A hit TV show set in Hawai’i is ending an eight-season run. Then disaster strikes. 2,874 words. Excerpted from the 2018 novel Waimea: Uprising by Gordy Grundy. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
"I didn’t tell you that Sanders tried to recruit me for his posse party," said Amanda. There was no way in hell she was going to jeopardize her career.
"Equal opportunity," Waimea laughed.
"I’m always up for a new experience." She shook her head and whistled. "But raiding a hippie commune seems highly unadvisable." The TV actress’s star was rising and she wanted to keep the trajectory into the clear smooth blue.
"Heard any word about it on the set grapevine?" asked Wai. His job as second Associate Producer on the Hawaii cowboy epic Paniolo had been waylaid by a favor for his boss. "Any gossip?"
She thought about it and was surprised, "No."
With tensions climaxing, the filmmakers wonder if they can convince the famous actor to quit. 1,649 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Operation Death moved through the studio slowly but surely. Casting proceeded apace. Costume fittings were routine for a contemporary picture. Naturally, Forsyth would be contractually permitted to keep his clothes. Sets went up on schedule and, as expected, Dr. Doherty’s home, seen in only one quick sequence, was decked out with expensive dark brown shag carpeting.
Director-screenwriter Allan Spanner was Overseeing storyboards for the screenplay when his agent ordered him to find some place private to take the call. He chose the men’s room off the office.
“Are you sitting down?” the rep asked. “I just got a call from Pete Trimble, the newspaper columnist for one of the Chicago papers. He said he was letting you know that, under Writers Guild rules, a writer who is hired to write behind another writer has to inform the first writer.”
“What are you getting at?” Spanner asked.
“Pete Trimble is a friend of Brendan Forsyth. It looks like your old buddy has hired his old buddy to rewrite your script.”
“You mean the one we’re starting to shoot on Monday.”
The celebrated actor starts driving the filmmakes crazy. Can they control him? 2,191 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The first phone call started as an innocent inquiry.
“Does he have to drive an SUV?” Brendan Forsyth’s agent asked.
“Why not?” Charlie Greene, one of the two producers on the film Operation Death starring Forsyth, asked back.
“Brendan feels that the character would drive something sporty. Say, a Porsche.”
Don Masaroff was an old-time ten-percenter who brought his client list with him when he’d hopped agencies the year before. He was known as a gentleman, had repped Forsyth since forever and was used to nudging producers rather than playing brinksmanship.
“The man’s a middle-aged surgeon,” Greene said. “Plus, we’ve lined up a promotional tie-in with GM for free vehicles in exchange for an onscreen credit. A Porsche wouldn’t be in character or in the budget.”
“Brendan thinks the character should be more daring,” Masaroff said, ignoring Greene. “That raises the stakes for his encounters. Besides, a lot of middle-aged guys buy a sports car. It’s a rite of passage, you know? I did.”
A comedy-action star stretches to take on a daringly different dramatic role. 1,705 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Brendan Forsyth was a green-light machine. Ever since he shot to stardom opposite Ryan Howson in Gangsters Two, the pair playing two lovable rogues, he had become one of those rare Hollywood commodities popular with both public and critics. He was also smart. He had a social conscience and supported many causes and charities, but he kept a low donor profile. His marriage was stable and the press treated him and his wife, Barbara, with respect. He was selective with interviews.
His ability to choose projects was equally remarkable. He famously passed on the starring role as the ship builder who rescues all the passengers in the disaster picture Sea Doom because it was the builder’s flawed design that put everybody in jeopardy in the first place. Rather, he wanted to play the captain of the rescue liner because that was the only guiltless character in the script. Interestingly, Howson had no qualms playing the ship builder, and the re-teaming scored a box office record.
Forsyth would even take a supporting role if he thought it could help a picture get made. That garnered him a lot of good press, but it also made his fellow actors wary of him. And yet the guy was just so likable that they had to forgive him. What other big star would have played the fireman for barely ten minutes in the children’s movie, Cathy’s Kitten? Because his daughter loved the books, that’s why. Or the voice of a paranoid caller on the TV series Shrink Rap? Because the sitcom was his guilty pleasure, and it set off a trend of celebrity cameos.
