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 showbiz murder attempts mount as famed P.I. McNulty tries to prevent more. 1,570 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Mandeville Moving Pictures was six weeks into a ten-week shoot on A Whisper In The Dark when the stalker finally made his move on Jade San Vincente, Hollywood’s newest and brightest young star who also happened to be the lead actress in Mitch and Billie Mandeville’s newest movie.
“Quiet, please!” the assistant director called out. “This is picture!”
Everybody was gathered at the far end of the Malibu Pier to film a crucial scene where Jade must wordlessly decide if her character will honor her dementia-stricken mother’s pleas to help her die. As Jade took her place at the rail, her assistant held up a parasol to shade the actress from the bright Malibu sun. After a few quiet words with Jade, the director nodded to the A.D. who then ordered the camera operator to “roll camera!”
All eyes were on Jade as a range of emotions flitted across her face. It was a touching moment and Jade was capturing her character’s anguish beautifully. Then, from the corner of his eye, private detective McNulty caught a flash of movement. Someone on a ten-speed bicycle was hurtling down the pier toward them!
The bike knifed through several crew members, knocking them down, and raced straight for Jade. McNulty saw the rider was holding a plastic drink container in one hand. Moving reflexively, The P.I. grabbed the parasol and stepped in front of Jade just as the rider squeezed out a long stream of hydrochloride acid from the container.
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.”
Tinseltown’s renown P.I. is back solving movie mayhem and murder. 2,268 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“Didja hear?” Micki Finch asked. “Mitch Mandeville died this morning.” She waited a beat, then added: “They say it’s permanent this time.”
“Third time’s the charm,” McNulty said sardonically. “They say how?”
“Died in his sleep at an assisted living facility.”
They were seated at a table at the Spring Street Smokehouse, a small funky joint on the edge of L.A.’s Chinatown. It was a semi-annual get-together the two friends enjoyed when they wanted to catch up over some authentic southern barbecue.
“He finally got it right,” McNulty said.
“Sure as hell had enough practice,” Micki giggled. “Is it true he died twice before this?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘die’ exactly. Murdered twice would be more accurate.”
Micki practically spit her Pinot Grigio across the table.
This sucker is the toast of Hollywood – and then its bad joke. 1,951 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
It was Day 30 of a hundred day shoot. Today’s schedule called for the scene in which The Hack’s face is revealed; this is right after his monster is destroyed by The Screenwriter’s beast.
“Mr. Downey, I’m so glad you’re doing this. It’s an honor to have you here.” And it’s a big slap in the face to Marvel, lottery mega-millionaire turned filmmaker Zak thought.
“My pleasure. I like what you’re doing here, this allegory, especially in this era of alternative facts. Fiction comes to life, and it can be a good thing, like when something that would benefit humanity goes from being science fiction to science. Or it can be bad, like when a piece of fiction is given currency by the weak-minded so that it can be used by a bad political actor. Anything uttered by Kellyanne Conway would apply.” Both Robert Downey Jr. and Zak shared a laugh at that. “Really, I love my role, and it’s great to have even a small part in what I believe is a genius project that will get a lot of attention come awards time.”
“You mean it?” Zak asked.
“I do. I’m serious.” But Downey thought, of course I’m not serious, you idiot. This movie is shit and I’m only here because I’m getting $15 million of your Powerball windfall plus fifteen percent first-dollar gross before break even, all for being slotted in for one day of work. Bob Iger would never have made that deal!
The film marketer learns the secret science behind box office fever. 1,780 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The rumpled old man looked peeved, as if awakened from a particularly pleasant dream. Dr. Burton Hollister cleared his throat ink front of his colleague Double Helix president Linda Balsamo and their hoped-for client Excelsior Studios SVP of Marketing Sy Mishkin, and went into what was clearly a rehearsed pitch.
“Double Helix has discovered a way to link memes and microbes. We can literally infect people with ideas without their knowing it, making them think their actions are completely self-motivated.”
