An ambitious scripter rethinks his relationship with his writing partner when they can’t see eye to eye. 4,233 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing.
They had been sitting in this airless room for six hours and the empty spaces in the conversation were becoming unbearable, at least for Alex. The morning session had passed with the usual peaks and valleys but by now time had slowed like the last half hour of algebra class. Alex was enough of a pro that he tried not to let his boredom seep into his partner’s creative process, but for the last three or so months he’d been fighting a losing battle to disguise his disgust with their lack of progress. For a second he found comfort in a fantasy where he sprinted out the door screaming, “I’ve spent my whole life with people who don’t exist!”
But instead Alex corkscrewed his 62-year-old spine, realizing the too-comfortable chair he was anchored to neutralized his caffeine rush from an hour ago. His interior rant about fictional characters was, in screenwriter parlance, First Thought Theatre, a bad idea that built a bridge to a more workable one. He had to leave, but a tantrum would be counterproductive. His frustration needed to be dramatized with nuance. So Alex strode along the wall of framed movie posters to the office’s lone window and cranked it open, letting in a slight, cool breeze that carried signs of life from the street three stories below, hoping to lure Santiago’s thoughts to the outside world.
Santiago was sprawled on a convertible sofa that had yet to be used as a bed. He started to speak and then stopped, discarding his idea mid-sentence, further irritating Alex. As the only one in the room with an IMDb film credit, Alex’s primary job was to pitch ideas. Santiago’s was to evaluate their worth. This was teamwork, although there was an unacknowledged competition that occasionally resulted in Santiago’s bruised ego. Alex was the pliable one — the matador, not the bull. Alex was also the manipulative one since it was relatively easy for a writer with his acumen and experience to come up with suggestions with a minimum of effort. Occasionally, he even sat on a good idea till he felt Santiago was ready to hear and understand it. Once, at a dinner party, Alex sat across from a cardiologist who asked him where he got his ideas. “It wasn’t coming up with ideas that was difficult, it was eliminating the ones that got in the way.”
Even though he wasn’t born into wealth like his Dominican benefactor, Alex had worked hard to give himself the bearing of a New England preppy, and every woman he had ever dated thought he was two inches taller than he measured. Santiago, with his hunched posture and endless involuntary burping due to a lack of rigorous exercise, looked like a character actor in a sci-fi B movie who advised the handsome lead on the chances of survival if they took the shortcut through the meteor storm. Santiago was 90% blind in one eye and completely blind in the other since his Caribbean boating accident at age eight, one that cost his twin brother his life. So even though he knew what most things looked like, he had to visualize them from distant memory. This enabled him to add distortion to visual concepts that on rare occasions produced a happy screenwriting accident, lifting them out of the realm of the mundane. But most of time Santiago was just rampaging in Alex’s china shop of ideas.
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?”
The Venice Film Festival goes from great to horrible for these moviemakers. 2,233 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
As they were packing, Philippe Renoir called to inform the filmmakers that they would finally be meeting their financier Errivo Monsour on the Red Carpet at the Venice Film Festival. After the screening, they would be swept off to his yacht for a lavish fête. Philippe dropped several A-list names before hanging up.
Cynthia spent the next three days in Beverly Hills trying to find the perfect dress. Harlan bought that Ralph Lauren tuxedo he’d promised himself.
Venice was not the picture postcard they’d envisioned. The late August weather was the equivalent of being locked inside a sauna that hadn’t been cleaned in months. The canals gave off the stench of rotting vegetables marinating in a dull brown broth. The streets were clogged with sweaty overbearing tourists. But at least the hotel didn’t disappoint. It was elegantly gaudy and the employees bowed and scraped every time the couple walked past. And room service was delightful.