So when Forsyth agreed to play the hotly contended role of Dr. Bob Doherty, an alcoholic surgeon who climbs on the wagon to save the U.S. President’s life in the medical thriller Operation Death, it was seen as another daring decision by the iconoclastic star. Producers Adam Hoffman and Charlie Greene were thrilled; Larry Cooper, the retired surgeon who’d written the bestselling novel, was honored; and screenwriter-director Allan Spanner was eager to work with his friend of twenty years dating back to when they were both struggling actors.
Hollywood may have too many award shows but everyone still wants to be a winner. 1,929 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Hollywood – 1978
"And the winner is," heralded Artie Edgar, hesitating a beat in an effort to heighten the suspense.
Known mainly for his role in the made-for-cable comedy series, Geezers, Edgar had been tapped to emcee history’s first cable TV awards program, the Inter-Connected-Networks awards, or simply, the ICONs.
The program was being televised nationally on every cable channel, a joint effort to elevate awareness of the non-conventional fare now being offered by a myriad of new programming services.
The year was 1978, fifteen years before the cable industry’s first Emmy nomination. For its time, however, the ICON awards were the symbol of excellence in cable programming.
"The ICON goes to Burlesque Heaven," Artie Edgar gleefully announced.
She never thought a dog’s Hollywood career would be better than hers. 1,710 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Maura Downing was waiting to hear what her former employer had to say, and when it came, the last 25 years of their relationship of professional and emotional gymnastics snapped into focus.
“I’ll give you a $6,500 vintage Hermes Jane Birkin handbag…”
‘Subcontract rate for a couple of months’ work is a designer handbag? Seriously?’
The rest of the conversation was a muddle of Maura refusing showbiz work for the first time ever. While she had been underpaid for years, never had she been offered an empty purse for writing services rendered. It seemed almost funny, ironic in a tragic bad novel sort of way.
“What else are you going to do? Work at CVS?,” the Boss taunted.
Hollywood is known for horrible executives. But some are way worse than others. 1,697 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Jeff Sterling, the President of America’s pre-eminent TV network, GBN, bought Lincoln HIgh in the room. Or to be more specific, in his cavernous Hollywood office. He liked the synopsis and had listened raptly to my proposal. He said yes before I even finished. Sterling was legendary for trusting his gut, for making split second decisions based on his instincts.
"This is just what I’ve been looking for," he exclaimed.
In our youth, we had worked together for the legendary Hollywood mogul, Len Richmond, and I had shamelessly exploited that connection so as to pitch the project directly to him.
But by going over the head of Conrad Cadwallader, the Global Broadcasting Network’s V.P. Of Movies, turns out I had unwittingly raised Cadwallader’s ire.
"There’s nothing like it on TV," Jeff Sterling pronounced as he escorted me down the hall to Cadwallader’s office. "I bought it," he bellowed when we entered unannounced. "I love it."
A screenwriter is trapped between the conflicting demands of a film’s producer and director. 5,184 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The wallpaper was tired. And Ross Flanagan couldn’t decide if the hotel’s floral fresco pattern scheme was old or just old-fashioned. The joint was clean enough. Hardly first class and suspiciously shy of the three stars it had somehow earned on Priceline.com. He didn’t have to ask how the unit production manager had settled on housing the Los Angeles-based crew at the downtown Abbey Inn — aka “The Shabby Abbey” — as the costume team had quickly coined it. This was simply the best flophouse the dusty Utah town could offer. That, and the former teleconferencing office next door provided a convenient space for the production office. Temporary. Serviceable. Not the least bit inspiring.
The graying writer had been brought onto the Western’s shoot for two reasons: his valuable past experience with the notoriously difficult and aging movie star, and he was also very available and in need of a quick cash infusion. Four kids and two divorces kept him in constant dire straits.
The air conditioner was blowing full on. Ross hoped it would create some airflow with the door wide open. The pair of second-story windows bolted permanently closed provided a view of scrubby hills scarred with stirring gashes of bright red clay. The late spring heat wave had done away with whatever snow was leftover, leaving the ground grassless and brown.
It looks like the inside of my head, Ross admitted to himself. Dull, wasted, and somewhat bloodied.
An ex-studio boss tries to cast a crazy music superstar in the first film he’s producing. 3,704 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Ben had been working on Art Manning, hard, for almost a week now.