Linda beamed with approval. “You understand what that means, Sy?”
Mishkin was beginning to think not only had he wasted his morning, but perhaps he ought to pack up his belongings and freshen up his résumé. But, in for a penny, in for a pound.
“I’m afraid not, Linda.”
What she did next surprised him. She pulled out her cell phone and glanced at the screen. “It’s been ten minutes since we’ve come into the office. Tell me, Sy, how do you feel about Excelsior Studios going into business with Double Helix now?”
That’s it. He’d wasted enough time on this. “I think it’s a complete waste…” the studio’s SVP of Marketing paused as he considered how he really felt. Then he completed the sentence. “…of time talking any further about it. Of course we want to do business with you.”
The about-to-be-fired movie marketer needs a Hail Mary but finds Typhoid Mary. 1,503 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Sy Mishkin threw down The Hollywood Reporter in disgust. His name had appeared nowhere in the stories in the trades about how Excelsior Studios had just released the bomb of the year. Costing $150 million to produce, Teen Pirate had everything going for it: a hot young star, a script based on a best-selling television series, and cross-genre appeal as the modern-day pirate faces both zombies and vampires. The reviews on RottenTomatoes.com had been terrible — only 18% Fresh compared with 82% Rotten — but who cared? This was a project that should have been critic-proof. Instead, as the old Hollywood joke put it, audiences stayed away in droves.
Mishkan, at 45, was the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Excelsior and he had been through the mill many times. When a film was a success, it was because of the vision of the director or because the star could open a movie at number one at the box office. When it failed, the talent might take some of the blame, but usually they’d live to fight – or, at least, have stunt doubles or CGI special effects do it – another day. To keep the stockholders satisfied that the drop in price was only temporary, one or more of the suits would have to pay.
Often it was the head of the studio, who would fall on his or her sword for having greenlit a project that turned out to be a turkey. However the new CEO of Excelsior had just assumed his job and Teen Pirate had been the “passion project” of his predecessor. Since that guy already vacated his office, with his name removed from every piece of tangible property at the studio including his parking space, there was nothing more anybody could do to punish him. Indeed, his $20 million golden parachute had already cleared his bank account.
So Mishkin feared the blame would fall on himself for failing to come up with a brilliant marketing campaign that should have made Teen Pirate the must-see movie of the year or, at the very least, last weekend. The way Mishkin saw it, he had only two options. He could start clearing out his office and letting people know that the debacle was due to the underlings he had inherited. Or he could come up with such a brilliant campaign for the the next release so he would be deemed the hero who had pulled the studio back from the brink.
Sitting in his third office in ten years, he decided he liked going to a job where he no longer had to program his GPS to find a route to work. He was going to stay.
A movie’s magic is finding something new in every screening. 1,819 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Professor Daggett sits inside a local coffee haunt in Silverlake chatting with his colleague, Avery Dortch, who teaches cinematography at USC. Dortch, a short balding man with glasses and a love of Shakespeare, cups his hands around a caramel latte.
“Story doesn’t mean shit anymore, Avery. It’s all bells and whistles and car crashes and explosions.”
“I’ll grant you that we’re raising a generation of pre-diabetic androids who’ve never heard of Titus Andronicus.” Dortch lifts his head and closes his eyelids and recites, “Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head…”
“Yes, yes, I know. But what do we do about it, Avery? Nuance means nothing anymore. Everything must be spelled out. The trailers give away the whole plot. Moviegoers now expect it.”
Dortch returns to earth. “I had a student once who said the cornfield scene in North By Northwest is way overrated.”
“You see? Proves my point.”
“When I asked him why, you know what he said? That Hitchcock should have had another plane appear. Then they could have had a big air duel in the sky over the cornstalks.”
Why do film school classes analyze the magic out of the movies? 2,246 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
At 6:02 p.m. on October 11, under a canopy of puffy coins sliding lazily south to southeast over the Los Angeles basin, professor Edwin E. Daggett has an epiphany.