The filmmakers had flown in a few days early to screen their passion project Monumental for distributors; several seemed genuinely interested afterwards but were loathe to commit until they saw the feature with an audience. The one firm offer they did receive, a direct to cable deal, they turned down flat. Monsour’s representative, Philippe, expressed his annoyance, he being of the bird-in-the-hand school. Harlan said he felt confident a distributor would bite after the premiere. But it was Cynthia who had to point out a contractual obligation he’d forgotte: in the agreements, both leading ladies had inserted a provision demanding a theatrical release. So no streaming services or pay channels were possible.
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.
This sucker is the toast of Hollywood – and then its bad joke. 1,951 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
It was Day 30 of a hundred day shoot. Today’s schedule called for the scene in which The Hack’s face is revealed; this is right after his monster is destroyed by The Screenwriter’s beast.
“Mr. Downey, I’m so glad you’re doing this. It’s an honor to have you here.” And it’s a big slap in the face to Marvel, lottery mega-millionaire turned filmmaker Zak thought.
“My pleasure. I like what you’re doing here, this allegory, especially in this era of alternative facts. Fiction comes to life, and it can be a good thing, like when something that would benefit humanity goes from being science fiction to science. Or it can be bad, like when a piece of fiction is given currency by the weak-minded so that it can be used by a bad political actor. Anything uttered by Kellyanne Conway would apply.” Both Robert Downey Jr. and Zak shared a laugh at that. “Really, I love my role, and it’s great to have even a small part in what I believe is a genius project that will get a lot of attention come awards time.”
“You mean it?” Zak asked.
“I do. I’m serious.” But Downey thought, of course I’m not serious, you idiot. This movie is shit and I’m only here because I’m getting $15 million of your Powerball windfall plus fifteen percent first-dollar gross before break even, all for being slotted in for one day of work. Bob Iger would never have made that deal!
There’s a sucker born every minute and they all come to Hollywood. 2,579 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
It was Day 10 of their new life. Zak and his wife Cecily had won one of the biggest Powerball lotteries in the history of the game: $367 million after taxes with an immediate payout. Understandably, both of them quit their jobs teaching in the Boston public school system on Day 2. After that, they followed all the advice, especially not to make any major spending decisions during the first several months. They did purchase a new car on Day 3 and started making plans to buy a house on Day 7. They were doing everything they could not to go wild.
But by Day 10, all of that went out the window when Zak made his proposal. “I want to make a superhero movie,” he announced.
It goes without saying that Cecily was stunned. “What?” she said. That was it. That was all that was necessary.
“Look, I don’t expect you to understand, but it’s been my dream to do this. I’ve done some research. Other lottery winners got into the movie business as well. I know people who went to film school and they can help me figure out how to do it. I want to make a superhero film. I just do. I’m not going to let Bob Iger have all the fun.”
“What is this with you and Bob Iger?” Cecily asked. She had a point. Zak had once explained to her how he found the CEO arrogant, how he wasn’t an innovator, how he’d just made a few acquisitions to put everything right at Disney.
“He just bought stuff!” Zak lectured her.
“Yeah, he bought some pretty good stuff,” she said.
“Okay, fine, maybe he did. Point is, if he can make a superhero film, so can I. Now I can. I have the money.”
The female filmmakers finally, finally, shoot their indieprod. 2,893 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
For Rachel and Stacey, the making of Escapade was a kind of blissful dream. Part of that feeling came from the European landscapes, which had a sort of abstract beauty since the filmmakers never stayed anywhere long enough or took enough time away from the work to absorb their reality. So they were carrying away memories like photographs. Not that there was anything wrong with that. They enjoyed floating. They were living in their own world for those eight weeks and everything else was just backdrop.
It was so easy, that was the astonishing part. It had begun with everyone’s small investments and then Peter Sandrian’s hundred thousand dollars and just continued, like a heartbeat, with the casting, their arrival in Paris, Hector Passy just walking up to them in a cafe and solving a dozen problems at once.
