A perverse concept for a Reality TV show turns into an even more perverse shoot. 2,122 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It was the dumbest Halloween pitch anybody had heard in forty years. So, naturally, it sold. The reality show was suggested as a joke at a party on Friday night, and by Monday morning the network lawyers had the contracts ready to sign for The Real Vampires Of Transylvania. Why it never aired is revealed in line producer Josh Combs’ production reports. Thanks to Mr. Combs’ widow for permission to reprint them here:
Friday, April 13:
How auspicious to start a vampire series on Friday The 13th. I’m here in Romania for pre-production. We announced an open casting call from 10 to 6, then realized that we should have made it PM instead of AM. In line with the network’s mandate for diversity, we put out a call for a cross-section of physical types. Of course, all the vampires have to look young, beautiful, and sexy; our shorthand for this is “VILF.” Anybody who’s either old or ugly will be cast as villagers. Since we’ll be shooting entirely at night, we were afraid the show couldn’t have any children. Amazingly, all those who applied so far are at least a hundred years old yet look like they’re nine and ten.
In order to make sure we hire the real thing, we have mirrors posted at strategic spots around the meeting room. Note: this may eventually pose a problem for the make-up department. Costuming probably won’t be an issue since everyone tends to arrive dressed in period finery looking like a cross between a Frozen character and the Ambassador Hotel doorman. Most of the actors say they’re from Seattle and are almost all unrelentingly morose. One of the ways we ferret out fakers is by inviting them to sample our craft service table. They refuse everything, although we almost had a disaster when one of the less worldly applicants started to eat a blood orange and we quickly told him it was just a name. Rather than risk another such incident, Amazon Prime is overnighting a supply of crucifixes.
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.
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?”
What if America’s creeps were cast members on The Simpsons meet Survivor? 2,158 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“An animated weekly web series.”
The producer didn’t say anything. Grover waited. He needed a sign. Fingers tapping, a cough. Finally – thank fucking God – the producer blinked. Grover dove back in.
“We’ll generate money from YouTube ads, a lot of ads, because I think this could go big very quickly. Affiliate marketing, merchandising, a book deal, DVDs, network, possible feature sale. But we’ve got to move fast.”
The producer shook his head. “Bannon might be on the way out. But he’s got Hollywood ties. So does Mnuchin. I don’t know if I want to go up against that. How many people have you talked to about this?”
“You’re the first,” Grover said. And that was mostly true. He’d pitched the idea to a producer friend at a Clippers game and the friend had laughed. “Yowza. Career suicide, pal.” Which didn’t exactly count as a pass, did it?
“Remind me of the one-liner again.” The producer took a deep breath.
“Lord Of The Flies meets Island Of Misfit Toys meets ‘Basket Of Deplorables’.”
To what lengths will the wannabe famous go to stay in the celebrity picture? 1,891 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
When I spot the paparazzi on Montana Avenue, I get an adrenalin rush. Someone famous is around here. I can smell it. I, myself, have some notoriety, being the only child of Melissa Kane, star of such classics as Moon Over Malibu and Surf Wars.
My mother was famous in the seventies for her beach movies. She met my father, Francis Fanucchi, a mid-level studio executive, when he came to the set of Sand In My Shoes. My mother was blonde and lithe. In contrast, my father was compact, dark, muscular and pugnacious. I am tall like my mother, but I have my father’s coloring. Some say I have his face, but I reject the idea. Still, I have to admit that his robust genes beat out my mother’s more ethereal ones.
I was twenty when they died and they were both forty-two, only six years older than I am now. My father drove their Maserati off a cliff in Big Sur and it was all very dramatic and tragic. Some said it was an accident. Several claimed it was a double-suicide. Others maintained it was something more nefarious. The mystery was the making of the myth. My mother gained stature in death, her fame and celebrity burgeoning until she became a cult hero while my father doesn’t even have an entry on IMDB.