“Yes! Of course!” he shouts and thrusts his fists upward in triumph.
Two hours later, Professor Daggett stands before his USC film studies class, his eyes burning with an excitement that his students haven’t seen in him before.
“So, your next assignment is to watch John Ford’s classic western The Searchers over the weekend and on Monday we’ll have a thorough discussion of its mysteries.”
Levi Sims, a member of the Trojans’ track team whose personal best in the 100-meter hurdles is 13.42, raises his hand with a puzzled look on his goateed face. “What do you mean by mysteries?”
“I want you to dissect the film and decipher scenes or dialogue that hint at other things,” replies the veteran author of several books on the Golden Era of Hollywood. “Look for what you may not have seen before.”
Are humans hard-wired to gather in mourning for Hollywood celebrities? 1,848 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
June 25th is my birthday. Most years. Not this year. This year it’s 2009 and the day Michael died. And Farrah. And it makes me very sad. If you looked at me, you’d probably figure why would a white, divorced, middle-aged accountant — okay, unemployed accountant — give a shit? You’d think I’d have more important things to be sad about. Like the fact that I’m unemployed. Or that I’m middle-aged and fat. Moonwalk? Hell, sometimes just plain walking normally gives me shooting pains in my left arm.
I should be sad that I live in a crappy apartment in Hollywood, the part where the glam is insane homeless men and drug-addled whores. Or that my ex took my kids to Ohio. Or that she did it because I lost my job. In other words, she did it just to be a bitch. Was it my fault that all of a sudden I couldn’t make good money being an accountant? That’s my skill. I didn’t complain that she didn’t make good money being a bitch.
Anyway, let’s not go there now. Lots of nights, I sit around drinking cheap scotch being sad about that. Not this afternoon. This afternoon, I’m sitting around drinking cheap scotch being sad that Michael’s dead. And Farrah.
So why do I give a shit? Because Michael and I were close. We were bros. Not that I ever met him. We probably didn’t have many values in common. Fill in your own pedophile joke here. But we did sorta have stuff in common. We’re the same age. Well, I’m two months older. And I’ve outlasted him. I never thought that would happen. I mean, I never really thought about it at all. But he was a rich singer-dancer -actor who breathed purified air, and I’m a fat accountant who recently began drinking too much cheap scotch. Just since my kids left.
The wannabe comedian thinks he’s a hit. His has-been talent agent isn’t so sure. 2,779 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
When comics say, “I started at the bottom,” they are talking about a place called The Wellington, a three-star steakhouse piano bar on a lonely stretch of used car dealerships deep in the San Fernando Valley.
“One time only,” Roy had said, “and don’t get any funny ideas about me managing you.”
As we entered, Roy eyed the schlocky place like a battlefield. I signed my name on the clipboard list (Number 8) and sat next to him at the bar with the Thursday night lushes. I said, “Looks like comics aren’t exempt from the two drink minimum.”
Roy gave me an uncomfortable smile. He was too big for the room. He said, “I’ll drink yours.”
The restaurant hostess — a sandy-haired college girl in a tuxedo vest and a collarless shirt — was doubling as emcee for the night. She balanced a round plate of drinks with one hand and held the mic with the other, giving it all a little too much enthusiasm for the defenseless dinner crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen… Our first act… The hilarious Krembo!”
A WASP-y guy in his forties came up and relieved her of the mic, started right into bits about traveling in Amsterdam. He was dying, not a giggle or a guffaw in the place, and I was cringing — he was truly awful. I couldn’t stand to look directly at him but, just as I bowed my head, Roy somberly put down his vodka gimlet and leaned into me, whispering ardently, “Look at the talent up there. I don’t know what it is that makes someone a superstar, but he’s got it.” Now I had to shut my eyes to keep from laughing out loud. “No, no, Tommy, this guy has got the magic.”
