This "son of" is smart and celeb-connected but desperate. 1,965 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Dude, I am so screwed, Jason Alden muttered to himself as he sat up in bed alone late Wednesday afternoon to find his apartment trashed, as usual, his grubby sheets kicked to the floor. Earlier he’d had a fight with his girlfriend, Nicole, and she’d thrown him out of her Santa Monica beachfront condo, which her daddy, the guilty party in her parents’ nasty divorce, so generously paid for. That was considered only fair in a L.A. divorce war: he’d been caught sleeping with Nicole’s tennis teacher, then was stupid enough to knock her up and marry her.
Nicole never did get her backhand down.
Jason had slammed out of Nicole’s posh apartment’s parking lot at 5 a.m. in his three series BMW – overdue to the leasing agency, with no replacement in sight. Now he was in his own apartment on the wrong side of town. His study pad, as he described it to his parents when they rented it for him in a sort of safe neighborhood near USC. But even that was about to come to an end. Daddy Dearest wasn’t going to renew the lease and had told Jason in no uncertain terms that he’d have to cover any damage that had been done. There was plenty of that, for sure. Holes in the walls and carpets, vomit in the closets. It was a sty and now he was stuck with the clean-up.
A lot of things were coming to an end for Jason. His dad, Teddy Alden, was a washed-up director-writer-producer who was still talking about his glory days with Spielberg in the 1980s and 1990s. But the senior Alden never made Spielberg money, never had his drive and most importantly hadn’t had the sense to hire his accountants. Teddy Alden had been a partier of the first degree. Right up there with Don Samuels, the producer who famously died on his toilet, stoned on a pharmacy worth of drugs. It was a miracle Teddy was alive, but as he hit his fifties he’d started to slow down. Jason wasn’t sure it was because of the natural inclination of the elderly to get to bed early, or, that he had blown through a Hollywood-sized fortune and had to stop leasing jets to go for lunch in San Francisco.
The agony and the ecstasy of one man’s experience working in the TV writing biz. 1,449 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
There are many dreaded words a father can hear from their child. “Dad, I wrecked the car.” “Dad, I’m in a Tijuana jail.” “Dad, the pee stick has a plus sign.”
But none of those words could ever compare to the sheer horror of hearing a child of mine say, “Dad, I want to work in showbiz.”
Perhaps I should elaborate…
I am a husband and father of three kids. My career has been spent bouncing back and forth between life as a writer and life producing promos for a TV network. It’s been an occasionally pleasant but also frequently demoralizing. The highs are way too high and the lows are way too low. It’s career crack. Addicting, unhealthy and way too much suffering has to incur before receiving those rare tastes of joy. All those years of stories that started out with, "There’s a producer who seems to like my script…” “A big agent is going to read my script this weekend, I hope…” “The producer said if I give him a free option, he’ll try to sell it…" and then inevitably end with, "I haven’t heard back from him/her yet."
This is a profession I’ve regretted pursuing for a lot of years. And a profession I have adamantly tried to steer my children away from pursuing. You want your children to be both successful and happy, not just getting by and miserable. So I tell them my war stories to make it easy for them to reach their own conclusions.
Cop turned screenwriter Nick Chapel finds another body and puts his own in danger. 3,036 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I’m riding shotgun in the LAPD department issue Ford Taurus going south on the 405 and trying not to imagine the sources of the stains, tears and burned holes in the fabric around me. The seats are wide and the suspension spongy. My slacks and blazer will have to be laundered and even that may not erase the smell of fried food and cigarettes. I crack the window, but it’s not big enough to air out this kind of stink.
For the longest time Ayers says nothing, focusing on the intricate sequence of lane changes required when traveling through West L.A. and Culver City. He’s a meticulous driver, head on a swivel, checking his mirrors. Perhaps he was in the military, or played ball in college. I sense team sports in his background, but the lanky frame that impressed high school recruiters has gone soft.
“So you and Brandt were a team,” the police detective finally says. “I hear you didn’t suck. A real hard charger.”
“I liked putting the cuffs on bad guys.”
“Hard chargers burn out. That what happen to you?”
I smile at the jab, then explain, “I got a job on a TV show and it stuck. Now I’m a screenwriter.”
“I need you to just remember one thing: you’re not a cop anymore. So who is this mook we’re trying to find?”