What I have left of them are the happy memories of being caught by the cameras – of Mom and I dressed up for Easter in matching bonnets, of Mom wearing a fat suit as Mrs. Santa and me as an elf. I became addicted to the feeling I got when being photographed.
When the paparazzi princess disobeys the law, her neighbors suffer. 2,170 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Once news of Venice Hyatt’s arrest hit social media, the paparazzi and TV news vans invaded the streets and crowded the driveways throughout Maureen and Paul’s neighborhood. The gold-diggers had arrived; but instead of picks, rakes, and shovels, they had all sorts of cameras and microphones. Because a picture or a word from the scandalous heiress was worth a fortune on the gossip world market.
A neighbor, Craig, contacted Maureen by phone. He lived up the street from Venice and worked as a nurse at the UCLA hospital. He related how coming home one early morning he had to chase a newsman urinating on his doorstep.
“Now that she has been arrested, the circus will only intensify,” Craig griped. “We need to do something.”
Then came another news break: VENICE HYATT RELEASED FROM JAIL.
What happened was the L.A. County Sheriff ignored the judge’s sentence of 23 days and let the celebutante go free after a mere 72 hours. For an “undisclosed medical condition.” She was to be sent home to serve her sentence while wearing an ankle monitor.
The media as well as trolls on Twitter and Facebook questioned what kind of medical condition it could be since, a few hours before being jailed, Venice was photographed at the MTV Movie Awards. Apparently in perfect health.
When a paparazzi princess moves in, there goes the neighborhood. 2,075 words. Part Two. illustration by Thomas Warming.
Maureen and Paul lived a peaceful productive life on a small winding street five minutes above Sunset Boulevard.
Early mornings at their house were particularly glorious: the chirping birds, the chittering squirrels, the basking sun all contributed to the tranquil bucolic mood, as did the magnificent view. But it was especially the quiet street that made Maureen and Paul’s living environment the envy of all their friends. “You can work here! You can create here! You can sleep peacefully here!” they exclaimed again and again.
Maureen and Paul felt privileged. They earned a good living writing for television but were not rich. Paul was toiling on a second-grade broadcast series. After Maureen’s series was canceled, she was finally trying to write that novel she has been talking about since her glory days in the creative writing program at at Columbia University. They’d acquired their house quite a few years back when prices were still affordable. Today only rich people could build or purchase a home there. The location was so desirable that Maureen and Paul’s neighbors were cashing out by selling their homes to the voracious developers, contractors and flippers eager to buy up any and every property.
One day Maureen heard from her friend Rob, a long-time resident like herself, that the house right below her on Trasher Avenue had sold. Rob walked his dog everyday; dog owners love to chat and keep their ears to the ground. So Maureen got all her neighborhood gossip from Rob.
A week later, he delivered a gold nugget.
“Venice Hyatt bought that house below you.”
“The Venice Hyatt?”
A Hollywood publicist and a psychic-to-the-stars have an unscripted close encounter. 2,203 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
We’re anchored off St. Barts on the top deck of a super-yacht belonging to a Reality TV producer. It’s a humid starry evening with a party atmosphere of clinking glasses and glib conversations. I’ve come at the invitation of my pal, director Reggie Morgan, to witness a Hollywood psychic deliver a palm reading to an up-and-coming actress who was delightful in that DiCaprio movie.
Olivia Wallace Grimes holds her palms up and listens as Susan Talmadge intones, “I can sense the aura surrounding you, and I now see your aura. Did you know that you have a spiritual host, my dear?”
Olivia suppresses a giggle as she nods faintly.
“Your spiritual host is named Martha,” Susan is saying. “Do you recognize her?”
“Martha? Martha?” Olivia thinks for a second and bites her lower lip. “You mean, Aunty?”
“Yes, your Aunty. And she is very worried about you. There is a person of great importance in your life who has recently betrayed you. A person whom you counted on. And they have lied to you.”
