ends up at a hellacious party. 3,477 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
As I lay down, I remembered thinking that I would only close my eyes for a moment. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how intensely I stared, I couldn’t see my way through the thicket of branches and leaves to the clearing that surely waited beyond. I couldn’t even be sure how long I’d been out here crawling up the cliff face after leaving my hotel in Beverly Hills — five minutes? five hours? — wandering aimlessly through these dark woods frustrated, disoriented and suddenly very tired. I, the infamous entertainment journalist Frederick M. Barclay, was about to sit down with the even more infamous studio head Nero in his secluded Bel Air lair to discuss the state of the art. I’d been told that Tony Billings would arrange it. If only I could find him.
Then I found a face staring down at me.
“Jack,” he said, reaching down and taking my hand. “Jack Dante.”
“Of course I recognize you,” I said, as he pulled me to my feet. “You’re one of the greatest living British filmmakers.”
“Am I still alive? I question that,” he said. “I question it every day. More and more, I wander around this city like a ghost.”
“I’m Fred Barclay, the writer,” I said. “I was on my way to the Nero party. I must have gotten lost. How did you find me?”
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A Red Carpet meet compels this couple to keep going. 2,312 words. Part One. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Backstory: My name is Nat, I work in the mailroom at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and I went to the Academy Awards. Instead of sitting up in the lousy seats with the rest of the AMPAS staff, I met Erin Teller, the Erin Teller, and she sort of made me her date. I sat with her and she won the Best Actress Oscar for When The Mountain Sings.
And now we’re going to the Governors Ball.
I am not making this shit up.
So Erin and I are walking out of the Dolby when Erin grabs my hand and asks me where I’m going because, duh, don’t I know the Governors Ball is upstairs and she’s starving to death. She says some of the cast from Hamilton is performing and isn’t it the best musical ever. I tell her I haven’t seen it and she says, boy, I’m in for a surprise.
This whole night is a surprise. Having my date get a migraine so I go to the Awards solo, then running into Erin Teller – literally, when her limo door knocks me down. Now I can’t figure out why she hooked on to me. But I’m not complaining.
We’re riding up the escalator to the Governors Ball and Erin has her Oscar clutched in her fist. Occasionally, she waves it in the air and says, “Woo hoo,” and people shout, “Woo hoo” back at her. This is the most amazing night of her life. And, fuck me, I never want it to end.
The screenwriter is made a shocking offer she can’t refuse. Continued from Part One. 3,094 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Hours later I lay awake on Corie’s couch thinking about the good night’s rest I can’t seem to manage. I flip on the television set scanning channels, but it only leaves me feeling agitated. I stop on the E! Network to watch the story of legendary producer Robert Evans, who gave us Love Story, The Godfather, and many others. I’m consoled by the battles he had to endure to get his movies made. His persistence and risk-taking paid off and I hope someday mine will, too. I flip some more, this time to AMC, playing Gone With The Wind. I watch as Scarlett O’Hara stands defiant and determined to survive. Magically I’m mesmerized, as if seeing it for the first time as opposed to the forty-sixth.
I calm down, reminding myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. My father inspired a love of movies in me. Films offer strength and courage, provide life’s lessons, spark laughter, elicit tears, and create the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself, experiencing the vicissitudes of someone else’s journey, which helps you appreciate your own. I exhale and settle into a remedy of escape from my own problems in total solidarity with Scarlett.
It’s 8:00 am when Corie graciously drops me off at the mechanic’s shop. The first thing that Joseph tells me is that he’s got this cousin in the San Fernando Valley with a production company who’s always looking for good scripts. “I gave him your script last night. He thinks you’re a talented writer,” says Joseph.
“He does? He read it in one night?”
“Yeah. He wants to meet you. Go see him. You can pay me back in a month.” Joseph hands me my car keys, a bill reduced to a thousand dollars and the address to the Accent Film Company.
A talented female screenwriter loses her Hollywood dreams. Part Two posted. 3,212 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I can’t believe what I have just heard. I repeat the words that I think rolled off the studio producer’s tongue because I am suddenly unable to decipher the meaning of them.
“What do you mean there’s no deal?” I ask, my heart pumping furiously.
“There never was any deal,” he says, leaning back in his chair beside a pile of screenplays, contracts, and production budgets. “Who’d you say your agent was again?”
“Scott Sher at the Significant Talent Agency,” I repeat.
“Hmmm.I thought I knew all the agents at STA. Never met him,” says Lee Weston, a high-profile movie producer on the lot of a major film studio. “What exactly did he tell you… Linda?”
“It’s Laura. Laura Taylor. And he told me the deal was done months ago,” I affirm.
My memory can’t be that bad. After all, why would I quit my job at STA, the hottest talent agency in town, if there hadn’t been a deal? Scott had told me to leave and stick with writing. I wonder, can Alzheimer’s strike at twenty-nine? Maybe it’s some sort of studio conspiracy against struggling writers. Or perhaps this guy is an imposter and the real tanned-face Weston has the contract for my screenplay with him on a sandy-white beach in Fiji.