The has-been talent agent starts to school the wannabe comedian. 1,890 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
As much fun as I was having bodysurfing this glamorous riptide, I knew all along that I was in danger of losing sight of my mission. Being inside the gates of Castle Roy was not enough. Yet as badly as I wanted to tell Golden about my secret act, show him my voices, solicit his advice, I also knew that the second I brought it up, the dynamic between us would change forever. In fact, he could fire me for it, guilt-free. Hollywood was full of wily entrepreneurs like me trying to sneak in the back door. So I held back, waiting.
I drove Roy down Wilshire in the bumper-to-bumper afternoon. He was oblivious, sitting in the back of the Benz, yelling at somebody on the cell, throwing his pauses like punches. “I have…the receipts. Yes. All…the proof…you need.” Roy grunted. “Well you tell him…it’s worth it…to ME.” Then he hung up with an exhalation of great disgust.
We approached a red light. I I flipped down the sunblocker, the glare was killing me. I knew that, when it comes to fame, there’s no sneaking in the back door, no ginger pussyfooting around the dream, protected by your irony and your patience. No way. You go for it. You skate out onto thin ice.
So I said, “Roy, you know I never told you this but I was on TV as a kid.”
“No kidding,” he grumbled.
The wannabe comedian goes to work for the has-been talent agent. 1,955 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was the good life. Castle Roy was drunk with color, lush green grass and gently bowing palms, wild purple jacarandas, blazing orange and blue birds-of-paradise, and everywhere unrestrained bougainvillea surging over the balconies. The place could have given the Garden of Eden a serious run for its money.
We worked in the guest house just behind the pool that looked like the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs if the Seven Dwarfs had been sportin’ major bling. This bungalow alone was bigger than many shameless American homes, and it housed the laundry room, Roy’s working office, a two-car garage, as well as the furnished studio apartment where I had been living for almost three months. Behind the garage was a storage space with a coin-operated Madame Esmeralda Prediction Dispenser. She was out of cards, but I still had one question for her: Will I be able to turn Roy Golden into my own personal Jewish Yoda, master of the comic pause?
In the office, Roy conducted his business from a throne — an actual throne that had been given to him by the Princess of Estonia. The whole place was plastered with awards, trophies, heads of the hunt. And there were at least a dozen framed gold and platinum records.
But the best was this one framed photograph up there, my all-time favorite: Roy yelling at Johnny Carson backstage, with a sheepish-looking young Barbara Streisand giggling in the background. Johnny had his hand up as if to say, “Hey, wait a minute, Roy.” But Roy was pointing, furious, absolutely undeterred. What a photo! You couldn’t tell what was happening exactly. Was Roy protecting Barbara Streisand or interrupting her? Was Carson deferring to Roy or avoiding him? And who the hell had the balls to yell at Johnny Carson in the first place?
A wannabe comedian meets a has-been talent agent. 2,923 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
I first met Roy Golden while I was driving for the Bel Air Continental Livery Service. Roy was a routine airport pickup. That was 70% of the gig. Dusk was just starting to fall on LAX as I pulled into Arrivals and parked. I opened the dash and fumbled around for a Sharpie; I had thrown a paperback copy of Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom in there for a little light studying, in case it would be a slow night. I grabbed a slice of cardboard from under the passenger seat and wrote down the name: G O L D E N. Then I got out and popped the trunk, grabbed my hat, and walked down to the Baggage Claim exit with the dopey little cardboard square and held it up like an Olympics judge as I watched humanity pass me by.
Cardboard in hand, I adjusted my driver’s hat and posture in search of a convincing stance, but I knew I looked ridiculous. Anyway, what difference did it make? The limo job was supposedly just supplementary; in six weeks I’d be graduating UCLA with a useless B.A. in Psych. Then I’d really be in trouble because I had no real plans of any kind. Everywhere looked like the outside. From my vantage point at LAX Arrivals, the rushing travelers cut around me like a stampede. Still, I couldn’t be so self-righteous, because I harbored a secret: I was an addict. But I wasn’t addicted to any of the usual things, that would have been too easy.