It seemed that every circumstance conspired at perfection: weather and bureaucracies, mood and coincidence and the currency exchange rate. Every location worked out easily. And Rachel’s unnerving cry of "Let’s put it in the movie!" soon became a standing joke. That was how it went. The movie was as much accident as design. Many of the things people wound up liking best were devised on the spur of the moment. For Rachel it was just common sense to take good stuff wherever she found it and use everything. She hated waste.
She was equally pragmatic about giving direction to her actors. She never couched her comments in Actor’s Studio jargon or Hollywood catchphrases. Instead she’d say specific things like "Give it an extra beat before you talk," or "Fall down when you say that line." Any time acting was in evidence, it was overacting to Rachel. "Don’t show us how hard you’re working," she said once. "Leave that to Meryl Streep."
Will the two female indie filmmakers find an angel investor? 3,532 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
A few weeks before Christmas, Rachel was awakened at six in the morning by a long distance call. "This better be important."
The deep voice on the other end of the line sounded amused. "I think you could say that."
"Who is this?"
"Peter Sandrian. When we were in eighth grade, I took you to Wollman ice-skating rink in Central Park. You had to hold me up the whole time. The insides of my ankles were practically touching the ice. I fell in love with you that day, Rachel. But I never got up the courage to tell you."
Rachel laughed, fully awake now. "Oh no! I had a crush on you for years. Why didn’t you ever call me?"
"Why didn’t you call me?"
"Girls weren’t supposed to."
"We blew it, didn’t we? We were idiots.”
There was a moment of silence while the reverberations of gratuitous adolescent heartbreak subsided.
"What are you doing now?" Rachel asked. "Where are you calling from?
"Cleveland. I’m married; we have four kids. I’m the new Chief Executive Officer of Sandrian Pharmaceuticals. Dad wanted to take early retirement, and I knew the business inside out, so now I get to work the sixteen-hour days with occasional trips to Des Moines or Omaha. It’s not quite as glamorous as the movie business."
Two women start the disspiriting process of making an indie film. 3,231 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
On a warm evening in July, Rachel Scanlon and Stacey Clark were sitting at a tiny table overlooking the Chateau Marmont hotel bar.
"Andy Dickson," Stacey said. "Tommy Bell. Marty Cohen. Mark DeSalvo. Peter Steinkamp. Susan Drexel."
Rachel looked up. "What made you think of all these people?"
"They’re on my list. Don’t you ever read those alumnae reports that Dalton sends out?"
"I never open my mail from Dalton or Hampshire. They always want money and I never have any."
"They also have a section with information on your classmates. Annie Sobel is a painter. She just bought a loft in Tribeca and had two one-woman shows at the Holly Solomon gallery. Mark DeSalvo inherited four million dollars from his grandfather. He supports the arts and collects Rookwood pottery. Peter Steinkamp has a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and is renovating an old firehouse in Brooklyn."
"Does he support the arts, too?”
"I bet he does. And I have two artists in mind. They’re planning to make a low budget movie."
The female producer busy with the film’s problems is about to be betrayed. Or is she? 3,655 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The first time Marie fired someone they actually deserved it. It was a prop man who, for some strange reason, repeatedly failed to show up with the right props on the day of a big set piece. There were no excuses because it wasn’t that difficult an assignment since most of the actors were playing well… filmmakers in a film within a film. Marie initially felt guilty because the man had kids but she ended up embracing him when he unexpectedly appeared and danced up a storm at the wrap party. She made him feel part of the group because Wisconsin Marie emerged from hibernation the second a film wrapped, jettisoning her signature on-set death stare which, by now, everyone on this New Mexico shoot had experienced at least once.
“Moving on!” yelled the 1st AD. Marie tracked her crew as they scrambled into vans and jumped on 4×4’s to get transported up to the next location. Marie had used the same 1st AD five times before but since he was originally attached to direct this script, she remained suspicious of some of his decisions regarding the shooting schedule. She believed that the assistant director, who always had to do what amounted to hours of homework after the Martini shot, had the hardest job on the set, besides her own. Would he undermine the production to get the director fired and himself promoted as a last second replacement to realize his directorial debut? Maybe, but his allegiance was to Marie, not to the director, and the inside info he shared with her was invaluable. She couldn’t pull that trigger.