A TV reporter looks to explain a surprising tragedy on a female filmmaker’s movie shoot. 2,184 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The plane was taxiing to the gate at LAX when the text came in, instructing me to turn around. No time even to run home, shower, and change. I caught the next flight back to Albuquerque where I met the crew, a local camera guy Juan, and his soundman Pete, the same two I’d used the day before. Their minivan was still packed with gear, so I sent them ahead and re-rented the dusty Grand Cherokee that I had turned in only a few hours earlier. There was some nervous talk from the news desk about efforting a live shot in time for the New York feed. But that plan went away after I explained it was at least a two-hour drive to Taos, and another fifteen minutes to the bridge. We’d be lucky to roll on anything before losing the light.
When I had first arrived at the location the day before, the film company was shooting their final scenes. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is the fifth highest in the U.S., a graceful configuration of inverted steel arches that towers hundreds of feet over desert scrub and sinister black basalt. The view extends to infinity across an immense crack in the earth’s crust, where vast open sky collides with flat scarred rock. You stand suspended on this desolate patch of two-lane highway and it feels like you’re floating over the edge of an abyss. It’s no accident the apocalyptic sight lines have graced wide-screen epics like Natural Born Killers and Terminator Salvation.
But the atmosphere on the set that day was relaxed. The light was bright and flat, the air crystalline. The road was closed to traffic and a few dozen cast and crew were going about their business, pleased to see us. There was one page in the script left to shoot. It was some walk and talk with the leads. Easy stuff. No action. Nothing too dramatic. All the heavy lifting had been done after eight weeks on location. It felt like a going away party, good vibes and plenty of practical jokes to go around. Lots of backslapping and “see you on the next one.”
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A Best Actress nominee has the best and worst time of her life. 2,746 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The first thing Lyla thought when she found the script for Circle Of Squares in her mailbox was, This has come to me by mistake.
She lived in a guest house on a property belonging to a beloved actress known for a series of “grumpy old lady” comedies that had touched a chord. Though claiming to be retired, the landlady was still very much interested in being courted by filmmakers. Way back in the day, Lyla occupied the same casting niche of supporting comic character even though she was two generations younger than her landlady. But the older actress snagged every part, cashing a nice little paycheck for a couple hours of work.
Lyla was used to delivery people dropping packages on her porch because it was accessible to the road and the landlady’s house was situated down a long driveway behind a tall security gate. But this screenplay had Lyla’s name on the envelope.
She began reading it and her first thought was, It doesn’t make any damn sense at all. It’s even more inexplicable than Cloud Atlas. Lyla had never understood the point of pointless movies.
But as Lyla finished the script, she knew it had Oscar bait written all over it.
The story and characters had everything the old farts in the Academy liked in an indie movie, she realized, beginning with the pretentious and never-explained title right through to the heavy-handed political message and depressing plot.
It was a bonus that the role she was being offered was the star.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A newbie NYC filmmaker visits L.A. after his documentary is shortlisted. 3,168 words. Art by Thomas Warming.
Rick was making $175,000 annually at a midsize law firm in New York City as a second-year associate with a bright future. He did corporate work and mostly real estate transactions. There wasn’t a lot of law involved, but he had to deal with an ever-changing cast of characters. It was about who had control, who had leverage, who had cash, who had financing. No two deals were alike, and it was Rick’s job to stand up for his clients when others were behaving badly and to smooth out issues when his clients were the ones behaving badly.
The truth was Rick didn’t feel that much commitment to his work. He he felt no personal stake in it. Much of what he did was accumulate files on his desk and make them disappear to somewhere else. What Rick most enjoyed was the process of property development by transforming the most prosaic piece of land or building into something new and different at its highest and best use.
As a second year associate, Rick was required to do a certain amount of pro-bono work (which theoretically meant “for the public good” but actually meant “for the good name of the firm.”) Rick’s contribution was helping his alma mater Columbia Law School raise scholarship funds. A worthy cause and, in the eyes of the firm, a great networking opportunity. For this year’s annual dinner, Rick had the idea to make a short documentary about Supreme Court Justice and Columbia Law grad Benjamin Cardozo.
A follow-up to The Auteur, the murdering filmmaker seeks an audience of one. 2,938 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The Auteur’s troubles began when he finally attended a screening.
He knew it was a risky move, but other directors watched their films with an audience. Why should he deny himself? It was a Hollywood tradition – from the test audiences with their comment cards, to the gala premieres with the klieg lights waving their vertical proclamations into the smog of the nighttime sky. Sitting in a roped-off section of the theatre among peers and feeling the charge in the air when sound and image mingled with the brain chemistry of a thousand strangers. Such moments were nerve-wracking but necessary: part triumph, part trial by fire.
It was more than that, though. Screenings also were social occasions, part of the communal life of filmmakers. And the Auteur had exiled himself from that. It was lonely doing what he did. True, there was a nobility of purpose. But he wanted respect, acknowledgement of achievement, applause.
Of course it was impossible. He had to remain anonymous. He couldn’t risk revealing himself. He knew his ego was getting the better of him. It was a weakness, and he despised weakness.