Sometimes, on my nights off, I’d sneak out to amateur hours around town and do celebrity voice impressions.
Could there be a more stupid, more harmless, thing to lie about? It wasn’t even like I was that good at it: I bombed ritually. I had the voices down pat, but I didn’t have the vibe. Something was missing — what, I don’t know — yet the more I tried, the more I sucked. “Amateur” was written all over my face.
Working for a movie studio isn’t what it used to be. 1,813 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The first time it was the sign along the wall of the Studio lot. Someone had pulled off the two small "e"s leaving "Ent rtainm nt". Was it a dig at the kind of films the Studio produced? Maybe it wasn’t even vandalism, just some yokel who had shown up and, after the decidedly inferior Studio tour compared to Universal or the fabulous back lot at Warners, concluded that a souvenir was required. They could go back to Paduca or Clover or Groversville, hold up the purloined letters and say, "Look what I got me," basking in the praise from their friends. Maybe they did it in broad daylight. Spontaneously. Maybe they came back at night. There was surveillance all over the interior of the lot. Jeffrey Baumann didn’t know if there were cameras monitoring the perimeter.
Jeffrey did something at the Studio with contracts for a living on the credits for the movie advertising. If asked, he would readily agree that he was an office drone working in any business. The only advantage Jeffrey saw was that he got to watch the Studio’s films in private screening rooms during the day, sometimes with only two or three others people. But given the quality of the Studio’s output lately, that wasn’t much of a perk.
The lot wasn’t the most interesting lot of all the studio lots that someone visiting Los Angeles might take the time to tour. Though years ago, the lot had been huge with its own ranch and animal park, now it was roughly an isosceles triangle, a quarter mile at the base and a half mile at the sides, with the tip chopped off. All this Jeffrey learned on the Studio tour he had to take when he first started working there twelve years before. How interesting was it, really, to have some bouncy guy with unkempt blond hair and a scraggly beard in a blue shirt and shorts guide you briefly through the ratty set. That was the amazing thing, how nasty and cheap the sets looked when you saw them close up and in person. And then he’d lead you to an old musty dusty stage where he solemnly intoned that Esther Williams used to do her high dives into a pool that was underneath the floor, preparing to soar — that’s right, soar — while the cameras rolled. At Universal, a shark literally leapt out of the water, trying to bite off your arm. Scary. Here you had to imagine an actress from yesteryear and her chorus of bathing beauties soaring. Esther who?
It’s easy, almost too easy, for executives to get fired at a film studio. 1,761 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
My name is Santa. You may be interested to hear that I really do not exist. I use the above alias because it is an honest and decent and reliable one that generally puts the average listener at ease. Everything I say through Daniel about the Roomers ⎯ although I do not take oaths ⎯ is true.
This is the one and only time you will ever hear from me directly. If that upsets you, either because you won’t hear from me again or because you have to hear from me at all, you have only Daniel to blame for that. He has already, on account of his narcissism and his inability to properly “pitch,” butchered two rumors.
So, first off, allow me to clarify who your moldy narrator is. Daniel, to begin with, is not by my side because he committed Le Suicide. That’s not how it works. The reason he sounds and speaks exactly as I do is because I have, in my possession, his guilt which is my pleasure to keep dank and alive. His pure vivid soul is breaking bread somewhere else. (We won’t go there.)
One of the great workaholics, and with an unrivaled combination of social anxiety disorders, Daniel treated not a single one of his afflictions with psychotherapy, drugs, sex or alcohol. So when the weekend numbers for his baby The Ring Of Fire came in, none of the above vices sufficed to console him. Looking back you, too, must have noticed that ROF’s nominal losses alone (without adjusting for inflation) made John Carter, 47 Ronin and Mars Needs Moms look like hits. So when the evening of Monday, March 24th, 1997 arrived, Daniel indeed went headfirst Sylvia Plath-style into his oven.