They had done business together in past, since Manning was a powerful lawyer whose roster of A-list clients could set a deal in motion and often helped close it. He was regarded as a combative litigator, but also as a top-notch negotiator – something not always said about powerful entertainment attorneys.
When Manning came in to negotiate a deal, he never inadvertently killed it. He was not one of those lawyers whose art collections were more celebrated than their legal skills.
Ben knew that many industry lawyers were only too happy to have Manning in on a negotiation. It was one way of assuring that they would get the best possible pay-out for their client – as long as they were on the same side of the table as Manning.
Now Ben needed help for the new independent production company he was starting. He didn’t want to admit it, but he’d been unnerved by his most recent industry party. He had never thought that roughly a third of his guests would leave once he was no longer head of a studio. Was this something he needed to worry about now? Should he prepare for a life of slights? His name falling off an important agent’s call list? Never making it to the top of the queue to buy a Gursky? Ben cut off this line of thought. It was a waste of time. He had built his many relationships over years of doing business. Relationships were what mattered in Hollywood. People would always take his calls.
This picture was a good starting point. It would grab that attention of everyone in town. Over the years, many different directors and producers had tried to set up this script. But it had eluded, even stumped, them all.
Ben was certain that he had the key. Howard would make it work. Ben decided that it was going to take longer than he had planned to assemble a deal. A slog, not a quick march. But he had the skills – and patience – required to win. And winning was all that mattered.
A prominent TV producer’s death is both mourned and celebrated simultaneously. 3,192 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Melody Grant observed life through a writer’s eyes, composing on a laptop in her head. That way she could imagine her husband’s recent death — ninety-five per cent factual, with dabs of embellishment for color and drama — as a passage in one of her novels:
On the eve of his greatest glory, Arnold Chafis was not merely upset, he was thunderbolt-shaken and enraged, Vesuvius about to blow. He had tried to remain calm while continuing to read, grinding his teeth as his volcanic anger built, until pain erupted in the middle of his chest. Then his arms, then his jaw. Suddenly, eyes clouding and brain swimming, he felt faint — then fear. Arnold, a prominent TV producer, was 63 when he died in Hancock Park. His wife, the mystery novelist Melody Grant, found him in the evening, slumped over his banquet table-sized desk in front of an open laptop. He’d been reading reviews for Remorse, his highly anticipated weekly TV drama about a young doctor accused of malpractice. It was to premiere the next night on ABC.
Notices for the series had been blurb-ready and glowing:
Congenitally glum Val Steinway of The New York Times cheered: “Hats off to a brilliant and vibrant new feather in TV’s cap!” Roger Kale of the Wall Street Journal, famously unkind to anything attached to a broadcast network, toasted “this HBO-worthy Chafisian work of genius.” Politico’s resident skeptic Carrie Rice-Wentworth rated the new series “many times smarter than ABC’s Shondaland and — no exaggeration — nearly equal to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.” And in Variety, difficult-to-please Vince Nichols forecast “a ton of Emmys for this stunningly boffo TV.”
Only one major critic panned. It was this scathing review — by usually-measured, never-shrill, bordering-on-dull Dean Formento of the Los Angeles Times — that Arnold had been reading when his heart stopped.
A showrunner’s fired assistant looks for a new job as a writer. Good luck with that. 3,027 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Caleb was glad when the show was canceled. He felt guilty about his schadenfreude for about five minutes. Now he wouldn’t have to make up a lie about why he wasn’t returning or, worse, tell the truth: that he “hadn’t been invited back,” which was code for being fired.
He had done his best to make amends for his wrap party meltdown – going off on his boss for sleeping with a young female staff writer and not promoting Caleb, dissing the TV community’s push for diversity which meant young white wannabes like himself had a tougher time getting hired. After a few weeks, he’d asked the showrunner Bryan to lunch so they could bury the hatchet. Bryan downgraded the lunch to coffee.
Caleb had worked for Bryan for four years, and that hopefully counted for something now. The showrunner came through. He gave Caleb a signed letter of recommendation and a business card with the number of an agent at CAA. “I sent your writing samples to Terri at the agency. She used to be my agent Bob’s assistant. She just got promoted and she’s hungry for clients. I told her to make you a priority read. And she will. Lord knows I’ve made that company enough money.”