Former LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel follows a lead in the serial murder case. 2,096 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Five tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
There is a reason I specialize in rewriting crime stories. It’s not just the compelling nature of murder, and the ease of breaking a second act that is propelled by the search for a criminal. It’s the simple motivation that drives the hero to his or her goal. No boring exposition is needed to explain why a police officer or private investigator endures trials and hardships to solve the crime and catch the villain. It’s simply what they do, and who they are. It defines them.
It’s the detective who doesn’t pursue the killer that requires explanation. He knows the criminal is out there somewhere. The same sun beats down on him. He wears sunglasses to cut the glare, just like I am, and maybe even a hat to protect his sensitive scalp. The same hot wind blowing in from the desert burns his lungs. I drive east, sketching out the backstory of a man I’ve never met.
He works in show business, or used to, but the reality never matched his dreams. That made him angry, enough to kill, but he’s no wild man ranting on Hollywood Boulevard about what might have been. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Intelligent. He has a plan and a place to do his work that must be private, where no one would notice his comings and goings, or the bodies he carries.
Driving through Beverly Hills, I wonder if he is shopping at this very moment. Maybe he is sipping a cappuccino at one of the coffee shops on Robertson, or eating lunch at the Beverly Center. But then he is probably more accustomed to brown-bagged lunches and black coffee from a thermos than hipster meetings at The Ivy. I settle into his shoes, and feel the weight of the implements he uses to cut his victims apart. I should be angry with my ex-partner, LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt for introducing me to this character, but only feel an odd gratitude. Finding Sid Shulman is the least I can do.
Screenwriter Nick Chapel is back on the LAPD beat looking for a serial killer. 1,894 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt spreads the files on the table. “Fair warning: these are pretty disturbing.”
“Worse than eyeballs?”
“Worse than eyeballs. The Starlet Stalker takes different body parts every time. We’re keeping the specifics out of the press. They know disfigurement is part of the MO, but not the details of what he’s taking. The first victim, Mandy Monroe, played the oldest daughter on the sitcom Daddy’s Home. She was found five weeks ago in a dumpster in back of a Pizza Hut on Pico Boulevard with her breasts cut off.”
Brandt slides the file across the desk to me. I brace myself, then open it, revealing photos of Monroe’s savaged torso. She lies naked in a tangle of garbage, her face frozen in a beatific gaze, a purse and its contents scattered around her crudely slashed torso. Where her breasts should be, eye-shaped holes reveal red musculature and white ribs. For a moment, it’s difficult to process the discrepancy between her external beauty and internal meat. I close the file.
“I flagged the case, but pegged it as a one-off,” Brandt says. “Figured some angry boyfriend or crazy fan, but I was wrong. The second victim, Victoria Foster, was in the teen comedy Senior Year. She got a lot of press from her nude scene. Her body was found in a half-pipe in a Venice skateboard park. Again the breasts.”
“Your guy likes the publicity,” I begin. “This town is full of hot young women, but he goes after the ‘it’ girls, the ones with heat on their careers. He makes no effort to hide the bodies. He wants you to find them. Leaves their purses to help you identify them. And he keeps killing even after you put him on national television. Talk about your ego strokes. This gives him something he’s missing in life, a feeling of importance, that his existence has meaning. I’m sure your profiler has told you he’s probably single, a loner, maybe the victim of abuse.”
LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel is consulted on a serial murder case. 2,272 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The elevator doors open at the lobby revealing Russell, the day man on the front desk.
“Mr. Chapel, are you okay?” he asks. “I caught the whole thing on the security cameras. Should I call the cops?”
“I’m fine, Russell. No need for the police, but don’t open the garage for them. Maybe they’ll miss their deadline.”
Finally, I let out a long sigh. I am home and safe behind metal gates, doors with biometric key card locks, and Russell with his security monitors and taser. With each passing floor, I feel cleaner and safer, high above the dirt, poverty, illegal-immigrant desperation, multi-cultural conflict, gangbanging violence, and star-struck disillusionment of the city below.