“It’s Hollywood. What can I say?” Olivia says glumly amid titters from the party crowd.
“What is it, Martha? What’s that you say? Martha says that Emma…”
Olivia straightens. “Did you say Emma? Are you talking about the role of Emma? The part I’m up for?”
“Were up for, Martha tells me.” Susan removes her hands from Olivia’s outstretched palms and turns away as the actress begins to tremble with suppressed anger.
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.”
The wannabe director must decide whether to keep working in showbiz or keep dreaming. 2,306 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
On occasion, while circling the office and delivering the mail, Max tried to engage the studio’s executives in a conversation about a film that had especially impressed him or a book that he’d found particularly moving. Right, Max," was generally the disinterested response. Then they would ask him to make sure that their delivery got right over to Parker or Simons or Goldstein or whomever.
"Ratings, Max. Concentrate on the ratings," one of the executives finally told him. The man’s name was Drew Oberlin and he was only a few years older than Max. He had a big office, designer furniture, and a secretary who could have modeled. Max stood by the door looking in, his hair matted, his shirt clinging to his underarms. Oberlin spoke from behind his desk. "Concentrate on the ratings," he repeated. "That’s what matters."
Oberlin was immaculate in a dark suit and white shirt that snapped in starched perfection when he moved. He offered Max gleaming white teeth as if practicing for an audience, Max his mirror.
Max returned the smile, hesitantly, with more of a grimace.
"I’m giving you good advice here," Oberlin said. "Never mind art. Ratings. That’s all that matters. Say, could I ask a favor of you? I have some laundry that needs to be picked up…"
At Max’s urging, Oberlin read Max’s screenplays and reluctantly proffered the advice that Max might write better as part of a team. "Your work, well, it’s got class. But you’re not attacking the center of the marketplace."
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 Reality TV editor abandons his job after a quake and then finds real satisfaction. 1,899 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Dick considered openly weeping onto the editing console. But that, he thought, might short circuit the machine and actually make his workday longer.
The clock on the opposite wall was entering hour nine of what was shaping up to be a sixteen hour day at HRB Post in a dingy room above an even dingier strip mall in one of the dingiest pockets of Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood. Unsmiling men and women of dubious and indistinguishable national origin milled around outside, entirely oblivious to the life of Dick Nadal, age 31, with only that amount in his checking account. His hair was thinning but he was not, and he considered taking a second lunch at the Zankou Chicken on Sunset.
Nobody there would stop him from having a good cry.
Dick worked as Department Editor at HRB Post, a job title that sounded exclusive but was simply a sixteen letter cover-up to mask the horrors of painstakingly editing together Reality TV footage of young idiots into a cohesive show. Today’s editing session was for the third season of The Snatch, a terribly monikered name for a visually harrowing series.
His day was peppered with questions such as whether Cindy, the 23-year-old blonde bartender from Dallas, should be shown spouting quasi-racist rhetoric before or after it was made apparent to the viewer that she was under the influence of several dozen Jello shots. There was a note from the director that the set didn’t even have Jello so now the entire legal team was refusing to sign off. Dick decided to edit in a split second of B-reel footage of an empty Jello box and punch in a musical sting for added comedic effect. He was, by several accounts, a fantastic editor. And yet, sadly, he should really have been working on something a whole lot better. He picked his nose as scene 32-A rolled out.
The front desk man at a talent agency for Reality TV finds the job too real too often. 2,375 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Security calls me and I say, “Send him up,” with the air of a gatekeeper. Any second now, this guy will be pushing the buzzer and I have no idea why he’s here. It’s 4:25 on Friday. I thought we were done for the day.
The guard downstairs says the guy’s here for Daniel Turner. I have access to Dan’s calendar on Outlook, and I see no appointment for 4:30. I have five minutes until then to figure this out.