It was a whole lot more than most showrunners in town would have done for an ex-assistant, and Caleb felt pretty grateful.
Caleb didn’t even wait until he got home to call Terri. He texted her from his car. Surprisingly, he got an immediate reply: Will call in 45.
That was at 11 a.m. For the rest of the day, Caleb’s heart skipped a beat every time his cell vibrated.
A one-time TV comedy writer must clean up classrooms as well as his career. 1,249 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Decades ago, I made an impressive living as a writer and producer of network sitcoms, shows such as Full House and Growing Pains, that were aimed at a kid audience. They were frothy, bouncy entertainments that portrayed family life in the late twentieth century United States through decidedly rose-colored glasses. But even then I had a darker vision of America, one that acknowledges life’s limitless complexities, that embraces the tragic elements of existence as well as the comic. So the original half-hour series I pitched were directed at adults – a Vietnam War comedy, a lesbian laugher, etc.
And because I was pigeonholed as a “children’s sitcom writer,” I was unable to sell any of those ideas. Upon leaving more than one executive’s office, I was certain I could hear, through the slammed door, unrestrained derisive laughter.
In my eighteen years as an elementary school janitor I’ve had abundant opportunity to contemplate my comedy life. So much time squandered on bitterness at an industry I deeply felt had wronged me! But recently, other setbacks – a second divorce, the refusal of my beloved daughter Isabel to answer my phone calls, a minor concussion from a fall in the second-floor girls’ bathroom – have motivated me to take responsibility for my life, to look inward, to ruminate on what choices I might have made to avoid my current professional circumstances.
Pondering my situation yesterday morning while plunging a clogged toilet in that same bathroom, I recalled a quotation from William James: “Invent some manner of realizing your own ideals which will also satisfy the alien demands – that and that only is the path of peace.”
A light went off in my head.
In this book excerpt, an aspiring filmmaker tries to climb the Hollywood ladder in spite of his evil boss. 2,269 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Zach celebrated Carson’s birthday by treating him to lunch at Spago in Beverly Hills where Wolfgang Puck prepared a special meal for them. And for Christmas, Carson received a Prada cashmere sweater. He wore it to the office once, so Zach would see it, then returned the sweater and put the balance toward a designer suit on sale at Macy’s. “Cashmere in Los Angeles?” Carson had remarked. “Not exactly practical. A Hugo Boss suit on the other hand…”
Those instances of solicitousness, however, paled by comparison to the number of times Zach had called Carson “a second-class cretin because you’re not even good enough to be first class” and threatened to “fire your sorry ass if you so much as breathe funny for the rest of the day.”
The stress, which sometimes breached Carson’s high tolerance level, had led him to consider stealing a tranq or two from the pharmacy in Zach’s bottom desk drawer. His boss would never know since, like many of the other office execs, he popped pills by the hour.
“Seriously, dude?” Jamie had chided when Carson mentioned it. “Is that the road you want to head down: sucking pills like they were Altoids?”
“No, no, you’re right,” Carson conceded. “But some days, it’s very tempting.”
The opportunity to work for one of the top producers in the industry right out of college was not a matter of happenstance. Carson had been hired on the recommendation of Prof. David Mendoza, who had mentored Carson and Jamie at Cal U School of Film and was one of Zach Corrigan’s closest confidantes. The two had met when Mendoza was working on his doctorate in film and interviewed Corrigan for his thesis, which evolved into a published bio about the maverick producer. Zach often showed Mendoza rough cuts of his films and asked for suggestions on how to improve them. Mendoza had keen cinematic instincts and, over the years, Corrigan had repeatedly tried to hire him.
An assistant takes friendly advice on how to deal with a monstrous film boss in this book excerpt. 1,706 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
With a personality as unruly as his person, Carson Thorne’s boss, Zach Corrigan (aka “the beast”), was a large rumpled man who some speculated might be suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Carson had a better answer: “Zach is a performance artist specializing in mood swings.”