The doors slide open, and we are greeted by a reproduction Louis XIV side table topped with a vibrant bouquet of bird-of-paradise. There are only two condos on this level and Lee Chang stands outside the open door to my unit, no doubt having watched the entire affair on the security system inside. He’s not much older than my college roommate’s daughter, Megan Davies, but already a veteran of the industry. Three months as my assistant will do that to a person. Gone is the boy band haircut and saggy skateboard jeans he wore to his interview, replaced by dressy-casual attire from the vintage stores on Melrose. Right now he is bringing me up to speed with his usual efficiency.
“Housekeeping has the guest room all set up for Megan. Mel called about a deal at Paramount. Mrs. Henderson from next door is threatening to take you before the tenants’ board because of all the paparazzi outside. And you’re all over the news. The landline’s been ringing off the hook. Channel 4, Channel 7, the L.A. Times, Entertainment Tonight. I’m letting the machine pick up. What the hell happened?”
He was a student of Italian film legends like Fellini and Mastroianni. Then he met their muse. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Quite a few people here in Hollywood on the Tiber hear “writer,” and understand “translator.” This means you exist to help them get their ideas, novels and screenplays produced in the real Hollywood on the Pacific. Bugged me at first, but they’re fast-cash transactions, and the “translate” button on the digital typer works better and better.
Everyone knows the old Cinecittà lot is being gradually turned into a theme park. They still shoot some TV ads and -series there. Hopeful extras line up at the gate. Eager beaver aspiring directors bring their reels, which are usually on their cellphones. No more paparazzi. No limousines, certainly no helicopters. No men in long black coats and Borsalino cowboy hats atop slicked-back hair who hide their authoritarian gaze behind Persol sunglasses, the lenses a shade or two darker than are commercially available.
One guy I met at a boring party heard “writer,” and understood “tour guide.” Not exactly refreshing, but different. “Tell me,” I said, “what’s the job?”
“All you gotta do is act like you’re the actor who played Porcello in Fellini’s Casanova. Tell the customers you and Donny Sutherland grew up together in Canada, played hockey, ate maple syrup, shit like that. You lead groups through the new fake sets, which are gonna look all dusty and sacred. Make ‘em feel like they’re getting the real deal, that they’re seeing something secret for insiders only, so they’ll go away thinking some of that magic might’ve rubbed off on them.”
The plot thickens and then doubles as McNulty investigates. 1,922 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Coffee bar manager Billie Franklin was startled by the sudden arrival of four men. She recognized Vanguard Studio’s Chief of Security and two of his uniformed security guards. She didn’t know who the other man was but suspected he was the private detective McNulty hired to investigate Mitch Mandeville’s hit and run. And from the looks on their faces, they weren’t there to order chai lattes.
“What’s going on?” Billie asked, clearly puzzled.
The security chief explained that they were searching the premises.
“Do you have a warrant?” she demanded.
“Don’t need one,” McNulty informed her. “The studio lot is private property and its security personnel is authorized to conduct any search they deem necessary.”
During questioning, Billie freely admitted that she and Mitch had been having an affair when she learned of his engagement to his Director of Development Tessa Gower. “He didn’t even tell me to my face,” Billie sobbed. “I had to hear about it on Access Hollywood!”
After turning the coffee bar upside down, the security chief informed McNulty that nothing was found tying Billie to Tessa’s drugging.
“My gut tells me something’s here,” McNulty insisted. “Have you looked in the coffee urns?” They hadn’t. “Empty ‘em.”
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."
The two women indie filmmakers now must find a cinematographer. 3,224 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Rachel and Stacey rehearsed Escapade for weeks, a luxury that no studio production could afford. At the same time they were making travel plans and renewing their passports. They wanted to organize the whole film in advance, but there wasn’t much they could accomplish until they actually arrived in Paris. They were set to leave April 1, and booked the others two weeks later. Outside the travel agency, with all the tickets clutched in one hand, Rachel threw her arms around her friend. "We’re really going, now. It’s official.”
The week before they left, Rachel threw a dinner party for the cast and crew. She wanted everyone comfortable with everyone else before they started shooting a low-budget film at close quarters in a foreign country. It was an enjoyable afternoon – volleyball on the beach, an early cook-out, people having fun. The only disturbing moment happened with Emily. Again.
They were outside in the deepening evening. A cool wind was blowing in off the ocean and Rachel was getting hamburgers onto buns before they burned. Emily slipped beside Rachel as she worked.
“So what am I feeling now?” Rachel asked her.
