Book excerpt from the Monty Python legend: a wisecracking, ambitious and horny film/TV comedian goes to a pitch meeting. 4,096 words. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Los Angeles – January 2003
My name is Stanley Hay and I’m a professional writer. I write movies, I write sitcoms, and I write gags for TV shows. You may have heard some of them. “I believe in the separation of Church and Planet.” That was mine. Caused quite a stir. I don’t mean to cause trouble. It just seems to be what I do best. I make a pretty decent living writing and rewriting, but I have always wanted to write a novel, and this year, in January 2003, I decided it was time.
It didn’t quite turn out the way I’d planned.
Steve Martin says that the problem with fiction is you’ll be happily reading a book, and all of a sudden it turns into a novel. You should hear the way he says that. “It goes all novelly.” He’s a hoot, Steve. He cracks me up. It’s the way he says things. “Alllll novelly.” But it’s true isn’t it? That is the problem with novels. They are so palpably fiction. Maybe we’re a bit sick of plots with stories and characters, the usual bull. Oh she’s going to end up in bed with him. He’s going to do it with her. They’re all going to run away and join the navy … After all we’ve been reading books for centuries and watching movies and TV for years, and we’ve sat through hundreds and thousands of tales by the time we’re adults, so we know all about plot twists, and sudden reversals of fortune, and peripeteia and all that Aristotelian shit they cram into you at college. But real life doesn’t have a plot, does it? It just kinda rambles on.
So that’s what I set out to write. A reality novel. A novel about a Hollywood writer who is writing a novel about a Hollywood writer writing a novel about Hollywood.
Three world famous actors started out long ago as NYC roommates struggling to make it. 3,222 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
New York City — 1950s
Sheldon Dumar, Bo Daggett and Bill Travers live together in the same New York City apartment building as close to roommates as three straight guys can get, all in their twenties and all focused on finding acting jobs.
Tonight, Sheldon is awakened by a pluk, pluk, pluk noise. What is that, the faucet? Geez, can’t a guy get any sleep around here?
“Shut up.” He covers his ears. “I said, shut up, dammit!” Groggily, he rubs the sleep from his eyes and stares unfocused into the grayish darkness. He has to laugh. How does that TV show go? There are eight million stories in the naked city… and now this is one of them: Bo’s shitty leaky kitchen faucet. Then Sheldon remembers all those lessons drummed into him using the Meisner Technique. Learn to improvise, Sheldon, like Meisner says. A phrase. Respond with intensity. Let your emotions flow. Sheldon glares at the faucet. “Are you pluking with me, faucet? Stop pluking with me!”
Sheldon dips his head and laughs. Always on. Always the actor. But he’s thankful Bo doesn’t kick him out of the apartment. Bo wouldn’t, would he? They’ve been pals since meeting at the Pasadena Playhouse, as unlikely a pair as Wally Cox and Marlon Brando.
Sheldon asked to crash at Bo’s pad while looking for a job in New York. Found one, too. Waiting tables. Don’t we all in this profession until the auditions pay off? Now Sheldon is looking for something off-Broadway or maybe a TV commercial. That would suffice until he gets on his feet financially and can afford his own pad. Until then, Bo says Sheldon can sleep on the kitchen floor. What a pal. Pluk, pluk pluk.
They’re Hollywood’s walking dead, deemed too old to hire. One writer fights back. 2,236 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Bernie Saffran made the mistake of turning 41 in Hollywood. He didn’t need to mark the milestone with a birthday party; everybody in town simply knew. Like an ice cube on a hot griddle, his name immediately melted from producers’ contact lists. His long-time agent Lance Steel (honest, that’s his name) handed him off to a trainee. His favorite coffee bar no longer let him sit at a window table. His multi-pierced sales clerk at The Gap suggested more suitable selections at CostCo. Here he was, nine years before he could join AARP, but the town had written him off.
He didn’t think it would happen to him, not after 20 years as a working and mildly successful screenwriter in the biz. If he could be gay or transgender or heterosexual and nobody cared, why couldn’t he be 41? But the Gen X and Y’ers named Jason and Kristin who ran the feature industry felt otherwise.
“You’re only as old as people younger make you feel,” Bernie used to joke. But when he hit 41, the punch line stopped getting laughs.
He tried to hide his age, of course. He turned his baseball cap backwards. He wore his sports shirt unbuttoned and let it hang over a Yeezus T-shirt. He listened to whatever crap his kids listened to on the radio – oops, make that the streaming audio. He sampled @midnight to gauge the lowest common denominator of humor even though host Chris Hardwick was three years older. Hell, if Lorne Michaels in his seventies could dictate the taste of SNL demos for generations below him, so could Bernie Saffran.
Or so he thought.
What script notes for Shakespeare would have said if Hamlet were in movie development. 772 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
FROM: DENISE MEZZOGIORNO, KEVIN OKRA
TO: BUZZ KAPLAN
RE: HAMLET, 9TH DRAFT (April 23, 1599)
Though we think the writer has moved forward in this draft, there are still a number of problems with the script. In the next pass the following points need to be addressed:
1. STATIC ACTION. The narrative flow is consistently staunched by a series of pointless digressions, unresolved subplots and superfluous dialogue.
2. LACK OF JEOPARDY. At no point is Hamlet in actual jeopardy. What jeopardy there is is manufactured by a series of murky and over-written monologues.
3. INCONSISTENT CHARACTER ARCS. The leading characters suffer from lack of clear motivation and resolution. In the end, no one seems to have learned anything.
4. THE LOVE STORY DYNAMIC IS MUDDLED. We think we have to take a serious look at Ophelia’s suicide. Having the principal love interest check out before the end is, frankly, a bummer. What if Hamlet, at the eleventh hour, saved her from drowning? We could maintain the pathos (she could still sing and act distracted) but avoid a downbeat and emotionally-unsatisfying resolution.
5. UNSAVORY ETHNIC STEREOTYPING AND LATENT SEXISM. Please delete the references to "Polacks" and dimensualize Ophelia’s character with greater self-esteem.
A screenwriter uses every Hollywood trick to keep control over his project. 992 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“Averill, no. We cannot make Jennifer an alien.”
“I didn’t mean alien, Zack. I meant… anything else.”
“I’m not changing her.”
“But now Jenny’s a—“
“I don’t know this Jenny. My character’s name is Jennifer. She was never a Jenny. She’s an Adjunct Professor of American Literature.”
“It’s not who she is, it’s not our story. There’s a thirty-second classroom scene, then she gets the call about her daughter—“
“Why’d she give up the daughter?“
“Did you read this, Averill? She had the baby when she was fifteen, gave it up for adoption, went on with her life.”
“As a sponge diver.”
“What the hell?”
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 "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.”