The accountant annoyed her. The stereotype of the uptight, one-dimensional numbers man was not something Marie subscribed to after dealing with one years ago who deftly fleeced $275,000 from a budget. Marie disliked this guy although she wasn’t sure why. Still, he was universally disliked, and all crews focus their dislike on someone, so his firing would mean that the crew would waste time finding a new person to dislike, not to mention the fact that he had possession of all her petty cash receipts. He could have made Marie’s life miserable with an audit if she gave him a reason for revenge.
Shading her eyes from the mid-morning light, Marie began to wonder if she were looking to fire someone just to keep the tradition going. A thought that fifteen years ago would have depressed her, now gave her confidence. Was she over-compensating for her gender or had she just become someone who fed on the need to sacrifice an innocent to the filmmaking gods?
A demanding female film producer is just doing her job. Or is she? 2,949 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Four weeks into a six-week shoot, the crew was starting to drag. An iffy subplot was omitted due to uncooperative weather and the lack of a cover set, yet the production was still three days behind schedule and that was before yesterday’s disaster. It was a long hike up a steep hill shooting in the rugged sticks of New Mexico, and the supposedly trained horses, which Marie secured at a discount, had been spooked by the ginormous 12K HMI lights that sparked uncontrollably during last night’s downpour. Despite weather reports to the contrary, the rain turned into a flash flood that wiped out the corral still under construction and nearly cost a young carpenter his life.
The scorching morning sun sucked surface water from the muck and made the live trees croak and the dead ones reek. Slogging around ground zero of the production where they parked the honeywagons, trucks, and trailers, Marie’s head-to-toe cowgirl getup shielded her from the elements and proved why even the Indians eventually adopted the attire of their oppressors. She hitched up her Wranglers and adjusted the red cowboy kerchief that kept the grit off her face so she could better inhale the breeze that bugled the crew to attention. She needed to shake things up and the most efficient way to do that was to fire someone, eliminating a laggard and putting the rest of the crew on notice.
Marie considered getting rid of the young carpenter who didn’t follow the weather emergency protocol. The one she had communicated on the call sheet in great detail the first day of principal photography. But because he hadn’t been informed personally to leave the corral set, and since the set medic painstakingly nursed his abrasions while complimenting the injured party on his courage and commitment to the project, the young carpenter’s firing might be an invitation to a lawsuit Marie would rather avoid.
As the breakfast burritos were handed down from the catering truck, Marie confirmed the unwritten rule that Above-The-Line personnel could prioritize themselves without explanation. She cut in the front of the line and grabbed a burrito without sausage or bacon, scanning faces for the best candidate to can if anyone dare object to her power play. A few feet away at the craft services table, several crew members halted their small talk and stepped out of her way as Marie’s assistant, known affectionately as Little Marie, robotically handed her boss a cup of java with an extra kick of espresso. Marie inhaled the coffee before she stained it with a drop of low fat milk and took her first sip. She had had phone sex with Mr. Steve to relieve the tension of the night before, but like instant coffee that has no residual aroma, the tension remained.
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 wannabe filmmaker finds an unconventional way to get his horror script made. 3,216 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“You understand what I want you to do?”
“Yeah,” I said. It was easy to say it. Flowed off the tongue. I wasn’t even worried. What was that line from that Hannibal film, the one with the lambs? His pulse never got above a certain number, he was so relaxed? That’s how I felt. Relaxed.
“And you finance my film.”
“And I get gross participation, backend, off-the-top. The works.”
“The works,” he agreed.
I didn’t smile. But I should have. You don’t smile, though, when you make a Breaking Bad deal like that. I don’t mean a deal with AMC; I mean, a deal that will put you on the other side. For good. I was about to become a Walter White. And I was only in my early 20s.
Got to start sometime in Hollywood.
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.