“Suspicious. Uncomfortable. Annoyed. It’s just something I can do. I wish you trusted me more. I could help you. I want to talk about… ” Emily looked around and lowered her voice, “Rafe DeMarco. He isn’t what he seems. You should get away from him.”
“I’m leaving for Europe with him in less than a week.”
“He’s trouble. I just think you should get as far away from him as possible.”
Rachel stared at her. “Where am I supposed to find a new DP who’ll fly his whole crew to Europe on four days’ notice?”
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."
A writer’s lost script is found decades later by people born after his last produced credit. 2,492 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
This all started back before electronic submissions. Wilkerson had knocked out a beautiful script in three days that was a beautiful script. Wilkerson knew it was the best work he’d ever done. So did his wife Alice, who was unerringly right. She had shouted “Yes, perfect!” over and over while reading it with Wilkerson hovering, unable to sit, always desperate for her approval which he always had anyway.
He subsequently made ten copies at Kinkos on Vine, using pale-cream bond pages finished with snappy manila covers. He gave the counter guys old brass script brads he’d found at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, fearing the more flimsy ones might splay and spill his precious tale. But these sturdy warriors would never surrender.
But when he put the screenplay copies on his agent Helena’s desk, she recoiled. Because she’d already read his hand-delivered original and pronounced it dead on arrival and dropped it showily into her massive metal wastebasket.
“So what’s wrong with it?” Wilkerson had challenged his agent in his first yet fatal clash with the woman who had done so much for him. Slapping her was like slapping his beloved Alice.
Helena glared. Then something flickered in her eyes like the dismissive blink of a falcon at full altitude. Helena knew people would despise the script because it was neither fish nor fowl. But she said simply, “It’s a wanted poster for unproducible.”
Yet he pushed on recklessly. “Agents only tell their writer that when they don’t get something but won’t admit it.”
They didn’t talk for three weeks.
When Jason and Annie’s screenwriting relationship turns toxic, he looks for a way out. 2,029 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
What little pride Jason had left after three-plus years of working for Annie headed south. She had destroyed him and he had let her. His date was right: Annie had him by the balls and the only thing that could change that was the threat of Jason working for someone else.
And that’s when fate stopped by for coffee.
A few months later on a plane ride, Jason met Aaron, a movie producer, and the two hit it off thirty-five thousand feet above Iowa. Jason was funny and charming and Aaron had nothing else to do but be entertained. Jason told Aaron about his failed TV writing career, his divorce, and his ghostwriting for a screenwriter. Aaron tried to guess Annie’s name but Jason kept it a secret. The two men exchanged numbers and agreed to get together the following week.
Over dinner, Aaron told Jason that he was developing an action-adventure script that was in rough shape and needed an overhaul. It wasn’t a genre Jason knew, but he agreed to read the draft. Jason had a few ideas about how to fix the script and Aaron flipped over them. He offered Jason five times the money Annie had ever paid him. After politely declining a few times, Jason finally relented and said yes.
When Jason told Annie about the new gig, she immediately shit all over it. She knew Aaron and explained how little respect she had for him, which was odd. Jason remembered Annie talking about how she’d love the chance to pitch to Aaron someday. When Jason told her how much Aaron was paying him, Annie had nothing to say except, “As long as you remember I come first."
Jason always dreamed of writing for TV/film. But not with Annie. 2,433 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
While most kids growing up wanted to be a cop or an astronaut, Jason Porta wanted to be a sitcom writer. Jason didn’t just watch TV shows, he waited for the credits to see who wrote or produced the series, then memorized the names. Eleven minutes after graduating from college, he gassed up his car, moved to Los Angeles, and got his first job faster than it takes most other writers to even secure an agent.
Jason’s career ended up being a classic case of fits and starts which happens when scripters make poor choices in writing rooms and alienate the wrong people. After some intermittent work, and a little bartending, Jason was fed up hoping the phone would ring with an offer to write witty comeback lines for millionaire 9-year-old actors. So he gave up on his big Hollywood dreams and moved back to New York where his days were spent trying to figure out what to do with his life.
One day Jason’s phone rang. It was a female voice from his sitcom days. “Jason? It’s Annie Siless. Whatcha doing?”
At that moment, Jason was introducing his soon-to-be ex-wife’s wedding dress to a pair of scissors. “Nothing. How’s it going Annie?”