The buzzer sounds and the camera’s feed lights up. There he is, the mystery man, his hand already on the agency’s front door handle. An eager beaver, this one. I unlock the door with the push of a buzzer and he walks in, glancing around the space. He spots me and flashes a smile. He’s tall and handsome but has an air about him that suggests he’s used to the royal treatment.
Usually, visitors approach my reception desk to check in. Many are already familiar with the procedure and simply give a wave and go straight for the sofas. But this guy stays rooted where he is, probably expecting me to come to him.
“Hey there, I have a 4:30 with Dan Turner,” he tells me with a snap of his fingers.
TV FICTION PACKAGE: A veteran producer learns from one of his teen contestants. 2,442 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
People have a lot of questions for me lately. How did I come to fire the most powerful law firm in Hollywood? Tear up the contract that governs how most reality competition shows do business? Lose the potential breakout star of my TV singer-songwriter contest Troubador?
The last one is the easiest to explain: Why didn’t I sue Brady James when he gave me and my series the finger and walked away?
He didn’t have a contract.
It started with me watching Crystal Bowersox on season nine of American Idol and thinking — that girl writes her own songs so let’s hear some of them. The idea took shape with Phil Phillips and this latest kid Mackenzie Bourg. I quickly realized a new show could put everything I loved together in one package. I love music. I love songwriters. And as I’ve proved during a thirty-year career working with all four networks and a couple of cable newbies, I love TV. So why not air a performance contest for singer-songwriters? Forget LaPortia Renae standing up there in the laser show belting out some old Mary J. Blige number. My vision was 1974’s Joni Mitchell standing up with a guitar, no light show or pyrotechnics, and simply singing Big Yellow Taxi. Or Bob Marley performing No Woman No Cry for the first time on my stage. Or – why not, shoot for the stars, Danny! – Bob Dylan, scruffy and unknown, knocking the world on its ass with Mr. Tambourine Man. You’re telling me the world ran out of Joni Mitchells and Bob Marleys and Bob Dylans? Seriously?
Then check out Brady James. I knew he was the genuine article at the first Troubadour audition. And it was a big relief, let me tell you.
TV FICTION PACKAGE: A reality executive gives the presentation of his career. 2,201 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.
Marty Nordin was sweating at his desk. He had a presentation due in 10 minutes and it wasn’t just unfinished but he hadn’t even begun to write it. It would be his last opportunity to keep his job. Because he couldn’t count on the shows he had developed to save him.
Some 13-year-old boy in Norway was getting 19 million views per week on a YouTube video while Marty’s series on the Watch-it! Network were lucky to attract 35,000. Fuck. And what was the kid doing that was so goddamned compelling? Playing a kazoo and simultaneously playing a video game. Crap.
Marty was 48 years old and had spent his entire adult life trying to create a hit TV series. To be honest, he’d really spent most of that time just trying to stay employed. But making a hit was the goal. He had tried at one point to develop quality dramas, but he had ended up in reality shows just like everybody else with half a brain. Scripted TV was deemed too formal. Viewers no longer wanted beginnings, middles and ends. They wanted chaotic stuff stitched together.
He could thank the cable industry’s package pricing for the proliferation of channels like the Watch-it! Network that get less than 50,000 viewers. Marty was responsible for developing Eat-it! where several people ate gross stuff and made each other eat gross stuff and then talked about eating gross stuff. And he launched Play-it!, a show with a room of “famous” people with very different POVs on life playing board games until it disintegrated into name calling and brawling. Shove-it! didn’t even make it past pilot but Marty felt it had more dramatic arc than anything on YouTube, dammit.
Now the pressure was on. New bosses. Ratings that sucked. A media landscape that just didn’t make sense anymore. The channel was being shopped to whichever buyer took control of a chunk of Congruent which was the giant corporation that owned the corporation that owned the Watch-it! Network. Between the corporate bullshit and the kids on YouTube, Marty was starting to think it time to get a real estate license. How long did that take?