Zach admitted to thirty-eight. He was actually forty-six. Carson knew this because, as his first assistant, he’d helped Zach renew his passport and driver’s license. Zach’s self-image was that of a rakish hipster, dashing and edgy. Everyone else viewed him as a borderline slob. Zach had a heavy beard but shaved only twice a week, probably on the same days he bathed, and with all his accumulated wealth, he had yet to invest in a comb or a steam iron. His Saville Row custom-tailored suits were perpetually rumpled, his club tie always cocked to one side, his shirt tucked half-in/half-out. All his socks had holes in the big toe and the last time his shoes had been shined was by the manufacturer. His attentive patient wife, Mila, had long ago given up on trying to bring order to his sartorial chaos. She chose to pick her battles and fight only those she had a chance of winning.
Though rabidly driven and tireless, Zach was also a devoted family man. Unlike most Hollywood producers, he wouldn’t even think of cheating on his wife despite the constant stream of come-ons from sacrificial lamb ingénues. Moreover, he never missed one of his children’s soccer matches, graduations or dance recitals even if it meant being late to a business meeting or an important political fundraiser he was chairing.
Zach’s preferred means of communication consisted of an infinite variety of snorts and harrumphs, and he freely emitted unsightly noises from all his bodily orifices. He didn’t seem to care if other people were present, even celebrities, most of whom claimed they found the impromptu explosions charming. That’s how badly they wanted to be in business with Zach Corrigan, whose films had won seventeen Oscars to date and been nominated for forty-two.
She wasn’t the predator. She was just the assistant warning starlets about him. 1,998 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I got the assignment not long after I graduated from Queens Community College. I was the only one that the school’s job center was referring: they needed somebody smart and discreet. I asked if it was the C.I.A. and the placement counselor laughed; they’d never gotten a call from the C.I.A. If I was so lucky to secure the job, I would be the personal assistant to the big man himself, a Soho movie mogul. It would mean taking two subway lines from Queens but the counselor assured me that the commute would be worth it. Who knew where I could go from there?
With my straight A average, I’d been hoping to continue on at a good four-year college. Stonybrook offered me a full scholarship but it was out of the question. We simply couldn’t afford it. My part- time bookkeeping job was just not cutting it. By then, mom’s arthritis was so bad, she could barely walk and Dad was already M.I.A. We called it that, a joke between my sister Amy and me. Dad’s days in Vietnam were over before we were born, and before he even met my mother. But the way he continuously referenced that time made it a daily presence in our lives.
He had lost too many buddies over there and, according to our mother, that was the reason he turned into a drunk. I guess it’s as good a reason as any. He used to make decent money as a mechanic but blamed technology for rendering him obsolete. But it was the alcohol that did him in. Last we heard, he was living in Costa Rica with some widow he met at the recycling center. Give him that, at least he recycled his liquor bottles.
That left me to keep the family afloat. Amy, already with two kids of her own, had moved to Texas of all places when her husband got a job transfer. So the timing was perfect when the Placement Center called. My interview with the office manager followed two days later. I had arrived early and waited over an hour in her office. The walls were lined with movie posters of the company’s artistic and commercial hits. I hadn’t seen any of them, movies were expensive and at home, mom preferred to watch the nature shows, though her body was incapable of moving, she liked to travel to exotic places in her mind.
A screenwriter is frustrated at the Cannes Film Festival – until he stops caring about it. 3,283 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Ira, pleased with Bender’s free rewrite of his script, arranged a meeting with Tarik Azziz, a Moroccan film producer and financier, who would also house Bender for a couple of nights in his villa in Cap d’Antibes. Bender arrived at the Cannes Film Festival well armed. He had a script, an interested producer, and a room. It was now up to Bender to find a way to fuck it up.
As he wandered the Croisette, Bender wondered where he got his policy of walking out of waiting rooms after thirty minutes? What was the purpose, what was the result? From his seat on the Ikea couch of the office suite he could see the Moroccan producer talking on the phone in his office, ignoring Bender. Not a wave, not even a raised hand: Sorry, give me a minute.
Bender allowed himself one more pleading glance at the receptionist, who returned a minimal shrug. The ten minutes flew, he added another five, then five more and got up and left. No one pursued him down the hallway. No one flew after him begging forgiveness, clutching his sleeves, and begging him to return. As he stepped in the elevator it occurred to him that they might have thought he had gone to the bathroom.